Monthly Archives: October 2014

Development of Membership Standards

October 1st, 2014

The Question of Standards
First Committee and Membership Survey
Outcome from 2012 Conference
Revisions Based on Member Feedback
Presentation of the April 2014 Version of the Standards to the Membership
Survey to “Take the Temperature” of the Membership Regarding the Standards Document
Discussion at the 2014 SZBA Conference
Committee to Development an Assessment Process
Proposal of a “Three Gateway” Formal Practice Intensive Standard

Currently, Soto Zen Buddhist priests are eligible for full membership if they have received ordination and dharma transmission in a recognized Soto Zen lineage. A recognized Soto Zen lineage is one that can trace ordination and dharma transmission from teacher to disciple back to a Soto Zen priest that was/is recognized by the Soto Shu in Japan, although the lineage may no longer maintain an active standing with the Soto Shu. It is expected that ordination and dharma transmission ceremonies occur in-person and according to the traditions of the lineage.

Further requirements for full membership are as follows:

1. Submission of an application and registration fee;
2. Payment of annual dues;
3. Agreement to abide by and be held accountable to the SZBA Ethics Statement, and
4. Submission of an Ethics Statement to which the member agrees to abide and be held accountable, and which meets the criteria listed in the SZBA Ethics Statement.

The Question of Standards

Since the SZBA became active in the early 2000s (click here for a history), there have been many discussions about adding standards for membership that would achieve the following goals:

  • Provide certification of a definable level of training for priests
  • Ensure that SZBA full member priests are prepared for the responsibilities they may face in society
  • Support a common Soto Zen tradition
  • Provide guidance to teachers in the training of student priests
  • Help identify needs for training opportunities


There has been much heated discussion about this topic, given that each Soto Zen priest in the west tends to function more or less independently, with the exception of conformance to the expectations of one’s immediate sangha, or to voluntary lineage organizations. Lineages and individuals vary widely in terms of the training they have received, and the training they feel is essential for their novice priests to receive. The adoption of any standards in addition to the ones listed above were seen by many as potentially divisive.

First Committee and Membership Survey

After a discussion about standards at the 2010 national conference, a Standards Committee was formed to study the matter. The committee was composed of four priests representing what was identified at the conference as the four primary modalities of training: monastic (represented by Kokyo Henkel), residential (Domyo Burk), temple-centered/non-residential (Meiren Val Szymanski) and ministerial (Myoan Grace Schireson). Over the next two years, this committee met via teleconference many times to frankly and honestly debate their differing views on priest training, and find a way to move toward additional membership standards that would respect the training of all current SZBA full members.

Standards SurveyThe Standards Committee first conducted a survey of the membership that presented an exhaustive list of different types of training and asked members to indicate whether they would require that kind of training for their own ordained students. Ninety-one of the 103 full members at the time participated in the survey (click here to review the survey results). The committee then drafted a set of membership standards, including only those trainings or skills that at least 70-75% of those surveyed indicated they require of their novice priests (or would require, if they did not yet have ordained students).

Outcome from 2012 Conference


At the 2012 conference this first draft of Membership Standards was discussed extensively by conference participants. A facilitated session allowed members to choose small groups focused on their area of greatest interest, and then meet and draft suggestions for changes and additions to the standards. A second committee was formed to incorporate suggestions that came out of the conference. Jikyo Wolfer chaired the committee, and other committee members were Jerry Tenku Smyers, Zuiko Redding, Hozan Alan Senauke, Tonen O’Connor, and Domyo Burk. This committee presented a draft of the Standards for Board review and edits in early 2013, and after additional revisions presented a final draft to the Board in October of 2013.

Revisions Based on Member Feedback


After approval by both the Standards Committee and the Board, a draft of the Membership Standards was sent to all full SZBA members via email in early January, 2014, for a final, 5-week period of review and suggestions. Extensive feedback was received from eight members and discussed by the Standards Committee; many suggestions were incorporated into the document, and other concerns regarding the assessment and implementation phases were addressed via personal emails and phone calls from the Board president. A revised document from the Standards Committee was reviewed at length by the Board at their in-person meeting in March 2014, resulting in a document ready for the next phase of the process.

Presentation of the April 2014 Version of the Standards to the Membership

The Proposed SZBA Membership Standards (click here) were mailed to full members and emailed to both full and associate members in April 2014. Along with them was a letter that stated the board was on the “threshold of ratifying” the standards, but that members who found the standards problematic were encouraged to provide feedback and be intimately involved in the next phase of the process of adopting membership standards.

