Citizen Action Monitor

Bernie Glassman: On living a life that matters

No 283 Posted by fw, September 21, 2011

The course of social action grows naturally out of the course of spirituality and livelihood. Once we begin to take care of our own basic needs, we become more aware of the needs of the people around us. Recognizing the oneness of life, we naturally reach out to other people because we realize that we are not separate from them.Bernie Glassman

In a recent post, What matters most is not what we believe but how we live, the British political philosopher ended his BBC talk about belief, science and life with these words: “What we believe doesn’t in the end matter very much. What matters is how we live.”

And I concluded that post with this personal observation: “And so Gray leaves us with this age-old perplexing question: How, then, shall we live? Or as others have phrased it: What’s a life for?

Given the relatively large number of visits this particular piece by Gray has received, it seemed fitting somehow to do a follow-up piece on what it means to live a life that makes a difference. After all, isn’t that what citizen activism is supposed to be about – making a difference?

There are any number of books and articles on the meaning of life. But I’ve decided to go with my favourite — Instructions to the Cook: A Zen Master’s Lessons in Living a Life that Matters (1996) by Bernie Glassman. In fact, this post’s opening passage is from the Prologue to this book.

Co-incidentally, a 44-minute, 2006 documentary film based on the book, and with the same title, is available for free viewing here. I highly recommend it.

Zen Master Bernie Glassman teaches a distillation of Zen wisdom that can be used as a manual for business, social ventures, peacemaking or just life. Both the book and the documentary demonstrate the uniqueness and human impact of Bernie‘s life and work. In the 1980s, he changed a whole neighborhood in Yonkers (New York). More recently Bernie works as a peacemaker on the field of interfaith dialog throughout the world. Bernie shows how one can live a life that matters. As with Gandhi, Bernie’s life is an expression of his message to us.

Anyway, treat yourself to a tasty sample of Zen Master Bernie Glassman, as he cooks up a life worth living in the Prologue to his wonderful book, Instructions to the Cook

When we live our life fully, our life becomes what Zen Buddhists call “the supreme meal.” We make this supreme meal by using the ingredients at hand to make the best meal possible, and then by offering it. This book is about how to cook the supreme meal of your life. This book is about how to live life fully . . .

Zen is life – our life. It’s coming to the realization that all things are nothing but expressions of myself. And myself is nothing but the full expression of all things. It’s a life without limits.

There are many different metaphors for such a life. But the one that I have found the most useful, and the most meaningful, comes from the kitchen. Zen masters call a life that is lived fully and completely, with nothing held back, “the supreme meal.” And a person who lives such a life – a person who knows how to plan, cook, appreciate, serve, and offer the supreme meal of life, is called a Zen cook.

The principles I learned from my study of Zen – the principles of the Zen cook – can be used by anyone as a guide to living a full life, in the marketplace, in the home, and in the community.

We already have everything we need — So the first principle of the Zen cook is that we already have everything we need. If we look closely at our lives, we will find that we have all the ingredients we need to prepare the supreme meal. At every moment, we simply take the ingredients at hand and make the best meal we can. It doesn’t matter how much or how little we have. The Zen cook just looks at what is available and starts with that.

The supreme meal of my life has taken many surprising forms. I have been an aeronautical engineer and a Zen student and teacher. I have also been an entrepreneur, who founded a successful [Greyston] bakery and a social activist who founded the Greyston Family Inn, providing permanent housing and training in self-sufficiency for homeless families. I’m also involved in starting an AIDS hospice and interfaith center.

The five main coursesOf course, the supreme meal is very different for each of us. But according to the principles of the Zen cook, it always consists of the five main “courses” or aspects of life. The first course involves spirituality; the second course is composed of study and learning; the third course deals with livelihood; the fourth course is made out of social action or change; and the last course consists of relationships and community.

All these courses are an essential part of the supreme meal. Just as we all need certain kinds of food to make a complete meal that will sustain and nourish us, we need all five of these courses to live a full life.

It’s not enough to simply include all these courses in our meal. We have to prepare the five courses at the right time and in the right order.

Spirituality — The first course, spirituality, helps us to realize the oneness of life and provides a still point at the center of all our activities. The course consists of certain spiritual practices. This practice could be prayer or listening to music or dance or taking walks or spending time alone – anything that helps us realize or remind us of the oneness of life.

Study or learning — The second course is study or learning. Study provides sharpness and intelligence. People usually study before they begin something, but I like my study of things, be they livelihood, social action, or spirituality to be simultaneous with my practice of livelihood, social action, or spirituality. In this way, study is never merely abstract.

Livelihood — Once we have established the clarity that comes from stillness and study, we can begin to see how to prepare the third course, which is livelihood. This is the course that sustains us in the physical world. It is the course of work and business – the meat and potatoes. Taking care of ourselves and making a living in the world are necessary and important for all of us, no matter how “spiritual” we may think we are.

Social action — The course of social action grows naturally out of the course of spirituality and livelihood. Once we begin to take care of our own basic needs, we become more aware of the needs of the people around us. Recognizing the oneness of life, we naturally reach out to other people because we realize that we are not separate from them.

Relationship and community — The last course is the course of relationship and community. This is the course that brings all the seemingly separate parts of our life together into a harmonious whole. It’s the course that turns all the other courses – spirituality, livelihood, social action, and study – into a joyous feast.

All the courses make up the supreme meal of our life. But it is not a question of trying to arrange our life so that we prepare equal amounts of each course. We all need different ingredients, and different amounts, at different times in our lives.

At this point in your life, maybe you need to focus on your livelihood, or perhaps you need to focus on spirituality. You have to re-evaluate your situation constantly. You don’t make a satisfying meal by using equal amounts of salt and sugar. You need to look at your situation and find out how much of each ingredient is needed at any given moment.

And I exit, stage left, with this quote —

Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.John Lennon

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This entry was posted on September 21, 2011 by in counterpower of one, social action and tagged , .
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