Letting in Some Air

I love my sangha, Boundless Way Zen. And I have to write a difficult post about it.

open windowLet me say, first of all, that I’m not writing this out of any sense that if I were in charge, I would of course do things better. It became particularly clear to me, while I was on sesshin (weeklong silent retreat) this summer, that knowing better and doing better are two different things. Having served as chant leader in the past, I know when various bells and clappers are supposed to be sounded, and so I noticed when mistakes were made. And also, from the hard experience of having held this post in the past, I was well aware that when it’s actually my responsibility in real time to do this job, you’ll hear me, too, ringing the bell at the wrong moment. So while I feel I have to write about missteps I see being made by some in leadership positions, I am not claiming that I would do any better if I were in their shoes. I have a profound respect for the spiritual direction I have received from all the Boundless Way Zen teachers.

The second bit of preface is to review, for readers who are in my sangha (and introduce, for those of you who are not but for some reason are reading on anyway), some of the distinctive and relevant aspects of the organization of Boundless Way Zen (BoWZ). Many spiritual groups have experienced scandals involving sexual, financial, and other sorts of misbehavior, often perpetrated by a single guru-like spiritual leader who abuses their all-encompassing authority. In light of this, the founders of BoWZ created a system of distributed responsibilities, with checks and balances. The bylaws state that the organization has three parts: members, a Guiding Teachers Council (GTC) in which a number of teachers share in directing spiritual practice, and a democratically elected Leadership Council (LC) that is responsible for overseeing the business and legal aspects of the organization. The GTC is currently made up of three active Roshis (the highest ranked teachers), one emeritus Roshi, and four Senseis (also transmitted teachers). The Guiding Teachers have representatives on the LC, but these are always in the minority.  The LC has the power to remove a teacher from the GTC. BoWZ also has an Ethics Committee. Most members of BoWZ participate in one of the many sitting groups it sponsors, and/or are members of its two “affiliate” (that is, separately incorporated) organizations, the Greater Boston Zen Center and the Boundless Way Temple. All these groups hold their activities in rented spaces except for the Temple, which, about five years ago, raised funds to purchase a property in Worcester, MA. By written agreement, BoWZ rents space at the Temple for its four-times-a-year residential sesshins.

I am currently a member of both the Greater Boston Zen Center and the Temple, and serve on the LC as its Vice President and on the Ethics Committee. My teacher is one of the three active Roshis on the GTC and is abbot of the Greater Boston Zen Center affiliate. The other two active Roshis owned the Worcester property before it was purchased by the Temple affiliate, and continue to live there.

Now let me tell you why I’m concerned. I’ll lay out the only the major events as I personally experienced them, and avoid passing on anything that could be considered hearsay.

In May of this year (2018), the LC received a request from the GTC for several thousand dollars to hire an outside facilitator. They said that they were facing “a number of interlocking yet discrete challenges” that they were not able to resolve among themselves. The funding request was supported by the LC and presented and approved by the BoWZ membership at its annual meeting in June. The GTC chose not to describe what these “challenges” were, and no one in the LC or membership pressed the question.

In July, one of the GTs took it upon themself (using that pronoun as a gender-neutral singular) to, in private conversation, try to convince me of the merits of their position regarding one of the controversies troubling the GTC. They and their fellow Temple-resident GT, they explained, strongly feel that they alone should have control over all teaching activities at the Temple. This would include, they said, personally teaching at all sesshins held at the Temple and having the power, just the two of them, to choose who to invite to teach with them. While this was couched in the language of deep conviction and (superior) teaching authority, the conversation left me feeling saddened and queasy. Taking off the sugar-coating, I understand this as an attempt to disenfranchise the other five active members of the GTC  from decisions and activities that are an important part of the spiritual direction of the sangha. In other words, I hear a power play.

