The World Turned Upside Down
Introduction to the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order
The Friends of the Western Buddhist Order (FWBO) seeks to be an expression of the teachings of the Buddha within modern westernized culture. The Buddha was the first human being to gain Enlightenment - the fullest unfoldment of our human potential - & his teaching gives each of us the opportunity to replicate that experience for ourselves. Buddhism, one of the world's great spiritual traditions, has grown up around that teaching. What the FWBO seeks to do is to separate the essence of the Dharma - the Buddha's teaching - from its cultural accretions, & to find forms appropriate for that essence within our modem, increasingly globalised, culture.
The FWBO, ('the Movement'), was founded in 1967 by Sangharakshita, an Englishman who spent 20 years in the East studying and practicing Buddhism. He is thus a bridge between Buddhism in its traditional forms, and the new forms it is inevitably giving rise to in the West. It is his unique vision of the Dharma that has inspired, and continues to inspire, members of the FWBO through the communities they have set up, the Buddhist businesses they run, and the urban Buddhist Centres that have come into being.
At the heart of all this is Sangharakshita's clear perspective, adopted by his followers, as to what is and what is not the Dharma. It is often a radical perspective, flying in the face of much contemporary thinking.
Central to his vision is the unique place of the Dharma in human history - it is only since the time of the Buddha, 2500 years ago, that full Enlightenment has been available to mankind: "Wide open are the gates to the deathless", in the Buddha's immortal words. Other spiritual traditions, while often contributing much that is of value to humanity, are at best approximations to the full grandeur of the Buddha's Enlightenment. So much is clear from Sangharakshita's magnum opus, 'A Survey of Buddhism'.
Within the western Buddhist scene, what one tends to find are transplantations of one or other Eastern school - whether Tibetan, Zen or Theravada, and an identification of Buddhism itself with that school. This is a natural human failing - one sees it, for example, in Roman Catholicism's view of itself as the only true Christianity. The FWBO, by contrast, seeks as a matter of integrity to identify itself with the entire Buddhist tradition. Shorn of eastern cultural accretions and confusing modem ideologies, and with a unique understanding of the true heart of Buddhism, i.e. Going for Refuge, the FWBO is probably the only form of Buddhism that is truly relevant to modern culture.
THE PILGRIM'S PROGRESS
What the FWBO has to offer the individual is a clear and effective set of spiritual practices, a large and diverse spiritual community, and a wide-ranging and radical set of ideas to adopt as the basis for one's spiritual endeavours. Gone are the confusions of the modern spiritual melting pot, and in its place are the certainties of an ancient tradition, re-formulated through Sangharakshita's clarity and insight in terms that we can understand!
After a period of peripheral involvement with the FWBO, we may decide that we wish to get further involved, to identify ourselves with the FWBO - i.e. to re-create ourselves on the basis of spiritual, rather than worldly, values. We can then ask to become a 'Mitra' (or 'Friend'), and if this is agreed to by the overall 'Mitra Convenor' (who lives in Birmingham, and is the ultimate arbiter of the system, ensuring the highest spiritual standards), we then become a Mitra through a simple and moving ceremony.
One of the more radical requirements is that prospective Mitras should not be visiting other spiritual groups. Whilst such visiting might on the surface appear to be the product of a healthy curiosity and a guard against closed-mindedness, in reality it simply tends to confuse people at an early stage in their spiritual endeavours, when they are not yet fully ready to make their own judgements: it encourages a very modern tendency to a woolly 'open-mindedness' and lack of definite commitment.
THE TIGER'S CAVE
This stage of becoming a Mitra is but the 1st step of a whole series that leads to ever deeper commitment to spiritual life and, generally speaking, to ever deeper and wide-ranging responsibilities within the New Society (as the FWBO sometimes terms itself). The next step is becoming a member of the Western Buddhist Order, which is primarily a solitary act, a pact between ourselves and the Universe that, whatever anyone else may be doing, we are wholeheartedly committed to gaining Enlightenment. At the same time, it is understood that one wholeheartedly assents to Sangharakshita's particular articulation of the Path, and that 'doubts' about his teachings constitute an obstacle to further progress. This may seem to contradict the solitary and individual nature of our commitment, but such paradoxes often prove to be the growing points of spiritual life.
