Having the Last Word


An enquiry into ‘authority’ in the Order

The Need for Change

There is no avoiding change, and the WBO and FWBO are no exception to this principle. Our Order and Movement have already evolved considerably since their birth in the late Sixties. Flexibility is now more necessary than ever: the dawn of the twenty-first century is very different from the times in which we began. Not only that, the Order and Movement are spreading around the globe, and they will need to adapt themselves to different cultures. Last but not least, they will have to change to come to terms with the problems inherent in their own increasing scale.

The College of Public Preceptors is well aware of these facts. Since assuming their new responsibility as a ‘collective Head’, the College members have been reviewing virtually every aspect of the Order and Movement to examine how they need to evolve to meet the challenges of changing times. In some ways, this review is going on informally all the time: whenever a permutation of College and Council members meets, they start talking about things. The review also goes on more formally, needless to say, in our regular ‘official’ meetings. And of course we talk not just amongst ourselves but with many other Order members too.

What is coming out of this process? We have found, in fact, that quite major changes are needed — not changes of substance or principle, but of upaya kausalya — the means of communicating the Dharma effectively. It is time that the Order and Movement had a thorough overhaul of its systems and methods.

But as soon as we began to think about restructuring our institutions, a very big question reared its head: how do we bring about changes in a spiritual community such as ours? And (even more crucially, from the Public Preceptors’ viewpoint) what ‘authority’ — if any — do we in the College have to make decisions on behalf of the Order and Movement as a whole?

These questions came into sharp focus through our proposal to change the names of the Order and Movement. As you will remember, we were hoping to announce the new names at Sangharakshita’s birthday celebration in August 2000. In the event, however, we could not do that because we found we had not achieved the high degree of consensus that we knew to be indispensable for such a step.

In consulting the Order about our proposal, we had relied on a simple method that had always sufficed in the past. In the old days, whenever Sangharakshita contemplated such changes, he simply wrote to the Order chapters, seeking comments on his thoughts. Having received and digested whatever comments emerged, he then made a decision.

One major lesson the College learned from the name change debate was that consultation could no longer be quite as simple as that. One aspect of the exercise, more than any other, signalled the new complexity: the tone of some of the responses was unpleasant. Please don’t misunderstand me: the vast majority of replies were reasonable and friendly in tenor, even where they argued against our proposal. But we also got some answers that displayed mistrust and irritability. One or two were, quite frankly, rude. The College accepted all this with good humour as one of its occupational hazards. All the same, it did strike us that communication in that style was not exactly fair to us. Not only that, it was not appropriate in a spiritual community.

The episode set me pondering: what was behind the irritability of some of the replies (apart from the fact that some people needed to do a bit more meditation)? It seemed to me that the problem had two sides.

On the one hand, something in the method of consultation itself had caused people to react rather than respond, at least in some quarters. It seemed that we needed to review our mechanisms for discussing major issues in the Order. The other lesson seemed to be that people felt uneasy because the consultation process exposed a troubling gap in the Order’s understanding of itself. How were we supposed to make big decisions like this, post Sangharakshita? Who was to have the last word, ‘the final say’ of yes or no, whether to a new name or any other really big change? The obscurity surrounding this question had become a blank screen onto which people could project suspicion. Their fear, I realised, was that we in the Preceptors’ College Council might try to ‘put one over’ on the Order — to impose our will on it, or manipulate it without due regard for what Order members really felt. This doesn’t exactly justify the suspicious and rude behaviour that was displayed, but I think it does pinpoint one underlying cause of it.

Naturally, the two issues — one ‘organisational’, the other more ‘philosophical’ — are closely entwined with each other. I felt the need to address both of them, and saw that it had to be done ‘in the same breath’. My task in this article, then, is mainly to clarify who ‘has the last word’ in making certain types of decisions that affect the Order and Movement as whole. Additionally, I want to outline a practical means by which we can arrive at those decisions that require discussion throughout the whole Order.

This article offers my personal thoughts on these matters. I hope these thoughts will be widely discussed in the Order, and that the discussion will eventually lead to a consensus. Such a consensus is of the highest importance to our future, for without it we will lack the capacity to change and adapt.

