I Love It! What Is It? A Student Reflection on HDS 3055: Engaged Zen Buddhism

December 16, 2019
Alexa Klein-Mayer
Student Alexa Klein-Mayer offers a personal reflection on the fall 2019 course "Engaged Zen Buddhism."

The following personal reflection was written by MDiv candidate Alexa Klein-Mayer.

It was still dark when we gathered, 10 hours earlier than our normal class time on a chilly November morning. It may have seemed unusual to be boarding a bus, blurry-eyed, for a day-long field trip to New York with my classmates, but it was clear from the start of the semester that "Engaged Zen Buddhism," taught by Visiting Professor Jitsujo Gauthier, was not going to be an ordinary course. During the first class, I remember reading over some of the learning objectives listed in the syllabus:

  • Students will understand ways to liberate self and others from suffering through methods of engagement.
  • Students will experience being with suffering, and methods to support transformation.

They were the most aspirational course objectives I had ever encountered. The sixteen of us who decided to enroll, hoping to learn ways to liberate ourselves and others, were a motley crew. We came from all across Harvard and the world, from an array of academic disciplines and faith traditions.

By the time we gathered that November morning to visit Greyston Bakery in Yonkers, we had been meeting for two months, moving together through the tensions, frustrations, laughter, and joys of not knowing. For some, it was our least favorite class; for some, it was our clear favorite. But for many, it was both/and, an experience of alternating, and sometimes simultaneous, attraction and aversion. All of this rode along with us on the four hour drive.

Students at Greyston
Class participants outside of Greyston Bakery in Yonkers, New York. / Photo: Alexa Klein-Mayer

We were traveling to Greyston to learn about its work and roots in the socially-engaged teachings of Bernie Glassman, Zen priest and founder of the bakery and the Zen Peacemaker Order. We had read Roshi Glassman’s work throughout the semester, focusing especially on practicing and reflecting on the Three Tenets of the Zen Peacemakers: Not-Knowing, Bearing Witness, and Taking Action. Visiting Greyston was an opportunity to see one larger scale effort that emerged from these principles.

Roshi Glassman and his students started the bakery in its first form in 1982, before expanding the vision of the initiative to breaking down employment barriers and addressing root causes of houselessness in Yonkers. While the Buddhist roots of Greyston are not strongly visible in the day-to-day operations today, Roshi Glassman’s vision continues to reverberate through the organization. I was especially interested in their model of Open Hiring, which renounces job interviews, background checks, and resumes in an effort to remove barriers to employment.

Learning more about the Open Hiring model at Greyston reminded me of a definition of renunciation from Pema Chödrön that Professor Jitsujo shared in one of our classes: "Renunciation does not have to be regarded as negative. I was taught that it has to do with letting go of holding back. What one is renouncing is closing down and shutting off from life. You could say that renunciation is the same thing as opening to the teachings of the present moment."

I have been reflecting on this framing of renunciation⁠—letting go of holding back⁠—ever since. In my Intermediate Pali class, Professor Beatrice Chrystall has shared that “generosity” is an equally suitable translation of the Pali word cāga, which is often simply translated as renunciation. In Greyston’s Open Hiring, I see a clear relationship between renunciation and generosity. Through renouncing normative models that exclude so many people from accessing jobs in our society, Greyston seems to be renouncing frameworks that close down and shut off avenues of life for people. This renunciation creates opportunities and possibilities, deeply affirming people’s capacities and lives.

Ven. Xianfeng Shi munches on a Greyston Bakery brownie.
Ven. Xianfeng Shi munches on a Greyston Bakery brownie. / Photo: Alexa Klein-Mayer

I could not help but wonder what it might look like if Harvard was committed to the ethics of Open Hiring, to renouncing the creation and maintenance of exclusive barriers. I remember our university’s blatant discrimination against Michelle Jones, who was accepted into the History Department’s doctoral program before having her admission rescinded by the university’s leadership. I remember that even as our school continues to profit from the prison industrial complex, it refuses to join other Boston universities in offering degree programs for people who are incarcerated based on the belief that it would water down the Harvard brand. So often, it seems that our university’s identity is woven only of exclusivity. I remember Roshi Glassman’s words from his book, Bearing Witness: A Zen Master’s Lessons in Making Peace, that "when we see the world as one body, it's obvious that we heal everyone at the same time that we heal ourselves, for there are no 'others.'"

In one of our classes earlier in the semester, Professor Jitsujo shared with us about the process of making a rakusu, a Japanese Zen Buddhist ritual garment. The process involves the maker asking people, loved ones and enemies, to each send a piece of fabric, sewing them together in a patchwork of different colors, patterns, and textures before dying it black.

Reflecting on my experience in "Engaged Zen Buddhism," I see now that our class was like a rakusu: we arrived as individual swatches of fabric, each with a particular color, texture, and pattern, becoming stitched together over the course of the semester, and taking on a shared hue from our learning and practicing together in community without losing the particularities of our textures. While I cannot predict what fruits our practice of not-knowing might bear in the future, I hope that we will continue bearing witness to the seeds we planted and tended together this semester.