Leadership in Community - May 13, 2000

Aaron: I am Aaron. We have been talking about various kinds of difficulties in a monastic setting and in any spiritual community. Who is empowered to be teacher or leader and how they are empowered. If one person is empowered, how may that disempower others? What may be the effects this shift of power has on the community? This taped comment from me grows out of the multi-faceted conversation we have just had about the high drop out rate at various monasteries, and about power and the distortions experienced by those that rise to positions of power. I wish those who read this to know that this is simply my own perspective and is not offered as absolute truth. If my insights are of use to the reader, please use them. If not of use, please freely discard them.

K has told a story about the Bruderhof community; there, it was observed that whoever was leader was last to know when that leadership became seriously distorted. Others would tell the leader. The leader would very graciously step down, trusting the advice of others. It would take that leader some time to come back to center again. Why would that distortion happen? The reason I say, 'Why would that happen?" is based on my own experience in leadership, as what might be considered the abbot of various spiritual communities.

I offer as an example my final lifetime as a meditation monk in Thailand, over 500 years ago. I did have teachers and valued those teachers. But I did not spend my years living with those teachers but in the forest. During the rains retreat, I would come to a place where teachers were available to me. But they were not responsible for me. I was responsible for myself. It was up to me to decide what guidance to trust, up to me to persevere or not persevere in my practice, up to me whether to get lost in stories of praise and blame, success and failure, and so forth, or to see through such stories. Another can hold the door open but I must walk through it for myself.

After many years had passed, and as monks came to know me, some monks began to ask, 'May we live with you in the forest? May we practice with you? Will you share your insights with us and instruct us in the dhamma as you understand it?" And I said 'Certainly." To agree to do that was to accept a responsibility. But I was not assuming a position of power over these monks. To be responsible to, and to hold power over, are not the same. I was responsible to them to live the dhamma as best I could. We are all responsible for that, always. Such responsibility never disempowers another because to live the dhamma is to know Buddha nature in all beings and act on that knowing, which can only empower others in genuine ways, and lead them to clearer expression of that true nature.

The power was limited to the statement, 'Yes, I agree to have you sit and walk with me, and to hear me teach dhamma by my words and my actions." Basic to that agreement was their willingness to consider what I had to say. The were free to disagree. If they disagreed frequently, why would they wish to stay with me? They were free to leave. Some did. What I was teaching was not what they sought.

Increasing numbers of monks wished to join us. There came a time when we settled into our own community during a rains retreat. We spent some small amount of time in preparation of that living space before the rains retreat so that we had a dry place to live. The villagers were happy to have monks living nearby, and were delighted to assist our preparations and offer materials for our shelters. It was not a difficult job to create some small shelter for ourselves. It was not intended to be a permanent structure. When the rains ended we would go. If we came back to it another year, we would repair what was repairable and rebuild the rest. I would think of it as a camp and not a temple.

As there were more monks present I found that I had two responsibilities. Some monks would lay upon me either negative or positive projections. My first responsibility was not to be afraid of their projections nor to buy into them, but to know them for what they were. This was my practice. If I could not do this successfully, I needed to say that others might not travel with me and meditate with me, because our distortions enhanced each other's and led, not to liberation but to deeper confusion.

Teaching monk was a wonderful practice, an opportunity to watch where ego arose, to feel in any way betrayed by negative projections or want to buy into the positive projections. It was very powerful practice because it constantly would point out where any ego was present.

The second responsibility was to use their projections as part of the teaching for them. If a monk lay positive projections on me, seeing me as some kind of god, some enactment of perfection, which of course I was not, then I needed to confront him and ask, 'What is this about?" I needed to look deeply in myself to see there was no pretense, that I was not adorning myself with some mask of artificial perfection.

This is interesting because on an ultimate level we are all perfect. The perfection is there. I need to differentiate between seeing my Buddha nature as perfection and seeing the everyday self as perfection. Of course the everyday self also is always perfection, but within that perfection are everyday distortions. If they don't see the everyday distortions then either I am hiding them or they are blind to them. If they are blind to them, then my responsibility to them is to confront them with these imperfections, persistently to hop off the pedestal on which they hold me.

I did not manipulate the situation. I did not purposely belch in their faces, swear or act in some unskillful way that would discomfort people. I simply was honest. If I suffered, I was not afraid to say I suffered. I felt sadness, fear or doubt and would say that. No dissembling was necessary because I knew I was not perfect. I acknowledged distortions when appropriate to do so.

