Sunday, August 25, 2013

Power, Part 4 - Whose Election Is This, Anyway?

Whether you’ve watched this story unfold in real time or over the course of the first three posts of this series, you most certainly know that it is building to a climax. A Missouri Zen Center board election is on the verge of taking place, and in a rip-roaring display of the democratic process (made all the more free and fair, open and honest on account of it being a Buddhist election, mind you) the people will have their say! So, will the great unfolding of Buddhism in North America be kept pure and pristine by voters rushing in to support their paragon of truth, wisdom and righteousness, Osamu Rosan Yoshida – the teacher? Or will that band of rogue upstarts prevail instead, those would-be thieves of the robe and bowl, those reckless egomaniacs – the board? Patience, patience, dear reader; we first must decide who actually enjoys the privilege of voting.

Now, one might think this would be a fairly simple task, but in actual fact this has been a topic of much debate at the Missouri Zen Center (MZC). It is my recollection from my first tenure on the MZC board way back in the early 00s that dues-payers, those who have donated appreciable labor or in-kind support, and those who have undergone lay ordination with the resident teacher (think Buddhist baptism or communion or something like that) were all considered voting members of the MZC – with the latter enjoying lifetime voting rights, regardless of the other criteria. These respective categories allowed for or recognized: 1) the usual definition of membership, 2) those of limited financial means, and 3) the strong connection and responsibility that a lay Buddhist ordainee feels to and for his or her place of practice.

I can’t say how often this last category of membership has been utilized in order to vote in an MZC election, but I suspect that it has been rather infrequent, and, at any rate, the ordainee would have to have actually been present at the meeting in question in order to cast his or her vote. To my knowledge, the MZC has never accommodated any form of voting other than that done in person at the annual meeting at which board members are elected.

At this point I must mention that, until last summer, I always thought that Rosan was in agreement with these categories of membership. However, during a board meeting last summer after the festival debacle he was distinctly heard to opine that only dues-paying and actively-engaged members should be allowed to vote. Of interesting note is the fact that this utterance came on the heels of someone with then-effective lifetime voting privileges expressing the view that, if the MZC could so cavalierly say goodbye to such a lucrative fundraising opportunity as it just did when it backed out of the festival, then perhaps it didn’t need that person’s money all that much! At any rate, I believe this to be a salient point because the first major communication indicating that an election was close at hand was one related to this matter precisely.

I’m going to let the actual chronology of events dictate the telling of the story from here on out. Unless specifically noted, all of the communications referenced appeared on the publicly accessible email discussion forum of the Missouri Zen Center (subsequently taken down as this series "went to press"). In italics I will summarize the communication as factually as I can within the space constraints of this post. I will then either comment on it or provide clarification or background information as warranted.

March 4: The board secretary posts a list of members eligible to vote based upon the criteria prevailing at the time: some combination of regular MZC attendance, monetary donations, and/or work on behalf of the MZC.

Please note that these criteria are in keeping with what Rosan had opined the previous summer, i.e. with lay ordainees not specifically granted lifetime voting privileges. Thus, that outspoken lifetime member who’d hinted at never paying dues again was indeed disenfranchised. It was later reported to me that these membership criteria were formally considered at a meeting on January 20, 2013 and unanimously agreed upon by board members as well as Rosan. By the way, that was the same meeting at which the vote to amend the bylaws occurred.

March 26: Rosan requests contact information for a specific list of previous MZC members not included in the official voting membership list sent out previously.

Hmmm, these wouldn’t happen to be lay ordainees would they – with lifetime voting privileges? Methinks the teacher has something of a plan hidden up his robe-sleeve! Indeed, it was later reported to me that voting rights for lay-ordainees were restored at Rosan’s request just a few days earlier.  

April 1: The board secretary sends out notice that the annual meeting will be held on April 14, that nominations for the board of directors are open, and that having taken lay ordination at the MZC will also be one of the criteria for membership voting rights.

It was later reported to me that Rosan had been pushing for the voting eligibility of lay ordainees, despite his having spoken against such voting privileges that previous summer and voted against them not two months previously. Apparently he changed his mind, and it is not difficult to understand why. Though he may not care for the leanings of that one outspoken lifetime member, there are numerous others out there who have no idea what’s going on at the MZC and who are ready vessels for ‘the truth according to Rosan.’ Let me explain. I already mentioned in Part 3 that the MZC has experienced a great deal of comings and goings over the years. Some of this, of course, relates to the transient nature of our modern society, but some of it relates to Zen practice in general, and some of it relates to the organizational culture of the MZC in particular. Occasionally those individuals who have physically moved on will choose to stay in touch via the email discussion forum, but many times they do not. Therefore, they will not be privy to the goings-on at the MZC unless someone specifically seeks them out in order to tell them something. And this is precisely why I say that it appears that the teacher has a plan!

