Our Concerns with “Right Use of Power”

Right Use of Power is an approach to ethics that was significantly damaging to our community. It offers a distorted view, positioned outside mainstream consensus, about teacher/student boundaries – topics that require rigorous, clear-sighted guidance. In this essay, we’d like to outline our concerns with this modality and how it impacted our sangha at a time of profound crisis, the sexual misconduct of our spiritual director. It is our hope that this narrative will steer other well-intended sanghas, looking for guidance in ethics, away from these harmful teachings.

Background

Our community hired Right Use of Power-affiliated professionals on two occasions: first Tenku Ruff as a trainer for an all-day workshop on Right Use of Power's approach to ethics in 2019; and then Cedar Barstow and Amanda Aguilera as consultants in our response to our Spiritual Director's sexual boundary violation in 2020.

Summary

In painful retrospect, we’ve come to see the extent of harm inflicted on our community both by the training and the consulting aspects of RUP. 

  • The training we received through Tenku Ruff did not prepare us for sexual misconduct by a teacher. In fact, the content of the training made it more difficult to respond appropriately to sexual misconduct, requiring sangha members to unlearn some of the key content we’d been taught by Ruff in order to take compassionate action.  
  • The consulting by Cedar Barstow and Amanda Aguilera replicated and reinforced abuser dynamics in their interactions with the survivor, and instructed our sangha members and teachers to do the same. 

About Barstow and Aguilera’s work with our community, the survivor of the sexual misconduct writes, “The Right Use of Power consultants worked against my currents of understanding, insight, intuition, and felt response; indeed, their process represented a continuation of my teacher/counselor’s abuse on almost every psychological and spiritual level.” 

It is almost unfathomable that those who purport to be experts in responding to sexual misconduct would actually deepen the harm. This reality deserves deep investigation. That they would be held in such high esteem within the greater Buddhist community deserves action. We cannot un-hire Ruff, Aguilera and Barstow, but we can alert other sanghas to avoid the difficult path we’ve tread. So that others can benefit from our painfully earned insights and find a safer path to healing, we are sharing at length our concerns with the Right Use of PowerTM  modality and its consulting arm. 

Deficiencies of Right Use of Power Training as Prevention

Our community hired Rev. Tenku Ruff, currently the head teacher of Beacon Zen Center in New York, to offer a Right Use of PowerTM training in 2019. Ruff was known to us as the recent former president of the Soto Zen Buddhist Association, as well as a friend of our then-spiritual director, who later transgressed boundaries with a student. The training she offered is dangerous both in what it teaches and in what it leaves out. 

At its heart, the program has a preoccupation with listing and classifying types of power, the primary of which are role, status and personal power. Upon first encounter, differentiating these types of power appears to be merely a ratification of the obvious: just because a spiritual teacher is in a position of power (a combination of “role” and “status” power), that doesn’t mean they can steal a student’s inherent power (“personal” power or the other kinds of role/status powers a student may possess). What we saw in our community, however, is that this framing lays the groundwork for the notion that victims always bear some measure of responsibility: since they never relinquish the other “kinds” of power they possess, they are in effect always co-responsible for their abuse. 

This isn’t merely a theoretical implication of RUP’s power taxonomy: in 2021, Tenku Ruff sent an email to the President and Vice President of the GBZC board sharing her view that the student who was abused at our center had also mis-used her power and that the student should apologize to her abuser’s wife. Ruff’s guidance, seemingly inexplicable for a trainer in ethics, was actually coherent given the training she had given our sangha. It was a vivid demonstration of the degraded foundations of the RUP approach. 

Our highlighted concerns with RUP as prevention:

