Friday, July 23, 2010

Institutional Oversight of Zen

Time shift gears for a moment, and get back to the macro level issues. Brad Warner's blog often provides a lot of drama, which isn't so helpful. But the guy says some important stuff sometimes, even if it's perfectly useful material to disagree with. His most recent post has to do with another by Zen teacher James Ford, both of which address institutional structures in American Zen, spurred on by the recent resignation of Zen teacher Eido Shimano. There have been countless posts covering the details of the allegations against Shimano, so instead of getting into all of that, I'm going to focus in on the issue of oversight and large, national or even international institutional bodies.

James Ford advocates that here in the U.S., we need a stronger national institutional body to oversee the various Zen institutions that have developed over the past century or so.

Here I see the lack of larger institutions that oversee teachers and communities is a major problem. Not just about sex, but it is a good placeholder for all the complex issues of human relationships.

Ford goes on to point out that many Zen Centers don't have well developed policies and regulations for dealing with breaches of power within the sangha.

"At this point the only larger institutions to emerge that have ethical codes with teeth are the San Francisco Zen Center and the Kwan Um School of Zen, both institutions having experienced very rough times around sexual conduct of teachers pretty early on."

I'm not sure where exactly Ford is getting his information from about all of this. He very well could be right. I will say, though, that my own center, Clouds in Water doesn't fall into the groups Ford mentions, but does have a pretty rigorous structure for dealing with ethical violations, both of the student-teacher variety, and between members regardless of status. The development of this began long ago, but the "teeth" if you will, was added after our own teacher scandal situation, which resulted in the departure of our former leader. I can't imagine that we are the only other example, besides SFZC and Kwan Um that has developed healthy oversight mechanisms to serve their communities.

Back to the issue of a national oversight body, Brad Warner is totally against it.

I have to completely disagree. Because the Holy Roman Catholic Church is a gigantic institution with a very toothy ethical code and still sexual abuses of all kinds continue. Sure, when ethical abuses occur there are consequences. But only when the code is properly enforced by ethical people. And I’ve seen too many instances where that has broken down to believe that the simple existence of a big institution with an ethical code with teeth will always prevent abuses, or even prevent most abuses, or even prevent the worst abuses.

In the case of Zen, there is also something much more fundamental at stake, and that is the very existence of Zen itself. I don’t believe Zen can really be practiced at all unless its teachers are totally autonomous and not beholden to institutions.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, I feel that Zen teachers are more like artists than like religious instructors. If you bind artists to institutions, you kill their ability to create art.

The interesting thing about all of this is that from what I have seen here locally, even the idea of getting Zen centers together nationally to work on these kinds of issues is kind of like herding cats. Here in the Twin Cities, we have nearly half a dozen heirs of Dainin Katagiri who lead Buddhist organizations. They all know each other well, having practiced together for years. And while they periodically meet to exchange ideas and support each other, working together on something like a co-operative oversight board for the Twin Cities just hasn't happened. There have been attempts at times to get something more collaborative to occur, but beyond the occasional dual sponsored visiting teacher event, it's really each organization for it's own.

And James Ford points out that the national American Zen Teachers Association "isn’t even a professional organization. It is basically a listserv and an annual gathering of peers without bylaws or, codes of conduct."

In addition to the AZTA, there is the North American office of the Sotoshu, which could be the kind of body that Ford is suggesting needs to have a stronger influence, but certainly doesn't act in the way the Roman Catholic Church hierarchy does.

In some ways, Brad's comparison between the Catholic church and Zen institutions isn't very helpful. However, the issues of power and sex abuse cases make it hard to not make such a comparison.

In fact, Ford himself makes a different comparison using the same two groups in this totally fascinating paragraph:

My rough analogy for this deconstruction is that we’ve shifted our understanding of the Zen teacher in a manner somewhat similar to the shift from a Roman Catholic understanding of its priests to an Anglican understanding of its priests. The myth of apostolic succession has been seen through and replaced with the understanding that it is a good, if imperfect symbol. The Zen teacher is a construct of medieval China and has been adapted in our own times to stand as a person with many years of training and authorization by another such within a broad community of practice. Whatever the titles (and I’m living proof they’re inflated), the reality is that among the Zen teachers who are mostly meditation teachers, there may be some genuine masters.

A large part of the kerfuffle going on over at the Treeleaf community seems be about this very issue. Is the teacher enlightened? Should we talk about enlightenment? If yes, how so? What level of authority should a teacher have, and how much does it depend on his/hers' level of understanding/attainment?

