Freedom in the Order


In the early days of the FWBO, there were a few strange characters around. I remember, for instance, Florian (not his real name). He was a flamboyant actor — very forceful and very eccentric — who seemed to have stepped straight out of Fellini’s Satyricon.

When we were doing the building work at the London Buddhist Centre, Florian appeared one day with a young friend in tow. This young man had got involved with the Hare Krishna movement, but Florian didn’t approve, so he had sprung him. He had brought the young man to our community because he wanted a �safe house� where he could ‘de-condition’ him. (The young man, you see, hadn’t wanted to be sprung.)

I was rather nonplussed. Florian hadn’t asked our permission: he just brought the young man in and announced, ‘I’m going to de-condition him’.� I said, ‘Erm... don’t you think he ought to make up his own mind?’ Florian grandly ignored this. But the more I thought about it, the unhappier I got, and before the de-conditioning could get very far, I insisted that they leave.

Florian was irate: he couldn’t understand my point of view. What was more surprising though, was that the young man too was contemptuous of my refusal to collude in his de-conditioning. He thought I was pretty insipid: after all, if I were really convinced about my religion, surely I would want him to be de-conditioned from the Hare Krishna doctrine, and re-conditioned to Buddhism, wouldn’t I?

In fact, I was far from clear what to think of the whole affair, but I felt instinctively that nobody should be conditioned or de-conditioned against their will, and I wasn’t going to be party to any such thing.


With hindsight, I can see that this little tale is an example of the collision of two different kinds of freedom. The philosopher Isaiah Berlin called these ‘positive liberty�’ and ‘negative liberty’. Negative liberty is freedom to do as you wish. It is freedom from coercion, license to follow your own inclinations without interference from others. In contrast, positive liberty consists of being inwardly free. In terms of Sangharakshita’s thinking, for example, positive liberty roughly corresponds to being an Individual. It means not being a slave to any kind of conditioning: making decisions freely, without the inner compulsion of herd instincts or received ideas. Even more fundamentally perhaps, it means not being a slave to the passions or one’s lower nature. Negative liberty could be called political freedom, while positive liberty could be called moral or even spiritual freedom.

Like many people, Florian had a notion of positive liberty. He didn’t want the young man to be imprisoned in a set of values and beliefs that he, Florian, considered false. And he was so convinced of his point of view that he was quite prepared to force the young man to be free.

Isaiah Berlin understood the importance of positive liberty, but he saw that different people understand it in different ways, and that throughout history various notions of positive liberty have been used tyrannically to curtail negative liberty. Berlin was especially critical of Marxist and Fascist ideas. Marx, for example, saw that the economic base, the means of production, enslaves the individual, producing a certain mentality. But this insight was then used to justify the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’. Other dogmas consider the individual to be merely part of a larger whole constituted by the nation or race. In this kind of thinking, the spiritual freedom of the whole is more important than the political freedom of the individual. All kinds of Nazi, Fascist and corporatist political ideas rest upon this sort of view.

Berlin considered it extremely important to differentiate negative liberty from positive liberty, and not to subordinate negative liberty to any version of positive liberty. He argued that the business of the state is to guard negative liberty, and to adjudicate when the claims to negative liberty of individuals or groups come into conflict with one another (as they inevitably do sometimes). It is not the business of the state to institute positive liberty, or to decide what it is. I agree with Berlin: the state should simply provide us with the means of negative liberty, and the tools for maintaining it, such as education and a system of law and order. It should not enforce any particular conception of positive liberty, in the way that some states have imposed Christianity or communism, for example, on their citizens.


Buddhism has its own version of positive liberty, denoted by terms like vimoksa or vimukti, which refer to freedom from craving, hatred and ignorance (and thus also from suffering). There are three vimoksa mukhas — three ‘gateways to freedom’. Each arises from insight into one of the laksanas or ‘signs’� of conditioned existence. Deep meditation on the laksana of insubstantiality, for instance, leads one through the gateway called the sunya samadhi — a profound, liberating realisation of the metaphysical emptiness of all things.

Clearly then, from the Buddhist point of view, those who are not enlightened are not free. The Buddha even said that all ‘worldlings’ are mad, which is as much as to say that they are not free: they have diminished responsibility because of their madness.

