The Needs of the Mitra System


If someone wishes to become a Mitra in the FWBO they are expected to fulfil the four criteria upon which acceptance is based: they must have a daily meditation practice, have regular contact with Order members, be quite certain that they wish to pursue their Buddhist practice exclusively within our movement and be willing to help out with the running of the FWBO. However, it sometimes happens that someone may fulfil all these criteria and yet we do not accept them as Mitras. This is not because we wish to exclude them — as a matter of principle no one is ever rejected — but just as there are certain conditions which the prospective Mitra is required to fulfil, similarly Order members must be able to give the Mitras the kalyana mitrata (spiritual friendship) they need.

Kalyana mitrata is the essence of the Mitra system within which context it means principally two things. The Order members at an FWBO Centre should be able to befriend those they accept as Mitras and help them to deepen their understanding of the Dharma by organising and conducting groups which focus on a three year course of study. Unfortunately, not all our Centres are able to provide these basic needs. For example, in India there are sometimes far more people wanting to become Mitras than the local Order members are in a position to accept. If, as happened in one city, you have nine or ten people who are already struggling to meet the needs of sixty Mitras, it is difficult to know what to do about the two hundred or so people who have requested to become Mitras. There are limits to the human resources at our disposal and this leads to problems. If we are not in a position to accept people then they may become very frustrated, but if we do accept them and are unable to meet their needs, the same thing is just as likely to happen. In such circumstances we do not accept new Mitras because to do so can lead to even bigger problems and, moreover, we do not wish to undertake commitments that we cannot fulfil.

At each Centre the Mitra Convenors try to make sure that their Mitras needs are being adequately met, but they do not bear this responsibility alone as it is shared by all Order members. Nonetheless they carry a greater degree of that responsibility by serving as a focus, both for the Mitras and their fellow Order members, for the running of the Mitra system. This means that, although it is in a sense everybodys responsibility, it does not end up being nobody's. The Mitra Convenors actively seek and encourage the cooperation of their fellow Order members in generating the spirit of kalyana mitrata that keeps the Mitra system alive. In addition, by their involvement in Mitra Convenors meetings, they gain a wider perspective on the responsibility they share with those from other centres. These meetings are particularly important for they play a part in creating the harmony and sense of common purpose which bind us together into one movement. For these reasons, the Mitra Convenor is an important figure both within his own Centre and the wider movement.

A distinctive feature of the Mitra system is that study groups and other activities are organised separately for men and women. The reasons for this have been spelt out on many occasions and I am not going to argue the case in the present context, but it is important to bear in mind the fact that we encourage men to look to men for kalyana mitrata and women to look to women and that this has considerable ramifications. Most Centres in the West have two Mitra Convenors — a Dharmachari for the men and a Dharmacharini for the women &msdash; who take responsibility for the Mitras. However, in the absence of the requisite Mitra Convenor, a Centre generally cannot accept new Mitras until someone assumes that responsibility. This may mean that women can be accepted as Mitras, even though men are not, and vice versa. Though there have been instances of both, it more frequently occurs that there is no Dharmacharini willing or able to become the Womens' Mitra Convenor. For many people, including Order members, this can be a sensitive matter and it is this that I wish particularly to address.

Firstly let me just make it clear that, although there is a limit to what I can do, wherever there is a centre without a Mitra convenor — be it man or woman — I do whatever I can to help change that. It is a matter of great concern to me if any of our Friends, men or women, cannot become Mitras. I would like to see everyone who wants to become a Mitra able to do so. However, I am no less concerned that Order members are able to fulfil the commitment that the acceptance of Mitras implies.

If, as sometimes happens, there is no Dharmacharini at a particular Centre, the men running it are faced with the problem of what to do about women who are wanting to further their involvement and who would possibly like to become Mitras. The natural response is for the men to want to do whatever they can for them, but unfortunately there are limits imposed upon that — not by the Mitra system, but by the nature of relationships between men and women. By the time someone has reached the point where he is beginning to take the spiritual life really seriously, what he most needs from others is kalyana mitrata — especially from others of the same sex.

