Urgyen Sangharakshita, the iconoclastic, sometimes controversial founder of Triratna Buddhism, a nonsectarian Buddhist movement with an international following, died in England on October 30, 2018, at age 93. His death comes as the Triratna Buddhist Order he founded in 1968 as the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order (FWBO) marks its 50th anniversary. Though Sangharakshita retired from a leadership role in 1995, he remained the most visible face of Triratna.
Born Dennis Philip Edward Lingwood in 1925, Sangharakshita grew up in one of South London’s poorest neighborhoods. Bedridden with a heart condition for much of his childhood, he turned to books, declaring himself a Buddhist after reading the Diamond and Platform sutras.
During World War II, Lingwood served in the British army in Asia, staying on after the war to pursue his interest in Buddhism. He was one of the first Westerners to ordain as a Theravada Buddhist monk, taking novice vows in 1949—he received the name Sangharakshita, Sanskrit for “protected by the spiritual community”—and full vows the following year. He later became disillusioned with Theravada monasticism, viewing it as rigid and hierarchical, lacking what he praised as the “anti-establishment edge” of Buddhism in the Buddha’s day. Tibetan Buddhist lamas were arriving in India after fleeing the Chinese occupation of Tibet, and he began studying with Dudjom Rinpoche, Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, Jamyang Kyentse Rinpoche, Dhardo Rinpoche, and others. What impressed him about the Tibetans, Sangharakshita told Tricycle (Winter 1995), was that unlike the Theravada monastics, they treated everyone—”monks, laymen and women, incarnate lamas”—as equals.
He also studied with Chen Chien Ming, a Chan Buddhist teacher known as Yogi Chen, who lived in Kalimpong, the Himalayan community where Sangharakshita stayed during his India years.
In 1952, B.R. Ambedkar, independent India’s first law minister, recruited Sangharakshita to help convert the country’s outcast “untouchables” to Buddhism. Ambedkar, born an untouchable, had risen to prominence as a social and political reformer, and was the architect of India’s first constitution. In a landmark ceremony in October 1956, thousands of untouchables became Buddhists. Ambedkar died six weeks later, but Sangharakshita helped carry on his work. Today, Ambedkarite Buddhists in India number in the millions.
Sangharakshita returned to England in the mid-1960s and in 1968 established the FWBO. He soon attracted a following for his nonsectarian, egalitarian approach. He emphasized going for refuge—the threefold commitment to uphold Buddha, dharma, and sangha—as the defining act of Buddhist life, and created an order of dharmacharinis and dharmacharis, neither lay nor monastic, that upheld the importance of sangha.
Today, Triratna—appropriately, the name means “three jewels” in Sanskrit—has more than 100 affiliates and some 100,000 members in 27 countries worldwide.
Sangharakshita’s maverick stance at times made him a target of more traditional Buddhists, and he didn’t entirely escape the scandals that have rocked the dharma world in recent years. In 2017, he responded to reports of sexual abuse and misogyny in FWBO during the 1970s and 80s by publicly acknowledging “having breached the Buddhist ethical precepts” and apologizing to anyone he might have hurt.
Sangharakshita leaves not only a thriving community but also more than 60 volumes of poetry, memoirs, essays, and Buddhist teachings. “In many ways,” Anita Boyle wrote in Tricycle (Summer 1996), “Sangharakshita . . . has proven himself a skilled innovator in his efforts to translate Buddhism to the West.”
Start your day with a fresh perspective
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.