FWBO discussion

In late 1997, the Manchester Guardian's article on scandals in the FWBO sparked a flamewar that raged across the Internet. In the relative quiet of the BUDDHIST mailing list, it was possible to think a bit more calmly about some of the issues it raised....

Like a number of people who feel themselves close to the FWBO (I've been involved for 4-5 years, but am neither ordained nor a mitra -roughly a team member at a local centre), I was disturbed by the Guardian article and some of the issues it raised, or raised again, not just from the POV of my interest in the FWBO, but because many of these issues - in varying forms - seem relevant to any discussion of Buddhism in the West. In particular, I've been asking myself:

- Should I be bothered by Sangharakshita's past, or more generally what should I expect of or look for in a Dharma teacher?

- Is there something about the nature of the FWBO that make situations like the Croydon case particularly likely, or more generally are there problems with the shape of Buddhist organisations in the West?

- Where do these views about gender come from, and what should I make of them as a "male feminist" involved in the FWBO, or more generally how do Buddhists come to hold views that go beyond the scope of the Dharma?

Here are some of the answers I've come to from listening to the various postings on this subject here and on Buddha-L and from thinking and reading about the subject. I'm not sure they're right, or even particularly new at this stage (at least for Buddha-L subscribers). But the delete button is always close to hand....

Sex, Sangharakshita and the role of the teacher

SR's past seems to raise strong views on both sides; otherwise calm Buddhists have come perilously close to the unskilful speech acts of harsh speech and gossip on the subject. For me, it seems unresolvable whether SR, as is claimed, broke his vows while still a monk. Senior Buddhists whose views I'd take seriously claim that he did, but on the basis of second-hand reports. Others, who I'd take equally seriously, deny it vehemently. The story is complicated further by the very public breach between SR and the Hampstead Buddhist Vihara over issues of lifestyle and deportment - in other words, over differing conceptions of how a "proper monk" should act.

More convincing seems to be the charge that SR's sexual experiments after he disrobed didn't draw a sharp enough line between the Dharmic context of teacher-student or kalyana mitrata relationships and sexual ones. My own sense of what comes across from the different versions that have been posted is that the same events may have had a very different meaning for a self-confident and charismatic teacher and for those he was in contact with. What from one side is seen as a context of "ordinary friendship" may from the other side have much more than that invested in it in terms of people's spiritual hopes and psychological projections; similarly, what looks like open experimentation to one person may feel like manipulation to another person.

These are difficult areas which Western Buddhist lay teachers are still grappling with. Jack Kornfield's A path with heart devotes a thoughtful and Dharmic chapter to these issues, and includes an appendix with the house rules developed by the Insight Meditation teachers to cover this area. The eclectic school of Chinese philosophy held that the excellence of each individual philosopher was at the same time their weakest point. It seems possible at least that the excellence of SR's teaching - his activist emphasis, his focus on commitment to the Dharma, and his radical orientation towards achieving stream-entry - may at the same time be something of a "shadow" in its impatience with, and relative lack of attention to, the nature of the mud in which the lotus grows. But I only know him at second-hand, through his pupils and his writings, so I may be very wrong here.

But does it matter? I'm not convinced. It certainly matters to me to take my own teachers (incidentally, both pupils of SR) seriously as people. Otherwise it would be hard to give them the kind of confidence that's needed, say, in a retreat. This doesn't mean demanding perfection, though, any more than it makes sense to demand perfection from partners, parents, friends or anyone else I take seriously. Similarly, I think, with the Dharma. What SR has to say, or Trungpa, or Kornfield - or Hakuin or Buddhaghosa for that matter - is valuable to me because I work with it: I find what seems to be helpful, try to come to terms with the views of more experienced Buddhists, ask myself what sense I can make out of it. I don't, and I don't think anyone can, somehow adopt the whole of somebody's views en bloc, still less somehow absorb their personality. Spiritual development is not some sort of cloning process, turning out carbon copies of the Master!

Sexual harassment, ideology and organisation

The department I work in teaches child-care workers in a country which has gone through a number of very public scandals involving family and clerical sex abuse. I'm not myself an expert, but you come to hold definite views in a situation like this; it is in any case something you can't avoid thinking about.

