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04 Governance - admin - 06-13-2020

All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. - Leo Tolstoy

  Known as the Anna Karenina principle: happy families share in common a variety of causes and conditions which lead to happiness, while any number of missing components can cause an unhappy family. This concept has been generalized to apply to several fields of study.

  If this principle applies to Zen centers, or more broadly, all spiritual centers, and a variety of conditions all must be met for continuance, but even one missing condition can spell dissolution, is it any wonder so many spiritual communities are short lived?  In fact, one might apply this principle in general to explain impermanence at large. The continued existence of any situation is dependent on such a myriad of conditions that nothing can endlessly endure, the best we can hope for is slow, directed change.

  Given the ever changing contingencies a spiritual community encounters, skillful governance might be the most important factor for it's duration, for achieving that slow, directed change. This is what we will focus on in this thread.  Other factors for a thriving spiritual community that will be explored later are:
                                         
  • An Inspirational Teacher, or Elders to provide guidance and encouragement to newer practitioners; 
  • Sincere, Engaged Members  -  A commitment to the ideals and ways of the practice, and the willingness to make the effort to maintain the community as well as abide by the agreements made within it;
  • Right Speech - Skillful use of language to promote mutual understanding and intimacy;
  • Understandable rules and procedures that every member can follow in the day to day operation of the temple, written and easily available to all;
  • A straightforward and comprehensible process for addressing grievances, that can be carried out in an unbiased way.
If you think of others, please provide them in the comment section.

  While all unhappy families may be unhappy in their own way, two constants are observed time and again in the recent cases of abusive, dysfunctional Zen centers and other spiritual communities:
  1. a lack of process or the employment of a process to address grievances, exacerbated by:
  2. a form of governance that is not open to members easily participating in the process by which decisions are made that affect them, i.e., autocracies and oligarchies. 
  Once the inevitable serious conflict occurs, especially, but not limited to a conflict with a teacher or other person in management, it is all too easy for those in power to mobilize the familiar defenses of denial, discrediting, silencing or simply ignoring. Without a means to redress or work out differences, and the suppression of one point of view, the unheard party's frustration festers and may manifest in different forms of disruptive behavior, and/or going outside the governing body, seeking a wider audience in the hopes of being heard.  All this can eventually lead to the dissolution, or the severe curtailment of a group's mission as it institutes further damage control, lurching from one crisis to the next.

  The Jikoji bylaws state:

SECTION 2. BASIC ASSUMPTIONS
The basic assumptions underlying the organization of Jikoji are:
(a)   membership is universal;
(b)   Directors, and Officers, and the Residents. including both the Resident Teacher and Resident Practitioners, serve and do not govern the affairs of the corporation;
©   there is no idea of hierarchy within the organization.


  On paper the Jikoji Zen Center appears to have an excellent governing structure in place, operating under democratic principles.  The teacher and staff are answerable to a board of three to eleven elected members, charged with appointment, oversight, and removal, if needed, of the Resident Teacher and staff, per the bylaws, Section 3 Duties of the Board of Directors:
                                 
SECTION 3. DUTIES
It shall be the duty of the Directors to:
(a)   Perform any and all duties imposed on them collectively or individually by law, by the Articles of Incorporation of this corporation or by these Bylaws.
(b)   Appoint and remove, employ and discharge, and, except as otherwise provided in these Bylaws, prescribe the duties and fix the compensation, if any, of all officers, agents and employees of the corporation, and the Resident Teacher.
©   Supervise all officers, agents and employees of the corporation to assure that their duties are performed properly.
(d)   Meet at such times and places as required by these Bylaws.
(e)   Register their current physical and e-mail addresses and facsimile telephone numbers with the Secretary of the corporation, except that a Board Member who is unwilling to have notices send by e-mail need not register an e-mail address. Notices of meetings mailed, emailed, or faxed to them at such physical/email addresses and/or fax numbers shall be valid notice thereof.
(f)    Comply with the letter and spirit of the Consensus Guidelines in all decision making matters based on the principal that failure to do so, including without limitation, inappropriate blocking of one or more decisions and personal attacks on other board or Sangha members shall be grounds for removal as a Director.


