This is an unusual post (weighing in at over 4000 words), but not only because of its length.
Below you will find my response to the Soto Zen Buddhist Association (SZBA) and their suspension regarding my “likely” actions as the teacher at the Nebraska Zen Center (NZC) from August, 2016 - September, 2021. I firmly deny the allegations that were made against me and will argue below that the SZBA’s “process” was unjust, unethical, and certainly unkind. Yes, they are imposing ethical standards through unethical actions, so I’m suspending them here for your review.
Caution: SZBA members, beware of the SZBA board and ethics committee! They are not organized to support you as priests, but instead are intent on using their positions to further their own agendas. What led to my suspension was an organizational dispute that did not involve ethical violations - unless you consider bold leadership to resuscitate a dying Zen center unethical.
But before I get into all of that, I want to sincerely thank the SZBA board, the present NZC board, and all those who have piled on in social media (unburdened by the facts, mind you) for giving me such a great practice opportunity. Truly. There is nothing like revilement and false accusations to scare up self-protective formations that can then be seen, illuminated, and released.
Much of the personal practice work that I’ve done during the past two years, and especially the last nine months (a lot of it in the wee hours before dawn), has been because of you - and I am grateful. I will be writing about what I’ve learned in this process and sharing in the future with the hope that some good can come from this pain. I know that many others have also suffered revilement in their lives while trying to do good work. So although my faith in many contemporary Soto Zen folks has taken a beating, my admiration for the buddhas and ancestors and how they left incredibly powerful practice pointers for us has never been stronger.
However, even though I am grateful for the practice opportunities, I call, “Enough already!” No further great practice opportunities for now, please! Frankly, I could use a break. I’ve been tenderized and tempered through this experience and mostly just want to sit quietly watching the sunrise while being very kind to everyone. At the same time, I have some hard, ugly truths to express, including about the SZBA board's actions and the unethical behavior of their ethics chair, Tenku Ruff. So I’ll do my best to be both clear and true in what follows, saving the ugly for when it’s unavoidable.
Why have I waited until now, more than nine months after the SZBA action and two years after leaving my job at NZC, to say anything publicly? There are several reasons. First, there are two legally binding agreements in place. Although NZC has been in daily breach of these agreements for the last two years, I’ve tried my best to honor the agreements. Unfortunately, my silence has been used against me and others involved. Second, I prefer to resolve disputes privately and directly, and so tried to work with the SZBA board (Dokai Georgesen, Rakugo Castaldo, Geido Ann Grossman, Koshin Steven Tierney, Inryū Bobbi Poncé-Barger, Ben Connelly, Gyokei Yokoyama, Thomas Bruner, Ayyā Dhammadīpā, and Koshin Paley Ellison), but have been met with the old stone wall. Third, my attorneys previously advised against a public statement. Although I am still exploring options for remedy through the courts - a slow and expensive process - a public response to the defamation I've endured now seems fitting.
And finally, this is an extension of the same shit I’ve had to deal with for most of my Zen teaching career given my dharma perspective, and sadly from some of the very same people - people who have benefitted themselves through the work I've done. So I haven’t felt like there was a big hurry to respond. As they say in Japan, “The nail that sticks up gets hammered down.”
As I recently learned, the latest slogan in some American Zen circles is, "Silence equals violence" (apparently even Buddhists can't shut up these days). So I'm speaking out now to share my perspective, but also to warn other Soto Zen priests and Soto Zen centers about the SZBA’s actions. They may come for you next.
The false accusations
I will get to the NZC context for the allegations against me and the SZBA board’s unethical, unjust actions, but first a summary:
All of my actions at NZC were approved by the lawfully constituted NZC Board of Directors. This board voted to sell the building and shift to an online model; I recused myself from the vote. I took no funds or property belonging to NZC when I left the organization, and all accusations made by current NZC board members to this effect are false (one claim pertains to missing artwork, some of which hangs in the homes of the same people making these false accusations). I did not profit personally from anything that had been rehomed in preparation for the sale, and I did not attempt to block the new board from accessing NZC’s bank accounts as alleged (I’m told that the new NZC board did not follow directions that were left for them). All income and expenses were appropriately documented, and six boxes of records and two flash drives were left for the new management.
