FWBO as Business
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.
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.
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.
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:
And as the FWBO's website explains:
In practice, the FWBO version of Buddhist economics really means exploiting the generosity and goodwill of naïve recruits. As one former member wrote:
Another ex-member wrote:
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):
In short, the FWBO is half living off the state, as one order member put it , 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.
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'.
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:
Senior preceptor Subhuti echoes him:
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:
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:
However, Sangharakshita has the final say on who is to be admitted to his Order, as Subhuti says:
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:
Subhuti echoes him:
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:
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.
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.