April 8: A member requests to read the history of MZC board meeting minutes.

This member, newly active once again after a fairly long hiatus, will henceforth be referred to as #2, denoting a second eventual nomination to the board. (Recall that #1 was introduced in Part 3.) As will become apparent, #2’s interest in the history of the meeting minutes will be with an eye toward “proving” that Rosan is and always has been a member of the board, despite the lack of support for such a claim within the bylaws themselves. This claim that Rosan is a member of the board is central to the position of those who believe that the board acted “illegally” in changing the bylaws by virtue of having done so in Rosan’s absence. See Part 3 - Whose Truth Is This, Anyway? for more detail, but, in short, the vote took place in Rosan's presence, and he is not on the board, anyway. So, whether you contend that Rosan is a board member or not, the bylaws were changed in accord with the bylaws.

Now, I’m reluctant to make the following comments lest they be perceived as mere ad hominem attacks, but the fact of the matter is, members of the board will be seen to be mischaracterized as disloyal, unwise, untrustworthy, and acting in their own self interests when it is actually the case that a number of members on the board have practiced with Rosan more closely and for longer duration than nearly all other current MZC practitioners – sitting sesshin, transcribing lectures, participating in study groups, serving on the board and as doans, planning events, taking part in lay ordination, etc. On the other hand, #2 has not been involved in matters of formal Zen practice at the MZC or any other place of practice that I am aware of to the extent that I just relate. Similarly, #1, despite having undergone lay ordination years ago, has not accepted responsibility for much over these ensuing years beyond showing up for an occasional and infrequent period of zazen. I find it rather curious then (after it not being all that important to support Rosan and the MZC for all those years) that this bylaws issue suddenly ignites a strong desire to serve.

Please understand that I do not make these comments in order to compare one Zen practitioner to another. My reason for pointing this out is for one reason alone: to draw attention to the fact that a new standard for board membership seems to have arisen over the course of just the few previous months, one that has but a single criterion – namely, unwavering support for dictatorial power being in the hands of the teacher.

April 10: An email from Dr. Yoshida’s son, originally sent only to a select group of recipients (not the entire voting membership), is forwarded to the open email discussion list by one of those select recipients. After introducing himself to his intended audience as someone likely not seen since he was a little boy catching the school bus, he proceeds to assert the “questionable legality” of the board’s action to correct the illegality of the bylaws. He then states that members of the board have “misrepresented” their actions, and he raises the specter of a “malicious” board raiding the funds of the organization. He goes on to cite his experience with the maneuvering shenanigans of power-grabbing boards in the startup world in which he navigates, and he then states that his father “no longer has confidence” in certain board members. He closes by inviting the reader to sign and mail an attached proxy ballot assigning all voting rights and all other rights of attendance “at the 2013 Annual Meeting of the Missouri Zen Center, or at any adjourned meeting…” to Dr. Yoshida.

Wow, there is so much here I don’t even know where to begin! First of all, Rosan’s son (perhaps we should just start referring to him as #3) can only know what his father has told him; he does not even live in this state, let alone engage in practice at the MZC. Second, while he used to live in the house that has since become the MZC’s physical location, I’ve only seen him on the premises once during my tenure with the organization that spans almost fifteen years. That one occasion was indeed to sit zazen, but except for that one occasion it is unknown whether he is actually a regular zazen practitioner, or even a nominal Buddhist, for that matter. Yes, a pattern is definitely becoming apparent with respect to support for Rosan’s unchecked authority being the criterion for board membership. Third, Rosan’s son speaks of board maneuverings even as he engages in a nice little maneuver of his own: sending out a proxy ballot (one that has not been discussed amongst the board or the membership at large) to a select and undisclosed list of individuals who will then presumably enable Rosan to walk into the annual meeting at which the board election will take place exclaiming “Voila! I am voting on behalf of the following people!” Certainly, even the most basic grasp of ethics and principles of fair play would lead one to realize that any such proxy voting rights/privileges should be enjoyed by all members openly and equally. Likewise, this same basic grasp of principles of fair play would lead one to realize that casting such negative aspersions on the board to a select party of undisclosed individuals without allowing the board to have knowledge of the attack or the means to defend itself against it, is unethical and uncalled for. So, it seems that Rosan’s plan is taking shape: manipulate with misinformation a disengaged and far-flung electorate who will not have access to a full and truthful account of what has been going on at the MZC. By the way, the board secretary introduced above just happens to be one of those board members in which Rosan “no longer has confidence.”  This board member will henceforth be referred to as the ‘targeted board member’ (TBM) on account of very soon being targeted for removal from the board by the executive director, Rosan. Oh, and, yes, Rosan’s son will indeed be nominated to the board. Perhaps the MZC will be passed on from father to son as has been the case with some of the temples in Japan!

