FWBO as Business

Outline of FWBO business network
State Funding
Low-pay structure
Low-tax structure
Central control of FWBO
How FWBO circumvents Charity Commission Rules


According to the New York published Buddhist quarterly magazine ‘Tricycle’ (Summer 1999.): ‘The Friends of the Western Buddhist Order (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 million and $16 million.’

In the UK, the FWBO operates primarily through its public centres, located in various towns and cities around the UK. These centres don't generally advertise themselves as part of the FWBO; they generally have a name like ‘Sheffield Buddhist Centre' or ‘Brighton Buddhist Centre’, rather than ‘Sheffield FWBO Centre', etc. These local centres offer classes in Buddhism and meditation and related activities, such as Tai Chi, etc. (see the FWBO’s site, www.fwbo.org for details of local centres and activities.).

All these local centres are separately registered Charities. However, in many ways the FWBO is more like a deceptive pyramid scheme than a genuine charity.

People visiting an FWBO centre for the first time will generally find a friendly and positive atmosphere, not at all cult-like. Existing members will be quite friendly and welcoming if they want to recruit you, or slightly cool and distant if they think you might be a nuisance. Recruitment is generally through developing personal friendships, not through any obvious hard sell. (see 'The Culture of Cults' for further details about the recruitment process)

By no means everyone who attends an FWBO meditation class will eventually be recruited into working for the FWBO, but enough are for them to be able to expand steadily.

Outline of FWBO business network.

Working for the FWBO might involve anything from helping out occasionally at the local centre, through to working full-time for a FWBO business or charity. The FWBO mini-empire comprises public centres, retreat centres, residential communities, and various 'right livelihood' businesses.

The largest business is Windhorse Trading, which supplies gift shops, including the FWBO's Evolution chain of shops, and there are also restaurants, bookshops, book/video/DVD publishers, Bodywise health studios, and various other businesses.

The FWBO also controls a number of ancillary Charities, such as The Karuna Trust (formerly Aid For India) and The Windhorse Trust, which concentrate on raising charitable donations and covenants to support FWBO projects. The FWBO also offers an Ethical Investment Trust, under the auspices of Dutch Bank Triodos, which merged with Mercury Provident in 1995.

The FWBO also devotes quite a lot of effort to marketing and public relations. They contribute to the BBC television 'Heaven and Earth' and 'Everyman' series, and to the 'Pause for Thought' slot on Radio 2. They have a schools 'Outreach' programme, and maintain close links with UK Local Education Authorities, to whom they sell educational material produced by the FWBO's 'Windhorse Publications', and 'Clear Light' (videos and DVDs). (NB there are other non-FWBO sources for educational resources for the Buddhist component of schools' R E syllabus. Eg. search on "Buddhism Key Stage 2" etc.)

These public relations efforts may not always make money for the FWBO, but they do help the FWBO to enhance its public image as a respectable and worthwhile charitable organisation, which in turn helps to attract new members and supporters, and sometimes public funding.

State Funding

Quite a lot of the FWBO's income derives from state benefits and funding of various kinds. The FWBO is quite adept at working the system while staying just the right side of legality. For example, a significant part of the funding for the refurbishment of the London Buddhist Centre was provided by the then Manpower Services Commission, a government funded body whose purpose was to support and subsidise employers providing training and employment opportunities for the long-term unemployed. The FWBO were able to get funding from the MSC, and used it to build themselves a new centre.

Similarly, the FWBO also set up a Housing Association in London. Normally, Housing Associations are non-profit organisations which receive public funding to enable them to provide housing for people in housing need. By being economical with the truth about their real intentions, the FWBO were able to take advantage of this public funding to get houses for FWBO communities. Over the years, the FWBO has been able to get substantial grants from central government, local government, the Arts Council, etc.

Low-pay structure

The FWBO is also able to persuade people to work for it for low or even no wages. Sometimes FWBO members work more or less full time for the local centre while receiving Unemployment and Housing benefit. Sometimes people may work part-time in an FWBO business, while still receiving benefit. Benefit rules are complex, but in some circumstances they allow a claimant to work a certain number of hours per week, either doing voluntary work for a charity, or as work experience and training, without losing benefit. This is another subsidy which the FWBO can take advantage of.

