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The Five Buddhist Families - Study

I was first introduced to the Five Buddha Families by my teacher Roshi Bernie Glassman: Buddha (Spirituality), Vajra (Study), Ratna (Livelihood), Padma (Community), and Karma (Social Action). Together, they constitute the Mandala[1] of our lives.

The five Buddha are a way of thinking about our lives, and we can use them to assess our individual balance. Bernie also used them as a tool for organizational design. I was and am inspired.

In this third installment of a five part series, I continue to explore their relevance to both my practice, and to Integration Charter Schools.

We are building and growing schools. So, it is natural and appropriate that I am always thinking about learning — about how I learn and about helping others to learn, recognizing that we all learn differently. When I think about my own learning, I think about what I have learned throughout the course of my life. What’s my style?

My Style

I have always learned by reading. It became my preferred way in childhood. One of the great things in my life was the discovery of magazines. I would eagerly wait each month for them to appear on the newsstand. Long before Sports Illustrated, there was Sport. I still remember titles and articles. There were science magazines, Popular Mechanics for a while, and then my father got me a subscription to Mechanix Illustrated. (I think someone sold him a bargain subscription. – it seemed to come for years.) Eventually, there were Scientific American, and model railroading magazines. I devoured the magazines, read the whole thing, though not from cover to cover.

Today, I read the Smithsonian, mostly for the history articles and Tricycle.

I learn from books. This summer I’m immersing myself in Google literature.[1] I have taught myself business management over the years largely by reading and then by attempting to put what I’ve learned into practice. I have been studying management since I got my first real management job in 1980.

But lately, I have come to realize that I learn best in dialogue. Looking back, I realize that throughout adulthood much of my most important learning occurred through dialogue.

Looking back, I realize that I learned far more in the dorm room discussions than learned in college classes.

I went to an elite college but have no recollection of anything ever said by a classmate in class. I recognize that I learn most while engaged in discussion.

I also learn by writing and reading. Solitary time is important. This year I read John Maxwell‘s suggestion to block out uninterrupted time during the week for real thinking. I haven’t been so successful at doing this in the office. Despite all the advantages of our open architecture, the office does not lend itself to uninterrupted time during the day. Instead, what I have been doing most weeks is taking four hours on Saturday mornings for reflection time — in the car, reading, writing, listening to Baroque and Beyond on Sirius XM.

Not my style? I hate lectures. And PowerPoint presentations are the worst.


The other side of my learning is the self-awareness that arises from Zen practice. At the center of Zen study is the study of the self. This is a wonderful way because people like me who find great comfort in books naturally think that to study Zen is to study Buddhism.

Intrigued for 30 years, I collected books on Zen. Some I read, and perhaps I understood a sentence here or a sentence there. I read that meditation was key to Zen. I tried to meditate, usually on vacation. My meditation practice never lasted long once I returned to the workaday world.

Dogen Zenji, the great Zen master who brought our Soto lineage from China to Japan in the 13th Century, famously said, “To study Zen is to study the self.”[2]

As I was progressing in my Zen study with Roshi Jishu, I found myself targeted by other Zen students who had been Zen students many years longer. They thought I had no business being where I was. I asked Jishu about this.

“You have done a lot of work on yourself before beginning formal Zen practice,” she said.

That work included a seven-year Adlerian psychoanalysis, group and individual, and alternative groups (weekly meetings of the group without the analyst).[3] Plus two years in an encounter group, and [4] three years in a consciousness-raising group,[5] all requiring intensive self-examination. This was actually great preliminary work for the Zen study of self which I was doing with Jishu. That practice continues every day.

In Our Schools

In our schools, we are working all the time to share our understanding of learning with our students, beginning with helping them recognize the diversity of their own learning styles and how to utilize this understanding to achieve their goals. We teach and push them to develop an understanding of themselves — the stuff that distracts them from their goals, dislodges them from their paths. Our Wellness Curriculum is designed largely around this objective.

