Bernard Glassman wore many hats throughout his life. He was most notably a Zen teacher, bakery owner, sensei and husband. When it comes to understanding the impact of the life Glassman lived, the proof is in the brownies, or rather his long-standing friendships.
The philanthropist, Buddhist teacher and activist died Nov. 4 in a Massachusetts hospital, leaving behind daughter Alisa, son Marc, his third wife Eve Marko as well as four grandchildren. He was 79.
“On one hand he was a normal friend, and on the other, he had a very advanced vision,” said Peter Cunningham, a long time friend and photographer of Glassman. “He was both friend and a teacher.”
Glassman also is the founder of Greyston Bakery, a Yonkers-based company that supplies brownies to the Ben & Jerry’s ice cream company. Although Greyston is technically a for-profit company, proceeds go to the nonprofit Greyston Foundation, which works to find jobs for those who might have difficulty finding it otherwise because of issues like past incarceration.
Glassman was born Jan. 18, 1939, in Brooklyn to Pauline Finkelstein and Albert Glassman. He studied engineering at what was then known as the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn, and later journeyed to Israel to attend the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology.
Glassman then worked for aerospace manufacturer McDonnell Douglas as an aeronautical engineer, concentrating on vehicles needed for interplanetary flights. He earned his doctorate in applied mathematics from the University of California at Los Angeles.
But everything changed in 1958. Glassman read “The Religions of Man” by religious scholar Huston Smith that introduced him to Zen philosophy. Glassman immediately set out to find a teacher from this Buddhism practice that seeks inspiration through meditation. He found one, and not long after, opened the Zen Center of Los Angeles, becoming a Zen teacher himself.
Glassman returned to New York in 1980, settling down in Riverdale and creating the Zen Community of New York here. Two years later, wanting to find a way to apply his beliefs of giving everyone around him a chance to better themselves, he founded Greyston Bakery, first to employ others who practiced Zen, and later opening up to anyone, regardless of what they had in their history. Proceeds from the bakery are used to help provide low-income housing, AIDS treatment, and other community services.
However, Zen wasn’t the only study Glassman took up in life. When he found some of his fellow Zen Buddhists were missing out on some of the fun in life, Glassman helped set them on a new path through the red rubber nose. A clown, Moshe Cohen — also known as Mr. YooWho — trained him in that world. His apprenticeship to Mr. YooWho was one of Cunningham’s favorite memories of Glassman.
“The Zen were being too serious and it was hurting their practice,” Cunningham said. “He went into clown practice to learn how to shake up a room and shake up situations. Not just through the Zen way, but in a good humor sense.”
Glassman’s Zen students came from all walks of life. They included the likes of now-popular Zen teacher Joan Halifax, novelist Peter Matthiessen, author Fleet Maull, Zen Center of Los Angeles abbot Wendy Nakao and Soto priest Pat Enkyo O’Hara.
Oscar-winning actor Jeff Bridges was also a friend of Glassman and together they co-authored the book, “The Dude and the Zen Master,” which placed a humorous spin on the ancient Buddhist practice.
Cunningham was a long-time collaborator with Glassman, documenting much of the Zen teacher’s life and career, including the time he spent in Riverdale. Much of Cunningham’s time with Glassman was spent journeying from one adventure to the next.
“We also traveled to the Middle East with Richard Gere and we saw both sides of that situation,” Cunningham said about the various ethnic clashes that have taken place there over the decades. “Then we traveled several times to Auschwitz and meditated in Japan and Poland and Israel and Palestine.
“Those were amazing trips, I went all over Europe, laughing with Bernie.”
Those memories live on through Cunningham’s photographs.
“Still, photographs are powerful and I guess they’re just a manifestation of our friendship,” Cunningham said. “He gave me so much in doing what I love to do, and I gave him a certain life after death. We gave each other things, and that was one of the things I gave to Bernie.”