In general, people working in FWBO businesses are poorly paid. This is justified as 'Buddhist economics'. As Subhuti writes:

'One should "take what one needs, give what one can". …

'This attitude underlies economic relationships within the Movement. No-one is paid a wage or "earns" a salary by his work in a Community, Co-operative [now Limited Company], or Centre. Each is given as much as he needs to feed, clothe, and house himself decently and with dignity. He has sufficient money to satisfy his cultural and spiritual needs - to go on retreats, to study, buy books, or go to concerts. He gives his own energies in whatever way is appropriate, not for the "reward" of a wagepacket but because he wants to help and recognises that he is himself developing through his work. Non-exploitation and generosity are the bases of Buddhist economics.' [1]

And as the FWBO's website explains:

'These Right Livelihood ventures differ from ordinary businesses in several respects. Firstly they provide a reasonable level of support for their workers, but they do not pay wages or salaries. The level of support is worked out to give people a reasonable standard of living, according to their personal circumstances and needs. For example, a parent will receive more than a single person living in a community. Most of them provide six weeks paid retreat time a year for each worker as well. This sustains a lifestyle that values simplicity and contentment, rather than acquiring material possessions.'

In practice, the FWBO version of Buddhist economics really means exploiting the generosity and goodwill of naïve recruits. As one former member wrote:

'… I became convinced that the Buddhist path was for me. My reaction was to apply to Windhorse Trading in order to immerse myself in the 'spiritual life' … badly paid shopwork and life in a community followed.
'…gave up a promising career to become a shop assistant … I'm now de-skilled and unemployable! But hey - new challenges lie ahead.'

Another ex-member wrote:

'Or take the case of Windhorse Trading, the FWBO's main business venture. This business deals in gifts, both on a wholesale level from a warehouse in Cambridge, employing dozens of FWBO Buddhists living locally in Communities, and on a retail level, through its "Evolution" shops associated with many of the urban FWBO Centres. "Right Livelihood" businesses are heralded as potential cremation grounds, places of deep spiritual transformation where we unavoidably come face to face with our own limitations; places where we learn to work co-operatively with others, on a basis of love, rather than power; places where our motivation is generosity, where we only take what we need, and give the rest away (in practice this means to the FWBO); where the products are ethical and meaningful; and where we can grow spiritually through taking on responsibilities.

'And there is a certain amount of truth in this. But in practice, it is often the opposite, and not just because ideals usually fail to live up to reality. As with much of the FWBO, things are the way they are because they are meant to be so. (This realization can be an important turning point on the individual’s path out of the FWBO’s collective mind-set). If we take the case of Evolution shops, the situation we find is people engaged in dull, unskilled work, selling products that are not part of people’s real needs, living on not much more than survival level; the profits they individually generate are given away by the institution, and they have no real choice in this – the only choice is whether or not to be in the shop in the first place.

'As for responsibility, the products they are selling, and the prices they charge, are decided for them by Windhorse Central, and within the shop there is the usual FWBO hierarchy of Order Members (who are ultimately in charge) and everyone else. Windhorse trumpets about what a successful business they are, making all this money and giving it away, but it is not competing on the world’s terms: if it had to pay employees what people in the "outside" world earn, it would probably not do much more than scrape by. It deceives itself over this central economic fact, yet considers itself an example to the normal business world, which does not have the advantage of converts willing to work for very little. And the classic male Windhorse worker talks about his work with manufactured enthusiasm: it is obvious to those outside the FWBO that these people have been drawn into a collective, and inauthentic, mind-set, however worthy its ideals may be.'

Low-tax structure

FWBO businesses not only pay low wages, but are also able to take advantage of charity status to avoid tax on the profits they make. As Subhuti wrote (in 1988):

'Until recently most [businesses] have been registered as co-operatives but some problems have arisen with this form of organisation - the main problem being that some businesses are making quite large profits! Transferring the profits from the co-operatives to the charities which run the Centres entails some loss through taxation and some quite complicated administration. The businesses therefore set up a committee to arrive at a new form of organisation which would combine maximum financial advantage with the greatest simplicity of administration - but all in conformity with the principles which underlie Right Livelihood. It was found that considerable tax advantages can be gained if the charities to whom the profits are transferred own the businesses which make them. With some regret the Movement is therefore saying farewell to the co-operative structure. However, the basic ideal of co-operation will be maintained.

' The charitable associations will gradually be transformed into limited companies, still registered as charities. Their council members will become directors. Each co-operative will convert itself into a limited company, the shares in which will be donated to the charity which runs its local Centre. Directors of the trading company will be appointed by the directors of the charitable company. …

'Since the directors of the charities will always be Order members, this new structure ensures that control of the businesses always lies with the spiritually committed [ie. the Order].' [2]

In short, the FWBO is half living off the state, as one order member put it [3], and half off naïve employees who work for low wages (or 'support'), believing they are helping to create a new society based on Buddhist principles.

Non-accountability of FWBO

Perhaps none of this might really matter if the FWBO was a bona-fide charity, engaging in genuinely charitable activities for the benefit of the public. Whether the FWBO is really a charity or a self-serving cult is at best a matter of opinion.

However, in practice the only opinion which matters is that of Sangharakshita and his closest disciples. They control the order and the wider FWBO. They control all the centres, all the charities, and all the businesses, but are accountable to no-one for the quality of their teaching or the ethics of their behaviour.

