In the last few years, American Buddhist organizations have been shaken by revelations of sexual and physical misconduct by revered teachers. However, several recent cases have caught the attention of the national media, thus sparking a far wider debate. One pivotal report in The Atlantic on 18 December 2014 about Eido Roshi—a Rinzai Zen teacher who came to America from Japan and founded the New York Zendo Shobo-Ji (part of the Zen Studies Society) on 15 September 1968—has led to unprecedented efforts to confront abuse in sanghas. As part of the ongoing initiatives to address the culture that has allowed for this abuse to go unchallenged, An Olive Branch is holding a series of webinars entitled “Ethics in American Buddhist Groups.”
An Olive Branch is a project run by the Zen Center of Pittsburgh that seeks to support Buddhist, spiritual, and secular groups with conflict resolution, ethical and misconduct issues, and governance training. The group was founded in January 2011 by Reverend Kyoki Roberts, head priest of the Zen Center of Pittsburgh and a professional mediator. She also chaired the ethics committee of the Soto Zen Buddhist Association when the scandals first erupted. The group responds to disruptive conflict through providing processes for healing and restoring harmony in communities that have experienced division through ethical crises.
The first webinar of the series took place on 27 January, in the form of a dialogue between Kyoki Roberts and Reverend Shinge Roshi. Currently abbot of the Zen Studies Society, as well as the Zen Center of Syracuse, and one of Eido Roshi’s earliest students, Shinge Roshi experienced first-hand the divisions and confusion that can occur in a sangha in the wake of ethical lapses and sex scandals.
In the interview, Shinge Roshi spoke about her personal journey of becoming a Roshi and an abbot, as well as her recollection of how the sangha and the individuals within it were affected by Eido Roshi’s behavior. She also talked about the varied reactions of his students once the scandal broke. The discussion then moved on to how cultural misunderstandings, as a consequence of the Dharma coming to the West, played a part in creating an environment within meditative communities where ethical difficulties could easily arise.
An Olive Branch helped the Zen Studies Society engage in the process of restructuring their governance as a Buddhist organization, as well as assisting to process the emotions of the sangha after Eido Roshi stepped down. Kyoki Roberts noted during the webinar that, “We see often [that] a result of clergy misconduct is [that] the community starts polarizing.” Shinge Roshi pointed out that one effect of an ethical scandal is that “everyone has a different take on things. [In the Zen Studies Society’s case], a great deal of anger was directed towards Eido Roshi by those involved with him . . . some had their own grudges. . . . There was a state of avaricious pouncing on him . . . the sangha finds someone to demonize.” This creates an enormous challenge for any sangha.
According to Shinge Roshi, once this has happened the challenge is then to address the issues, “How can we become respectful and compassionate for each other? How do you go forward to create a healthy relationship?”
To avoid ethical breakdowns in the spiritual community, Shinge Roshi recommended that sanghas take the following steps: pay attention to red flags; establish a culture of trustworthy governance and spiritual guidance; create, disseminate, and enforce ethical guidelines and monastic regulations; value board members for independent thought and insight; and finally, develop communication skills and an atmosphere in which students feel comfortable speaking out. She also said, “no [intimate] relationship between a teacher and student is proper, because it is never actually consensual.”
The next webinar hosted by An Olive Branch is “Governing a Spiritual Community: An Attorney's Advice,” on Tuesday 24 February at 2.00 p.m. EST.
Local Zen center offers help for congregations torn by scandal (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)
The Zen Predator of the Upper East Side (The Atlantic)