Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Power, Part 2 - Whose Festival Is This, Anyway?

Those of you who’ve had the chance to read Part 1 of this series – Whose Zen Center Is This, Anyway? – are probably wondering how an organization finds itself in such a predicament in the first place. What sort of bylaw change could be so incendiary, and why risk embroiling the organization in conflict if it is? This post is meant to shed light on precisely these questions.

Please bear with me for a moment as I delve into some of the drier aspects of organizational governance. The previously existing bylaws of the Missouri Zen Center (MZC) contained a so-called “concurrence clause” which resulted in most of the decisions made by its board (with the notable exception of changes to the bylaws themselves) being subject to the approval, the concurrence, of its executive director, Osamu Rosan Yoshida. The problem with such a clause, depending upon your point of view, is that it effectively gives the executive director (the teacher) veto power over the affairs of the organization – a situation that is not in compliance with the laws of the state of Missouri governing the administration of non-profit organizations. 

Setting aside the issue of legality, you might just be thinking: So what? What’s wrong with the teacher having veto power? Isn’t the teacher the wisest and most knowledgeable, the deepest and most reflective thinker, the one in the best position to make decisions affecting the wellbeing of the organization and its members? Well, whether or not board members actually agreed with that assessment, acquiescence to the authority of the executive director on account of this concurrence clause came to suffuse the organizational culture of the Missouri Zen Center so thoroughly that some issues were not even openly discussed due to a ‘Rosan would never agree to that’ sort of self-censorship.

And so it was that the organization drifted along, taking care of business on a day-to-day and month-to-month basis, yes, but never addressing such overarching issues as whether the old Yoshida family home, much in need of maintenance as it is, really is the best place for the organization to reside, and what will happen after Rosan, due to failing health or death or some other unspoken reason, is no longer willing or able to continue teaching. The organization was in many ways held hostage by this concurrence clause; until, that is, one of the pieces of business that the board was forced to act on resulted in saying goodbye to a major source of its funding.

Let me back up for a moment. I began practicing at the Missouri Zen Center sometime in the late 1990s. By then the organization’s status as one of the veteran food and beverage vendors at a local annual festival was fairly well-cemented. The menu varied from year to year, but included such items as vegetable fried rice, somen noodles, fruit slushies, iced green tea, and even sushi. Net income from that one weekend of effort varied from year to year, but I think it safe to say that it always accounted for the bulk of the organization’s income, even allowing the organization to accumulate savings over the years amounting to well over fifty-thousand dollars.

Income notwithstanding, the festival was great publicity for the MZC – providing an opportunity for thousands of potential practitioners to learn of the organization’s existence and mission, in addition to providing an opportunity for Rosan to deliver a lecture introducing Zen to a sympathetic audience. It also provided us workers with many opportunities to get to know each other as we took our practice out of the quietude of the zendo and into the fast-moving chaos of a festival environment. Nothing is perfect, however, and in fairness to critics of the MZC’s festival involvement I must also mention that it required an incredible amount of planning and effort on the part of the organizing members, and an intense reliance on member volunteers and their families and friends during the festival itself. The question as to whether the organization should forego festival involvement in lieu of engaging in more traditional “Zen” activities, making up the financial shortfall with membership dues and donations, was certainly a question worthy of debate.

Unfortunately, it was a debate that would never be given the deliberation that it deserved. All festival involvement came to a screeching halt last July, 2012, when the board sent out a message to a publicly accessible email discussion list that the MZC would not be participating in the 2012 festival due to the cancellation of Rosan’s talk. According to the board’s email:

This happened as a result of a few complaints to the [owner of the festival grounds] after Rosan discussed his opposition to nuclear power, among other things, during his talk last year.

Included in this email was part of a communication sent to the MZC board by the festival organizers. I quote from it here with minor redaction:

Unless [the festival organizers] receive a guarantee directly from Dr. Yoshida that he will cease his behaviour immediately, we will eliminate the MZC booth from this and future Festivals. Dr. Yoshida must also agree not to be present… during the Festival. The [owner of the festival grounds] is reviewing all options at their disposal to assure Dr. Yoshida does not disrupt the Festival. He must agree not to appear at the Festival in any capacity.

Wow, this seems a lot more serious than just the cancellation of a talk due to disagreement over its subject matter! What was this behavior that Dr. Yoshida was being called upon to cease immediately? Why was there such concern about his very presence at the festival? What potential disruptions were the festival organizers attempting to preempt? In this regard, the board’s email raised far more questions than it answered.

I must confess, however, that I was not surprised in the least by this turn of events. Over the years I’d noticed Rosan’s teachings veering more and more toward anti-nuclear and global warming speechifying and farther away from topics that might be more typically considered “Buddhist”. Let me be clear here, I’m actually in total agreement with Rosan on both of these very important issues. The only difference is that I recognize with greater clarity perhaps that the MZC is neither the Sierra Club nor the Missouri Coalition for the Environment; we are the Missouri ZEN Center and we do not do justice to our mission of promoting Zen if the only people who stick around to hear our message are other left-leaning environmentalists who just happen to also think that meditation might be of benefit.