When a monk criticized me and offered negative projection, my responsibility was to try to reflect that negative projection back, to confront him and ask him what was the source of that negative projection. If he said I was haughty and snobbish, where did that come from in him? If he said I was impatient, where did that come from? I had to look very carefully to make sure I was not enacting haughtiness or impatience, although those thoughts may have arisen, feeling superior or feeling impatient. When I was certain of it then I could confront him, not in a judging manner but always in a very gentle way, with his understanding that I asked the question in support of his practice. Did he see his own potential for impatience in me, and his aversion to that potential? Is that what he projected?

All of us are impatient sometimes. All of us are angry or greedy sometimes. If a person is disturbed by occasional greed, anger, impatience or pride he sees in others, it is certainly because he is uncomfortable with the possibility of that in himself. When he understands that and how he is projecting his aversion and attachment to perfection on me and projecting his self criticism on me, then it become a powerful teaching opportunity. Here we can begin to work with metta, to become aware of how he has criticized himself for the thoughts of greed or aversion in him, and is criticizing me that it is still there. We can move deeply into the understanding that it simply arose because of conditions, that whatever has the nature to arise has the nature to cease and is not self. Instead of blame, can there be metta for the one in whom such difficult mind states have arisen?

Simultaneously, one must understand that it still arose. One must be responsible to whatever arises. Above I used the phrase 'attachment to perfection." There is a difference between grasping at perfection with a heart that is not open to things as they are, and right effort aimed at purification of the kilesas. One must be responsible to what arose, but must do so in a manner which does not create further distortion.

The arising of that greed or aversion or whatever is a result. He is contracting around the result and thus perpetuating the khamma rather than offering metta to this being who is afraid of feeling hopeless and confused. To quote from the dhammapada, 'Only kindness will resolve hatred." One must look at the conditions around which this greed or aversion arose, watch how one has habitually related to greed or aversion, see how one's heart closes around this pattern, how judgment arises. Then one attends to the conditions which gave rise to the result. This is right effort. To confront only the result, and do so with angry determination that such mind state must cease to arise, is to create more khamma. When the conditions are attended, the defilements will cease; they have no more fertile soil to support them.

He begins to know judgment as judgment. Doubt as doubt. Fear as fear. We have heard the stories that have so often accompanied these mind states, the judgmental stories about judgment, fear, doubt, aversion, desire. So this is an opportunity to develop wisdom and compassion by going right into those stories and seeing them as papancha. Observation of the mind which proliferates the stories becomes the practice. We see how the stories are essentially empty. Doubt, anger, greed-they have no substance when seen in this way. When we saw them as dragons and sought to slay them, we gave them strength.

This does not mean we just ignore the defilements, but you have got to know what's what. The anger is just anger. Don't compound it with more anger.

I recognize that many monks-monks and nuns, forgive me Sister, I do not mean to exclude the female. I did have lifetimes as a nun but I was not in a leadership position of any sort in those lifetimes. I am speaking here from the perspective of that leadership of the community-I understand the difficulty in that many monks and nuns have not completed the training they need before they are pushed into this kind of leadership. I think the difficulty here derives from a distorted focus of practice for the whole community, which may be a kind of fix-it mentality rather than an openhearted presence with things as they are. The leaders then may reflect the community's distortion, rather than bring a clarity which purifies the distortion. But the entire path is one of coming to this balance of wisdom and compassion which does not attempt to fix anything, so much as to open to things as they are and see more deeply into the nature of things. If the leader has not yet come to understand this path, he or she will bend to the community's pressure to 'fix" and learning will cease or at least stagnate. In other words, the leader must have the depth to not run from anything, the wisdom to see through to the ultimate and the open heart to offer love where there is fear, fear of anything that arises, even negative thoughts.

I have not deeply investigated practicing monastic communities, only had a very small glimpse at them. The most important part of the situation in which I found myself in that final lifetime 500 years ago and also in other lifetimes prior to that one, was that I had no attachment whatsoever to having people follow me. I was there to practice dhamma. I was there to do something about myself. I was there not only to find a personal liberation, because I was committed to sharing the dhamma, but I recognized that I was of little help to others so long as I bought into the distortions. Thus, it was not what I taught so much as how I lived, how I did my own work, which became teaching to others. Sometimes I was skillful, sometimes not. Both were teachings because when I was not skillful, I no longer needed to try to transfer blame; thus even my unskillful choices were faced in a responsible way. This became the teaching, there is nothing from which we need to run or hide. Difficult states will arise and the Way is to open one's heart to whatever is present, and within that arising, to find truth.

Others were free to follow me or not. It made no difference to me. Therefore they were the ones with the power. However, I needed to accept responsibility for the position I had accepted, to be certain I did not accept abuse from them with their power. My responsibility was to say 'no" to such abuse. This is the voice of the compassionate heart. We must always say no to abuse, but with kindness.