However, I think the ideas I put forward here will be of interest not just to Order members, but also to those who have asked to join the Order in future, or are contemplating asking. They will be interested not just because they anticipate a share in our future, but also because the things I have to say may illuminate for them the very nature of our spiritual community, and thereby will, I hope, strengthen their aspiration to join it. Hence the publication of this article in Madhyamavani.

I do not claim that my discussion of the topic is exhaustive. In fact, I shall only concern myself with three kinds of decision. However, the principles that emerge from my analysis will, I think, have an important bearing on all kinds of decision taken within the Order. As the first step in my argument, therefore, I will try to define these principles, on which any answer to the question ‘who has the last word?’ must be founded.

But before embarking on that, perhaps I should attempt to clarify my references to ‘the College’ and ‘the Council’, for the benefit of readers who are relatively new to these things (and also of those who still haven’t quite got the hang of them yet!) Eight senior Dharmacharis and Dharmacharinis (the number is not fixed) constitute the College of Public Preceptors. They are, collectively, ‘the Head of the Order’ — a position that Bhante, on handing it to us, thought best not to define precisely. I suppose this paper (not rashly, I hope!) goes some way towards clarifying its meaning.

In many matters, however, the College operates with the advice and assistance of a wider group of experienced Order members — known as the Preceptors’ College Council. The membership of this wider group includes all the College members, together with (at present) eleven others, bringing the current membership of the Council to a total of nineteen. The Council is thus to be seen as an augmented College, not as a separate body. Strictly speaking, the Council has no ‘powers’ of its own: it derives any authority it has from the College. Nevertheless, like any group of Order members charged with specific responsibilities, the Council operates by consensus. In other words, contrary views are resolved through communication, not by the College imposing a minority view. (The deeper significance of this principle of consensus is indeed one of my themes in what follows.)

Thus, while one principle requires us to recognise an important distinction between the College and the Council, another principle ensures that in practice they function as one. Hence, when speaking of decisions that concern both the College and Council, I normally refer only to ‘the Council’, even though there is a sense in which the final responsibility resides with the College.

The Principles Involved in Making Changes

Whatever decision making process the Order adopts must emerge from, and do justice to, the essential principles of our spiritual community. The Order is ‘a free association of individuals’ who go for Refuge to the Three Jewels, and who ‘share a vital mutual responsiveness’. We have vowed to relate to each other ‘on the basis of the love mode, and are bound together in spiritual friendship in both its principal aspects — communication and taking delight. We jointly aspire to bring into being among us the ‘third order of consciousness’, which is neither individual nor collective but transcends that antithesis. We devote ourselves to working together so closely, communicating with one another so deeply, that the bodhicitta arises in our midst. These things are what the Order really stands for, and nothing must compromise them.

The last paragraph quotes, as I am sure you realise, some of Sangharakshita’s key statements about the nature of the spiritual community. Sometimes these aspirations seem hopelessly lofty. But what is the point of anything less? That being so, we should not establish — or even contemplate — any process of decision making that compromises this noble vision. Instead, anything that we try to establish should be designed to enhance and sustain it, so that the Thousand Armed Avalokitesvara can manifest in and through the Order.

But having begun at the loftiest level, I must immediately come down to the most practical. Decisions do actually need to be made — decisions about changes that affect the whole Movement. Otherwise, unable to change, it will just freeze and become an irrelevance. If this happens, it is inevitable that frustration with institutions and systems will eventually boil over in some quarters. Another danger is that change may happen, but without the consent of all. That may lead to schism and disintegration.

We therefore have a problem — a kind of koan perhaps: how can we act as one, while remaining many? In other words, how can we make clear, effective decisions, while maintaining both personal integrity and harmony among us? We must make choices, but make them in a way that doesn’t endanger the unity of the Order or ride roughshod over individuals. Unity will be threatened by anything that compromises the Order’s principles, or makes some people feel that the Order has pushed them aside. Our decisions have to be made on the basis of the love mode, avoiding force or manipulation. In addition, individuals who hold responsibilities that are essentially personal (and, as I shall presently argue, certain types of crucially important decisions in the Order are essentially personal and not collective at all) should be left free to exercise those responsibilities in accordance with their own conscience.

