The Pillar of Experiment


Life is change. Even Buddhism cannot stand still—indeed, it must change with the changing life around it. Principles may be eternal, but their expressions in time and space must refer to each distinct place and moment, otherwise they will not be heard. Buddhists must be alive to the circumstances around them, so they can convey the Dharma in the form most likely to be received—and to have effect. Teachings, practices, institutions, ceremonies, customs: all need to be reviewed from time to time to verify that they still have power to help men and women here and now move forward on the Path towards the Goal of Buddhahood. Without this vigilance, the Buddhist movement of today will become one more fossil, worthy and beautiful in its way, lost in the sediments of history.

In addition, the spiritual community must be reaching out to ever more people, finding new ways to bring the Dharma to different temperaments, cultures, climates. We should never be content that we are attracting people like ourselves, but should be making the Dharma accessible to people who are quite unlike us. This requires a conscious effort to enter the minds of others and to adapt our words and deeds to their various natures. Buddhism is for all—but it is we who must bring it to them.

Finally, as we follow the Path, new facets of the infinite variety of truth reveal themselves to us, and elaborations will naturally abound, enriching with subtlety and amplitude the way we speak of and practice Buddhism. The Buddha spoke of himself as having given us but a handful of Dharma, which, compared with its limitless possibilities, was like a few leaves from the vastness of the green jungle. Inevitably, if we are truly exploring the spiritual realms we will discover and make manifest regions as yet unknown.

The manifestations of the Dharma then will, and must, multiply and evolve. Yet multiplication and evolution cannot mean compromise. The Dharma's expressions may change: the undying Dharma-essence never does. We should never let the urge to respond to the new lead us to dilute or distort the fundamental spirit of Buddhism. Here of course lies the heart of the problem. Ranged on either side are the polarities of fundamentalism and compromise; between them lies the Middle Way: remaining faithful to the spirit of the Dharma, while adapting the letter to communicate that spirit appropriately to whoever may be before one. Finding and keeping to the Middle Way in this as in all respects is, however, a task requiring great mental agility and penetration and firm and heartfelt conviction. It is, inevitably and legitimately, a principal topic of debate among Buddhists of all schools and cultures.

The need to adapt the expressions of the Dharma raises another major problem. How can the coherence of a spiritual community be maintained over space and time if individuals and groups of individuals within it are adapting the expressions in different directions? How can the principle of unity be reconciled with the principle of diversity, that is, the need to adapt to new circumstances, persons, and experiences? How can we in the Western Buddhist Order, for instance, continue as one spiritual community, functioning in such different cultures and with such a wide range of different types and temperaments?

Before we can examine this question, we must face some preliminary assumptions. Why concern oneself with unity at all? Why not let a thousand flowers bloom, and never mind that their colours may clash or their natures be at war? But what in any case is unity in this connection?

A spiritual community is united when all its members have the same understanding of spiritual commitment and recognise each other as having that commitment at the centre of his or her life. This recognition does not have to arise from direct personal acquaintance. One can have confidence in the community as a whole because of one's confidence in those with whom one does have direct acquaintance and because of one's confidence in those whose responsibility it is to admit people to the community—and this confidence too grows out of one's direct acquaintance with one or two such people. A spiritual community is united as long as there is a fundamental trust among all its members in each other as members of the community by virtue of sharing the same spiritual commitment.

So why try to retain a united spiritual community? Why not simply let it divide again and again into units of those who follow similar teachings and practices? After all, there can be many spiritual communities in the world. We in the Western Buddhist Order do not consider ourselves the only possible Buddhist Sangha—nor yet the only actual one. Within the great circle of all Buddhists are a number of smaller ones, more or less devoted to the Path, more or less clear about what it means. The Western Buddhist Order is one such circle. Why should it not divide amoeba-like from time to time, adding new variety to the universal Buddhist Sangha?

