The Three Tenets: Not Knowing

 

In the mid-’90s, I was part of a small group that worked with Roshi Bernie in giving shape to the three tenets of the Zen Peacemaker Order: Not Knowing, Bearing Witness, Loving Action. All these years later, I am aware of my anxiety in writing about them. I know there are others in our community who may not approve of my understanding. Why risk speaking? I am eager to avoid disapproval. Others might think me wrong. I might find out that I think I’m wrong. Of course, I’m wrong. Painful to see. Wonderful to see.

If I knew it all now, there would be nothing left to do but die. What a blessing, to get up each day, to go to school each day, to live each day with the possibility of deepening my understanding. Three bows.

This is the first of three blogs on Zen Peacemakers Three Tenets.

Meeting with our Staten Island Zen meditation group, Roshi Bob Kennedy offered the suggestion, “If you want to sound like a Zen master, one should, every time one utters a truth, add the phrase, ‘Or not.’”

Roshi Bob’s advice inevitably draws a smile. It’s funny. And it captures the essence of the Zen Peacemakers first tenet, Not Knowing.

The Zen tradition distinguishes between knowledge and wisdom. Knowledge is useful. Knowledge is tools. Wisdom is realizing the limitations and uncertainty of knowledge.

“The more I learn, the less I know.”

The wisdom of Not Knowing lies at the core of the decision-making process, which has been evolving at ICS.

When I was younger, I had what appeared at the time to be a highly successful tour as a mental health administrator. I was smart, and I had ten years more experience than any other member of my team. I was not afraid to make decisions.  I was decisive. I was a son of a bitch, and I got a lot done. A lot of people loved working for me.

We were enormously successful at recruiting top talent. But I was a lot of people’s worst nightmare.

And when my management tour ended, the organization to which I had brought such transformational leadership reverted to its prior state. In some instances, virtually overnight. The change, it seemed, had all been illusory.

I had plenty of time to reflect on this, the ghosts that arose over the next ten years as I sat on my cushion. By the time the first ICS school, Lavelle Prep, opened, I had been deep in Zen practice for 20 years.

And our ICS way of decision making began to emerge. From the beginning, we have adopted an open architecture for our administrative space, my desk in the middle or off to the side of the room and meetings usually held around my desk. Everyone in the office can hear what is being discussed.

In my earlier, pre-Zen management life, I had relied on knowing, — and I did know some valuable things and we did get some stuff done, — but by now I had transformed, perhaps without realizing it, into more of a not-knower. Yes, I had a lot of experience. And yes, I often have strong opinions. But I go to work every day to learn.

What is wonderful and amazing is how many things I know in the morning that turn out, when we sit around the desk and talk about them, to be not so true.

Oh, sometimes a terrific idea which I wake up with at 6:30 AM is still terrific at 5 PM. But more often than not, it’s not. More often a really exciting idea, a really wonderful idea, emerges during discussion and argument. Sometimes we can capture the moment and voice in which the wonderful idea emerged, and we can label it: “The Mazza Plan” or “The Peterford Plan” or the “The Zilinski Plan,” referring to the team member who first voiced it. Sometimes not. Sometimes the idea emerged in a moment when several people were excitedly talking at once.

Roshi Bernie Glassman taught me Not Knowing. A sadness for me is that I never really worked with Bernie on building the Greyston Foundation, the mandala of for-profit and not-for-profit organizations which he created to bring the homeless and the formerly homeless to the societal table.

By the time I got to Bernie and the Zen Community of New York, ZCNY was no longer the sweat-equity engine which had built the Greyston Bakery. The bakery had morphed, no longer envisioned as a livelihood for Zen students. By the time I arrived, there was little connection between ZCNY and the rest of the Greyston mandala except that ZCNY provided a base for Bernie and Jishu, a spiritual home and an anchor.

Early on, Bernie asked me to serve as the ZCNY board chair. I was honored, and when Bernie and Jishu were preparing to move on, I had a stewarding role in selling the bakery which ZCNY still owned to Greyston. Not a very large role, but I did meet with the lawyers who represented us in the sale.