Essentially, the difficulty of making decisions in the Order consists in the reconciliation of two principles. Each principle is vital to the life of the Order, but tends to be in tension with the other. The two need to be kept in proper balance. On one side is the principle of individuality: each of us is responsible for our own spiritual lives, and we should be free to carry out that responsibility as we see fit, without being put under pressure. On the other side is the principle of receptivity that is integral to kalyana mitrata. This principle makes the individual recognise and value the spiritual maturity and experience of others. It prizes the willingness to communicate, and inculcates a capacity for trust where trust is due.

These two principles outwardly appear to be in conflict, but paradoxically they purify and maintain each other. When one overrides the other, the seeming victor actually loses its true nature, and the outcome is that the spiritual community starts to degenerate. If, for example, the principle of individuality predominates at the expense of receptivity, it becomes mere individualism and leads to disharmony and finally to schism. If the principle of receptivity predominates at the expense of individuality, it ceases to be true kalyana mitrata and may eventually become the collusion of passivity with despotism or manipulative charisma. Our theory and practice must therefore keep to the middle way between individuality and receptivity.

Decisions Arising from the Exercise of Personal Responsibilities

In this article I want to define three important kinds of decision that can be made within the Order. Each kind affects the Order and Movement as a whole, or at least concerns all Order members. There is a common factor, in that the College has a part to play in all three kinds, but a very different part.

The first kind of decision is constituted by the exercise of the personal responsibility held by all members of the College in their specific capacity as Public Preceptors. The second comprises decisions that express the will of the Order and Movement. In this case, the Council plays an important part in the decision making process, but the decision as such belongs to the Order as a whole. The third type of decision consists of statements that express the views of the Council collectively, such views constituting recommendations to the Order. In this case, then, the Council can make a ‘decision’ about its own view, but the decision on how to respond to that view resides with each and every Order member individually.

Let’s look at each type of decision in detail.

First of all, there is the exercise of the personal responsibilities held by the Public Preceptors. Sangharakshita has given responsibility for ordinations to the Public Preceptors. This responsibility has three aspects. The first consists in ordaining new Order members. By extension, this also includes determining the form of the ceremony, the ordination process, and deciding who is to carry out the ceremony in particular cases. Secondly, there is the responsibility for accepting resignations, and for declaring that somebody has (by his or her actions or words) excluded himself or herself from the Order. (A provisional form of this exists, namely suspension from the Order.) Thirdly, the Public Preceptors have responsibility for the appointment of new Public and Private Preceptors, ordination team members, and officers of the Order (principally the Order Convenor and Overall Mitra Convenor).

These are personal acts in the sense that they are carried out on the basis of personal knowledge and awareness, not through holding an ‘office’ or through being the elected or appointed representative of anyone or anything else. (They are also ‘personal’ in the sense that they are about individual people, and not about anything collective.)

An ordination, for example, consists of somebody who goes for Refuge witnessing that someone else also does so. A witness must actually see something, and you can only do that personally—with your own eyes. Nobody else can ‘take a decision’ about what one has or has not seen. I was once in the unhappy (and I hope unique) situation of having privately ordained somebody, and then having to withhold public ordination from him. In the few days that intervened between the date set for each event, it became clear to me that the person I had just ordained privately was no longer going for Refuge effectively. Other people advised me to go ahead, but I knew that whatever anybody else thought, I could not do it. If I did, I would have been lying, and lying to the whole Order. No other individual’s (or group’s) ‘decision’ could rightly require me to do that. Order members need to be sure that those who conduct ordinations believe what they are saying.

Accepting resignations and declaring exclusions jointly form the other side of the same coin. What does it mean to accept a resignation? Or to declare that somebody has excluded himself from the Order by his words or deeds? It means that one no longer witnesses that individual going for Refuge within our spiritual community (and therefore is obliged to declare that fact to the whole spiritual community). As a general rule, Order members are enjoined not to mistrust each other’s going for Refuge. Nevertheless, some Order members do cease to go for Refuge (at least within our community) so there has to be some procedure whereby that fact can be recognised and made known. As the Public Preceptors are ultimately the ones who witness the presence of going for Refuge, only they can witness its disappearance.

These essentially personal decisions about ordinations and exclusions are therefore matters for the Public Preceptors alone. They do not appear on the agenda of the Council for discussion. Of course, in making such decisions, the Public Preceptors gather information and opinion from any Order member who may be qualified to offer it through his or her knowledge of the individual(s) concerned in the case. They also obtain one another’s agreement before making a decision. However, in the last analysis, such decisions belong personally to the members of the College of Public Preceptors.

