straw man koan – deconstructing the PVL Conflict Resolution Guide – part 2

In my last post, I closed with the suggestion that the Conflict Resolution Guide (Conflict-Guide) from the Plum Village Lineage North American Dharma Teachers Sangha was a Straw Man whose intention (wittingly or unwittingly) may serve to scare away those who need the resources of the sangha rather than provide very necessary resources. This is the koan that all of us in our communities must confront, absorb, and feel its heaviness in our bellies if we are to create environments of practice that are truly in the service of ending the suffering of all beings. Pragmatically, how do we set up a safe zone in which complaints of all forms can be addressed with discernment and compassion while ensuring that the process itself is not a re-traumatization or a discouraging bureaucratic mangle that distorts truth and prevents transparency?

The first post of this series was generously shared among several zen teachers and practitioners’ social media. Among the many comments was one that offered a kind consideration that this guide may be simply for low level conflicts and not the more serious ones such as sexual, emotional, and/or physical abuse. There is no argument against that however one would wonder why the North American Dharma Teachers Sangha of the Plum Village Lineage would not have been precise about the purpose of the document. So let’s start with the document’s introduction which I approached (in real life and as a thought experiment) as someone seeking resources and recourse in the event of an incident of abuse.

opening

The Meta-perspective

Nothing in the background explanation or subsequent paragraphs define the purpose of the document other than its aspiration in the vague occurrences of “conflict.” While conflicts can be very useful occasions for deepening one’s practice, it is not always the best time to do so, particularly if the conflict involves potential harm or increased probability of harm. The fact that this document was provided to me as evidence of available resources and recourse for people who have experienced sexual misconduct on the part of their dharma teacher implies one of two (or many) things. First, the dharma teacher who sent it me has no clue what I was trying to point out (that the PVL sanghas have no clear path for dealing with sexual misconduct). Or, second, the PVL’s NADTS don’t know the difference between conflict and abuse. Now, I find that really hard to believe because the NADTS is comprised of people who are lawyers, teachers, former law enforcement members, chaplains, and some trained in the medical field. Nevertheless, I’ll grant a third possibility which is that this document is intend solely for interpersonal disagreements and not the more serious issues of abuse. But if that’s the case, the game of “telephone” between the NADTS and the very senior level dharma teacher who spoke to me needs a bit of noise reduction.

section1

Here we have a definition of conflict from the perspective of the DTS as a “disturbance” in the atmosphere of the sangha and its intention is to “always” restore that balance (in the service of harmony) [as a sidebar – there’s a bit of conflation of balance and harmony]. At this point, as someone concerned for the person who has reported an issue of sexual misconduct, I am wondering what the term “always” will mean when placed in the service of restoring balance so as to be harmonious. In other words, what will be sacrificed to reach this absolute and non-negotiable goal. “Always” is a big word with hard edges that can blind us to our insight and separate us from our ability to be with someone’s suffering (com+passion).

I’m also concerned about the naïveté  in the idea of transcending “adversarial punitive approaches.” If we’re dealing with personality conflicts or arguments related to the bells, yells, and smells of practice, then it would be admirable to find an alternative measures to dispute resolution. However, in the case of abuse, there is a larger context in which this needs to be placed. Whatever we may wish the local laws to be, they are what define recourse. I, as a health care professional, am bound by law to report harm and risk of harm, not because I don’t have skills to facilitate conflict but because some levels of “conflict” are against the law and their adjudication is outside my scope of practice.

no blame

Although I have misgivings about the use of victimology perspectives, I can’t disagree with the initial statement. However, it then goes astray by assuming that everyone coming into the resolution process is endowed with the ability to self-reflect when they are feeling threaten or unsure of the level of support they have. To explore what we bring of ourselves into any situation is a lifetime process and best done well before sitting face-to-face with the person whom we believe has perpetrated the harm. In the case of serious harm, asking the person who feels the harm done to them to reflect on their role, their habits, and stances to difficulties is not only premature but unrealistic. In fact, it may just plain be cruel. Furthermore, despite the high, albeit uninformed, ideals, I wonder (as did other Zen teachers who wrote to me) whether the restoration of harmony should be a priority over determining truth and creating a safe environment in which to express the harm done.

Taking Apart the Straw Man

read previous materials

And now for the bait and switch. Having read and accepted (presumably one would have to so as to move forward from that “stuck” place) the aspirations of the DTS, we enter into that phase where the Straw Man tries to look threatening enough to scare away the complainants.

