An Olive Branch presents an action plan for putting the necessary supports in place to protect sangha members from abuse and for creating procedures to deal with it if it happens.
Buddhist groups in the United States have been rocked in recent years by misconduct on the part of honored teachers—misconduct that in some cases had been going on for many years but was kept secret by teachers, boards, sanghas, and the victims themselves. Unfortunately, many Buddhist organizations lack policies and procedures related to misconduct. Teachers, students, and governing boards seem unaware of their governance responsibilities and potential liability when misconduct occurs. Without robust guidelines, misconduct usually results in chaos and long-lasting damage to individuals and organizations. When a trusted leader is accused, the stability of the organization is threatened and its ability to pursue its mission is compromised.
Before Misconduct Arises
Regardless of whether a Buddhist group in the United States is incorporated as a nonprofit organization or organized informally around a single teacher, leaders have a responsibility to establish a community of practice in which students and teachers understand and adhere to an agreed-upon code of conduct. This code should include an ethics policy defining standards of behavior, a whistleblower policy protecting the rights of any person who reports wrongdoing, and a grievance procedure specifying steps to be taken when policies are violated.
Proactive Tasks for Boards/Leaders/Teachers
- Engage the community in defining misconduct as an abuse of power.
- Understand that teachers and leaders have a fiduciary responsibility to maintain ethical boundaries.
- Develop and implement an ethics policy, a whistleblower policy, and a grievance procedure.
- Post the statements in a visible location in the practice facility.
- Review the policies and procedures annually.
- Provide education for members annually with regard to the code of conduct and conflict management.
Proactive Tasks for Individuals/Students
- Realize that misconduct can fragment your community and damage your own spiritual and psychological balance.
- Insist that leaders establish ethics and whistleblower policies and a grievance procedure.
- Attend educational sessions regarding the community’s code of conduct.
- Understand the protections that the whistleblower policy offers you.
When Misconduct Is Alleged
Rage, disbelief, shock, grief, and departure are just some of the reactions to misconduct. Even with a grievance procedure in place, the emotionally charged components of allegations and the human relationships involved challenge everyone to follow the procedure rationally.
The most effective way to calm the turmoil arising from an allegation of misconduct is to engage a neutral third party. An objective person is skilled at listening and facilitating a fair process for the accused, the accuser, and the surrounding community. Individuals must feel that they are heard and something is being done to address the allegations.
Recommended Responses for Boards/Leaders/Teachers
- Face the situation squarely.
- Explicitly follow the whistleblower policy and grievance procedure.
- Engage a neutral third party to demonstrate that you are taking allegations seriously.
- Communicate early and often with the community within the constraints of confidentiality.
- Ensure fairness to all parties.
Recommended Responses for Individuals/Students
- Support the grievance procedure as well as those implementing it.
- Remember that spiritual leaders must be held to the same ethics policy as everyone in the organization; due to their position of power, they are responsible for maintaining boundaries.
- Be aware of factors that can influence your ability to be objective and helpful to others.
- Cultivate truthful communication, loving-kindness, and understanding.
More on Confronting Abuse of Power:
- No More Secrets
- Our Teachers Are Not Gods
- Confronting Abuse of Power
- Watch: Pam Rubin talks about confronting abuse in Buddhist communities