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05 Managing Conflict - Printable Version

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05 Managing Conflict - admin - 06-13-2020

There is too much verbiage, everyone needs to just stop talking. - Jikoji teacher's response when asked how to resolve the conflicts at the temple.

If there be time to expose through discussion the falsehood and fallacies, to avert the evil by the processes of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence.
- Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis

  Dialogue is the most effective way of resolving conflict. - The 14th Dalai Lama


In an apparent turn in sympathy with the last two quotes, in July of 2016 a special meeting was called by the board to explore ways in which:

   ...the sangha could support residents in their community practice. A temporary committee was proposed to brainstorm needs and solutions that would foster a more positive community experience and improved skills in handling challenges...
It was agreed that a committee should be established that would start ongoing conversations among the community. 

  The committee was later named the “Everything is Workable” committee and within the course of a few meetings agreed that the residents of Jikoji would benefit from training in conflict resolution, and that Jikoji should adopt an ethics statement and Conflict Resolution Policy (CRP) such as many other Buddhist and spiritual communities have.  The committee did not aim at getting rid of conflict - that would neither be possible or desirable - conflict is inevitable, and is indicative of a membership that feels empowered.  The more powerful one feels the more likely one is to express their true views and feelings.  It may not be too far an exaggeration to say that conflict is essential to creativity, perhaps this is what Heraclitus meant when he said that war was the father of all things. As Albert Low said, “ Instead of suppressing conflicts, specific channels could be created to make this conflict explicit, and specific methods could be set up by which the conflict is resolved.” This was the goal of the committee.

  Eventually a one day workshop was held at Jikoji by the Santa Cruz Conflict Resolution Center (SCCRC). The reception was largely positive, but no further workshops were scheduled.

In the meantime, ongoing meetings continued in regards to the ethics statement and CRP.  An online discussion was held among the sangha to evaluate the two documents, and although the majority of the comments were favorable there were also dissenting opinions.

  In Dec 2018, the documents were presented to the board for approval.  The Ethics Statement, which consisted of Kobun’s translation of Bodhidharma’s precepts, was withdrawn, as one board member objected to it, stating that it prohibited the drinking of wine, and people at Jikoji drink wine. Another resident objected that Kobun's translation of the precepts were empty of content and context.  The CRP was tabled as one board member said she was unable to open the document on her computer and so never read it, even though she had already made comments about it in an email exchange.

  There followed a lengthy back and forth email exchange concerning the CRP, but the proposal failed to be passed by the board as one board member blocked it.  It was then revised, with input from the residents and presented to them to pass, which they did. Upon the return of one resident monk who had been absent, however, the vote was retaken and the previous decision overturned as residents who had previously abstained now voted against the proposal.
 
  Eventually a number of residents and one sangha member appointed themselves to write another CRP under the aegis of the Resident Monk's and Initiate's Committee. This was passed, the final version ending up in the JMG document, which can be viewed in the reference section.  The board-appointed (EWI) committee's proposal can also be viewed there.

   Aside from the procedural legitimacy of the two committees, there are a number of important differences between the two documents. One is that the RMIC CRP makes attending mediation optional, whereas in the EWIC CRP, at some point, when facing an impasse, it becomes a required procedural step.  Obviously sangha members cannot be forced to go to mediation, but we do not think it too much to ask residents to commit, as a necessary condition for being a resident of a Buddhist community, to do everything in their power to work out differences with a fellow resident or other sangha member.  Such a commitment is akin to taking the precepts as part of one's initiation, and in fact, may have more demonstrable consequences. Thich Nhat Hahn’ 8th precept of Engaged Buddhism states:

8. Do not utter words that can create discord and cause the community to break. Make every effort to reconcile and resolve all conflicts, however small.

We wanted to prevent a response such as one resident had when it was suggested that she go to mediation with a sangha member that she had felt had wronged her, as an initial test of the proposed policy.  She replied that she didn't need to work anything out with that person, that she just wanted her to stay away from her.  The offending party was later banned from Jikoji.  The one who refused mediation became a key member of the RMIC that wrote the CRP, and stated that it was this conflict that motivated her to get involved.

  Another difference is the characterization of sangha representatives for each party as "advocates" in the RMIC document, whereas they are mediators in the EWIC proposal. Advocacy is more appropriate for court processes, where blame and punishment are being meted out.  Mediation is more akin to the Buddhist abandonment of self-interested views, replacing them with an open-ended inquiry that is not directed toward any preconceived outcome other than increased understanding. Mediation is not to be viewed as a competition, with two sides vying to be the winner.  It is a cooperative undertaking where both sides agree to make an effort to abandon narrow views in order to see new possibilities, new understandings.  It requires empathy, advocacy does not.

