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VZC Ethics Guidelines

Ethics Guidelines for Vallejo Zen Center

Adopted  February 21, 2012   by the VZC Board

To avoid all harm, to cultivate good, and to purify the mind. This is the teaching of the Buddhas.

-The Dhammapada

Introduction

The intimacy of Zen practice, teachers and students, dharma friend and dharma friend, is a source of great joy in the Vallejo Zen Center sangha. The Bodhisattva Precepts serve as our guide along the path of right speech, right conduct, and relationships. Practice is based on trust, safety, respect, and true communication. The sangha jewel is formed of such relationships. We offer the following to nurture an atmosphere where people can practice without fear or distraction, where dharma comes first.

We acknowledge that difficulties may arise among members related to power differentials. Differences of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, and physical disability require particular awareness and sensitivity. This document provides the broad principles for how this sangha integrates the precepts in coping with conflicts and ethical issues. A companion document, the Ethics Procedures, provides more detailed and specific guidance.

Ethics and Reconciliation (EAR) Committee

In the course of daily sangha interactions, disagreements, conflicts, misunderstandings and unethical behavior can occur. In some situations the ethics of a particular behavior may not be clear. The EAR Committee exists, first and foremost, to assist sangha members when they are not sure about their own ethical course in unclear situations. Sangha members are encouraged to bring concerns to any member of the EAR Committee for consultation, support, and advice. When ethical dilemmas present themselves, usually the earlier one seeks consultation the better, but sangha members may seek such consultation at any time. In some cases a meeting with a single member of the EAR Committee may be sufficient to clarify the issues involved; in other situations either the sangha member or the EAR Committee member may wish to consult with the entire Committee.

Among the situations where consultation with a member of the EAR Committee is warranted are: those involving inappropriate sexual behavior; abusive conduct or harassment; incompetence that threatens the sangha; and use of position for personal gain or exploitation.

In certain situations it is unethical to do nothing. The following conduct must be brought to the attention of the EAR Committee: situations involving suspected abuse against an elder, child or partner where reporting would be required of a therapist; misappropriation of sangha funds; or gross and harmful incompetence in performance of a VZC position.

Relationships within the Sangha

Our practice at VZC can be warmhearted and close, but it is important to remember that with the intimacy of practice, confusion regarding sexuality, power and confidentiality may arise in ways that can harm practitioners and the sangha if not dealt with skillfully. Desires of all kinds are part of life. Rather than allowing desires to control us, leading to suffering, it is our intention to be compassionately aware of these feelings while returning to our original vow to awaken with all beings, and to practice spiritual friendship at VZC and in the wider world.

Following are comments regarding specific types of relationships within our sangha:

Teacher Relationships to Students

Over the years, as we look at ourselves and other practice communities, we have come to understand that spiritual and psychological harm can often result when teachers and students become sexually involved, violate trusts, or use power and/or position for personal gain or manipulation. Such harm can damage the whole community.

At Vallejo Zen Center, all the priests and the lay practice leaders (i.e. lay leaders who offer practice discussion and/or give dharma talks) have made a commitment to conduct relationships in accord with the Bodhisattva precepts. Because of this commitment, the responsibility for maintaining appropriate and clear boundaries always rests with the priest/practice leader. They will respect and protect the personal autonomy of all students, and refrain from sexual involvement with students.

If a priest/lay practice leader decides nevertheless to pursue a sexual relationship with another sangha member, a process will be initiated to determine what changes in her/his role in the community may be necessary. It is in the interest of all concerned that both parties first seek guidance and counsel from either his/her teacher, the EAR Committee, and/or members of the practice committee.

Relationships with students new to VZC

We want to offer an environment where new practitioners can develop their own relationship with practice and with the sangha, free from discrimination or social pressure. All members in leadership positions including but not limited to members and officers of the VZC Board of Directors; members of the EAR Committee; VZC residents; Saturday directors; sesshin directors; the coordinator, the tenzo, ino, and the work leader – have made a commitment to refrain from sexual relationships with new VZC students during their first year of practice. We request all VZC members to be mindful of the benefit for a new student in not being distracted from the primary activity of establishing her or his own practice.