Subsequently there was discussion via the full member listserve and email as members raised questions about how the final decision to adopt the standards would be made, and expressing concerns that the standards as they were written might exclude some current priest trainees from full SZBA membership. In response, the Board sent an email to the membership inviting participation in development of the procedures for assessing future applications for full membership, which would have to address the following questions:

Assessment/Evaluation–Component 1

– How will the SZBA support priests in meeting the standards?
– What forms of training meet a standard for full membership?
– Which aspects of the evaluation process will benefit from flexibility while still ensuring a fair and uniform evaluation process for all applicants?
– How can we streamline the evaluation process?

Implementation–Component 2

– What should be the standing membership committee’s procedures?
– When will the standards become effective?
– Will the standards be phased in over time or go into effect all at once?
– To whom do they apply and who will be grandfathered in?

Survey to “Take the Temperature” of the Membership Regarding the Standards Document

In a continued effort to be responsive to the membership, the Board sent out a survey to full members in June 2014 asking one question: “How do you feel about moving forward with the SZBA Membership Standards as they are currently written?” Respondents could indicate (5) I enthusiastically support them; (4) I think they’re a good idea; (3) I’m neutral; (2) I’m opposed to them, but I won’t block them from moving forward, and (1) I’m against them and would considering leaving the SZBA if they remain as written. Through follow-up emails and phone calls to members who had not responded to the survey, a 91% response rate was achieved (142 of 156 full members).

Results: 28 respondents (20%) answered (5); 72 respondents (51%) answered (4); 23 respondents (16%) indicated they were neutral or abstained; 14 respondents (10%) answered (2); and 5 respondents (4%) answered (1). In summary, then, 70% of respondents were in support of moving forward with the standards as they were currently written, while 13% were opposed. Comments were also collected, and most of the concerns of those who were opposed centered on the possible exclusion of good, qualified priests from the SZBA because of the membership standards.

Pie Chart from June 2014 Survey about Standards

Discussion at the 2014 SZBA Conference

There were two sessions at the October 2014 SZBA conference to involve members in further development of standards for full membership. The results of the survey (above) were shared. Discussion was not so much about the details of the standards as currently written, but more about how the standards might be used or applied. It was generally agreed that until an assessment process – the process by which someone would apply for full membership and demonstrate how they have met the standards, and how applications would be processed and assessed – has been clarified, further fine-tuning of the standards as written would be very difficult and of limited usefulness.

An Assessment Committee was formed, including some SZBA members experienced with educational assessment processes: Tenku Ruff (Co-Chair and Board Liaison), Shinsen Couillard (Co-Chair), Tomon Marr (Secretary), Dosho Port, and Mugaku Zimmerman.

Committee to Development an Assessment Process

Since being established at the October 2014 at the SZBA General Meeting, the Assessment Committee has focused on issues around developing an assessment model for the SZBA Standards for Full Membership. The committee has met regularly via phone since February 2015. Their discussions have been rich, addressing deeper issues related to the correlation between standards, assessment models, and the role each plays in the SZBA.

The Assessment Committee’s early meetings produced important threshold questions:

  1. Do the standards function primarily as a benchmark against which priests pass/fail or as a roadmap and curriculum for priest development?
  2. How do we uphold the Soto Zen tradition and affirm and honor the teacher-student relationship, while still providing a set path to full membership?
  3. What will the assessment model mean for the candidate, and what will it demand of the SZBA and its membership at large?
  4. What is the relationship between the standards and the method we use for assessing whether an individual has met them?

In June 2015, the Assessment Committee sent a letter to the SZBA board recommending using the Standards for credentialing, rather than as a gateway for full SZBA membership. The board deeply considered the committee’s recommendation and, after much discussion, clarified that the goal of adopting standards and creating an assessment process is to have an organization of qualified and well-trained Soto Zen priests, as defined by the Standards. To this end, the board decided that the current set of standards should be used as a requirement for full membership in the SZBA and not only for credentialing selected members. The board asked the Assessment Committee to move forward in creating an assessment process and the committee agree to do so.

At this time, the assessment committee has turned its attention to creating an assessment model which requires a candidate to show evidence for meeting the competencies outlined in the Standards. The assessment committee recommended to the board that the SZBA take the time to create an assessment process that honors the richness of the standards as they have been developed over the last six years and creates the desired outcomes for which the SZBA standards were originally developed.

The assessment process will to be developed gradually, with strong member input through a pilot process. Having members try out the assessment process with their students and give feedback will inform the committee about what works and what does not.

Proposal of a “Three Gateway” Formal Practice Intensive Standard by Survey

While the Standards document has met with general approval in polling of membership and at our last conference, it was clear that there were unresolved issues around the Formal Practice Intensive Standard.

