Originally published in the British newspaper "The Guardian" on October 27, 1997
The dark side of enlightenment
This is Matthew, a talented Oxford graduate who rejected careerism in the mid-1980s and joined a controversial Buddhist movement. Seven years ago he killed himself. Now the British-based cult is engulfed in allegations that it manipulated vulnerable young men into becoming homosexual
Exclusive investigation by Madeleine Bunting
In a small network of streets around the old fire station in Bethnal Green, East London, can be found Britain's last revolutionaries. But these are no socialist workers - they are the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order, one of Britain's biggest and fastest growing Buddhist organisations. They believe they are evolving the Higher Individual and the New Society according to the 2,500-year-old principles of the Buddha, as adapted for the late 20th century by their revered leader, Sangharakshita - formerly known as Dennis Lingwood. They might be called the last remnants of sixties' hippie idealism.
Some - and they include many senior Buddhists - watch their success with alarm, and privately accuse them of peddling a quixotic ideology which owes as much to Nietszche and 20th century psycho-therapy as to a highly eclectic pot-pourri of eastern Buddhist traditions.
Even more disturbing, the cases of three vulnerable young men have emerged which detail sexual manipulation and oppressive authoritarian cult behaviour which, in the case of one man, has been cited as a significant factor leading to his suicide
The nerve centre of this now international religious organisation - with bases in Spain, Germany, the US and Australia, as well as in 30 UK locations - is an enormous Victorian house on a leafy street in Moseley, Birmingham. There, Subhuti (formerly Alex Kennedy), widely regarded as Sangharakshita's righthand man, admits with exemplary honesty that he has been waiting for a journalist to stumble on this murky past. "Thank God it's not the News of the World," he comments with characteristic mildness.
Nine years ago, one of the flagship FWBO centres spectacularly imploded in a welter of allegations of homosexual abuse, personality destruction and manipulation. It bore all the characteristics of a cult as Subhuti admits, and it left at least 30 people badly damaged psychologically. "People got caught in a collective delusion, a group psychosis which was very interesting but distressing," Subhuti says. Even now, he adds, he is still learning the full extent of what went on within that tightly-controlled, secretive community.
Such stories are hard to match up with the sincere idealism of many of the 4,000 regular adherents of the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order (FWBO). Hard to match up with their benign public image to the 20,000 people who come to their 30 centres around Britain every year to learn the calming and enlightening benefits of meditation. And hard to match up with their rightly recognised work with Buddhist Untouchables in India.
It belies the respectability of the FWBO. Articulate and energetic, its members have established themselves beyond the Buddhist community as an authoritative voice of Buddhism. Some sit on local authority standing advisory committees drawing up religious syllabuses for schools and they offer teachers training in the principles of Buddhism. Some broadcast on the BBC World Service. They have won considerable admiration for their co-operative ethical businesses, which now employ 300 people with a turnover of £7.5 million.
Subhuti insists that the scandal was unique and due to the head of the centre, a follower of Sangharakshita but a manipulative and charismatic individual who subsequently left the movement. It can never be repeated, he emphatically asserts. But there are others who disagree and who argue that Sangharakshita's teachings - which are intensively studied by members - can be used to legitimise sexual and emotional manipulation.
What makes these revelations potentially so damaging to the FWBO is that they implicate its very founder. The 700 Order members and 1,400 mitras (novices) perceive Sangharakshita as a man of great spiritual insight and compassion. But Mark Dunlop tells another story. In 1972, as a 22-year-old curious about Buddhism, he started a FWBO meditation class. Singled out by Sangharakshita, he became his virtually constant companion for years.
"I was very in awe of Sangharakshita," he says. "He represented Buddhist ideals. But he was petulant and controlling. He doesn't boss people about but suggests something isn't spiritually appropriate. I thought he was an important spiritual teacher and I ought to do whatever I could to help him."
Sangarakshita persuaded Mark that in order to develop spiritually he had to get over his anti-homosexual conditioning, which was blocking him from devoting his energies to the spiritual life. He offered to help Mark.