  • The program teaches that the person in the up-power position is “150% responsible for good relations and conditions” while the person in the down-power position is “100% responsible for good relationships and conditions, and for resolving problems and conflicts.” This formulation of teacher/student responsibility in the context of sexual misconduct is victim-blaming. All research on clergy and therapist abuse, and all policies of major counseling and religious organizations, recognize that the person in the low-power position is being exploited. Abuse of spiritual and/or emotional power is 100% on the person in the high-power position, 0% on the person abused. In the words of the survivor in our community, “Right Use of Power’s abstract math of 150/100 only aided in the smoke screening and perpetuating of abuse.” 
  • In addition, the slides presented at the training say that the goal is assuring "well-being for both teacher and student." Yet the teacher, in offering themself as a trusted spiritual guide, is (like other client-serving professionals such as therapists and lawyers) promising to make the student's well-being the goal of the relationship, not just “a” goal on a co-equal standing with improving their own well-being. 
  • The program also leaves out very important preventative measures. In a much later post-misconduct training for our community, Jan Chozen Bays (currently with Buddhist Healthy Boundaries) presented a simple list of "red flags,” including private communications, private meeting spaces; special attention, advancement, gifts or favors; secrecy (demands for). None of these are included in the RUP slides. (Warnings about private meetings, special attention, and demands for secrecy may have helped in our case, as they were all very much a part of the abuse.) 
  • Lastly, to the extent this preventative program tries to prepare communities to deal with abuses of power should they occur, the training is inadequate. The program only discusses the idea that the individual who caused injury should come to a personal decision to offer a sincere apology and make amends. There is no mention of the legal responsibility of clergy to maintain appropriate boundaries, nor of the legal "duty of care" that non-profit boards have, which includes dealing with misconduct by staff or volunteers. Nor is there any hint that, according to research, clergy rehabilitation is a process that requires expert help and may take years, if successful at all—not something to be left to an individual to decide for themself. And, lastly, there is no mention of the fact that the teacher’s idea of “amends” may not correspond to the needs of the person abused or of the community.

Deficiencies of RUP-Associated Consulting for Addressing the Consequences 

In 2020, upon the advice of Tenku Ruff, the GBZC board hired Cedar Barstow and Amanda Aguilera as consultants to guide the response to our Spiritual Director’s misconduct – a decision that almost tore the board apart, as some board members could anticipate the failings of the consultants’ approach. If you look at the Right Use of PowerTM  website, it is clear that their primary focus is training. However, they also offer consulting. Cedar Barstow is the founder of the Right Use of Power Institute and author of the self-published book Right Use of Power: The Heart of Ethics. Amanda Aguilera is listed as part of the RUP “core faculty”; has long been affiliated with the Right Use of Power Institute; and has her own consulting business built around “restorative practices.” While what was delivered was a mix of RUP principles and Aguilera's “restorative practices” and not just what corresponded to the RUP training, the written contract was explicitly between RUP and our community. 

Because the abuser in our situation admitted the basic facts of his sexual misconduct, Barstow and Aguilera mistakenly presumed that he was fully repentant and ready to engage directly with the student he had abused (and they were incurious about whether or not this was appropriate for the student). As they facilitated interactions between survivor and transgressor, both directly or as go-betweens, Barstow and Aguilera sought to control the survivor’s engagement in order for her to be compliant with their vision for the process. This control included: attempting to censor the survivor’s narrative of events, asking her to center the abuser's needs over her own, and requiring the survivor to keep the abuser's mediated interactions with her confidential. Again, these demands mirrored the demands the abuser made of the survivor during the year-long tenure of his abuse. 

Our highlighted concerns with RUP as crisis response:

