It’s Tuesday night in Moseley, a suburb of Birmingham, in the heart of England. People are streaming into a large white house, a former synagogue, now the Birmingham Buddhist Centre. The shrine room and its gallery are packed: A crowd of 250 have come to hear Sangharakshita speak. A small academic figure, gray-haired, in gray suit and glasses, he takes up his position behind a lectern. The talk, lasting nearly two hours, is about Atisha, the 10th-century Indian adept who helped bring Buddhism to Tibet. Here and there the speaker offers a sprig of wisdom about how to apply the tale to one’s own life.
How he applies it to his life remains unstated but tantalizing nonetheless, for like Atisha, this elderly British gent, who looks like he could be John Major’s elder brother, a picture of Middle England, has spent the better part of his life transmitting the teachings of Buddha from one culture to another. At the end of the talk, the applause is rapturous.
Sangharakshita is the founder and leader of the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order (FWBO), whose center this is, and most present are his disciples. Among the crowd, a few men and women wear white kesas over their Western clothes—strips of embroidered cloth worn around the neck, which, following the Zen tradition, distinguish them as ordained members. Afterward, people sip tea, browse the bookstore, and chat enthusiastically. Followers from Cambridge, three hours away, join others who have journeyed equally long distances. There is much catching up to do. An outsider could be forgiven for thinking that all was well with the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order.
Along with the New Kadampa Tradition (NKT) and the Soka Gakkai, the FWBO is one of the three largest Buddhist organizations in Britain, with several thousand members, including eighty centers worldwide, ten of them in America, numerous businesses and residential communities, and an annual gross income of between $8 and $16 million. But last year, their thirtieth anniversary, was not an easy one for them.
Late in 1997 the Guardian newspaper ran a long, damning article on the FWBO. No sooner was the article out than an Internet war began, with attacks reminiscent of the religious pamphleteering of earlier ages. But the real bombshell came with the Web posting of The FWBO Files. This seventy-page document, by an anonymous author who declared that he was never an Order member but who evidently had an axe to grind, is a catalog of allegations echoing the Guardian’s: FWBO members are not bona fide Buddhists; at least one of their British centers operated under an autocratic and abusive regime; Sangharakshita himself has no real authority to teach Buddhism and while claiming to be a celibate monk he was homosexually active; the FWBO is misogynistic, casting women as biologically predisposed to a “lower evolution”; and his followers are, at best, slavish dupes working in the organization’s burgeoning businesses for little pay and, at worst, functionaries of an insidious cult. The most serious allegation of all is that Sangharakshita’s heterodox approach encourages a culture of coercive homosexuality that has led to severe psychological trauma and even suicide.
It was just the kind of cautionary tale to vindicate every parent who ever warned a child against the perils of exotic mysticism. But is it true?
True or not, it’s a tale that cuts to the heart of the most pressing problems attending the transmission of Buddhism to the West: How is the teacher’s authority established; what is the role of the teacher; which aspects of dharma are cultural and which are essential? Even the most sanguine of Buddhist communities in the West are engaged with these questions. It seems certain that even when—or if—this story yields some degree of factual or moral closure, these bigger questions will continue to both irritate and energize the acculturation of dharma in the West.
Three months after The Files were posted in 1998, the FWBO released its Response, a sixty-page, point-by-point rebuttal. One of its authors, the Cambridge-educated Vishvapani, who heads the FWBO Communications Office at the London Buddhist Centre —a beautifully converted brick fire-station in London’s East End—and edits its magazine, Dharma Life, views the accusations as an unfortunate distraction from the many strengths of the FWBO as well as from its main business, teaching and studying the dharma. “The FWBO Files is just so silly and has so many inaccuracies that I was hoping people would look at it and laugh,” says Vishvapani, who has been a member for over ten years. “Unfortunately, that hasn’t happened. But to address these issues— which we must do—is to allow our detractors to set the agenda, ignoring all the good in the FWBO.”
Jim Belither, a senior member of the NKT in Britain, echoes this view: “To begin with, The Files’ author appears to be motivated by a sincere desire to ‘right a wrong’ and to address issues of genuine concern. However, he also seems determined to see only bad in the FWBO. From the side of the FWBO, I thought the Response showed a genuine attempt to take on board the criticisms being made.”
