Looking for an Overview

An interview with Vishvapani

Dhammadassin: Your name seems to have cropped up everywhere in the last couple of years. But you've been around the movement for a long time — how, when, and why did you first get involved?

Vishvapani: I’ve been thinking about this recently as one of my current projects is a book introducing Buddhism for young people, especially in Buddhist countries in Asia. I first went to classes at Aryatara (which developed into the Croydon Buddhist Centre) when I was fourteen, and I became a mitra a year later. That may sound surprisingly young, but it seemed perfectly normal to me. Many teenagers are looking for something: interested in understanding their lives and the kind of person they are, or should be. Buddhism offered me not exactly an answer, but an image — you could be a bodhisattva. I was always the youngest at the centre, but there were lots of other young people around, too, something you rarely find at FWBO centres nowadays. If there was something exceptional about my situation it came from my parents. They are both therapists and socialists, and those were the beliefs they communicated to me.

After I finished school I worked for a while in Hockneys the restaurant that used to be run by the Croydon Buddhist Centre. But that wasn’t a good experience, and I saw some of the things that can go wrong in an FWBO situation. Behind the youthful idealism was a strong emotional pressure to conform to quite a narrow lifestyle and outlook. Some people suffered quite badly as a result. After a couple of years in Hockneys I took up a place at Cambridge, did an English degree, and then an MA in London.

Following my experience in Croydon I might easily have ended my involvement in the FWBO were it not for Kulananda. I have an active and critical mind, and in Croydon I had seen what was wrong. But because other people didn’t agree I felt estranged and unconfident. Talking to Kulananda, I found that he and others in the Order shared my sense of the problems, and that was a powerful lesson in trusting my experience. From that came a friendship with Kulananda and a sense of the provisional nature of the FWBO. We are trying to put Buddhist ideals into practice, but our medium is people, and people are flawed. That was my induction into understanding the FWBO in a broader way.

I was ordained in 1992, when I was twenty-seven, and I got involved in starting the North London Buddhist Centre. I worked with Kulananda in the FWBO Liaison Office, dealing with ‘external relations’ — with the press, the media, academics and the Buddhist world. When Madhyamaloka was set up in late 1994 Kulananda left London for Birmingham and I had to decide what to do next. The work I had been doing with him developed into the FWBO Communications Office — spreading the Dharma using the mass media — but I needed something else to round out the brief.

At that point Windhorse Publications asked me to edit the movement’s magazine, Golden Drum. I wasn’t sure about its remit: Golden Drum had been conceived as the ‘voice of the movement’ — which I found an odd concept, because it meant people weren’t writing from their own understanding and experience. I felt that we needed to allow space for a diversity of voices even if that was at the expense of promoting a clear agenda. I thought we should have the confidence to do that. So I envisaged a magazine that, while based on FWBO values, drew on the broad multi-denominational Buddhist world that had been growing up, as well as engaging with sympathetic currents in the broader culture. The result was Dharma Life, which I have been editing for the last eight years.

You’re a relatively experienced Order member, but one who hasn’t yet hit forty. Do you think being part of a younger generation in the Order has affected the way you relate to it?

There are others around my age who are also experienced, but I’m uncommon among my generation in having been involved for quite some time in movement-wide issues. The others doing this have mostly been members of the generation who established the Order and movement, and they were strongly moulded by their personal contact with Bhante. The difference in perspective that brings may be why I’ve had something to offer recently as we have been seeking new ways of doing things.

In microcosm the shift from Golden Drum to Dharma Life could be seen as foreshadowing the changes the FWBO has been passing through recently. If the movement is an experiment then it’s not solely Bhante’s experiment, nor even the Order’s. It is part of the experience of westerners trying to practice the Dharma, and there are forces moulding our future that are beyond anyone’s control. I’ve always been interested in what’s going on in the Buddhist world at large, but for many years we attempted to seclude ourselves from its influence. That could only work for a time.

How did you get into what you’re doing now? And what are you doing?

I ran the Communications Office and Dharma Life up to the end of 2001 and that included the period when an intense campaign was waged against us by the people who published The FWBO Files. The critical article about the FWBO in The Guardian article was the most prominent effect of that campaign (though most people don’t realise that’s how it came about). The time came to move on from the Communications Office, and in Vajrasara I found a very able successor. Eventually in 2001 I had a year out, though I continued to edit Dharma Life. I travelled, did long retreats in Sri Lanka and Bhutan and started doing some writing, which I hope to continue.

When I returned, Subhuti asked me to take on a new job within the team at Madhyamaloka, looking at the movement in the UK as a whole and seeing how things could develop. So during 2003 I visited many FWBO centres and went to lots of meetings: the Chair’s meeting and Executive, the Madhyamaloka Meeting, the Preceptors’ College Council, mitra convenors’ meetings...lots of meetings...as well as just talking with people about the movement. I guess that’s why my name crops up everywhere!