Other aspects of Sangha life are addressed as follows:

Confidentiality

Dokusan, practice discussions, way-seeking mind talks, full moon check-ins, questions at shosan ceremonies and discussions within dharma groups are venues for sharing highly sensitive personal information. Honoring the dialogue between teachers and students is a foundation of personal and sangha relations. Teachers are expected to maintain confidentiality about matters raised in dokusan or practice discussion. Students are expected to refrain from idle talk about matters brought up in dokusan and practice discussion, and to respect confidences shared in way seeking mind talks, full moon ceremonies, shosan or dharma groups.

Confidentiality is the basis of mutual trust between student and teacher. However, for the well-being of individuals and of the sangha, there are times when teachers and/or practice leaders need to consult about confidential matters raised in practice discussion. Such consultations are never done lightly, and only as much information is shared as is needed to clarify and bring harmony to the situation at hand. The consultations themselves are kept confidential. Such consultations are required where a serious ethical breach has occurred or where specific reporting laws apply (see EAR Committee section).

Therapists and Helping Professionals

Sangha members are discouraged from using the community as a source of business or professional clients. We request that VZC teachers and sangha members who work as psychotherapists, physicians or attorneys avoid entering into professional relationships with sangha members. Others in the helping professions are asked to be sensitive to the delicate balance between worker and client, and the possible complexity of dual relationships when both parties practice at the same dharma center.

Mindful Speech

In a small community great harm can come from speech that is inconsistent with the precepts. Mutual respect and trust are built when all sangha members speak truthfully and compassionately with the intent to be helpful, and observe the clear mind precepts regarding right speech: refraining from lies, gossip (self-serving talk), slander, angry or abusive speech, and apportioning blame. When a conflict arises it is best to address it directly with the other person. Sometimes, however, it may be wise to discuss this with a teacher or practice leader to assist in developing a more skillful approach. It may also be useful to have a neutral third person involved in an attempt to resolve a conflict, if a one-to-one attempt has failed.

In these situations, mindful discussion with a dharma friend who is not a teacher can also be useful. However, we discourage sharing a concern widely in order to gain support for one’s position, since this can foster conflict rather than reconciliation.

Recourse – Bringing Informal or Formal Complaints (see Ethics Procedures for details)

Maintaining the well being of the sangha is the mutual responsibility of all members. If you feel that the guidelines discussed here are not being observed, or simply wish to share your discomfort, we request that you bring your concerns to the attention of the Abbot/Abbess or a member of VZC’s EAR Committee. Your questions will be taken seriously and examined according to a principled and confidential process. We hope that diligent inquiry, honesty, compassion, and openness will strengthen the sangha and support our wonderful Zen practice for many years to come.

A member is advised to bring an informal complaint when there is a conflict or confusing situation for which they would like to seek a reconciliation process.

The purpose of a formal complaint is to investigate and adjudicate a possible serious breach of these ethical guidelines. The EAR Committee has authority to remove a person from a practice position, a leadership role, or residency at VZC for ethical misconduct, or to designate other appropriate consequences. The authority for such actions is vested primarily in the EAR Committee by the Board of Directors, but it must secure the additional agreement of at least one of the following: the Abbot/Abbess or the VZC Board president. In cases where serious consequences are indicated, efforts will be made to maintain the confidentiality of the involved parties; however, it cannot be guaranteed. The EAR Committee will consult with senior members of the VZC community and/or others as it deems necessary to provide for the safety, welfare, and harmony of the sangha.

These Procedures were adapted from documents shared by Berkeley Zen Center. Vallejo Zen Center members are thankful to BZC for this valuable resource.

VZC Procedures for Resolution of Ethics Issues

The standards of conduct within the VZC community are based in the Bodhisattva Precepts and described in the VZC Ethics Guidelines. Any member of the community having a grievance or concern may seek guidance or resolution through the Conflict Resolution Procedures described below. These procedures are also available to non-members of VZC when they involve VZC members.

There are two major avenues to the procedures: informal and formal. The intent of both types of procedures is to maintain and, when necessary, restore harmony within the sangha. However, informal procedures are most appropriate when no parties to a dispute are seeking specific consequences to be levied against another party; informal procedures are designed to promote reconciliation between sangha members in cases of interpersonal conflict or for exploration and clarification of ethical issues. Formal procedures are appropriate when one party alleges that another party has committed a misconduct or ethical breach with serious consequences which will require some administrative action.