Appointments of new Public or Private Preceptors, Ordination team members, and officers of the Order are all decisions that are closely akin to the witnessing of going for Refuge. Such appointments are made on the basis of a conviction that certain people are able to carry certain responsibilities. That conviction can only emerge from personal acquaintance with them. Although we may call such acts ‘appointments’, this is just a convenient manner of speaking. In fact, they are more like a sharing of responsibility. Of course, in making a decision to share responsibility, one may benefit from the advice from other people. But in the end one must be personally convinced, and not allow one’s judgement to be merely dependent upon that of others. It is important that only the Public Preceptors appoint ordination team members. They need to know the ordination team members well enough to be able to weigh their views accurately. They need to know, for example, whether an individual is habitually charitable in his or her judgements, or is acutely critical, and in precisely what ways.

There is a great deal that can be said about the issues involved in sharing responsibilities. For a fuller exploration of the matter, I recommend you look at a talk I gave at the 1993 International Order Convention called The Next Twenty-five Years. In the present context I will just summarise two key ideas from that talk.

The first idea was that there are some responsibilities — relating to the Order as a whole — that not all Order members are able to carry. All Order members are responsible individually for their own going for Refuge and for their impact on the Order and Movement. However there are wider responsibilities (principally the witnessing of going for Refuge) that not all Order members can carry. Some aren’t ready to do so because of their relative inexperience within the Order; others because of their temperament and inclinations, or the situation that they find themselves in.

The second idea was that part and parcel of certain responsibilities — such as having ‘the last word’ in witnessing going for Refuge — is an obligation to share or hand on the responsibility itself when the time is ripe. In transmitting or accepting such duties, therefore, one transmits or accepts not only the specific content of that duty, but also the inseparably linked duty of passing it on wisely to others in due course, to ensure that the Good can be preserved and extended in future.

How do these principles apply to each of the kinds of personal responsibility I am presently discussing? Firstly, the responsibility for witnessing of going for Refuge can be carried only by certain Order members. It falls ultimately upon the Public Preceptors and, in a more selective and limited way, on the Private Preceptors. Secondly, in accepting his or her appointment, a new Public Preceptor thereby accepts a share of ‘the responsibility for handing on the responsibility’. However, this second point does not apply to someone accepting the role of Private Preceptor, member of the ordination team, or other ‘officer’ of the Order. In these cases, the Public Preceptors share part of their responsibility (i.e. the actual witnessing of an individual’s going for Refuge), but not all of it (i.e. they do not share with the Private Preceptors and officers any responsibility for future appointments to such ‘offices’).

In the case of the Public Preceptors, therefore (but not in the other cases) the two principles jointly constitute a kind of ‘lineage’ of transmission of personal responsibility. Sangharakshita initially held all responsibilities in the Order. He shared some of these, such as teaching, with all Order members. Some, however (such as witnessing going for Refuge by conducting private ordinations) he shared with far fewer. As for ‘the responsibility for handing on the responsibility’ — he has shared that with a very small number indeed. He appointed only five Public Preceptors. However, having received that responsibility from Sangharakshita, the Public Preceptors have already shared it more widely. The College now has eight members. At our own initiative, we have expanded the College by creating three more Public Preceptors. True, we did consult Sangharakshita before actually taking that step, but it wasn’t taken on his initiative or authority.

Although the responsibilities that I am discussing under this heading are ‘personal’, that does not mean they are of merely private significance. They are of central importance to our Order. They are decisions about who is and is not going for Refuge effectively — and going for Refuge is the be-all and end-all of the Order. In a sense, ordination is our only ‘sacrament’. The very existence of the Order depends upon these decisions. In the long run, the Order can only continue to exist if Order members feel confident that people presently being ordained go for Refuge in the same sense that they do, even if they don’t know the new ordinees personally. (And as the Order expands, each Order member will be able to know personally only a small and diminishing percentage of new ordinees.) We can therefore see how important it is that everybody has confidence that those entrusted with the responsibility for these decisions can exercise it properly.