If people suffer long term depression, mental breakdowns, or are driven to suicide as a result of their involvement in the FWBO, the FWBO refuses to accept any responsibility. If anyone criticises the ethics of FWBO teaching or practice, the FWBO just responds with denial and cover-up.

The FWBO can get away with this because they are self-regulating. So long as they avoid physical force or obvious financial fraud, there is no outside authority to whom they can be held accountable. The Charity Commission is legally barred from 'interfering in doctrine' in the case of a religious charity like the FWBO, so effectively this leaves the FWBO free to engage in any kind of psychological deception and manipulation they like, even though this is totally contrary to traditional Buddhism.

The way Sangharakshita and his closest disciples control the whole FWBO is quite ingenious. It is all based on the idea of 'spiritual hierarchy'.

How Sangharakshita and his successors control the FWBO

It is not obvious at first that the whole FWBO is centrally controlled.

Each local FWBO Centre has its own separate Charity registration. The FWBO claims that all its centres and charities are autonomous, and that there is no central controlling body. This is a misleading claim. The FWBO is effectively one organisation, controlled by Sangharakshita and his closest disciples, whom he has appointed to be members of the 'College of Preceptors'.

They hold control because all the appointments of members to serve on the Governing Councils of all of the separate FWBO Charities are subject to their approval, without exception. They are subject to their approval because all the members of all the Charities’ Governing Councils, and all the directors of the businesses, have first to be members of the Western Buddhist Order or WBO.

Sangharakshita and his College of Preceptors have the final say on who is eligible for membership of the Order. They decide who is sufficiently 'spiritually committed' to become an order member. They can also expel any order member who becomes critical of them or their actions, or who questions the FWBO party line. As Sangharakshita puts it:

'There's no democracy in the Western Buddhist order! And that is about it. It's a hierarchy, but a spiritual one …' [4]

Senior preceptor Subhuti echoes him:

'The acceptance of spiritual hierarchy ensures that those of greatest experience and understanding are able to guide and inspire.' [5]

How the Governing Rules are circumvented, in more detail.

All the various FWBO charities in the UK appear to have an identical form of constitution and Governing Rules, which has been approved by the Charity Commission. The first six governing rules are:

1. The name of the Association is "Friends of the Western Buddhist Order (name of town/city)" hereafter referred to as the Centre.

2. The object of the Centre is the advancement of the Buddhist religion, in particular:
(1) To encourage members and others to live in accordance with the teachings of the Buddha.
(2) To support ordained members of the Western Buddhist Order and other duly ordained Buddhists at the discretion of the Council of the Centre.
(3) To maintain close communication with and work under the guidance of the Western Buddhist Order and in co-operation with other groups with the same objects.

3. The Centre is organisationally and financially independent from the other groups with the same objects.

4. The Centre accepts all aspects of the Buddhist Tradition and recognises the value of each and intends to work in harmony with all other existing Buddhist groups and organisations.

5. Membership is open to all those prepared to support these aims.

6. Election to membership is in the hands of the Council whose officers and members must be satisfied as to the suitability of the candidates.

Rule 12 states that the Centre shall be governed by a Council of between 5 and 15 members of the Centre, elected by the membership of the Centre at an Annual General Meeting. Rule 13 states that candidates for election to the Council must satisfy the Council that they are professed Buddhists.

Ostensibly, anyone who is a Buddhist and who supports the aims of the FWBO (essentially 'the advancement of the Buddhist religion' - rule 2), is eligible to become a member of the FWBO, and hence eligible to stand for election to the Council of their local Centre.

However, there is an additional, more specific requirement for membership which is not stated openly anywhere in the rules, but which is applied surreptitiously. This requirement is that a person can’t be a member of the FWBO unless they are a member of the WBO (the Western Buddhist Order). As Sangharakshita puts it:

'You can’t be a member of the FWBO in a legal sense unless you are a Buddhist, ie unless you are a member of the Order'. [6]

However, Sangharakshita has the final say on who is to be admitted to his Order, as Subhuti says:

'When ordination does take place it is "given" by Ven. Sangharakshita and the final decision as to whether someone should be ordained is taken by him.' [7]

Sangharakshita is now quite elderly, and since about 1998 he has been gradually handing his responsibilities as Head of the Order onto a group of his most faithful disciples, whom he has appointed to be members of the 'College of Preceptors', with Subhuti as Chairman. So nowadays the final decision as to whether someone should be ordained is taken either by Sangharakshita or by senior Preceptors. This still ensures that membership of the order continues to be centrally controlled. Sangharakshita or senior Preceptors can also expel members from the order: eg. see Sangharakshita's 1999 letter expelling Vimalakirti from the order, and Subhuti's letter expelling Bakul and Bodhidharma.