Human relationships are fraught with difficulties, but those between men and women can be particularly so. In the first place, due to the inherent sexual polarisation between them, men and women are not generally suited to be one anothers kaylana mitras. The scope for unconscious psychological projection from both sides is unbounded and affects us far more deeply than many of us are prepared to consider — let alone admit — especially if in mid-life we feel we have reached a certain degree of maturity. Secondly, men and women have different psychological conditionings to overcome and both need the kind of understanding that those of the same sex are uniquely placed to give.

In the earlier days of the FWBO we did not insist that men should not have responsibility for women, but, as time passed and mistakes were made, we have endeavoured to learn from them. For instance, there have been several cases of men assuming responsibility for women which have led to romantic entanglements that have created strong tensions at the Centres concerned — even to the point that some women, out of jealousy, have felt unable to be in the same room together. In one case a woman Mitra who had fallen in love with the Chairman of her Centre made excessive demands on his time and attention which, because she was a Mitra, he found more difficult to ignore. Consequently, he became seriously distracted from his broader responsibilities. There are other examples I could quote, but perhaps these are sufficient to make the point.

It was because of instances of this kind that we developed a policy of not accepting women Mitras where there is no Dharmacharini to take responsibility for them. But there are other considerations. Given that men should look to men for kalyana mitrata and women look to women, the men at a Centre should be focusing their attentions on the men who are getting involved. This does not mean that they should be unfriendly to the women, but they need to recognise that beyond a certain point there is very little that they can do to help them and that women need other women. Not only that, it would be in a sense unfair to the men Order members if they were expected to undertake the responsibility of kalyana mitrata for both sexes (assuming they were capable of doing so, which in all likelihood they would not be). Nonetheless, this is sometimes what men do. Perhaps understandably, they may feel very uncomfortable about the fact that they are making men Mitras and not women, as this can be perceived quite wrongly as prejudice against women. However, it leads to other problems. There comes a point where a man finds himself unable to give the women what they need — simply because he is a man and not a woman. On two recent occasions this has led to frustration and resentment, towards the men concerned, by the women they were trying to help. Their efforts really did not get very far and simply delayed facing the problem.

On a superficial level, it is often much easier for men to get on with women than with each other. Women generally seem to be far more appreciative than men and are more ready to express that. In such circumstances a man may fall victim to the vicars tea party syndrome, finding himself at the centre of a circle of admiring women in awe of his intellectual brilliance, which may make him feel good, but which is actually very bad for him. Men are more difficult to interest and involve, as they tend to be more aggressive, challenging and competitive, and therefore interaction with them offers fewer immediate rewards. It is very easy for men Order members to focus more on the women in a way that ultimately does not really benefit anyone very much and which is positively harmful to themselves. They cannot really help the women beyond a certain point and the men who come along to the Centre do not get what they need and will probably not stay with us.

If men get distracted in this way it is not only bad for them, it is not ultimately good for the women. If women are to be genuinely independent of men, they need to deal with their own affairs. In the context of the FWBO, this means that women need to take responsibility for the spiritual needs of women. It is in the interests of both parties that they should because, if this is undertaken by men, it will prolong the dependence. Connected with this is a broader issue. If women generally rely upon men to take responsibilities which are essentially their own, we create a culture in which the women collectively remain dependent upon the men collectively. Again, this is not in the interests of either. If, in the FWBO, we permitted men to make women Mitras at Centres where there is no Dharmacharini present, then we would be feeding this unhealthy tendency. There is only one satisfactory solution to the problem and that is for more Dharmacharinis to move to those Centres where there are only men working for the Dharma.

However, there is another dimension to this issue. We have some Centres where there have been several Dharmacharinis, none of whom have been able to become the Mitra Convenor for women at their Centre. This responsibility cannot fall to the Chairman, if he is a man, as this would simply be another instance of encouraging the wrong kind of dependence.

Ratnavandana, as the regional Mitra Convenor for women in the UK, has tried very hard, with some success, to find and encourage suitable Dharmacharinis to become Mitra Convenors wherever they might be needed in Britain. It is a problem which keeps recurring, and one which she and I keep continually under review, but unfortunately, because there are still fewer women than men Order members with the requisite experience and qualities, it may take quite some time before we catch up with the backlog.