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Quote of the Week: Bernie Glassman Roshi

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Bernie Glassman (photo from

Last week’s big news was the Symposium for Western Socially Engaged Buddhism, organized by the Zen Peacemaker Community. Later this week, I’ll post a collection of articles about the Symposium.

The guiding light behind the Zen Peacemakers is Bernie Glassman Roshi, whose short bio appears in a previous “Quote of the Week.”  Today’s quote from Glassman Roshi nicely dissolves the duality that we can sometimes create when we think of the term “Engaged Buddhism.”

Roshi starts by asking a question:

“How did [the Buddha] benefit mankind by sitting in meditation?”

Then he goes on to answer it:

“This is a problem with the term ‘engaged Buddhism’ in a broad sense… Anything one is doing to make themselves whole in their own life, or realizing the Way, or becoming enlightened—whatever term you would use—these are all involved in service, because if we realize the oneness of life, then each person is serving every other person and is reducing suffering.

…if you keep on practicing, even in the cave, there is no way of not working on social issues, only the method might be different.”

–Bernie Glassman, quoted by Christopher Queen in Engaged Buddhism in the West (2000)

About Maia

I've been practicing and studying the Buddha way since 1994, and exploring the question "What is engaged Buddhism?" since the late 90s. As former executive director of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship and editor of its journal, Turning Wheel, I had the honor of meeting and working with many practitioners of engaged dharma, including Roshi Joan Halifax, Joanna Macy, Alan Senauke, and Robert Aitken Roshi. I write about socially engaged Buddhism on my blog, "The Jizo Chronicles," as well as on the theme of personal and collective freedom on my website, "The Liberated Life Project." Through my Five Directions Consulting, I offer support to individuals and organizations who aspire to integrate awareness into their work.

3 responses »

  1. An interesting contrast to last week’s commentary, isn’t it? I think Roshi Bernie lets people – especially Americans – off the hook too easily. In my experience, we tend to be into self-help, self-realization, and self-improvement, and we tend to feel self-conscious about that. If, in meditation or other spiritual disciplines, we expand (or implode) our notion of self, maybe it results in more engagement in actions and relationships of life. On the othe hand, I don’t think we should underestimate how even teachings on compassion can be employed to make me, the student, a more compassionate person, and so send even the expansive, extensive energy of compassion into the black hole of the narrowly-defined self. Of course, if I go down that road too far, I find that even effective activism might be used to enhance one’s own street cred. Then, of course, there is the danger of defining activism or engagement as being This, but not That, and so imposing one’s limited definitions . . .

    Frankly, it’s all very confusing. 😉 reminds me of Steve Martin’s comment on being a Philoshy Major. He said Business majors get careers, medical students become doctors . . . but philosophy students learn just enough to mess us up for the rest of our lives.

    • I love engaged readers! Thank you, John, for keeping us honest.

      I hear what you’re saying about this quote… it actually occurred to me as I picked it out to feature this week. Yet at the same time, I don’t think that Glassman Roshi is actually intending to let people “off the hook” with this quote. But I do see how one could come to that interpretation.

      That’s why I appreciate Robert Aitken Roshi’s crystal clear instructions to get off our asses (to put it crassly) and engage with the world (in quite radical ways, in Aitken Roshi’s case). But I think what Glassman Roshi is reminding us is that it’s important to get on our asses in the first place, through meditation or whatever spiritual practice it is that helps us to have more insight into our own causes of suffering so that we do not unintentionally re-create them as we go into the world.

      Yes, it’s a tricky thing, this socially engaged Buddhism… our either/or minds tend to have a field day with all this and usually give more weight to one side of the equation or the other. To me, the essence of socially engaged Buddhism is being able to walk that razor’s edge right down the middle of spiritual practice and action. Good luck to all of us in finding it…

  2. That should be “Philosophy Major.”


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