“Review Thay’s teachings…” Yes, all hundred plus books on every Buddhist topic imaginable. They are wonderful books, no doubt. I’ve read almost all of them and find them a terrific entry point to Buddhist practice.  The DTS even admits the readings are vast and offer a few to narrow the field. Which few? Well…

The Second (non-attachment to views), Fifth (taking care of anger) and Eighth (true community and communication – includes the directive to stay in the sangha) Mindfulness Trainings of the Order of Interbeing AND the second of the Fifty Verses on the nature of consciousness. Pause here for a moment and consider not only the pragmatics of this directive but a bit of reality testing.

First, the Mindfulness Trainings of the Order of Interbeing are a complex set of vows requiring study and ordination is equivalent to taking jukai. The typical complainant is not likely to be an OI aspirant or, feeling under threat, to have the psychological energy to wade through the somewhat convoluted and idiosyncratic wording of precepts in the middle of feeling at risk.

Second, the Fifty Verses is based on the Abhidharma’s theory of mind.   Not something to be taken lightly, Reb Anderson states in his Introduction to Understanding our Mind. “These teachings on mind are difficult, daunting, and complex,” he writes, explaining that he has gone over and over them in his lifetime as a Zen practitioner. Moreover, the second verse, when misperceived, can run very close to the edge of blaming the complainant for their response to the events or interactions.

Practices That Can Harm Rather Than Heal

Another recommendation is to do a Lovingkindness meditation keeping the assumed perpetrator as the focus of metta. Again, there is nothing wrong with a metta meditation however in my experience of working with individuals who have been in difficult or traumatizing situations, this is too much to expect in the immediacy of the events. The set of the document assumes the conflict is ongoing which means metta meditation is premature  and makes a huge assumption of the capacity of the individual’s practice when in distress.

The recommendation of doing a Beginning Anew process is also seriously misguided. This is a risky protocol of “flower watering” or telling one’s putative perpetrator about things that are good in them, then airing one’s negative feelings about what they did, and expressing regrets for what one has done (typically conducted in sangha). In a recent article, following the retreat at Brock University in August 2013, physician Patricia Rockman of the Centre of Mindfulness Studies writes about a Beginning Anew that goes horribly wrong in public. (This event was also described to me by someone who was at the event and the details are identical.) Rockman’s suggestion that psychologically sensitive issues should be placed in the hands of people trained to deal with them is one that has been raised in every Plum Village Lineage retreat I’ve attended. Health care professionals have also tried to raise awareness that certain issues are required to be reported by law (e.g., potential harm to children in chaotic families), only to be dismissed. What troubles me most is the impenetrability of the wall of misunderstanding and dangerous assumptions about psychological issues. Given the vast resources that educate us about the vulnerability of our mind, it can only be called a willful ignorance.

And One To Handle with Care

But onward. Having completed all this reading and contemplation, the aggrieved person is asked to complete the Conflict Analysis Form. This form is likely the most damming aspect of the process.  I advise a detailed reading of the questions which are too numerous to address here. What I do want to point out is that most people I interview following a conflictual event (this ranges from dealing with a bully at work to being blown up by an IED in a war zone) – already hyper-vigilant and physiologically activated – would feel shamed and blamed by the questions. More than that, their experiences of being emotionally and/or physically assaulted result in significant cognitive and physiological changes. Information is not processed in ways that make sense nor is recall always coherent. For a terrific explanation of what trauma does and how to deal with it, you can read Nellalou’s post on Smiling Buddha Cabaret which I frequently recommend to clients.

My advice at this stage of reviewing the Conflict Guide: If you are in a conflictual situation or have experienced abuse, do not complete this Conflict Analysis Form without first showing it to someone you trust. If there is no one you trust in your circle of family or peers, take it to a professional who understands trauma, bullying, and interpersonal conflicts. This is something to work through in the presence of someone who can walk you through it carefully and ensure against your taking too much responsibility or blame.

And Now For Something No Different

The closer:

The complainant can call in other members of the sangha and, if required, other Dharma Teachers to assist. That the resolution is still held in a closed inner circle of strongly like-minded people seems not to be a concern.

But when does the “Harmony Committee” actually get involved?

harmony committee circle

In other words, they will step in when they’ve ascertained that the complainant has done everything in her/his power to resolve the conflict by following all the directives in the guide with the very person who is or people who are part of the conflict. The shorter answer is “Never” because anyone who has experienced any level of conflict or abuse will have given up by the first request to read all of Thich Nhat Hanh’s books, let alone at the idea of sitting vulnerably in sangha or alone with the person involved. Of course, that may help with the book sales which would help with creating more sanghas which would help with creating more feelings that this document actually serves a realistic purpose.