For Buddhists with more zeal than metta or understanding, this teaching might be taken in the wrong way. It makes it easy to think that those who are not spiritually committed — those who do not engage with the Dharma — are slaves, or at least are more enslaved than those who do (as they are not even making an effort to be free). Having started to think like that, some people might go a little further and think, ‘Well, since they are not free, and since they are not even making an effort to be free, one can’t treat their decisions as truly free decisions. They are like children.’ And from there it would not be such a big step to the conclusion that one knows what they need better than they do themselves.

I have in fact sometimes heard people use phrases like, ‘I know him better than he knows himself’. Taking this view, one might end up trying to persuade other people that one knows what is best for them — and using questionable methods of persuasion. One might even start to feel one had a right — or indeed a duty — to impose one’s ideas on those people. In this way, even in the context of a Buddhist spiritual community, the idea of freedom could be used to undermine freedom. Notions of positive liberty might lead even Buddhists to ride roughshod over other people’s negative liberty.

Such a turn of events is perfectly possible, as my story of Florian (and other instances I might mention) demonstrates. But although such behaviour is possible, it isn’t really very Buddhist, because in fact both forms of liberty — negative and positive — are highly valued in the Dharma. Negative liberty is nowhere explicitly discussed in political terms, as far as I know, but it is certainly presented in moral terms, in a variety of ways.

Firstly, there are injunctions against the use of force or violence. According to tradition the Buddha, in one of his past lives, spoke of non-violence as the highest spiritual principle. To put this in Berlin’s language, we might say that in Buddhism an essential part of positive liberty is allowing others their negative liberty.

Secondly, there is a strong emphasis in many scriptures on making your own moral choices. An important example is the famous Kalama Sutta, whose message is that you must see for yourself whether any particular moral or religious teachings has a good or bad outcome. It isn’t good enough simply to rely on the opinions of others. But if people are to do this, we must allow them freedom to investigate teachings critically, and make up their own minds.

Thirdly, there is a very strong emphasis on personal responsibility in the doctrine of karma. What determines the moral status of an action is the intention or mental state behind it. When you are forced to do something against your will, you are acting from fear. Fear is an unskilful mental state, so in such a case your action would in a sense be akusala (unwholesome).

Fourthly and finally, No one can live the spiritual life on anybody else’s behalf. The Buddha emphasised this again and again. He is spoken of as a margadata, not a moksadata — one who gives the path, not one who gives freedom. In fact, no one can �give� freedom: the Buddha only shows the way to it. There is thus in Buddhism a very strong emphasis on individual responsibility. That is incompatible with coercion: you cannot be ‘forced’ to take personal responsibility, because the act of forcing would negate the very thing it purported to serve.

The denial of negative liberty is thus the denial of the Dharma. Not only positive but also negative liberty are central values for Buddhism — which means they are central for our Order, too.


It seems to me that the presence of these two values within it makes Buddhism uniquely appropriate to the modern world. After all, in modern liberal democracies there is more negative liberty than the world has even seen before. At least, there are now large areas of the world where this is the case, even though there also remain large areas where it is not. In various places, great struggles are going on for the extension of the sphere of negative liberty. I believe Buddhists can know quite clearly where they stand on this, because of the central presence of negative liberty within the Buddhist ideal. We should uphold liberties in the political sphere, and where appropriate we should speak out clearly in that cause.

But how are people to use this unprecedented negative liberty they have today? Freedom can be used either creatively or self-indulgently. Milton, in one of his sonnets, spoke of ‘the hogs that bawl for freedom in their senseless mood, and still revolt when truth would set them free. Licence they mean when they cry “liberty”’. He went on to argue that whoever loves liberty must first be wise and good. I think this is true, in the sense that negative liberty needs to be balanced by a strong assertion of positive liberty, even though that should not be imposed by the state, and should not curtail negative liberty.

This is perhaps the great theme of our time: there is so much emphasis on negative liberty, but so little on positive liberty. I suspect that, in the long run, the current historical phase of great negative liberty will disappear unless a spiritual ideal is upheld within our culture. Ultimately, the value of negative liberty is that it permits the search for positive liberty; and I believe that as Buddhists we have an especially clear and profound vision of positive liberty. I therefore think we should wholeheartedly espouse and uphold the cause of negative liberty in the world, while adding a call for a higher kind of freedom.

