Roshi Bernie told me I was going about it all wrong. The five-page proposal I wrote for a Zen House in a new location was out of touch. First I had to spend time in the neighborhood, meet with community members and leaders and bear witness to their needs. Zen Peacemakers and Greyston Foundation founder Roshi Bernie Glassman was reminding me that I was ignoring the first tenet of the organization: not-knowing.
Saul Alinsky, the “founder” of community organizing and an influence on President Barack Obama, might have given the same advice. His principles, as expressed in his 1971 guide Rules for Radicals: A Pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals, provide one valuable lens for manifesting the second and third tenets of the Zen Peacemakers: bearing witness and loving actions. While Roshi Bernie’s Zen training and personality make Alinsky’s confrontational style inappropriate for him, taken together, the three tenets of the Zen Peacemakers and Alinsky’s rules provide valuable lessons to aspiring agents of change, both Buddhist and otherwise.
Roshi Bernie’s daughter, Alisa Glassman, is now a leader in an affiliate of the Industrial Areas Foundation (AIF), founded by Saul Alinsky. She spent two days with us, giving us four intimate classes and guiding discussions on community organizing, with her father participating.
TENET ONE: Not-knowing, thereby giving up fixed ideas about ourselves and the universe
Alinsky disdained religious certainty, political doctrine, moralistic judgments and inflexible commitment to particular tactics. He writes:
“I detest and fear dogma…The human spirit glows from that small inner light of doubt whether we are right, while those who believe with complete certainty that they possess the right are dark inside and darken the world outside with cruelty, pain and injustice.” (4)Religion
Today, the AIF website explains that they are “non-ideological and strictly non-partisan.” Instead, Alinsky explains that social change is inspired by broad “spiritual principles” that form the “basic morals of all organized religions” (22, 46). In the quest for human welfare, he argues that individuals are best equipped to judge their own interests for themselves as long as they do not interfere with the rights of others (11).
About tactics, Alinsky says:
“Tactics are not the product of careful cold reason…they do not follow a table of organization or plan of attack. Accident, unpredictable reactions to your own actions, necessity, and improvisation dictate the direction and nature of tactics. Then analytical logic is required to appraise where you are, what you can do next, the risks and hopes that you can look forward to....The tactic itself comes out of the free flow of action and reaction, and requires on the part of the organizer an easy acceptance of apparent disorganization. The organizer goes with the action.”(165)Similar to a good Buddhist, Alisky’s sense of not-knowing is based in a deep sense of impermanence. He says that “the free-society organizer is loose, resilient, fluid, and on the move in a society which is itself in a state of constant change” (11).
TENET TWO: Bearing witness to the joy and suffering of the world
Both Alinsky and Roshi Bernie identify the core motivation of a social servant as a deep sense of the oneness and interconnectedness of all life. Alinsky predicted that “a major revolution to be won in the immediate future is the dissipation of man’s illusion that his own welfare can be separate from that of all others” (23). He also said:
“There was a time when I believed that the basic quality that an organizer needed was a deep sense of anger against injustice and that this was the prime motivation that kept him going. I now know that it is something else: this abnormal imagination that sweeps him into a close identification with mankind and projects him into its plight. He suffers with them.” (74)Anger, Agitation and Duality
Putting aside fixed political and religious abstractions and discarding narrow tactical recipes, the organizer bears witness to the joy and suffering of the community and pushes the community to bear witness as well. In a state in which the community refrains from taking action for its improvement because of lack of belief in their own power and techniques for utilizing it, community members are alienated from their own lives. Alinsky explains that “if people feel they don’t have the power to change a bad situation, then they do not think about it” and that “they may have accepted anonymity and resigned in apathy… call it organized apathy or organized nonparticipation, but that is their community pattern” (105, 116).
In class, Alisa taught us that the organizer must be relational with the community member and also be agitational. That is to say, if a citizen is unhappy but resigned to it, the organizer should agitate them into a state of anger. She explained that controlled anger that motivates action lies on a spectrum between apathy and rage. At this point, Roshi Bernie interjected because anger is a term that seems incompatible with Buddhism. Bernie commented that while anger is one of the “three poisons” in Buddhsim that are the primary causes of our suffering, anger without ego can be transformed to the 8th Perfection (Paramita): Determination (Praṇidhāna), promoted by the Buddha in the Sutra of the Ten Stages, along with nine other qualities one should cultivate in order to follow the enlightened Way.
While both Alinsky and Roshi Bernie promote striving to maximize inclusion and get beyond narrow understandings of Self and Other, Alinsky also maintains a distinction between what he calls the Haves and the Have-nots. Alinsky said that “everything about us must be seen as the indivisible partner of its converse” and that the “grasp of the duality of all phenomena is vital in our understanding of politics” (15, 17). Thus, on the one hand, Alinsky chided hippies for deriding middle class “squares” and he said that we must also see ourselves as one with the “enemy” in order to foresee their tactics (185, 74). On a fundamental level, however, he still maintains the enemy as Other and this shapes his tactics, which include insult and ridicule.