But I shouldn’t be so jaded. I deal with insurance companies every day. This is the first thing I tell my patients when we embark on doing battle for treatment benefits: They job is to tire you out, to frustrate you, to make you believe that going away pays more than hanging in. That is their JOB, not their philosophy or their values or their hatred of you. In fact, YOU don’t exist. What exists for them is the drive to maintain their internal structure of self-preservation.

I just never thought I’d be saying that about a community that had so much potential to change the “adversarial punitive approaches to conflict that prevail in our greater society.”

I also had hoped I could go back to the woman who came to me with the experience of being sexually harassed and say, “We can do this. Together, we can take this to people who will be sensitive and compassionate as well as discerning and fair.”

To her, wherever she is today, all I can say is this: “I’m sorry. Nothing has changed because nothing has changed.”

when straw men rule: an analysis of the Plum Village Lineage conflict guide – part 1

Well, Happy Fourth Anniversary to 108 Zen Books. What a way to celebrate!

All That Has Come to Pass

First, I’d like to thank everyone who has responded to the previous post announcing the Conflict Resolution Guide from the Plum Village Lineage North American Dharma Teachers Sangha. Your comments, here and elsewhere on the social media, have been instructive, decisive, and very reassuring. Some of you have called me and offered wise words of advice and support. I thank you, one and all!

Second, this is a difficult issue, one which can devolve quickly into mud-slinging and histrionic allegations. And let’s not lose sight of what for me is a painful reality that we are addressing a community lead by Thich Nhat Hanh, one of the most beloved Buddhist teachers in the Western World. I freely admit my blindness in this regard. Thấy is my root teacher and I continue to hold a defensiveness about his responsibility and accountability in this. In my own rationalizing process, the teacher is at a far distance from the industry that is the global sangha he has fostered. While the Industry of the Plum Village Lineage has demonstrated a resistance to learning appropriate processes and protocols from the world around them, I continue to believe that Thich Nhat Hanh is willing to live what he teaches. In a telling example, I watched as Thấy tried once to bring an offending Dharma Teacher into line. However, without the support of the larger community, Thấy’s directives that this teacher suspend his teachings for a year and work under the supervision of other teachers were ignored and the Dharma Teacher continued to be supported by peers and communities. In my view, the machinery that is the Plum Village Four Fold Community appeared to have slipped the ethical moorings of its teacher and to be navigating without its North Star.

Third, to my own knowledge, I can speak to only one victim of sexual harassment. While this is a necessary piece of information through which to examine the existence and viability of due process in reporting issues of sexual, emotional, and physical misconduct, it is not sufficient.  Without someone stepping forward and being willing to speak to her/his experience, there is nothing to investigate, report, or engage in; and to do so as an ad hoc speculative process would be irresponsible. To be charitable, I can see the Dharma Teachers in the PVL trying to meet the escalating need for guidelines to deal with the many and varied sensitive issues with which they are faced – yet falling far short of what is immediately necessary. As I once wrote on the Order of Interbeing forum, there is no need to use terms like “if” sexual abuse occurs, it is a safe bet that it already has. The real issue is whether we as a community are prepared to meet these incidents with an unrelenting commitment to transparency and the truth-seeking mind.

Of course, there is so much embedded in the philosophy of the PVL that is idiosyncratic in its interpretation of the Dharma. The adherence to “harmony” and “balance” is one. Another is the persistent use of the phrase “Are you sure?”  While I acknowledge that harmony, balance, and incisive inquiry into my perceptions is crucial, it has been my experience that, in the PVL sangha, these concepts are perverted to serve the process of oppression rather than openness.

It is with all of these realizations, struggles, and blindnesses that I approached the Conflict-Guide. After reading it in detail and considering the input from various Zen teachers, lay practitioners, comments on this blog, and personal communications with Buddhist practitioners, I stand in agreement that the document is a fair attempt at outlining a process for dealing with interpersonal, low-level conflict. However, and most important to victims of serious conflict, the document fails in defining the ethical principles of the North American Dharma Teachers in the PVL. It fails definitively as a means of holding the teachers accountable because it does not define their scope of practice and what constitutes operating outside that scope. And, it fails catastrophically as compassionate and sensitive model of due process for a victim of sexual, emotional, and physical misconduct by a dharma teacher or member of the Order of Interbeing.

However, the document does serve as a straw man whose deconstruction can feed many a crow.

