Let 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.