It can be argued that, with growth in the organization over all, it’s time for the Temple to forge more of its own path. And there may be some truth to this position. Perhaps all future sesshins should just be run by affiliates and sitting groups rather than centrally by BoWZ. Yet it is the duty of the BoWZ LC and Temple LC to see that any such changes come about in a way that is legally permissible and financially appropriate. Taking the guidance of Temple sesshins out of the purview of the entire BoWZ GTC would at a minimum require, I believe, changes to the mission statement of the Temple and changes in the agreements between BoWZ and the Temple, voted on by the memberships. And, while one must acknowledge that these two teachers did a great deal of work getting the Temple set up, it also must be noted that it was not their project alone. The Temple received hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations, at least some of which were given for the purpose of creating permanent place for BoWZ sesshins. If the Temple is going to hold only affiliate retreats going forward, then it seems to me that those funds should be either returned to donors or passed on to BoWZ. Maybe we’ll move in this direction. I could live with it, though it wouldn’t make me happy.

The situation is actually worse than this, though. It appears, by the way recent sesshins have been announced and staffed and the timing of the GTC request for facilitation, that the two Temple-resident GTs are already imposing their vision for Temple retreats, well before any of the necessary legal and financial changes have even been discussed, much less implemented. I find this very disturbing. The manner in which the Temple-resident GT brought up the issue with me was also inappropriate and upsetting. They chose a time deep in the middle of the July silent retreat, when I was at my most open and unprotected, and in a situation in which the power differential between myself and the GT was the most pronounced (in favor of the teacher). The container of sesshin was broken for me by their lobbying effort, and I came close to leaving. I have also observed some reactions by these two GTs to criticism of their leadership that seem to me to be unhealthy. When I brought up my concerns about the inappropriateness of the lobbying effort with them, the response felt to me more like a deflection (like “Look how well we’re listening! This shows we’re great teachers!”) than a serious engagement. At two gatherings earlier this year at the Temple, I personally observed one of the resident GTs become quite markedly emotionally reactive when the way they were running a meeting was questioned.

And, finally, what bothers me is the silence. I’ve recently been reading Shoes Outside the Door, an account of the scandals that rocked the San Francisco Zen Center in the early 1980s. That organization’s charismatic abbot had, among other things, engaged in numerous extramarital affairs (including with students) and appropriated Center funds to support an ostentatious lifestyle (while approving only meager stipends for others). What is more, this was done over many years and with the knowledge and apparent consent of numerous intelligent, mature adult sangha members, teachers, and lay leaders who had fully committed themselves to following a path of wisdom and compassion. How can such a thing happen? A frequent refrain the in the interviews the book’s author had with those members and leaders was “We didn’t talk about those things.” Their respect for spiritual authority was so great that it apparently overpowered their own ethical alert systems and common sense.

It seems that Boundless Way Zen’s spiritual leaders may have made some kind of (only partially held-to) agreement to speak with one voice or not at all, given the reticence of (most of) the GTC members to speak out on this controversy. Perhaps this was originally intended as a kindness, in the hope of minimizing distress among the membership. But I think that a lack of open discussion by the organization’s members and leaders is now cultivating ignorance, rumors, under-the-table side-conversations, and a generally unhealthy atmosphere.

I am, myself, bound by no agreement to keep quiet. I’ve chosen a public venue to disclose these issues rather than a series of private conversations in order to avoid powering a rumor mill. I was not asked to write this blog post by anyone–the responsibility for this action lies entirely on my own head. I’ve done it because I understand that the equanimity we cultivate in Zen is not some blind harmony or shallow peace, but rather a habit of turning directly towards what is really in front of us, pleasant or not. I’m sure some will think I have made a bad choice. I may well lose some friends. Perhaps I’ll even get booted off the LC. I love my sangha enough to risk it.

I am distributing the link to this blog post widely, and I invite you to share it with others and to question, debate, clarify, correct, rebut, support or otherwise respond to it, either in the comments on this blog site or in your own media outlets. I hope you will discuss these issues openly with your sangha-mates and your teachers. Let’s let in some air.

Author: julieanelson

Julie A. Nelson is a Professor of Economics; a writer on gender, ethics, economics, and ecology; a senior dharma teacher in the Boundless Way Zen school; mother of two grown children; and, when energy permits, an avid dancer.

