Bernie Glassman was a Brooklyn-born Jew and an American Zen master.

An American Zen Master has died: An oral history of Roshi Bernie Glassman

Updated 5:16 PM ET, Thu December 6, 2018

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(CNN)One of Bernie Glassman's favorite koans asks: Where do you step from the top of a 100-foot pole?

His answer seemed to be: You plunge.
Glassman, who died November 4 at age 79, was a Brooklyn-born Jew, a recognized Zen master, a Buddhist trailblazer, a restless mensch and a serial plunger.
Glassman plunged into aeronautical engineering, into Zen, into leading a Buddhist community, into running a bakery, into growing that bakery into a constellation of social services, into holding spiritual retreats among the homeless and at Holocaust-haunted concentration camps, into writing a book of koans with a Hollywood star, into mourning when his second wife died and into learning to walk and talk again two years ago after a stroke.
The plunges, as Glassman called them, served a spiritual purpose: to uproot preconditioned ideas, bear witness to what's going on and serve those most in need. At a time when many American Buddhists preferred self-development to social engagement, Glassman dismissed "mannequin meditation" and carried his Zen practice from clean-aired monasteries to chaotic city streets, where he led weeklong retreats on sidewalks and in crowded parks.
"Bernie was very clear that meditation was not a refuge from life," said Roshi Eve Myonen Marko, Glassman's third wife. "For him, meditation was total engagement."
    With his longish hair, sad-eyed smile and Churchill cigars, in his later years Glassman looked less like a traditional Zen master than a "hippie cigar entrepreneur," to quote a former student. But his carefree aesthetic masked intense ethical commitments.
    After an epiphany in which he saw people as "hungry ghosts" -- Buddhist beings whose swollen bellies and pencil-thin necks symbolize the insatiability of desire -- Glassman vowed to serve them.
    "It was a literal experience and a formative experience," said Glassman in 1996. "Seeing the variety of cravings and beings all around us."
    Bernie Glassman in 1981. Photograph by Peter Cunningham.
    Greyston Bakery in Yonkers, New York, which Glassman co-founded in 1982 wit