The NZC context
Before I get to the SZBA, some background about the issues with NZC seems necessary. Specifically, what led to the decision to sell the NZC building and shift to an online format? Well, you might remember the pandemic that significantly disrupted everyone's lives for several years. But there is a larger context that I’ll now share.
In 2016, Nonin Chowaney, the former teacher of NZC, had significant health issues, with his health declining to the point that he needed to step down. Nonin and the board at that time (including present NZC board members, Vicki Grunwald, Pamela Griffin, and George Patenode, who share responsibility for the condition of the center described below) asked me to become the head teacher of the organization. Before accepting their offer, I was clear that Tetsugan (my co-teacher and spouse) and I would be making many changes, and sharing the practice forms that we had received and cultivated over our decades of training. I called it a complete Zen Center “makeover.” The board members said they welcomed this kind of overhaul and supported my ideas about how to turn the place around. I accepted the position and in July of 2016, Tetsugan and I moved from Portland, ME, to Omaha where we spent the next five years teaching and leading the center (including keeping it afloat through the pandemic), until September of 2021.
In an ironic twist, we were led to believe that the building and grounds would be turned over in good condition, and that there were many mature practitioners at NZC who would be available to help us bring the place back to life; that is far from what we found. When we arrived in the summer of 2016, the “temple” was basically dead, with two-feet tall weeds in the front yard, piles of dog shit dotting the backyard, a bug and rodent infestation, and a rotten deck that was unsafe at any speed. The interior of the building had descended into what could best be described as a garbage house, including human feces sprayed all around one of the bathrooms, rotting flowers on all of the altars, layers of dog hair everywhere, a basement filled with garbage, and furnishings that had been soaked in human excrement, etc. I’ll spare you further details, but we have lots of photos to verify the conditions, so I’m leaning into what’s true here, even if it isn’t so kind. It sure was ugly.
For at least the two quarters prior to our arrival, the organization offered no programming and had no income. Zero. Even those on the board were no longer making any financial contributions to the temple, and Nonin reported that no one was coming for zazen. For twenty-five years, his head teacher reports to the board were filled with his complaints about the lack of practice participation and volunteer support. Further, a board report from early 2016 by Vicki Grunwald and George Patenode made the case that the center was not financially viable - a little detail that was not shared with us prior to uprooting our lives and moving to Omaha for this job. The capping event was at Nonin’s retirement party when Nonin’s dharma successor tried to hijack the organization, claiming she was the true abbot, which no one believed or supported - not even Nonin.
During this tumultuous and ultimately failed transition, given that two of the SZBA’s members - Nonin and his successor - were engaging in egregious unethical behavior with the expressed intention of sabotaging our leadership transition (after inviting us to move halfway across the country), I petitioned the SZBA for assistance. I was told by Alan Senauke and Daishin McCabe (who is the current interim teacher at NZC) that there was nothing the SZBA could do to help us - the conflict had to be dealt with "in-house" - so the board (led by Vicki Grunwald) and I moved forward as best we could. For the SZBA to then come back years later, criticizing and undermining what Tetsugan and I did to try to save a failing Zen Center - well, another twist of irony.
When hearing about this and other well-known conflicts at NZC, a friend and longtime mentor presciently said, “It’s a snake pit. Get out of there.” Contrary to their sound advice, Tetsugan and I poured our bodies, hearts, and spirits into the building, grounds, and practice to create a beautiful, functioning Zen center. Or so we thought. Foolishly, as it turned out, we volunteered over 15,000 hours during our five years there and succeeded in transforming the building, grounds, and programming, in an attempt to reboot the center so that it could become a place for deep practice.
In mid 2021, after the center had been closed for over a year due to the pandemic, the future remained murky but the past was clear. The former board of NZC decided to sell the building and focus on online Zen practice because it was working so well to reach a much broader audience and actualize the mission we created for the center - “a refuge for open-hearted inquiry and audacious awakening.” Many more serious students were attending online zazen, dharma talks, classes, and practice meetings than had ever attended the in-person activities at NZC.
