The Crane in the Tree
A monk asked Gokoko, “When a crane stands upon a withered pine, what then?”
Gokoko said, “On the ground below, it’s a shame.”
Master Tozan previously said, “The spirit tree is sublime, but the crane doesn’t stay there.”
This is an example of a koan that I do not plunge into easily.
Actually, it’s only the first lines of “Gokoko’s Three Shames,” Case 28, in the Book of Equanimity. It has probably been years since I did this koan with Roshi Kennedy. I have no recollection of it, no idea how I passed. Looking at it now, it doesn’t seem to lend itself to my preferred way of entering koans. Years ago, fellow student, actress Ellen Bursteyn showed me a way into koan which she derived from her work at the Actor’s Studio. Her method was to approach the koan as if she were taking a role in a brief dharma drama, to plunge into the world of the drama, into the being of one character until that experience manifests.
Although it’s been in print for a while, I only recently discovered Roshi Shishin’s translation of The Book of EquanimityRoshi Shishin’s commentary helped. Especially Tozan’s comment which he cites.
Now I can plunge in. The memory comes up of a session with Erika Mohr, the Adlerian analyst with whom I worked for seven years. Now I would call her a teacher with whom I studied. In those days, she was my analyst.
Therapy was a wonderful experience for me and it was often a painful experience.
I think, particularly in the earliest years, that I was often looking for a landing place, a place where I was feeling enough relief that I could just settle down and enjoy and relax, without stress. With Erika’s help, I had gotten over the final hump and managed to graduate from social work school. I was avoiding Viet Nam by beginning a doctoral program in sociology at NYU to which I had no real commitment. I was working as the Teen Supervisor at Mt. Vernon YM-YWHA.
Up to that point in my life, my most exhilarating work experiences had been at Wel-Met, the social work camps where I had worked summers during college. There I had met the three mentors who inspired me to go to social work school.
I met Jack R. Goldberg last. Somehow that first summer, accidentally, I ended up in Wel-Met’s Social Work Recruitment Seminar. I wanted the bonus money we got for participation, so I lied and said I was interested in a career in social work. Jack, who was the Wel-Met Executive Director and oversaw all three Wel-Met camps, taught the seminar. He was a tough guy and he was a compassionate do-gooder. I was hooked. This was someone I could aspire to be.
Jack left Wel-Met, I think after the first summer, to head up the anti-juvenile delinquency initiative in Washington, D.C. He reported directly to Attorney General Bobby Kennedy. But he would come up to camp during the summer and somehow I got to hear his stories. He was probably the most no-nonsense, no bullshit mentor I have ever had. I think it was at the end of the summer before my senior year, Jack was back in his office at Wel-Met for the final weeks of camp, and I got an appointment to talk to him. I wanted to know if he thought I should go to social work school after graduation. I was looking for encouragement.
Jack responded, “You know you asked me exactly the same question this time last year?”
I had no recollection. That was all the encouragement I got, but I went to social work school at Columbia. Jack was my professor for the Social Work Administration class. I am still quoting him to the leaders at our schools.
Jack went on to become NYC Commissioner of Welfare. In support of the Welfare Rights, twenty-one social workers blocked the entrance of to the Welfare Department headquarters in act of civil disobedience. I was one of the twenty-one. Jack sent Lou, who was then serving as his Special Assistant, downstairs to coordinate the police response. I remember Lou pointing to me and then I was arrested.
Jack went on to become the Dean of the NYU School of Social Work. I met with him several times for his advice in his office in one of the gorgeous NYU townhouses on Washington Square North.
The last summer I worked at Wel-Met, while teaching at Finch, Jack came up for his annual end of the summer visit. I was invited to play poker on the last night of camp. I had been hearing about this poker game since I was 18 years. I was almost 30 and still awed at the invitation. Poker was always very anxiety-provoking for me, but when I noticed that I was winning, that was too much. I managed to lose. That was easier. The next day, at a rest stop, on the way back to New York City, Jack died, a heart attack.
