Friday, August 23, 2013

Power, Part 3 - Whose Truth Is This, Anyway?

If you’ve taken the time to read the prelude and first two posts in this series, thank you! I only hope that your return was prompted by the intriguing nature of the issues raised rather than our macabre and all too human fascination with watching trains run off the rails! For those of you who are just now discovering this series, I’ll do my best to bring you up to speed. I strongly suggest, however, that you check out Prelude, Whose Zen Center Is This? and Whose Festival Is This? prior to continuing.

At any rate, by the close of the previous post we’d begun to see truth itself becoming a very slippery thing to apprehend, even with respect to the most ordinary of circumstances. Was Osamu Rosan Yoshida’s scheduled lecture to be held on the property of another during the annual festival of another something to which he was entitled, something for which he could demand carte blanche freedom to speak on any topic and in any way that he might have chosen, or was it a favor afforded him with the tacit understanding that his lecture be a culturally enriching experience for festivalgoers? Were the negotiations that took place in order to determine whether that talk should be reinstated indeed “brutal” for having ultimately been called off, or were they incredibly patient instead for having been allowed to proceed for so long in the first place? Did Missouri Zen Center (MZC) board members let their loyalty to their teacher get in the way of their making a financially sound decision on behalf of the organization that they serve when they decided to forego the festival fundraiser entirely, or was it instead a long overdue decision that would free up energy for more mission-congruent activities?

I actually have no doubt that the MZC board did its very best to weigh the very difficult circumstances that it was presented with. Maybe the festival fundraiser really did hinder the development of projects more in keeping with the furtherance of Zen. Maybe it really was the right time to bow out for the sake of the future of the organization. Perhaps Rosan’s banishment from the festival did the organization a backhanded favor by pushing it in the direction of the decision that it made. Notwithstanding how one might answer these questions, others were beginning to spring up in the minds of board members and members-at-large alike regarding both the soundness of Rosan’s judgment in particular, and the responsibilities entrusted to the boards of non-profit organizations in general – responsibilities such as determining the organization’s mission and purpose, evaluating its chief executive (that would be Rosan), monitoring its programs and services, overseeing fundraising and fiduciary activities, ensuring legal and ethical integrity, and enhancing the organization's public standing, among others (Ingram, 2008).

Despite the board’s loyalty in supporting Rosan subsequent to the cancellation of his talk, the relationship between the two was already beginning to become strained. There arose disagreement over whether Rosan had kept the board adequately informed about the possible cancellation of his talk. Rosan contended that he had. One board member, on the other hand, stated publicly that he had not. Incidentally, this same board member would later be targeted for removal from the board by none other than Rosan himself – but I’m getting ahead of myself once again.

There also arose a publicly expressed lack of appreciation for Rosan’s expanding habit of talking during zazen. He would opine that these talks are kusen, a form of teaching and encouragement to practitioners. Others, however, came to consider them more of a distraction than anything, undermining their very reason for attending the MZC in the first place – for a quiet environment in which to practice zazen. That these talks, like the festival talk, have at times delved into the nature of nuclear radiation and such might shed light as well on how some might receive them. One can learn about the realities of environmental degradation in many ways. Silent meditation, however, is preferably practiced in…, um…, silence.

And so it was that, out of concern for dwindling membership and the questions that arose in the wake of the festival debacle, the board sought to survey the MZC membership in order to gauge what was of interest, importance, and concern to them. Unfortunately, despite this initiative enjoying unanimous board support, it was reportedly not well-received by Rosan. One board member stated that it had become apparent that Rosan didn’t think that the organization needed to make any changes whatsoever. If the survey were to go forward, however, he reportedly wanted to limit survey recipients to only those who were current members, something that would have totally avoided the elephant in the room – the fact that the MZC has experienced something of a revolving door phenomenon with respect to the coming and going of practitioners over the years. With such a constraint hanging over it, the survey proposal was not acted upon, further prompting some on the board to question its function and purpose within the organization.

In order to help gain clarity as to the nature of the board’s responsibilities, a couple of board members sought the assistance of an organization that provides guidance to non-profit entities. These board members were in turn referred to a legal clinic for nonprofit organizations run by the law school of a very well-respected local university. It was upon learning of the legal opinion of one of the professors overseeing this clinic that the board became fully aware of the fact that the “concurrence clause” embedded within the MZC bylaws was not in compliance with the laws governing non-profit organizations in the state of Missouri. The board's decision-making ability should not be subject to the approval or disapproval of one individual - in this case, Rosan. The bylaws were, in other words, illegal.

Given this knowledge of the illegality of the bylaws, the MZC board took very seriously its responsibility to act so as to ensure the legal and ethical integrity of the organization – one of the primary board responsibilities noted above. Board representatives met with Rosan in order to explain the situation. Not surprisingly, however, he was opposed to the bylaws being changed. How else would a hostile takeover of the organization be repelled? In an attempt to try to find some agreeable middle ground it was proposed that Rosan be made a member of the board. Another proposal toward this end was to specifically state Rosan’s authority over matters of Zen practice, even as other responsibilities remained within board purview. Unfortunately, such attempts at finding a mutually beneficial correction to the bylaws came to naught. It would seem that nothing but the absolute dictatorial control implicit within the then-existing (and illegal) bylaws would assuage Rosan’s concerns.

And so it came to pass that on January 20th of this year, at a regular meeting at which Rosan and other members-at-large were present, the president made the following motion (as recorded by the secretary):

I move that the MZC bylaws be amended to accommodate equal votes among board members on administrative matters, excluding matters of teaching and practice.  I further move that the whole of the MZC bylaws be evaluated after consulting with authorities in law and Soto Zen Buddhism, in close consultation with the larger MZC sangha and our teacher, Rosan Yoshida, and that we craft bylaws that will enable us to provide a harmonious environment in which practitioners can learn about and practice the Awakened Way.

