Atonement Is Part of the Process

In the process of responding to our teacher’s misconduct, the GBZC leadership and the Board of Directors in particular made some mistakes we’d love for others to learn from. Even now, some of us are haunted by our poor choices. Wise mentors who have preceded us on this tortured path have assured us that there has yet to be a perfect and flawless response to matters of misconduct. What’s important is recognizing our missteps and seeking to remediate them as best as possible, and learning from those mistakes. Furthermore, we consider it an act of dana, or generosity, to share our mistakes and subsequent learnings with others. Here are some highlights of our missteps, in service to all beings:

  • We hired Right Use of Power’s Cedar Barstow and her colleague Amanda Aguilera as consultants.
    • This was a critical mistake and caused much harm. Because Right Use of PowerTM is an influential modality within American Buddhism, we are particularly concerned that other sanghas might engage their services to similarly damaging effects. Please see the next tab, Our Concerns with "Right Use of Power"  where we describe how Right Use of Power is a dangerously flawed paradigm for this issue. We do not recommend Barstow or Aguilera as consultants for response to sexual misconduct.  
    • In particular, agreeing to any kind of approach based on the transgressor and victim engaging in a joint process was extremely inappropriate, especially given the time frame and the transgressor’s complete lack of readiness.
    • The choice to work with these consultants was not unanimously supported by the board and was a result of a majority-rules vote. (Democracy doesn’t always guarantee the right decisions! But it is a better method for governance than authoritarian rule, and over time, when members are operating in good faith and responsive to feedback, it’s self-correcting.)
  • The consultants we hired were recommended by a former president of the SZBA. However, she also happened to be a close friend of the transgressor’s. 
    • We should have actively moved away from advice issuing from anyone already associated with the transgressing teacher.

  • An early report sent to the sangha by the “Response Team,” advised by our consultant and assembled by the board, characterized the teacher’s abuse as a “secret romantic relationship.” 
    • This characterization is woefully inadequate. It’s important to use the language of “sexual misconduct” and “abuse of power” from the beginning.

  • We initially avoided facilitated conversations about the transgression within the sangha on bad advice about the dangers of “group processing.” Instead, our initial approach was for communications to be top-down and then processing to happen 1:1 with teachers or other senior leaders or in self-organizing groups.
    • This approach did not take into account how unlikely self-organizing discussions could be during pandemic lockdown. It was also too controlling. The sangha needed opportunities to connect to each other and listen and speak from the heart, unmediated by teachers or board and in group forums.
      • As a note: We attempted to remediate this omission and subsequently held “Listening Circles,” where we followed a set of agreements to create a safe space (no cross talk/confidentiality/etc.) and had participants take turns sharing. These spaces must be thoughtfully and well-facilitated, with ground rules enforced by the facilitator. If these ground rules are in place, such spaces can help, not hinder, sangha healing.

  • We allowed the transgressing teacher to be personally supported by other teachers in the community.
    • It is difficult for a teacher to be fully in support of the sangha’s awakening to a teacher’s abuse while serving simultaneously as the transgressor’s emotional support. A teacher wishing to support the transgressing teacher in this way should have resigned from all of their roles, ceased seeing students, and focused on supporting their friend. 
    • GBZC should have set up expectations in advance that teachers get emotional and personal support outside the community in which they serve. This is a standard professional expectation in established religious communities.

  • When the transgressor sent a resignation letter, the board sent a letter to the membership announcing his resignation with excerpts from that letter.
    • The transgressor registered dismay at the board’s letter. When we subsequently learned he objected to us using quotations rather than simply sending the sangha the letter in its entirety, we sent him a letter of apology.
    • In reality, publishing any of his words to the sangha was itself preferential treatment. He should not have had a platform to express his views unless that platform was shared with the victims of his harms. An announcement that he had resigned would have been sufficient.

  • We permitted the transgressor’s “Ceremony of Apology” to move forward. The victim’s permission for this event was not freely given, and she did not attend out of protest and disgust. 
    • A “Ceremony of Apology” that does not center the victim’s needs is inappropriate. The victim knew the transgressor to be actively engaging in DARVO with her and others at the time of the ceremony.

  • We did not reach out to the broader sangha to see if others had similar stories. 
    • If we had truly prioritized the well-being of all in the sangha, we’d be thorough in understanding if others had also experienced this harm. We succumbed to those lobbying to protect the transgressor and his relatives’ privacy and only sent out messages on this topic to a mailing list of current members and attendees.

There are surely many other mistakes we made, both large and small. We are still learning. We have made our best effort not to give excuses for our choices here. Whatever our intent was, our impact was harmful, and in this section, we wanted to center the impact of our actions. 

Next: Sangha Responses to Misconduct: Our Concerns with "Right Use of Power"