The Five Buddha Families – Spirituality

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 first of a five part series, I explore each one’s relevance to both my practice, and to Integration Charter Schools. 

Bernie used the schema of the Five Buddha Families as a Mandala to design and envision The Greyston Foundation, the network of businesses and social service programs which hedeveloped around the Zen Community of New York (ZCNY) As president of ZCNYboard of directors (I was enormously flattered when Bernie asked me to take on that role), it always seemed that the Mandala was mostly in Bernie’s mind. In his vision,  ZCNY was the spiritual center, the seat of the Buddha Family. of.

In the early days, before I arrived on the scene, Zen students provided the sweat equity to kick start the Greyton Bakery, the first business; and it was the revenue from the bakery which provided the economic engine for the development of social services as well as other businesses. But by the time I arrived, no Zen students and really only Bernie and Jishu were involved with the other components of the Mandala. No one from the bakery or the array of social service programs participated in our Zen meditation or study programs.

Following Bernie’s example and encouraged by Jishu, I had taken the step of starting the Zen Community of Staten Island (ZCSI), shortly after my first ordination, Tokudo.[2] My wife Diane and I created a Zendo on the third floor of our old Victorian, Staten Island house and sat with a small group of people who discovered us through word of mouth. We continued to sit after our daughter Jamie was born.

For a couple of years, she crawled around the Zendo during meditation and sat on my lap while I gave my Dharma talks. We discontinued the group when Jamie began needing toddler level attention.

About two years later, the group was resurrected when Roshi Robert Kennedy, a Jesuit priest and Zen teacher, invited me to help start a Zen group at Mt. Manresa, the Jesuit Retreat House on Staten Island. That group has been sitting weekly on Tuesday evenings ever since, and is now entering its sixteenth year. It has provided the anchor of my spiritual practice, a weekly commitment to giving talks and providing individual guidance to Zen students. It is my Buddha family, but it has been largely a mandala in my mind.

As we have built the schools within ICS, there has been little relationship between ZCSI and our schools. Three members of the sitting group have over the years, served as trustees of the schools, and several others have helped to raise money. Many people in the schools are aware of my Zen practice, an awareness which has grown over the years since I have been wearing my fund-raising mala, which has been helping me raise funds for the school capital campaign. Many have asked about Zen. Some are intrigued, and some are uninterested. It is certainly not something that I have tried to hide.

Over the years, the Tuesday sitting group moved from Mt. Manresa (when the Jesuits sold the retreat house) to Wagner College where I have served in the (largely symbolic) position of Buddhist Chaplain,  and now this Fall will be housed within our school campus at Corporate Commons, as we open our Staff Yoga and Meditation studio.

In one sense, the rest of my mandala has evolved from the core of my Zen practice. With Bernie’s encouragement, I grabbed an early retirement option in 2000 and began to see how my Zen Peacemaker path would manifest. In 2002, inspired by Bernie’s challenge to bring to the societal table those who have been excluded, we (a few colleagues, past as well as then current employees of South Beach Psychiatric Center) created The Verrazano Foundation to level the playing field for those living with mental illnesses, to combat stigma and discrimination.

In 2005, Zen brother and Verrazano board member, Francisco “Paco” Lugovina, suggested we

explore the possibility of creating a charter school as a way to advance the Verrazano mission.  We began to work toward the creation of a college preparatory school which would fully integrate students living with emotional challenges. Even before receiving our first charter, we knew that we had found a program direction which aligned with the universe: Community support rapidly eclipsed any which The Verrazano Foundation had previously garnered with its wonderful Arts programs and career counseling initiatives.

In 2009, we opened our first school, Lavelle Preparatory Charter School. Dr. Ed Knight, a Verrazano Foundation board member, a leader in the mental health recovery movement, and a Zen student at the time, helped to design our Wellness Curriculum. Our network of schools continues to grow. Our second school opened in 2015, a third in 2018, a fourth is scheduled to open in 2020, and a fifth is in the planning stage.

Why open more schools?

My answer always brings me to the Four Great Bodhisattva Vows which are at the heart of my Zen practice.  In Bernie’s translation, the first of the four vows, the vows which anchor my spiritual practice: “Creations are numberless, I vow to free them.”

Why open more schools?

Because there are more kids and families who can benefit from our unique commitment to fully integrating special needs kids while providing a pathway to college for a wide range of students who probably would not get there otherwise. In some cases, it is because they are living with emotional and other challenges. In others, the traumas which challenge them do not fit into the standard classifications of the education system. Often, the challenges of poverty and race compound the idiosyncratic demands of their lives.

We have built a wonderful team around a core of educators. Some very experienced, most young and eager to learn. Of course the process of growth has been extremely challenging and at times frustrating. We have had set backs and disappointments.

The center in my life provided by my Zen practice has been my source of balance. As we have grown from a one-grade school with 75 students to a network of schools serving more than 1000 students, about a third of whom are classified as special needs students, this spiritual practice has been my center. And because of my leadership role as the founder of ICS, it is, in a sense, at the center of our “mandala” of schools and programs. But really only in my mind.

Today, when rising leaders ask me how I learned to do what I do, I am reminded of a conversation which I had with Roshi Bernie 25 years ago. At that time, I was a beginning Zen student, amazed by how the practice of Zen was beginning to transform my life. I was working as a mental health administrator and had a small, private psychotherapy practice.

“How do I integrate Zen into psychotherapy?” I asked.

Bernie was silent for several minutes. Then he suggested a couple of books, one by Jon Kabat Zinn.[3] He paused. “Just do your Zen practice. The practice will do the rest.”

I never set out to use Zen principles in building our network of schools. But my Zen practice infuses everything I do. I have become a Zen person.

“How did you learn to do what you do?” I am asked, often by others who will someday be expected to assume the mantle of leadership.

“Zen” is my answer. My answer. I have come to believe that successful, effective leadership does require a spiritual core. For me, it is Zen. But there are many beautiful paths.

[1] Sanskrit for “circle”, a mandala is a symbolic representation used in Buddhism as a tool for contemplation.

[2] In our Soto Zen lineage, the path to full ordination occurs in three steps over many years.

[3] Full Catastrophe Living (Revised Edition): Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness (Bantam Books, 2013).