It was reported that this motion passed with unanimous board approval. Rosan, on the other hand, reportedly did not approve of it. Now, a couple of things are worth pointing out at this time: One is the fact that the bylaws do not state that the board needs Rosan’s concurrence in order to change the bylaws themselves. Another, which is of particular relevance given the frequency with which it would come to be stated to the contrary, is the fact that the board voted to amend the bylaws at a regular board/membership meeting at which Rosan and others were present – it was just that the matter was left open-ended in order to accommodate further discussion and exploration.

Rosan was absent from MZC practice for almost four weeks subsequent to that meeting, presumably in protest, and while his absence during this period was certainly obvious to all in attendance, what was not widely known was the intensity of the communication taking place behind the scenes. The board president attempted twice via email to reengage Rosan in dialogue, but these overtures were reportedly rebuffed. Rosan, on the other hand, reportedly initiated dialogue with another board member altogether – a long-term practitioner who has been one of his most earnest and faithful students in recent years. Unfortunately, the dialogue that ultimately ensued between Rosan and this board member was reported to have become so intensely stressful for this board member that they ended up resigning. Of course, in keeping with the organization’s history of keeping a happy public face when it comes to matters regarding its teacher, neither this resignation nor the circumstances that prompted it were communicated to the membership at large. Oh, and by the way…, this board member was not the aforementioned board member whom Rosan would later target for removal.

Yet another piece of information that was largely unknown at the time is that, once the board was finally able to arrange a private meeting with Rosan on February 17 in order to work towards reaching some resolution to the matter at hand, it ended up being unexpectedly “crashed” by a cadre of Rosan’s invitees who were largely unaware of what was going on at the MZC save for what they might have known from Rosan’s point of view. I will henceforth refer to one of the more prominent of these invitees as #1, denoting this individual’s eventual nomination to the board. This was reportedly a very unproductive meeting in which the board was essentially told that they were “out of line” without much substantive discussion taking place. Given this rather bleak situation, the board ended up holding a special meeting on February 22 during which they finalized the crafting of that which had already been approved in Rosan’s presence – the amended bylaws. Apparently it is Rosan’s absence from this special meeting that forms the basis of his contention that the board acted illegally in changing the bylaws in his absence.  

At this point let me back up for just one moment in order to call attention to the fact that that February 17 meeting was the first time in the unfolding of this entire saga wherein one group of practitioners would be pitted against another. My reason for calling attention to this point is that Rosan, as will be seen, will become quite accustomed to accusing others of causing a schism within the sangha – one of five actions regarded as so heinous within Buddhism that the perpetrator’s ability to make amends for the resulting bad karma is extremely limited indeed. By the way, the other heinous actions that causing a schism within the sangha compares to involve killing one’s mother or father, buddhas and saints.

At any rate, this pretty much brings us up to my posting of Buddhism and the Suspension of Critical Thinking on February 19th – something that I was convinced was the right thing to do after hearing of Rosan’s enlistment of a faction of his supporters to stand up to the duly elected board at the aforementioned meeting. Long-term readers will recall that that post conveyed the nature of the issue regarding the bylaws, and the fact that the teacher (Rosan) had remained absent from many of the practice periods in protest subsequent to the board’s action. That post also posed the rhetorical question:

[W]ill this bylaw change constitute a step toward a more solid non-profit footing, or away from the so-called purity of Buddhist practice? Will rejection of said bylaw change constitute a step away from the controlling meddling of the state or toward the organizational dynamics of a cult?

Rosan didn’t much care for that post, by the way. He warned me that, by virtue of my having undergone lay-ordination, I am part of a lineage of teachers stretching back to the Buddha, none of whom should be defiled or defamed - including him, presumably. He also insinuated that my words were libelous, although he did not specify how; and, oh yeah, he reminded me that creating a schism within the sangha is one of the gravest of offenses.

What is interesting about Rosan’s comments within the context of a blog series related to power and a blog post related to truth is that they are such obvious attempts on his part to use the power of his position to affect what truth becomes known. In turn, of course, what truth becomes known impacts his ability to hang on to power. Note the three-pronged attempt to silence me in this regard: 1) characterizing my calling attention to issues worthy of discussion as a breaking of the precepts that I have vowed to uphold. 2) insinuating that, simply by speaking the truth about a situation already unfolding at the MZC, I am somehow creating a schism within the sangha. 3) insinuating that I have libeled him, something that would have a chilling effect on my speaking out if, in fact, what I’d said were untrue, and if, in fact, my intentions were malicious.

It is at this juncture that the story turns into a truly surreal tale in which the election of new board members morphs into something of a referendum on both the bylaw change and the board members who supported it. Please stay tuned!

Rosan Osamu Yoshida

Ingram, R.T. (2008) Ten basic responsibilities of nonprofit boards (governance series 1, 2nd edition). Published by BoardSource.

Image Credits

Chancel window at Holy Trinity Church, Leicester, by PJParkinson via:


Copyright 2013 by Mark Frank


  1. Thanks Mark. I'm glad you've written this, and I must say it's a truly thrilling read. It's like I'm reliving the whole unfortunate series of events!

  2. I miss a few days and the saga is almost over! I look forward to reading the next couple of posts.

  3. It has been unfortunate. I hope reading this series has been a cathartic experience of sorts. Thank you for reading! Mark

  4. Thanks for reading, Bob! I'll "wrap" things up tomorrow... I use quotes here because I'm not sure this will ever be in a neat little package.