Of course, the Public Preceptors must be careful not to strain the trust that is placed in them. They have a duty to maintain that trust by consulting others and listening carefully to what they have to say. For instance, in accepting people for ordination, we consult all the chapters concerned, and try to gather a wide range of views. Only with great reluctance do we set aside the expressed views of Order members, and usually only having first ascertained that those Order members are willing to abide by our judgement rather than their own. Admittedly, they may sometimes not be happy to do so, and it may then be necessary to overrule their opinion. The Public Preceptors might feel forced to conclude that certain Order members are simply failing to recognise that a certain candidate for ordination is effectively going for Refuge (failing, perhaps, through having too narrow an understanding of what going for Refuge is). In that case, the Public Preceptors may feel forced to say, ‘Sorry, but we think this person is going for Refuge, and we’re going to ordain him/her. We’re afraid you will just have to come to terms with that.’

But that should be a rare and reluctant pronouncement. We recognise that we have a duty to ‘take Order members with us’ as far as we can, in the sense of seeking a genuine consensus about who is ready for ordination. Conversely, other Order members have a duty to build trust on their side. This means, for instance, not starting from a position of mistrust of the Public Preceptors, and being willing to make an effort to understand what we have to say.

Decisions that Express the Will of the Order

The second kind of decision occurs when the Council makes a pronouncement that expresses the will of the Order as a whole on some important aspect of the identity, structure or functioning of the Order and Movement. We are in fact contemplating several decisions of this kind at the moment — for instance, the name change, the proposed changes to the Mitra system, and the proposals for a system of Regions and Zones.

Issues of this kind significantly affect the whole Order and Movement, but do not come within the scope of the lineage of personal responsibility I described above. They therefore require the consent of all Order members, or at least the overwhelming majority of them. (I am not sure whether absolute unanimity is feasible any longer in such a large and diverse spiritual community.) In making such decisions therefore, it is the responsibility of the College (working with and through the Council) to ascertain the will of the Order, and then to make it known. The Council is bound to have an important part to play in initiating (or promoting) such a process, and in declaring its final outcome. Nevertheless, the actual decision that results from the process embodies the general will of the Order, not the will of the Council as distinct from the Order. In this kind of decision, therefore, the ‘the last word’ belongs to the whole Order. In a nutshell, the Council may propose, but the Order must dispose.

There are a variety of ways in which the will of the Order might be ascertained, and different methods might be used in different circumstances. Sometimes it might be important to elicit everyone’s views. Sometimes it might be enough simply to create an opportunity for comments from those who wish to make any.

Let’s take the example of the proposed change to the Mitra system. We have debated it in the College and Council, and we have now referred it to the Mitra Convenors and the FWBO Chairmen around the world for discussion. If it passes this stage, the next will be to ask all Order Chapters for their comments. We will then make a decision whether to go ahead or not. Of course, in the event, it may prove much more complicated; further rounds of consultation may be required. But broadly, that is the way we intend to go about it. In this case the appropriate channels for the discussion are clear and well developed. Chairmen and Mitra Convenors are those most closely involved with Mitras. Also, they are elected by local FWBO Councils and are answerable to them. We can therefore be fairly sure that what they say is well informed and in touch with local opinion in the Order. If that proves indeed to be the case, consultation with Chapters should be relatively straightforward because most of the work will have been done.

But there are more complicated cases, and I think the name change is one. With hindsight, one can see that this really required a longer process than the one we attempted. We need to elicit much fuller and wider participation from Order members. But that will require a more effective system for discussion and consultation than we presently possess. We need an organisational structure through which the individual Order member can contribute effectively to an Order-wide process of consultation. Nobody should be left feeling deprived of the chance to make his or her voice heard. Any changes that do take place must spring from the widest possible consensus, enjoying at least the consent (if not always the fullest enthusiasm) of all, or nearly all, Order members. We presently lack the mechanisms needed to build this kind of consensus and therefore need to develop them.

It seems self-evident that the basis for such a system of consultation can only be geographical. We can’t yet say that the Order exists all over the world, but it is certainly very widely distributed around it. The broadest geographical division of the Order is into what we might call ‘Zones’ or ‘Provinces’. (We haven’t fixed on the terminology yet. I will provisionally speak of ‘Zones’.) These are large geographical areas, within each of which there is a broad area of common ground culturally and linguistically, and strong internal communication. India constitutes one such Zone, for example, and the UK another. These two are the most highly developed Zones in terms of numbers and institutions, but other areas—such as the South Pacific and North America—are also budding Zones.

