Spiritual Hierarchy

Below are three quotes illustrating the FWBO's idea of 'spiritual hierarchy' - the idea that some people have 'progressed further on the Path', and form 'a spiritual hierarchy based on individual attainment of higher levels of consciousness'. Such people, according to the FWBO, should be respected as spiritual teachers and guides.


'Within both the positive group and the spiritual community people will be at many different levels and stages of experience and commitment. Each should feel a natural respect for and gratitude to those who, in any way, have progressed further on the Path and who are, therefore, teachers and guides. For those at much the same level, goodwill and a bracing friendship will flower. And for those less developed helpful guidance will be given. A "spiritual hierarchy" can be discerned, a hierarchy that is not necessarily formalised and which exists by virtue of the natural feelings of its members.

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

Subhuti, Buddhism for Today, p 131, 133. ISBN 0-904766-34-9


' lost in our own ignorance, we formulate views based upon shallow evidence and our own desires. Views surround us on all sides, thrust at us by the entire culture in which we grow up and live. It is almost impossible not to be influenced unless we are exceptionally strong-minded and awake. So hemmed in are we by opinion that we cannot discriminate between what is wholesome and what is harmful. Wrong views, in the Buddhist sense, flourish like mental viruses in the weak tissue of our immature minds. They cover a vast range of attitudes from the most trivial to the most fundamental.

'To give but two examples: many people hold an unthinking quasi-egalitarian view and many are materialist in their outlook. The quasi-egalitarian rejects not only social distinction based upon birth but also the very idea that some people are more developed than others. This he considers "elitist" or "undemocratic". The attitude behind this view might be expressed, "I am as good as anyone else and no one is better than me." Such people have great difficulty learning anything of importance from others and they certainly consider that looking up to them is a sign of weakness. Muddled egalitarianism of this type is very widespread in the West and gives rise to an outlook which is without any vertical dimension. All is flat and mediocre and real excellence is denied. Social hierarchy based on privilege of birth rather than individual merit must be clearly distinguished from a spiritual hierarchy based on individual attainment of higher levels of consciousness.

'Unless one acknowledges such a spiritual hierarchy then one cannot oneself develop through its various levels. One will feel no respect for those who have gone further than oneself and will be unable to learn from them. This hierarchy does not need to be formalized into grades and ranks (one's own experience will teach one who to respect if one is sincere) but one's perspective must include that vertical dimension if one is to grow.'

Subhuti, The Buddhist Vision, p 85 - 86. ISBN 0 7126 1084 7


'There seems to be a confusion of two different conceptions of hierarchy or equality on a psychological level. People are determined to show that they're equal to everybody else, and so they can't recognize any hierarchy of spiritual attainment or even intellectual attainment.'

'Yes. For instance, when we first had the "Friends" this idea of spiritual hierarchy some people just couldn't swallow. I know that one person in particular had great difficulty with it for several years: he just couldn't accept it. He did accept it in the end, though. I remember on one occasion there was a rather strong discussion and this person said, "Well, it isn't very democratic," and I said very strongly, "There's no democracy in the Western Buddhist order!" And that is about it. It's a hierarchy, but a spiritual one, and sometimes even the spiritual hierarchy isn't clear.

'It's not a question of grading everybody, with someone at the bottom and someone at the top. It's not nearly as simple as that. In certain situations one person may appear as the "superior", for want of a better word, while in other situations that person may not be "superior". Things may fluctuate like that quite a bit, but there might be a general, overall recognition that certain people, though they might have glaring weaknesses too, were more experienced and, perhaps one could say, more evolved than the others. This would be something that was broadly understood or felt, but not a thing that could be insisted upon and embodied in ranks and little badges and things like that.

'It is the broad feeling that there is in someone, or in certain people, something higher and better than yourself to which you can look up - not the wanting to equalize everything and have everything on the same level. In a way, in another sense, you're on the same level, but that's not the whole story. It's a good, positive thing to be able to look up to someone: If you can't, you're in a pretty difficult position. You're in a sad state - just unlucky, like a child that hasn't even got a mother and father to look up to. A child needs that, when it's a child. But this sort of assertion, that you're just as good as anybody else in the egalitarian sense, is really sick.'

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, page 74 - 75. Pub. FWBO 1977