So let me begin with an overall commentary of the Conflict Resolution Guide. Then I will take most of the paragraphs in sequence and set them up against the mirror of what they implicitly demand of someone who has been traumatized. For this, I will be drawing from my professional work as advocate of victims of assault who suffer from complex PTSD, as a police and military psychologist, and my own experience of boundary violation by my therapist, physical assault by a peer member of the PVL Order of Interbeing, and a strong resister of emotional seduction by a PVL Dharma Teacher. I acknowledge at the outset that I am coming from a biased perspective, coloured by my beliefs of what I expect of Dharma Teachers and my own unskillfulness in challenging their inappropriate actions.

When Straw Men Rule

The purpose of a real Straw Man is to scare away birds and animals that would otherwise deplete a field of its seeds. Its intent is to protect future resources and to ensure the continuation of beings outside its circle of awareness but inside its circle of care. The Conflict Resolution Guide of the Plum Village Lineage (CRG-PVL) does just that. In its unwieldy format, language, and controlled access to the real people behind the scene, it creates a set of obstacles that only the very angry, determined, and/or strong of heart could navigate.

In structure, it outlines what the North American Dharma Teachers expect of their sangha members who are in the grasp of a conflict. It offers a background of concepts and intentions to transcend the “adversarial punitive approaches” of “our greater society.” It promises a “moving ahead from the stuck place.” It educates on the historic origins of conflict and suggests that a model of victimology is not useful. It offers readings and practices that could possibly help to develop insight, understanding, and steadiness in the face of distress. And, up to this point, the Straw Man seems quite friendly and truly interested in the well-being of the person suffering in the conflictual situation.

In its description of the process to seek resolution, the Straw man begins its dance and realizes its true intent: to scare away those who would need its resources.

….. more to come

meeting the demons

Right Mindfulness is the last node of the Eightfold Path in our mandala of practice. I was reading a dharma sister’s publication in the new journal called Mindfulness where she wrote about her mindfulness practice and how it helped to deal with her husband’s illness and death.  I’ve never met (physically) Karen Hilsberg or, when he was alive, her husband, but connected with them deeply through correspondences for a short year before he died.  After his death, Karen and I continued our correspondence both as ordained members in Thich Nhat Hanh’s Order of Interbeing and as mental health professionals.  Karen writes of the various practices that sustained her through the ordeal of managing the strain and eventual loss of her beloved partner as well as holding their children close through it all.  I hope you can access the article; it seems available to the public.  It is a rare piece of hard-hitting writing that manifests a deep mindfulness practice as Thich Nhat Hanh teaches without any of the white-washing or naiveté I often read in articles about personal journeys in mindfulness.

As I write this, I have Karen’s husband’s article in front of me; he had sent it along when he and I were discussing the challenges of bringing mindfulness practices into psychology.  He wrote:

One thing I dream of is a time when in the context of work, these practices will be so much a part of the institution that before a treatment planning meeting, the treatment team will take some mindful breaths together and set an intention prior to conducting the meeting.  This would help each person at the meeting to move beyond their own tendency to be on automatic pilot and to truly experience the individual as an individual, rather than seeing the purpose of the meeting as a task that must be accomplished.

I have kept his article on the shelf over my desk under a statue of Jizo Bodhisattva since I first received it.  It reminds me over and over again that many of us share this dream of moving past our autopilot and into a space that is beyond labels.  Although his dream addresses our view of the patient who is the focus of the treatment planning meeting, it applies equally – if not more – to each of us around the table who get caught in the auto-pilot of our professional identities.

In the personal realm, there are all these autopilot identities too.  The identity of well-being, recognition, and many others become entrenched as rights to which we feel entitled.  As I read through Karen’s article and looked into my own life, I could see the ways in which mindfulness practice tore away the need to have a limited experience of life.  Karen writes of diving deep into practice – the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings, the Four Noble Truths, the teachings of impermanence, relational self, and letting go – and it provided her the freedom to be with what was unfolding.  A dharma teacher who lead a day of mindfulness at our sangha described equanimity as freedom; when we can be with someone just the way they are in this moment, non-preferentially, non-judgementally, we give them the freedom to be.  Just be.  And in that freedom a hundred thousand miracles occur.

The precepts, engagement, and vision of our lives make up the practice of Mindfulness, a way of meeting the demons that visit regularly.  It folds into itself being both a node in the mandala of the Eightfold Path and the over-arching robe of liberation that we put on each moment.

I bow deeply to my dharma sister, Karen, and thank her for her wisdom and generosity in bringing her practice to all of us.  May the merit of her journey and her husband’s constant presence in our lives bring freedom from suffering to all beings.

Thank you for practising,

Genju