Friday, March 31, 2006


Okay, so there's A Situation at the centre where I'm living. I've gotten a biased third-hand account of it, so the only thing I'm sure of is that I don't know the whole story. I don't think there's any point in going through the details here, but I'd like to know, those of you who have experience in living and working in spiritual communities (Mom and Shugetsu, this means you)--how do you preserve the authority of teachers without giving them a licence for emotional abuse? The situation here involves someone being told by someone in a position of power that telling her side of the situation would be divisive speech, which the Buddha prohibits. That strikes me as manipulative bullshit. So I ask: how do you balance authority with accountability, faith with mutual respect? How do healthy communities work?


MomLes said...

I was going to say there's no such thing as a healthy community, but that's probably not so. When communities don't work it's because somebody is taking power for themselves through illegitimate means. I'm sure the Buddha disapproves; I know Christ does - but that doesn't stop good Buddhists or Christians from doing it. It's tempting to get involved, make a scene, etc., but probably the best thing is just to support the victim of the abuse with quiet presence and reassurance so they can resist the abuse in a gentle and peaceful way, grounded in the knowledge that they are too good people.

ron430 said...

In ANY community there are, and need to be, some kind of power differences. Legitimate ones come from the power holder's greater knowledge or wisdom in a particular area of human activity, or even just the consent of the governed. For example a choir of equals can sing better of one of them is made leader, but even better is to have a great and skilful and wise director as leader. To continue the choir analogy - if the leader strays beyond musical direction ("now you must give me all your money") or provides musical direction in a way that damages the group ("no no not like that you idiot") the group has either to put up with the damage or act to protect itself. In the latter case ad hoc leadership needs to emerge to lead the group into guiding the regular leader to change, with the guidance process itself not doing more damage than necessary to the group or the leader. This notion leads, in the choir, to anything from an experienced and respected individual member having a quiet friendly word with the director, to the members forming a union and presenting formal demands that end up in a legal contract. All of this supposes that the group is not in favour of abuse of its members by its leader. If the group IS in favour of that, perhaps because the damage caused by the abuse is thought to be less than the damage that would be caused by trying to correct it, then of course it should just do nothing.

Shugetsu said...

Creating division in the Sangha is one of the big offenses, up there with (but subordinate to) things like killing your parents; the penalty for these sorts of offenses is being cast out from the community. If you really love the dharma and cherish the opportunity to practice, being cast out would be quite a punishment; if you're trying to get away from a degrading and manipulative situation, leaving might be just the thing!

"Creating division in the sangha" is usually taken to mean spreading sensational and untrue rumors; it's a major offense because such allegations can blow a community apart.

If the allegations are actually true, they should blow the community apart. If it has a strong enough foundation, it will re-form, presumably in a healthier way, as happened at San Francisco Zen Center, my alma mater. (Shoes Outside the Door details this with a minimal, but entertaining, degree of insight.)

The Buddha's standard for speech is something like: is it true? is it kind? is it timely? is it helpful? (and perhaps one other criterion I forget). Shooting your mouth off is pretty impossible under such rules.

Under these guidelines (as well as the standards of common decency) speaking one's truth about misconduct within the system is necessary. To whom, and how, the truth should be spoken, is another matter.

In my latest community, a nonprofit religious organization, there is Board of Directors that is responsible for unresolved community issues; the teachers consult with the Board when big stuff comes along, as it inevitably does. There is also a grievance committee and a number of individuals who are supposed to be available to hear concerns that one might be afraid to take directly to the teachers.

In general, when a point is being made using the template, "I know this seems unfair and wrong, but there's a rule we have in Our Religion that says X," you can be pretty sure the rule is being twisted. Or that the authority figure making the statement is in *way* over her/his head.

Not all allegations of abuse actually reflect abuse. Life in a spiritual community life is intentionally intense; people who come to these centers often bring significant psychological baggage along; and it is normal to have people get a little loopy around the edges. Authority figures in spiritual communities are the targets of huge amounts of projection.

To those who know a situation, it can be very clear that someone's issues are coming up, and that they're projecting wildly. That doesn't mean that the person should be belittled or ignored—in fact, they need to feel heard, and they need to find some satisfaction.

If the community leaders can't help them feel heard, and the outside grievance body can't help them find satisfaction, the person usually leaves. Having formal channels in place is invaluable. Leaving the issue to gossip (speculation, melodrama, and misinformation) in the back hallways is actually what weakens the sangha.

Having pontificated thus, I'm curious: does your community have a grievance procedure? Let me know; this is where a lot of the juice of practice lies (fear, secrets, authority, shame, etc, etc)

Wishing you well,