Once the Order presence in a Zone develops beyond the rudimentary level, it becomes very difficult to organise consultation on the basis of the whole Zone. Some kind of local subdivision quickly becomes necessary. The UK and India are already organised into ‘Regions’. We originally thought that this existing Regional structure would be the means for consultation within a Zone. However, a structure designed to provide a spiritual support network may not be the most efficient mechanism for a consultative system. Recently therefore, some of us have been considering the possibility of a new ‘Regional’ configuration (not replacing the existing ‘Order Regions’ but supplementing them). One idea is to create ‘forums’ of approximately equal size — in the UK, for example, there might be one for Scotland and four for the rest of country. The forums might have two weekend meetings per year (replacing Regional Order weekends on those occasions). The creation of forums for consultation would leave the Order Regions free to find whatever local configuration best suited their purpose. (At present, some of the Regions seem a little artificial, yoking together chapters in widely separated locations.) As the idea of ‘forums’ is still under discussion, however, perhaps I should go on speaking of ‘Regions’ for the time being. Nevertheless, it is advisable to bear in mind that, in whatever system eventually emerges, the ‘consultation Regions’ might not coincide exactly with the Order Regions we now have, or may have in future.

The Order as a whole would thus be divided into Zones, and these subdivided into Regions. The fourth (and final) level of the consultative structure would consist of the Order chapters. In this way, the task of creating a consensus can be made manageable by being distributed among a limited number of local units. I don’t say it will be easy, but it will certainly be far less difficult than any attempt by the Council to hold a separate discussion with each and every individual Order member (or chapter) around the world.

Of course, on any particular question, quite different kinds of consensus may be reached in different Regions or Zones, and this will no doubt lengthen the process of making a final decision on whatever question is under debate. It may be, for example, that one Region or Zone comes up with a point that all the others overlook, and this might set back the move to consensus until that point gets digested into the discussion throughout the Order.

To illustrate this with an example, let’s look at how it might work with an issue like the name change. Bear in mind that what follows is only an outline — many details remain to be worked out.

Discussions would take place first at the level of chapters, with each chapter trying to create a provisional consensus within itself. Next would come Regional gatherings of Order members (probably in the form of weekend residential meetings). Each such meeting would have one or two visiting members of the Council in attendance to provide a ‘whole Order’ perspective, and to communicate the Council’s current thinking on the name change. The discussions would continue in a process that might extend over several such meetings (and hence a time-span of perhaps two years or even more).

Gradually, a process of elimination would take place, in which the untenable options were excluded. The first stage would be to determine whether a name change is in fact desirable (and obviously the process would go no further if the answer were ‘no’). The next round of meetings would establish the relevant criteria for choosing a name. The third round would evaluate actual possible names, perhaps drawing up a short list of options. The final step would be to select the name that was most acceptable (or least unacceptable!) to the overwhelming majority.

Of course, we all have to bear in mind that any attempt to build consensus among a large body of people depends upon the willingness of those people, as individuals, to be swayed by reason. Even more crucially, each has to be willing to lay aside his or her views (even if still holding to them intellectually) when it becomes clear that most of the other participants, having duly considered those views, do not accept them. Consensus requires us to hold our opinions lightly. This point is absolutely vital and we all need to reflect on it. One of the things that went wrong in our initial attempt to change the name was that, because there was no forum for discussion, people insisted on their views too emphatically, and this made it impossible to proceed.

I hope that the creation of better channels for communication will enhance each Order member’s sense of being part of a community, and so encourage us all to contribute actively and confidently to discussion, but also to be more receptive to the views of others. Such processes will admittedly take a long time, and there are some disadvantages to that. But when we do finally make our choice, our decision really will have the backing of the Order as a whole.

It will be a demanding process, and we had all better acknowledge that from the outset. It will require active co-ordination by the Council, lots of scheduling of meetings, keeping of notes, and evaluation of responses, and great care to make sure that everyone has had the opportunity to contribute. It also requires active and considerate participation from all Order members, a willingness to trust, to go along with others, a preparedness to enter into the spirit of the process.

The expenditure of effort will be considerable. Nevertheless, I firmly believe it to be necessary. I am also confident that we can actually make it work, even if I am a little daunted by the burdens that it will place on the Council (and, I must add, on the Chairman of the Council in particular!) We should enter into the process not regarding it as mere ‘business’ but as part of our spiritual life.

