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Teaching and Leading

I alone can teach you nothing

Through my years of practice, I have found my way through frustration and adversity.

When I see those around me suffering, I want to share what I have learned. I want to spare them my pain. “If you do this and this and this, do it consistently over a period of years, you will come through and the world will be brighter,” I have tried to tell them. It never works.

I have tried as a psychotherapist. I have tried as a Zen teacher. I have tried as a supervisor and school leader. It has never worked. Even with those I love the most. It has never worked. And when it hasn’t worked, it has sometimes led to frustration and anger which have only added to the suffering.

Eventually, I came to finally realize the Zen teacher truth, “You are perfect just as you are.” I have nothing to give you. No truth, no magic. I had been repeating these words for many years before they really penetrated.

The great freedom of teaching and leading arises from the understanding that I alone can teach you nothing, which is not to say that you won’t learn anything from your relationship with me. What I can strive for and aspire to, is to engage you through what I do and say, and to encourage you to engage in the experiences through which, you will learn your own truth.

If I teach you things, then in a sense I’ll expect you to turn out to be in some way a replica of me. However, if I encourage you to unlock yourself, I expect you to be uniquely you.

Certainly, there are some so-called Zen teachers who aspire to create successors who are little more than “mini-me’s” and who will hang around the mother temple assisting their master teacher.

Roshi Bernie’s Successors

Roshi Bernie’s successors, like Maizumi Roshi’s successors, were all “raised” to leave home, to go out and do their own thing.

As a student of Bernie, I always aspired to be of assistance. But I was so junior at the Zen Community of New York that I could not even get to carry his bags when he left for the airport on one of his many trips. I could never hope to be his attendant at a sesshin. That role was reserved for much more senior students. Or, so I thought.

How could I be of service? The opportunity presented itself gradually at first. Bernie asked me to come on a retreat to plan the future of ZCNY. (God, save me from planning retreats.) I was traveling to Yonkers to meditate because I had overdosed on organizational life and theory, so as a recovering workaholic, the last thing I want was for organizational planning to intrude into my meditation space. I agreed to go. I was awkward and I don’t think I said much.

Bernie asked me, “Would you be the president of the ZCNY board?” A relatively small ask. Still, I hated it. “Why are you doing this?” I thought in my head. “Don’t you know, I am coming here to escape, to find peace?”

I hated that the question arose. But I was so grateful for the peace which the practice was bringing into my life, feeling so strongly the desire to give back, that I said, “yes.” Again.

Jishu Asked...

Then Jishu asked me to become a “member” of ZCNY. If I was going to be president, I should really be a member. Members wore laymen’s robes; they looked like the in-group. And as a devout member of the always excluded, I hated in-groups. I wanted to preserve my place among the “untouchables” without robes, firmly ensconced on the lowest rung of the Zen hierarchy.

Again, I said, “yes”. But, I bargained, and negotiated. One of the requirements for membership (I don’t remember what the others were) was a solo all-day sit in the Zendo. I bargained.

“At the end of the day, will you have dinner with me?”

Jishu agreed.

The day was scheduled. I took off from work, drove to Yonkers, and I sat. Late in the day, Jishu came into the Zendo.

“Is it okay if Bernie joins us for dinner?”

I was thrilled. I had never had dinner with Bernie. “Of course.”

We went out to dinner. I don’t remember where. I also don’t remember what I ate. I pretty much was silent through the meal. While the adults talked. They talked about plans for Jishu, not yet a Sensei, still a dharma successor to become Abbot of ZCNY, freeing Bernie for other things, perhaps Maezumi’s dream of an American Zen organization.

Bernie asked, “So, who is going to be your first shuso?”

Jishu ran through the names of her senior students.

“No,” Bernie said, they are all lay people.

While Maezumi Roshi was alive, the link to the Japanese Soto Zen institutions remained very important to Bernie.

No, to become abbot you must register the name of your first shuso at Soto headquarters. For the Japanese registry, the first shuso must be a priest.

After dinner they drove me to my car and I drove back to Brooklyn. Over the next couple of days, the conversation percolated in me and an idea arose. I went into dokusan with Bernie on Saturday.

“I have an idea,” I said. I can become a priest and be Jishu’s first shuso. I cannot carry your bags but perhaps this is a way that I can be of service to you by being of service to Jishu.”

Bernie said it was an interesting idea and that I should talk to Jishu. I left dokusan with Bernie and got immediately on the end of Jishu’s dokusan line. I told her my idea.

She listened, then thought for a moment. “No, that’s not a good reason to ordain.”

I bowed and left. Disappointed. Relieved.

A Change of Heart

About two weeks later, Jishu told me, that yes, she had talked with Bernie and thought about it some more and it was a good enough reason after all.

I was absolutely the last person in the world that I or anyone else would have expected to become a priest. The world had opened in the least expected way. An opportunity to serve, to pay back the dharma, had unexpectedly presented itself. The door opened. And I proudly walked through.

Then, Jishu passed away midway through my shuso period. Bernie officiated in her place at the concluding shuso hossan ceremony eight months after her passing. Nine years later he gave me transmission as a teacher. In the moment of the transmission ceremony which remains most vivid, Bernie told me he would always support me in my practice in whatever direction it took, capturing the essence of his Zen teaching, authorizing me to actualize me, and not to become him.

And so, my practice has grown, inspired by the model of practice which he was manifesting at Greyston when I sat with him and Jishu but which he left behind as his life evolved.

As Yamada Roshi told Roshi Kennedy when Bob was a still-young Jesuit tentatively stepping into Zen practice, “Don’t worry. Zen practice will not turn you into a Buddhist. It will make you a better Catholic.”

It took me years to fully appreciate this teaching. And now, as a leader, my job is to help people fully realize and actualize the truth of their lives. Some may become great teachers, some may become school leaders and some may decide that education is not the field for them. Not by imparting my wisdom, but by helping to create a space in which they can find their own wisdom.


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