Sexual harassment, almost by definition, comes out of a power relationship. To coerce people into sexual definitions of situations requires a definite imbalance of power of some kind. Such situations are extremely widespread: they include families, workplaces, residential institutions of all kinds, therapeutic relationships, and religious contexts. The power available in religious contexts includes emotional power and intellectual power - the power to define the meaning of an event.

I'm extremely sceptical of the view that specific ideologies are more or less conducive to this form of abuse. Abusing parents will make use of the normal rhetoric of the "ideology of the family"; abusing priests will make use of religious rhetoric. (In the 60s, left-wing radical men and male hippies used their own ideologies to justify exploitative relationships with women.) Pretty much any set of ideas, and any language, can be abused for the purpose of manipulation; and I suspect it could happen without language.

In particular, the FWBO seems an odd target for this form of criticism. SR's views on sexuality, relationships and family life are considerably more tolerant than the dominant ideas of traditional Buddhism, which enjoin complete chastity (monastic ordination), in some cases at least are strongly anti-homosexual (recall the debates on this in Tibetan Buddhism), and see the "household life" as the opposite of the religious life (particularly in Theravada). A brief scan through the Visuddhimagga or the Bodhicaryavatara gives a sufficient indication of how little "pro-family" traditional Buddhism has been. If raising questions about the value of relationships and families is a problem, then it is a problem for the whole Buddhist tradition, and one within which SR's views are remarkable for their mildness.

The FWBO could certainly be criticised from the other side, for being too lax, too samsaric in its approach and its willingness to ordain people in all kinds of sexual relationships. "Commitment is primary, lifestyle secondary" could be seen as a gateway to all sorts of unspeakable abuses. One reason I'm sceptical of this is my doubt that there is *any* necessary link between ideology and abuse: an abuser can in principle manipulate anything. A more specific objection is that the experience of Irish Catholicism - probably the most rigidly anti-sex Catholic church around - does not suggest that an ideological hardline is any guarantee of anything. Priests abused children. Monks abused children. Good Catholic parents abused children. If anything, my sense would be that the institutional power of the Church - the unquestioned access of churchmen to young people, their unquestioned power over them, people's unwillingness to believe accusations against priests - made abuse more, rather than less, likely; but this is about power, not about ideas. (Incidentally, the Irish experience makes me sceptical of the view that traditional Asian Buddhism had no problems of abuse. It may simply be a question of institutional power preventing such abuse coming to light; in Ireland, abuse cases have started to surface as the Church's power has been eroded.)

So power relationships seem to be the key. Here again my initial reaction was to be sceptical that this was a peculiar weakness of the FWBO. Again by comparison with traditional Buddhist groups, institutional power is very weak: the legal independence of the different FWBO centres, the emphasis placed on kalyana-mitrata between people at similar levels rather than on teacher-student relationships, the willingness to explore all the different schools of traditional Buddhism rather than to take one as an unquestioned orthodoxy, the rejection of the idea of anyone speaking on behalf of the Order, all undercut the authoritarian tendencies of Buddhist organisations. (Again, one could argue from the other side that the FWBO is too anarchist rather than too authoritarian.) Coming from a political background, these were the kinds of things I was looking for, rather than religious versions of Leninist or managerial organisational strategies.

But over time I've come to the view that there's more to it than the formal power structures, and I'd like to offer some ideas on how this might work. This is really speculation as far as the mechanism goes, but it's based on my own experience of the FWBO. Although formally the movement is extremely decentralised, in practice there are strong informal hierarchies. While in theory there's little orthodoxy in the movement, in practice there is strong deference shown to a particular set of views. Although SR has AFAIK no longer any formal organisational role, his influence on the movement's direction is still very strong.

To use FWBO language, there is a strong "group" element to the FWBO; it is by no means the simple association of individuals presented as normative. While the sangha is formally encouraged to avoid the "power mode" entirely and to function only in the "love mode", in practice the two tend to coincide to a great extent. Part of this experience may come from the sharp distinction between the Order and the movement. It's possible that the Order's own internal relations are considerably more open than this suggests. >From the "outside" - i.e. the situation of most people involved in the FWBO - it's impossible to tell, and the overall power relations seem fairly clear: on the one side a number of Order members whose organisational and ideological role is very clear; on the other, FWBO members and perhaps many Order members, whose primary choice is between putting up with this situation and leaving.