"He would want to have sexual contact about twice a week on average. He usually said something like, 'Let me just lie beside you for a while'. I dreaded hearing this but felt mean and selfish if I thought of refusing. It was distressing, but some of the other Buddhist practices I had recently learned were themselves strange, such as meditation, but there were apparent benefits.
"He would get into my bed and perhaps stroke my chest for a while. Then he would get on top of me and rub himself against my stomach until he had an orgasm. I found the whole business repellent but at least it didn't take very long - only about four or five minutes usually. I was completely passive throughout, just waiting for him to finish.
"I felt on balance I had to take his ideas on anti-homosexual conditioning seriously. If I protested he would admonish me that I should not give into conditioning and allow it to inhibit the development of our 'spiritual friendship'. Giving up the homosexual relationship would be like giving-up Buddhism and the spiritual journey. I kept thinking I would have a breakthrough and would get aroused. I was very embarrassed by the sexual relationship and I saw this as my not being able to accept myself as I was - bisexual. I felt it was my duty to Buddhism and Sangharakshita as the person who was bringing Buddhism to the West.
Eventually, Mark summoned the courage to bring an end to the sexual relationship, and his friendship with Sangharakshita - for whom he had bought a house with an inheritance - then petered out. But Mark remained in the FWBO until 1985, struggling to hold on to Buddhism. When he finally left he felt a great sense of failure and guilt about being heterosexual. He blamed himself and became severely depressed.
Sangharakshita, who officially retired last year, although he continues to be the FWBO's guiding influence, refuses to comment on Dunlop's allegations, which were first made a decade ago. But he has admitted several times that, after his return from India to England in 1967, he broke his monastic vow of celibacy and "experimented with sex" - "I was just exploring certain things for my own benefit, for the satisfaction of my own curiosity."
Subhuti, who knew Dunlop during his "close friendship" with Sangharakshita, insists that Dunlop's account bears no relation to his recollections of a strong-willed, independent young man.
Mark is still, 20 years later, an angry man, but what makes his story particularly disturbing is that it appears to bear characteristics which were echoed over a decade later at another centre with a different FWBO teacher.
By the early eighties, one of Sangharakshita's followers was heading a centre which was strikingly successful in attracting new recruits. One of these was Tim (he does not wish to give his surname), who was trying to throw off drug addiction. Meditation classes became a full-time commitment and, aged 19, he moved into the single-sex community of 27 men. He worked an average of 45 hours a week in the co-operative business for £22 a week.
"I gave up drugs overnight. I was torturing myself - ashamed of having been in drugs. It was like my detox. In the midst of that process of getting well and growing up, I was exposed to the spiritual orientation of the place. The head of the community was a very powerful, intrusive personality and incredibly manipulative. He would intuitively become aware of people's vulnerabilities. The one thing you are when you are withdrawing from drugs is very vulnerable. I must have had that printed all over me.
"He would massage my ego. Suddenly I was no longer a normal kid coming off drugs, I was on the point of enlightenment. He put me on a pedestal. I fell for it. At the time I had no contact with family, friends - I was told not to, because they would drag me back into samsara ("the wheel of suffering"). They said to me to keep away from women and relationships because they are totally neurotic. He abused my family in public. 'Your mum's castrated your father emotionally, and she'll do the same to you', he'd say. The first time it happened I was shocked, but I was intent on getting away from my addictions and I thought 'I just have to go through with this' and I gritted my teeth.
"After six months, I said to a friend in the community that I felt I was losing my marbles. This got back to him. He suggested that the reason was because I was gay and was repressing it. It was all to do with my mother and that was why I had ended up taking drugs. I thought, 'Well, I like my male friends and I'm close to them but I'm not attracted to them'. But I was so confused that I began to doubt everything about myself, including my sexuality. I had put all my eggs in one basket and I'd invested so much in it all - this was the meaning of life and death.
"Then he used to say, 'Can't you feel what's going on between us?' I just didn't know- yes, no, I don't know. I was so done in and the meaning of life had become bound up with my homosexuality and its repression. Gradually he became more and more clear about my homosexuality being directed towards him. He could solve this for me, he used to say. In the end he took me to bed. It happened twice. It couldn't have been much fun for him, it so obviously wasn't where I was at."