By being powerless, I taught them how to use power. If I had been the one in power, I could not have taught them to honor themselves with the understanding and enactment of self-responsibility. They would look to me to fix them, and deny both their own power and their own responsibility. Then they would have power in a distorted way, would control me, because each time they acted poorly, I must try to fix it. One cannot play that game and be an effective leader. Neither can one play that game and move oneself or anyone toward liberation.

Power is interesting. When I empower another wisely, I also empower myself. When I disempower another and claim power over them, I disempower myself in any ultimate sense. I empower only the ego.

I made it clear that inherently, as human, I was imperfect, and yet I also honored the perfection of each being, and was not afraid of either the perfections or imperfections. I said no to abuse without hating the abuser. I did not attempt to fix the abuser, only to point out that the abuse had arisen because of conditions and there was no need to fear anything. By my willingness to be powerless, I become powerful, but it is not a power that only one may hold. Within my power, I empower others. There is no competition. I invite them to exercise their power to stay or go, their power to practice or not. I invite in them a sense of responsibility and the empowerment to attend unskillful patterns.

Now I understand that all of these skills-to know how to say no compassionately to abuse, to know when to say no, to be able to reveal another's distortions to them without judgment so they can understand them without judgment-these abilities are not usual in a being without some considerable realization. I wouldn't want to follow a being without that kind of realization. I don't think most people do want to. If someone chooses to follow a teacher because he is powerful, tells people of his enlightenment, orders people around, they are involved in what in today's psychological jargon would be called an unwholesome co-dependence. There is no real practice going on, only deception. You can't stop people from practicing that way, but you can extricate yourself from the situation. Those who are ready to do authentic practice will find those who are ready to support them in their authentic practice. This is the kalayana mitta, a spiritual friend a few steps ahead on the path and knowledgeable enough to offer some feedback.

If it were always clear cut, either distorted or not distorted, one could choose wisely. The hard part is that every situation on the human plane will carry some distortion. You may choose the distorted situation which most clearly reveals your own distortions and offers opportunity for purification of them, or you may choose the one which most hides your distortions. People will do the latter for as long as they wish, until they are ready to say no and make a more skillful choice.

There is a group khamma here. The entire community can participate skillfully together in revealing the distortions, not to lay blame but to offer intention for healing. This move is not only the responsibility of the leader but the entire sangha. But the community cannot do it without the leader's participation. This is the point where the Bruderhof community would tell the leader it was time to step aside. It was time to lay aside the present distortion, heal it and learn what was to be learned. Another leader would step in, able to clarify that first distortion but bringing a new one. With each step, there would be a fine tuning of balance. And each is responsible to the other, the leader to the sangha and the sangha to the leader. This fact must be acknowledged and held as a sacred trust.

One part of your present distortion is that you have these temples. This is not a problem, only the posing of the riddle. What distortions are revealed by the creation and perpetuation of these temples? They are necessary to your present monastic situation, because you can not be wandering forest monks in a place like England, nor in America. Therefore you will need the structure. I don't mean the physical structure but the mental emotional structure, the psychological structure. It is a very different situation.

There also may not be available the kind of practiced leader I speak of. Yet any person with deep self-honesty, love and commitment to the Way can do this job. You have got to understand between yourselves the source of the dilemma, and agree to hear one another and to take 'community" and 'hearing" as practice. I have never been to (name), I can only speak about this place in a hypothetical way. In a small monastery where there is inadequate leadership, still there has got to be someone capable of some kind of leadership-someone who understands the vinaya; someone who is capable of respecting others enough to allow them to practice as they need to, yet asking them to respect the community enough to practice in ways that are necessary to hold the community together.

Everyone who lives there has got to make a commitment. That commitment is very simple. They have to make one commitment beyond their monastic vows and that is a commitment to authenticity. They have to make a commitment to be honest with themselves. That commitment begins with a knowing that in those areas where they are not ready to be that honest, this is going to be challenging. The work is going to touch those places that are most sensitive. There are going to be times that one hates what is happening. There are going to be times when one weeps, when one wants to scream, because of what one sees in oneself and those around one. For those who want to avoid emotion, this means there is no longer a hiding place. For those who have avoided themselves, the habitual tendencies can no longer be hidden. The move is not into a maudlin introspection, but just kindly presence with what is.

There has got to be an enormous container of metta and perhaps the most important trait of the leader besides a respect of herself and the dhamma is a very loving heart, deeply trained in metta. There has got to be a willingness to make mistakes. There has got to be a willingness to acknowledge one's mistakes. There has got to be a willingness to confront others with their distortions in a very kind, gentle and non-judgmental way, but with awareness that this confrontation is a necessary part of compassion. And this living in community itself has got to be the practice at least for some years. There has got to be the fearlessness which comes from holding the end in sight, that is, knowing deeply the intention to liberation and that this liberation does not lay in finding safe places to rest, free of turmoil, but in finding peace in the heart of that turmoil. This does not mean one seeks out turmoil and heavy emotion. It is not necessary to seek it out. It will come to you!

