Preface to Issue One


Sangharakshita called the thirteen of us together for the first time during the 1993 Order Convention in Norfolk. A few of us had some idea of what was to happen, but the stark simplicity of what he had to say still shocked us. He wanted to hand over to us his remaining responsibilities for the Order and Movement. From thenceforth we were to form the College of Public Preceptors and, to assist them, the Council of Presidents and other senior members of the Western Buddhist Order. All he told us beyond that was to buy a house in a central location in Britain as a base and to live there — or at least as many of us as could. So our lives were turned upside down. Fundraising and a search for property began, and we started the slow and sometimes painful process of working out what it was we were supposed to be doing.

By the Summer of 1995 seven of the men on the Council were living in Birmingham and the search was on for a women’s community, which was established two years later when the Dharmacharinis were ready to move. That first year we held our first one-month gathering for all thirteen College and Council members at Madhyamaloka, the house we had purchased as the focus for the College and Council. There was a lot to be sorted out. Besides attempting to survey the entire movement worldwide and dealing with the many issues of principle and practice that emerged from this, much of our discussion focussed on how we were to function — indeed, what exactly were the responsibilities we had taken on? We also studied Reginald Ray’s ‘Buddhist Saints in India’, which offers an important reappraisal of the Buddhist community through the ages — one that very much accords with the founding principles of our Order. Since then we have often studied together or held a meditation retreat during our month-long gatherings — these were at first held three times a year, but are now biennial.

Individually and collectively we have had to work hard even to begin to fulfil our task. Sangharakshita’s injunction that as many as possible of us should live together, or at least near each other, was truly and characteristically canny. Although most of us had known each other for twenty years or more and considered ourselves good friends, it was a long time since any of us had been in daily proximity. We had all been leaders in various quarters of the globe, used to being the most influential figures in our separate worlds. Now we were thrown together and must endure a closer challenge and scrutiny than we had received for many years. We experienced more vividly than ever before the spiritual practice we had each so often recommended: living and working intimately with others who share one’s commitment to the Three Jewels.

There is no disguising that this process was sometimes stormy or that some of us, perhaps all of us, at times wondered whether we wanted to continue. But through it all our friendships with each other have been tempered and there now exists a high degree of harmony and cooperation among us. This is especially remarkable to us because, after the first two years, we are so seldom all together, even those of us living in Birmingham. Apart from the two one-month periods when most of us gather at Madhyamaloka, there is a constant coming and going as we each fulfil our various responsibilities, which usually entail travelling away, sometimes for several months at a time. Nonetheless there is a sense of continuity and of deepening communication, especially as we are often together in twos and threes while in Birmingham and thus have opportunity for greater intimacy. We also make great use of e-mail to keep in regular contact, even when thousands of miles apart.

We have now more or less established ourselves and are in good communication with one another. We understand better what we are to do. Indeed, Sangharakshita now considers he has fully handed his responsibilities over to us. Naturally, while he is still living he will remain the major influence on the movement, and receives our chief respect and honour. One of the greatest pleasures of our College Council arrangements is that Sangharakshita lives at Madhyamaloka and has supper with the men’s community every evening and regularly with other members of the College and Council. Though he lives in our midst, he says he feels himself free from his former responsibilities and is devoting himself mainly to his writing and to personal contact.

The central responsibility Sangharakshita has handed on is for ordination into the Western Buddhist Order/Trailokya Bauddha Mahasangha and it has been given to the Public Preceptors, of whom there are at present seven. The College of Public Preceptors oversees the preparation and ordination of all new Order members, and of course continues to be concerned for their spiritual well-being thereafter. Ordination consists in the witnessing by a senior member of the Order of an individual’s going for Refuge to the Three Jewels. In Sangharakshita’s understanding this act of going for Refuge is the central and essential one for a Buddhist — it is what makes one a Buddhist, and it is repeated again and again throughout one’s Buddhist life. That life then consists in going for Refuge to the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha more and more fully and deeply. This understanding of Buddhism is the essence of our Order. The principal duty of the Public Preceptors is to safeguard this principle. The Order, together with the Movement through which it functions, are expressions of and vehicles for the act of going for Refuge to the Three Jewels. All the various institutions, teachings, practices, customs etc that make up the Order and Movement exist only for this sake. Naturally, every Order member is responsible for ensuring the spiritual integrity of the Order and Movement to the best of his or her ability, but the Public Preceptors carry that responsibility decisively by virtue of their acceptance of new members into the Order in witnessing their going for Refuge to the Three Jewels.

