Roshi Bernie Glassman celebrated his 70th birthday in January with three days of public reflection on his 50-year encounter with Zen. But even as he put a coda on five decades of Buddhist practice, America’s best-known—and arguably best-loved—Zen master showed no signs of slowing down. In fact, the irrepressible social entrepreneur, who wrote the book on socially engaged Buddhism in the West—actually, three books—has dreamed up yet another venture: something he calls Zen Houses, residential dharma centers devoted to Zen practice and social service in impoverished areas. The first two houses are opening this spring.
Glassman has never been known to think small, and the Zen House movement is only part of the story. To staff these centers, Glassman has established a comprehensive seminary-and-internship program to train Buddhist clergy outside a monastic setting. What’s more, he’s formed an informal alliance with the august Harvard Divinity School, which will refer its graduates who seek ordination as socially engaged ministers to Glassman’s Ministry Program for Leadership in Socially Engaged Buddhism. Now midway through its first year of operation, the program is headquartered at the 34-acre farm in Montague, Massachusetts that is home to “Roshi Bernie,” as everyone calls him, and the Zen Peacemakers, a global organization integrating Zen practice, social action, interfaith work, and the arts that he launched in 1980.
It’s all part of Glassman’s mission to train the next generation of socially engaged practitioners and encourage the creation of new forms of practice-based service. Under the aegis of the Maezumi Institute, the Zen Peacemakers’ study and practice arm, the leadership training gives would-be Zen ministers the tools and know-how to set up and run social service projects— notably, Zen Houses—in underserved locales.
The pioneering class of three men and three women, ranging in age from 26 to 65, has just completed seminary— four months of residential study—and is beginning phase two of the program: a six-month internship helping set up the first Zen Houses. (At the end of year one they’ll be eligible for a certificate in Socially Engaged Buddhist Ministry and, after an additional year of service in a Zen House, eligible for full ordination.) Meanwhile, this April, the second group of students starts seminary at Montague Farm.
Although they’re grounded in lineage-based Zen teachings and practice, both the curriculum and the service commitment are distinct from traditional monastic training. The focus of the ministry program is not on liturgy but action. As Roshi Paul Genki Kahn, a Glassman dharma heir who directs the Maezumi Institute and the new training program, explains, “Our training is what I call ‘the severe discipline of worldly life.’”
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