Digging a little deeper we find that the Directors are not elected by the membership of Jikoji, but by a designated group of Electors, who must satisfy the following requirements:

SECTION 19.  ELECTORS
The Board of Directors shall be elected by  members of the Sangha described in subparts (a), (b) and ©, below, who are herein referred to as the “Electors”. Only those Electors who are present at the meeting at which the election occurs and who have been active in the affairs of Jikoji in the preceding year shall be eligible to vote in such election. The term “active” is self-defined by each member of the Sangha who considers him or herself to have maintained a Buddhist practice at Jikoji during the preceding year. Provided if by consensus of the Board an Elector is deemed not to have maintained a Buddhist practice at Jikoji during the preceding year, such person shall not be eligible to vote in said election. An Elector is any one of the following Sangha members:
(a)     Current Board Members and ex-Board members including any Resident Practitioners (formerly referred to as “Caretakers”) who have served as Board Members;
(b)     Any person who serves as a Resident Practitioner on or after the date of adoption of these Third Amended Bylaws and in that capacity completes at least two years of service; and,
©     Any Sangha member who has received ordination in Kobun’s lineage or the lineage of his brother, Hojosama Keibun Otokawa, including both lay ordination and ordination as a priest.


  In practice, this has limited those who are eligible to vote for Directors at any one point in time to six to twelve people, usually on the low part of that range.  In a sangha containing perhaps over four hundred members, however loosely defined, this is far from a democracy, or a democratic republic, as the vast majority of the sangha has no say in the selection of representatives that will make decisions that affect them and their practice at Jikoji.
 
  Not only that, there are further restrictions on who is even eligible to be a board member:

Section 20: Eligibility
   Anyone is eligible to be elected to the board, provided she/he has served for at least one year on a standing committee and maintained a level of practice at Jikoji which in the judgment of such person is appropriate to qualify him or her to be a director of this Zen spiritual community. For the Resident Practitioner nominee for Board membership, the period of standing committee membership three months and practice at Jikoji shall be the period of  her or his residency at Jikoji


 The effect of this requirement is to limit board participation to a select few.  Since one can only be appointed by the Resident Teacher or the board to a standing committee, a perusal of the board minutes will reveal the same names reoccurring year after year as board members.  A revolving membership of a select few is the perfect recipe for inflexible government.  Not only is the requirement unduly restrictive, the "real reason" for its existence, as explained in a recent special board meeting, was to insure that anyone who got on the board was a "known quantity" to the Resident Teacher and Jikoji's lawyer. It is unclear why being known by Jikoji's lawyer should be a criteria for board membership - that seems irrelevant and inappropriate - and since the board oversees the Resident Teacher his approval for membership constitutes undue influence.

  All these restrictions to access to governance have deleterious consequences.  A sangha that is removed from any involvement in the decisions of the temple will not consider it as integral to their practice. Their lack of involvement creates a disengagement and a bifurcation within the sangha of those whose practice consist only or mainly in governance and those who only come to sit, listen to dharma talks, and participate in service, chanting and other rituals, and work days. Of the four current board members, three of them have minimal to no involvement in the meditation, sesshins, rituals and dharma discussions that make up the bulk of the activity for the majority of the sangha. One of the current officers of the board - who does not participate in the activities just mentioned - in referencing a member's qualifications to serve on the board characterized his forty plus years of sesshins and work contributions in the construction of the temple as the "Disneyland experience" of Jikoji, and so determined he was not qualified for board service.