It was many years earlier, sitting across from Erika (that’s the way it’s done in Adlerian analysis, lying on the couch is for patients who don’t have the courage to look the analyst in the eye, she had told me, but maybe it’s also a way for analysts to avoid looking patients in the eye), desperately seeking a place of serenity, that I had asked, “What would be wrong with just being an Assistant Camp Director at Wel-Met for the rest of my life?”
“There is no standing still in life,” Erika answered. “Either you go forward or you go backward.”
Master Tozan previously said, “The spirit tree is sublime, but the crane doesn’t stay there.”
The challenge of the crane strikes us as an organization and me personally. Again and again, the question is asked, “Why do we need to keep adding schools?” “Why can’t we just tend to the schools that we have?”
Why is growth important?
Our schools are living organisms composed of living organisms, us, the people, the staff and students. There are other ingredients but we are the most important. Without teachers and students, there are no schools. The students grow-up, grow-forward, moving from grade to grade until they graduate and then move on in a fundamental sense, whatever connection with their alma mater they maintain.
But for our schools to be vital, faculty and staff at all levels need to grow, to face new challenges and new learning opportunities. For many, perhaps for all, at some point in their growth, to move forward, they need the opportunity to lead and they must have that opportunity before their passion and drive atrophies for lack of exercise.
Growth provides these opportunities so that the most gifted and talented do not wither waiting for their supervisors and managers to die or retire. As long as there are students and families falling through the cracks of large urban school districts, more schools is a promising way to keep the education organism alive and growing.
Are there limits to growth? When, for instance, might we need amoeba-like bifurcate a school organization which has become too large to respond to the needs of atypical students? We will find out if we stay awake, if we keep flying.
A year ago, I was beginning to feel a dip in work energy. What was it? Was work becoming routine, humdrum? Writing this now, I realize that I had been the President of Integration Charter Schools and its predecessor first schools for over 10 years, far and away the longest time that I had ever worked in one position in my career. I knew that for ICS the time wasn’t right for me to move on. We have accomplished too much for me to jeopardize by running off impulsively. But I also knew that I couldn’t just settle down and sit on my branch. Move forward or move backward.
Roshi Eve Marko provided an opening, inviting me to join a steering committee, looking to resurrect the Zen Peacemakers Order (ZPO). While the steering committee did not engage me, out of that meeting, Paco, Chris and I began meeting weekly, initially about preserving and transmitting Bernie’s social entrepreneurship energy and teaching.
Immediately an energy pathway for my life began to open. While maintaining our schools’ momentum, I could begin to direct energy to the maintenance and transmission of Bernie’s entrepreneurial legacy. Almost immediately, a project emerged. Chris and Paco and I began gathering Bernie stories from his successors for the collection which became I took on a lot of the initial work of gathering and editing and formatting the collection, and that task carried me through the summer. (Chris, thankfully, has been stewarding the manuscript through the final stages of editing and publication).
Meanwhile, COVID-19 and the murder of George Floyd changed my world. Covid has challenged all schools, teaching us things about leadership which we had never expected to learn. The murder and its aftermath opened the possibility of looking at ourselves and our schools to which we (at least I) had been largely oblivious.
Wonderful learning, achieving, at least for me, levels of candor which beyond our previous transparency and doing on Zoom things which I previously thought could only be achieved in person but which had not often been achieved.
Even our little Zen group has flourished in unanticipated ways with greater participation by members of the school community. With more successful and more engaging Beginners’ Instruction, the addition of a daily open Zendo which had previously been logistically impossible for me, with enriched sitting and dharma talks, including participation of Zen teachers from around the country, all via Zoom.
New projects have emerged, as Paco and Chris and I have continued to meet. The challenge to open our first school off Staten Island, a challenge revived several times in the last two years, now is approaching fruition as we move forward with an application for the Bernie Glassman New Ventures Charter School.
 From Gerry Shishin Wick, The Book of Equanimity: Illuminating Classic Zen Koans. Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications, 2005. Pp. 87-88.