Many of the photos of Bernie Glassman Roshi available on the internet show him wearing a red clown’s nose. I asked him about it when I visited him at his home in Montague, Massachusetts.
“In 1997,” he told me, “I decided that it was time for my wife at that time—she’s passed away; her name was Jishu; she was the co-founder of the Zen Peacemakers—it was time for her to take over the Zen Community of New York, and I was not going to be formally involved in teaching any more. But what I wanted to do was go around to my Dharma successors that had places and make sure that they weren’t being too arrogant or thinking they knew too much. And the best way to do that would be to pop-up unexpected as a clown and disrupt what was going on. So I went to a friend of mine, Wavy-Gravy, and told him what I wanted to do and how do I get trained? And he assigned a trainer to me, Mr. Yoo-hoo. So Yoo-hoo and I did a lot of workshops on ‘Clowning Your Zen.’ Now, ‘clown’ is not the best word. In Native American, its Coyote. In Europe it’s the nar, which we translate as jester. He can say things to the king that nobody else can say.
“So that was my idea. And then it turned out that the guy who was training me was a coordinator for Clowns Without Borders—Payasos sin Fronteras—and they work in refugee camps around the world. So I’ve been with him in refugee camps in places like Chiapas. And I found that to Bear Witness in a refugee camp is fantastic. Because you go there, you don’t know the culture at all. And you don’t know what the refugees have been through. So you have to be in a place of ‘not-knowing.’ You can’t assume that anything you know is going to be funny, and you got to bear witness to the kids, ‘cause you’re doing things. And part of our training is how do you present something very lightly and then make it heavier, whether it’s anger or love or hate or whatever. And that’s what you’ve got to do. Do something very lively. See whether a smile appears or fear appears. And back away if it’s fear, and if it’s a smile, make it heavier. And then bear witness to the mothers. Are they feeling comfortable? And eventually to the fathers. Usually the kids are up front. Mothers are a little further back, and we’ve been in places where mothers never saw their kids smile. So I carry my nose with me everywhere I go,” he said taking it out of his pocket, “and I’m always ready to make sure that if a situation seems too heavy or too ‘knowing’”—he put the nose on—“I’ll put my nose on and shake it up. It’s another upaya.”
[Bernie Glassman – Cypress Trees in the Garden: 76, 134, 173, 235-50, 255, 258, 260, 274, 276, 280, 287, 296-97, 305-07, 309-10, 468]
[See also: Bernie Glassman]