a “conflict guide” from The Plum Village Lineage North American Dharma Teachers Sangha

A few weeks ago I received an email from a dharma teacher in Thich Nhat Hanh’s tradition. The email was titled “Re:(name of dharma teacher) ” and it asked for my help in handling a “sensitive” issue. Over the years as an ordained member of Thay’s Order of Interbeing, I have repeatedly attempted to have these “sensitive” issues addressed by the larger community. About a year ago, I finally hung up my brown jacket feeling totally and utterly defeated by approximately 7 years of knocking on bolted doors, having emails and phones ignored, and effectively being ostracized from the community. The subject header should have come as a moment of hope that something was finally going to be done but I have come to recognize the various seductive strategies used to “fact-find” (read: witch hunt) and “share” (read: gossip) that have been employed about the person named in the subject header.

I have only one fact. Several years ago, one woman came to me and disclosed being sexually harassed in her sangha by the dharma teacher. As professionals who deal with these issues too-regularly in our work life, Frank and I advised her to follow various routes including reporting it to the police. She was not ready, a response that is very typical of people who feel a deep rupture of trust and are fearful of being cast out of their community. We understood and offered all the support we could. At the same, I took this to the larger community asking for a process by which sangha members could seek safety and due recourse. About three years ago, I was told there was a committee that was struck by the Order of Interbeing and the dharma teachers to address issues of sexual abuse. Good.

Except there is no obvious path to connect with this committee. The scuttlebutt also said they were inundated with complaints from sangha members about sexual abuse by Order members and dharma teachers. You can Google “sexual abuse in Thich Nhat Hanh communities” and you will find nothing except links to the the Third Mindfulness Training and Fourteenth Training of the Order of Interbeing which address sexual behaviour. Ironic, isn’t it.

The conversation that followed from the email I received was telling as well. I pointed out that the community lacked transparency. He replied, “Transparency takes years and years.” No. Transparency just takes one person standing up and saying, “There is no transparency.” I timed it: 5 secs to type it. The conversation ended and today I received a link to a pdf titled “Conflict-Guide.” It was offered as evidence that the community is being transparent about the path to reporting sexual misconduct.

I must admit I was eager to read it because a large part of my heart still lies with the beauty of Thay’s teachings and has faith that it will manifest as wisdom and compassion in the community.

Before I offer my thoughts on this guide, I invite you as a member of a much larger community to circulate it, read it, post your feedback.

Over the next weeks, I will publish my response to portions of this guide to resolve conflict – which I had hoped included how to report and address sexual misconduct sexual harassment. But guess what it actually does…

12 thoughts on “a “conflict guide” from The Plum Village Lineage North American Dharma Teachers Sangha

  1. I only read the first page of the Guide… letting go of victim roles is ok, and may eventually lead to greater healing and empowerment for al ( )l… but there’s a CRUCIAL step missing here!!! There needs to be a process BEFORE that in which the pain of the victim is very clearly HEARD by the offender – at length and in detail. UNTIL that has been thoroughly accomplished it’s not appropriate to blow things off in terms of a flippant “nobody’s a victim here”.

  2. Sometimes people harm others. Sometimes that harm is intentional, sometimes unintentional. Either way, the person who has been harmed needs to heal. When a person who has been harmed realizes they have been harmed, who harmed them, and how, they become empowered and are able to begin healing. This Conflict Guide says “The intention and focus is on restoring harmony which requires all parties to let go of the victim perspective.” Does that mean that the person who has been harmed “lets go” of their realization? Also, where is the Guide’s intention to facilitate healing of those who have been harmed by people in authority in that tradition?

  3. The assumption that harmony is always desirable suggests an inability to address the realities of power imbalances in any form whatsoever. It is an accurate reflection of a broader social problem. Just as the financial world has “too big to fail”, the spiritual world has “too holy to fail”.

  4. I’m trying to imagine this guide applied to rape. Or murder. Or other forms of physical violence. Doesn’t seem particularly relevant.

  5. Conflict seems to be “bad.” Conflict is limited to the charge of wrong-doing made by a victim; and the guide doesn’t effectively address the possibility of a teacher committing a harmful act. The guide seems to be stacked against the harmed person — we’ll help guide you (you poor deluded fool) in dropping your charges against the teacher. It seems unbalanced, in that it doesn’t seem to allow for confession by a perpetrator of their transgressions or “unskillful acts.” I guess any harmful act is simply a “illusion” in the mind of the [alleged] victim. My opinion: skip this guide and call the police.

  6. Thanks a lot for this post!
    I am part of a Thich Nhat Hanh Sangha and deeply value the practice and principles of Thich Nhat Hanh´s teaching and the happiness it brings into my life. When I first came in touch with the tradition, I did a bit of an internet search on problems and conflicts in the community, just to understand what I was getting into. I was kind of surprised at that time to find so few public criticism and hardly any information on conflicts. I am glad you bring this up and truly hope that this will be appreciated by the Order of Interbeing. Looking forwward to your response on the guide…

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  8. I’ve just had a quick look through the “conflict guide”. My first thought is that its sheer volume would be off-putting for anyone who had undergone something as traumatic as sexual harassment or worse. The other thing that immediately sticks out are the questions required of the complainant – which imply, no matter what has occurred, that the person making the complaint is responsible in part for the ‘conflict’. I see a danger of re-traumatizing the person. Furthermore, I don’t see sexual harassment, as a conflict where the victim is responsible. I mean, what is she supposed to say, I am responsible because I am a woman? Dogen sums it up “Those who are extremely stupid think that women are merely the objects of sexual desire and treat women in this way. The Buddha’s children should not be like this.”
    More reflections to come…

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  11. Thank you for bringing up this issue of the reality of conflict in human communities and that Plum Village keeps their handling of such issues very secretive. As a long time practitioner with them I have been involved in some of these conflicts which they refused to address in any conscious way that Thay taught. The Hamlet I practiced with is actually much farther behind than any of Thay’s teaching in dealing with conflict in my experience and uses punishment and humiliation rather than love and understanding in my experience. Forget Beginning Anew, what I have witnessed and been the victim of is pure punishment and humiliation which may be very Vietnames of them and also perhpas very Monastic. Like all of us they are walking the path and that is where they are on it at this moment. As a lay practitioner I recommend keeping a distance unless you want to get involved in some very nasty and delusional behavior on the part of the monastic community, not to mention what you may be bringing to the situation. I am in the process about writing about my experiences now; how one hamlet refused to allow me to use BA with another lay practitioner when we had a conflict, but simply punished and humiliated me in public and essentially stigmatized me and threatened me until I left the community out of fear of violence. . This is where that community is at! I accept that and I am now forewarned and wish them evolution of consciousness.

    • Dear Michelle, it’s sadly not unique and there is little one can do to fight this alone. While there are several organizations set up to deal with systemic abuse, there are none that address the individual’s process of recovery. My own journey has taken (is still taking) time. And it required removing myself from anyone involved in the community. May you find a path that heals you too.

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