In Japan, it is said that the person who heads a spiritual community should have ‘grandmotherly mind’. Here we are not referring to any particular grandmother, but rather to an archetype. This grandmother carries certain dignity and so can be imposing when necessary, but most of the time is kindly and considerate of everybody in the community. She brings calm and balance to the situation and makes everybody feel loved - because they are.
A spiritual community is not like a commercial enterprise, nor is it like the army.. there is a hierarchy of responsibility and authority, but it is the duty of those in higher positions to have a gentle care for those in lower. In particular, it is vitally important that the spiritual guide not use his or her authority for the purpose of advancing his own interests. Perhaps the abbot would like a certain trainee to stay and look after him, but if it is in the interest of that person’s spiritual training that they go elsewhere, then so it shall be.
Again, when somebody has stepped out of line or done something stupid, the leader has to do something about it, but it is imperative that at such a time deep compassion for the person who is in error predominate. As leader of the community, I have to think very hard what will be the right way to tackle this type of situation. The spiritual progress of the trainee is far more important than the efficient running of the temple, yet simply allowing such a matter to pass and the lesson not be learnt may not be wise.
Of course, there are many things that one does simply let pass, because it is much better that a person find out for himself. When somebody new comes to the temple one generally gives them plenty of rope, as it were, so as to see what they are capable of and what level of concern they have for others, how conscientious, how able to see what needs doing, how ready to join in with others and so on.
Actually, the better the trainee is doing and the better the relationship that you have with them, the more direct one can be. However, in every case there is a considerable art to giving directions without an overflow of ire or irritation. The trainee will generally sense whether there is a fund of goodwill behind the corrective remark or not, but this is not automatically the case, and the instructor should only go so far as will actually help the person.
In order to do this one has to put one’s own wants and agendas aside, or, rather, one needs to have as a higher priority the wellbeing of all the members of the community. In our order we have precepts not to punish, not to blame, and to have a tender care for others, 'especially when one believes them to be at fault or mistaken'.
These precepts are immensely important, but, of course, rather challenging to adhere to all the time. People are bound sooner or later to do things that get under one’s skin. What is one to do? My teacher Kennett Roshi used to say, “Firstly, consider your own training.” Sometimes it is better to sleep on an issue than to try to tackle it while one is hot. On the other hand, if one is cool, then tackling it immediately may sometimes be best. All of this means that one has to develop a sensitivity to one’s own state as well as that of the other person. Love and trust are always tested.
At the same time, it is important that one be natural. Grandmother is naturally kind, naturally concerned for the grandchildren, naturally understanding, yet with a down-to-earth wisdom born of long experience and deeper perspective. Although codes and precepts are valuable, the real essence of Buddhism lies in having the right heartedness from which such behaviour arises, rather than from adherence to a code.