A few years after receiving inka, the highest seal of approval in his lineage of Zen Buddhism, Bernie Glassman—one of the earliest and most prominent Americans to receive dharma transmission—did a peculiar thing: he gave up his priestly vows, disrobed, and lived as a layperson until his death last year. Glassman was known for his unconventional ways, but his decision perplexed many in the Zen world. He continued to function as the senior teacher in his White Plum lineage and a sangha leader, and his monastic vows did not appear to have been a hindrance to his personal freedom. So why did he give up his robes?
Glassman was one of my early teachers, and this question has stuck with me throughout the years—even as, after many years of practice, I was named a lay dharma holder by Roshi Gerry Shishin Wick in 2016, and again this January as I attended my first conference of the Lay Zen Teachers Association (LZTA).