Decisions that Express the Collective View of the Council

Our Order is united in its fundamental principles, and particularly in its distinctive understanding of the act of going for Refuge to the Three Jewels. But a very wide range of views and attitudes on other matters can quite legitimately co-exist with that principle. On the whole, this is something to rejoice in. We do not insist on orthodoxy in the sense of adherence to a minutely defined creed or the observance of a single, rigidly prescribed set of practices.

Each member of the College and Council is free, like any other Order member, to state his or her views. Perhaps what we say even in our ‘private capacity’ will tend to have more influence than other people’s private pronouncements, simply because of our position and experience. That is not necessarily a bad thing. Naturally, other Order members are free to agree or disagree with such utterances.

At times, also, the members of the Council may decide to express a collective view. Here we come to the third and last category of ‘decision’ that I want to deal with in this article. In relation to these collective views, too, Order members are free to agree or disagree. Naturally, we in the Council hope that our collective opinion will carry special weight, but we do not assume that everyone in the Order will always accept it. Disagreement with such a pronouncement does not prejudice an Order member’s standing in the Order. One might therefore say that, in this kind of decision, the ‘last word’ belongs not to the College Council, nor to the Order as a whole, but to each individual Order member himself or herself.

Sangharakshita has often said, ‘This is what we think’ — ‘we’ meaning the WBO and the FWBO. That was possible for him because he was (and is) the fountainhead of the Order and Movement. Most of us belong to the Order or Movement because we are inspired by Sangharakshita’s thinking, and place a high degree of trust in his judgement. However, neither the Council nor even the College can say ‘we’ in that sense. It cannot speak on behalf of the whole Order, except upon those established fundamental tenets that define it as a distinctive spiritual community, such as the primacy of going for Refuge. There is too wide a variety of opinions in the Order for that to be possible. But we can, when the need arises, say what we think — ‘we’ in this case meaning not the Order but just the members of the Council. While not everyone will accept our thinking, many will value it. We would be negligent indeed not to exercise the responsibility to speak out like this when we felt it necessary or helpful.

We would express such an opinion for any of a range of possible ends. For example, we might want to give definite guidance on spiritual questions of general concern, or to make recommendations about institutions, practices and other things that we think will help to preserve the unity of the Order. There is richness in diversity, but unity is also important in a spiritual community. And real unity is achieved not just through agreement on fundamental principles but also through the establishment and preservation of a large area of ’common ground’ in matters such as institutions, ceremonies, practices and teachings. The more Order members coincide in such matters, the easier it will be for them to think of (and actually experience) themselves as truly united. The Council therefore has the duty to provide guidance from time to time on what it believes to be ‘good practice’ in the expression of going for Refuge.

Let me give some examples of the sorts of matters likely to be involved. One typical sort of issue would be the endorsement of a particular meditation practice or puja. As an Order and Movement, we have in common a body of practices prescribed or established by Sangharakshita — forms of meditation, ceremonies and so forth — that most of us rely on as our main source of such things. But Order members are free either to use that common core or to look elsewhere for forms of practice, or to do both. The Council has urged Order members to consult their Preceptors before taking up any new practice, but we impose no prohibition on their drawing practices from other sources, and would not wish to. So long as the practice does not by its nature break one’s allegiance to the Order and its principles, one does not cease to be an Order member through doing it.

Another example: the Council might wish to endorse a particular procedure or rite. We did this recently on the subject of marriage for Order members. With the agreement of the Council, I published an article in Madhyamavani Issue 3, explaining our view about the kinds of circumstance in which we would sanction a marriage ceremony for Order members. However, this pronouncement did not restrict Order members’ freedom to have (or conduct) other kinds of wedding.

Naturally, there are some caveats. An Order member who chose to have a Christian wedding ceremony, for example, would in effect thereby disavow his or her going for Refuge (and we would definitely want to ask some serious questions if we heard of an Order member conducting one!) Setting aside such (so far) hypothetical contingencies, however, Order members are free to determine not only whether to get married (and to whom, both parties consenting!) but also under what terms, and with what kind of ceremony to tie the knot. None of that will affect their membership of the Order, provided that none of it calls in question their going for Refuge.

