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What is my “No!” When do I shout it? Do I really shout?


Jesse and Theresa Peterford first met at ICS. Theresa, star teacher, chief joy officer, is now our Vice President for Education, Integration Excellence. And she has stepped in at a moment of crisis as Acting Principal of the Lavelle Prep Middle School Division.

Jesse was a founding Lavelle Prep Teacher’s Assistant and our first head of security before leaving us for a job in the NYPD. Jesse is famous for his impressions of ICS leaders, especially of me. Raising his hands in the air, he shouts, “No!”

The hand gesture, the whole shtick reminds me more of Bernie Sanders than Roshi Bernie although they are from the same cultural milieu, — immigrant, Jewish, socialist, — and geographic milieu, — the Brighton Beach of Brooklyn. (Roshi Bernie was in high school with Neil Simon).

Jesse’s impression has always been funny but until now I have thought he was pointing to a foible, something for me to work on, an area to improve. Maybe funny as performed by Jesse, but maybe too scary for real life.

Today I am thinking this may be the expression of my inner Rinzai (1). Rinzai teachers are known for their shouting and often for hitting their students in an effort to help them break through to realization.

Hakuin, the greatest of modern Rinzai teachers, in his old age, bemoaned the fact that he no longer had the strength to beat his students effectively.

Yunmen would occasionally chase the monks from the hall with his staff when they gathered to hear him talk.

Koan after koan recount stories of teachers shouting and hitting. I never quite took these stories seriously.

By comparison, my inner Rinzai seems quite grandmotherly.

I am wondering now if my “No!” isn’t a way of teaching that I should embrace rather than trying to tame.

I am thinking that I am more of a Zen teacher in our schools than I am in the Zendo.

In our schools, there can be no place for bullshit. The lives of students are at stake. The lives of teachers are at stake. Our whole collective enterprise is always hanging in the balance.

And it is easy to drown in bullshit.

As the American education system drowns in bullshit, can we afford to pat ourselves on the back and applaud our accomplishments? Can we afford to bask in our glows?


What is my “No!” When do I shout it? Do I really shout? I am told I can be frightening. Have I really been channeling Yunmen, chasing frightened monks from the hall?


What am I saying?

Stop wasting your life. Stop wasting your breath. Don’t waste our time together.

In our schools, we have principles that our work is based on. The fundamental principle we call “integration”. We mean “bringing to the societal table those who have been excluded.” One table. Integrated classes and programs. Not separate tables for atypical people. Not separate tables for the gifted. Integrated tables. One table.

I have no patience for losing sight of what is fundamental.

I have no patience for self-indulgence.

“Let’s talk about how wonderful we are.”

“No! Let’s not waste time.” Delusions are inexhaustible. We have work to do.


You are going down the rabbit hole of intellectual bullshit.



Suddenly, for the first time, I feel the ferociousness in Chao Chou’s “Mu”.


A monk asks Chao Chou, “Does a dog have Buddha-nature?”

All good Buddhists know that all beings are endowed with Buddha-nature, beginningless enlightenment.

I have understood the monk for years. “I know, I know. All beings including dogs have Buddha-nature, but what about me? What about me? I feel so lost. Do I have Buddha nature or am I the only being who does not? Am I the exception?”

Chao Chou answers the monk. One word. Mu. No.

I always heard “Mu” dismissively. I will not engage in this intellectualized silliness. Now I am feeling Chao Chou’s ferociousness. Compassionate ferociousness. Please do not waste your life in philosophical speculation.

And don’t waste my life. We have important work to do together.

Let’s get to work.

Should I be taking my “No!” to the Zendo, to the dokusan room? Is “Go deeper” enough?

Jishu said, “Go deeper.” It was her way of telling me that I hadn’t passed the koan. It was such a gentle rejection. I loved her for her gentleness.

But I keep thinking that I am too grandmotherly in the Zendo. I am afraid to bring my ferociousness to the Zendo, afraid that the students will quit but also not sure how to push deeper. Was I was not pushed enough.? Did I go deep enough?

Do it now? In the Zendo, I am still afraid to say, “No! No more bullshit.”

1. Rinzai (the Japanese pronunciation of Lin-chi, the Chinese Zen master regarded as the founder of the school) is a major Zen lineage. Kyudo Nakagawa Roshi, my first Zen teacher traced his lineage to Lin-Chi.

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