To untangle this knot of attack and defense isn’t easy. Here’s the FWBO, according, roughly, to the FWBO: In 1946 Dennis Lingwood, a British soldier stationed in India, goes AWOL, donning the yellow robes of a wandering ascetic and taking to the dusty roads. After two years he settles in Kalimpong to begin his life’s work—a synthesis of the three major vehicles of Buddhism: Theravada, Mahayana and Vajrayana. For almost twenty years he studies under various teachers such as Yogi Chen, Dhardo Rinpoche, and Jagdish Kashyap, who respectively expose him to the East Asian, Tibetan, and Theravadin traditions. He also receives initiations from Tibetan lamas, is ordained in the Theravada tradition, and is subsequently called Sangharakshita. In Kalimpong he starts up the Young Men’s Buddhist Association, launches a journal, The Middle Way, and writes some of his principal works, including the widely admired Survey of Buddhism. In addition, he officiates at the Buddhist ordination of over 200,000 ex-untouchables in central India, working alongside the famous activist Dr. B. R. Ambedkar.
In 1964, Sangharakshita is invited to return to London to take charge of the English Sangha Trust, a Buddhist organization founded by Christmas Humphreys. He gets sacked two years later and in 1968 founds the FWBO. The rest is music. From a basement in Central London the Order grows into an organization with 800 ordained members and thousands of followers. In India the number of adherents runs into six figures. Windhorse Trading, their main business trading in imported gifts, grows from a one-garage outfit to a six-warehouse, nineteen-store concern, with a turnover of close to $15 million a year. Numerous communities and a string of Right Livelihood businesses provide a full package for the aspiring seeker – where to live, where to work, where to practice.
If American Buddhists draw inspiration from Kerouac, British Buddhists might take theirs from Kipling. Sangharakshita’s story reads like some Empire fantasy, a tale of the Raj—the deserting soldier turned wandering ascetic, garlanded with honors by religious dignitaries and bringing the dharma home to the West—but in Britain, where Buddhism still has fewer than fifty thousand Western followers, converts are perhaps unduly susceptible to romantic notions of the spiritual life. It’s a fairy-tale story—but, again, is it true?
The Files claim that Sangharakshita’s history is largely personal mythmaking and that he had no formally recognized training. But as Stephen Batchelor, an eminent British Buddhist, points out, this was never exactly his claim. “Sangharakshita is in a difficult position. If he did say he was officially endorsed by a lineage, then he’d have to go along with it and tie himself into that camp. On the other hand, he can’t deny he has a connection with Asian traditions; otherwise his whole edifice would be built on sand. He has no real authority from any lamas. But if he did have close relations with Dudjom and Khyentse Rinpoche, as he says, then not to invite them to his center when they visited London in the 1970s was an unforgivable breach of protocol.”
In response to allegations that Sangharakshita does not have the proper credentials to transmit Tibetan practices—such as tantric visualizations—to his students, the FWBO states: “[Sangharakshita’s] authority to draw inspiration from the Tibetan tradition in his teaching, and to pass on some of its insights and practices, is based not on the number of initiations he received, or their formal status, but on the sincerity and effectiveness of his practice, the clarity of his understanding, and the depth of his realization.” But who is to be the judge of those? From a traditionalist’s point of view, this may seem a mere fudge; from the FWBO’s perspective, it represents a different idea of what constitutes legitimacy.
Jim Belither of the NKT is sympathetic to the FWBO’s position on the legitimacy of a teacher. “The FWBO do not place as much reliance on lineage as other traditions. For them the legitimacy of Sangharakshita as a teacher rests mainly on whether his writings and teachings are based on authentic Buddhist sources and are conducive to helping them and others toward liberation. In presenting Buddhist teachings in a way that he feels accords with Western society, Sangharakshita has established what might be seen as a separate tradition. To what lineage could he be accountable?”
Belither is well positioned to have given this dilemma some thought. In 1996 the NKT played havoc with issues of authority and legitimacy when, under the guidance of their teacher, Geshe Gelsang Gyatso, they demonstrated against the Dalai Lama during His Holiness’s visit to London. Protests against the beloved Tibetan leader provoked an outcry of criticism as well as exposing an arcane feud within the Dalai Lama’s own school, the Gelugpa, that originated several hundred years ago. Yet Geshe Gelsang Gyatso is widely respected: Western students in this school came of age studying his books. Suddenly, and in a very public display, it wasn’t just Westerners who were redefining the rules, but the Tibetans themselves. How then could Westerners be expected to get it “right”?