The last year has been a time of great change and some turbulence in the movement. From your perspective, what has been going on?

The first thing to say is that I don’t really know — we’re still in the middle of it, and I think we should be wary of instant analyses. That said, I think the turbulence is dying down, but the change clearly continues, and I am certain that this has been a key phase for the movement. The essence concerns moving on from our founder. Criticisms have surfaced — or resurfaced — and these have shifted perceptions, notably for some of those who’ve been close to him in the past. I can’t say I feel that change myself, but I see how others are engaged in a process of psychological distancing. That’s inevitable: we need the strength, wisdom and inspiration of others, but we also need the space to find our own strength before a new appreciation is possible.

With that changing relationship comes a questioning of some of the attitudes and methods we have used over the years, which has focused on changes in the structures of the Order and movement that have been instituted in the last year. On one level these changes were just about how we should organise ourselves, but they also touch on how we see authority and hierarchy. The result is a clarification of the role of the Preceptors’ College and the Preceptors’ College Council, who Bhante had appointed as his successors. These people had specific responsibilities as Public Preceptors and presidents. But they also had a general leadership role that was eventually expressed in the College’s becoming the Head of the Order.

My impression is that this arrangement never quite worked. The immediate problem was that the College members were over-burdened. Around fifteen hundred people had asked for ordination, and in some way all those requests had to be filtered through eleven individuals — who, as a result, urgently needed to expand their numbers. The Public Preceptors also carried a responsibility as Head of the Order, but how could that leadership be meaningful when those people were so busy, and the members of this group didn’t necessarily have an aptitude for taking an overview? Behind this were larger questions about the nature of leadership in our community. Some of us felt that the existing arrangements were causing tensions and polarisation, that initiative was being stifled, and that the movement was in some ways seizing up.

Led by Subhuti, in our Madhyamaloka meetings we explored where responsibilities rightly lay. We realised that the appearance of leadership was greater than the reality: in fact, we have a very decentralised movement. In the end the College went for a radical option — discarding the notion of headship and the general responsibilities for the Order and movement altogether. If they are to be leaders it will be because of the significance of the specific responsibility of conducting ordinations, and their personal qualities.

As a result we have realised more fully that the FWBO and the Order are voluntary networks. We can only do things by consensus and with active assent. Order members and FWBO institutions, such as our centres, need to feel free to run their affairs as they see best, with no one looking over their shoulder. That was the empowering, encouraging message that went along with the structural changes.

The FWBO grew out of the 60s and 70s, and shaped its forms and institutions in the 80s and 90s — but what now? What challenges do you see facing the movement?

Some changes in our culture challenge what we used to call the ‘new society’ — communities, centres (less so), but certainly businesses. Our Order was founded as neither monastic nor lay (maybe it’s better to say our ordination is neither monastic nor lay, and the Order is both), and lifestyle is secondary to commitment. That gives us tremendous flexibility. However the specific ways of living and working that we’ve developed are in flux and we can’t be sure what’s right nowadays. I don’t think we can have a collective answer in the future. People will decide what they want to do for themselves, and the movement will become increasingly diverse.

The Order is growing in numbers, which makes communication and decision-making more complex, but the proportion of Order members who are living and working full-time in FWBO environments, and even teaching in centres, is getting smaller. That’s posing institutional issues, particularly in finding people who are happy to work on a ‘renunciative’ level of support. But whatever we do, we have to confront the fundamental issues to which communities and right livelihood businesses are responses. How do you live in the world but retain some element of going forth? The element in the project of developing a ‘new society’ that’s most clearly in decline is the desire to create a separate world, complete in itself, even a new western Buddhist culture. That sense of creating a world apart has created tension for people who have families, or whose lives go through different phases, or who want to live in different ways. But even for people operating within it, the danger is of insularity and failing to learn from outside.

So does the world still need the FWBO?

I prefer to ask different questions first: does the world need the Dharma, and is there a future for Buddhism in the West? Wherever you look, interest in Buddhism is booming as never before. In North America it is now commonplace to speak of it entering and affecting mainstream culture. So I think the answer to that question is an unconditional ‘yes’. Just open a newspaper: the world needs the wisdom and clarity of the Dharma more than ever, and people are realising that Buddhism has something to offer.

I’m an observer of the western Buddhist world, and I think that some of the ways it’s developing suggest the continuing relevance of Bhante’s approach. Joseph Goldstein’s book One Dharma, subtitled The Emerging Western Buddhism, suggests that many experienced practitioners are finding they need to draw on various schools of Buddhism according to the pragmatic needs of their spiritual lives, somewhat in the manner of the FWBO. Similarly many western practitioners are far more serious than most traditional Asian lay followers, yet they also are not monastics ’ and that reflects the pattern of our ordination.

