An Imperfect Past

One way to prevent future harms is to look at the past with clear eyes. We can do this in the compassionate spirit of Shunryu Suzuki, thinking, “Our sangha was perfect the way it was, but could it have used a little improvement?”

Sangha members can ask themselves, for example, “How were we formed? What shaped our current culture? Is there anything about our lineage or history or norms that worked, however accidentally, to increase the risk of harm? If so, what can we do about it now?”

The goal in asking these questions is not to shame or blame our dharma ancestors, founding teachers, previous boards of directors, or anyone else. The goal is transparency, honest grappling, and creative problem-solving, with the end product being a safer sangha going forward.

More specifically, a sangha could ask itself:

  • Did any of our past teachers commit clergy misconduct? If so, how was it handled? If it was ignored or swept under the rug, if the victim was blamed, if nothing changed afterwards, can we speak clearly about it now? Can we set matters straight? Can we atone and clarify the ways in which our current understandings differ from those of “olden days,” even if those “olden days” were only five or ten years ago? What are the names of the victims? Do we know them or have we attempted to reach out to them? Do we honor them in any way in our materials or rituals?

  • What has our past leadership said about the topic of clergy misconduct or other abuses of teacher power? If past leaders were on record stating views that we now find misguided and harmful, can we ask them to revisit the topic, disavow the harmful parts, and share new views? If these past leaders are unable or unwilling to revisit their prior statements (perhaps because they have retired or passed away), can we speak out to correct the record from our own position as their dharma heirs?

  • When we look back at the history of our sangha, were there other issues with concentrated teacher power or teacher abuse of power (perhaps related to finances or other matters)? Can we recognize how those patterns fed into a culture that increased the risk of clergy sexual misconduct? 

Next: Additional Roots & Risk Factors: Inadequate Care for Students and Teachers

Published June 12, 2022