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

a purposeful blindness

There’s a purposeful blindness that centers our perception.  I went out into the garden that hugs the south side of the house.  It tends to be a haven for butterflies, moths, and assorted flying bugs and beetles.  Thankfully, the ravenous Japanese beetles have gone after decimating my lily collection over several years.

I go out with my camera into the adolescent growth which sways with a gangly awkwardness as I wade through it.  Usually this is enough to send most winged beings flying for safer havens.  But that’s only been my perception.  Going over several pictures, I was amazed to find little bugs and beetles, ants and bees tucked away in the recesses of petals and leaves.

The first few shots of this bee balm caught the blossom and my little green friend didn’t appear to me until I stepped into the shadows and enlarged the shot.  He (she?) must have been having a kindness practice day because when I turned back, he was still there, ready to pose in several more angles.  He walked daintily across the petals and paused on the crest of the flower.  It reminded me of Thich Nhat Hanh’s teachings; to walk on the earth as we would on lotus petals without crushing them.

It amazed me that he stayed for so long.  Mostly, it amazed me that I had not seen him in the viewfinder the first time.  And yet, it might have been a good thing because in the excitement of seeing that luminous green against the mouth-watering red, I might have become obsessed with getting the perfect picture and forgotten to be surprised by his tender relationship with the blossom.

Sometimes when we see everything, we miss what is important to truly see.