The Future of the Order and Movement


This article is based on a talk that I gave at the recent International Order Convention. My aim in the talk was to enlarge upon a proposal that the Preceptors’ College had published (in the Shabda of the preceding month) concerning the future ‘shape’ of the Order and Movement. I wanted to explain in more detail the ideas that had been presented rather briefly in the proposal, and to ‘bring them to life’. In this article, I want to share the same material with the wider Movement, and with those Order members who didn’t hear my talk.

The article stands alone, so you don’t need to read the proposal to understand it. However, readers who are not Order members may find it helpful to remember the article’s origins as a talk to Order members (which explains why, in what follows, the words ‘we’ and ‘us’ appear often in contexts that refer to the Order).

Three years ago, Bhante handed on the Headship of the Order to the College of Public Preceptors. At that time, we in the College already knew that some reforms were needed in our Order and Movement. (Our recognition of the need for change goes back some five or six years now, and was signalled when we began to speak of the need to ‘open up the Movement and intensify the Order’.) But once we assumed the burden of the Headship, we saw more clearly how far-reaching reform would need to be. Events that have occurred during the present year have only confirmed and deepened that realisation.

‘Opening up’ seemed to us the priority, and our first step was to make it easier to become a Mitra. In doing that, we were responding to a mood that had been growing in the Movement for some time. (I must say, by the way, that I am pleased with the way it has worked out, which has accorded fairly well with our intentions.) What we did, in effect, was to allow Mitras responsibility for selecting themselves. This means that real scrutiny and selection now only come into play at the point at which some one wants to join the Order – which is, I think, the right point.

Then, in Madhyamavani 6 (Spring 2002), I published an article called Having the Last Word, in which I tried to clarify the decision-making powers of the Preceptors’ College and Council, as I understood them at that time. The article (which was based on a talk I gave to the 2001 International Order Convention) represented an important stage in the evolution of my thinking on the matter, but I believe that we now need to go a step further. The present proposals are an attempt to take that step. They may not be exactly what we finally end up with, but we in the College have put them forward as a starting point for discussion.

A personal perspective

My contribution to the present proposals for change reflects an inner process I have gone through in the last few years. I have been feeling a deep desire to free myself from definitions and boundaries in my thinking. This process was intensified when Bhante handed on the Headship of the Order. That was a momentous time for me personally (as I am sure it was for the others in the College, too). I was conscious of an increased burden, but actually my main feeling was of a new freedom to think and act. When you take on a greater responsibility, you acquire a new way of looking at things, and a new independence.

I have been letting go of many of my habitual assumptions about the spiritual life, the Order and the Movement. This has brought me an increasing sense of liberation and creativity – and a corresponding frustration with those barriers that still remain within my mind. In terms of my inner life, my meditation practice has been centred on a quest for freedom from inner compulsion. I have been trying to cultivate what I think of (in traditional terms) as the apranihita (‘directionless’) samadhi. I make no claims to any attainment, but I have experienced a growing sense of freedom from mental restrictions – and from the duhkha that attends them.

Correspondingly, in my ‘outer’ life I have felt free to ‘deconstruct’ the whole Movement and Order in discussion with my friends. I have sometimes frightened them! However, I myself don’t find such thoughts frightening. I don't have any fear that the F/WBO is going to disappear. Nevertheless, it’s true that its characteristic structures don't matter to me as much as they once did. I would be happy to let them disappear, if it became clear that that was the right thing to do. Admittedly, such a disappearance would be rather inconvenient for me: I am not sure where my next meal would come from! However, I am sure I would work something out.

But the point is that I feel confident that, even if all the outward forms do dissolve, something much more important will survive. I sense in our Order and Movement something real that is not dependent on institutional structures or ideologies. I feel sure that a spiritual current will flow on, and will manifest spontaneously in quite new ways. And I am sure that I personally will remain part of a living spiritual community. I have many friends around me – and when I say ‘around me’ I mean ‘on this planet’ – friends whom I have deep confidence in, and who I know feel a strong spiritual bond with me.

This process of dissolution, or letting go, has thus been going in my mind on for two years or more, and is still going on. Since the beginning of this year, certain experiences that have come to me personally, and others that have come to us all collectively, have intensified the process.

On the personal side, I was strongly affected by my mother's death in March. I remained with her body for some time after she died. That was quite a stark confrontation with reality, and the experience is still with me. In addition, over the last year, Bhante's health has deteriorated seriously, and I (and others, of course) have had to come to terms with that. Part of what it means is that we suddenly feel ‘on our own’, almost as if Bhante had died (although what makes the experience doubly strange is that he is, in fact, still with us). Another part is seeing somebody who has been the greatest influence on my life – somebody I regard as very experienced spiritually – suffering the vicissitudes of old age. That has been a strange experience: sad, yet not (contrary to what you might expect) deeply disturbing, but rather liberating and illuminating.

The other, less personal, factor has been the opening up of a debate within the Order about the troubling features of its past. This has added energy to my ‘inner’ process. Clearly, participation in the FWBO has caused suffering to some people, and this suffering seems to have sprung, in part at least, from some of the ideas and structures that we have adopted. In reading and hearing the (sometimes distressing) things that such people have had to say about their experiences in the past, I have sometimes found myself wondering whether the whole thing was worth it, from their point of view.