The members of the former board have been ignored and disrespected by both the present NZC board and the SZBA board as both groups have focused their revilement on me and Tetsugan. The former NZC board included Phil Taiho Martin (who started Zen practice with Katagiri Roshi in 1976 and received Jukai from him); Dave Chibatsu Laser (who started Zen practice with Kapleau Roshi in 1980, worked with Samu Sunim, and received Jukai from me in 2019); Joe Daicho Janowski (who started Zen practice with a successor of Katagiri Roshi, Rosan Yoshida, in 1988, and received Jukai from Katagiri Roshi and again from us, and also trained for twenty years in the Kwan Um school); and Jim Shogen Poleshuk (who started Zen practice with us soon after we arrived in Omaha and received Jukai from us). Tetsugan and I also served on the board. These board members had about 125 years of Zen practice between them (almost 200 years if you include us), so this was not their first rodeo.
These former NZC board members have written to the SZBA to strongly object to the SZBA’s lack of due process and findings. How could there have been a legitimate investigation when none of them were contacted? Their letter challenges the narrative put forth by the outside group who took over NZC, and highlights the continued harassment we’ve experienced from this group for the last two years. To date, this letter has been ignored by the SZBA board.
An audacious plan
Returning now to the sale of the building and the shifting focus to online Zen training:
When the former NZC board’s decision to sell the building became public knowledge, we were surprised that there were objections to the sale. Notably, one of the factors that went into the decision to sell the building was that, prior to the place going on the market, very few in Omaha had taken much interest in the center, either as a place to practice on their own behalf or as a temple to be supported and maintained for others.
Instigated by one individual who beat the bushes to rally others to her cause, a group of sixteen people formed, most of whom hadn’t been around the center for years, or who had only been peripherally involved, and none of whom were members of NZC as defined by the by-laws. None. Also notably, despite the group’s present story of care and devotion, Nonin was not on speaking terms with any of these folks when he retired. (Nonin also needed to retain legal counsel in order to extricate himself from NZC, due in no small part to the then-board’s lack of responsibility to the organization’s mission and by-laws.)
The group’s purpose was to stop the sale of the building and take control of the organization by any means necessary. Several members of this group have privileged access to significant financial and legal resources, and our board was shocked and traumatized when those opposing the sale immediately resorted to harassment and threats to achieve their ends. In public meetings, when those opposing the sale were fanning the flames of discord and hate, they stated they would do whatever it took to destroy all of us, as a group and individually, and would also bankrupt NZC if need be. Sadly, as it has unfolded, despite taking over the organization and gaining control of the building and grounds that we and a few others poured thousands of hours of labor into, this group has continued to follow through on their threats, abandoning agreements they made in September, 2021.
Since leaving NZC to focus exclusively on our mission of supporting householder practitioners, we have continued with our online work via Vine of Obstacles Zen, which has now been in existence for over a decade. All the former NZC board members are still involved with the Vine and continue to make dharma practice the guiding principle of their lives.
Finally, regarding the NZC context, you don’t have to take my word for labeling this an organizational dispute. In the summer of 2021, a complaint was filed with the Nebraska Attorney General’s office by the leader of the outside group that contained most of the same charges that were filed with the SZBA. This complaint included several verifiably false statements - made directly to the Attorney General - thereby setting the tone for what would follow. In a response to the Attorney General, our lawyer reported the outside group’s harassment and threats. The AG’s investigation of our actions at NZC found no wrongdoing on our part. Indeed, they found the former board’s actions were legal and in alignment with the mission of the organization. The AG’s office wisely dismissed the complaint as an organizational dispute; the SZBA was not nearly as wise.
The SZBA believes they are experts
What is the SZBA? Although they have put forth the facade of a professional organization, they do not fit the bill. They do not have any training, credentialing or licensing authority, and so cannot say who can and cannot teach Soto Zen. They are merely a collegial association. In recent years they have focused less and less on buddhadharma and have become more of a supporting organization for progressive social and political causes, all the while appropriating Asian culture (aka, cosplay) and paying lip service to inclusivity and diversity when it serves them. Now they’ve added a weaponized ethics component to be used against those with whom they disagree or have old grudges. So it turns out they’re not all that collegial either. Rather, the group has been co-opted by those in leadership into supporting the institutional abuse of power.