In a rundown house in Bristol lives one of the original twelve members ordained by Sangharakshita in 1968. Ananda, a poet, lives humbly—like most Order members—in a book-lined room, amidst a friendly clutter, statues of the Buddha, and incense waiting to be lit. Like other members interviewed, he is extremely personable, open, and bright—hardly fitting the picture of the brainwashed cult member or hardened manipulator suggested by The Files.
After thirty years of study, Ananda is convinced of Sangharakshita’s qualities as a teacher. “From a distance it would be easy to say he’s a guru on the make, because no one has said: ‘All right, Sangharakshita, you are my successor.’ But the transmission of the dharma is a mysterious thing and can’t be encapsulated in a certificate. It’s in the nature of the communication you have with your teacher, and the only way of knowing that is by knowing him.”
Nevertheless, Ananda thinks the recent allegations are helpful. “Before the Guardian piece came out, there was a lot of self-censoring. Now there’s much more debate.” But he is concerned that not enough change is taking place. “One reason change is slow is that people don’t question the teachings, because they question their own motivation. That is the worrying thing, that any dissent is looked upon as: ‘Oh, I’m being very bad, I shouldn’t criticize the teacher.’”
This issue of status touches on two of the sorest allegations against the FWBO: misogyny and coercive homosexuality. As reported in the Guardian, the FWBO’s Croydon Centre (which—like most FWBO communities—is single-sex) had by the late 1980s become the scene of intense psychological manipulation: One man committed suicide and many others were reported to have suffered mental trauma. The center’s head was accused of having coerced several men into homosexual relations by using a convoluted corruption of the Buddhist doctrine of conditioning promulgated by Sangharakshita himself, which proposed that spiritual friendships are essential to spiritual development, that such friendships between men could be inhibited by the fear of homosexual contact, and that the best way of overcoming that fear was to engage in homosexuality.
Mark Dunlop, an Order member until 1986, and since then one of its leading critics, claims that the FWBO uses the doctrine of unconscious conditioning to create a double bind. “If you don’t like homosexuality, you can never be sure it’s because you really don’t like it or if it’s your conditioning. I ended up thinking I was too much drawn to the ‘Lower Evolution’ and that women were trying to trap me into samsara. You could never fight this. You either had to go along with it or leave. They’d say, ‘We feel terribly sorry for you for feeling all this negativity.’”
According to Kulananda, a leading light in the FWBO credited with starting up its tremendously successful Windhorse Trading, Croydon was an exception. “There has been the odd occasion elsewhere when people had to go in and say, ‘Hold on, what’s going on here?’ But nothing like Croydon. The guy there was intensely charismatic. It was an unusual set of circumstances.”
A handsome man of South African Jewish extraction, Kulananda is one of a handful of “Public Preceptors” recently appointed to take over from Sangharakshita. He lives in the College of Preceptors, an imposing turn-of-the-century villa near the center in Birmingham where, in addition to board and lodging, he receives a stipend of $60 a week. He is confident that the Croydon debacle won’t be repeated. “We’ve instituted changes that would make it highly unlikely to happen again. Each center now has a president who keeps an eye on things. And the level of debate is so much higher generally now that people are much more aware of these dangers.”
Other observers fault the FWBO for refusing to accept that Croydon was not an aberration, but a fairly predictable outcome of the Sangharakshita ideology. And early critic Dunlop remembers Padmaloka, the FWBO’s retreat center in Norfolk, as rife with homosexual activity.
In response, the FWBO says there was indeed a climate of sexual experimentation in the past, and, yes, mistakes were made, but there was nothing consciously coercive going on. According to Vishvapani, “What happened in Croydon was an aspect of certain attitudes around in the FWBO, but taken to an extreme. In Padmaloka, you had a lot of people who were gay. It did get a bit out of hand and it got disbanded in 1989. But I’ve never heard of anything unethical going on there. It was just a rather tangled sexual mess.”
According to Ananda, “It was inevitable that it would all blow up, because people were just so messed up. Yes, gay sex was definitely in the air. It was the way to become part of the new Buddhist revolution. People took that whole sexual liberation thing too literally. In the early days we weren’t big on practice; we were just Buddhists hanging out, going to lectures, doing yoga. We were naive. People who had been ordained by Sangharakshita tended to develop their own little castles of which they were the unchallenged masters.”
