Turn the Other Cheek

Jesus said to turn the other cheek. “If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.” (Matthew 5:40)

                There is a wonderful Zen story about the great Rinzai master, Hakuin who lived in Japan from the 1680s until the 1760s (the exact dates are unknown). It is told that a young woman from the village near Hakuin’s hut became pregnant. Abandoned by the child’s father and frightened, she told everyone that Hakuin was the father. When the baby was born, the grandparents brought the child to Hakuin.

                “You take her,” said the grandfather. “She’s yours.”

                “Is that so?” answered Hakuin and took the child. Hakuin lovingly cared for the child.

                Sometime later, the child’s mother was filled with remorse, perhaps because the real father had returned. Reunited, the young couple perhaps now wanted the child. She then told the truth to her parents.

                Back to Hakuin’s hut, they went to reclaim the child.

                “Is that so?” said Hakuin and lovingly returned the child.

                I grew up with a different story.

                “When someone hits you, you hit them back hard. You may get beaten up, but if you hit hard, bullies will remember and maybe leave you alone,” my father told me.

                Maybe he didn’t actually say that, but that is how I always remembered it. My father faced anti-Semitism daily growing up in Halifax, Nova Scotia. The anti-Semitism may not have been as virulent as the Pogroms of Eastern Europe from which my ancestors fled, not as horrific as the Holocaust, but still life-shaping. My father grew up with intense hatred and opposition to oppression.

                Fight back.

                Stand up.

                Show up.

                My father supported Martin Luther King Jr., raised money to support the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. As a family, we marched with King. We marched on Washington for years.

                My father also supported the Black Panthers, helped to raise money to support the Panthers in their resistance to the FBI attacks. He supported passive resistance and civil disobedience, but he also understood armed resistance.

                Fight back.

                He was a complicated person.

                In my life, I have always avoided physical violence. I was frightened of physical pain. My avoidance of violence was more of cowardice than an ethical principle. Nevertheless, I face a recurrent dilemma in my life. Faced with oppressive acts, abuse of power, how do I respond?

                Turn the other cheek?

                Hit back?

                My teacher, Bernie Glassman, has been pointing me toward a third way.

                In our Zen tradition, we study six Paramitas as a basis of our training for seeking enlightenment: Dana Paramita (giving), Sila Paramita (morality, discipline),  Ksanti Paramita (patience), Virya Paramita (effort), Dhyana Paramita (one-pointed concentration), and Prajna Paramita (wisdom).

                There are four additional Paramitas which were not included in the study program which Bernie developed for Zen students, but the seventh Paramita, Upaya Paramita (skillful means) was the Paramita that Bernie talked about all the time. In many ways, Bernie’s life was about finding the right “medicine” for each “patient,” the teaching which would help each of us, — and every student is different, every student is unique, — realize and actualize the Oneness of Life. Bernie was a wonderful, creative teacher, finding wonder teaching Upayas to help his students open.

                Today I am facing a challenge. I am facing a moment of oppressive, one-sided exercise of power.

                When I was younger I hit back, as an adult verbally. I was impressed when my friend Linda Breslin, one of the best supervisors I ever had, told me, quoting John F. Kennedy, “I don’t get mad. I get even.” That was a teaching. I showed up. I stood up. I spoke up. And I was getting beaten up a lot, verbally sometimes, most often organizationally, for my resistance. My career suffered until I learned an alternative.

                A master family therapist, psychiatric Edgar (Dick) Auerswald, — I met him only once, on a job interview, — taught me a great lesson.

                Dick had asked me what my greatest weakness was, and I told him, “When I see bullshit, I say, ‘bullshit.’”

                “Try saying, ‘fascinating’ instead,” Dick suggested.

                I thought to myself, “This is bullshit. If I say ‘fascinating,’ everyone will know I mean ‘bullshit.’”

                But I tried it.

In a meeting, enraged by the oppressive arrogance and insensitivity of my colleagues, I blurted out, “Fascinating.”

Funny. Amazing. People who had never liked me came up to me after the meeting to tell me how much they appreciated my contribution to the meeting.




Bernie is teaching me to look for the skillful means, the Upaya Paramita. Facing oppression, what is the action that can help people move toward peace.

If turning the other cheek looks like ignoring oppressive action, looks like acquiescence, it will not often lead to change. Passive resistance is different than passivity.

If hitting back leads only to an escalation of oppression, it doesn’t reduce suffering.

The situations of oppression and abuse of power in which we find ourselves are the Koans of our lives.

In our charter schools, we operate in an environment of power. Our schools are fundamentally a response to the powerlessness of students and families challenged by disabilities, poverty, and racism, facing an educational system in which they have few if any meaningful alternatives. By providing options, choices, charter schools are empowering parents. And we are antagonizing all those who see parent choice as a threat to their own hegemony. We, our three schools, are a small fish in New York City pond. Yet, we are being attacked by some very big fish. How do we respond? What is Upaya?

As a leader in our charter schools, in our little pond, I am one of the big fish, one with the power to react with force to perceived threats.

Feeling threatened, I am tempted to hit back.

But the feeling of “threat” is just a feeling.

I am practicing Tonglen, a Tibetan meditation technique this morning.

Breathing in Fear, breathing out Compassion.

Breathing in hurt, breathing out love.

Like all Koans, it cannot be figured out.

Just sitting now, breathing in and out, and Upaya will arise, or at least a step to take. Will it turn out to be an Upaya, a skillful means to move me and others toward enlightenment, toward healing? Will it work?

Don’t know.

I smile. I will try. We will take the step. We will see what emerges.

Breathe in, breathe out.

Take another step.