April 11: An at-large member who has worked closely over the years with both Rosan and the board emails an explanation of the situation to the wider sangha – the illegality of the so-called concurrence clause of the bylaws and the changing of said bylaws in an open meeting at which Rosan and other members were present. Stated, as well, is the possibility that those who might be motivated to assign Rosan their proxy ballot may, in fact, not know the whole story. Included is a list of past and present board members who can be contacted for further clarification.

Unfortunately, this emailed explanation struck me as ‘too little too late.’ It went out to the open email discussion list and probably didn’t even reach that private list of recipients with whom Rosan’s son, #3, had already sewn such seeds of misinformation. Actually, I was waiting for such an explanation to come from the board itself. I’d heard that they were working on one, but it was never forthcoming for some reason that was unfathomable to me at the time. Only later would it be reported to me that, after the board had completed drafting its letter of explanation, it was deemed to reflect so poorly on Rosan – despite every word of it being true – that the board just couldn’t bring itself to send it out. Those disloyal boards do the darnedest things, don’t they?

April 12: Rosan sends out an email claiming that the previous email “misrepresents the Missouri Zen Center.” He goes on to say that the organization’s non-profit status is inconsequential when compared to the ultimate goal of the organization, stating: “We must place the Buddha Dharma, truth, purity, and prognosis above mundane matters.”

Rosan does not expound on precisely how the previous email is misrepresentative. Apparently it just is. What is of specific interest here, however, is the fact that Rosan begins to frame this issue as a choice between the purity of the Buddha Dharma and the mundane requirement that bylaws actually be legal. This, of course, is a false choice.

April 12: #2 posts an additional response to the email written by the aforementioned member at large. This long letter asserts numerous things – that churches are automatically tax-exempt, that Rosan is actually on the board, that the professor of nonprofit law at the prestigious university who opined regarding the MZC bylaws does not really know what he is talking about, and that the board changed the bylaws without Rosan being present. The letter is signed by Rosan, #1, and #2.

What #2 seems to be saying is that, since churches are automatically tax-exempt (his assertion) there is no need to comply with state law regarding non-profit organizations – despite the fact that the MZC is indeed a non-profit organization. Let’s be clear here, since its inception, the MZC sought and, with the possible exception of a period of time when the required paperwork might have lapsed, it has enjoyed non-profit status. The board is merely ensuring that all applicable laws are complied with. It is the concurrence clause that was illegal and it was the concurrence clause that was excised. Additionally, #2 perseveres with his and Rosan’s contention that Rosan is really on the board, despite him not being named so in the bylaws and despite him never coming up for election as every other board member in the history of the organization has come up for election. The reason for this perseverance may not be obvious, but it fits in with his and Rosan’s aforementioned storyline of the board having “illegally” changed the bylaws during an ad hoc meeting that was not actually a valid board meeting because not all board members were notified. Oh well, it does make for a good storyline, doesn’t it?

April 12: The MZC board president weighs in to communicate the pains that the board went through in determining the best course of action: “We found out that most zen centers around the country are governed by their board. Most do not have the abbot on the board, but one we found did. We were told by these abbots that a Soto Zen Buddhist center is not run by the abbot, it is governed by the board.  It makes no difference if you are the founder.” 

April 12: Rosan responds to the president’s letter. “What is the ultimate thing we should preserve and protect? You can not understand why the concurrence is necessary without these Did you ask those centers you contacted about the supramundane, the paramount truth, Buddhist traditions, philosophies, histories, etc.? Did you learn from them how Buddhism degraded, deteriorated, and destroyed?”… “Why can't you change just the name from the E.D. or just interpret the E.D. [executive director] as Abbot? Then there is no problem and no need to change the bylaws. You have been determined to remove the concurrence clause, which removes the safeguard against hostile takeover, degradation, and destruction of the true Dharma.”