  This gulf between management and practitioners becomes even more pronounced when a conflict occurs. A board or management group composed of members who are strangers to the majority of the sangha can hardly be expected to be impartial in a dispute between them and teachers, management and staff members who are friends and coworkers.  People who have been involved with groups where this has occurred, or even only read the descriptions of such occurrences, are well familiar with the rounds of denial, counter accusations, discrediting, ostracizing, gas lighting and other ploys mobilized by those close to the top when accused of mistreatment by a member of the wider sangha.  An us- against-them mentality quickly unfolds and pervades the entire organization. Next, the few in managerial positions define themselves as the organization, whether they practice there or not, and label those pressing for change and reconciliation as troublemakers, dissenters, bad students or an outside disaffected group. Organizations with oligarchic governance invariably spend a good deal of time suppressing the very antidote to the lack of innovation and disengagement it breeds - dissent - seeing it as a threat to their power, rather than a helpful corrective to one sided views.  According to Adriano Pianesi, dissent-friendly organizations encourage dissent in the following way:
  • The organization needs to value differences and conflict for the sake of better decision-making. Organizational cultures where avoiding conflict is the norm keep the cost of dissent so high that it becomes not affordable. When people can disagree with one another and express their dissent, organizations are healthier. Disagreements often result in a more thorough study of options and better decisions. However, it takes more than a memo or a sign to beat conflict avoidance and become truly OK with disagreement and dissent in the workplace.
  • Dissent-friendly processes and procedures lower the cost of raising dissenting opinions. Open-door policies, HR mechanisms (ombudsman and the like) and meeting protocols (devil’s advocate meetings) can all help regulate, give expression to and lower the cost of dissent. That reinforces the governance structure of the organization for better alignment and more efficient decision-making processes.
  • Speeches, posturing or PR will not cut it. When it comes to dissent, the proof is in the pudding: Are the dissenting opinions fully heard? Are there consequences for the dissenters? The true test of organizational dissent is whether the outcome of the dissent manages to be heard and — in some cases — becomes the consensus. If the dissenters are marginalized, taken down or eliminated, their example will not be followed and, no matter the rhetoric, dissent will disappear.
  Authoritarian structures are harmful to those in power as well as those deprived of it, as the acquisition of power appears to impair the ability to empathize, a serious issue for a practice based on selflessness and compassion.  Since empathy is a requirement for communicative action, its impairment hampers constructive dialogue.  Furthermore,  worse decisions are made than under more inclusive decision-making structures.  Given this, the democratic spirit of our society, and Kobun's opposition to hierarchy, why did Jikoji choose such a method?  It seems directly antithetical to Kobun’s egalitarian beliefs.  Limiting sangha and even the board’s involvement in decision- making has been explained a number of times as a necessary step to take after Kobun’s death in 2002.  A period of chaos and heated argumentation ensued, and a decision was made to turn to a committee-based decision-making process.  More on this history at another time, but we should consider whether a process set up to resolve a decision-making impasse during a time of crisis should be extended to the everyday governing of affairs at a Zen temple like Jikoji.

  Perhaps oligarchy was never chosen.  One theory of organizational structures claims that oligarchy is inevitable.  Termed the Iron Law of Oligarchy by sociologist Robert Michels, it is claimed that all democratic organizations inevitably turn into oligarchies because the leaders, rather than the organization's membership, will inevitably grow to dominate the organization's power structures.  Any large organization, Michels pointed out, has to create a bureaucracy in order to maintain its efficiency as it becomes larger—many decisions have to be made daily that cannot be made by large numbers of disorganized people. For the organization to function effectively, centralization has to occur and power will end up in the hands of a few. Those few—the oligarchy—will use all means necessary to preserve and further increase their power.  This is accomplished in the following ways:
  1. By controlling who has access to information, those in power can centralize their power successfully, often with little accountability, due to the apathy, indifference and non-participation most members have in relation to their organization's decision-making processes.
  2. Democratic attempts to hold leadership positions accountable are prone to fail, since with power comes the ability to reward loyalty.
  3. The ability to control what procedures the organization follows when making decisions is largely in the hands of the oligarchs.
  This may be an unnecessarily pessimistic view, stating it as a law has an air of inevitability, which, indeed, Michel’s did believe. It might be that their are only strong forces at play, driving democracies toward oligarchies, but it’s not an “iron law.”  Nevertheless, their are some great advantages to this view.  We need not look about for particular individuals to blame and demonize.  Those who have managed Jikoji for many years all have had good intentions, and accomplished much.  It is these forces at play that Michel points out that are to blame, always working to undermine democracy, that is what needs to be ameliorated by an engaged, informed and vigilant sangha.  There is no need to oppose members of the sangha who were in management positions.  They did the best they knew how to make Jikoji available for as many as possible, but like all sentient beings, they are subject to the myriad causes and conditions of existence, and cannot be expected to reach perfection.

  Much research has been done over the last several decades in regards to cognitive biases, Daniel Kahneman, and Amos Tversky in their 2011 summation of this work, Thinking, Fast and Slow, near its close, state, “The question that is most often asked about cognitive illusions is whether they can be overcome. The message … is not encouraging.”  Kahneman writes, “We would all like to have a warning bell that rings loudly whenever we are about to make a serious error, but no such bell is available.”