But this wider social perspective isn’t what I want to explore now, important as it is. My more immediate concern is to investigate the idea of freedom within our Order — both for its own sake, and so that the Order can help carry out that larger task in society. It is important that Order members feel — and indeed are — negatively free. Then they can get on with pursuing positive freedom, and helping others to do so.

It seems to me that within the Order we do in fact have great negative freedom. There is very little to confine or bind us. There are very few sanctions. In fact, it is difficult to get thrown out of the Order — you really have to go to extremes! We are, when it comes down to it, astonishingly free. But perhaps we need to wake up to that freedom, and embrace it more fully.


Why have I raised the topic of freedom in the Order? There are three main reasons. Firstly, there have been occasions — in various places and at various times in the history of the Order — when people were put under pressure ‘for their own good’. I want to make it clear that I see such behaviour as morally wrong. No coercion should occur within our Movement. Of course, I am sure there is no gross coercion: nobody is taken by the legs, forced into lotus position and made to meditate. But there can be subtler forms of coercion — social pressure, for example. We can be made to feel that we are at risk of being excluded from the group. Psychological pressure too can be used — the threat of losing the approval of people we regard as authorities.

We need to be especially careful when we have got something that people want. For instance, some people want to be ordained, so they are willing to read the cues that one is giving them, and subtly mould themselves to fit in. We should be careful not to encourage or exploit that tendency. Also, people may want jobs or positions. (Admittedly, this is more of an issue in India than in the West, where people can much more easily get work outside the FWBO.)

Of course, some unconscious manipulation is probably bound to occur from time to time. One may be unaware of the force of one’s own personality, or blind to the manipulative traits in one’s style of communication. Consequently, one may drift into a habit of half-bullying or half-blackmailing people, without quite catching sight of what one is doing. Conversely, many people are insecure and want approval, and they may fall into the habit of docile compliance. We have to watch out for such habits and work against them.

In fact, the main danger comes less from the temptation to apply pressure than the temptation to give in to it. Sangharakshita made this point very strongly in the aftermath of some difficulties of this kind that occurred at one Centre in the late eighties. He pointed out that, although people were blaming the leading Order members in the situation, the fact was that the rest had mostly gone along with what had happened — had allowed the growth of a milieu of psychological manipulation. You can’t just blame the perpetrators: everybody has to take some responsibility, if only for having caved in. Order members should not give in to pressure of any kind. Of course, this statement isn’t meant to give everyone a charter for going to the opposite extreme (that is, assertive individualism). The point is to make sure that you act freely, and do not allow yourself to be subtly coerced.

Part of the problem lies in the very nature of spiritual life: in following it, you recognise a higher ideal — something you have not yet attained. You acknowledge that some people are more in touch with that ideal than you yourself are at present, so you make yourself receptive to them — and rightly so. But the danger is that you may go too far and make yourself passive — ceasing to take responsibility for yourself, and going along with others unthinkingly. That is bound to end in reaction at some point. (A strong argument against coercion is that in the long run, the situation created by the coercer usually blows up in his face; so if moral sensitivity isn’t enough to dissuade you from being manipulative, let pragmatism do the trick!)

On the other hand, an exaggerated concern to avoid falling into passivity can make people assert personal autonomy too strongly, so that they never listen to anybody else. They then don’t make much spiritual progress, because learning always depends on being open to something beyond one’s present experience.

Here we have a characteristic tension of spiritual life, a problem that perhaps we all experience at one time or another, and one that many of us get wrong a few times before learning to judge it accurately. Perhaps individuals can be classified according to which bias they have in dealing with this issue — whether they lean towards passivity on the one hand, or egoistic individualism on the other. This tension is built into the spiritual community, and we have to make it more conscious in order to work with it more effectively. I think that the distinction between positive and negative liberty helps us to do that, and to avoid repetitions of the patterns of manipulation and passivity that have occasionally erupted in the past.


There is a second reason why I have raised this subject. I often find myself in the position where I disagree with what some one is doing, or have criticisms of their plans or views, but I don’t want to put them under pressure or inhibit them. I sometimes end up inhibiting myself: I fail to speak out because I don’t want anyone to feel I am putting pressure on them: I want them to feel free to make their own decisions. But perhaps that means I don’t say something that really needs to be said, and could be of real benefit. And I have also, in a sense, been dishonest — not speaking my mind. This problem is not unique to me, by any means. It particularly affects Order members who are seen as ‘authoritative’� in some way — perhaps because they have a lot of experience, or hold positions of responsibility, or perhaps just through having a strong personality. But in fact, it can be a problem for virtually any Order member in certain situations — for example in relation to Mitras who are seeking ordination.