Enlightenment is sometimes compared to the "tiger's cave" - there are footprints leading in, but none coming out! In the same way, joining the WBO is a deep existential commitment, & there is no way out with integrity: in the early '90s Sangharakshita, when asked if there could be sound reasons for someone leaving the Order, declared it to be inevitably "spiritual catastrophe." Members of the Order tend, therefore, to be quite exceptional people.
A relatively high number of Order Members suffer from long-term generalised ailments, ranging through insomnia, stomach problems, irritable bowel syndrome, energy loss and M.E. Some confused critics have suggested that such illness is symptomatic of a broad imbalance in Sangharakshita's teachings, resulting in a one-sided will (often fear-based) that suppresses healthy life-energies. They have further argued that many members of the Order do not truly have their own lives. Yes, they have good natures, integrity and spiritual commitment (up to a point); but at the same time, they have been drawn into a vortex, a very deep all-encompassing fantasy around Sangharakshita and his ideas, his senior disciples more so than most. The pay-off is an illusory sense of security, certainty and superior virtue; the price is much of their freedom and vitality. This is the classic dynamic, the 'Big Lie', of organized religion - as such, mention of it is usually met with disbelief, offence and ridicule.
Within this fantasy, the critics continue, much of what is real in life is denied. Ideologically, much of ordinary life is to be 'transcended' as belonging to a 'Lower Evolution'. Natural urges thus get subtly (or not so subtly) looked down upon and denied out of fear of ridicule. In place of the trials and rewards and potential for learning that life naturally throws at us, the FWBO has created a sheltered enclave in which members frequently feel separate from even above - ordinary people, convinced that they have a vital message for the world, while at the same time often not even developing the ordinary emotional maturity and independence that adult life demands, let alone anything beyond that. Other critics with unresolved authority problems see the alleged imbalance in terns of the institutions' need to control people.
All the above, of course, is mere rationalisation - Sangharakshita has Transcendental Insight, so his teachings by definition cannot be out of balance. Any tendency to see otherwise is usually due to unclear thinking. Besides which, Sangharakshita has made it clear that there needs to be balance in spiritual life, so any imbalance must be due to his disciples misapplying his teachings. In reality, people often get ill because the Dharma is a demanding path, and only the toughest make it. He who dares, wins!
THE GREAT AND THE GOOD
The FWBO is largely based on institutions - another unpopular notion in the modem world. Generally speaking, spiritual progress within the FWBO is allied to capacity for institutional responsibilities and conviction in Sangharakshita's viewpoint. At the top of this hierarchy (another unfashionable ideal) are those members of the Order who Sangharakshita has appointed to succeed him in his responsibilities. These Order Members have sufficient depth of understanding and insight into Sangharakshita's teachings, borne out of long years of experience, no longer to doubt any of his teachings - and the compassion to gently correct less experienced Order Members who might waver in their convictions and fall into 'doubts' and unclear thinking.
Trendy cynics, with their modern individualistic notions, see these senior members of the Order as mere 'Yesmen', as puppets of Sangharakshita who have fallen into the classic blindness and inability to truly question of members of institutionalised religions. A deeper, more considered view, however, reveals that what is really at work is a profound coincidence of wills - they are all bathing in the same Transcendental Insight, the fruit of many years strenuous spiritual effort.
They are examples of the 'True Individual' who, according to Sangharakshita, is "Emotionally positive, responsible, co-operative, faithful, clear-thinking and obedient." This is in contrast to the Individualist, who merely has a big ego, and the Conformist, who goes along out of (often unconscious) insecurity and fear - a very different thing to the apparent conformism of the above-mentioned True Individuals.
Above all, they are True Individuals because Sangharakshita says they are - he has publically expressed his "complete confidence" in them. To doubt them is therefore to doubt Sangharakshita, and to doubt Sangharakshita is to doubt his Transcendental Insight which, with him as one's teacher, constitutes the very basis of one's spiritual life. According to Sangharakshita's seniormost disciple, such questioning is therefore "not on", particularly in public. Furthermore, such "questioning" is likely to be the product not just of loss of faith, but of an individualistic "thinking for oneself" - it is far more important to think in terms of taking responsibility for what we think, and not infecting others with our cynical doubting.