  The RMIC CRP is part of the Jikoji Management Group’s procedural policy.  Should a conflict not be resolved via mediation or other methods, it falls upon the Jikoji Management Group to decide the issue. Unfortunately, reinforces the issues of oligarchy discussed elsewhere as the Jikoji Management Group is composed of a select group of Jikoji insiders -two staff members, two board members, and Jikoji's lawyer (an individual with wide ranging decision-making power, at least second to the Guiding Teacher at Jikoji).  A group composed of insiders is fraught with problems all too familiar to those who have studied conflict situations in groups where less powerful members have tried to address grievances involving senior members, leaders or teachers.  In an article about sexual abuse in Buddhist centers, in Tricycle magazine the following exchange with Jack Kornfield, co-founder of Spirit Rock and Insight Meditation Society, took place:

Tricycle: It would be easy to dismiss these issues of sexual abuse as arising from one or two “bad egg” teachers. But if we look at the entirety of American Buddhism, it’s clear that that’s not the case: these issues arise across traditions and communities, suggesting that the very way our sanghas are set up is contributing to their existence. How do we address these deeper, systemic problems? It seems that even if there is a process in place to lodge a complaint against a teacher, often it does not go anywhere, because the complaint is processed through a board whose members are very close to the teacher. The whole organization is usually structured from the top down: there’s the teacher, and then the board, and then the general sangha, precluding horizontal communication. 
JK: You’re quite right that our communities are structured from the top down. That’s because the traditions themselves have been patriarchal and top-down. To address this, what we’ve set up in our community at Spirit Rock is an independent ethics council. A small group of teachers who are most respected for their balance and integrity are elected to it—the balance is important, because these issues can stir up a hornet’s nest, and when emotions are triggered, people tend to think unclearly. So the council is made up of the elected teachers, a community member, and a board member who are independent from the board or the head teacher. They have the power to investigate, to look for reconciliation, and, if necessary, to come back to the board or the community and require changes. There has to be a process that’s outside of the hierarchy that you described.
 The EWIC CRP proposal creates an Ethics and Reconciliation committee in an attempt to achieve independence.  The membership is composed of people appointed by the board or the teacher.  This might be too cozy.  Thinking of it along the lines of an independent judiciary might be helpful.  There are pros and cons to an elected vs appointed judiciary.  The electors may lack the interest or knowledge to choose wisely, the leaders and board members perhaps have too much self interest to appoint impartially.  Perhaps a way to side step the problems with either approach is to utilize the services of a professional arbiter as the last step in settling a conflict that has not been resolved in any other way. A professional arbiter would be a disinterested judge, and so improve the chances of a fair decision.  An impartial arbiter would also deflect any resentment about a decision away from the temple to speed healing.

  Lastly, a major difference between the two documents is that the RMIC version includes long passages from the Jikoji Employee Manual.  The EWIC looked over the Employee Manual and decided it was inappropriate for a policy for the sangha in general, but apropos for the two or three employees of Jikoji only.  We researched many other sanghas and never found anything resembling an employee manual within their Ethics Statement or CRP.  The Jikoji Employee manual was created to satisfy insurance coverage requirements.  As such, it is designed around a blame and punishment paradigm which we did not want to introduce into a document promoting mutual cooperation for investigative problem solving.

  On September 16, 2018 the Santa Cruz Conflict Resolution Center (SCCRC) began interviews with residents, former residents, sangha members and board members at Jikoji. No teachers participated in the interviews, although they were encouraged to do so.  The SCCRC issued a report which can be found in the reference section.
No follow up was ever taken, other than a letter emailed by one board member to the SCCRC claiming that the issues had been resolved by among other things, the appointment of the Jikoji Management Group.  Per the proposal:

the delegation of all authority over the administrative affairs of Jikoji to the Jikoji Management Group by Michael Newhall as set forth in the attached document entitled “Appointment of the Jikoji Management Group and Acceptance of Appointment”.  This approval is without limitation or exception.  The Board specifically approves and ratifies the authority of the JIkoji Management Group to adopt policies for Jikoji that include, without limitation each of the following: An ethics policy; A conflict resolution policy; and, A guest and resident practitioners’ policy.  

  Where many members had voiced a desire for more transparency in regards to decision-making and open, structured dialogue, instead a group was formed which further restricts access from the sangha, making most, if not all major management and policy decisions their exclusive domain, with no accountability to anyone else.  Even the Guiding Teacher is not allowed to replace them for a period of two years.  It is hard to see how the formation of another committee, populated by the same select members that compose the other committees at Jikoji, is going to provide a corrective to the mistakes of the past.

  Given Zen’s stance that the ultimate truth cannot be understood or expressed by conceptual means, the reluctance of some teachers to rely upon dialogue to untangle conflicts is understandable.  Is there a place for mediation and other conflict resolution techniques, or do you think Zazen and silent contemplation is a sufficient remedy for interpersonal disagreements ?  If the former, what forms, and procedures do you think are best employed?  Do you think an independent body is an important component, or can this all be accomplished in a fair and impartial manner “in house?”  Please leave, comments, suggestions and critiques below.