But if everyone feels free, then I — or any Order member — can feel free to say what I think. If I know that everyone feels at liberty to make up his or her mind, I can confidently put my own point of view, knowing I won�t thereby cause people to give up responsibility for themselves.

For example, you might want to do something that I considered to be not in your own best spiritual interests. I might want to tell you that, but I would also want you to feel that in the end you can and must decide for yourself. I want people to feel free to tell me, ‘Thank you for sharing your views, but I am not going to pay any attention to them. I shall go ahead and do what I want to do.’ And that is fine. I might think to myself, ‘Well, you will soon find out the hard way!’ But if so, that is your responsibility: at least I’ve pointed out the danger. Or perhaps you will prove me wrong. But the point is, I want to be able to say honestly what I think, without being seen as ‘giving orders’.

I am not the only one who needs that freedom. I think that most of us, sooner or later, in one situation or another, will feel the need for it. The more we all realise that we are autonomous, the more we can all say what we think. Each of us will feel able to listen, reflect, weigh opinions, and then make up his or her own mind. To put it in Berlin‘s terms, if we all had a stronger sense of our own negative liberty, we could also express our views about positive liberty, without the two liberties coming into conflict.

Of course, the freedom to say what we think does not absolve us from the responsibility to do so as sensitively as possible. I am not trying to give any one carte blanche for being overbearing in the name of ‘forthrightness’. But I do think that it should be possible for us to express our views to each other in a clear and honest way without invoking a charge of coercion.


My third reason for raising the subject of freedom in the Order is to do with the vitality and creativity of the Movement. I believe that some Order members at least cherish some quite inaccurate (and sometimes unconscious) assumptions about what is and is not acceptable within the Order and Movement.

Of course, our commitment to the Three Jewels and the ten precepts do set parameters for what is and is not acceptable. There is, for example, our emphasis on the centrality of going for Refuge. There is also our ‘ecumenical’ perspective on the whole Buddhist tradition. This means that an Order member who decided that only the Theravada way of doing things was genuinely Buddhist (and everything else was heresy), or one who considered that our emphasis on going for Refuge consigned us to a lower form of practice (inferior, say, to the Vajrayana), would by holding that view put him or herself outside the Order. Also, we view the Order as based upon the principle of spiritual friendship — a spiritual community, in the sense of a knitting-together of hearts. Such principles as these constitute the basis on which we participate in the Order, so they do, in a sense, set limits on what is ‘acceptable’.

But I am not referring to that. What I have in mind are merely ‘cultural’ assumptions — what we might call styles of doing things. I won’t give any examples, but you can probably imagine the sort of thing I mean: narrow ideas get into circulation about what is or is not OK in the FWBO/TBMSG. And that stifles initiative.

It wasn’t always thus. In the early days of the FWBO, many of us felt excited about our almost anarchistic perspective — our sense that it was a do-it-yourself Movement. We were proud of Bhante’s assertion that the Order was a free association of individuals, and we saw that idea as fundamental. Bhante emphasised the legal and financial autonomy of our centres, and their freedom to do things in their own way, as appropriate to their own circumstances. We used to talk with him about the possibility of many different approaches to spreading the Dharma.

We have never abandoned that ideal, but perhaps as a Movement we have rather forgotten it: the reality is that we have a relatively limited number of approaches, and a relatively homogeneous outlook. I think we need to learn — or re-learn — the habit of seeing the Movement as the sum total of the altruistic activities of Order members, not as a particular set of institutions. There are institutions, and they are very valuable, but they are only among the range of possibilities and even actualities of the Movement. I think that we too easily identify the notion of ‘Movement’ with the notion of ‘Centre’, for instance.

Many Order members participate very fully in our institutions, with great benefit to themselves and others. In contrast, some Order members may simply be doing altruistic work outside those institutions. They might be doing medical or social work, for example. They might just be trying to bring a better atmosphere to the office where they work! That might sound a little trivial, but I think that we have to look on what we do as flexibly as that. It could encompass a huge range of approaches and activities. Anything that we do to help other beings, especially to help them to practice the Dharma (although not only that), is part of the Movement.