This control over the membership of the order is important because it means that Sangharakshita and senior Preceptors also control who is eligible for election to the governing Council of each FWBO Centre or charity. As Sangharakshita says:

‘All therefore belong to the same spiritual community, all are "members" of the Western Buddhist Order. It is these spiritually committed individuals, and these alone, who are responsible for running the different FWBO centres’ [8]


‘This is why in the case of the FWBO’s all the office-bearers and so on are Order members… So the people who run the FWBO as office bearers, council-members, and so on, are ideally all filtered through the Order…’ [9]

Subhuti echoes him:

‘Entry into the Order, as we will see, takes place upon full acceptance of responsibility for one's development and consequent commitment to the ideals of Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. Order members are, therefore, the guardians of the spiritual direction of the New Society and its institutions. In the final analysis it is they who "control" them since legal power is always retained in the hands of Order members.‘ [10]

In theory, members or council members could rebel against the dominance of the order, but this would require that a majority of members become disenchanted at the same time, which has never happened in the UK. What usually happens is that any individual order member who becomes critical of FWBO teaching or practice, or questions whether it is really in accordance with the teachings of the Buddha, becomes gradually cold-shouldered by other order members, and then they either resign or are expelled, and their details are erased from the order register.

Again in theory, knowledgeable Buddhists from outside the FWBO might be able to point out the ways in which FWBO ideology and practice are not in accordance with the teachings of the Buddha (Rule 2 (1)). Indeed, Rule 4 states that: ‘The Centre accepts all aspects of the Buddhist Tradition and recognises the value of each and intends to work in harmony with all other existing Buddhist groups and organisations.’ However, Sangharakshita has stated his:

‘conviction that the less the FWBO is involved with "Buddhist groups" and with individuals affiliated to existing Buddhist traditions the better’. [11]

The FWBO does maintain some links with other Buddhists and Buddhist organisations, for public relations purposes, and occasionally Buddhists from outside the FWBO are invited to give talks at the Centre, but none are allowed to have any real power or influence over the FWBO or their teaching, and none are allowed to become order members or members of the charities' governing councils. Buddhists from outside the FWBO who sometimes criticise various aspects of FWBO teaching or practice are dismissed as bigoted fundamentalists, etc.

Sangharakshita has, apparently deliberately and methodically, succeeded in establishing a power structure (the Western Buddhist Order) which is under his exclusive control, but which, as a (claimed) purely ‘spiritual’ body, does not appear to have any clear legal status. This Order operates through a series of supposedly independent registered Charities.

The stated goal of this group of Charities is ‘the advancement of the Buddhist religion’ (rule 2), but the actual goal of the Order which controls this group of Charities is the advancement of the FWBO's wealth and influence, and the dissemination of a specious, non-Buddhist ideology, invented by Sangharakshita, which, inter alia, attacks family life and family values, and promotes homosexuality as spiritually superior to heterosexuality. All this takes place covertly and surreptitiously behind the facade of a series of registered Charities.


[1] Subhuti, ‘Buddhism for Today,’ p77, pub. FWBO/Windhorse 1983 rev. 1988. ISBN 0-904766-34-9 [low pay = 'Buddhist economics']

[2] 'Buddhism for Today' p 189-90
[FWBO businesses take advantage of charity status to avoid tax]

[3] Bodhiraja, Shabda, Sept. 1986, p22 [FWBO half living off state]

[4] From 'The Endlessly Fascinating Cry', a seminar on Shantideva's Bodhicaryavatara or 'Entry into the Life of Enlightenment', transcribed by Devamitra and edited by Sangharakshita, pub. FWBO 1977, page 74.
[no democracy in WBO!]

[5] Subhuti, 'Buddhism for Today', p 133. [acceptance of spiritual hierarchy]

[6] Sangharakshita, Bodhicaryavatara seminar, page 151.
[can’t be a legal member of the FWBO unless you are a member of the Order]

[7] Subhuti, ‘Buddhism for Today', page 140. [final decision as to whether someone should be ordained is taken by Ven. Sangharakshita]

[8] Sangharakshita, ‘New Currents in Western Buddhism.’ pub. FWBO/Windhorse 1990, page 89.
[Order members alone are responsible for running the different FWBO centres]

[9] ‘The Way to Wisdom; Sangharakshita in Seminar.’ pub FWBO/Windhorse 1984, page 56.
[FWBO office bearers all filtered through the Order]

[10] Subhuti, 'Buddhism for Today', p133. [legal power always retained in the hands of Order members]

[11] Sangharakshita, ‘Travel Letters’, pub. Windhorse 1985, page 173.
[less the FWBO is involved with "Buddhist groups" and with individuals affiliated to existing Buddhist traditions the better]