Monday, August 19, 2013

Power, Part 1 - Whose Zen Center Is This, Anyway?

Speaking truth to power is much lauded within the activist community. Unfortunately, though, I remain unconvinced that all who seek positions of power do so out of a motivation to act in accord with the truth. No, perhaps what speaking truth to power really does is penetrate the cloud of ignorance and fear that causes the rest of us to continue supporting those who wield power inappropriately, even abusively.

Now consider the wielding of religious power, where “truth” itself becomes a weapon in the hands of the unscrupulous, and you’ve got an especially complicated situation. Who are we, after all, to speak truth to religious power when it is their privileged access to or deep grasp of the “truth” that comprises the very power that they possess? Hmmm.

A few months ago, in Buddhism and the Suspension of Critical Thinking, I briefly sketched three vignettes pertaining to actual situations in which individuals were, in my opinion, a little too quick to suspend their capacity for critical thinking for the sake of furthering their Buddhist practice. Pertinent to this current series is the fact that in each of those situations the suspension of critical thinking was also accompanied by the yielding of power to another.

The first of those vignettes referred to Rinzai Zen teacher Joshu Sasaki’s alleged sexual abuse of female students in his charge. It is my contention that, if indeed these allegations are true, it was the suspension of critical thinking on the part of those Sasaki supporters that learned of the abuses and did nothing that allowed Sasaki to continue his abusive ways with impunity. Similarly, incidents of gender discrimination such as the one described in the second vignette can only continue within a context of non-critical acceptance on the part of everyone who witnesses such discrimination and says or does nothing to help stop it. It is under the cloak of silence and inaction that abusive power differentials perpetuate.

The third vignette, you might recall, pertained to what I then only described as a Soto Zen organization that had found itself embroiled in contentious disagreement over the changing of its bylaws defining the power of its teacher. Of course, if you’ve read the prelude to this piece, you already know that it is the Missouri Zen Center (MZC) and its teacher, Osamu Rosan Yoshida, that are the subjects of this story. If you haven’t read the prelude, please do so now; Power - A Prelude discusses my motivation for writing this series in the first place.

Rashomon promotional poster
In a nutshell, this story is a tragic one in which those inclined toward deep faith in the pristine and unerring nature of the teacher’s embodiment of truth (and the power commensurate with such truth) are pitted against those inclined to view organizational oversight in less authoritarian and more rational, legal, and ethical terms. What ensues is a painful melodrama that might very well challenge the Akira Kurosawa film classic, Rashomon, for its ability to shed light on the human condition.

Film buffs will remember that Rashomon involves the recounting of the slaying of a samurai from multiple viewpoints which seem to have almost nothing in common except for the identities of the parties involved. Come to think of it, the Rashomon plot device might well be a useful one to use in introducing the various perspectives from which the titular question might be viewed: Whose Zen Center Is This, Anyway?

Scene 1: Thieves Are Stealing the Robe and Bowl!

It is totally reprehensible that the board would treat Roshi like this! Who do they think they are? Where is their sense of gratitude? We’re talking about a 70+ year old man who’s given his life to the Dharma. He’s the one who founded the Missouri Zen Center. This is HIS house. Roshi IS the Zen Center! All this talk of the illegality of the bylaws is just a pretext to wrest control away from him and put it in the hands of a few people whose egos have run amok. The bottom line is this: if you don’t like the way Roshi does things here, then you can go and start your own Zen center. It’s as simple as that.

I mean, the Zen Center has been here for over thirty years, and now all of a sudden the bylaws are illegal, the sky is falling, and you want to kick Roshi to the curb. And who is this, anyway, who says that the bylaws are illegal – some university professor? Does he know that we’re a Buddhist organization? Does he know anything at all about Buddhism? Apparently he doesn’t know that much about our bylaws, either. If he did he’d know that Roshi is, in fact, a board member – a point which seems to have totally escaped his scrutiny, a point which, by the way, makes it illegal for the board to change the bylaws behind his back as it did. Roshi’s own lawyer said as much after a thorough review of the situation. Look at what you’re doing! If Roshi is really your teacher, as you say he is, then listen to what he says!

To tell you the truth, I don’t really care if our non-profit status is taken away. We can’t let Buddhism be constrained by the rules that govern the secular world. We shouldn’t look to the state for guidance on how to run a Buddhist temple; we should look to the teachings of the Buddha – and nobody knows those teachings better than Roshi. He’s the one with Dharma transmission. You’re asking me to trust the judgment of a bunch of novice practitioners over that of an enlightened Zen master!