This sort of freedom was meant to be implicit in the use of the word movement to refer to the FWBO. Bhante chose that term, and it locates us within the wide sphere of culture and society, not just the small sphere of organisations and institutions. The FWBO/TBMSG is broad tendency in a certain direction, not the implementation of a preconceived programme. It is a ‘movement’ outwards towards those beyond the Order, to help them in whatever way we can. The Movement is the total bodhisattva activity of Order members, with each Order member contributing to that total in his or her particular way.

Of course, to be effective we will usually need to work with one another, and sometimes even form organisations. When you organise you have a bigger impact. But such organising is collaborative, not imposed from above. The Chairmen’s meeting for instance, is essentially a peer group meeting. It cannot make decisions that are binding on individual Centres: the Chairmen have to refer such things back to their Centres before anything is settled. The Chairmen’s meeting is also free to accept or not accept any particular Centre or its Chairman into its membership. This is the typical pattern of the FWBO/TBMSG. There is no hierarchical ‘chain of command’. If there is any centralising influence at the organisational level, it should come about in response to some common interest, in relation to which co-operation enhances effectiveness. And of course that will very often be the case.


I believe this perspective is vital now, because it will provide us with the flexibility we need to adapt in a changing world. Society has changed a lot since 1967, when the Movement was founded, and is continuing to change. The choice facing any spiritual movement is to adapt or to fossilise quickly, because the pace of change is much faster now than in any previous era of history. You can see it in the business world, for example: some of the ‘dotcom’ companies of the nineties, having made their millions, have already vanished into history. The pace of economic adaptation is more and more rapid, but the same thing can be seen in all spheres of life.

We therefore have to address the world as it is, not as it was. And if we are to adapt and respond to the world as it is, that adaptation cannot be centrally planned. By the time the ‘centre’ has grasped the way that things have changed, and has decided on a new way of approaching them, things may have changed again. So experiment and innovation must come at grassroots level. The role of central institutions, such as the Preceptors’ College, is not to generate our whole repertoire of ways and means, but to constantly remind us of our fundamental principles and our overall unity.

The point I am making here is a matter of principle, not just of pragmatism. Ours is a spiritual community before all else, and its standards are moral and spiritual standards, which therefore require personal responsibility. The Order is a free association of individuals, and nobody can create, nurture or develop such a thing by command.

Of course, we must not forget the vital context of spiritual friendship— kalyana mitrata. That is the force that must balance the centrifugal tendency that will emerge when personal initiative is emphasised and encouraged. But I am assuming I don’t need to talk about kalyana mitrata in detail here, because I have discussed it so much in the past.

If we wake up to our own freedom, we will liberate energy. This is one of the reasons for changing the Mitra system (to give an example). The new system is less centralised and less systematised, allowing more initiative to those who are actually dealing with Mitras. And that means there is room for a greater variety of approaches. Some of those approaches may turn out to be ineffective, but some of them will be innovatory and successful.

It is vital that we embrace the idea that we are free to respond creatively to the situation around us, on the basis of our spiritual ideals. We have some good examples. The best recent one that I can think of is Buddhafield, which is a response to certain kinds of people who are not attracted to our urban Centres. I have to admit that I was initially a bit sceptical about Buddhafield, but its leading lights felt free to innovate, and they did. They listened to the reservations and criticisms expressed by the likes of me, and responded to them constructively. Now Buddhafield is a very lively and valued aspect of our work. (If anything, there may be a danger of it becoming too established!)

I think there could be more adaptations of that kind: that is, somebody seeing that our existing institutions don’t appeal to certain people, and doing something about it. Of course, that response may consist of changing and widening the existing institutions, but that won’t always be the best way: you can’t make every institution ideal for everyone. Inevitably, particular institutions have a particular character, and if that character is ideal for some people, it will feel uncomfortable to others. We need to be reaching out constantly in new ways, so that new people can come in contact with our sangha.