  • The consultants demonstrated a deficient understanding of the issue of consent in a case of clergy abuse of power. Some weeks after the disclosure of misconduct, the board sent out a “FAQ & Resource List” to the sangha, including materials about the impossibility of consent in a teacher-student context. Barstow and Aguilera wrote that this resource “could be confusing to community members about the seriousness of [the teacher’s] misuse of power,” worrying that it could “possibly inaccurately escalat[e] perceptions of what might have happened.” Yet lack of consent is the core issue in the case of clergy abuse; it is the reason the behavior is considered illegal under both civil and criminal law, and it is the reality sanghas must turn toward if they are to appropriately prevent or respond to cases of abuse. Their deficient understanding was further illustrated by their insistence that communications to the sangha should use the soft-pedaling phrase “secret romantic relationship” rather than “abuse.” 
  • Amanda Aguilera's “restorative process” approach draws explicitly on the better-known Restorative Justice literature, while—at least as applied in our case—dangerously distorting that notion. What these consultants offered was totally inappropriate for a case of extremely recent abuse in which spiritual and psychological healing had not even begun. Restorative Justice is a well-established process that can only take place under very specific circumstances—none of which were present here. It typically takes years (not weeks) for an offender to be ready to enter into a restorative justice process; among other things, the offender needs to be ready to wholly accept their own status as “offender” and the status of the other party as “victim” (see letter from Kara Hayes, explaining necessity of language Barstow and Aguilera rejected). An authentic restorative justice process requires that the mediators determine that “the victim will not be further harmed by the meeting with the offender” (source) and that the offender, in a sincere apology, will be willing to “ced[e] to the victim...control and power” (source). In our community, the teacher attempted to gaslight the student even in their very first mediated session facilitated by these consultants. (While taking on this consulting job was wrong from the beginning, the RUP  consultants should certainly have realized their mistake at this point and withdrawn.) 
  • Barstow and Aguilera treated sexual misconduct in the same framing one might use for a collegial misunderstanding or an argument between spouses. Thus, the survivor was submitted to a rote formula Barstow and Aguilera deployed for conflict (misnamed “restorative justice,” see bullet above) which included a culminating hours-long sharing circle where representatives of affected parties spoke in a series of semi-rehearsed interactions, including a round of gratitude-sharing for and about the perpetrator. According to the survivor, “It was me who had to suggest to Cedar and Amanda that I not be part of the ‘gratitude circle’ they'd plan to hold at the reparative circle for everyone to thank my abuser for his teaching. So much of the dynamic between me and the teacher had been based on my gratitude for his teaching. That was the very thing indeed that had become warped and utilized for abuse. It was me who had to say to our consultants that I would not participate in that part of the circle.” The survivor further elaborates, “They thought it would ease his shame to hear all the good people had gotten from him, but they did not ask me about its potential impact on me, whether or not I felt my own shame or a demoralizing lack of spiritual confidence after this experience, worried how people would see me, etc. I was pretty invisible to the whole process to Barstow and Aguilera except as a caricature of ‘the student.’” In fact, the only actionable item coming out of the three-hour session was an item that the transgressor’s support person demanded at his request – a “ceremony of apology” before the sangha for the transgressor, with Tenku Ruff in supportive attendance, that the survivor did not attend out of protest.
  • Their process focused disproportionately on the teacher’s desires while neglecting the student’s needs. The student was exposed to further harm in the form of exceedingly premature “mediation” sessions with the teacher while she was still reeling from the spiritual and emotional abuse. Their model did not include the student having a support person at these meetings, and the student was told that she should keep them confidential –including anything her abuser shared, replicating the dynamic of secrecy he had required of her. She reports that in response to her detailed communication to these consultants about how the teacher’s account (during these sessions) did not accord with her experience, they told her, “This is not a time for facts, gathering evidence, or shaming and blaming.” According to the student, “Barstow and Aguilera’s focus on ‘subjective narrative’ over ‘truth’ or ‘facts’ allowed a continued manipulation of the narrative by my abuser, which had been part of the abuse all along. It further confused me. It's like knowing something is deeply wrong but not even having words for it. Overall, their process thickened the fog, created more fog, and did not cut through to compassion or wisdom for me and nor for, I imagine, anyone else.” 
  • The RUP consultants further isolated and undermined the student and downplayed the facts of the abuse by encouraging the board and senior teachers to take a position of “neutrality,” not seek to get more “information,” and not prioritize any one “perspective.” As a result, a number of senior teachers failed to give appropriate support not only to the student but to the entire community and even discouraged many in the community from giving her appropriate support.  According to the survivor, “Barstow and Aguilera reinforced my isolation by guiding GBZC leadership to keep me "anonymous" (rather than allowing me to decide who to talk to, when and how, although I ended up doing that anyway). They further allowed my abuser and the community as a whole to process the situation without me. Yet at the same time they allowed my main source of support (the board and other leaders who did know my identity) to be under attack for not remaining in some perceived ‘neutrality’ as if ‘neutrality’ were fair in this case.” Having already been cut off from her support network for over a year by the teacher’s insistence that their relationship be kept secret, Barstow and Aguilera’s work largely increased her feeling of isolation and of being unheard.
  • The RUP consultants' process attempted to sideline the sangha’s governing board. In seeming ignorance of the structure of nonprofit organizations, they told the board it should be “neutral” and encouraged the board to totally rely on them to address the situation. Instead of leading towards healing of relationships within the sangha, this process created further divisions since those whose sympathies lay mainly with the teacher used the consultants' advice to cast aspersions on, and sow distrust of, the elected board whenever it attempted to fulfill its “duty of care.” 

GBZC, like many Buddhist communities, was pulled in by Right Use of Power's promise of a spiritually informed approach to power. However, we’ve seen that the "spiritual" approach adopted by Right Use of Power is based on theories of power and responsibility well outside mainstream consensus on how to frame these matters, the logical endpoint of their approach being victim-blaming. Cloaked in a rhetoric of compassion and forgiveness, their model enables deflection by transgressors and further shames victims. A rhetoric about forgiveness and compassion unaccompanied by meaningful justice-making and accountability results in complicity with the transgressor and their violation, and further harms the victim, the community and the spiritual path.

(First posted Oct. 3, 2022. Revised Nov. 3, 2022)