The student that was tossed out of the Treeleaf community directly challenged his teacher's understanding and experience repeatedly. He also pointed to his own experiences, suggesting that even if he's a student, his view shouldn't be dismissed as mere attachment. We could have a long debate about whether Chet, the student at Treeleaf, is being arrogant and ridiculous, but that's not really the point. I think what James Ford is trying to get at in his post is that because of the causes and conditions present here in the U.S. and in other nations outside of the Asian nations where Buddhism originated, the Zen teacher and the Zen institution functions differently, and needs different kinds of structures to address what's occurring.

At the same time, I can't help but thinking that Brad Warner's argument against national oversight bodies might have some validity to it.

Also, institutions tend to reflect the lowest common denominator of what their members understand as acceptable behavior. They are bound to come up with the most conservative definition possible. People who don’t agree that democracy is best often speak of democracy as the “tyranny of the masses.” And this is what happens with Zen institutions. It becomes more about what the greatest number of members think they want than what’s actually necessary for Zen teaching to occur. This can never be decided democratically.

Now, clearly Brad likes to be a "free agent" so to speak. He's got a bit of former Major League baseball player Curt Flood in him. That's not a bad thing, necessarily, but anyone looking at baseball these days would say that free agency has caused plenty of trouble, even if it has given players more freedom and much higher salaries.

However, I do think that whenever large institutions get heavily involved in anything, creativity and uniqueness of expression get challenged. And if you look at famous Zen teachers and students throughout history, there's an awful lot of creativity and uniqueness to be found, and also plenty of examples of free agent types who were shunned by the majority of people, but who's stories have lived on and inspired people hundreds of years after those who shunned them have died and disappeared completely. Mediocrity might make for a certain kind of longevity, but it doesn't inspire people to awaken to their true nature.

With that said, I still think a free for all isn't really helpful. The very forms of our practice - the chanting, bowing, zazen postures, etc. - provide a base to spring off of. They might not all be necessary for any given individual to awaken in this life, but they do seem akin to learning the scales in music. What this means in terms of providing leadership for Zen at a national level - I don't really know. For every James Ford advocating for strong national oversight, there are probably as many Brad Warners out there, even if they wish to deny any linkage with him.

For those of you in the broader Zen community, what do you think needs to be done, if anything, about ethical issues occurring in sanghas? Is it the job of each sangha? A regional or national body? Both? Neither?

And for those of you outside of the Zen community, what do you make of all of this?


bookbird said...

I am not a part of the zen community... and I'm new to the path of Buddhism altogether. It seems a very difficult situation. I know it's naive to think that we can all join hands and work together... but its a shame that people who are teachers (and masters) cannot meet in some way and discuss these issues. If it matters to us as laypeople, it should matter to them.
I just wanted to add how much I enjoy your blog and its honest analysis of things. I really like reading it because sometimes when these things are not discussed, it becomes taboo to have a voice. Thankyou for having a voice!

bookbird said...

by the way, I just wanted to add, the whole thing is kind of heartbreaking.

Anonymous said...

I'm thinking this,1&offer=dharma

or this

Might be a more timely, possibly useful starting point for a post than the one you've chosen

What do you think?
[anyway a plan B, C topic option]

Nathan said...

Glad you enjoy the blog Bookbird. I think there are things going on that are positive - like some centers having honest and open discussions about some of the issues I and others have brought up. And some have taken direct action about the same issues. I do think there are leaders out there who care about this stuff - it's just that there's also a lot of tussle when it comes to how to mesh Zen with social structures that are so different from the ones it originated in. And there's also a lot of confusion still about lay practice, monastic practice, and what it is that people are doing.

The first zen teachers came to the U.S. a little over 100 years ago, just to give one example. And overall, Buddhism has only been in the U.S. for about 150 years. Everyone is still trying to figure out what works, and what doesn't, to some degree. Even those old West Coast temples started by Chinese and Japanese immigrants back in 19th century are having their issues.

Sometimes, I wonder if it's just the crumbling of institutional religious structures in general that we're dealing with. Because you see a lot of trouble in Christian communities, for example, as well.

Nathan said...


Thanks for the Ken Mcleod article. I think I'll work with it during meditation tonight.


Anonymous said...

I think your t-shirt picture says it all, perfectly. There is no insitution of marriage, there are only individuals trying to work out how to live with each other in an ethical way. In the same way, sangas are really illusiary and really only collections of people who have to deal with each other in the same way that any group of individuals have to deal with each other.