The SZBA Board discussed at great length the possibility of significant numbers of current SZBA members resigning if the SZBA adopted a Formal Practice Intensive Standard that required prolonged periods of residential training (longer, that is, than one experiences in sesshin).

The board created a “Three Gateway” standard that, in combination with the other training standards, was designed to create a space where current members and their dedicated students could feel at home and be included in our growing and evolving SZBA. The board recognized that monastic training is a traditional path and for many people has been an invaluable element in their priest formation. At the same time, after visiting centers and witnessing the practice of our diverse communities, the board also recognizes that here in the west there are other approaches to priest practice in which well-trained teachers are developing. This proposal was the board’s attempt to affirm this variety of practice, allowing for all of us to learn widely from each other.

In order to get feedback from the membership on this proposal, the board created an online survey and sent out links to it in late November/early December 2015. Both full and associate members were asked to give their opinion on the following proposal:

To replace the current Formal Practice Intensive Standard as it is set out in “Proposed SZBA Membership Standards” document (last revised April 2014):

  • Standard: A full SZBA member has substantial experience with intensified periods of formal residential practice with sangha.
  • Training: At least one 90-day formal practice intensive that meets the criteria established by the SZBA training committee. Priests-in-training who demonstrate an inability to fulfill the 90 day requirement may alternately complete three one-month formal practice intensives that also meet the criteria established by the SZBA training committee. [Current proposed Formal Practice Intensive Standard]

with a Three Gateway Formal Practice Intensive Standard:

  • Standard: A full SZBA member has substantial experience with intensified periods of formal residential practice with sangha.
  • Training: Recognizing different paths and resources available to trainees and teachers in the West, the SZBA recognizes three practice gateways, any one or more of which can fulfill the Formal Practice Intensive Standard:
    • Honoring a more “traditional” Soto monastic training path, two 90-day formal practice intensives (or “ango”), meeting criteria established by the SZBA.
    • One 90-day formal practice intensive that meets the criteria established by the SZBA. If necessary, this standard many be met with multiple shorter practice intensives of at least three weeks’ duration.
    • Acknowledging members and groups where monastic training is uncommon or unavailable, 200 full days of sesshin practice.

3 Gateways Survey

 

SURVEY RESULTS: Out of 164 full members, 116 (71%) completed the survey, and out of 124 associate members, 71 (57%) completed the survey. Click here to view the results of the Full Members’ Survey on the Three Gateways Proposal, and click here to view the results of the Associate Members’ Survey. In summary:

Yes, I support the adoption of this Three Gateway Formal Practice Intensive Standard as part of the Proposed SZBA Membership Standards:

  • 66% (76) of full members, 75% (48) of associates

No, I do not support the replacement of the current Formal Practice Intensive Standard with this Three Gateway Standard:

  • 22% (26) of full members, 17% (11) of associates

I am undecided about whether to replace the current Formal Practice Intensive Standard with this Three Gateway Standard:

  • 12% (14) of full members, 8% (5) of associates

The survey also included multiple choice options for people’s reasoning (see the full survey results here and here), plus spaces for written comments. Explanation and comment were not required, but the most commonly chosen explanations are below:

I support the adoption of this Three Gateway Formal Practice Intensive Standard as part of the Proposed SZBA Membership Standards because it is inclusive:

  • 57% (66) of full members and 56% (40) of associates completing the survey

I support the adoption of this Three Gateway Formal Practice Intensive Standard as part of the Proposed SZBA Membership Standards because it gives teachers more freedom to determine the nature of their students’ training:

  • 51% (59) of full members and 51% (36) of associates completing the survey

I support the adoption of this Three Gateway Formal Practice Intensive Standard as part of the Proposed SZBA Membership Standards because substantial sesshin practice is sufficient for training priests; prolonged residential practice is not necessary:

  • 18% (21) of full members and 17% (12) of associates completing the survey

I do not support the replacement of the current Formal Practice Intensive Standard with this Three Gateway Standard; having multiple gateways is unacceptable because prolonged (non-sesshin) residential practice is a necessary part of priest training:

  • 11% (13) of full members and 7% (5) of associates completing the survey

Other explanations for not supporting the Three Gateway Standard were fairly even distributed among multiple choices indicating the Three Gateway Standard requires too much or too little residential practice, or requires too much or too little sesshin practice.

Most respondents added free-form comments, and these covered many topics. Some of the most commonly expressed questions were about implied equivalency between the second and third Gateway, the numbers of practice days involved in the different Gateways relative to one another, and the reasons for inclusion of a two ango option. The board will be carefully reading and discussing all comments in the coming months before deciding next steps to take with respect to the Formal Practice Intensive Standard.