The Order and Movement are now too big and many faceted for the seven Public Preceptors to fulfil this function alone. That is why Sangharakshita created a Council to assist them, consisting now of another eight senior Order members with major responsibilities, such as the overall Mitra Convenor, some Presidents of Centres, and those chiefly responsible for study and meditation. Though the Public Preceptors hold the central responsibility in our Order and Movement, in practice the Public Preceptors work very much as a team with other Council members and share a common perspective.

We have now been working together in the College and Council for some six years. The first phase of establishment is at an end. On the whole our work continues quite smoothly and we have, between us, a wide range of connections throughout the Order and Movement. Most people linked with the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order will have at least one opportunity each year for meeting a member of the College or Council, whether personally or in a collective context. Yet many people have only a vague idea of us and what we do.

That, in the first place, is why we are publishing this magazine twice each year. We want to let those of you who are interested know a bit more about us and how we live our lives. Since speculation feeds on mystery, some bodying forth of who we are and what we do will create a better basis for genuine communication and so help us to fulfil our responsibilities. We also want to impart our concerns, observations, and understandings as broadly as possible, so that everyone knows quite clearly what we think about certain matters. This is crucial since behind our thoughts lies our own commitment to the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, and it is through a congruity with our commitment that men and women enter the Order. This does not of course mean that one can only enter the Order if one agrees with all our thoughts — but it is through knowing and engaging with them that one can come to discern the going for Refuge to the Three Jewels from which we hope they emerge. Finally we think that many people will want to know what Sangharakshita is doing, so we intend to publish an item on his activities — and we hope that he will himself be moved to contribute from time to time.

We offer this magazine for all who are interested in us and in our Order and Movement. Naturally, our primary constituency will be among those who are closely connected with the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order/Trailokya Bauddha Mahasangha Sahayak Gana, whether as Order members, Mitras, or Friends. However, we have many friends in the Buddhist world beyond the Movement who may be glad to know of us and our thinking. The FWBO has a distinctive voice and we are leading members in it, so we think that other Buddhists will want to know what we have to say. Indeed, some of our brother- and sister-Buddhists will have similar responsibilities and may be happy to know how we are facing them. Perhaps others who are not Buddhists will be interested too, whether from sympathy or curiosity. Since we are talking to a rather broad audience, it may be that not all contributions will be appropriate to all our readers. We ask you simply to read what interests and concerns you.

We have decided to start our publication in a rather informal way, as simply and cheaply as is compatible with a pleasing appearance — we do not have the resources or time for anything else, at present. There is no editor and we have not tried to construct this issue so that it forms a balanced whole. Each of us has simply written what we want to without reference to others. It may therefore be a little miscellaneous. Perhaps in time it may achieve a more definite identity — but then again, perhaps not. It is difficult to know therefore what species of publication it is: it is not a newsletter, truly, since there is no systematic attempt to inform; it is not a journal since it does not contain learned articles — at least not this time. I have referred to it as a ‘magazine’, since etymologically that connotes a storehouse. It is therefore a storehouse of items from the lives and thoughts of members of the Public Preceptors’ College and Council.

Finally, we invite response. A magazine is inevitably a one-sided communication, especially as we do not intend to publish letters, but we would like you to respond with comment and further discussion, even contention, if you wish. Given the informal and loosely edited nature of the publication, please address your comments to the writer of the article concerned. We will each, of course, take such responses very seriously. Though we have started this publication to give ourselves a voice, we also have ears and want to listen. We hope this magazine will be useful to you, and that it will convey something of our perspective on our lives and work.

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