Why do we not know that people everywhere, in all organizations, are like all people everywhere who are not in organizations? Why do we think that just because, after a persons name, we add the word zen priest or buddhist or catholic or policeperson, or whatever, suddenly, that person isn't a human anymore but somehow holy, beyond all human experience and disaster? Why does everyone get so surprised, betrayed, that humans act like humans? It's buyer beware out there, equally for the buyer of religious institutions.

The idea I'm probably trying to get across is that it is more important to try to act in ways that don't harm anyone and not at all important to elevated others in our regard. Only the individual can learn how to be aware and harmless and helpful. It's silly to think one can rely on another to give one progress by holding one's hand and walking one along the path. What? Suddenly you will be there without doing all of work yourself?

Each one of us can strive to be perfectly ethical on our own. Teachers are there to help us along by suggesting things. But progress is up to each one of us. Progress along the way isn't going to come to us pecause we had this that or another teacher. It's because we do the work.

My disclaimer. I don't belong to any official sanga, but I've got lots of teachers (some official and some not) and each one of them is imperfect and not to be blindly followed.

When peoole get upset because their teacher/guru proves to be a jerk, I have no sympathy for them. What were they expecting? But I do have compassion for the poor jerk/guru given that jerkdom is an indication of extreme longterm suffering.

Dealing with a screw up of a zen master, or of a long time student, should be no more traumatic than dealing with any screwed up individual who does the same thing. Dealing is just more of the hard work that is required by the first statement in the Boddhisatva vows. We only get off lightly when we feel it lightly.

Chong Go Sunim said...

I think Bookbird expressed it extremely well.

Even here in Korea, inside the fairly strongly organized Jogye Order, getting different centers and practitioners to come together can be like hearding cats!

I think that part of the problem is due to the newness of Buddhism in the west. There have been people claiming to be enlightened teachers in N. America who would never have been accepted in Korea or Japan. They would have been rejected/denounced by the official institutions as well as the serious practitioner communities.

In those countries there is a much deeper pool of practitioners and teachers, some of whom would have stepped up and publicly stated what they thought was wrong with the situation.

To me, the most disappointing thing about what's happened in New York is that very ethical people knew that something was wrong, and yet said nothing publically. I feel they had a duty to protect and warn those people who didn't have the experience or knowledge to protect themselves. (Or at least make an informed choice.)

Petteri Sulonen said...

These sorts of problems aren't new. The only thing that changes is how the institutions can and do choose to deal with them, which runs the gamut from complete suppression (à la the Roman Catholic Church through most of its history) to airing out everything in public and making an honest effort to run a clean ship (like... uh, I can't think of an example right now, but I'm sure there's one somewhere).

What do I think? Transparency. Light is a great disinfectant. I don't think we need some kind of oversight board as much as more ways to shine some light onto the seamy side of stuff, including Buddhist practice.

Carol Horton said...

I am not a part of the Zen community either. But my suggestion would be to learn about and discuss the psychological dynamics that are often involved in these types of situations. For example, I heard a really good talk once on how yoga students tend to engage in "idealization" and "transference" with their teachers - unconsciously projecting their desire for a loving, all powerful, perfect parent to this person. Then, if the teacher has unmet ego needs, they can subconsciously pick up on this and engage in "counter-transference," essentially boosting their own narcissistic desire to feel good about themselves by internalizing their student's views of them - "yes, I really am great, enlightened, etc." - to try to block out their own insecurities - which then can manifest in unhealthy ways.

Anonymous said...

Nathan, I downloaded and listened to the Ken McCloud clip on manifesting intention. I liked it. Good and short. You have any take on it?

Nathan said...

Hey Anon,

I just finished downloading the whole retreat McLeod did based on listening to that intention clip and the first section of the retreat, which I worked with last night. Thanks for the tip.

This little section stood out for me from the intention clip:

"That’s all of the different stories and associations and memories. I can’t do this because -- If I do this, this is going to happen -- etc. And when you are seduced or enchanted by the stories, then you fall out of attention, and you cannot do what you intended to do. So in the primary practice, you include all of that internal material, but you are in attention. You are not consumed by it."

I think I'm going to sit with the whole retreat - I had forgotten how much McLeod's work speaks to me.

Nathan said...

Other Anonymous said

"When peoole get upset because their teacher/guru proves to be a jerk, I have no sympathy for them. What were they expecting? But I do have compassion for the poor jerk/guru given that jerkdom is an indication of extreme longterm suffering.

Dealing with a screw up of a zen master, or of a long time student, should be no more traumatic than dealing with any screwed up individual who does the same thing."

I don't know. In some ways, yes, people invest in excessively inflated images of spiritual teachers, and then act naive and shocked when something goes wrong. It's very true we each need to stand on our own two feet, and do the work we need to do.