THE FEMALE CONDITION
Yet another radical perspective of Sangharakshita's is the place of women in spiritual life. In accordance with the main thrust of the Buddhist tradition as it has come down to us, he sees women as being, generally speaking, spiritually disadvantaged compared to men. This is because the driving force of spiritual progress is the conscious will which, he says, is more evident, generally speaking, in men. Women, by contrast, are more rooted in the merely biological, in the animal realm, in what he calls the "Lower Evolution".
Sangharakshita encouraged the publication of a book for the edification of his disciples, "Women, Men and Angels", entirely devoted to this topic. For Sangharakshita, it does no-one any good to ignore the truth, and sometimes it is necessary to drive it home firmly. However, he has always been at pains to be encouraging to women, maintaining that they can attain not just to the level of men, but to Enlightenment itself. The subject is perhaps best summed up in Sangharakshita's aphorism: "Angels are to men as men are to women, because they are more human and, therefore, more divine."
Sangharakshita's perspective on women has been one of the FWBO's most controversial issues, not just from outsiders, but even from within. Most of the criticism has been directed at the Order Member who wrote the book, but much has come his way, not addressing Sangharakshita's actual arguments, but more unfairly in the form of attacks on his character, e.g. the charge of misogyny as being characteristic of gay working-class men of his generation.
Such charges are ridiculous, as Sangharakshita has long since transcended any cultural conditioning he may have grown up with. His Being is, for example, light years from the reserved, hierarchy-loving, empire-building Englishman of the Victorian and post-Victorian eras - in fact, he often seems almost to come from another planet!
THE TRIUMPH OF THE WILL
The above-mentioned notion of the conscious will as being the over-riding agent of spiritual transformation is another example of Sangharakshita's fearless critique of the Buddhist tradition - in particular of the Tathagatagarbha, or Buddha-Nature, doctrine. This doctrine holds, on a metaphysical level, that we are already Enlightened, and simply need to wake up to it. Sangharakshita has declared this doctrine to be "very dangerous", as ordinary, unevolved individuals like ourselves are likely to take it on a merely psychological level to mean that we need make no effort - we just need to realise what is there already.
Proponents might reply that no, its practical corollary is that there is something in all of us that we can trust, that we can listen to, that is ultimately the voice of the Buddha, and if we learn to listen to it and act on it for long enough, we will eventually become Buddhas. One could further argue that this approach is a remedy to the Protestant work ethic and to the doctrine of Original Sin, both of which western conditionings have led us to mistrust and dislike ourselves, and make us easily controlled by external authorities, whether secular or spiritual.
But no, at the end of the day, as Buddhists, we have to listen to the voice of the Tibetan Wheel of Life, which goes back to the Buddha, and which declares that at the heart of our conditioned beings are Greed, Hatred and Delusion: the so-called voice of the Buddha can so easily, with our infinite capacity for self-deception, be the clamour of these demons.
Better, therefore, not to trust the siren voice of Intuition - better to trust the classical architectonics of spirituality laid out from the Buddha onwards, with their straightforward and irrefutable declarations of 'Morality, Meditation & Wisdom' or (from Sangharakshita) 'Provisional, Effective and Real Going for Refuge'. At least we can trust, from experience, the originators of these teachings &, starting with a solid basis in reason, transform the remaining unregenerate darkness that, without continual striving, threatens once again to swallow us up.
But, arguing back, isn't the Dharma a raft? Are we not confusing the goal with the raft if we place too much reliance on the teachings? At what point do we say OK, I've been to spiritual primary school, I've oriented myself in the right direction. I'm not likely to go too far off course, now it's time to take seriously the teaching that Enlightenment is part of my human potential, and I must therefore find it for myself outside of any particular and contingent articulation of the Path? At what point do I stop trying to follow my teacher's tracks through the wilderness and find my own pathway?
Such arguments are typical of the modern, individualistic approach to spirituality, shorn of the traditional appreciation of faith in the teacher. If we look at the great Tibetan yogi Milarepa, his faith in his teacher Marpa was the bedrock of his spiritual practice. In the same way, the Dharma as articulated by Sangharakshita has been deeply considered and thought through, so why quibble with it? Can it not lead us, step by step, through its levels of institutional responsibility all the way to Enlightenment itself? Is not the serene unquestioning faith of his seniormost disciples enough to convince us?
