Every year as 9/11 approaches, I realize that we have been sitting together a long time, a
group that has become very stable. We sat together for the first time on
the eve of the first anniversary of 9/11. Earlier that summer, I joined Roshi Kennedy at Mt.
Manresa for a meeting with Father Ed Quinnan to explore the possibility of a weekly Zen group there. Quinnan drove us to the top of the hill in his golf cart. From there, he had watched the smoke from the twin towers and their collapse. It seemed to add to the sanctity of the place.
We began sitting there on a Tuesday . That first evening, Roshi Bob led the meeting and, at the end, introduced me: I would be leading the group every week. We had a big crowd for Bob. Far fewer returned the following week, and by the following summer, I was sitting with just two guys. It was very peaceful there, but I was discouraged. I told Roshi that if more people didn’t begin to show up, I wasn’t sure that I would continue. I didn’t have the staying power of Katagiri Roshi who sat alone every morning for many months in a Minneapolis storefront before his first student arrived.
That year a few more people joined us, and we continued to sit. We sat at Mt. Manresa until the last moment before the Jesuits sold the Retreat House. We moved our group to Wagner College and then briefly to the dance studio in one of our charter schools. We sat there until Covid closed the schools and then we moved to Zoom. We have continued on Zoom. In 21 years, we have missed very few Tuesdays. (When Christmas fell on Tuesdays, Manresa was closed. Ice storms shut us down once).
I have come to appreciate the constancy. We are a small group. I cherish every member. We have been together now for a long time. Several members of the group go back to Manresa.
I think of Thomas Merton whose journals were so important in my early years of practice. He taught me a thing or two about stability.
I loved Merton’s candor when he wrote of his frustrations with the Abbot of Gethsemane. Merton was, at the time, the most famous Catholic in America. Maybe, after the Pope, the best-known Catholic in the world. He was offered the opportunity to move to other monasteries. Merton’s epiphany, that he would remain at Gethsemane unless it was absolutely clear that moving was the will of God, was a beacon in my life. I never had anything like Merton’s constancy, but his constancy was a Polaris.
I loved Suzuki Roshi’s story of how he came to succeed his teacher. He was far from the best student in the monastery. It probably seemed to others that this was not his calling, but he persisted. What happened? As Suzuki tells it, the other monks all went over the walls. There were after all girls on the outside. I love Suzuki’s self-deprecating humor but there is an important lesson here.
Suzuki Roshi stuck around and, when he was the only monk left, became his teacher’s successor. And a wonderful teacher he became, one of the most important, along with my Dharma Grandpa and one or two others, in bringing the Dharma to America.
There is a sacredness in stability. When I was doing psychotherapy, I saw stability as something like the essence of the practice. I imagined myself as a rock in the surf, somewhere where the storms could be brutal, the stormy night on the coast of New England or Ireland or Scotland. The waves are black in the darkness, crashing against the rock. And the rock is just there. Through the storms of a patient’s rage — therapists call it negative transference because it lessens the sting— we will be there next week. There is a great gift in just being there.
When we were beginning to build our charter schools, I immersed myself in the education reform literature. One of the most dramatic — I’m not sure if it’s a symptom or a cause — of the stagnation of American public education is the lack of stable leadership. Here’s an absolutely shocking statistic: the average tenure of superintendents of schools nationally is three years, barely one budget cycle in most local districts. No wonder reform is impossible. It takes a new person a year to get to know the place. Only a fool or a very inexperienced leader hits the ground running. We are talking about complicated systems. In your second year, a reforming superintendent can begin to introduce change.
Piloting a number of alternatives is often a good way to go. By the third year, if you’re lucky you may be satisfied that you know the steps you want to take system wide. But the odds are the superintendent will be gone before the roll-out has begun. And then the process will begin again, the cycle of stagnation.
In the 12 years that we were building our network of schools — we had opened four schools, had grown rapidly — we had been through 5 commissioners of education in New York State, responsible not only for all primary and secondary education but a slew of other things as well including libraries and professional licensure. No wonder the bureaucrats say cheerfully, “Commissioners come and go. No worries.” No one really has to change. No matter how radical the new guy’s rhetoric, he’ll be gone before anything happens.
Stagnation and stability may look alike but they are very different things.
In the world of public education leadership, 12 years is a long time. One of the advantages of charter schools over the regular public schools may be the potential for stability of leadership.
I have joked with Paco, Francisco Lugovina, the Dharma brother who got me into the charter school business and who served as the first chair of our board of trustees, “Imagine what we could have accomplished if we had gotten into charters when we were 20 years younger.” (I was 67 when we opened our first school, the blessing of a second career). We laughed at my idea of getting into charters when I was in my mid 40’s. (Paco is older than me). When I was in my 40’s, charters didn’t exist. And I wasn’t the same leader, the same person, in my 40’s that I was 20 years later. Maybe I too would have been a three-year leader, drawn by ego and ambition to a greener pasture or a bigger fishbowl or maybe I would have been fired after three years for arrogance and cocky self-confidence.
Stability is looking now like a beautiful thing, and it is also not the same thing as getting stuck. Things are very complex.
When Roshi Bernie left Greyston to explore new possibilities, I felt he was making a mistake, that he would never be able to do anywhere else what he could accomplish if he stayed in Yonkers and built on what he had already established there.
When I toured the Springfield jail with Bernie and the Sheriff of Springfield a few years later, I thought, “Holy Shit, this guy is actually going to do it again, and he’s going to do it with people coming out of county jail, people who are even more despised than the homeless of Yonkers.” But when that project died long before it had even a chance to get off the ground, I remembered what they say, “You can’t catch lightning in a bottle twice.” Maybe those people know something.
Stability is sacred. Stability is wonderful. And sometimes, it’s time to move on. I had taken an early retirement buy-out, left a state mental health job and felt guilty doing it. I was leaving a program, staff and kids, for whom my leaving was not a good thing. I left because it was my time to move on, to discover where the peacemaker path would take me.
I left our charter school network because it was my time to leave. I wasn’t getting any younger, and there were other things to do in my life.
Stability is wonderful and life is complicated. In Zen, for every point, there is always a counterpoint. Stability is wonderful and so is aimless meandering. Next week, we’ll come to aimless meandering.