There’s that false choice once again between the Buddha Dharma and such mundane matters as ethical and legal organizational governance. Interestingly, non-profit status was deemed important enough that the organization sought to obtain it in the first place and then maintain it for decades, but as soon as it becomes apparent that it keeps Rosan from acting in an unchecked authoritarian manner it is suddenly not all that important, after all. I’m noticing something of a pattern forming in this regard. For instance, MZC involvement in the festival fundraiser spoken of in a previous post was also all well and good while the money was coming in and Rosan could speak as he wished. As soon as he is constrained in even the most reasonable way, however, it suddenly becomes the case that MZC involvement in the festival is not in keeping with its mission, after all. The board, likewise, only becomes something to be mistrusted and disdained after it takes action to reign in the unchecked power that Rosan has enjoyed for far too long. Lastly, I'm not quite sure what Rosan is getting at with his suggestion to simply change the titles in the bylaws. The legal opinion relied upon stands independent of whatever titles might be applied to whom.

April 12: TBM responds in detail to a member at large that, after researching the governance of numerous Zen centers and temples, it was learned that “at none of these centers and temples did the teacher have the final say on matters other than teaching or practice.” A link to the Antaiji website was included for those interested in further research. TBM (board secretary) further states that the bylaw change was voted on in an open meeting with about twelve members present, including Rosan, who dissented.

April 12: Rosan responds to TBM’s letter, stating that no decision to delete the concurrence clause was made at the meeting in question. Rosan closes that email with a warning: “If you truly value your teacher, please take my cautions and advice seriously.”

You've probably already noticed this, but it is not that TBM or the board are not taking the teacher’s cautions and advice seriously, it is not a matter of TBM or the board not understanding these cautions and advice, it is just that Rosan is coming from a place of ‘do what I say because I am the teacher’ and the board is neither willing nor able (from a legal standpoint) to do so.

April 12: Rosan posts the opinion of his personal lawyer that the concurrence clause is not illegal and that the board’s action to change it was illegal by virtue of the action taking place at a board meeting without one of the board members (Rosan)being notified.

Yes, why listen to an expert in the field of non-profit law when you’ve got your own personal lawyer whose opinion you like much better! I’m afraid that, after reading this legal opinion, the only conclusion that I can draw is that this lawyer has fallen prey to Rosan’s incorrect contention that he is both on the board and that the board voted to amend the bylaws without him being present. As previously mentioned, neither of these is actually true, despite Rosan and his supporters persevering in this fictional retelling of the story.

April 12: TBM further rebuts Rosan’s and his lawyer’s point that the bylaw change would have required his concurrence, stating that the bylaws simply do not state such a requirement when it comes to changes in the bylaws themselves.

April 13: Rosan responds to TBM, stating: “What you did is nothing but destroying the Sangha relying on the splendid scholar.” He continues: “Know thyself! Then only you will be saved - sit another thirty years! Strive hard without indolence!”

Once again, there’s that charge related to destroying the sangha – coupled with the insinuation that only Rosan has the right view of the matter at hand.

The Meeting

The meeting “began” with #2, as yet unelected, attempting to pass out copies of an agenda that he stated had been drafted at Rosan’s request. However, this attempt to wrest control of the meeting at the outset from the duly elected president of the board was quickly nipped in the bud by present and past board members in attendance and the meeting was brought to order by the president of the board. The first item on the agenda was to go around the room and allow each person three minutes to speak his or her mind with respect to the issues and contentiousness that had played out up to that point. Upon learning that the order of movement through the room would be to the president’s left (as is customary at MZC meetings), thereby leaving #2 in the position of speaking almost last, #2 launched into a forceful protestation at having to wait so long to speak. By the way, neither #1 nor #3 were in attendance.

Of course, there was much to discuss, and much was indeed discussed. However, one of the most important matters considered related to whether or not to allow the proxy ballots to be used. Remember those? Discussion ensued as to the unfair and irregular nature of these ballots and, after a vote, these ballots were not allowed. Instead, a compromise was ultimately decided upon whereby the voting for new board members would take place via mail-in ballot. Unfortunately, this compromise did not occur quickly enough to prevent Rosan from heatedly declaring it possible for him to revoke the lineage of the entire Missouri Zen Center – an outburst that prompted one board member to enquire as to whether Rosan was, in fact, threatening the membership. This board member’s query received no reply, and one will have to ask Rosan precisely what he meant when he made this statement. At any rate, with a couple of notable exceptions, the meeting was fairly orderly and productive. The fact that the highly questionable proxy ballots were disallowed without ultimately disenfranchising anybody who had already been determined to be a legitimate voter is a testament to the fairness and integrity of both the board and the majority of voting members present.

Unfortunately, this also means that the train wreck will grind onward for nearly another month. It also means that I have to write another post! Stay tuned!

Rosan Osamu Yoshida
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Copyright 2013 by Mark Frank


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    1. I commented regarding the election before realizing that the post didn't quite conclude with that part yet, so I'll save my comment for the next post! Thanks again for the putting this together.