The answer is that non-exclusivity is of the essence of spiritual community. For a Sangha to be a true Sangha it must in principle be open to all, regardless of accidents of birth or temperament, climate or culture. It must constantly be overcoming all spatiotemporal barriers, uniting us in a common spiritual striving. Universality too is of the essence. The vision of universal harmony in spiritual striving is what animates a Sangha. Quixotic though the attempt may be, a spiritual community aspires to embrace the whole world. This does not mean competition with existing Sanghas, but an aspiration to meet with them too in a common vision, at least at some point. Anything less than this vision of non-exclusivity and universality does not constitute a spiritual community in the fullest sense. That is why we in the Western Buddhist Order want to remain united. It is a lofty and perhaps unattainable endeavour, but one that deeply animates us.

Unity is not only an aspiration that contributes to the well-being of the world, but a practice that leads each of us forward on the Path. In our efforts to remain united and in harmony we have constantly to transcend ourselves so that we experience our spiritual identity with those who are unlike us, whether by virtue of character or of circumstance. We must become more than ourselves if we are to allow others to be different from ourselves, whilst seeing in them a common commitment to the same ideals. This is one of the most potent practices we have.

So how do we stay united whilst allowing adaptation to new and different circumstances? Again we must look at the chief characteristics of a particular spiritual community (as against the spiritual community in general)—what we might best refer to as an Order. We could expand our previous definition to say that a particular spiritual community or Order is a collection of people who share a common understanding and mutual recognition of spiritual commitment, which is realised through links of deep friendship, both horizontal and vertical, that run throughout the community, and which is expressed in a shared framework of teachings, understandings, practices, institutions, ceremonies, and customs that together form a coherent system of spiritual discipline. Let us now examine the three principle elements of this definition—shared commitment, friendship, system of spiritual discipline—seeing what they mean in principle and how we apply them in the Western Buddhist Order.

What makes a spiritual community is that all its members share a common spiritual dedication and recognise it in each other. One may have a sense of solidarity with all human beings—indeed all creatures whatsoever—but the basis of an Order is a special solidarity in spiritual orientation, mutually felt. All feel it with each other and are aware of each other as oriented to the same goal. The more conscious and explicit this is, the more vivid and creative the community. There must also be a certain minimum level. Whilst many may feel the urge to follow the Path from time to time, one can only enter into full spiritual community with those who are building their lives upon it. Spiritual commitment must be conscious, explicit, and effective in each individual member, and it must be recognised by every other: this is the essence of a spiritual community.

So far I have spoken of spiritual orientation or commitment—inevitably rather vague terms. For Buddhists the Buddha is the orienting point, together with the Dharma and Sangha, and commitment is Going for Refuge to the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. A Buddhist spiritual community consists of those who consciously and explicitly Go for Refuge to the Three Jewels, and who do so at an effective level—they are able to put their commitment into effect since it is strong enough and central enough in their lives. Each member is Going for Refuge effectively and recognises every other as doing so. This is the foundation of the Western Buddhist Order. One becomes a member of the Order when a senior member, who has been acknowledged as qualified to do so, recognises that one is Going for Refuge to the Three Jewels effectively in the same way as he or she does—he or she 'witnesses' that one's Going for Refuge coincides with their own, at least in kind if not in degree. The ceremony of ordination consists in this simple act of recognition. From that point on, all other members of the Order acknowledge the new Order member as a spiritual brother or sister.

Mutual recognition is not, however, a simple matter. It does not come about as a result of an exam or even a fixed period of waiting. Recognition comes from knowing the person, and knowing comes from communication. Recognition takes place, in other words, in a context of personal connection and friendship—of kalyana mitrata or 'fellowship in the lovely', or perhaps better, 'the ideal'. Not every member of a spiritual community need directly know every other, however—indeed, in an Order of some 750 members like the Western Buddhist Order, that is impossible. But threads of friendship must run throughout the entire community, leaving no-one out, linking all in a net of kalyana mitrata. Thus an Order member from Seattle in the United States of America will be connected by a chain of friendships with an Order member from Nagpur in India. These threads of friendship are not only directed upwards or downwards to those more or less experienced than oneself, but also move sideways to those at a similar stage of commitment—although it must be stressed that in friendship one is not excessively conscious of the relative position of one friend to another.

The spiritual community is then not merely formed of shared commitment but of shared commitment in a network of friendships, horizontal as well as vertical. Individual members of the community relate to each other not through authority or power, but through respect and maitri or love—at least they do when they are truly acting as members of the spiritual community. For us in the Western Buddhist Order this is a vital principle and one we strive constantly to keep alive. We foster among us a spirit of mutual delight and rejoicing in merits, and we place great emphasis on companionship and teamwork—without negating, of course, the need for solitary practice, as well.

