Tips for Informing and Communicating

Based on these common patterns and dynamics (and our own experience), we recommend the following tips for communicating with the sangha.

  • Care for the survivor—listen to their story and make sure they are supported
  • Notify the sangha of the breach with sensitivity and clarity. 
  • Make sure both the transgressing teacher and the victim have clear lines of communication with the board—perhaps designate board members as their liaisons so decisions can be relayed back to them; do not leave either in the dark as to what the board is doing.
  • Investigate what happened. As early as possible, the board should begin establishing the basic facts: ask questions of all relevant parties, request copies of any relevant documents, and establish a basic timeline. Then, if possible, consider hiring a qualified external investigator to carry out a complete investigation. This will require some money, but it can be worth the expense.
  • If the misconduct is confirmed or undisputed, fire the teacher. They can always reapply to teach once they have sufficiently demonstrated rehabilitation. (Research what rehabilitation looks like. One key fact: it’s demonstrated over years, not months.)
  • Communicate basic facts to the sangha. Do not let the matter rest on vague statements or rely on hearsay. This does not have to be explicit, but it needs to be clear. “Sexual misconduct” is preferred to “personal matters,” “inappropriate conduct,” or other vague terms. See DARVO.
  • Do not assume you know how many are affected by this transgressive behavior. Seek to understand if others have similar stories and treat any further testimony with all due care.
  • Do not ferry communications from the teacher to the sangha. The teacher is on their own journey that is necessarily separate from the journey of the sangha. It is inappropriate for the board or other leadership to help the teacher repair their relationship with sangha members following this breach. Individual sangha members can reach out to the teacher and vice versa, of course, but the institution should focus on care of the survivor and the sangha. This is not neglect of the transgressor but actually appropriate boundaries. The transgressor absolutely should get support, but their support should take place outside the community where they broke trust.
  • Provide opportunities for the sangha to process their experiences with clear ground rules and an experienced facilitator. 
  • Provide information about the nature of these transgressions and the impossibility for consent. Do not assume that our culture prepares people to understand the nuances of professional boundaries. Proactively educate on this matter, and often.
  • Report the transgression to all relevant membership organizations of which the teacher was a part (such as the SZBA or the AZTA in the Zen context).
  • Do not ask students to choose sides or declare allegiances. Many students practice with multiple teachers and communities, especially in the age of hybrid or Zoom sits. While the transgressing teacher has (we hope) ceased teaching for an appropriate amount of time, students may be practicing with a range of teachers who have a range of viewpoints on what transpired. While teachers should have clear views on ethical matters and express those views, students should not have to “get in line” behind a teacher in order to be welcome.

Next: Sangha Responses to Misconduct: Keeping the Board Together

Published June 12, 2022