VZC Ethics and Reconciliation (EAR) Committee

Both the informal and the formal procedures are administered by the VZC Ethics and Reconciliation Committee. The Committee is empowered by the VZC Board of Directors and is responsible to the sangha by way of the Board. Its members are appointed by the VZC Board. The EAR Committee is specifically authorized to carry out the duties set forth below.

1. The Committee shall consist of four appointed members, one of whom is designated to chair the Committee.

2. Committee members shall be experienced at Zen practice.

3. The Committee shall include both men and women.

4. The names of the Committee members shall be posted on the VZC bulletin board.

Confidentiality

If an initiator brings a concern to a Committee member, the Committee member will maintain the confidentiality of the communication to the extent possible. However, it is likely in many cases that the Committee member will feel a need to seek guidance from other Committee members, and will seek the initiator’s consent to share the content of that conversation. If some disclosure is required by law or by specific instances described in the Ethics Guidelines, the initiator will be informed of any disclosure.

Special considerations apply to any allegations against an abbot or abbess which, if true, would arguably constitute serious misconduct. Such allegations shall be promptly reported to the Chair of the EAR Committee and to the Board president.  If the initiator files a formal grievance, any allegations will be handled under the formal grievance procedure. If no formal grievance is filed, but the allegation, if true, would arguably constitute serious misconduct, another process may be devised by the EAR Committee in consultation with the Board president which will attempt to protect the initiator’s confidentiality.

Informal Procedures

The intent of an informal procedure is to promote reconciliation between sangha members and clarify ethical issues, but without any formal determination by a third party of “right” or “wrong” conduct.

To initiate the informal procedures, anyone (“the initiator”) may bring a concern to the attention of a member of the EAR Committee. At that point the EAR Committee member will explore, with the initiator, whether to proceed beyond the initial consultation and, if so, whether it is most appropriate to do so with an informal or formal procedure.

In the case of an informal procedure, since it is impossible to anticipate every issue that might be brought to a Committee member as well as every helpful response, the Committee member, in consultation with the Committee, has the authority to design a response to meet the situation, as long as it is acceptable to the initiator and any other parties involved. The following possible responses outline those that may most often be appropriate, but other responses may also be suggested:

1. The Committee member may discuss the matter with the initiator, help the initiator clarify his or her concerns, and suggest avenues by which he or she might resolve the issue by talking directly with the other party or parties.

2. The Committee member may refer the initiator to another person who might be better able to help.

3. The Committee member may suggest that the initiator write a written summary of the matter, to be presented by the Committee member to the whole EAR Committee.

4. The Committee member may suggest some structured procedure, such as the seven-step “Beginning Anew” process of conflict resolution used in some sanghas, and described by Thich Nhat Hanh.

5. The Committee member may suggest a sub-group of EAR Committee members or other appropriate sangha members be involved in the process.

6. The Committee member may offer to act as a facilitator between the initiator and the other party or parties.

7. The Committee member may suggest that another Committee member or sangha member act as a facilitator between the initiator and the other party or parties.

Outcomes from an Informal Process

The desired outcome from any informal process is reconciliation of sangha members and clarification of ethical issues for the future. The informal process is not designed to levy consequences against any member involved in the process and no mandatory outcome will emerge. Sometimes, however, an informal process will generate a desire by a sangha member for some kind of training or assistance: the EAR Committee will attempt to assist the sangha member in this, but in all cases this will be voluntary on the part of all concerned.

In other cases an informal process may result in an increased awareness of further needs for action within the sangha; these may include recommendations for educational or training classes, revisions of guidelines or sangha procedures, sangha meetings or discussions. The EAR Committee will attempt, where possible, to assist in instituting these.

In the event that one or more of the parties believes that an informal process has failed to produce a satisfactory result and that serious misconduct is occurring requiring some action, that person may initiate a formal grievance.

Formal Grievance Procedure

A formal grievance procedure is available when informal attempts at reconciliation and conflict resolution have been exhausted or are deemed inappropriate. These procedures are especially designed to resolve:

1. Situations in which a Zen Center resident, employee, or practitioner wants to appeal an administrative decision regarding him or her personally.