The SZBA acted unethically when they accepted the complaint from the present NZC board, ignoring the two legally binding agreements mentioned above. The SZBA board then came to unjust findings by violating my due process rights in several ways, including not informing me when the complaint had been made, nor revealing that their "investigation" was ongoing even after I was no longer a member. They also did not seek to interview any of the other five board members, or any current students who live in Omaha. It also appears that they did not review the past by-laws, the head teacher agreement and job description, nor board minutes that clearly gave me permission to make broad decisions for the practice and the direction of center. The SZBA board merely heard one side of an organizational dispute and colluded with the opposing party, declaring their version of events as “likely” the whole truth. And yet they publicly misrepresent what they did as a “full investigation.” That sure looks like false speech.
Further, the SZBA board did not follow their own policies and procedures. Instead, they retroactively applied an ethics policy that didn’t go into effect until December, 2022, to my tenure at NZC that ended in September, 2021. In addition, and rather strangely, they first accepted my resignation in September, 2022, and then, without any communication with me regarding their ongoing and one-sided process, "suspended" me in December, 2022. Yes, after I left their island, the board gathered on the beach shouting, “We’ll tell you when you can leave!” Spiteful! And now they continue to harass me online.
Even more bizarre, when confronted with their due process violations and not abiding by their own procedures, the lawyer for the SZBA board offered no defense; he simply asserted - “as a private organization, the SZBA can do whatever it wants.” Where is the professionalism and ethical accountability in that?
Current SZBA members take heed - in the unfortunate event that a complaint is filed against you, you cannot trust this board and ethics committee to deal with it fairly. My advice to you: when you finish reading this post, resign immediately. They may still come after you, like they have me, but at least you don’t have to pay your dues to a group that makes it their mission to harass Zen priests.
Given the fact that my actions at NZC were supported and approved by the former NZC board, one significant question this raises for local Zen centers is this - do you grant the SZBA board the authority to supercede your good faith decisions, especially when those decisions are in accord with by-laws and in alignment with your mission, by after-the-fact (and without your input) declarations that the local board’s decisions were “likely” unethical? This clearly represents enormous organizational overreach and an institutional abuse of power by the SZBA.
Thus, I call on the SZBA board to retract their unfair and unjust findings and remove the suspension notice of a nonmember from their website. Afterall, it makes the SZBA look petty and vindictive.
Why would the SZBA board act in such an unethical and hostile manner toward me?
As the Formless Atonement Verse goes: All the karma ever created by me since of old... Specifically, I have complex personal histories with some of the main players in the organization, including the board president, Dokai Georgesen, who has held a personal grudge against me since our training days with Katagiri Roshi. In any principled professional organization, at least several of them would have been ethically required to recuse themselves, particularly Dokai and Tenku Ruff, the chair of the ethics committee. Tenku, though, just happens to be the best friend of Sosan Theresa Flynn, the previous president of the SZBA, and the only person who did recuse themselves but then assigned Tenku to lead the sham "investigation” against me.
Tenku, like others on the SZBA board, hasn't run a Zen center of any significance or been responsible for training a group of formal students, but has made it her mission to play the part of judge and jury against those who have. She has long sought to exclude and silence members of SZBA, including me and those in my lineage, due to a longstanding conflict with my teacher, James Myoūn Ford Rōshi, and his successors.
For example, while serving as the SZBA board president, Tenku did not follow the SZBA process for membership applications. Instead, she followed her own personal agenda and refused to admit two members of our lineage, despite the fact that they were eminently qualified for the SZBA. Also, in 2019, when I was asked to write a postscript for a book about contemporary Zen, Tenku, in her role as SZBA president, contacted the author to assert her unsolicited opinion that she didn’t think I, as a white boomer male, was the appropriate choice to write such a postscript. The author was shocked by this boundary violation. Everyone should be shocked by the disrespect and ageism she exudes toward her colleagues.
Tenku has also demonstrated poor boundaries by boldly recruiting ethics complaints against Soto priests on her personal Facebook page (she's since removed the invitation from her page). These are clear examples of personal and institutional abuses of power.
