Leadership Principles and Style Part I: Leadership Style

One day Kuei-shan said to Hsiang-yen: “I am told that you have been under my late master, Pai-chang… Let me have your view as to your own being before your parents were born.”

Hsiang-yen couldn’t respond. He retired to his room and looked through all his notes of Pai-chang’s teishos, but he could not find anything suitable. Returning to Kuei-shan he said, “I have failed to find a response to your question. Please teach me the essential point.”

Kuei-shan said, “I really have nothing to teach you… Whatever understanding I have is my own and will never be yours.” Hsiang-yen thereupon burned his notes and determined that he would be just a “rice gruel monk”. With Kuei-shan’s approval, Hsiang-yen built himself a hut near the tomb of Nan-yang and spent his days cleaning the grounds absorbed in his koan.

One day while sweeping up fallen leaves, his bamboo broom caught a stone and it sailed through the air and hit a stalk of bamboo with a little sound. Thwock! With that Thwock! He was awakened. Bowing in the direction of Kuei-shan’s temple, Hsiang-yen cried out loud, “Your kindness is greater than that of my parents. If you had explained it to me, I would never have known this joy.” (1)

This story appears in the commentary on Case 5 of the Mumonkan (The Gateless Gate), the first collection of koans that I studied. I have been wrestling with this story as a koan for 25 years. 

There was a period of several years when Hsiang-yen was my inspiration, my role model. Roshi Bernie had unexpectedly made me a Dharma Holder six months after Jishu’s passing and then sent me to Roshi Bob Kennedy to do koan study. I stayed closely connected to Bernie during his Santa Barbara years, traveling to California a couple of times a year. Great trips. Managing to visit my Aunt Ruth, my father’s youngest sister as well during the last years of her life.

Strangely, my relationship with Bernie was more during his first years back east, in Montague. He was infatuated with Council and what he called Circles. I had spent so many years in groups, — psychotherapy, Encounter, Consciousness Raising, — in which all masks were stripped away. Bernie’s Circles seemed artificial, pretentious, full of posturing. Authentic Council as traditionally practiced by Native Peoples, I sense from the accounts that I have read, is the real thing. But this was shallow and self-congratulatory. And then Bernie began talking of giving transmission to groups rather than individuals. 

Meanwhile, Bob was giving transmission to students who had become Dharma Holders years after me, leaving me to work with my jealousy.

Would I ever get it?

Would I ever get it?

Hsiang-yen was my hero then. I didn’t burn my books. I didn’t move up into the mountains. I would just be the best Dharma Holder I could be. Just keep sweeping the yard. Not waiting for the thwock.

Now my hero is Kuei-shan. Kuei-shan is the teacher that I always fail to be. Mumon, the author of the Mumonkan would describe me as “too grandmotherly”, meaning among other things that I talk too much. And yet I adore, idolize Kuei-shan. 

I think of this as a matter of style. I am often told that I speak too much. Undoubtedly true but maybe not the worst thing about my style. I speak in statements rather than questions. That’s an even bigger problem. Some people feel shut down. They don’t realize that I expect, want them to argue with me. Genetically or culturally, I somehow inherited this style which I think of as a Talmudic style of discourse. I never studied Talmud, was never Bar Mitzvahed, but somehow it was transmitted. Reading about the great Indian, Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna, I learned that he too grew up in a “Talmudic” practice environment. 

We get to the truth through argument. We advance a statement to be tested through debate. We defend it, of course, because if it fails to stand-up despite the most vigorous defense, we learn something.

It would be easier for a lot of people if my style were different because not everyone grows up comfortable with this way of dialogue. It would be better if I asked more questions. I also worry that there is something that might be lost if the intensity of the argument is taken out of the dialogue. 

Would people working with me learn more, grow more rapidly, if I shut up more? I remember Jishu complaining to me about Bernie when they were working together at Greyston. Bernie would give Jishu an assignment and then a few days later he would take it back from her to do himself. I could see how frustrating that was for her. Sometimes I do the same thing. I am now more often able to avoid this trap because as our schools have grown, as the challenges have multiplied in complexity, I simply don’t have the time to take many things back. But there are mission-critical things; and when I get impatient, I will grab tasks back in order to get them done the way I want them without delay. I need them now, so I do them. 

In these moments, I know that I am robbing people of learning opportunities as Bernie was robbing Jishu. They don’t always share their frustration with me.

I am working on my koan. Can I embody Kuei-shan? Don’t give students the answers. Let the students do the work themselves. 

My advice to teachers in our schools has always been to ask questions that you don’t know the answers to.

Should I hold back my answers so our rising leaders can learn?

Well, first of all, I don’t have answers, only opinions. As Bernie loved to say, “Just my opinion, man.”

Mostly, I don’t have even opinions. What I have are stories of my experiences and stories which were told to me. What we are facing reminds us of a story.

I feel like I talk too much. And I recognize that this storytelling is my way of teaching.

As much as possible, I am sharing my questions. I am trying to discover answers by talking to you.

This is my style. I am not encouraging others to adopt my style. Find your own style.

(1) Adapted from the commentary on Case 5, The Gateless Barrier (translated with a commentary by Robert Aitken). San Francisco: Northpoint Press, 1990: 39.