Observations, by Richie Davis:Glassman’s legacy on display at Stone Soup Cafe


  • Richie Davis

Published: 1/29/2019 9:01:52 AM

With each serving of Rainbow Slaw Salad, every dollop of African Peanut Stew, Greenfield’s Stone Soup Cafe embodies the teachings of Zen master Bernie Glassman, who died Nov. 4.

The cigar-festooned roshi of Montague, who would have turned 80 last week, explained to me the concept for what would become Stone Soup Cafe this way when Montague Farm Cafe opened in 2010:

“In this country, the way Buddhism grew up was in places where you’d go to do practice for yourself, to do meditation, to become stable, to become enlightened,” Glassman told me in 2010, seated in a conference room at what was then Zen Peacemakers with the word ‘Takuhatsu’ on the blackboard: “Where there’s no separation between giver and receiver.”

He explained, “In Buddhism, we talk about how everything is interconnected. So I see this as a form of practice, as a form of realizing the oneness of life. You should also be serving others.”

Not knowing. Bearing witness. Taking Action. These are the three tenets of Glassman’s Zen Peacemakers, which he founded in 1994 to bring together Buddhist practice and work for social justice. (www.zenpeacemakers.org)

Stone Soup started in 2012 as the “All You Can Eat Cafe,” using the pay-what/how-you-can volunteer model Zen Peacemakers had introduced earlier at its Appalachian Zen House in Pennsylvania, to fill a gap in community meals in this area.

“My emphasis is on bearing witness, where you’re sort of thrust into the situation, so you become part of that situation, to really feel what’s happening,” said Glassman, who’d led ministry work in the streets of New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Springfield and other cities for more than 30 years “At all meals, we want a mixture, so you don’t know who’s serving, who’s eating. Bearing witness means getting to the place where you’re not separate, you’re part of it.”

“Bearing witness” was a core principle for Glassman, whose death following a stroke two years earlier came as a Zen Peacemakers group was beginning its 23rd annual retreat at the site of the Auschwitz extermination camp, where more than 1.1 million human beings were murdered during the Holocaust.

Glassman and his wife, Eve Marko, founded the retreats in 1996 after he had meditated on the death camp itself during a 1994 convocation there organized by peacemaker Paula Green of Leverett and realized, “There are amazing things that happen in this place.”

As a Jew whose life melded the Jewish tradition of tikkun olom (repair of the world) with Zen emphasis on meditation for heightened awareness, Glassman wrote in his 1998 book, “Bearing Witness,” that the Nazi death camps were dedicated to annihilating difference: wiping out entire communities of Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals, leftists, the mentally ill, retarded and physically disabled and other groups the Nazis labeled as undesirables.

So the annual Auschwiitz retreats by design bring together participants from as many countries, cultures and religions as possible.

Glassman, who grew up with working-class immigrant Jewish parents, had engineering training from Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute and Technion-Israel Institute of Technology as well as a doctorate in applied mathematics from UCLA. He became an aeronautical engineer at McDonnell Douglas, planning what was to be a manned NASA spaceflights to Mars.

In 1958 he was drawn to Zen by its “interconnectedness of life and living in the moment,” when he read Huston Smith’s “The Religions of Man.” Glassman studied to eventually become a Zen teacher and a Zen priest even as he embraced his Judaism. In 1997, he moved with his family from Los Angeles to New York to focus on the Zen Peacemaker community there.

With the community in 1982, he co-founded Greystone Bakery, a $10 million business employing ex-convicts, former addicts and the disabled and plowing profits through Greystone Foundation into affordable housing and health-care programs while selling its brownies and other sweets to businesses like Ben & Jerry’s, according to CNN.

The slogan of the Yonkers, N.Y. bakery, which the New York Times reports makes 35,000 pounds of brownies a day, is “We don’t hire people to bake brownies. We bake brownies to hire people.”

Glassman’s Zen Peacemakers work — which led to founding Zen Peacemakers International, with 25 chapters and a membership of nearly 1,300 members — took him and members to “street retreats,” or as he recalled them, “plunges” to urban centers, including Springfield — as well as “bearing witness” retreats at Auschwitz, Rwanda, Bosnia and Native American reservations.

He will be remembered Feb. 17 by Zen Peacemakers International at a ceremony in Yonkers.

A bridge between worlds, with a Jewish sense of humor and decency and outrage at injustice and the Buddhist awareness of suffering and focus on meditation and compassion, Glassman often ended philosophical discussions in quintessentially Jewish fashion with a basic question: “But what does this have to do with being a mensch?”

In “The Dude and the Zen Master,” the 2013 book of koans ( Zen paradoxes) that Glassman authored with actor Jeff Bridges — he wrote, “When we bear witness, when we become the situation — homelessness, poverty, illness, violence, death — the right action arises by itself. Once we listen with our entire body and mind, loving action arises.”

Clearly, Glassman was a mensch who devoted his life to helping waves of loving action arise.


Richie Davis, the Greenfield Recorder’s seni or reporter, has been observing the people of Franklin County for more than four decades.


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