I hope this perspective will not only lead to greater innovative adaptation, but will also foster harmony within the Order and Movement. I notice that some of the more established institutions all too easily become targets for disgruntlement. Of course, it is legitimate to criticise them: nothing that any of us do should be immune from comment and discussion. But it is clear to me that some of the criticisms one hears are a kind of tilting at windmills: some people too easily see institutions as oppressive authorities, and then start to attack them in an essentially personal and symbolic battle for freedom.

Not all the institutions or systems that the FWBO/TBMSG develops will appeal to each of us personally, but that doesn�t mean we have to attack them. If (for instance) those who run a particular community unanimously decide to speak only Pali on their weekly community night, why shouldn’t they do so? They are not telling you that you have to live with them, or follow the same rule in your community. And even if they suggest you should, you don’t have to pay them the slightest attention. Let them live how they want to live. If you think that their plan is an eccentric waste of time, by all means tell them so — but do so out of concern for them, not out of an anxious or irritable assertion of your desire to live another way.

Likewise, if people want to run a business in a particular way, let them run it in that way. If you don’t like it, you don’t have to work there. And if you think it is important to have businesses that are run in a different way, set one up yourself. If you do, somebody else might then criticise what you are doing. They are free to do that, and you should listen to what they say. But in the end, you are free to do as you think best to express your desire to communicate the Dharma and help living beings. ‘Do what you think it time for,’ as the Buddha used to say (on occasions when he didn’t agree with what people were going to do).

And in effect, I say the same thing. When I see Order members who want to do something that I consider misconceived, I let them know my opinion; but if they still want to do it, I know when to drop the issue. I trust that they are sincere, that they are struggling to go for Refuge, and that they want to communicate the Dharma. So I tell them, in effect, to do what they think it time for. I too will do what I think it time for. No doubt we will all learn from our experience.

When Order members have criticisms of the way the Movement and Order currently are, their best strategy is to show another way. There is room within our broad principles for a wide variety of approaches. In a sense, the more approaches we have, the better. I don’t suppose we will ever see the day when every Order member feels entirely happy about all the ways in which other Order members function. As long as Order members accept each other as Order members, a wide variety of styles and approaches, and even some disagreement and debate, are healthy and useful.

So I think we must accept — and even aim for — a more diverse Order and Movement, and rejoice in that as a sign of spiritual vitality. Of course, questions of moral and Dharmic standards will arise, but these can be discussed and debated in the spirit of kalyana mitrata.

This vision of the Order and Movement demands a lot of inspiration and effort from all of us, but why settle for less? Bhante could, I suppose, have chosen to create an Order based on a tightly defined uniformity of practice, teaching and behaviour. He could have devised a detailed set of rules. Instead, he founded the Order on principles — one might almost say on the single principle of going for Refuge to the Three Jewels. Speaking personally, that fact is a fundamental part of why I joined the Order. I don’t want to belong to a body that defines itself by rules.

I think that we need to take this principle more deeply to heart than ever. As the Movement continues to expand, numerically and geographically, we are going to find ourselves diverging in terms of practice and ‘style’� more and more, so we have to work hard to keep hold of the basic principles that unite us.


The FWBO/TBMSG is the sum total of the altruistic activity of Order members. When we look at it in this way we find there is rather more to it than we realised, and that is gratifying. However, I also feel that we need to redouble our efforts, especially in terms of spreading the Dharma. At moments this year, I have felt the world to be closer to disaster than at any time since the height of the Cold War. As I write, the threat of a catastrophe with worldwide ramifications is once again looming, particularly in Kashmir and in the Middle East.

At the same time, it seems to me there is greater opportunity for the spread of the Dharma than there has ever been. Some aspects of modern culture make people today very amenable to it: they have leisure, education and freedom, and some of their ideas already resonate with Buddhism. But to benefit from these things, they need actually to hear the Dharma. They also need a context in which to practise it — the support of a sangha; and we are able to offer them that in what I believe to be a highly effective form.

In our Order, we enjoy real negative liberty. At the same time we have something to offer that the world badly needs — an exceptionally profound vision of positive liberty: freedom from all craving, hatred and delusion, freedom from inner restriction and conditioning, the freedom of unlimited creativity. Not only that, we also have effective means to realise our vision. Let’s work together, more vigorously than ever, to offer those things to the world. There really is nothing to stop us.

Originally published in Madhyamavani 7: Autumn 2002 (Birmingham: Madhyamaloka, 2002).