Like Mark, Tim blamed himself and remained in the FWBO unhappy and confused. He only finally left six months ago. He emphasises that there are other FWBO members who have always treated him with respect. But he has become bitter about their failure to protect him at a vulnerable stage in his life. In the last couple of months, a senior Order member has apologised to him.
The tightly controlled manipulative environment at this centre which Tim describes also played a major role in the suicide of Matthew (his family does not wish the surname to be used) in 1990. Like Mark and Tim, Matthew started FWBO meditation classes at a vulnerable point in his life. Highly intelligent, he had won a scholarship to Oxford to read law but after coming down had grown increasingly disenchanted with careerism and materialism. He suffered from depression and was attracted to meditation to cope with his emotional problems. He moved into the FWBO centre where he lived from 1984 to 1987, working in the co-operative business as a builder/decorator. While he was there, he cut virtually all his contacts with friends and family.
When he emerged, he was "withdrawn and bleak", according to his mother, Denise. He was unable to hold down a job or start a relationship and was referred to a psychiatrist to be treated for depression. Three years later, he committed suicide.
Some of his diary entries while he was with the FWBO capture his confusion and anguish:
January 1985: I feel more trapped here. Trapped by the ... routine, trapped by the ominous determination of "spiritual friends" to keep me here. I'm losing my will. Panic! I seem to have stumbled in desperate need of shelter into the Tiger's Cave.
February: I feel sometimes that openness to the Order means giving up one's mind, thus becoming merely an adjunct of the Order. Still could be great!
After Matthew's death, his mother found two letters he had written to FWBO members after he left but which he had never sent. In one he wrote: "I have felt manipulated all the way by people who have allowed themselves to be manipulated. I am now out of reach of all that ghastly sales talk ... [it was] a petty totalitarian state, an Orwellian Albania with its own Big Brother." In another, he said: "I could never return to that ghastly concentration camp atmosphere with its force-fed dogma and drip-feed friendships ... where reason and individual experience are crushed by people who expect total submission before any real friendship or recognition is gained."
Matthew was seen for two years by a clinical psychologist, who was in no doubt of the detrimental impact the FWBO had on him. He concluded in his report: "Matthew's problems as to a large part resulted from the traumatic effects of his experiences whilst he had been a member of the FWBO ... talked about them with great bitterness. He told me he had decided shortly after entering the FWBO community that he was unsuited to stay there; however he felt trapped and unable to leave as he had fallen under the influence of his tutor, a man he later came to see as being an exceptionally skilful manipulator of other people.
"Matthew felt that the senior members of the community attempted to deliberately break up his identity, in order to get him to accept the fundamental principles and practices of the community. He tried to resist this process and therefore entered into a prolonged period of psychological conflict with them. He feels the community attempted to alienate him from his family and from women, and that direct attempts were made to encourage him to practise homosexuality. He stated that he did not indulge in homosexual practices, although attempts were made for him to do so both by using inducements and by using threats.
"In my opinion Matthew's three-year residence in the FWBO had extremely harmful psychological effects upon him ... I have no doubt that this inability to cope with rejection [of losing the job shortly before his suicide] from others directly stemmed from the years of psychological abuse and rejection he had experienced whilst he was a member of the Buddhist community."
Senior Buddhists have been worried about the FWBO for many years. While unaware of the scandal in the eighties until now - remarkably, no hint of it appears to have gone beyond the FWBO - they had feared just this eventuality, and believe that Sangharakshita's interpretation of Buddhism can be used to licence sexual and psychological abuse. It is an allegation the FWBO fiercely rejects.
Sangharakshita's and Subhuti's published writings reveal an extraordinary agenda on sex, family and women. A misogynistic biological determinism consigns women to a "Lower Evolution", where their hormonal rhythms and desire for children render them spiritually inferior to men. The biological drive apparently makes women manipulative as they seek to "ensnare" men into providing for them and their offspring. Women as mothers and partners suffocate the development of men's true identity. The heterosexual couple is scorned as "mutually addictive and neurotic" and the family is the "enemy of the spiritual community". Rearing children is dismissed by Sangharakshita in a memorable analogy as being as spiritually significant as a rainy day.