ZCNY was a pretty vibrant group and Bernie was a major teacher. But, ZCNY just sort of existed. Greyston, the rest of the mandala, was growing quickly and attracting most of Bernie and Jishu’s energy. I was close to them but really not involved, and never really got to see how Bernie worked from the Office of the Founder which he had created. (By that time, he had brought in Chuck Lief to serve as CEO.)

My involvement in the burgeoning Greyston enterprises was largely limited to occasional volunteering on some project, such as painting the new daycare center for Greyston residents and employees, a project which Jishu had been championing.

There was a weekly meeting of what Bernie called the Five Buddha Families. Jishu Roshi was the Spiritual Family seat holder and attended the meetings representing ZCNY. I regret that I was never invited, and never got to see how Bernie led this phenomenally successful exemplar of social entrepreneurship.

(A week before he died, I asked Bernie, over breakfast, if he remembered anything about why or how he had established the office of the founder. He said, “No.”)

I got a closer look at Bernie’s leadership later as we were trying to build the Zen Peacemaker Order. It never really happened. (Will it happen now under Eve’s leadership after Bernie’s passing? Perhaps.) I struggle to understand why not. It seems that Bernie was not able to get people to commit to really working together to build something bigger. Perhaps it was the complexity of his life, the phases of his development.

From his earliest days with Maezumi Roshi in Los Angeles and after first returning to New York, Roshi Bernie was the exemplar of the Zen Center spiritual director. Then followed the Greyston period of social entrepreneurship. Then, the overlapping time of Interfaith Zen and the House of One People. Then came the time of the Zen Circles and Council practice and finally the period of bearing witness retreats — beginning much earlier on the Streets and then at Auschwitz, Uganda, and then on the reservations of Native America.

These periods were not so distinct as listing makes them seem but overlapped considerably. People joined Bernie at different times and identified with different practices. While Auschwitz and the Street retreats were crucial for my development, I was fundamentally a child of the social entrepreneur Bernie.

Bernie, I think, wanted the ZPO to embrace his successors from all these periods —students, practitioners, who Zen lives were very different. Maybe that was why it was so difficult for us to commit to working together.

For more than a year, we gathered every other week in Bernie and Jishu’s living room in Yonkers to discuss the principles of the ZPO. But really, we were gathering to study with Bernie. He could never get (and we couldn’t either) past the teacher-student relationship. We were there to imbibe what he knew.

It would have been a crippling teaching style if Bernie had held his students close. But he turned us loose, as Maezumi Roshi had turned him loose.

Bernie had pushed the envelope where Maezumi, shaped in his Japanese Soto Zen ways, could not. Bernie gave transmission to Catholic priests, Sufi Sheiks, Jewish Rabbis. Way beyond Maezumi Roshi’s comfort zone. And yet, Bernie always knew that he had Maezumi’s full confidence.

And Bernie always respected his teacher. When I asked Bernie before my Tokudo (the head-shaving ceremony of first Zen ordination), “I know I have to shave my head, but do I have to shave my beard?” He answered without hesitancy, “As long as Maezumi is alive.” Bernie disrobed, becoming a lay teacher after Maezumi’s passing (and Jishu’s), which is not something he would have done while Maezumi was alive.

And he broke the form of the teaching, the lay training center which Maezumi had helped to establish in America, to develop new forms of practice. And he continued to evolve, never hesitant to start afresh. Few of his students could keep up with his ever-evolving practice. For Bernie, there was no clinging to yesterday’s ideas or yesterday’s practice. He was always exemplifying the “or not.”

When Bernie made me a teacher he told me, “I will always support you in your practice.” It was a totally moving expression of trust in my evolution. No clinging to yesterday’s forms. Totally Not Knowing. As we began to build our network of schools and my way of practicing Zen evolved, I never doubted that I would have Bernie’s support. I was not alone. In sharp contrast to teachers who know which way their students’ practice should unfold, Bernie supported us all, his Dharma successors, even as our practice has taken different paths.

Although it sometimes seemed hard, he had supported us most by leaving us the space, sometimes lonely, to find our distinctive ways. Always, though, Not Knowing.