Then the question arises, is there a place for the FWBO within western Buddhism? For all our turbulence, classes at most centres I visit are packed to the rafters. That reflects the growing interest in Buddhism, but it’s also a sign of renewed energy at those centres, and that gets us back to a basic part of what we are about: I do believe that we in the FWBO have something distinctive to offer those people. In the Order there are many experienced practitioners, a good deal of wisdom, and a very strong sense of community — though we also need far more depth of practice to keep going. But the FWBO’s broad approach still seems relevant. We’re used to exploring how to practice Buddhism in a way that is accessible but preserves the tradition’s integrity. We know that you don’t have to adopt a particular lifestyle to practice. We’ve separated out Asian cultural elements from more universally applicable Buddhist teachings, and we’ve gone some way in connecting this with western culture. All that is Bhante’s achievement, even if some things he has taught seem less relevant now. It’s still just what is needed to practice Buddhism in the West. Above all he has taught that the basic teachings common to all forms of Buddhism have an inexhaustible depth, and he cuts through the tradition’s complexities by continually coming back to these. I believe we can continue to have confidence in this basic raison d’etre for the movement — but the forms undoubtedly do need to change, and that’s our challenge

Is the movement responding to this challenge?

Once again it is hard to generalise — and though we probably can’t do without the language of a ‘movement’ what that means is changing. The Order retains the cohesion that derives from our shared commitment at ordination, but the activities we call the FWBO, or the ‘movement’, are less and less a defined project we have in common, and we’re becoming more and more a confederation of endeavours.

That said, it’s not as if everything needs to change, and there are numerous long-standing successes — from windhorse:evolution (though they face many challenges) to Buddhafield. And in some places centres still have to work very hard just to pay the bills. But it is encouraging to see so much creative innovation, especially in places where the finances are stable. For example, the growing interest in our work concerns not just Buddhism, but also mindfulness within the fields of preventative medicine and palliative care. We’re discovering that we have a skill — the ability to meditate, to teach meditation and to practise mindfulness — that is increasingly sought after. Centres are responding by doing carers’ retreats, stress management courses, and mindfulness-based cognitive therapy.

I am also encouraged by the experimentation in how we teach the Dharma, and growing interest in what it is to be a Dharma teacher, and how best to communicate Buddhist teachings. Some people are exploring how to help people develop an effective practice when they have jobs and families and won’t be moving into a community any time soon.

There is a great deal of scope for people to take initiative, and some people are taking that up. I’d like us to encourage more initiative from newer people as well: that’s often where the energy lies.

How do you see your role following these changes?

Part of my job has been communicating the message that things are changing and there is increasing freedom of operation. Some structural issues need to be followed through, and with the demise of the PCC I’ve found myself engaging with some of them. I think we need to become much more effective as a network where innovation takes place at local level, and insights are shared. We also need to do that collectively, as a network rather than with a sense of hierarchy. There’s a role for someone who facilitates that communication and when necessary sets up structures to support it, and I can do some of that. Recently I’ve been helping set up projects like the Growth Fund (where Windhorse:evolution is putting money into growth in the movement), the Dharmaduta [now known as ‘Lighting the Flame’] project (a group of experienced and innovative Dharma teachers developing resources, skills and training), leadership training for centre Chairs, and so on. Despite the impression my role may give I am sceptical about how much can be done through central planning. I don’t want to develop more layers of bureaucracy but to help people to develop the skills to help themselves.

What challenges does the FWBO face at this time?

The degree of change we are passing though has undoubtedly shaken some people’s confidence, and it has revealed more fully some of the underlying tensions in our community. These particularly concern authority and leadership, where we have experienced a degree of polarisation in the Order. Fundamentally we need to address what it is that we have in common as members of the Western Buuddhist Order/TBM.

The greatest danger I see is the tendency to withdraw from acting together into one’s own life and practice. Over the years we’ve learned the value of acting together — kalyanamitrata and shared work. These have been difficult areas for many people, but overall they’re undoubted successes in offering intensive engagement with the Dharma. For a while we will be buoyed by the effects of so many of us having shared our lives for so long, but those effects will run dry unless we continue to do so — maybe sooner than we think.

However, my feeling is that the most important thing at a time of change is to keep your nerve. The purpose of the institutional changes was to free up energy and allow more room for creativity. By nature I am something of a sceptic, and when I look around the movement I see an uneven picture, but even so I find myself coming back to a basic confidence in the value of what we do, and that it is something the world needs and wants. What should it look like and how it should be expressed...all that is quite open.

Vishvapani was the founding Editor of Dharma Life magazine

Originally published in Madhyamavani 10: July 2004 (Birmingham: Madhyamaloka, 2004).