Sangharakshita sees the FWBO as developing a blueprint for a radically new society. Members are encouraged to move into single-sex communities and in their businesses work-teams are also singe-sex; this is regarded as more conducive to the spiritual life. Even husband and wives are encouraged to live separately. It is primarily within same-sex relationships - whether or not they involve sex - that members are expected to discover the full benefits of spiritual friendship. There is no imposition of a vow of celibacy; members are simply advised not to invest too much emotion in their sexual relationships. Subhuti even advocates casual sex as a way of achieving this.
The FWBO emphasises that these teachings are not all put in practice. Most FWBO members are heterosexuals and a large number have families. It says there is considerable debate on some teachings and, given the importance placed on individual judgement, there is plenty of room for people to disagree. It also argues that the movement is evolving and has become much more open to families and heterosexual relationships. It points to a strong, self-confident women's wing - a third of ordained Order members are women - as evidence that there is no structural misogyny.
There are other parts of FWBO teaching which gained currency in the seventies and eighties from which it is now anxious to distance itself. Subhuti argued in an FWBO internal magazine in 1986 that it could be beneficial to change sexual orientation as a way of recognising - and liberating yourself from - your conditioning; and that a teacher/mentor could use sex as a way of opening up communication with their pupil. Homosexual sex was promoted as more conducive to the spiritual life than heterosexual sex. Some members tried to raise the alarm, warning that novices were being damaged by sexually predatory teachers and demanding an end to the "glorification of homoerotic feelings". But it was not until 1988 that the FWBO discovered how such ideas had been implemented at the centre attended by Tim and Matthew.
It is not hard to see how one FWBO centre became a cult. Like any new religious movement, there is a strong tendency to denigrate the outside world in order to strengthen its adherents' commitment to the movement - Sangharakshita reserves his most contemptuous scorn for a host of evils which include "pseudo-liberalism", feminism and Christianity. There is always a danger that this leads to a self-referential introversion in which an unscrupulous, charismatic and sexually manipulative personality can run amok.
This was exactly the outcome Stephen Batchelor, a prominent Buddhist commentator and author of Buddhism without Beliefs had always feared in the FWBO as a "potentially totalitarian system". He says: "They operate as a self-enclosed system and their writings have the predictability of those who believe they have all the answers. They are structured in a rigid hierarchy and do not seem to question the teachings of their leader. As with many new religious movements, their enthusiasm and unconventional convictions have the potential to lead to problems associated with 'cults' and one centre in the eighties does appear to have tipped over into full-blown cultish behaviour, which, to the FWBO's credit, they closed down."
While he describes Sangharakshita as a "very sensitive man", Batchelor finds his views on heterosexual relationships "bizarre" and his views on women "distasteful".
Ken Jones, lecturer and author of several books on Buddhism, believes that the FWBO is now changing but it still has a long way to go before losing its "locker-room" culture of aggressive male bonding akin to public school or the army: "There's a culture of angry young men struggling against women, the family and the state. All of that has nothing to do with Buddhism and a lot to do with Sangharakshita's psychology. In that kind of culture, you can get cult like behaviour and victimisation. It's a deviant form of Buddhism."
A leading Buddhist teacher who did not wish to be named is particularly concerned by the FWBO's belittling of the family and child rearing, which he argues has traditionally been perceived as a enormous valuable "spiritual training ground" within Buddhist tradition. "Amongst other Buddhists, attitudes towards the FWBO range from caution to suspicion," he says, adding that the FWBO is a "Westernised semi-intellectual pot-pourri of Buddhism" conflated with 20th century psychotherapy and Nietszche.
"In the West perhaps people could distinguish between Catholicism and the Moonies but they can't distinguish between types of Buddhism. Not many know very much about Buddhism. Even the well-educated who are attracted to Buddhism are completely credulous when it comes to spiritual things."
