Our Resilient Sangha

My sangha that has spent the last year and a half recovering from yet another case of Zen teachers’ abuse of power. We’d like to share what we learned.

In the late fall of 2020, our Greater Boston Zen Center (GBZC) sangha was still recovering—spiritually, emotionally, financially, organizationally—from our split with Boundless Way Zen (BoWZ) over issues of teachers’ abuse of power. Then, just before Thanksgiving, a new issue came up for our now-separate group: Our GBZC Spiritual Director engaged in year-long secret emotional and sexual misconduct with one of his students.

While I had blogged in real time about the financial and emotional abuses at BoWZ under the titles Letting in Some Air and Postscript to “Letting in Some Air”, I have felt no need to blog about this (other than quite indirectly, here and here) until now. This is because, unlike in the BoWZ case, GBZC’s Board of Directors soon “let in some air” themselves. After some very fast and intensive investigation and research, the Board brought the misconduct to the attention of members and active participants in the sangha. In subsequent months the Board orchestrated a long process of circle practice, one-on-one conversations, notifications to the active sangha, surveying, and the engagement of consultants (some, alas, better chosen than others). In fact, they were careful not to let in too much “air,” so as not to damage the teacher’s family or attract sensationalist press coverage about the misconduct’s sexual aspect.

A group of sangha members and leaders—most of us Josh Bartok’s former senior students—has recently written about our process and path to recovery in what we are calling the  Resilient Sangha Project. I urge anyone with an interest in spiritual communities, their scandals, and Zen ethics to read it!

I am happy to report that the student who was the primary target of the abuse is still with us, and the sangha is flourishing and gaining new members and new senior teachers! Two crucial reasons for this, I believe, are: first, our willingness to work to educate ourselves about the serious harm caused by this sort of boundary violation, and second, the deep commitment on the part of the GBZC Board to fulfilling their “duty of care” for the sangha.

The process hasn’t been easy. Throughout the year 2021 we also found ourselves required to hold in our hearts contradictory feelings about most of our other senior teachers. On the one hand, we owe much to their dedicated teaching of the Dharma. On the other hand, most of them appeared to believe that their advancement in the Dharma also gave them unquestionable decision-making power in other areas—including areas that were not under their authority and/or in which they were not willing to become better informed. One by one, over the course of 2021, all of the teachers who were transmitted (i.e., had authorization for independent teaching) at the time the misconduct came to light left us.  

The Resilient Sangha Project includes more detail. As currently posted (in June 2022), it is just the first part of a longer project. We felt an urgent need to let other spiritual communities learn from our experience—and mistakes. We wrote these sections “by committee,” to get out the basic facts. We intend to add both more informative sections, and more personal sections about how this all has affected our Zen practice and our lives.

As the sangha member who suddenly jumped from being a senior student to being a transmitted teacher and “Interim Spiritual Director” (by default) during this period, I also intend to post more on this blog about my concerns with aspects of Zen teacher training, culture, and behavior.

Author: Julie A. Nelson

Julie A. Nelson is a writer on gender, ethics, economics, ecology, and Zen; a Professor of Economics, Emeritus; a Dharma Holder and Teaching Coordinator at the Greater Boston Zen Center; and mother of two grown children.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: