October 21, 2014
Practicing with Issues of Misconduct, Conflict and Reconciliation at San Francisco Zen Center

A Message to the SFZC Sangha (Residents, Employees and the Wider Sangha) from Central Abbess Eijun Linda Cutts, President Susan O’Connell and Director of People Development Mark Lancaster

Recently, such as at the community meeting with the Zen Center Board on September 17, there have been a number of questions raised about how conflict is handled at Zen Center and, in particular, how allegations of serious misconduct are investigated and how we work with the aspect of confidentiality that surrounds such investigations. In parallel, questions have been asked about how Zen Center is handling the training of both staff and employees in how to be effective, fair and kind managers.

Photo: Shundo David Haye

Photo: Shundo David Haye

We take refuge in the Sangha jewel, one of the triple treasures, so that we may practice “bringing harmony to everyone.” And so, whenever there is discord or conflict in the Sangha, it is a source of great concern. Wherever there is community, there will be difference and disagreement. But when disagreement turns into conflict, it is vital that we learn to address it, with wisdom, compassion and skillful means. Many of the Buddha’s teachings concerned instructions on how to practice in order to live in harmony together.

The questions that have been raised to Zen Center leadership are important ones, and the underlying problems are ones that we—the Central Abbess, the President of Zen Center, the Director of People Development and others—are currently working hard to address. It is clear to us, just as it is to much of the community, that Zen Center needs to continue to refine the procedures that we have put in place for dealing with complaints of serious misconduct and with conflict in general. It is also clear that more training is needed, in several areas. As people in leadership directly responsible for dealing with these problems, we want to give you a sense of what we are doing to address them and what you can do to participate in the process.

We think it is equally important to describe the things that have already been done, and the procedures that are already in place to care for the Sangha regarding these issues.

Past Efforts to Create Support for Conflict Resolution

We have been working on these issues for many years, and in a variety of ways. For example, in 1996 Zen Center approved a statement of ethical principles that reflects our understanding of how the 16 bodhisattva precepts inform our life as a community, and is also informed by modern professional ethics. This statement still feels like an accurate reflection of our values. (It is in the Ethics and Reconciliation Council [EAR] booklet, which is available from each temple’s Director as well as online).

However, the question of how we respond when there are conflicts or ethical violations is a more difficult topic. There are multiple layers to this question, and as our understanding evolves and deepens, we continue to refine and revise our approach. Some of the mediation and reconciliation procedures that were carefully drawn, and looked so solid and workable on paper, turned out to be flawed in unforeseen ways, and to have unintended consequences, particularly when there is serious conflict or unlawful behavior.

Because there are relatively few instances of serious conflict, and they are all different, it is challenging to develop procedures that work for all people and situations. Nonetheless, we are committed to doing everything we can to foster and restore harmony in the Sangha. Currently the EAR Council and the People Development Committee have been asked by the Board to further develop a process for mediation, investigation of misconduct and reconciliation at Zen Center.

Several years ago senior staff received multi-day trainings in mediation from Gary Friedman, and then progressed to practice sessions for senior staff at all three temples in how to have “difficult conversations,” using a particular form that included allies for the person asking for the conversation, and the person responding to the request. This process is still in use; however, we still need to develop a team of mediators who would be available for local temple conflicts. We are actively exploring ways to establish such a program.

Around seven years ago we created a new position to oversee our “human resource needs.” We called the role “Director of People Development” and Mark Lancaster took this on. In recent years one of the areas where Mark has been helping us create clarity is to refine how we handle legal requirements for having a safe work environment for our work practice staff and employees. In particular, there are sections of the employment code that require investigations into what is called “serious misconduct.” We will describe how to work with this further on in this letter.

Who Is Available to Help Deal with Issues of Conflict?

The first place—and in most cases, the only place—you will need to take unresolved interpersonal disputes, complaints and problems is to the leadership of the place where they arise: practice place Directors and Tantos or (for problems arising within the administration) the person in charge of that administrative function.

When it appears that the dispute or problem may involve “serious misconduct” (which we’ll define in a moment), the Director of People Development must be notified, and will decide whether to set in motion the special procedure for such instances. The EAR Council is also available to anyone who feels they have a problem or dispute that they can’t work out otherwise, and you can feel free to contact the Council (the current members, email addresses and phone numbers are listed below). If it seems appropriate, the Council may ask you to do more work with the practice place leadership, and instances that the Council thinks might involve “serious misconduct” will be referred to the Director of People Development.

What Is Serious Misconduct?

It is important to define “serious misconduct” and to differentiate the process for addressing such instances from the process for responding to other important breaches of our commitment to live together and follow the precepts of right speech and right action. There is an important difference between a complaint of serious misconduct and other sorts of conflict.

“Serious misconduct” is an activity that is identified in Zen Center’s work practice policy as follows:

SFZC prohibits the harassment of its students, staff members and the public. Prohibited behavior includes, but is not limited to:

  • Verbal harassment: derogatory comments regarding another’s race, color, age, gender, gender identity or expression, sexual orientation, national origin/ancestry, citizenship, political or union affiliation, marital status, pregnancy, disability, or any other basis prohibited by law.
  • Physical harassment: hitting, pushing or other aggressive physical conduct, or threats to take such action.
  • Sexual harassment: making unwelcome sexual advances or requests for sexual favors; making submission to or rejection of such conduct the basis for decisions affecting the student, staff member or guest; sexual innuendos, propositions or threats; unwanted physical contact; creating a hostile environment that is offensive to the gender of the recipient.
  • Prohibited harassment may also occur if a hostile environment has been created that is sufficiently severe, pervasive, or persistent so as to unreasonably interfere with a person’s work performance or participation in Zen Center activities.

Our policy further prohibits discrimination and asks that students promptly report incidents where a student witnesses discriminatory behavior or is subjected to such behavior. The use of weapons, the use of alcohol and drugs, and theft are also considered serious infractions at SFZC.

The EAR council and the People Development Department can assist you with determining if an event is “serious misconduct,” or whether it is a different sort of issue involving personal conflict.

Where Do I Go If I Believe There Has Been an Instance of Serious Misconduct?

Here is the procedure currently in place:

If you are a work practice student, the current policy asks you to report any incident that you believe constitutes serious misconduct to the Tanto or Director of your practice center. They, in turn, will immediately report the incident to the People Development Department.

If you are an employee, you should report any incident directly to the People Development Department or to your manager or the head of your department.

If you are a member of the wider community, please speak with the Director or Tanto of the appropriate practice center.

If you are not sure if the incident fits the description of “serious misconduct,” you can contact the EAR Council, who will help you navigate appropriate next steps. Any complaint regarding serious misconduct is referred to the Director of People Development (DPD) for review. If after reviewing the initial complaint the DPD determines that an investigation is necessary, this will be recommended to the President. At present the DPD (or, if the DPD requests, the Tanto and Director) will conduct the investigation. We are hoping soon to have a group of individuals involved with Zen Center specially trained to investigate such complaints.

The person conducting the investigation reports to the President of Zen Center. The investigator’s role is solely to gather information in a fair and unbiased manner. The President then makes a determination and outlines the consequences, if any, using a protocol developed by a law firm that assists Zen Center in this area. Letters are sent by the DPD to both the person making the complaint, and the person about whom the complaint was made, informing them of the results of the investigation.

We are aware that this protocol is designed to respond to legal requirements and to protect Zen Center and the community as a whole. It is clear that we need to develop a parallel process to care for the person making the complaint, regardless of whether or not it is determined that the issue meets certain legal definitions. This may include a request for apologies, and for a series of mediated conversations in order to encourage reconciliation and reestablish harmony in the work practice environment. In addition, we are giving very deep consideration to the question of who these individuals are who will be trained to conduct investigations.

Where Do I Go If I Am Having Trouble With Someone But It Does Not Meet the Criteria for “Serious Misconduct”?

If you are having a conflict or problem that does not meet the criteria for serious misconduct, as outlined above, and you have made your best effort to resolve it directly with the person, please ask for help from the Tanto or Director of the appropriate practice place or the manager of your immediate work situation. If after that the issue is not resolved, we recommend that you go to the People Development Department or the EAR Council to see what the next step would be for you to discuss what is happening and find a way to seek resolution—if not reconciliation—with the person with whom you are having difficulties. In any event, the DPD and EAR council can help you determine where to go next with any complaint.

Training, Past and Future

There have been a number of trainings offered at Zen Center over the years. Recently, we have realized that we need to be better at communicating what trainings already have been conducted and what trainings we are contemplating for the future. Here is a list of the types of training that we have had at our three centers over the past five years:

Conflict resolution – Gary Friedman, Dana Curtis
Communications workshops – Gary Friedman
Diversity trainings – Sonny Massey, Rainbow and others
Suicide prevention – Steve Weintraub
Working with people with severe psychological issues – Steve Weintraub
Workshop on projection and transference – Steve Weintraub
How to run a meeting workshop – Gary Friedman
Facilitation workshop (How to facilitate a meeting) – Adam Wolpert
End of life training – Tova Green, Linda Ruth Cutts
Senior staff training (CC) – Marc Lesser
Sexual harassment trainings – Greg McClune
Leadership training pilot project – Brian McCaffrey
Successful communications – Kathy Toldi
Gender diversity training – Marisa Boyce
How to conduct a job review – Chris Kyle
Supervisory training – Bill Coy
Leadership training and how to set manageable goals – Bill Coy
Emotional intelligence – Marc Lesser
In addition, Bill Coy has worked with the Abbot’s Council on training for difficult conversation surrounding trauma

People who attended these trainings generally were invited on the basis of their roles and responsibilities at Zen Center. However, we are looking to offer these trainings more widely; for instance, this last spring and summer communications training was offered to many work practice students at Green Gulch.

Nonetheless, we recognize that a great deal more needs to be done, and done soon, in the way of training both leaders and others if we are to maintain harmony in our Sangha and work towards making it more inclusive and diverse.

Who Makes Decisions About Training?

In 2013 a training committee was created to consider types of training that we need at SFZC. This committee reports directly to the Central Abbess. The current Training Committee is Tova Green, Linda Galijan and Jeremy Levie. Mark Lancaster in his DPD role works closely with this committee to encourage training at Zen Center. Naturally, the Central Abbess and the President also make recommendations to the Training Committee.

This committee reports directly to the Central Abbess, and all training at Zen Center is funded and overseen under the Central Abbess Department’s Budget, which is shared among all three centers for yearly training.

Where Do I Go If I Have Ideas for Training at Zen Center?

Please contact any member of the Training Committee or the DPD. It would be most helpful to receive suggestions in writing. Please include your name so that someone can get back to you if they have questions. We welcome your thoughts and ideas.

What if I have Ideas for Mediation and Conflict Resolution at Zen Center?

You can send them to any member of the PDC or the EAR Council. Again, please include your name so that someone can contact you to answer questions and/or continue the dialogue.

Looking Ahead

A separate information task force under the direction of Connie Cummings has been convened, and one part of its work is to help create process and data integration for people information at Zen Center. An aspect of this work is how to track instances of misconduct—and especially when they are repeatedly ascribed to specific individuals—in ways that protect the community and simultaneously safeguard the privacy rights of each resident and participant at Zen Center. Currently, the Officers and Directors generally do this, but we need to do more work in this area in order to provide a safe environment at Zen Center for our lives together.

Photo: Florian Brody

Photo: Florian Brody

The EAR Council and the People Development Committee, as mentioned above, will also be considering ways to resolve conflicts and promote reconciliation at Zen Center. Under consideration are: training mediators; creating a role of ombudsperson; and developing a process that everyone at Zen Center can use for mediation and conflict resolution.

We want the entire community to know that we are working assiduously to address these issues of misconduct, conflict and reconciliation at Zen Center. We are always available to you, and ask that you send any ideas or recommendations for how to improve this system to the EAR Council and/or People Development Committee, listed at the bottom of this letter. They will do their best to acknowledge receipt of your message and reply to your suggestions.

This is a learning process for all of us together, and we hope to create a more vibrant, safe and inclusive community. Like all learning phases, there will be missteps and mistakes, and we will attempt to correct them with transparency and regard for all members of the community.

We all have a voice and a dharma position in the mandala of Zen Center. Whatever your position, new practitioner or senior student, we welcome you to share your thoughts, ideas and experiences. Each person has a different role in taking care of the Sangha and the practice at Zen Center, and different people are responsible for different decisions at different times in their practice lives. As each student grows in their practice and commitment they too will be asked to take increased responsibility. We trust that the practitioners of today will want to make the commitment and take the responsibility for caring for this beloved practice community.

Harmony in the Sangha is a foremost value at Zen Center. It is an important part of our practice to understand how to work with disharmony as individuals, as well as to continue to clarify the processes for addressing the pain of misunderstanding, conflict and serious misconduct, and uphold the possibility of reconciliation.

We look forward to and encourage your thoughtful and creative energies, and depend on your solution-focused participation in the Sangha life of Zen Center.

Deeply bowing,




Members of the Ethics and Reconciliation (EAR) Council:

Gail Claspell
Albert Kutchins
Grace Dammann
Qayyum Johnson
Lee Lipp
Michael McCord

You can contact the EAR Council by email at ear@sfzc.org or by phone at: 415-506-7904.


Members of the People Development Committee (PDC):

Gib Robinson
Dennis McNally
Mark Lancaster
Roger Hillyard
Connie Stoops
Albert Kutchins
Allen Frazier

You can contact the Director of People Development by email at humanresources@sfzc.org or by phone at 415-354-0378.