2. Situations in which someone believes that a Zen Center resident, employee, or practitioner has engaged in significant misconduct or unethical behavior that has not been, or cannot be, adequately addressed by the local directors or practice leaders.

3. Situations where there are allegations of serious misconduct by the abbot, abbess, priests or lay leadership.

Formal procedures are available to both VZC members and non-members when a VZC member is the subject of the concern. While reconciliation is an overarching goal within the VZC sangha, the primary purpose of the formal grievance procedure is to come to a decision regarding whether some error or misconduct has occurred, and what the consequences (if any) of such errors or misconduct must be.

Many situations requiring a formal grievance procedure contain elements of interpersonal conflict as well. A formal grievance procedure may not be effective for resolving these painful interpersonal issues. If such a resolution is desired, informal and mediated procedures are recommended.

1. Filing a Complaint

When the Committee receives an inquiry from someone contemplating a formal grievance, the Committee must provide them with a copy of the “Ethics Guidelines for Vallejo Zen Center,” and the “VZC Procedures for Resolution of Ethics Issues.”

To file a complaint, an individual must submit a written complaint to the Chair of the EAR Committee or, in his/her absence, to the Chair’s designated representative. The Chair or representative must acknowledge, in writing, receipt of a written complaint within two weeks.

The complaint must include:

1. A clear statement identifying the document as a formal complaint or grievance and the name of the person(s) whose behavior or decisions the complaint concerns.

2. A description of the alleged behavior, sufficient to allow a decision by the Committee whether the complaint is appropriate for initiating a formal grievance procedure.

3. A history of the attempts, if any, to resolve the complaint through informal or normal VZC channels.

4. A general statement about the resolution desired.

Until a complaint is accepted by the Committee, all information related to the complaint will remain confidential within the Committee, except for any disclosure mandated by law.

2. Accepting a Complaint

Within 30 days of receipt of a complaint, a quorum of at least three Committee members must review the complaint and decide whether a formal grievance procedure is warranted and whether other informal or administrative channels should be attempted first. Among the factors to be considered are the time required to complete the formal process, whether the matter is appropriate for a formal grievance process and the potential harm to the sangha of not having a formal resolution of the problem. If needed, the Committee may request further information from the person making the complaint. When at least three Committee members agree that the matter is appropriate for a formal grievance process and that informal or administrative channels have been exhausted or are inappropriate, the formal complaint shall be accepted.

Should the Committee decide not to accept the Complaint, the Committee Chair or representative shall convey, in writing, the decision and the reason for the decision to the person who filed the complaint.

Within one week of its acceptance of the complaint, the Committee shall convey its acceptance to both the person filing the complaint and the person(s) named in the complaint. As part of this notification, the Committee shall state its understanding of the issue under inquiry. The person(s) named in the complaint shall also receive a copy of the complaint and a copy of “Ethics Guidelines for Vallejo Zen Center,” and the “VZC Procedures for Resolution of Ethics Issues.”

3. Forming a Grievance Committee

Once a complaint is accepted, the Chair or representative of the EAR Committee shall appoint a convener from the Committee who will oversee the formation of a three-person Grievance Committee. The Grievance Committee will investigate, issue findings, and render a decision on the complaint.

The convener acts as a facilitator, not a member of the Grievance Committee. The convener or another member of the EAR Committee shall, as recording secretary, take minutes of the hearings.

The Grievance Committee may include members who are not on the EAR Committee, or who are respected persons from outside VZC, if the EAR Committee deems this appropriate. The convener, the secretary and the members of the Grievance Committee must all be without actual or apparent bias or conflict of interest. Examples of conflicts of interest include people in close or intimate relationships with either party; anyone who will potentially benefit or lose from a decision; and anyone who has previously been directly involved in the attempted resolution of the dispute. 

The parties involved in the case may express objections to the convener about members of the Grievance Committee. Such objections shall receive serious consideration, but are not binding. The convener shall be responsible for ascertaining whether potential conflicts of interest exist among prospective Grievance Committee members. The EAR Committee is responsible for insuring that the convener has no conflict of interest in the matter. 

