Postscript to “Letting in Some Air”

It’s been over a year since I first posted about problems in the Boundless Way Zen community. While I had hoped “that we will all get through this together,” that is not what happened.

Broken-HeartIt’s been over a year since the last comment on my essay about problems in the Boundless Way Zen Community, Letting in Some Air, was posted. I think it’s time for a public postscript about what has happened since then.

Unfortunately, while I had hoped “that we will all get through this together,” that is not, in fact, what happened. David Rynick and Melissa Blacker’s insistence on their own unquestionable superior teaching authority, and the facilitation of their power grab by several senior students, led to a deep and painful schism. The other five Boundless Way Zen Guiding Teachers, many members, and a number of sitting groups ultimately left that organization over the fall of 2018 and early 2019. Most of us now affiliate with the Greater Boston Zen Center. David and Melissa continue to lead the Boundless Way Temple (BWT) and Boundless Way Zen (BoWZ).

To follow up a bit on the loose ends from the original blog thread, the last comment (August 29, 2018) mentioned that the BoWZ Guiding Teachers Council (GTC) would soon be issuing a statement. This finally came out in mid-September 2018, signed by all the teachers. Developed with the help of two professional facilitators, it contained (among other things) the proposal by David and Melissa for taking sole authority over all retreats at the Boundless Way Temple, followed by a set of critical caveats authored by the other five Guiding Teachers. Melissa and David subsequently both suppressed distribution of the facilitated statement—insisting it be sent it only to a small group of leaders, in spite of it being addressed to “Dear Beloved Sangha”—and essentially repudiated it, claiming that they had been pressured to sign it too quickly and without sufficient attention to their concerns.

While (after my blog post) the larger sangha did begin to discuss the issues, it soon became obvious that the structures we had adopted to try to prevent abuses in the sangha were not functioning as we had hoped.

  • One of the main reasons for creating a BoWZ Guiding Teachers Council was to “provide checks on unskillful behavior by members of the group” (as Fran put it in her comment on the original thread). James Ford, a founder of BoWZ along with David and Melissa (and who is now emeritus), had said that the next teacher to join the GTC came on “as a full equal,” and many of us assumed that was true. Yet the outcome of the GTC facilitation process made it clear—to those who hadn’t realized it already—that David and Melissa did not consider the other Guiding Teachers as their equals, and were in no way open to accepting feedback from them.

  • The division of authority between (administrative) Leadership Councils and (spiritual direction) GTCs was supposed to provide a further check on potential teacher misbehavior. But much of that practical leadership, while elected, was in essence hand-picked by David and Melissa. When the President of the Temple Leadership Council raised some questions about their plan, David pressured him out of his position. I personally witnessed this, and the way in which it was done seemed to me manipulatively orchestrated, emotionally cruel, and downright horrifying. I won’t comment on my experience on the BoWZ Leadership Council during the break-up, except to say that some aspects were quite Orwellian.

  • BoWZ also had an Ethics and Reconciliation Committee, made up of three non-Guiding-Teacher members (including me), and charged with looking into members’ complaints. This was never even activated. If some Guiding Teachers feel they are above criticism even from their peers, what hope is it there that they will accept correction by those of lesser status?

  • Lastly, one might still hope that if the teachers can’t, as a group, correct themselves, the administrative leadership has been seriously co-opted, and an ethics committee is in over its head, then at least the membership might be listened to. But Melissa and David’s proposal was never put to a membership vote. Under their guidance, the Temple Leadership Council rushed to declare that all future sesshins at the Temple should be under Melissa and David’s sole guidance—the wishes of the Temple and BoWZ memberships, the teaching roles of the rest of the GTC, and the Temple’s financial responsibilities to the larger sangha and past capital campaign donors be damned. (The BoWZ membership was only allowed—very late in the process—to vote on a financial settlement in which a portion of BoWZ cash assets went to Greater Boston Zen Center affiliates—an item of far less value than the Temple property.)

All of the power plays were dressed up with double-speak about “transparency,” “conversation,” “listening,” “openness,” “in order to better spread the Dharma,” often expressed with soft voices and warm smiles, and often accompanied by what I’ve come to recognize as love-bombing and other cult-like techniques.*

I think that those of us who were resisting all this could, ideally, have done a better job. Yet it’s hard for people who tend to naturally assume that others are acting in good faith, and for whom an issue is somewhat marginal in their busy lives, to stop those who are both sophisticated at subtle manipulation and able to devote large amounts of time and energy to pursuing their goal. One is continually surprised, continually kept off-balance, and continually playing catch-up.

Why am I writing this? You might be surprised to know that I’m still officially a member of the groups David and Melissa now lead. I deeply feel that the people there, including those at affiliated sitting groups such as Henry David Thoreau Sangha (where I first encountered Zen), are still in some ways my sangha. So I have felt somewhat guilty this last year or so. While the problems at Boundless Way Zen have not reached the levels of sexual scandal and high living that have affected some other U.S. Zen groups, they seem to me not so dissimilar to emotional and spiritual abuses happening elsewhere (e.g., at Dharma Ocean). And, from what I am hearing, they are ongoing. While others feel differently and prefer to devote all their energy to strengthening GBZC, I feel I would be irresponsible to simply “let things lie” or “put it all behind me.” To me, my silence (I am in no position to judge of the silence of others) has come to feel like complicity. It feels uncaring.

My sincere hope is that more people in BoWZ (including Melissa and David themselves!) will escape the charismatic fog that shrouds the power plays and unhealthy relationships. My sincere hope is that someday BoWZ will live up to its original ideal of dispersed and accountable authority. In the meantime—and whether BoWZ changes or not—I hope that this public postscript will at least encourage those who may be thinking of becoming involved in Boundless Way Zen to carefully investigate, first.

 

*Not to bore you with details, but as events developed I compiled a large set of documents detailing such things as the very large role of the broader community in purchasing, outfitting, and maintaining the Temple property; instances of Orwellian doublespeak and manipulation; and my discussions with people on both sides. Should you have an interest in any of these, please contact me privately.

Author: julieanelson

Julie A. Nelson is a Professor of Economics, Emeritus; a writer on gender, ethics, economics, and ecology; a senior assistant teacher at the Greater Boston Zen Center; mother of two grown children; and, when energy permits, an avid dancer.

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