Thanksgiving

Glory be to God for dappled things —

For skies of couple-colors as a brinded cow,

For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;

Fresh-fire coal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;

Landscape plotted and pieced – fold, fallow, and plow;

And all trades, their gear and tackle, and trim.

 

All things counter, original, spare, strange;

Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)

With swift, slow; sweet, sour; a dazzle, dim;

He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:

Praise Him.

 

I have always loved this poem, “Pied Beauty,” written by Gerard Manley Hopkins in 1877.

Gratitude for the beauty and the variety of life. I am awed by the beauty of Hopkins’ expression.

But I have rarely been moved by Thanksgiving (although growing up I always looked forward to the gathering with my cousins who we didn’t see all that often). Thanksgiving was a traditional celebration of reciprocity that sustains social life. You do me a solid. I say, “Thank you.”

I value reciprocity. I value the grease that keeps sociality moving. But, for me, Thanksgiving, like saying “Thank you” often lacked the spirit of gratitude.

“Please pass the stuffing.”

“Thank you.”

Polite yes, but without Hopkins’ spirit.

***

When did I begin to feel a hollowness in Thanksgiving? I remember vaguely the colorful elementary school illustrations of the Pilgrims serving dinner to their Indian friends, thankful for the help which these natives of America had given them during their first hard winter. 

When did the gratitude begin to look shallow? We, mostly white Americans, have stolen all the land and all but destroyed the native cultures, obliterating the population. I write this on Staten Island. The Lenape, the original Staten Islanders, are as far as I know extinct.

Growing up, my family never watched the Thanksgiving Day Parade. We did gather with our cousins, who we didn’t see all that often, for dinner. I loved that.

Only recently, I learned that the Thanksgiving Holiday was largely the creation of Macy’s, an event to kick off the Christmas shopping season. How hollow. How little gratitude left in giving thanks. How pervasive the commercialization has become. Of course, not just of Thanksgiving. We recently received a thank you card from newlyweds. Printed. Nothing personal, not even hand-signed. Perfunctory. An obligatory gesture.

***

 

There is a wonderful story about Issan Dorsey. Richard Baker, the Dharma successor of Shunryu Suzuki, perhaps the most beloved teacher to bring Zen from Japan to America, was an early giant of American Zen, was Suzuki’s successor as Abbot of the San Francisco Zen Center. Issan Dorsey was a senior student of Baker Roshi when allegations of sexual impropriety (now generally accepted) toppled Baker Roshi from his place of prominence in American Zen. 

Issan was asked to comment on the situation.

Issan answered simply, “Baker Roshi is my teacher.”

I have always loved that expression. Simple. An expression of gratitude. Nothing extra.

Many were horrified. Issan, they thought, should have joined the chorus of condemnation. Was this insensitivity? Or a tacit acceptance of misconduct?

I saw something much more complicated. Not a political statement at all but something simply arising and expressed in the direct way of Zen masters: “Baker Roshi is my teacher.”

In my practice of zazen, I was stunned to discover gratitude. It just happened. Just an experience. Not something that I was looking for.

And I found that the experience demanded direct expression, the desire to give something back in gratitude for the gift of the teaching which I had received, something not even remotely captured in “Thank you.”

Gratitude to my teachers Kyudo Nakagawa Roshi who taught me to sit, to Roshi Bernie Glassman and Roshi Jishu Holmes who guided me toward deeper practice, to Roshi Bob Kennedy who was always so patient with my stumbling efforts at Koan practice. “Thank you” doesn’t do it at all.

What can I do to express my gratitude?

***

I am drawn to return to southwest Yonkers. Perhaps my sentimentality. It is where I met Bernie and Jishu (as well as Bob) and where I studied with them for many years. It is where Bernie founded the Greyston mandala of for-profit and not-for-profit enterprises, dedicated to transforming the lives and prospects of Yonkers’ most neglected citizens, in particular those who were homeless. At Greyston, I first met my Dharma brother, Francisco “Paco” Lugovina.

Bernie’s model of practice inspired us as we created our network of charter schools on Staten Island. Our first school opened in 2009 with Paco as Chairman of the Board of Trustees and me as President. All of our schools follow Bernie’s lead in bringing to the societal table those who have been excluded. We have focused on fully integrating students living with emotional challenges and other disabilities. Even on Staten Island, often regarded as one of New York City’s more affluent boroughs, 85% of our students are living in poverty, 85% are Latino or Black.

Our fully integrated schools are a success, although many said they would not work. Our transfer high school, New Ventures Charter School, is the highest performing transfer school in New York State. Transfer schools serve students who are two or more years behind their age peers academically and are at risk of dropping out of high school or have already dropped out.

Last year, when our team was challenged to bring this highly successful school design to a community outside of New York City, I thought first of Yonkers. This was gratitude. To bring a Bernie Glassman New Ventures Charter School to southwest Yonkers where Bernie devoted so much of his life would be a wonderful opportunity.

As we began meeting with community leaders, we came to understand some of the challenges which the new school would face. We became aware of how significant the challenge of homelessness remains in Yonkers. The opportunity to create a school fully committed to integrating students living in temporary housing and their families is wonderful. The prospect of The Greyston Foundation joining us in this project would be yet another wonder.

***

Thanksgiving. Gratitude. We have been working remotely for eight months, hunkered down. I am going out to walk, I am going to visit Dee’s mother, watch TV with her, make her lunch. Jamie is living with her too, but we are just seeing each other, Dee and I and Jamie and Nanny, our little family. We are all healthy so far. We are still working. We are among the fortunate. I’m getting used to it. Practicing Zen remotely in our little virtual Zendo. I have always said that zazen 30 minutes a day is enough for householders, but since going into relative isolation I have been sitting 60 minutes a day. Reading books I had never expected to find the time to read. Finding the time to connect with friends, in particular, some Dharma brothers who I had rarely had time to see. Three of us, Chris Panos, Paco Lugovina, and I have been at least weekly. We who began meeting with the intention of holding Bernie’s entrepreneurial teaching have been putting together a book, The Bernie Koans, to which almost all of Bernie’s successors have contributed stories. We expect it to be published in January, hopefully in time for Bernie’s birthday. We are working on a new school to be named in Bernie’s honor.

And through all this, Dee and I are having more time together. Walking, watching British television, cooking. Grateful for our life. Together. Grateful. We are among the very fortunate.

 

  1. David Schneider. Street Zen: The Life and Work of Issan Dorsey.