In addition, Tenku has a history of playing fast and loose with the truth. Her bio claims monastic experience during periods when she lived with her partner in a comfortable apartment and joined the practice community for only parts of the day. This isn’t George Santos level resume inflation, but for a Soto priest and ethics chair, come on! More significantly, Tenku has also lied to me and at least one other person about her own training, claiming to have completed her lineage’s koan curriculum when, in fact, this was not true. For those of you unfamiliar with koan work, know that this is a rare and disturbing deception.
Tenku’s work has also been harshly criticized by the Greater Boston Zen Center, who hired her in 2019 to offer a training in "Right Use of Power," and later consulted with her when GBZC's head teacher was involved in a sexual transgression in 2021. This teacher, though, was a close friend of Tenku's (again, she didn't do the ethically upright thing and recuse herself) and in the “Right Use of Power'' paradigm she applied in her work with them, she supported her teacher friend and blamed the victim, stating the victim had also abused her power and should apologize to the teacher’s wife. Needless to say, GBZC regrets hiring Tenku and two other consultants that were recommended by her, reporting that the training Tenku offered them was "dangerous," and because she was a friend of the transgressor, they shouldn't have taken any advice from her.
Granted, we all fall down. But an ethics chair should at least focus on their own work when it is so glaringly obvious that they are not beyond reproach. Afterall, I know all the above about Tenku’s unethical behavior and her misuse of her positions to execute her own agenda and yet I don’t really know her well at all. I suspect that some readers are aware of other ethical/boundary violations on her part. If so, I encourage you to report these directly to the SZBA board.
Sadly, though, I believe the SZBA board is already aware of some of Tenku’s rogue behavior, including how she holds truth lightly and uses or disregards the rules to further her own agenda, while trodding on those with whom she has personal issues - and yet the SZBA board continues to support her in her key role as ethics chair. As such, they are complicit in her unethical actions. No healthy organization would have an ethics zealot in charge of ethics.
In yet another ironic twist, the development of the current ethical guidelines and process of the SZBA was funded by a grant from the Hemera Foundation (led by founder and CEO, Caroline Pfohl), an organization “dedicated to creating healthy dharma communities.” Tenku and the board took this organization's money, created new ethics procedures and policies, and then promptly ignored what they had created with the funds they received from Hemera, because, again, according to their lawyer, they believe they can do whatever they want. Does that sound like a healthy dharma community? The Hemera Foundation should ask for their money back.
As for the second reason why the SZBA board would act this way toward me, I believe that they feel threatened by my perspective regarding the Post Meiji Soto Orthodoxy and my willingness to speak the truth. I sometimes refer to their suspension of me (remember - after I’d already resigned) as my “lifetime achievement award.” I am a bit slow - it took me twenty years to really piss ‘em off - but I finally succeeded!
See, for example:
A happy outsider
Believe me, given the sad state of affairs of the SZBA and (in addition to the above) how they tragically trivialize the Great Way of Buddha, I’m happy to be on the outside of this organization.
Through all of this, I have been blessed by the love and support of my partner, Tetsugan, as well as family, friends, Zen teacher colleagues, and Vine students. The Vine of Obstacles, a powerful and innovative model for householders to deeply practice the buddhadharma, continues with a dedicated group of serious students. In addition, many Zen folks continue to read and benefit, I hope, from my books (here, here, and here) and online offerings (here).
Finally, I’ve learned through this experience that many practitioners in the Zen community already understand that the SZBA is dysfunctional and lacking in credibility. Indeed, the present board’s actions in this case will only further tarnish their already tainted reputation among serious Zen practitioners.
As my Zen teaching career and life wind down, I'd like to focus on other things. (If I'd been able to bill the hours that we’ve put into this at our lawyers’ rates, I’d be buying a villa in the South of France.) Going forward, I’ll be focused on relationships with family, friends, and, of course, Vine students. I will also continue to work on translations and other writings, including about the sad state of affairs in most of contemporary Zen (including the SZBA), despite the considerable push back (e.g., hammering) that comes from speaking the truth as I see it. It is my vow.
I wish all of you, including even the present boards of SZBA and NZC (despite the conflicts), all the best on the likely rough and winding road ahead.
Feel free to share this with anyone you think would be interested, and thank you for reading,
(Also known as the guy that the SZBA board felt so threatened by that they tried to silence him even though they had to violate their own ethics procedures and policies to do so.)