The Five Buddha Families – Social Action

I was first introduced to the Five Buddha Families by my teacher Roshi Bernie Glassman: Buddha (Spirituality), Vajra (Study), Ratna (Livelihood), Padma (Community), and Karma (Social Action). Together, they constitute the Mandala [1] of our lives.

The five Buddha are a way of thinking about our lives, and we can use them to assess our individual balance. Bernie also used them as a tool for organizational design. I was and am inspired.

In this fifth and final installment of the series Five Buddha Families, I explore Karma (Social Action) and its relevance to both my practice and to Integration Charter Schools. 

For Bernie, the Buddha Family was first. For me, social action was the family of origin.

Peace and freedom were my parents’ core values. I have early childhood memories of anti-Nuke and civil rights demonstrations. I remember an intimate family dinner with W.E.B. DuBois and his wife. I picketed Woolworth’s at the very beginning of the movement to end segregation in America. While still in high school, I spent a summer with the American Friends Service Committee building a conference center in North Carolina where integrated groups would be able to meet together. I fasted outside the White House for three days as college students from campuses around the country took turns maintaining a vigil of protest against nuclear weapons testing. I was always ready to stand up for my friends against bullying teachers.  I went to graduate school in social work in order to be able to earn a living fighting injustice.

After graduation, I was thrilled to get a job at one of New York City’s first community mental health centers. I became the center’s first community organizer. I was working 60 hours a week. We were convinced that we could use the community mental health movement to end poverty in America. Poverty was, after all, about the worst thing in the world for anyone’s mental health. We were going to end the degradation of the welfare system.

The first time I was arrested, it was as part of a Welfare Rights demonstration outside the NYC Department of Welfare central office. The Welfare executive who directed my arrest was my first social worker role model, the director of the camp where I first learned about social work as a career when I was 18 years old.

As the Women’s Movement rose out of the civil rights and anti-war movements, I spent hundreds of hours in Consciousness Raising groups. Along the way, I got my doctorate in sociology and built a pretty good career as a manager in the state mental health system. I was convinced that I could bring the highest quality mental health services to the most disadvantaged people in America.

It took me a long time to realize what I was up against. I finally realized that I was Sisyphus, pushing the rock of reform up the hill each day, only to return to work the next day to find that the stone had rolled back to the bottom of the hill. There wasn’t much peace in my life. Looking back, it seems fair to say that I was a very angry person.

Not entirely a bad thing, though.  My anger against injustice did fuel my work for change. But it often left me feeling miserable. In the midst of a mid-life crisis, I rediscovered Zen.

I had found Zen first as a 16-year old. I had stumbled on a wonderful introduction to Zen and its history by D.T. Suzuki while looking in the local book store for something about haikus for a creative writing class. I carried the book around all summer in North Carolina, tried to grow a wispy beard, got my friends to shave my head, used what I imagined to be a Zen master’s walking stick — the image of Suzuki’s ancient Chinese monk in mind. I was intrigued.

For thirty years I bought my annual Zen book, read a little, didn’t understand much, tried meditation for a few days on vacation, then lapsed as soon as I returned to the world. I had the best intentions. No follow through.

But then in the throes of my mid-life crisis, I found the Soho Zendo and Kyudo Nakagawa Roshi. I invented my own mantra: “Without inner peace, nothing else matters. With inner peace, nothing else matters.” I learned to sit every day, joining the group for weekly meditation. I sat at the Soho Zendo for two years before I met Bernie Glassman.

Until I met Bernie, social action, active engagement in changing the world, and spiritual practice finding peace in my life, were unrelated, seemingly opposing actions. Serving others versus serving oneself. Acting versus doing nothing. Bernie was the first person in my life to say “No” to that dichotomous thinking, to the illusion that meditation and social action were in opposition, to suggest to me that they could be two aspects of a fully realized life.

In Bernie’s vision, the purpose of Zen practice is “the realization and actualization of the oneness of life.” In realizing the oneness of life, I realize that am not separate from all the suffering of the Universe. Not altruism. The oneness of the body. Bernie framed the challenge for Zen Peacemakers, those who have embraced his vision of a fully engaged life, “To bring to the societal table those who have been excluded.”

Although I had worked for most of my professional career with people living with mental illnesses, the separation between us was enormous. They were the less fortunate. The work of collaboration through The Verrazano Foundation with the Mental Recovery Movement changed my relationship to people living with mental illnesses.

We could be colleagues, we could be friends, and we could be glad to see each other when we met on the street rather than embarrassed. We created our first charter school out of this experience.

We debated the language of our mission statement on Facebook with leaders of the mental health recovery movement from around the country, eventually abandoning the “mental illnesses” language in favor of “students living with emotional challenges.”

Committed to creating a non-stigmatizing, integrated learning environment, we worked with Dr. Ed Knight, a leader in the Recovery Movement, to rewrite the Recovery Curriculum developed by adult psychiatric survivors. Units on “symptom management”, for instance, were replaced with the idea that “everyone has stuff” which they need to deal with. Language can divide people or bring them.

We set out to act locally with the aspiration of changing the world. We built a school, and then more schools, which would integrate Staten Island students with special needs while leveling the field within our college prep programs. And, we would be a beacon for change nationally.

We have now opened three Staten Island schools, a fourth will open in 2020 and a fifth is in the planning stage.

But we have not yet become the national beacon for change. There are falling trees in the woods, but no one is hearing them. One of our most important challenges for our second ten years may just be to make more noise.