Greater Boston Zen Center (GBZC) is a sangha in recovery from clergy abuses of power. In December 2020, the GBZC board placed Josh Bartok, then-Spiritual Director, on disciplinary suspension as a result of sexual misconduct and related abuses of power. Soon after that, he resigned from all of his roles at GBZC. Within the next year, all then-transmitted teachers left our community.
At GBZC, we are aspiring to become what we’re calling a “Resilient Sangha.” Resilient Sangha is our expression for a sangha committed to turning the suffering of teacher misconduct into sangha wisdom for the benefit of all beings. In keeping with our Buddhist commitments, we believe wisdom can only be discovered by turning toward what’s right here before us.
If you practice Buddhism long enough in America, you are bound to uncover an extensive and disturbing history of teacher abuses of power (sexual, emotional, financial, etc.). It can be distressing to read about and even more distressing to experience firsthand. All too often, Buddhist communities who harbored transgressors have enforced a culture of silence around the misconduct.
GBZC, in striving to be a Resilient Sangha, seeks to openly reckon with what we’ve experienced and learn from it. We want to join other sanghas to create a new model in which boards and other leadership who discover teacher transgressions embark on a transparent journey of atonement and growth. This journey is to be undertaken in partnership with survivors and informed by a research-backed understanding of clergy power dynamics. We hope to do this by:
- Facing our own sangha’s past and finding productive, skillful ways to talk about it that include all sangha members, directly affected or not;
- Being proactive about ethics—not just instituting an ethics policy but actively training in ethics and integrating it into our core understanding of practice and lineage; and
- Becoming a place where all, including survivors and others marginalized or erased by the structures of American Zen, can practice safely and be supported on the long journey to recovery.
A note on scope: It’s perhaps helpful to establish what we’re not doing. We’re not intending to give a play-by-play of what happened in our community, although narratives like that can certainly be of use. In our case, the introductory paragraph to this section is the most thorough chronology you’ll find in these pages. As we discerned the best use of our limited volunteer time, we identified a core aspiration to create a resource for our own sangha and for other sanghas on key topics and sources of confusion. In other words, we are creating the resource we wish had existed for us. As our understanding evolves, so may the pieces that are included here.
A note on privacy: When a person accepts the responsibility of becoming a Buddhist teacher and receiving the vulnerability of students, they take on a professional and public role. Teachers advertise their name and their institutional affiliation on membership websites, in articles and other publications, in professional bios, and so forth. It is not the case that once Buddhist teachers breach professional boundaries and harm those in their care that the matter transfers into the private domain. That said, in turning toward this matter, our intended exploration is about the abuse of the role and its impacts rather than the qualities of any specific individual. For this reason, we will use names sparingly.
Finally, a note on precarity: Our sangha is in the midst of a turmoil-renaissance. There is enduring pain from what we’ve been through, as well as relief and excitement to be charting a new course. A sangha remaining intact following teacher abuses is not guaranteed. At times, some of us still fear for our own sangha’s ability to survive this as aftershocks from the transgression and its aftermath continue. The fact that this project exists is itself a precarious and hard-won milestone. What has kept the project alive is this community’s steadfast commitment to the accessibility of the dharma and the notion that “love and justice are not two” (in the words of Rev. angel Kyodo williams). An attitude of resignation towards abuses of power should not be the price of entry into receiving teachings and participating in the life-sustaining activity of sangha.
If you are a member of a sangha who has experienced abuses of power and would like to partner with us in this effort, please contact [email protected]. You do not have to be an official representative of your sangha—we welcome contact by all.
GBZC is run by a network of leadership groups, staffed by volunteers. The Resilient Sangha Project was approved by the GBZC Board of Directors in June 2022 and is written by:
- Rebecca Behizadeh, MDiv, President of the GBZC Board 2019–2022
- Mike Behizadeh, Facilities Working Group Lead
- Libby Fay, GBZC Board 2019–2022 Member-at-Large, Ethics Council Lead
- Sarah Fleming, Communications Working Group Lead
- Jill Gaulding, Assistant Teacher and Practice Leader, Vice President of the GBZC Board 2019–2022, member of Programming Working Group, Watering the Seeds, and LGBTQIA+ Sitting Group
- Harry Gordon, Practice Leader, Treasurer 2016–2018
- Fran Ludwig, Senior Assistant Teacher, Development Working Group, Retreat Working Group, Board member 2020–2021
- Karen McCormack, Assistant Teacher and Practice Leader, Membership Working Group, Co-Leader of LGBTQIA+ Sitting Group
- Cheryl Morrow, Treasurer 2018–2022, Finance Committee, Retreat Working Group, Development Working Group
- Julie Nelson, Dharma Holder, Interim Spiritual Director; member of the Senior Teaching Community, Communications Working Group and Programming Working Group
- James Peregrino, Assistant Teacher and Practice Leader, Co-leader of POC sitting group, Board member 2020–2021
- Rebecca Doverspike, Arts as Spiritual Practice Co-Lead, member of Development Working Group, Practice Leader
The Resilient Sangha Project is endorsed by the following leadership groups: The GBZC Board of Directors (2021-22, ’22-23), Communications Working Group (2022-23), Programming WG (2022-23), Development WG (2022-23), Membership WG (2022-23), Retreat WG (2022-23), Facilities WG (2022-23), Watering the Seeds (2022-23), Ethics Ombuds (2022-23).
The Resilient Sangha Project is updated and maintained by the Resilient Sangha Project Trustees.
Table of Contents
About the Resilient Sangha Project (This webpage)
Protecting the Sangha: The Rules that Apply to Teachers
Sangha Responses to Misconduct
Centering the Survivor
Power Structures and Power Struggles: The Role of the Board
Common Dynamics (DARVO)
Tips for Informing and Communicating
Keeping the Board Together
Atonement Is Part of the Process
Our Concerns with “Right Use of Power”
Rebuilding & Revisioning
Why I Stayed: A Message from the Survivor
Additional Roots & Risk Factors
A Potentially Cultish Culture
An Imperfect Past
Inadequate Care for Students and Teachers