9 thoughts on “Letting in Some Air”

  1. Dear Julie — Thank you for your deep commitment to the sangha in so many ways and to openly turning toward the current difficulties. I too am eager to hear more from the GTC and trust that the facilitation process you mention and their equally deep commitment to their own on-going personal practices and to the sangha will yield fruit in a thoughtful statement, or statements, when they’re ready. I’ll be thinking about the points you raise and the views of others as I hear them, and I wanted to make at least one comment now. While I think I understand your reference to silence, letting in fresh air, and the Shoes Outside the Door reading, I confess that I was waiting for a huge qualifier about the difference between these internal, organizational, and personal BoWZ and BWT issues and the other notorious and profoundly wounding scandals referenced. I take the lack of this qualifier as a view to just how troubling you found the sesshin interaction you describe as well as the broader issues we’re faced with. And I know you did detail earlier in your post the institutional structures that were carefully put in place to avoid the scandal and personal devastation that has rocked other groups. Still, As I listen to the recordings from the July sesshin, which I didn’t attend, I’m struck as I always am by the wonderful diversity of voices and the great respect from all corners, it seems, for the varying views and contributions of all the Guiding Teachers as well as from rank and file sangha members and sesshin attendees in general. Just wanting to add these two cents for now as I continue to be grateful for the overall health and the abundance of support I feel within both the BoWZ and BWT communities. I look forward to working alongside so many others to continue to make this community one I’m deeply proud of and honored to be associated with. I trust that your practice and deep sharing, and that of so many others, will continue to make this so.

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  2. Dear Julie,
    I appreciate your bold decision to share your recent experience at your Center also with readers like me, not belonging to it.
    In my view, as a sociologist, the lack of transparency is not the cause but the consequence of any hierarchical organization. An effective governance based on a mix of cooptation and democratic rules, more or less needs some degrees of self-protection for those who are in power. Moreover I think that the SFZen center scandal, or the recent events at Shambala, or the Edo Shimano case etc… have their roots in a conception of the practice itself, individual-centered and not aware of the social influences on it. Even in science, we look at the brain changes to measure meditation effectiveness without any attention to that “brain” when involved in social interaction, in which each brain acts from a specific situated position. This is also why some practitioners like me decided since the last year to open a free conversation about the possibility of considering contemplative knowledge and practices as a commons, no more a hierarchical-based, monopolistic initiative.
    You were, and are, invited, as anyone else to contribute to this debate in an era in which digital tools allow not only to communicate on a peer-to-peer basis but also to self-organize for the common good.
    Warm wishes, Enzo

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  3. These Discussions Need to Happen, But Not On Line

    We appreciate Julie’s wish for openness about disagreements among the spiritual leaders of Boundless Way Zen. We hope these points may broaden our perspective:
    1. There is no cover-up. The Boundless Way Guiding Teachers have been open about the fact of their current disagreements. They went publicly to the BoWZ Annual Meeting to request funds to pay for a facilitated discussion of those disagreements, and the members agreed to their request. They’ve stated that the content of their disagreements does not involve ethics violations or financial misdealings, so the analogy with the San Francisco Zen Center scandals is not appropriate.
    2. The Guiding Teachers should have the right to keep these disagreements private. If the outcome of their conflicts affects how teaching happens in BoWZ, the Leadership Councils are the bodies to determine a path forward. Dual roles as students and LC representatives can sometimes lead to confusion about when these conversations should take place — an issue we continue to clarify. But ultimately the BoWZ LC and Temple LC, as representative administrative bodies, would decide on sponsorship of Temple sesshin.
    3. Discussion of these disagreements needs to happen in person, not on line or via email. We have seen that when people try to discuss emotionally fraught issues in cyberspace, nuanced dialogue does not happen. Our first impulse on reading Julie’s post was to offer another view of what is going on, marshaling additional facts. But we realized that this would only continue the kind of polarization that has made it hard for the Guiding Teachers to work out their difficulties. In-person discussions allow for people to find common ground. On-line discussions magnify differences.
    We join Julie in hoping that we will all have the chance to talk through the changes in BoWZ, with the additional hope that we will do this in person if the LC’s determine it is appropriate. Until then, putting limited perspectives out on the internet is likely to bring greater hurt and misunderstanding.

    Bob Waldinger
    Mike Fieleke

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  4. Julie, I applaud your courage for shining a light into dark corners. My own experience relates directly to your piece and I’d like to take this opportunity to share it with the broader Boundless Way Zen community.