This whole sad situation reminds me of the story told in the Platform Sutra about the transmission of the Dharma to the Sixth Patriarch, Hui Neng. It was Hui Neng who demonstrated his worthiness to receive the Fifth Patriarch’s robe and bowl; it was Hui Neng who received mind-to-mind transmission; and yet it was Hui Neng who had to flee for his life from his jealous rivals. Well, Roshi is not the one who is going to flee in this case. He is the proper holder of the lineage and I intend to help him protect it.

Scene 2: Methinks Thou Dost Protest Too Much!

Hold on, now; let’s back up just a little bit. There seems to be a whole lot of misinformation floating around so maybe it would be good to respond to your points in turn.  First of all, nobody is trying to “kick Roshi to the curb.” Nobody is trying to replace him as the teacher or spiritual head or arbiter of practice here at the MZC. Nobody did anything behind his back, either. The bylaws were changed during a meeting at which Rosan himself was present. He may not remember it that way, but that doesn’t make it any less true.

With respect to gratitude: We all recognize the contributions that Rosan has made – founding the Missouri Zen Center (with the help of others, I might add), guiding practice here over the ensuing decades, and providing a solid example of dedicated Zen practice. However, this bylaw change doesn’t have anything to do with gratitude or the lack thereof. What this bylaw change pertains to is ensuring that we’re on a solid legal foundation and that we have a solid organizational structure in place should Rosan suddenly fall ill or pass away. As you say, Rosan is over 70 years old. It just makes sense that we lay the groundwork for the continuance of the Zen Center after he’s gone. Toward that end, the board consulted a regional expert in Non-Profit Law regarding certain aspects of the bylaws. I don’t know about you, but I simply can’t fathom dismissing the legal opinion of a highly respected scholar in the field for the sake of the opinion of someone’s personal lawyer. 

Now, about your comment that “Roshi IS the Zen Center”: I find that both inaccurate and rather offensive. Yes, Rosan helped found the Zen Center. Yes, the Zen Center is located in what used to be his family home. What you don’t mention, however, is that the MZC pays rent to Rosan for the right to reside here; it is not a gift. Rosan is the landlord and we are a very cooperative and responsible tenant. Furthermore, the Missouri Zen Center continues to this day only because of the time, money, labor, and guidance provided over these many years by practitioners too numerous to mention. To say that “Roshi IS the Zen Center” is an insult to all those practitioners who made so many valuable contributions over so many years.

But that’s not even the half of it. It’s only been for a few years now that Rosan has been back in the United States fulltime. For seventeen years before that (by his own recollection) he spent most of the year teaching at a university in Japan, only returning during holidays and on summer breaks. During those seventeen years the board took care of the business of making the Missouri Zen Center a viable place of Zen practice – ensuring that the doors were open, that the meditation periods went smoothly, training practitioners, organizing fundraisers, planning events, paying bills, coordinating maintenance work on its rented facility, investing savings, etc. The business of running the MZC continues to this day to be under the purview of the board, with the board president proposing the meeting agendas at the suggestion of board members and members at large. This idea that Rosan IS the Zen Center is an emotionally-based belief – nothing more.

Scene 3: Is The Roof Not Big Enough To Provide Refuge For Us All?

This conflict deeply saddens me. People seem to be talking past each other without really hearing. I just hope that we can all get beyond this somehow and go back to enjoying the peaceful place of practice that we once had.

It sounds like some people very much want or need to have a student/teacher relationship with Dr. Yoshida. On the other hand, some other people just want a place to meditate and be part of a community. I don’t really see why these have to be mutually exclusive. Can’t we be a big enough place to accommodate everybody’s approach to practice? It’s not like St. Louis has an abundance of other Zen options. I think we have a responsibility to accommodate as many approaches to practice as we can accommodate and still be true to our Zen tradition.

Yes, I’ve heard that some members don’t care for Dr. Yoshida’s habit of offering teachings during zazen; they want to be able to just come and meditate in silence without any distractions. I understand that position. But I also know that others find these talks to be a valuable part of their practice. I don’t know, maybe some sittings could be set aside for his talks and others could be totally silent. I suppose whether or not that happens is the teacher’s prerogative, though. Maybe anyone who doesn’t care for the talks can just tune them out like they tune out the occasional lawnmower noise or the trucks rumbling past. Then again, they might end up missing something valuable.