   A vigilant, actively engaged sangha is that warning bell.  By providing a diversity of opinions, backgrounds and perspectives it provides a check on the numerous biases to which any single individual or small group invariably succumb.  Kahneman agrees that the most effective check against them, is from the outside - others can perceive our errors more readily than we can.  Procedures organized in a way that dissuades or prevents people from acting on biased thoughts need to be defended against attempts to circumvent them by those headstrong enough to believe that the triumph of their view is more important than following process.  A reevaluation of what constitutes practice may be called for to include this role of the sangha in helping overcome restricted, fixed views as an aspect of the Bodhisattva's vows. It is not uncommon for students to view participation in governance as an odious responsibility, or worse, as something antithetical to practice, and view the sitting practice -  the aforementioned "Disneyland Experience of Jikoji" - as the "real" practice.  In fact, they are both necessary for a complete practice.  To only govern is to cut oneself off from the inspirational source of the practice, to only sit is to not fully participate in the manifestation of that source.

  There is a reason that those in management positions are reluctant to listen to those outside of it, they feel that they know more about the issues and needs of the organization - and they do!  That alone is not, however, a sufficient reason to ignore others or suppress or exclude their ability to affect change.  One leader at Jikoji expressed that he did not trust the sangha to make decisions. The more willing that managers and leaders are to share their knowledge and expertise with other members the less likely they are to fall into such isolation and mistrust.  The entire sangha needs to be encouraged and invited to participate in the decisions of the temple, as it is the only corrective eye obtainable.  As James Baldwin wrote, "Neither love nor terror makes one blind: indifference makes one blind."  The indifference of the sangha inexorably leads to a narrow vision for the temple: a vision that only reflects the concerns of a few.

  The harm that authoritarian governance causes by the suppression of dissent are legion: the refusal to acknowledge the design flaws in the Chernobyl plant, the coverup of the Covid-19 dangers in China, and the dismissal of administrators by president Trump when they disagree - these are all costly weaknesses of a form of governance that will not tolerate unpleasant truths.  According to cult researcher Arthur Deikman, author of The Wrong Way Home, “Conscious and unconscious suppression and restriction of dissent is perhaps the most characteristic feature of cult life” (p.123).  He further states, “Only a lively appreciation of dissent’s vital function at all levels of society can preserve it as a corrective to wishful thinking, self-inflation and unperceived rigidity.” (P.138).  Rather than discouraging sangha involvement in the decision making process, the work of those governing should be to do everything possible to discourage indifference and apathy, and educate the sangha as to the importance of their partnership in collaborative governance.

  Jikoji Zen Center may be only one illegal, covered-up transgression away from a crisis that could could be too costly or damaging of it's reputation for the temple to survive. If Jikoji is to grow and flourish for five hundred years it is imperative that it returns to the open, member-empowered temple that Kobun envisioned.

  How can we get out of this downward spiral before we are each left with a narrow practice focused only on ourselves?  Opening up participation in all facets of Jikoji’s activities would be one way.  The restrictions on board membership detailed above are highly unusual for a nonprofit organization.  Most Zen groups allow any member to vote for board directors.  Perhaps a nominal monthly or annual fee for membership would be a good place to start, with voting rights included. Should anyone be allowed to run for the board? Most nonprofits allow it.  A thoughtful discussion on this matter is welcomed in the comment section.

  But changing the rules to encourage participation will be of no use if the mindset of the sangha towards governance does not change.  Few Zen students want to engage in the work of governance, and in fact, an eager desire to do so is probably a red flag, at least early on in one's training.  Still, at some point, involvement in the community at many levels must be considered a part of the practice if the community is to survive.  As Linji put it, it is "paying the costs of one's keep."  Karmic debt must not be thought of as an odious task forced upon one, but an actual opportunity to fulfill one's purpose and create meaning for one's life.

  An actively engaged sangha will inform itself, thus ameliorating one of the factors leading to oligarchy.  It will also insist on procedures that are transparent and followed by both members and management, something many of us feel has not been happening in the last few years at Jikoji as a select few interpret the rules to accomplish undeclared ends.  Finally, as power is distributed, the opportunity to reward those loyal to management is diminished.

  This is just scratching the surface on governance, and what can be done to make Jikoji a more open, vibrant and participatory temple. Some elders have suggested exploring new models of governance, such as affinity groups, sociocracy, and other alternative organizational structures. For a starting point, and to stimulate further discussion visit this site:
https://targetteal.com/en/blog/3-paths-self-management/