    I was a student of one of the Temple GT’s for over 10 years. I am deeply grateful for their teaching and hold great affection for them personally. However, over the past year or so, I began to notice a pattern of behavior that affected me negatively, and which I realized was negatively affecting others in the sangha as well. This was of great concern to me because of the position of moral and spiritual authority that my teacher held and the confusion their behavior created for me, and I suspected for others. In March of this year, my concerns became sufficient for me to directly confront my teacher about them—first in writing, then in person. The response I received was dismissive and my teacher withdrew from me.

    Because of my unanswered concerns, as well as my teacher’s seeming inability to tolerate my feedback, in May I formally submitted my concerns directly to the remaining five BoWZ GT’s. One of the primary reasons given for forming the Guiding Teachers Council was to provide checks on unskillful behavior by members of the group, and I felt this was a circumstance that called on them to fulfill that role. I’ve yet to receive a response, and no longer expect one. I can only infer that my teacher was not receptive to examining the problematic issues.

    Over the past 5 months there has been no validation of my concerns from my teacher, no bowing down, no commitment to address the behavior, and from what I can see, no concession to peer review. Rather, the aggressive efforts by the two Temple GT’s to assume all teaching authority at the Temple will have the effect—intentionally or not–of isolating them further from the potential oversight of their peers.

    My teacher’s resistance to my feedback is in some ways more deeply troubling to me than my original concerns. It suggests exactly the sort of dangerous mindset that gave rise to the abuse of power Julie references at San Francisco Zen Center and other places. Although I am not alleging behavior that is explicitly unethical, there is a spectrum of behavior that can be emotionally and psychologically harmful, particularly in a student-teacher relationship.

    Like Julie, I am bringing these concerns into the public light entirely of my own volition. It pains me deeply to publicly criticize individuals whom I love dearly and to whom I owe a great debt of gratitude for their teaching. But my bodhisattva vow is to all beings. If a teacher is unwilling to submit to the oversight and review of their peers, it is up to our BoWZ community to create a container that holds those in authority to account. In her excellent article in Tricycle https://tricycle.org/trikedaily/katy-butler-metoo/, Katy Butler says that we’re all responsible for creating norms, and that means to articulate and hold everyone accountable for their behavior, including our beloved teachers.

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  5. I am pleased to see others expressing great faith in, and hope for, our sangha, both in these replies and in other venues. I very much hope we will all pull through this together.

    My posting in a public, electronic venue has had the effect I hoped for, of bringing fresh air–and more BoWZ members–into reflection on issues concerning BoWZ and Temple leadership, both on this blog and in other venues. Yet I also agree with the many who have commented that electronic venues have some serious limitations when it comes to actually working out controversial issues. It would just heighten tensions to get into point-by-point rebuttals of other’s points.

    Instead I’ll rebut a few points of my own. Because this controversy has until now mostly been in the shadows, I have been learning new things over the last couple days:

    First, it turns out that the two Temple-resident GTs are away on retreat at the moment. It was not at all my intention to post during a time they might not be able to respond, and I would have waited, had I known.

    Second, it seems that the mere fact that the two Temple-resident GTs want to take over total control of sesshins on the Temple property is not considered–at least from what I’m now hearing–part of the GTC agreement for confidentiality.

    Third, my assertion that “the two Temple-resident GTs are already imposing their vision for Temple retreats” could have been more nuanced. While they clearly are promoting their proposal, hard, on a number of fronts, it does not seem to be the case that they are, precisely speaking, overriding GTC directives.

    However, my second and third points make me feel that my post was even MORE needed than I originally thought. One person has told me that the proposal to put sesshins in total control of the two Temple-resident GTs has been “widely discussed.” Yet I’ve been a member of BoWZ since the beginning, and on the BoWZ LC since June 2016, and heard nothing about this until last month. I hear others saying that such a change is a natural outgrowth developments over time, implying that it doesn’t need to be discussed by more than a few people because it isn’t a big deal. I consider it a very big deal. I believe the membership needs to know about this proposal, and have a chance to voice their views to their teachers and LCs earlier rather than later.

    Other details of my post, including my feelings that spiritual authority is being abused in disturbing ways, I stand by. And I hope that we will all get through this together.