But it’s not even the case that I disagree with these important issues being discussed in the context of a “Zen talk” – after all, where does Zen stop and everything else begin? – it’s just that obsessiveness and insensitivity to the needs of your audience serve well neither a Zen message nor an environmental one. I can attest to this by virtue of my tenure helping to teach the introductory Zen class to first-time visitors to the MZC. Time and time again I witnessed the air being sucked out of the zendo not even ten minutes into Rosan’s talk after him launching into his ‘sixth mass extinction’ segue into the doom and gloom that awaits if we don’t all begin meditating right now.

So, no, it came as no surprise to me whatsoever when I read an email exchange between one of our members and a representative of the festival committee in which this representative shed further light on the harsh stance that the committee took towards Dr. Yoshida. According to this representative, Rosan’s talk at the 2012 festival was cancelled as a result of feedback received during and after his talk the previous year. That 2011 talk was reported to be (I am paraphrasing here) only tangentially related to its purported subject matter and was inflammatory and provocative to the point that some in the audience were prompted to walk out in the middle and others were prompted to remark to the owner of the festival grounds as to its inappropriateness. This representative went on to allege that, upon learning of the cancellation of his talk, Dr. Yoshida questioned the committee’s ethics and integrity, accused them of succumbing to the censorship power of the nuclear industry, and threatened to bring the matter to the attention of the public if his talk were not reinstated. It was the nature of what this representative referred to as a “continual barrage” from Dr. Yoshida lasting for a number of months that the committee became concerned about disruptions to the festival and acted on the advice of the counsel of the owner of the festival grounds in barring him from the festival. Yes, whose festival is this, anyway?

Rosan seems to have a very different view of how the discussion regarding the cancellation of his talk transpired. In an email dated a couple of days after the board email quoted from above, Rosan remarked on both his belief in the inextricability of Zen and nuclear issues and the obstinance of the festival committee during negotiations related to the reinstatement of his talk – even going so far as to say that the committee treated him “brutally”. Given that the accounts of what happened between Dr. Yoshida and the festival committee vary so, something that the MZC board must have been aware of at the time, I think it extremely gracious and loyal on their part to communicate later on in that same email quoted above:

Rosan is the teacher and abbot of our sangha and we feel that it would not be right to participate in [the festival] if he is not welcome.

As an aside, I find it worthy of note that this same extremely gracious and loyal board would soon be vilified by Rosan and others for its supposedly underhanded and power-grabbing ways, changing the bylaws as it did. But I’m getting ahead of myself!

Following the publication of this letter from the MZC board, the email discussion list was peppered with numerous messages offering words of encouragement and alternative fundraising ideas. In addition, one author spoke of having already begun a campaign on social media calling for the boycott of the owners of the festival grounds – a campaign that was, to my knowledge, subsequently scuttled. Another suggested that the media be alerted if the MZC should decide not to participate in the festival.

Yes, it would seem like a time for rallying together in the face of adversity, wouldn’t it? It would seem like a time to come to the defense of your embattled teacher, wouldn’t it? Well, I suppose I just have different karma, but I, for one, was wondering how the MZC was going to maintain itself given the loss of its major fundraiser. I was wondering why nobody (publicly anyway) seemed to want to dig deeper into precisely how it was that their teacher ended up being banned from the festival. I was wondering what kind of organization takes such pains to protect the image of its teacher even if that means that the truth is overlooked or tucked away, and the reputation of another organization gets sullied in the process. I was wondering just what constitutes standards of practice for a non-profit board. What if Rosan were to pass away suddenly or need to retire? The organization could then be left without a teacher, without a place of practice, and without any fund-raising prospects with which to secure one. How does drifting along under such a cloud of organizational uncertainty further the mission of the Missouri Zen Center – the propagation of Zen and the Awakened Way? Indeed, whose festival is this, anyway?

Please check out Power - A Prelude if you’re wondering about my motivation for telling this story.

Rosan Osamu Yoshida
Image Credits

Sushi image courtesy of Mizu Japanese and Sushi Restaurant via:

Copyright 2013 by Mark Frank


  1. You left us hanging, Mark. The suspense for those without knowledge of the subsequent events (fortunately not me!) must be awful. I hope you put Part III up soon.

  2. Hello again. Yes, check back in a couple of days. Thanks! By the way, the publicly accessible email discussion list referred to in the post seems to have been deleted as of the beginning of this blog series. Nonetheless, I will continue to refer to communications that appeared on it as having appeared on a publicly accessible list becaue, in fact, it was publicly accessible up until the past couple of days, or today even. Thank you. Mark