How then is this field of mutual recognition of going for Refuge to the Three Jewels, this network of kalyana mitrata, to be kept in being? While we are still reversible from the Path, we have to work to keep that field and network alive—they are not the spontaneous radiance of our hearts. We need a framework that will support our efforts. If we have few opportunities to meet then friendships will wane. If we do not deliberately cross the boundaries of nation, culture, and inclination, then mutual recognition will fade. If we do not speak a basic language in common, then incomprehension and alienation are inevitable. Our mutual recognition and friendship are supported by and expressed through a framework of shared origins and history, ideas and teachings, images and symbols, ceremonies and practices, institutions and customs—all of which are useful means to spiritual evolution. These add up to a culture of spiritual commitment and spiritual discipline. Not only is there a common ethos underlying a community, and an atmosphere of deep friendship, but many of the key details of our lives are held in common. These all hang together, forming a coherent system, each element supporting every other and all based upon common principles, especially, in the case of the Western Buddhist Order, the principle of going for Refuge to the Three Jewels.

The system of spiritual discipline is not an exhaustive prescription of every aspect of life, which all must perform in exactly the same way. First there are certain very basic elements that all must share in if there is to be any coherence at all: in the Western Buddhist Order, for instance, we all recite the traditional Pali formula of going for Refuge to the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, and the Ten Precepts taken at Ordination. Next, forming the main bulk of the system, there are many elements that most will participate in to some extent, or at least acknowledge as desirable. For instance, there are the principal institutions of the Order: Chapter meetings, national gatherings, and international conventions—or of the FWBO: centres, communities, and team-based Right Livelihood businesses. No-one will participate or use all of the elements in this category—time and circumstance do not permit; but everyone in the Order and FWBO uses a significant proportion of it. How much? Enough to keep alive the field of mutual recognition and the network of friendship. This cannot be spelled out, but must be felt, and it is tested and renewed through communication in a spirit of kalyana mitrata.

This, of course, is where we once more encounter the problem of change with which we began. Given the need for a common culture of spiritual discipline in order to keep alive the field of mutual recognition and the network of kalyana mitrata, how are changes to be made and new developments to be added? We have seen that changes and developments there must be, but how are they to take place without disrupting the continuity and coherence of a spiritual community or Order? Again this is a matter of feeling. Each member of the community needs to be conscious of it as a coherent system and appreciate its value and significance. Each will then be personally responsible for ensuring that system's integrity, whilst seeking to expand its relevance to new times and place, new temperaments and inclinations, and the endless exuberance of truth.

What, however, does this mean in practical terms? The individual member of an Order, faithful as he or she may be to the principle of coherence, is not necessarily in a position to see the effect of individual changes, lacking either the experience or the perspective—not all can see the total picture. Two principles need to be observed: firstly, careful and conscious experiment, secondly, seeking guidance in a spirit of kalyana mitrata. Let us see how these are worked out in the Western Buddhist Order.

If one is exploring new dimensions of thought and practice one should be clear what one is doing. One should be aware that it is a new dimension and of the reasons for one's exploring it. What does one hope to find? Why is one seeking? Of course, one cannot always be so clear at the time, but at least one should know that. Once the exploration becomes more than a personal quest, seeming to offer something of significance to others that might become part of the Order's system of spiritual discipline, then one needs to carry out a more systematic and thorough test, perhaps now involving others one trusts to share the spirit of the inquiry—this will usually mean other members of the Order. The experiment should be, as it were, scientific: with clear objectives and clear means of evaluating whether or not they have been achieved. Sangharakshita himself speaks of the principles of experiment in these terms in his talk 'The Five Pillars of the FWBO', in which Experiment is presented as a pillar, along with Ideas, Practices, Institutions, and Imagination.