In a larger and more established community the situation is no different. When we visited (name), the most important thing that I most wished for that community is that people could develop the ability to deeply honor and respect the strengths of those around them and focus largely on those strengths rather than fixating on the weaknesses. One notes distortions and weakness, but rather than focus on those distortions, one simple brings the attention back to the strengths.

This must be done skillfully. If weaknesses and distortions are used in unskillful ways the sangha must attend to them in ways which sidestep any unwholesome involvement. This is not only the leader's responsibility. It is each person's responsibility.

As you know, people have different character traits. Some are bright and some are dull. Some are energetic and some lethargic. Some are quick with their minds and their intelligence and some need to step through things and repeat them many times. Some are seen to have a very joyful bubbly disposition and some seem sour. This is how people are. When the community moves into too much introspection, trying to figure people out, trying to fix people, it creates distortion. When the community is able to remember the strengths, to remember the beauty of each person within their personality and self, and find the strengths of that person, as very kind, generous, a good listener or that one is meticulous and careful with details, then we begin to appreciate each other.

There is one lovely story. There was a small Christian order which had a chapel and living quarters. They offered services to which people came. But slowly some monks had disrobed, no new monks had arrived and the public was not coming to the services, not coming to hear the talks. So they had a meeting to discuss the possibility that they should disband. There was a reputedly wise rabbi in town and the senior monks went to ask him for ideas. The rabbi said, 'I really don't know. I am sorry. I understand your situation. We have the same thing happening here." So they talked for a long while about many things, about religion, and the way each community practiced. Finally the monks were ready to leave and they said to the rabbi, 'Are you sure you don't have any idea what we can do to rebuild our community?" The rabbi said, 'I really don't. I am really sorry. The only thing I can tell you is that one of you is the Messiah. That is all I can tell you. Goodbye."

And he saw them out.

So they began to walk and think, 'What did he mean by that 'One of you is the Messiah'? It is a strange thing to say. We should have asked him what he meant by it." But they didn't feel they could go back.

They came back to the community and were asked, 'What advice did he have?"

'Nothing except he said something very strange just as we were leaving at the end. He said that one of us was the Messiah."

They went about their work in the coming week in the community and each pondered this question within their own self. Some of them thought, 'If one of us is the Messiah, then certainly it would be Brother John; he is always so kind and so generous. No, it must be brother Tom, because when we are confused, he always seems to have the answer. No, maybe it is brother Saul. He is very dour, very hard to get along with sometimes, but when there is always any real difficulty, he is always there. It must be brother Saul."

And so they thought like this and of course they began to relate to one another as if they were all the Messiah. They began to relate to each other with deep respect, to listen to one another, to love one another. There began to be a difference; you could see it in the way they related to one another, the respect they had for one another. They began to feel that this is a place where love and respect are evident. Some of the young men that came were so moved by the love and respect that they asked to ordain. Now there were young monks coming into the community and it again became viable.

This is what I would wish for a place like (name). We cannot say one of you is the Messiah. Let us say that all of you are the Buddha. How can you begin to live that way?

When you know you are the Messiah, as is your sister and brother, what does this do for your practice? For your sangha?

This matter of seeing each as the Buddha is a form of empowerment. The ego is very sneaky. Even with the most sincere intention to empower others, not to grasp power for oneself, in a position of leadership all of one's old distortions are called forth. The practice for the leader must always be this matter of mindfulness and letting go, of developing the clarity to see the sticky places. Furthermore, when others ask the leader to be the authority, there is a fine line of appropriate response. One must be responsible to what one understands, not allowing others to come to harm because one refuses to offer one's understanding. At the same time, one must allow others to choose. You cannot force another to make skillful choice. Implicit in leadership is the need to allow others to make mistakes.

Let us regard non-harm as ahimsa. This is a dynamic compassion which consists both of avoiding harmful action and speech, not acting in ways that harm others, and avoiding harm through withholding. The skillful leader understands this balance, offering but not pushing. This is the narrow edge where true empowerment can happen. The leader doesn't say 'Do it this way," so much as 'I see this, I see that. These are the choices and possible results I see." Then his/her wisdom becomes an aid to the ones who, through their own choices, learn to be more responsible.

Skillful leadership/teaching is not easy but it is a very powerful practice and the leader/teacher must understand it as such. There is much more that could be said, but perhaps this is sufficient for the moment. Thank you for the opportunity to share these thoughts with you. That is all.

Copyright © 2000 by Barbara Brodsky