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…

zen & the art of winning and losing in sexual misconduct

If you’ve been reading blogs of greater import than 108ZenBooks, you’ve likely become intrigued by, enthralled with, or perhaps stupefied by the ever-increasing flow of revelations and denouncement of (typically male) Zen teachers who have allegedly violated boundaries with their (typically female) students.  That’s not to say there are no female perpetrators by the way; the statistics for females is clouded by the myth that women can’t commit rape or engage in sexual interference.

I tend to stay away from eruptions such are the accusations and robe rattling that follow.  As a psychologist (and thankfully never to be a Zen teacher), I spend enough time working with women (and occasionally men) who have been caught in the trap of sexual advances and/or assault to know that public revelations of potentially criminal actions undermine any investigation into them and threaten the possibility of due process.  Trial by public opinion and debate doesn’t win cases and perpetrators just love to see these things self-destruct through misguided passion for justice.

But this isn’t the purpose of this post – if it has a purpose at all.  I want to bring your attention to two women I have admired ever since I began writing (though I will admit to having had a fear of their fierceness when I first came online).  NellaLou of Smiling Buddha Cabaret has put together a cogent and detailed examination of the discussions on Sweeping Zen.  I’d encourage you to read it here.  The issue is very simple: Harm is always a possibility and has many guises.  Have a system in place that can mitigate it.  NellaLou uses the Boundless Way code of ethics to navigate the inevitability of boundary blurring and outright violations.  I have tremendous respect for the teachers at Boundless Way so I say read it too.

Many Zen teachers and practitioners become defensive when faced with the reality that shit like this happens.  That shit happens* is, by the way, the first Dharma Seal.  In other words, sexual harassment/interference/assault happens.  However, it’s wrong and in most upright organizations there are rules for dealing with it.  So as a member of an organization in which it may be happening, don’t take it personally; that’s the second Dharma Seal.  Unless you are the perpetrator or have colluded with one, it has nothing to do with your personal ethics; however it is a call for you to figure out how your ethics get traction in this skid.  Shit that happens doesn’t last is the third Dharma Seal.  Other shit will happen and keep happening.  And the consequences for not preventing the collateral harm are karmic.

Now onto Tanya McG’s post on Full Contact Enlightenment.  Please read it here.  Tanya addresses something we rarely consider.  In any assault, be it emotional or physical/sexual, the person most likely to lose (in many senses of the word) is the woman.  The humiliation and hurt are overpowering and few survive the workplace or small town mentalities; few can follow the adage to walk around with their head held high or that survival is best form of revenge.  Adding insult to assault, women are more likely to experience financial and career loss in sexual harassment cases (for stats go here and here).

Tanya’s experience is not unique.  I don’t say that to diminish her experience but to make two points.  First, it happens to more women than you may believe or been told.  Consider the possibility that messages of the uniqueness of your experience is a method of controlling you through shame and blame.  That message is false.  In other words, sexual misconduct didn’t happen because of something specific about you; it’s a systemic poison that’s maintained by fear, anger, and delusion.  Second, if you are reading this and you have read Tanya’s post and you see yourself in it, know that you could not have sustained yourself in a poisoned environment and that has nothing to do with strength or survival.

Ethical conduct is not about the extreme in actions.  It’s the areas in the middle ground of human frailty that cause us to fall over from uprightness.  Professional and personal ethics are means of addressing the outcome of being  terribly human.  And importantly, without the latter, the former is toothless.  That is, being a Zen teacher (or Psychologist) no more makes us upright than sacrificing birds on an altar.  Standing up is the only practice that does and each time we do so we create a community of uprightness and from that emerges a model of ethical living.  Simply put, actions among people in a community are operationalized as acceptable or not; it doesn’t arise out of a naïve belief that our inherent goodness is sufficient for moral action to occur.

The message from NellaLou and Tanya is clear.  Ultimately, who really wins and loses in sexual misconduct?  Everybody.  Who survives?  The community that is fearlessly transparent and the people who build it.


* from a talk by Jon Kabat-Zinn

destructive behaviour and the collusion of communities

108 Zen Books publishes once a day as a form of practice.  If there is something significant that shakes the ground of practice, I feel it important to put out another post.  The fragility of our world of practice was brought into clear focus last week with the resignation of Eido Shimano following decades of unresolved suffering caused by his sexual liasons with students in the Zen Studies Society.

This morning, I read one of the most lucid, compassionate yet fearless commentaries on the issue by Barry Briggs of Ox Herding. I have developed a fond respect for Barry’s teaching over this year of blogging. Today, I bow deeply to his strength of practice and devotion to the Dharma. You can read Barry’s commentary here.

Each time I read and hear of teachers engaging in sexual activities that cause such deep and profound damage (suffering just isn’t a sufficient word), I am enraged.  And sadly, I have learned through my own attempts to intervene and call organizations to account for exploitative behaviours by their teachers that a lone voice will not suffice. What I’ve learned from the Shimano debacle also is the amount of time it takes when organizations close in and become partners in the abuse.  Decades.  That, perhaps, is the greater travesty: not the actions of the man but the cowardliness of the community.  But we are frail and need our structures to protect us even if those structures are only reflections of our rotted beams and foundations.

I want to add something here that might get forgotten in such frays.  Sexual relationships with teachers are not for the good of the student.  Emotional relationships with teachers are not for the good of the student.  They are exploitations of vulnerabilities.  If you suspect you are in such a relationship, do not be ashamed.  Seek help.  Expect not to be believed because of the inherent blindness of the organization.  Then, keep seeking help until you are heard.

(Post-drive to work edit: If you are a community member and especially if you are someone in a position of some authority who receives information of boundary violations: Please listen.  Please see the trust under the distress.)

Please practice,