The Council’s recent pronouncement on marriage therefore does not mean that henceforth we expect nuptially minded Order members to abstain from all other terms or forms of marriage, and follow only the ones we have prescribed. (We would be pleased but we don’t expect it!) Notwithstanding our statement, we don’t doubt that in future we will see Order members having all kinds of strange and wonderful weddings, both with other Order members and with non-Order members, with Buddhists and non-Buddhists, in partner-permutations of two, three and more. I am sure that in this matter, as in others, a thousand flowers will bloom — and presumably be thrown. Nevertheless, we in the Council decided that it would be appropriate for us to indicate in what way we felt marriage could best be made compatible with effective going for Refuge to the Three Jewels. And some Order members, at least, will appreciate that guidance.

To take a third example, the Council might wish to endorse or encourage a particular development — to give it our blessing, so to speak. As a hypothetical instance of this category, I might mention the move to form a common policy on ecological issues within the Movement. Lokabandhu has been working on this and has discussed it with the FWBO Chairmen and others. We have not actually reached the final stage yet, but my own view is that if such a policy is indeed formulated, and if it seems well thought-out, it would be appropriate for the Council to say, ‘We think this is good. We back it.’ Of course, it would then be purely at the discretion of individual Order members whether they followed that policy or not. But the Council’s imprimatur would direct their attention to the policy, and help many people to resolve doubts about its relevance to, or consistency with, our principles.

The Best of Both Worlds

The essence of the third type of ‘decision’ is therefore that the College has a duty to speak its collective mind, but Order members remain free to do as they think best. It seems to me that in this way the Order gets the best of both worlds.

On the one hand, the Order has, in the Council (and more specifically in the College), a source of guidance. Moreover, that guidance is ‘authoritative’, not in terms of power, but in the sense that it flows ultimately from a body of Order members who stand in (or are closely linked to) the ‘personal lineage’ of shared responsibility that originated with Sangharakshita. They are therefore particularly well placed to offer guidance on what constitutes going for Refuge and what is most in harmony with it. Part of the special duty of that body of Order members is to safeguard the principles that Sangharakshita taught, and apply them to each new situation or question that our changing circumstances generate.

On the other hand, that guidance is meant to be neither dogmatic nor exhaustive. Each Order member is free to follow his or her own conscience, within the parameters set by our shared, fundamental understanding of going for Refuge. What is more, wide latitude is available for spontaneous creative developments (of which I might mention Buddhafield as one example). Such developments have ‘just happened’, without prompting from the College or Council, and they have enriched the life of the Order and Movement. One might sum all this up by saying that the Council does not have a monopoly of creativity, but it can give a lead in terms of unity.

Order members are not obliged to agree with us. I think they do, however, have a duty to listen carefully to what we say, especially if they care (and as Order members, they will care) for the harmony and cohesion of the Order. After all, in one vital matter (the conferring of ordinations) we in the College have the future in our hands. At the same time, we know well that our special role in ordinations brings us certain duties, too: to keep open the channels of communication from us to the Order as a whole, to be open to other views, and to be very careful about what we do or say. We will remain mindful that others are not obliged to agree with us.

I hope that this article makes a contribution to — perhaps lays the foundation for — the development of our understanding of decision making within the Order. To the extent that we have a clear understanding of our own and others’ responsibilities and ‘authority’ we can act more creatively and relate to one another more harmoniously.

Not that I suppose it possible, or even desirable, to define these matters with scientific precision, or to set a final seal on them. I doubt if any of us would wish for a codified ‘constitution’ for the Order; I myself certainly don’t. If it were appropriate even to think in terms of a constitution, I would (predictably, no doubt) favour the British approach to constitution making — a minimal, flexible, ‘organic’ process of clarification and redefinition, not aiming at grand, comprehensive statements, and guided by a handful of fundamental principles.

Whatever gets said or written about such matters — now or in future, by me or by others — what ultimately matters is the fundamental spirit in which we all relate to each other. If suspicion and individualism prevail, no amount of definition will hold the Order together. But if we have enough kalyana mitrata we can surmount any difficulties that arise in our path. It is that spirit of kalyana mitrata that is the real meaning and purpose of our Order. Long may it thrive among us.

Originally published in Madhyamavani 6: Spring 2002 (Birmingham: Madhyamaloka, 2002).