At Windhorse Trading, the warehouse shelves are interspersed witth shrines and rupas. The operation is impressive not only in scale but in its successful integration of commerce and spirituality. Even so, it comes as a shock to find that the entire work force is segregated by gender, even in the canteen. And indeed, its agenda on women is one issue that has recently dogged the FWBO. In his book, Women, Men and Angels(1995), Subhuti, Sangharakshita’s second-in-command, propounds the belief that women have less spiritual aptitude than men. Using a quasi-theosophical scheme that posits five stages of evolution—“Animal, Woman, Man, Artist, Angel”—Sangharakshita apparently believes that men already have a leg up, as it were, in the “Higher Evolution.”
At Tiratanaloka, a well-appointed women’s ordination center nestled in a Welsh valley, Ratnadharini, a longtime female disciple, explained how she squares this doctrine with her Buddhist practice. “This material had been there all along, scattered through Sangharakshita’s writings,” she said. “But I think we all chose to ignore it with a kind of blanking-out mechanism. Now that the book is out, at least it’s all there in one place and not hidden. The assumption is that it’s antagonistic, but in fact it’s not. A lot of us grow up under the shadow of a hidden message that men are better than women and strive hard to prove that we’re as good as men. But to accept that in a particular arena men might have more aptitude is liberating.”
But isn’t this to accept that shadow rather than dispel it? Doesn’t she feel like a second-class citizen? Ratnadharini is adamant: There’s no misogyny in the Order. “Women take the same precepts as men and have the same ordination as men. Women conduct women’s ordinations; men conduct men’s. Three of the seven Public Preceptors, who are effectively Sangharakshita’s successors, are women.”
But Parami, another woman who has been an Order member for eighteen years, admits that in the past things have been different. “In the early years of my Order life there was some sexism, mostly from very immature men using, or rather misusing, some of Sangharakshita’s comments. I am confident, though, that Sangharakshita himself is coming from a genuinely compassionate place. Which does not mean that I always agree with him or Subhuti. In fact I have argued with both of them at times and have always found them more than willing to listen to me and even at times to modify their opinions. And it has been stated quite explicitly that one does not have to agree with this part of Sangharakshita’s teaching in order to be ordained. Certainly many women disagree and some have been vocal in expressing that.”
As personable and self-aware as these two women might be, it’s hard to be persuaded by Sangharakshita’s much-quoted dictum: “Angels are to men as men are to women—because they are more human and, therefore, more divine.” The first part of this bizarre message falls squarely into Sangharakshita’s evolutionary scheme—if you’ve made your way up from Animal to Woman, the next step would be Man, then Artist, and finally Angel. This in itself seems a highly dubious element in any Buddhism purporting to be for today’s society. But no one in the FWBO could explain the second part: If “they” are the “angels,” then why “more human”? If “they” are the “women,” then why “more divine”? Is it just obfuscatory back-pedaling?
The organization has attracted many people over the years, including other Buddhists, and looks like a great success story. Order members seem to take seriously their daily practices of meditation, prostrations, and sutra and precept study. If the allegations in The Files are true, why has no one spoken up sooner? Why aren’t there more deserters? Why aren’t the courts involved? Various answers are offered: No one wants to look like a gay-basher; men are reluctant to talk about coercive sexual experiences; it’s hard to prove a case of “undue influence.”
Related: Sex in the Sangha . . . Again
In addition, while the allegations are multiple, they are targeted at very different types of problems. Issues of legitimacy may be viewed within a larger historical pattern of tension between traditionalists and modernizers. Sexual coercion, if it went on, is quite another matter. And while the “women thing”—as it is derisively called by many women outside the organization—may seem insufferably retro, it is not illegal, nor necessarily even lived out on the ground.
But for Ken Jones, a long time FWBO-watcher and author of The Social Face of Buddhism and Beyond Optimism: A Buddhist Political Ecology, all the current allegations miss the point: “My original criticism of the FWBO was an alarm that along with two other leading groups in Britain—NKT and Soka Gakkai—they are a Buddhist movement and therefore have a particular ideological skew. In joining a movement you buy belongingness, you buy an assured shared viewpoint. It gives you a complete identity. This is very different from what you get in mainstream Buddhism, but it isn’t something you can prove, only feel. It’s only a flavor, but it’s important, because it’s not a flavor that’s consonant with Buddhism as I see it, where the process of constantly deconstructing, constantly pulling out the rug, is essential to dharma practice. The other problem is that dharma debate of this kind requires great skill. Otherwise it gets confrontational, rancorous, and petty, and ultimately what was intended as an attempt to address a problem becomes its own problem. I think that’s what has happened here.”