For our students and our staff, we are focused on growth mind.[6] We will all make mistakes, and we can all learn from our mistakes. We absolutely want all of our people to be continuing to grow. We are supporting staff in going back to school, and we will help everyone who wants to become a teacher, become a teacher.

We are realizing that while most people want to grow, some people, even with support and encouragement from their teams, are still too dug in too rigid, too stuck in their ways.

We are recognizing that we are probably not the schools for those who don’t want to grow.

Recently, I have been surprised to see that business gurus from Peter Senge[7] to Ray Dalio[8] are now recommending meditation practice as a key to the development of organizational leadership. It is increasingly referenced in my coaching with rising leaders. I never push it, but when people ask how I learned to do what I do, inevitably part of the answer is, “by studying Zen; by studying the self.” I am delighted that plans are now moving forward for a faculty Yoga and Meditation studio in our newest building, where everyone can find time for practices of personal growth within the work setting, where everyone can find a place to re-center amidst the turmoil teaching and learning.

We are working continually to avoid a false dichotomy which can undermine educational organizations at every level. We are working to avoid the caste system in which there some people who are teachers, (we, of course, call them “teachers”) and others who are the learners, (we call them “students.”)

We are working to create a world in which we are all both teachers and learners. And if we are all learners, then that must start at the top, with senior management.

This past year more than ever before, we have been studying together, reading Senge,[9] Sinek,[10] and Doerr.[11] We are reading, discussing, working together to test the ideas which we are discovering within our schools. All of our teachers are engaged in collaborative learning, working to refine their instruction. We are doing deep work, with the guidance of experts. We are encouraging teams of teachers to challenge their own assumptions.

Challenging Assumptions

Among those assumptions is the notion that students mostly learn from teachers. People become teachers most often because they have been inspired in their lives by their own teachers. They become teachers to carry the torch. Unfortunately, that dream does not last long for most young teachers, more than half of whom will leave the profession within five years. At ICS, it is a dream we want to keep very much alive.

But at the same time, we want our teachers to realize that the really great learning comes from within. From within each of us. It is not a result of ideas which are implanted from the outside. While it may feel to us sometimes that we have been inspired by great teachers, when we take time to look a bit deeper, we see that what the great teachers did was provide a container in which we were able to discover the motivation, the dreams, which were already latent within ourselves.

The most wonderful classes occur when the students are actively engaged, both teaching and learning, with and from each other. The moments which make us as teachers smile the biggest smiles are not those in which we said something brilliant. Rather, they are the moments in which we saw something for the first time —something fresh, inspired by something that one of our students said.

I have this experience every day working with teams of teachers and managers to address the challenges of our schools and our rapid growth. The wonderful moments occur when something new and exciting emerges in a discussion, something no one had ever thought of before, something that none of us were likely to think of on our own.

Those are the real Zen moments.

[1] Measure What Matters; Schmidt and Rosenberg; Laszlo Boch. (Books on my desk).

[2] See “Actualizing the Fundamental Point,” Treasury fo the True Dharma Eye ( Kazuaki Tanahashi, ed.) Boston and London: Shambala, 2010.

[3] In those years, psychoanalysis dominated the world of psychiatry and psychotherapy, not only in the treatment of what were then called “neuroses” but also in the training of analysts and therapists: classical analysis which adhered strictly to Freud’s theory or the diverging schools of Freud’s disciples, Jung and Adler, or more modern variation advocated by Horney and Sullivan.

[4] The alternative to analysis which was capturing the imagination of the late ’60s. We had two “ordained” classical Freudian analysts in our group.

[5] Popularized by the Women’s movement as a tool for increasing consciousness of sexism everywhere.

[6] We were introduced to the concept of “growth mind” by Carol Dweck, Mindset (Random House, 2006).

[7] The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of The Learning Organization. Currency, 1990.

[8] Principles: Life and Work. Simon & Schuster, 2017.

[9] 0p. cit.

[10] Simon Sinek, Start with Why (Portfolio, 2009).

[11] John Doerr, Measure What Matters (Portfolio, 2018).

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