Tomorrow would have been Bernie’s 81st birthday.
“Do you think a lot about him?” people ask. When I’m lonely, I reply. And when something happens that reminds me of him. For instance, this morning I thought of fundraising, Bernie’s least favorite thing. He didn’t relate well to people personally, and that undermined his ability to raise money. I remembered meetings with wealthy people. Bernie, underneath all his talk and bravado, was actually very shy. How difficult those were for him.
Once again, I’ve been reading my journal from 1987 to 1991 when we were developing the Greyston Network in Yonkers, New York, and Bernie’s relentless push against all odds to keep it going. So many of my notes have to do with not having money, letting go of people, and the never-ending work.
Years later, I see so much clearer how, for Bernie, Zen was never just meditating on the cushion. Zen was the Greyston Bakery, Zen was the Greyston Builders, Maitri Center (day center for people with HIV), Issan House (housing for people with AIDS), Greyston Family Inn (permanent homes for previously homeless families) and the Greyson Child Care Center. He could not understand how others didn’t see it that way.
“‘I get letters all the time from people interested in becoming trainees here. [He wasn’t kidding, we were glamorous, often in the news, the only ones for a long time in the Western Buddhist world doing what we were doing. And we certainly needed help.] But I don’t invite them to come up here because I know that what they are really looking for is Zen traditional training—lots of sitting, service, talks, retreats, and we don’t have that now. They’re not looking for the kind of practice we have here.'”
He said this to a meeting of residents where he announced that the Zen Community of New York was letting go of all the Greyston entities. We sat there, shocked. But we started them, with our blood and guts! We work in them, we manage them! No, he argued, it was time to spin Greyston off because it had gotten too complex for this small group. The Greyston Foundation would manage it instead. People argued till he finally said:
“’The hardest thing to accept is that we have to give them up. We want the groups to belong to us and they don’t. They belong to themselves. The Bakery is itself, it doesn’t belong to us anymore. Greyston Family Inn is becoming strong and financially independent, it’s going to go its way. Trying to keep it under our auspices is holding it back because we don’t have the wherewithal to control it any longer, we’re not giving it life, we’re robbing it of life, as simple as that. We’ve given birth to these groups, we’ve nurtured them, now it’s time to let them go.’”
We built a gorgeous zendo (mediation space) on the third floor of the Greyston Bakery, but as Greyston grew we needed more office space. I wrote this on April 19, 1989:
“I went into the zendo on the third floor yesterday morning, and was shocked. They’ve added more desks and the zendo is practically gone. The altar is no longer in the center of the room but off to the side, barely visible, and there are cushions only on the left side, about 10 in all. I feel terrible seeing this. I know it’s inevitable, the zendo will disappear due to the encroachment of more desks and telephones. But I prefer to come up and see it gone altogether one day, to this gradual diminishment, week by week.”
Actually, all that happened was that we moved the meditation space up 2 blocks to the basement of a private house, it never disappeared altogether. Either way, it was all Zen practice. What I thought was a surrender of practice was nothing more than one form of practice bumping into another form, finding its space and energy. And I indulge some personal nostalgia. How silly I was in those years!
He got so much criticism from his own students and from folks outside that, on August 8 of that year:
“[H]e said he was giving serious consideration to dropping out of the lineage. Japanese Soto Zen had no space for a priest and teacher who wanted to work with the homeless and he wasn’t going to give up his desire for a genuine religious life in order to fulfill priestly duties. Priests and teachers have a main obligation to find dharma successors, but he has a calling. His models were Mother Theresa and Martin Luther King. People constantly approach him with expectations of a Zen teacher—retreats, koan practice. Perhaps the best thing would be to disrobe and go his own way. He said: ‘Too many other centers are like Jewish temples, which you visit once a week, pay your dues, do a monthly retreat and get that much closer to enlightenment. That’s not a religious life.’”
Once a month all work would stop and everyone—bakers, childcare workers, managers, builders—would come to a Greyston Network meeting to hear about what everyone was doing. People brought food. Who was in our sangha?
“Black Baptists like Pat and Joan substituting at the phones, Hermenia flirting with the guys and cackling away, Alex from El Salvador sitting with the Jewish women giving Geri their advice about delivering babies, wise-cracking Bonnie with Florence who talked about her motherhood 25 years ago, Zen students milling around, Mina from Trinidad bringing Indian food, Tom Betz coming down and bellowing why didn’t anybody tell him there was a party, holding a drumstick in his hand, Daion telling George Ferguson that there was no, repeat no, snitcher in the Ben & Jerry’s night crew, Joe the ex-con.”
At the height of our difficulties a businessman came looking to buy a piece of the Greyston Bakery, help manage it effectively for a percentage of the profits.
“He clearly felt our labor costs were too high by far, maybe our line would have to be totally overhauled. He said ‘You have to decide what you want here, a community or a business. If it’s a business, you got to run it like one. You have to have a bottom line. If it’s a community, that’s fine, but then it’s not a business.’
“Sensei [Bernie] invited him to a meeting of the Greyston Network next Wednesday. He asked what that was and he explained that once a month the various groups meet to discuss what’s going on at the Network. ‘And you stop work for that?’ he exclaimed. ‘You stop production! Do you know what happens to production when you stop it in the middle?’
“‘Come to the meeting,’ Sensei said.”
The businessman left and never came back.
It’s tempting to wax nostalgic, to wish you were more mature back then, less needy, understood him better, more supportive of this glorious vision of Zen in the West. He’s not here, but I am. You are. Keep on going, work in the cracks of society, nourish the hungry, take care of the sick and weak, those suffering from prejudice and hate.
“Just be a mensch,” he used to say. “That’s all I want, just be a mensch.”