Once an Order member or group of Order members have come to the conclusion that they have discovered something that is a valuable change or addition to the Order's system of spiritual discipline, how are they to see it instituted? In the Western Buddhist Order there is no formal mechanism for validating practices or institutions, apart from their general acceptance by other members of the Order. Many new developments wither in the bud because few are interested or are only interested for a while—often new things are simply a passing fashion, rather than of lasting significance—and this is a topic in itself, not to be pursued now: the distinction of meaningful and needed change from a merely restless search for novelty. There is no authorising body in the Order—although within the FWBO, as distinct from the Order, there is, for instance, the meeting of Chairmen of FWBO centres in respect of those centres: the Chairmen collectively may in principle refuse to recognise a centre because they do not consider it to be expressive of the principles and practices they all uphold, but this has never yet happened and we hope it never will.

Although there is no authority in the general sense, there is nonetheless a reference point. The central responsibility in our Order is the acceptance of new members—the giving of ordinations. Those who ordain do so in their personal capacity, after consultation with others. Through their experience in going for Refuge themselves over many years, they have become skilled in recognising going for Refuge in others. All who go for Refuge have this capacity to some extent, of course, but it requires experience and education to develop it reliably—although it will never be infallible, since human beings always elude final prediction, short of Stream Entry.

These Preceptors are able to see that an individual is going for Refuge effectively, that he or she is linked into the network of kalyana mitrata, and that he or she has imbibed the ethos of the Order and effectively participates in its culture of spiritual discipline. They have been acknowledged as capable of performing this task in the first place by Sangharakshita, the founder of the Order, who for all Order members is the initial reference point: since it was on the basis of his going for Refuge to the Three Jewels that the Order was founded. Later they too will hand on that responsibility to those they believe to be capable of carrying it out.

Confidence that the Preceptors, and especially the Public Preceptors who finally admit new members to the Order, have the capacity to detect an individual's readiness to join the Order is fundamental to the Order's continued existence: once Order member's do not have that confidence, there will be no mutual recognition of effective going for Refuge.

If then one wants to see whether or not a change or new development fits into the Order's system of spiritual discipline there is therefore a reference point. In giving ordinations the Public Preceptors are the ultimate guardians of the Order's unity and integrity. If an experimental finding has their support, whether directly or indirectly, it is likely to find its place in the culture and it is likely that others will have confidence in it. Naturally, they cannot themselves oversee every development: they are unlikely to have either the time or, in some cases, the qualifications. There are many developments also that can be integrated through other unifying and guiding factors in the Order and movement, such as the Chairmen's meeting, Mitra system, Chapter Convenors' meeting, or the Presidents of centres—all of which operate in concert with the Public Preceptors and the Council that assists them. More minor matters are dealt with at a more local or personal level: by kalyana mitras or a centre's governing council.

This kind of discussion touches on delicate areas. Is the individual Order member not free to do what he or she likes? Does every variation in practice or teaching need to be referred to the Public Preceptors? The spectre of authority stalks. Much of the time there is no problem. In the normal course of kalyana mitrata one does discuss one's newest ideas and actions with those one respects, not as a matter of duty but as a natural aspect of one's friendship. When one feels in some way alienated from the flow of kalyana mitrata then one experiences the thought of discussing one's ideas with others as oppressive and limiting. The solution lies in discussion, not in the first place to establish the validity or otherwise of one's ideas, but to re-establish trusting communication—which may of course involve some very plain speaking on both sides. Without that spirit of kalyana mitrata, whatever one is investigating will not fit into the system of discipline, regardless of how useful it might otherwise be. If one does not want to talk things over, then no-one can force one to do so, but one must take into account the effects that may have on the integrity and unity of the Order. Ultimately, the responsibility for these lies with every individual Order member.

Change is needed in the system of discipline of a spiritual community or Order, so as to meet new circumstances and needs. That change should take place mindful of the consequences of the change for the unity and integrity of the Order. The only guarantee that it will not disrupt the harmony of the Sangha is the care each member of the community takes to test their innovations and to discuss them thoroughly with their spiritual friends, and if appropriate with those who hold the central responsibility for the Order's existence as a true spiritual community. All of this may be annoyingly unspecific for some: what, they may ask, are the mechanisms, the systems, the controls? Ultimately there cannot be any. Instead we must rely upon our own commitment to the principle of Sangha and upon kalyana mitrata, which is its essential spirit.

Originally published in Madhyamavani: Spring 1999 (Birmingham: Madhyamaloka, 1999).