While the FWBO's Buddhism may be awry, and some of the fruits of that have been disastrous, there are many sincere Buddhists within the Order who will be profoundly disturbed by this article. The FWBO argues in effect that the day to day activities and friendships within it have little to do with some of the ideas of Sangharakshita and Subhuti. It seems that where the FWBO becomes dangerous is when people begin to apply such teaching literally. Some have done so in the past - with devastating consequences. Could they again?
Sex and the sect.
The heterosexual couple is ... 'neurotically dependent on each other and [the] relationship, therefore, is one of mutual exploitation and mutual addiction' - Sangharakshita.
...'a fragile and unwholesome unit. It offers little real stability and happiness and, by virtue of the clinging and delusion that it embodies, is antithetical to spiritual life' - Subhuti.
'‘Some people might decide to keep clear of unhealthy attachment by happily enjoying a number of different sexual relationships' - Subhuti
'‘If you set up a community, you abolish the family at a stroke ... the single-sex community is probably one of our most powerful means of assault on the existing social set-up' - Sangharakshita
'Sexual interest on the part of a male Order member for
a male mitra (novice) can create a connection which may allow kalyana
mitrata (spiritual friendship) to develop.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 1997
Reproduced by kind permission of The Guardian
The Guardian received a large number of letters following publication of this article, of which they published the following two:
Guardian Letters, Wed 29 Oct 1997
The true face of Buddhism.
Your feature on the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order (The dark side of enlightenment, October 27) makes much of difficult, indeed tragic, events at one of our centres nine years ago. However, Madeleine Bunting does not make it clear that such events have never happened at my other centre and she thereby unfairly implicates the FWBO as a whole.
The FWBO has learned many lessons and instituted safeguards to prevent a recurrence, but the article does not do justice to this. It is also not made clear that the activities of the centre's chairman were based on distortions of the FWBO's teachings, and that he left the order when his activities came to light.
The article misrepresents the FWBO's teachings in suggesting that these underpin abusive relationships. This is a serious charge to make against any religious community, and one would expect to see it substantiated. Instead, we have criticisms from three British Buddhists - one of whom even refused to be named. There are many disagreements and misunderstandings within British Buddhism and none of these figures would claim to be an impartial adjudicator.
Ms Bunting ends up adjudicating on what is Buddhism. Rather than discussing the issues in a balanced manner, she quotes selective and inaccurately from FWBO literature, and her versions of Sangharakshita's teachings on sex, gender and family life are gross misreadings of his deep concern with how the Buddhist path can best followed in modern society.
On ordination, all FWBO members undertake to follow a traditional list of 10 ethical precepts, including abstention from harming others and from sexual misconduct. As in any community, there have been lapses, but these are viewed as such, and observance is ensured through peer scrutiny.
Guardian Letters, Thurs 30 Oct 1997
Dharmacari Kulananda's reaction (Letters, October 29) to Madeleine Bunting's article (The dark side of enlightenment, October 27) indicates that the leadership of the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order (FWBO) is still out of touch with what is occurring in some of its centres. Your report coincides directly with my own experience of this movement.
In 1994 I opened my home as a meditation house for people interested in the dharma and meditation. A young man arrived to join the sangha, having left his home and girlfriend to explore his spiritual path further. I watched him trying to correlate his deep and natural love for his partner with an insistence from members of the FWBO that spiritual enlightenment could only be gained by leading a single-sex existence and relinquishing his relationship.
On several occasions, the young man broke down, unable to relate his own commitment to the dharma with the treatment he was receiving. At no point did the people involved in instigating his distress examine themselves or accept any liability for it. As a result, he returned home and to his partner and turned his back on Buddhism - a great loss.
The FWBO seems like Western evangelism in a different garb. In a climate where enlightenment and self-exploration are becoming one of our main growth industries, it provides career opportunities and a possible support structure in a milieu of fluctuating cultural and social change. As such, it has a great responsibility.
If the FWBO reaction to this article is denial, anger or dismissal this would be unconstructive. They should regard it as a gift to inspire genuine investigation into their motives and behaviour and address the problems exposed in the Guardian.