If the person named in the complaint is a current abbess or abbot, the following special provisions shall apply. The Grievance Committee shall consist of five members, all of whom shall be selected by the Board of Directors.  At least one of the members shall be a respected person from outside VZC who is within our extended dharma family. Members of the Board and members of the Ethics Committee may serve on the Grievance Committee. Each party shall have the right to suggest up to three persons to be on the Grievance Committee, and to remove one person who is selected to be on the Grievance Committee. In that event, the Board of Directors shall appoint another person to fill that vacancy. Members of the Grievance Committee shall be without actual or apparent conflicts of interest, as defined above, and able to hear the case impartially. The Board of Directors shall appoint one of the five members to serve as chair of the Grievance Committee and to have the duties of the convener, and shall appoint a recording secretary who may or may not be a member of the Grievance Committee.

4. Investigation of a Complaint

The convener shall schedule and oversee a closed confidential hearing in which the disputants can present their understanding of the issue under investigation. The Grievance Committee may question all parties and request additional information. If appropriate, further hearings may be scheduled. Each party to a complaint may have a support person of his/her choice present at the hearing. If desired, the support person may make statements during the investigation.

The Grievance Committee may ask other people to provide information pertinent to the complaint. Such information may be provided in person or in writing. The complainant and the person complained of shall have a full and fair opportunity to respond to all information – oral, written or otherwise – gathered by the Grievance Committee.

The secretary shall document the proceedings.

5. Committee Findings

When Grievance Committee members are satisfied that they have adequate information, they shall review and discuss the case in a closed session. At its discretion, the Committee may seek non-binding advice from Ethics Committee members and other pertinent persons. The convener shall explain and facilitate a consensus decision-making process. The Committee should make a sincere effort to reach a consensus, including both a finding or findings on the substance of the complaint and a recommendation or recommendations for its resolution, with no more than one person standing aside, that is, disagreeing with the decision but still acquiescing in it. 

Once a decision has been reached, a majority of the members of the Grievance Committee shall reconvene within two weeks with the parties involved. At that time, the Grievance Committee shall distribute copies of its written findings and resolution, and read them aloud.

If the Grievance Committee is unable to reach a decision, the EAR Committee may recommend the formation of a new Grievance Committee to re-hear the case, the Grievance Committee is authorized to resolve a grievance in any manner that it regards appropriate, so long as it does not exceed the lawful authority of VZC as an institution. In some cases, the Committee’s resolution will require action by another body or member of the sangha. In such cases, the Committee shall recommend that such action be taken. It is the responsibility of the EAR Committee, and ultimately the Board of Directors, to ensure that a Grievance Committee’s decision is carried out.

At the conclusion of a formal grievance process the Grievance Committee’s statement of resolution and recommendation will become public. The manner of distribution of the findings will be determined by the Ear Committee.

6. Appeals

An appeal from either party involved in a grievance may be taken only after a formal grievance procedure has been completed.

Appeals must be made in writing to the chair of the Board of Directors within thirty days of receipt of the notification of the Grievance Committee’s decision. The chair of the Board of Directors shall appoint an Appeal Committee of three members from among the Board of Directors, Senior Student Group, or past members of the Ethics Committee, none of whom shall have been involved previously with the case. The Board chair shall consider any objections to the membership of the Appeals Committee by any of the parties involved and make reasonable efforts to appoint substitute members, where appropriate.

The Appeal Committee shall review the findings and the appeal arguments to decide whether the decision of the Grievance Committee should be upheld or whether a new Grievance Committee should be formed to re-hear the case. If the grievance involves a Board member, including an abbot, abbess or tanto, that person should recuse him or herself from the appeals review process. Normally appeals will be granted and rehearings held only where there is evidence of bias and/or procedural irregularities, or new information comes to light which could not, in the exercise of reasonable diligence, have been presented at the original Committee hearing.

7. Reconciliation

If appropriate, once a Grievance Committee has reached a decision, the convener will separately make non-binding recommendations to both parties on steps they may take toward reconciliation among themselves and, if necessary, with the VZC sangha. While VZC places high value on reconciliation, we realize that in extreme situations it may take considerable time before such a process can begin.