Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Regional and National Zen Institutions Revisited

The following is a post I wrote a little under two years ago. It got a lot of attention back then, and I believe the issues discussed in it continue to be on the hot plate so to speak. Locally, there has been a bit more cross-sangha connecting bubbling up over the past few years. Mostly organically, without any formal direction or focus behind it.

However, at our board retreat a few weeks ago, we decided that one of our focuses in the coming years will be to make more deliberate connections with our sister sanghas in the Twin Cities area. One potential long term outcome from this could be a collaborative body for sharing resources, helping address common problem issues systematically, and perhaps aiding individual sanghas with any major inter-sangha conflicts that arise.

Which fits in with the discussion that was had below. It's important to note, though, that one of the driving forces behind the posts cited below was a variety of sex scandals that have plagued Zen communities in recent decades. And furthermore, that the issue at Treeleaf sangha that arises was dealt with long ago.

I am actually more interested today in how neighboring Zen sanghas, and Buddhist sanghas in general, might collaborate instead of compete with each. How through sharing and expanding the base of wisdom, they might each become better communities.

So many of the discussions that happened in the wake of the Eido Roshi and Genpo scandals felt reactionary to me. People advocating for stronger national institutions - myself included - weren't thinking too much beyond sangha protection and addressing abuses. And those like Brad Warner, who rejected such organizations, were thinking mostly in terms of the restrictions and limitations.

There's got to be more to the story. I'd be interested in hearing about any cross-sangha collaborations that are currently going on. Or ways in which you believe such collaborations might be hindered. Your thoughts?



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?

5 comments:

Pigasus said...

This is one of your best posts, Nathan. It's presented in such an objective way, backed by experience, and really starts to tear at such a massive issue.

I'm too close to my own experience to even say a thing! I started a new sitting group in a different lineage in the same city I began my formal zen practice in. I literally moved out of the temple, took a new teacher, and started a new group. That was almost 2 years ago and the group has grown and we're facing all of what you posted here. Who are we accountable to? Do we want to be a non-profit? What are the benefits of having a board?

Can't wait to see what follows here.

Nathan said...

There's a lot stewing around these issues in my community right now. I totally get the questions about non-profit status and accountability. Tricky stuff for sure.

lostandconfused said...

I would NEVER have learned from my teacher as I did, if she were subject to a greater organization, dictating her ethical behavior.

Nathan said...

That's an interesting comment Lost. Is that because your teacher wasn't "officially" recognized? Or was there some other reason?

I'm still on the fence about whether a large organizational body is appropriate or not.

I tend to think it's better to keep things smaller, and more localized. And probably not really restrictive as well.

lostandconfused said...

a solitary temple, or a small group of temples, may take its own direction. simply put.