While it is common to see Roshi Bernie put a clown nose on himself, it is hard to imagine him making fun of another person. He writes:
“When we vow to be oneness, we vow to see everything as the Buddha, as Christ, as the Way. Because the Way is everything…I have met many social activists who believe that everyone is the Way except rich people. They’re comfortable going into shelters and food panties, they mingle easily with people on the streets of our inner cities, but they can’t say hello to someone with lots of money. In their case it’s not the poor and dispossessed who are the Other, it’s the rich. When peacemakers vow to be oneness, there is no Other” (49).From Alinsky’s perspective, Roshi Bernie’s talk of oneness may be focusing on the world as it should be at the expense of dealing with the world as it is. Roshi Bernie found effective ways to utilize his perspective by initiating social enterprise and also by channeling large sums of money towards the non-profits through grants and donations from the wealthy.
TENET THREE: Loving actions towards ourselves and others
IAF: Power and Confrontation
In Alinsky’s view, after the community bears witness, it creates power. Power is another concept that can make Buddhists quiver. Alinsky says that:
“power is the very essence, the dynamo of life…It is the power of active citizen participation pulsing upward, providing a unified strength for a common purpose. Power is an essential life force always in operation, either changing the world or opposing change” (51).In the victories of both Greyston and the AIF, it is the power of providing the opportunity for homeless people to train and work in a dignified profession, of caring for children and engaging young adults after school, offering medical services, creating low-income housing and reclaiming public space for community gardening. Bearing witness to the concerns of the urban poor, both Alinsky and Roshi Bernie led communities to address issues of basic human welfare.
Based on his dualistic understanding of society, Alinsky encourages the organizer to “pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it” and also to execute an “intensive campaign of ridicule, insults, and taunting defiance” because “it is only when the other party is concerned or feels threatened that he will listen” (130, 154, 89). The idea is to use an organization to create power and use that power to pressure the Haves into making a concession that improves the lives of the Have-nots.
Alinsky mentions forms of protest common during the 1960’s such as sit-ins, strikes, boycotting, mass demonstration and marches and he also encourages organizers to use the power of numbers in other creative and controversial ways. Today, IAF is known for using tactics such as door-knocking, one-on-one meetings and house meetings. As it says on their website: “IAF does indeed use a radical tactic: the face-to-face, one-to-one individual meeting whose purpose is to initiate a public relationship and to re-knit the frayed social fabric.”
Though some of the more outlandish aspects of Alinky’s confrontational style may have more to do with his personality and historical context then with his legacy, the AIF today counts among its successes concessions from corporations and legislation fought for and won through threats, litigation and confrontation. Its website says that they use power to “compete at times, to confront at times, and to cooperate at times with leaders in the public and private sectors.”
While the successes of the organizations that constitute Greyston attest to effective organizing, there are instances in which Greyston and the Zen Peacemakers may have benefited from more effectively wielding the power of coalescing community members around an issue and confronting the powers that be. For example, Greyston had to give up the battle to win rights to make use of School 6, an abandoned building that remains unused until this day. As Roshi Bernie describes,
“at various times our block association and local church ministers complained about School 6. Over the years other organizations tried to acquire it with various plans, but School 6 had become a political football. So people walked away from it…School 6 has become a symbol of inner-city decay, of the disintegration that happens when people don’t work together” (194).Greyston: Social Enterprise and "Love"
At the same time, the social enterprise model of the Greyston Bakery opened doors of which Alinsky would never have dreamed. Greyston did not have to fight the Republican mayor of Yonkers. As Greyston started with a bakery in an impoverished areas, the pro-business politician was happy that they were creating revenue and jobs. While getting involved in business and politics in the 1970’s resulted in corruption and scandal in the San Francisco Zen Center, Greyston avoided those pitfalls by maintaining a clear social mission at the core.
Another difference between the three tenets of the Zen Peacemakers and Alinsky’s rules is that Alinsky would not call his actions “loving”. Nevertheless, while he scoffed at hippies for romanticized ideals of love and boiled life down to cold calculations of power, his successors, like Alisa, express a more nuanced philosophy of working from the delicate tension between love and power, that is to say, between the “world as it is” and the “world as it should be”.
Both initially leaders of middle class youth uninspired by the white picket fence, Alinsky and Roshi Bernie both posited as their goal in low-income neighborhoods as the empowerment of the people there. Greyston does this through a principle they call pathmaking, which according to their website “recognizes that individuals and communities evolve over time, and that the different aspects of the mandala [wholeness]- body, heart, mind, spirit and self - are linked in their development.” IAF's "iron rule of organizing" is "never do for others what they can do for themselves.”
To Alinsky, once the Have-nots build power and confront the Haves, they will be able to more capable of participating in large-scale political change. Alinsky explains that “we organize to get rid of four-legged rats so we can get on to removing two-legged rats” (68). For Roshi Bernie, the route to freedom for the Have-nots is to become the Haves and also to develop more humane models of Having. It is clear to Roshi Bernie that the solution must be systemic:
“The peacemakers we remember and honor most are those who try to heal our society as a whole, not just pieces of it. Instead of donating money to a food pantry, they try to eliminate hunger….During this process they challenge every human being and institution, as well as our very way of life. And they’re often killed for it.” (169)While they put forth broad visions of social betterment, both chose not to define those visions too narrowly in favor of trusting the transformative power of true democratic participation in a free society.
Glassman, Bernie. Bearing Witness: A Zen Master’s Lessons in Making Peace.
The Industria Areas Foundation Homepage “Who Are We?” About IAF. 16 December 2008. Industrial Areas Foundation <http://www.industrialareasfoundation.org/iafabout/about.htm>.