What is Transmitted: (4) Leadership of the Sangha?

Zen teachers are looked up to as spiritual leaders and guides. Does a teacher’s authority extend to all decisions affecting the community?

In the Asian monastic traditions, the question of succession often included the question of who would be the next abbot of the monastery. The abbot was the head of the whole shebang, not only the top spiritual teacher but also the top authority regarding the day-to-day functioning of the institution and planning for its future. Yet this model is problematic, even in the cultures in which is originated.

For example, many Soto Zen students know that Eihei Dogen and his Dharma descendent Keizan Jokin are considered the first founders of the Soto school: Dogen for the original formulation, and Keizan for spreading it through Japan. But Keizan wasn’t even born yet when Dogen died. We usually don’t hear about what went on in between their times. 

Dogen gave teaching transmission and the abbacy of Eihei-Ji temple to Koun Ejo. Ejo had had been a talented editor of Dogen’s writings. But at least by some accounts he was less talented as an administrator. Ejo in turn gave transmission to four students. He named one of them, Tettsu Gikai, as his successor as abbot of Eihei-Ji. Gikai was reportedly a talented cultivator of donors and manager of building projects. But Gikai was apparently far less talented in other areas of leadership. He faced a rebellion from the Eihei-Ji monks and was forced to step down. He and some of his students, including Keizan (to whom he later gave transmission), had to move to another province. The abbacy of Eihei-ji later became hotly disputed. The teacher who ultimately prevailed in becoming the abbot has become known in history only for becoming the abbot.

So, must a transmitted teacher be an inspiring spiritual leader? An influential writer? A careful custodian of tradition? A visionary innovator? A great editor? Disseminator? Effective manager of the daily functions of an organization? Skilled manager of building projects? Successful fundraiser? Best at struggles for power? All this, of course, in addition to being a Zen adept? It can’t be reasonable to expect one person to have all these capabilities.  

Yet this model of single-pointed leadership seems to have been transferred to Western Zen sanghas. The U.S. sanghas I know of were mostly started by individual teachers who gather students around themselves. Small sanghas may be unincorporated, with the sole teacher making all the decisions. Larger sanghas are often incorporated as U.S. nonprofit organizations, and have a board and perhaps paid staff. Yet often the board president, or sometimes all of the board’s officers, are teachers and/or devoted students of the lead teacher.  It seems common to refer to sanghas as “Teizan’s sangha” or “Jane’s group,” naming the top-ranked (or sole) teacher as the community’s clear leader. Sometimes this works out fine. Too often, it does not. 

Among the possible consequences this model are stress and burnout on the part of an overworked teacher. Another is disappointment and frustration in the sangha when some of a teacher’s non-Zen-teaching skills are sub-par. And there is a third and devastating problem: An environment ripe for abuse of power. 

Because students look up to them, spiritual teachers have considerable interpersonal, influential power. With power comes temptations to abuse it, including (notoriously) sexual exploitation and financial malfeasance, as well as more subtle types of emotional manipulation. If a sangha unquestioningly accepts a teachers authority over all things sangha related, or has a puppet board whose main focus is serving and protecting the teacher(s), the teachers have no checks on their behavior. 

For good reason, then, boards of U.S. 501(c)(3) organizations are charged with clearly laid-out duties to care for the organization, be loyal to its mission, and make sure that civil laws and regulations are obeyed. Independent boards can provide checks on teacher power, as well as expertise in those areas of organizational management that a spiritual teacher may lack. 

My home sangha, and I think wise sanghas elsewhere, are now tending towards more of a congregational model of community, or a “sangha-led sangha.” This doesn’t mean that teachers are not respected, but that they are respected for their teaching, guidance of ritual, and—one hopes—modeling of wisdom and compassion. Teacher’s opinions on real estate or misconduct, on the other hand, should hold no more weight than that of any other (possibly similarly inexpert) sangha member or board member. The hope is that Buddha, not the teacher, will be revered and served. Our bylaws now specify separate (but communicating) leadership structures for, on the one hand, teaching and ritual, and on the other, the  guidance of the “business” or practical and organizational side of the sangha. 

For example, our senior teachers retain the ability, granted through a traditional lineage, to teach and (if authorized) give transmission to whomever they choose. But recognition as a Greater Boston Zen Center senior teacher requires additional approval by the GBZC board, since our board has the legal responsibility to make the Center a safe environment for practice. Such shared leadership model will, we hope, reduce stress, unreasonable expectations, and the potential for abuses. 

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.

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