SEX AND SPIRITUAL LIFE.
As one might expect, Sangharakshita has a lot to say about the place in spiritual life of sex and sexual relationships that does not fit in with trendy modem New Age notions. Sex, according to Sangharakshita, is rooted in the Lower Evolution and does not, in his experience, enhance communication between individuals. And sexual relationships, encouraging as they do neurotic dependence on one's partner, need to be kept at the periphery of one's life. Indeed, implicit in becoming a member of the Order is a commitment not to get married, if one is not so already. One needs, rather, to gain nourishment from friendships with members of the same sex.
Sangharakshita is well qualified to make such statements, having had a lengthy period of experimentation in the '70s and '80s, when he had sex with a considerable number of his young male disciples. (See 'In Bed with Sangharakshita', Windhorse Publications 1993). Again, another modem prejudice is that such behaviour is not acceptable in a spiritual teacher, that it is a betrayal of trust, and yet again Sangharakshita has shown himself to be radical and unafraid of disapproval. Drawn on the subject of his sexual encounters with young male disciples, when able to remember them he has been known to reveal that they occurred in the interests of spiritual friendship. As with the poet Milton, it is not an easy matter to try to plumb Sangharakshita's motivations. It is perhaps even impertinent and ungrateful to do so.
Carping outsiders and enemies claim that Sangharakshita's sexual behaviour was sociopathic, that it showed a serious lack of ordinary emotional development, let alone the alleged Transcendental Insight that so many of his disciples have built their lives around. After all, many of these young men, overwhelmed by the advances of their teacher, would not have felt able to say no, and would have felt used when it proved to be a casual encounter - and then they would have felt like bad people for thinking such thoughts, especially because Sangharakshita's senior disciples often colluded in and facilitated his behaviour (& have since been running a damage limitation operation).
Such outsiders further claim that Sangharakshita's consistent refusal to admit any wrongdoing indicated an isolated and arrogant psyche - further confirmed by his apparent surrounding of himself with ' Yesmen' (and the odd 'Yeswoman'!), and his distancing of himself from his own teachers.
The FWBO has always suffered from outsiders' inability to enter into the real spirit and inner workings of the FWBO, and to see clearly what is going on: Members' faith in the FWBO has frequently been tested by its enemies and critics - some members of the Order have wavered, but many have learnt to stand more firmly and think more clearly.
DEFENDERS OF THE TRUTH
An important aspect of Dharma-practice is publically upholding the truth. This has always been a quality of Sangharakshita's, a tradition which his disciples continue. Thus some years ago, when a PhD student wrote a paper about the FWBO which contained erroneous observations such as there being a Protestant flavour to the FWBO, Sangharakshita published a whole book in response, pointing out in detail where this mere academic had again and again misunderstood the FWBO.
Again, a sturdy defence was issued by Sangharakshita's disciples when an article appeared in the Guardian newspaper in 1997, alleging sexual malpractice by Sangharakshita, along with an entirely misleading quote about the FWBO from Buddhist author Stephen Batchelor:
When one has a truly radical movement like the FWBO, which will never compromise the truth in deference to fashionable ideas, criticism can be expected from outsiders, and can indeed be turned to advantage, testing one's faith and creating a stronger identity.
Here is more misleading wordplay, a further example of what radical movements sometimes have to deal with. It is by Buddhist commentator Ken Jones in 1999 in Tricycle, a well-known Buddhist magazine:
Again, we have the outsider, with a confused view of Buddhism, conditioned by modern individualistic and pseudo-liberal notions, unable to see the real inner workings of the FWBO.
THE LIGHT OF KNOWLEDGE
It is Sangharakshita's Transcendental Insight that is at the core of the FWBO. His scholarship lacks the necessary basis in primary sources to be notable, but Sangharakshita is no mere scholar: his spiritual insight transcends the need to engage in the word-games of academia. While no-one would say he is perfect, most would say that, at the end of the day, what he says and writes is an expression of contact with Ultimate Reality. Any reasonable person, given sufficient experience of him, would probably reach the same conclusion. His willingness to go it alone and to be radical over such a long period, and to be entirely unmoved by others' woolly pseudo-liberal ideas and criticisms, is sufficient testament to the depth and strength of his convictions.