Maybe I should stress here that this is coming out of my own strong attraction for the movement: I've learned meditation from Order members, I take part in as many retreats and seminars as I can, and I still intend to deepen my involvement as far as I feel able to without compromising my own sense of integrity and honesty. While it's hardly surprising that life in samsara is subject to all sorts of samsaric processes, there's still some disappointment when this turns out actually to be the case!

On to the speculation, then. One of the purposes of education - formal or informal - is to socialise people for their future work situations. For most people, who will be working under fairly direct surveillance and fairly tight controls, it's sufficient for people to learn how to work in a disciplined manner, how to manage a steady workflow and take orders. For professionals, though, who typically have a greater degree of immediate freedom in their work, there's naturally a concern over how they will behave. A doctor, for example, or a social worker has a considerable amount of discretion, and supervision is typically retrospective, if it occurs at all. With the more independent professionals - for example psychotherapists or lawyers with private practices - there are few control mechanisms available except the blunt instrument of striking them off the relevant register. So professional socialisation in these cases involves - formally or informally - trying to build in forms of internal discipline, inner motivation, ethical and professional standards, codes of practice, and all the rest of it. If people cannot be externally controlled, they can learn how to control themselves.

Now consider the situation of the lay meditation teacher. As they are not in a formal monastic institution, with its strict ethical rules and wide variety of institutional control mechanisms, they will have a very great amount of freedom and power in their teaching situations. As we see from the Croydon case and similar situations in other Buddhist groups, this is quite a problematic situation, and not just because of the potential of sexual abuse. There is scope for problems around money, power and stimulants; there is scope for wide divergences in the ideas and practices that are being taught, and more general categories that an earlier age described as "bringing the institution into disrepute". So for many reasons, some thoroughly honourable and some perhaps less so, it makes sense to try to emulate the formal professions.

In one sense, this is built into the whole business of meditation training. By the time anyone has reached the stage in a particular movement where they might start thinking of becoming a teacher themselves, they have of course been confronted with a wide variety of ethical precepts, meditation practices and Buddhist ideas which themselves form a strong safeguard against abuse. (On the whole, I'd find the fact that someone is a consistent meditator one of the strongest reasons for trusting someone.) At the same time, it's clearly not enough; as Kornfield puts it, people can be very highly developed in some areas without having carried the consequences of that through to other parts of their life. (The same principle is illustrated in the Pali canon with reference to the effect of past lives on some of the Buddha's disciples.)

>From this point of view, it strikes me as significant that the Western Buddhist Order, over the years, has changed the meaning of ordination considerably. Initially, it was (according to FWBO literature) relatively easy to become ordained, as it is of course in most traditional Buddhism. Increasingly, however, ordination has become something quite difficult to achieve, and to depend in particular on the "Going for Refuge" retreats for would-be ordinands. I haven't been on these retreats, but the central theme appears to be around the area of commitment to the business of spiritual development. This is hardly something to be objected to, and in my view the fact that someone has been ordained within the Order is a major recommendation for that person: the process is clearly an effective one both from the point of view of increasing people's commitment to spiritual development and from the point of view of preventing people who aren't yet ready for it from becoming ordained.

(At a lower level, mitrahood also entails strong commitment - in the requirements that the mitra build kalyana-mitrata relationships with other people in the FBWO, that they avoid other religious groups, that they make themselves available to work voluntarily for the movement, and that they have a regular meditation practice. Again, this is hardly objectionable in itself.)

At the same time, as the history of Buddhism suggests, there are often unintended effects even from Dharmically praiseworthy developments. My own impression is that the very commitment which I see as valuable in the Order is at the same time one of its weaknesses, in that there is a strong tendency to "groupism" - to purely organisational loyalties, to a "common line", to a strange kind of what used to be called "democratic centralism" perhaps - which operates largely without any formal supports. This is perhaps strengthened by the natural emotional slippage between commitment to the Dharma and commitment to SR's interpretation of the Dharma, between commitment to the Sangha and commitment to the Order, and so on.

