Bernie Glassman is out in the trenches working to make the world a better place.
I read his book The Dude and The Zen Master and thought it was a truly incredible book about two great friends talking about the good life.
It’s a dialogue between Jeff Bridges and Bernie Glassman.
So I decided to talk with him about the book and making the world a better place.
We’re talking about The Dude and the Zen Master.
So you and Jeff Bridges just kind of sat down and jammed about a bunch of topics.
Yeah, life in general. It was a number of topics we have been studying together for about 10 to 15 years. So we sat down for about four days, and sort of went through a lot of things, and talked about life.
Everybody loves “the Dude” in The Big Lebowski—he was like a cultural icon. It’s pointed out in the book that some Buddhists say that he has a kind of non-attachment attitude in life, and he uses koans.
Well the movie is full of koans. The Coen brothers of course wrote the dialogue, and they did not come from the perspective of Zen. But my looking at it, a lot of the dialogue could be used as koans. I finished koan work a long time ago, but I created a koan system out of that movie.
I list them on my website. I call them the Lebowski koans.
You also have several books on Zen Buddhism.
Can you tell your story about being exposed to Buddhism?
Sure, I first read about it in 1958. I read a book called the “Religions of Man” by Huston Smith. The book spoke to me. I actually met the man who was going to be my teacher in 1963 at a Zen temple in Los Angeles and I started to study on a daily basis. In fact, in 1970, he left to Tokyo and left me in charge of the Zen center in Los Angeles where I was studying. I started to teach in 1970—I’m originally from Brooklyn, New York—and in 1980, I went back to New York as a certified Zen teacher to start a center… to do interface work and Socially Engaged Buddhism. Some actually call me one of the pioneers of Socially Engaged Buddhism.
I started a huge program involved with the homeless. I was working to get people off of welfare, and helping to create housing, jobs and child care.
The time I started I was in Yonkers, New York, and they had one of the highest homeless populations in the country. Homelessness then went down 75 percent, so that’s a huge project.
Wow that’s amazing!
I still go one day a month there… But I also go all around the world doing Socially Engaged Buddhism.
I read in the book that you go to Auschwitz.
I go annually to Auschwitz. This will be the 18th year. It’s called the Bearing Witness retreat. We’re doing a retreat in Rwanda—people from all over come.
If someone wanted to get involved in your organization how would they do it?
They could go to zenpeacemakers.org.
A lot of the book is you and Jeff talking about non-attachment. Can you explain how important that is?
Sure, Buddhism… The word “Buddha” means to awake. Then comes the question, awaken to what? It’s about awakening to the oneness and interconnectedness of life. That’s one of the messages—that we are all interconnected.
But our brains think in a dualistic way. And it stores ideas and concepts, and we call that our ego that stores ideas and concepts… And we have attachments to the various ideas of concepts. Those attachments are what keeps us from seeing the interconnectedness of life. So the practices of Zen are helping us to come non-attached to those ideas. It doesn’t mean you don’t have the ideas, it means you’re not attached to them.
If I can let go of those attachments then I can experience the interconnectedness to life and that’s what Buddhism is all about. That experience itself creates loving actions.
You talk about the ego and dualism.
Well the brain thinks dualistically that’s the function of your brain. It’s not bad or good. That’s just how it operates—your eye operates a certain way, your nose operates in a certain way. The brain operates in a dualistic way, so it’s going to come up with dualistic thinking. Good and bad, right and wrong,
Another topic that I really like in the book is about Lamed-Vavnik in Jewish mysticism. It means something like there’s a small number of people in the world that are so good that God won’t destroy the world?
Lamed-Vavnik means 36. It means there’s 36 of these people, people who are maybe like Lebowski, like “the Dude.” There are 36 of these folks at any one time, and they don’t know that they are anything special.
They are just doing their thing, and they are just doing plain righteous acts. Because of the acts of these 36 folks, according to Jewish mysticism, God does not destroy the earth.
And they don’t know who they are. They’re kind of like “the Dude”… they just go around doing their thing.
In the book you talk about Hotei who travels around and whatever is in his bag he gives.
He’s like a Santa Claus character, but he’s a lot like an ideal character. In his bag he has everything, wherever he goes and whatever situation he’s in, he sort of feels for what is needed for the situation he’s in. When he’s [got] the right feeling, he reaches in his bag and tries to help out.
So he might be going somewhere, and all of a sudden there’s a snowstorm, so he reaches in his bag and pulls out a shovel. He might be going to a brothel and reaches in of his bag and pulls out a condom.
He’s coming up with the appropriate action at the appropriate time. But if someone pees on his rug he gets angry. It’s the appropriate action, at the appropriate time.
That brings up a topic that you talk about in the book that the universe kind of gives you an opening.
It’s always doing that. We might think that we are acting, but really the universe is acting and pulling us in, and our actions come out of that.
You talk about being more in tune with that.
That certainly is the practice of meditation that is part of that idea. There are various types of practices in many traditions to get us in tune with the universe. So we can pray and jam with it.
I use the metaphor of jazz band—you first tune up, and get together, then you start jamming. You never know what someone else is gonna be doing, then you start creating great music.
You also talk in the book about how the West is so wrapped up in Aristotelian logic.
Yes, there are different logic systems that have risen in different parts of the world. In Western society it’s mostly based on Greek logic. In Asia, there are different logic systems; logic systems tend to shape the way we think.
We choose another logic system and we may get something completely different, and that happens in science. Things will occur, and all of a sudden the logic system that we had doesn’t work.
One example is light—it was discovered that light is both a particle and wave.
Now Aristotelian logic says: wait you can’t be both. You’re either one or the other. Asian logic would say you can do both.
I like the part of the book where you say, “People get stuck a lot because they’re afraid to act; in the worst case, like the master bowler, we get so attached to some end result that we can’t function. We need help just to move on, only life doesn’t wait.”
I think a lot of our problems in this world are from that concept; fear is an immensely powerful thing.
Sure, and people have been using fear to control the masses, to get you to do what they want.
You know, I see a lot people who don’t act compassionately because their thinking process is based off of fear. They have all these thoughts. If I give this person this, they might screw me. If I do something for him in the long run, I might get screwed.
The Chinese alphabet is actually ideograms for words, and the word compassion consists of two ideograms one is just general compassion, and the other is the removal of fear.
That should be a huge part of the Zen teachers practice, to help students remove fear.
Lets talk about that topic because I think that’s a really life changing topic—we see someone who needs help and all these fears run through our head. What if this happens? What if that happens? It makes you get caught up in your own ego. Can you tell me about some of the practices you use to get over this?
I always say just to charge right into it. I mention street retreats; we go and live in the streets. There are huge fears in what’s going to happen but by the end of the retreat those fears go away.
I really liked the book.
I’m glad you enjoyed the book.
I did. you know what? I was raised on this stuff, a Buddhist kind of changed my life and took me under his wing when I was about 12. I was a major trouble maker. He first exposed me to this type of information then he later introduced me to a Taoist around the age of 18, whom I spent nine and half years with. I was raised Christian but I love all religions and spiritual concepts, I just believe in God. There are several ways up the same mountain.
Well it was great interviewing you!
Yeah, yeah! As we say in the book, it was great hanging with you, man.
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Ed: Lynn Hasselberger
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