Bernie Glassman was a Brooklyn-born Jew and an American Zen master.

An American Zen Master has died: An oral history of Roshi Bernie Glassman

Updated 5:16 PM ET, Thu December 6, 2018

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(CNN)One of Bernie Glassman's favorite koans asks: Where do you step from the top of a 100-foot pole?

His answer seemed to be: You plunge.
Glassman, who died November 4 at age 79, was a Brooklyn-born Jew, a recognized Zen master, a Buddhist trailblazer, a restless mensch and a serial plunger.
Glassman plunged into aeronautical engineering, into Zen, into leading a Buddhist community, into running a bakery, into growing that bakery into a constellation of social services, into holding spiritual retreats among the homeless and at Holocaust-haunted concentration camps, into writing a book of koans with a Hollywood star, into mourning when his second wife died and into learning to walk and talk again two years ago after a stroke.
The plunges, as Glassman called them, served a spiritual purpose: to uproot preconditioned ideas, bear witness to what's going on and serve those most in need. At a time when many American Buddhists preferred self-development to social engagement, Glassman dismissed "mannequin meditation" and carried his Zen practice from clean-aired monasteries to chaotic city streets, where he led weeklong retreats on sidewalks and in crowded parks.
"Bernie was very clear that meditation was not a refuge from life," said Roshi Eve Myonen Marko, Glassman's third wife. "For him, meditation was total engagement."
    With his longish hair, sad-eyed smile and Churchill cigars, in his later years Glassman looked less like a traditional Zen master than a "hippie cigar entrepreneur," to quote a former student. But his carefree aesthetic masked intense ethical commitments.
    After an epiphany in which he saw people as "hungry ghosts" -- Buddhist beings whose swollen bellies and pencil-thin necks symbolize the insatiability of desire -- Glassman vowed to serve them.
    "It was a literal experience and a formative experience," said Glassman in 1996. "Seeing the variety of cravings and beings all around us."
    Bernie Glassman in 1981. Photograph by Peter Cunningham.
    Greyston Bakery in Yonkers, New York, which Glassman co-founded in 1982 with his Zen community, has grown into a $10 million business selling sweets to companies like Ben & Jerry's while employing ex-cons, the disabled and former addicts through its "open hiring" policy. The profits are donated to Greyston Foundation, which offers affordable housing and social services for the poor and health care for people living with AIDS.
    "One thing Bernie Glassman was great at was feeding people," said Frank Ostaseski, author of "The Five Invitations" and founding director of the Zen Hospice Project. "He fed their material needs, and he fed them spiritual sustenance."
    Zen Peacemakers International, Glassman's other big venture, has nearly 1,200 members, Buddhist and non-Buddhist, in 25 chapters worldwide. About 2,500 people have participated in its "bearing witness" retreats, many held at Auschwitz-Birkenau and other sites of notorious inhumanity, said Rami Efal, the group's executive director.
    "Everyone doing engaged Buddhist work owes a certain debt to him," said Hozan Alan Senauke, vice abbot of the Berkeley Zen Center in California and a longtime social justice activist.
    Trained by Japanese missionaries in the intricacies of Zen, a school of Buddhism brought to China in the 6th century, Glassman was an influential bridge between its ancient teachings and his modern American following.
      He was also ambitious and iconoclastic, preferring Hawaiian shirts to a Zen teacher's brown robes, and came to believe that Eastern practices were insufficient for the tradition to blossom in America.
      "In our evolution in this country, we have imported these wonderful techniques from the East," Glassman said in 1997, "and we are now at the point where we know it's not enough."
      Some of Glassman's Zen experiments found a following; others did not. At times, some Buddhists questioned whether they were authentically "Zen" at all.
      "He moved pretty far to the edge of what Zen was," said the Rev. James Myoun Ford, a Zen priest and Unitarian Universalist minister who has written several books about Zen.
      "Zen needs people who break the mold, but we also need the mold."
      Glassman's empowering of non-Buddhists to teach in his Zen lineage, relentless focus on social justice and refusal to adopt the traditional trappings of a Zen teacher stirred the waters of American Buddhism.
      "People either thought he was a heretic or an avatar of the 'New Zen,'" said Helen Tworkov, author of the book "Zen in America: Five Teachers and the Search for an American Buddhism."
      "So much of what he tried to do is broaden the parameters of Zen, especially for underserved populations."
        Glassman's restlessness and unconventionality likely prevented several of his Zen projects from attracting large enough flocks to flourish, several experts said. But his idiosyncrasies also inspired fellow Zen adepts.
        "Bernie is the one who really gave us the permission to be ourselves," said Senauke. "His influence will be wide that way."
        Glassman passed his direct influence on to 29 dharma heirs, the Buddhist term for spiritual successors, whom he recognized as masters in his Soto Zen lineage. The eclectic heirs include a National Book Award-winning author, a pioneer in prison ministry, an expert in end-of-life care, a Jesuit priest and a Catholic nun.