Whether this "explains" sexual harassment is another issue entirely. In my view the power situation alone is sufficient to explain that. But it does seem that there may be more general problems in this area, problems which are perhaps not unique to the FWBO. In family situations, people may become confused around areas like sex if their parents are sending out double messages: verbally saying that it's OK to have partners, for example, but denying it with their emotional responses. In some ways, my experience of the FWBO has been a bit like this. The surface message - in terms of ideas, organisation and so on - is very attractive. But sometimes the underlying emotional tone belies the openness of the message. This is probably natural in any group that's exploring new territory, and certainly it's common enough. But it may also be something to work on.

Gender, views and competence

So many keyboards have been battered over this subject in the last few weeks that I'm reluctant to add anything to the flames. I'd like to try and make a different kind of point.

As a working sociologist, I notice a number of areas where senior figures in the FWBO hold views which I disagree with. This is natural, and hardly something to get upset about. What worries me, rather, is the situation where something comes to be presented as the "party line" - in other words, as in some way binding for the movement - without being grounded in anything solid. Kornfield's story, of the lama who advised a couple on natural childbirth without knowing anything other than Tibetan folklore, springs to mind.

In the FWBO this kind of thing is rarely a problem. As far as I can tell, what SR, Subhuti and so on say does typically grow out of issues they've come across in teaching. Thus the question of the different feelings men and women have around commitment, say, how students react to teachers' claims to competence in certain areas, political criticisms of Buddhist ethics or the different kinds of art that people find useful are all issues that teachers are likely to think about and respond to. Here, as in the area of meditation experience, I will listen quite carefully to what is being said.

One of the difficulties, though, is that I find SR and Subhuti - and many other Buddhist teachers! - rarely draw this line themselves. There seems to be no sense of the distinction between the practical observation that men and women, as they are now, in our current society, react to things differently, and the ontological view that these reactions are driven by different biologies. To know this would require an engagement with philosophical, biological and sociological issues which are simply ignored. This is of course how everyday thought works, but it's disappointing (to say the least) that Dharma teachers too are not really aware of the limitations of their own knowledge, particularly within a tradition which places so much stress on the distinction between methodology and ontology.

Similarly, Subhuti's work on citizenship appears innocent of any knowledge of e.g. the foundations of liberal and democratic political theory. Sangharakshita's theories on culture have failed to register the existence of four decades of cultural studies, and so on. I'm not of course arguing that they should really try to become academics, far from it. But I am bothered that people whose understanding I respect very strongly in some areas should seem so unclear about where the limits of this knowledge are.

For me this really came out when I listened to my own teachers give talks on environmentalism and on economics. In each case it was painfully clear to me that they simply didn't know what they were talking about. (I'm sure the Buddhologists on this list can sympathise with the feeling of listening to people make a fool of themselves about subjects you've put a lot of thought into.) Instead, what was coming out was simply "views", and more accurately "views about views" - not the actual engagement of Buddhists with specific issues, but a reaction to second-hand opinions and things they'd seen on TV or heard from other Buddhists. There may well be a need to react to the emotional, ethical etc. content of those views, but it helps to be clear that that is what's going on, rather than providing "a Buddhist solution to the environmental crisis" or whatever.

It seems likely that most people, placed in a position where their views are taken seriously, will tend to give opinions on things that they are less than qualified to pronounce on, and as a teacher I can hardly object! But the situation within the Sangha involves giving rather more attention to your teacher's views than one might in a college; it rather depends on having a certain amount of confidence in their understanding. So there are ethical questions about abusing that confidence. I think there also have to be questions about a situation where "views" of this kind become the unofficial dogma of a religious movement - particularly if it's one that one is actually committed to!

This seems more than enough for the moment. I'd like to stress again that I'm not trying to attack the movement. At present I still hope to become a mitra once I'm in a position to get involved more fully, and to seek ordination at some future stage if the Order can tolerate me and vice versa - and presumably to do my bit in making the soup, as Richard puts it. But, like Kolya, I have some very mixed feelings about the movement, and I think they raise issues which are by no means house specials of the FWBO.

With metta,


Back to previous page