A Bernie Koan

In the Zen tradition, Koans are used as teaching cases, often commented on by many generations of teachers who use these cases in teaching students. The study of koans is an important component of Zen training, in some traditions, the most important.

The Case

Bernie told the story of the Maezumi Institute. Maezumi Roshi wanted to see a Buddhist education institution, inspired by the great Buddhist universities of Japan, established in the United States. Bernie took on the project while he was living and studying at ZCLA. He had even found a benefactor willing to donate the land on which the Institute would be built, but eventually, the project was dropped.

Bernie said that sometimes the timing is not right for even the most wonderful, inspiring idea. The forces of the Universe were not aligned. 

Commentary

Roshi Bernie Glassman was my teacher. 

He was the first Dharma Successor of Taizen Maesumi Roshi. Maezumi Roshi was one of four Japanese Zen teachers most credited with bringing Zen to America. Maezumi established the Zen Center of Los Angeles (ZCLA) where Bernie trained.

I come back to this story again and again. Not all great ideas are ripe. It is wonderful to learn to let go and to move on. It is wonderful to learn to pull the plug on a project whose time has not arrived. Sometimes, this is accepting “failure” and disappointment. At other times, the project is threatening to take too big a toll organizationally or personally. 

How wonderful it is to recognize when we are overreaching, to recognize when we have become intoxicated by an idea, to recognize when our enthusiasm is blinding us to the suffering we are creating. 

How wonderful it is to take a breath. 

A few years ago, we got excited about applying for a US Department of Education Research Grant. It would have been such a prestigious plum for our still-new family of charter schools as well as a huge (for us) cash infusion. Federal research grants are highly competitive. Big universities and other preeminent institutions have a significant competitive advantage. Researchers with proven track records on federal grants have larger competitive advantages. We had none of these advantages. It was a long shot but initially looked worthwhile. Yet as we dug into the application process, it became clear how much work this application would take, drawing effort from other important tasks being faced by our team. 

As we acknowledged the unlikelihood of success, we decided we could not afford the effort. Later, Shelly Blackman, a board member and an experienced grant manager himself who had been active in beginning the work on our proposal remarked, “Being able to pull the plug on projects is rare.”

Three bows to Bernie.

Bernie in his humanness showed us the other side too. Years later, on the farm in Montague which the ZPO had purchased, already years after Maezumi’s passing, Bernie resurrected the idea of the Maezumi Institute in a wonderful opening ceremony, on Mother’s Day — the perfect day to honor Maezumi Roshi — with Maezumi Roshi’s brothers officiating.

Despite Bernie’s wonderful intention and despite the wonderfulness of his gratitude to his teacher, the Universe was still not aligned. The ZPO did not have the cash flow to sustain the Montague Farm or the program for the Institute. 

Too far from Boston and New York, the farm lacked the accommodations to support the visitor population that would be economically necessary to sustain the Institute. There weren’t sufficient offerings to attract the students.

The business failed. 

In the foreclosure on the farm, the ZPO lost its substantial investment, much of it loans from long-time students which they often could not afford to forgive. The effort to repay these loans haunted Bernie and the ZPO for years.

The pain that he carried through those years was always evident when we were together. The image remains with me as a constant caution. Our family of schools has grown tremendously from 75 students in our first year to now over a thousand. We are authorized to almost double in size again over the next eight years. There are so many students who need our schools. 

And yet, each new school is a risk. 

Always, the image of Bernie counsels caution at the same time he encourages risk. 

How do you step from the 100-foot pole?

The Verse

In the great high of creativity,

Flowers bursting,

Green and more green,

Everything within grasp,

Impossible that the world does not share my excitement,

I can make this happen.

Can I remember Winter is coming?

Curb your enthusiasm, Ken.

Take a breath.