However, at the same time, relationships with spiritual teachers and/or spiritual "brothers and sisters" can have an intimacy and vulnerability that isn't found anywhere else. Maybe with a romantic partner, parent, or close friend, but that's about it. And so it's important to recognize that violations in these areas are probably going to be more intense and challenging to deal with.

Nathan said...

Chong Go,

Thanks for the comments about the situation in Korea. Brings the issue beyond just some North American thing.

"To me, the most disappointing thing about what's happened in New York is that very ethical people knew that something was wrong, and yet said nothing publically. I feel they had a duty to protect and warn those people who didn't have the experience or knowledge to protect themselves."

You know, people in my sangha stayed quiet about the issues going on there. People stayed quiet in San Francisco for years while Baker Roshi did what he did. It just seems like we all struggle with how best to deal with these situations. Fears of destroying the community, attachments to reputation, fears of getting punished, and hopes that things will blow over - I think all of this plays into the silence.

Chong Go Sunim said...

Hi Nathan,
I absolutely agree with you, although the "ethical people" I was thinking of were actually teachers who weren't part of that particular group, and who would have, (I hope,) known that some of the behaviors involved weren't "enlightened skillful means."

That said, I think the things you mentioned such as community and belonging play a big role, and would have been even more influential back in the day, when sanghas were so few and far.

Patrick Bansho said...

In my own Sangha, the Zen Community of Oregon and our monastery, Great Vow Zen Monastery, we emphasize two main areas - zazen and precepts. This helps foster an environment of responsibility and ethics.

We also have a conflict resolution process were someone to have an issue with a teacher or even other member of the community. The process even includes bringing other teachers or lay leaders from other sanghas if necessary.

All of this was developed internally but with the advice informal consultations with other sanghas through groups like the American Zen Teachers Association.

What a broader institution could bring is an agreed upon code of conduct and potentially some kind of accreditation. This could give a base level indication that people have agreed to act in accord with a code of conduct. Down the road such a body might be able to indicate that a teacher has a certain level of training or is accepted by peers.

I don't buy the idea that this kind of group would kill Zen or even stifle things all that much. Zen has a healthy iconoclastic strain (Brad Warner is an adept) that will make sure we are keepin' it real. Example: Social workers have a strict ethical code of conduct (don't sleep with your clients...ever) yet the wide many types of therapies offered don't seem to be stifled by it.

Carol Spooner said...

I tried to leave this comment before, but I don't think it was published.

I don't think institutional oversight would be much help -- beyond providing perhaps "membership" status to zen centers, with some requirements such as a code of ethics and a written conflict resolution process. They might also serve as a resource to provide outside assistance/facilitation to zen centers that may have controversies they can't work out themselves. Beyond that, I don't think they should go into the style and substance of the teaching. Any zen center with a properly authorized/transmitted teacher should be eligible to join, regardless of how iconoclastic, innovative, or whatever, his/her teaching style might be.

I disagree with Brad Warner that zen teachers need to be completely autonomous. I think they need to be answerable to their sanghas on ethics issues.

I left our sangha when our head teacher & board refused to develop such policies after an ethical controversy arose. There was no process for resolution. While I, personally, did not believe there had been an ethical breach, I felt strongly that those who thought so needed a hearing and that the issues could have been resolved had they been openly discussed.

Instead, a wall of silence was imposed and those who disagreed were isolated. So, while I didn't see an ethical breach, I did see a breach in respect and kindness towards fellow sangha members that was really, really creepy.

What I saw happen was fear -- fear that the sangha would be destroyed by airing differences, fear that the teacher would be unjustifiably smeared by allegations of unethical conduct, a strong aversion to overt anger and a lot of covert and/or manipulative and/or domineering anger in response to it. I also saw the standard group dynamics that you see everywhere -- personality conflicts, rivalries & competition for status, undermining, backbiting, in-group/out-group nonsense, all that stuff that exists in all groups. That's the stuff of daily human life and interactions, and that's where the rubber meets the road with zen practice, I believe. It was sad to see that our teacher, board & leadership was so blind to it, and so unwilling to grapple with it open-heartedly.

That open-heartedness can't be imposed by institutional oversight of zen, however.

Fortunately, I've found another sangha. But I did and still do have to live with a sad heart about it. I love my former teacher and feel much gratitude for the guidance and insights he provided over several years. It's hard to see him stumble so badly and not get the help he needed to face the trouble and work it through. Teachers are isolated by the authority they wield. There aren't many people with the maturity and heart to tell them when they're full of shit. I tried. But it wasn't enough.