I can’t help but think that there’s some mutually agreeable resolution to this bylaws disagreement. I’m hearing a lot of mistrust on both sides of this issue. I can’t imagine that the board really wants to take over the Zen Center and push Dr. Yoshida out. These are the same people who, from what I can tell, have been practicing with him most closely over these past few years. Why would they want to do that? On the other hand, this whole bylaws change seems to have been rushed through rather quickly. I certainly see the need for the bylaws to be legal. It also makes sense that there be some discussion as to what should take place if something ever happens to Dr. Yoshida. I don’t know, maybe all of this just happened too quickly for some people.

So, I’m sure you now have a crystal clear picture of what the Missouri Zen Center has been grappling with, don’t you?  No? Well stay tuned. Unfortunately, though, the waters get muddier before getting any clearer.

Rosan Osamu Yoshida
Image Credits

Rashomon publicity poster image courtesy of Daiei Motion Picture Company

– known today as Kadokawa Herald Pictures, Inc.

Screenshot 1 from Rashomon, the 1950 film directed by Akira Kurosawa

Screenshot 2 from Rashomon, the 1950 film directed by Akira Kurosawa

Screenshot 3 from Rashomon, the 1950 film directed by Akira Kurosawa

Copyright 2013 by Mark Frank


  1. Gendo Kent BuntingAugust 19, 2013 at 11:48 AM

    Maku, I would not base my opinion concerning the bylaws on the reputation or status of the lawyers involved. I need to know what the law is. I have seen neither of the opinions mentioned, but did a bit of research on my own and found nothing on point. The question I am left with is what laws, regulations or precedents the legal opinions were based on.

  2. Good question, Gendo. The legal opinion that the board relied upon quoted the statute as follows:

    "Except as provided in this chapter, all corporate powers shall be exercised by or under the authority of, and the affairs of the corporation managed under the direction of, its board." MO. REV. STAT. ANN. 355.316(1)-(2)(West 2012)

    I think you'll be able to find this online with a Google search.

    Thanks for reading and reflecting upon this! Mark

  3. Gendo Kent BuntingAugust 21, 2013 at 9:34 AM

    No. I've got that. But it isn't clear that courts would find that the "concurrence" clause violates this statute. The idea of the rule is to prevent an individual from creating a fake corporation avoid liability for what should be purely personal debt. The corporate status creates a "shield" around the officers and members, protecting their personal assets from being taken for corporate debts. The "concurrence" clause still leaves direction of the corporate business in the hands of the directors, primarily. In other words, it doesn't seem to be a purely "fake" corporation. To interpret the rule, one really needs to see precedents, other cases which have applied the rule in similar circumstances. Otherwise, one can only guess at the outcome, not reach a convincing legal opinion.

    Having said all that, I think I agree with you that ultimately that isn't the most important issue in this story.


  4. Hi Mark, again many thanks for putting this story out for all to read and more importantly, discuss, and perhaps learn from. I have to agree with you that the story was less that of who was in the right legally and more of the teacher wanting to hold on to his authority at all costs. Even if the legal case were more clear-cut, I am sure that the story would still have unfolded as it did. He would have persisted in his claim of possessing supermundane authority, granting him the right to veto mundane laws and rights. In some ways, the legal argument is a distraction. The main point is either you accept his claim of supermundane authority or you do not and walk away from the MZC as the entire Board of Directors (myself included) did.

  5. Gendo, hello again. You may be correct that it would have taken a court case to decide the matter. However, the lawyer whose opinion the board relied on interpreted the "concurrence" clause of the MZC bylaws as, in fact, taking the power to govern the organization out of the hands of the board, where it should legally reside. In other words, if nothing can happen unless the executive director gives his/her okay, then that executive director essentially controls the entire organization. This interpretation seemed/seems reasonable to me, it came from someone without any discernable vested interest, and it came from someone working on behalf of a non-profit law clinic at a well-respected university. Taken together, these factors have me leaning in the direction of this opinion rather than the other.

    Bob, good to hear from you. You need to warn us with a "spoiler alert" before commenting as you did. ;) Seriously, yes, communications became very intractible very quickly, blowing past reasonable consideration of legalities and moving straight into a "winner take all" type of approach. There are a few more installments in the cue. Those aspects that you point out will be in there somewhere. Thanks for reading! Mark