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  6. The following is written by Michael Fieleke (who encountered technical problems when trying to post this text himself)–JN

    Dear all,

    I too am deeply hopeful that we will emerge from this challenging period a stronger sangha! I am also sorry for how some have felt hurt during this period of transition.

    As the former president of BoWZ, first, I want to acknowledge how challenging and deeply painful it can be to navigate conflicts with our teachers, and to remind our community (and let anyone else reading know) that BoWZ has an Ethics and Reconciliation (EAR) Committee to which any members can bring concerns. In the instance of serious abuses and with the student’s consent, the Leadership Council, which includes more students than Guiding Teachers, would be involved and is even empowered to remove Guiding Teachers from BoWZ if a violation were to rise to that level. In short, students have a means of getting support, and ultimately the Guiding Teachers are accountable to this process. I would encourage any member with concerns to first contact the EAR Committee. (The GTC is not the appropriate body to air concerns about a Guiding Teacher. In BoWZ, we have a more robust, confidential, independent, and healthy means to address concerns.)

    Additionally, in my view, expressing personal grievances via social media (when other means are readily available) is anyone’s right but seems less likely to be healing. I am absolutely not suggesting silencing anyone who feels a boundary was crossed, just encouraging going through the EAR Committee. The problem with public posts about personal grievances is that there are now one-sided characterizations of events in the public eye, and if those with different views respond, we could escalate and polarize quickly. On the flip side, if additional information is not shared, it may not be fair to those being discussed publicly. It’s a catch 22.

    Regarding Julie’s second concern about the current silence regarding sesshin, though they are struggling now, I trust our GTC — who are negotiating their differences — to share the conclusions of their facilitated conversation with the Leadership Council and membership when they are ready, and it is not a secret that this is one of the topics they are discussing. The silence we are experiencing is likely because they have not yet come to an agreement. I do not take this silence to mean anything more than that they need more time. It may be that the GTC will make recommendations about sesshin and other issues. It may be that they are unable to agree upon a path forward. In either case, our elected representatives on our Temple and BoWZ Leadership Councils will have ample opportunity to consider the outcome of the GTC facilitation carefully, and all LC meetings are open to all members. Members can also contact their LC reps individually. Additionally, any changes in bylaws to either the Temple or BoWZ would require a vote by the full membership of those organizations. In short, while imperfect, we are a carefully structured organization with checks, balances, and opportunities for members to participate.

    In my personal view, BoWZ is experiencing growing pains. Our growth may require organizational changes, but those changes are being carefully considered, one governing body at a time, in the interest of coming to agreement. I am deeply hopeful that we may find ourselves in an even better place in time.

    Of course, it is hard to tolerate “not knowing” in the meantime.

    Many bows to all, and with much love and hope for our sangha,

    Michael

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  7. We apologize if the tone of our initial response did not convey our compassion for everyone involved. The vigorousness of our response came from a sense of urgency that the online forum of this discussion would result in greater polarization. The last thing we would want is for the tone of our blog post to contribute to a deepening divide.

    Bob Waldinger and Mike Fieleke

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  8. From the Boundless Way Zen Code of Ethics:
    “As leaders and teachers our first continuing commitment is to not knowing. Our second is to walk this path with humility. Our third is to accept correction as generously as it may be offered. Through these vows and the guidelines listed below we seek to cultivate a community of openness, generosity and wisdom.”

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  9. We are writing as some of the Guiding Teachers of Boundless Way Zen to affirm our support for our students’ freedom to communicate with us in whatever form or forum they choose. We value our students’ willingness to challenge and confront us. There are no taboos here. We believe this contributes to a healthy spiritual community. Given the power differentials that exist in teacher/student contexts, as well as through systems of power connected to various identities, we believe that particular care needs to be taken to encourage this freedom in communication. We wish to make public our own commitment to noticing when imbalances of power in our own interactions and within our community cause harm and to doing our best to address these and make amends. As with all practice, this is an ongoing process—for all of us.

    We appreciate the sangha’s patience with our long process in issuing a statement following our initial report on our meeting with the facilitators, and we regret the strain this has put on members of the community. We expect to issue a statement soon after Melissa and David return from teaching in Europe.

    With love and bows,

    Diane Fitzgerald,
    writing on behalf of
    Josh Bartok
    James Cordova
    Kate Hartland
    Steve Wallace

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