Sangharakshita says he won’t respond to the accusations until he publishes the memoirs he is now writing. But his many books make clear that part of his agenda has been the building of new institutions to support spiritual practice. “We must change Western society, and change it in such a way as to make it easier, or at least less difficult, for us to lead lives dedicated to the Dharma within that society,” he declares, for example, in Buddhism and the West (1992).
So he lays the ground for the institutions now in place—single-sex spiritual communities, Right Livelihood businesses where work can be both an ethical and spiritual practice, and kalyanamitra, a sort of semi-official “spiritual friendship.” Not all, but most friends and Order members live under these conditions, rooming together, working in teams, meeting regularly for meditation and discussion, and forming close friendships with one another. The core of Sangharakshita’s teaching is to make going for Refuge in the Three Treasures—Buddha, Dharma, Sangha—the heart of one’s life. His intention from the start was to create an order that was neither lay nor monastic, but lived, as it were, in the cells of a new Buddhist society supporting that commitment. His goal is not so much to let Buddhism filter out into the forms of the wider community, but to create a new community for Buddhists.
You don’t have to read far in his works to find much inspirational wisdom. On the other hand, FWBO texts suffer from an in-house repetitiveness, as if unwilling to take on the general reader. Take Sangharakshita’s definition of the typical couple: “Two people, usually of the opposite sex, who are neurotically dependent on each other and whose relationship is one of mutual exploitation and mutual addiction—two half-people.” Surely today most people with a smattering of psychology would acknowledge that even if this kind of coupledom was all right for mortgage-and-martini Daddy-and-Mummy, it’s not all right for them. This premise seems to lead straight to Sangharakshita’s belief in the value of segregating the sexes: Do that, and you abolish the nuclear family in one stroke. The FWBO are now keen to downplay their apparent mistrust of the family, pointing out that a number of members do live at home with families. But they are generally suspicious of “Householder Buddhism.” As Kulananda observed: “People who speak that language may be deluding themselves about just how serious their practice is. Another description might be part-time practice. Our primary interest is creating contexts for full-time spiritual practice.”
The FWBO attach much importance to the conditions of practice. If you buy into this, then it’s a short logical step to moving into their full range of “contexts.” It’s easy to see how such “contexts” could lend themselves to misinterpretation. In light of the allegations of homosexual coercion, single-sex communities become suspect and the combination of new home, new work, and new friendships might seem to be waiting with open arms to subsume a person’s individuality. But maybe they are just helpful contexts. Many are suspicious, too, of the fact that the FWBO appears to be an ecumenical undertaking, yet is in fact highly exclusive, allowing no outside teachers. As more than one skeptic has pointed out, if Sangharakshita himself went to many different teachers, why doesn’t he encourage his disciples to do the same?
Now 74, Sangharakshita has more or less handed over the reins to his Public Preceptors and lives modestly in a flat attached to the College of Preceptors. For the moment, everyone seems to be waiting to see what will happen next. A response to the Response has now been posted on the web, taking the debate into ever-decreasing circles of intricacy. But from the outside, the organization does not seem to have been rocked to its core, and Sangharakshita’s popularity appears undented.
Ian Tromp, a South African poet who works at Windhorse, told about a delivery-truck driver who got interested in the FWBO and took a meditation class. His delight in telling me this story said a lot: that this Buddhism was really theirs, that they were making their own way in it, and that even if their teacher did have no traditional authority in the dharma, what was religious legitimacy anyway if not innocent zeal and willingness to devote your life to your faith? This seems a laudable sentiment. After all, we do live in virgin territory, the uncharted wastes of Western samsara, waiting for a pioneer with the true compass to forge his or her path into the future.
And, while some seem happy to have found their guide in Sangharakshita, others seem more concerned about their own authenticity than their teacher’s. An FWBO magazine article about the building of a new retreat center quotes one young member as saying, “I think we should lavish attention on the shrine room, put our money where our aspirations are, so to speak. I think this will help us to have confidence that we are a real Buddhist movement genuinely practicing the spiritual life.”
Sign up for Tricycle’s newsletters
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.