Now it might seem odd to start a discussion of the future of the Order and Movement with the theme of dissolution, but it is important for me to do so. It is like a visualisation practice, in which you begin by dissolving everything into the clear blue sky. From that clear blue sky, something arises – the presence of the Buddha or Bodhisattva.

So for me now, out of this dissolution, something is beginning to emerge. I feel that there are, when all is said and done, certain principles that I care deeply about, and which I think provide a basis for the structures that we need in the Order and Movement. I believe I sense something that is transcendental (I don’t want to sound grand, but I don’t know a better word) that is struggling to manifest among us – a spirit or force that seeks the world’s well-being. I believe that even the harm that we have sometimes done to each other has come, for the most part, from an immature, confused attempt to allow that spirit to manifest. That doesn't excuse the harm, but it points to what is of value beyond it. This force or spirit is, I suppose, what is traditionally called the Bodhicitta. I therefore want to see us organise ourselves in a way that allows the Bodhicitta the best possible chance of emerging – unsullied, as far as possible, by our immaturity, confusion, and mixed motives.

The primacy of personal responsibility

It seems to me that the most important lesson to be learnt from the past is in connection with what we have termed ‘spiritual hierarchy’. There are many ways of talking about this, but let me give you my ‘take’. I am vividly aware of how unavoidable the notion of spiritual hierarchy is in any spiritual movement. It is indispensable in as much as some people do have greater experience than others, and understand spiritual principles – and embody them – to a greater extent. I am aware that some of us in the F/WBO have not always been very good at relating to one another within our perception of spiritual hierarchy. Perhaps this is in part because we need more discussion about the idea and the problems implicit in it. But despite those problems I believe that what I mean by ‘spiritual hierarchy’ is intrinsic to spiritual life in any form. As I have pointed out elsewhere, being a Buddhist involves each of us in a fundamental dichotomy between, on the one hand, ‘me-as-I-now-am’ and, on the other, full enlightenment or ‘Buddhahood’. To practise Buddhism is nothing more or less than the effort to close the gap between those two states, so that the Buddha and ‘I’ become one.

I think this perspective remains valid, no matter how one understands the spiritual life. I say this because I am aware that there are, in fact, several quite different ways of understanding it. Indeed, I’ve recently given a talk on what seem to me the three main ways in which we can conceive the spiritual life: as self-development, or self-surrender, or self-discovery (perhaps ‘emergence’ would be a better term than ‘discovery’). But whichever of these three ‘models’ or ‘myths’ appeals to you most, it will inevitably oblige you to recognise something unsatisfactory in your present state, something that needs to be changed. One cannot effect that change without learning from other people how to do so. This is why we engage with a spiritual community, and enter into kalyana mitrata. If we refuse to do so, we remain stuck in our current, unsatisfactory state.

But on the other hand, Buddhism also asks us to take personal responsibility. Even as one becomes receptive to others, one must be careful not to hand over to them one’s responsibility for oneself. When we choose to ‘open up’ to teachers, teachings and a community, it should be because we have seen for ourselves their worth. Unfortunately, I think that the FWBO’s institutional structures and ‘ideology’ have not always given people enough encouragement to take personal responsibility. Of course, in the final analysis, it is the individual who takes — or fails to take — responsibility, but others can help or hinder the individual. For my part, I am sure that I have not always helped.

Painful experiences have shown us a lot about this issue. In many ways, those experiences have just been part of a natural process of ‘growing up’. There is now quite a wide age-spread in our Movement, but it wasn’t like that in the beginning. With hindsight, I can see clearly how young (and how unprepared) I was for the substantial influence that I had even in the early days of the FWBO. Of course, the ‘generation-gap’ was part of the culture in which the FWBO emerged. My generation was the one that broke away from the past, and that break happened very abruptly: from my teens, I had a sense of belonging to a very different culture from the one that had absorbed my elder brother – who is in fact only four years older than me. The Movement was born in a climate of youthful rebellion. That has now faded away (a situation that brings its own dangers), but the positive aspect of its fading is that we have a wider age-spread, and are therefore less prone to the excesses of youthful idealism.

These insights may help us to understand the past, but they don’t constitute an adequate safeguard for the future. The fact that we are now a bit more ‘grown up’ doesn’t mean that we are immune to the abuse of the notion of ‘spiritual hierarchy’. Actually, I don’t think it is possible to avoid that danger entirely. Why? Because we are ‘amphibious’ beings, part ego-motivated and part Buddha-motivated. And inevitably we get the two mixed up: the ego motivation sometimes ‘appropriates’ the Buddha motivation. We therefore still need to take care to organise ourselves upon principles that make that less likely to happen, even if we can’t hope to eliminate it completely.

I have therefore come to think that the principle of personal responsibility and autonomy needs to be the primary or guiding one in the way we organise ourselves – in a sense coming before the principle of kalyana mitrata, with its implications of spiritual hierarchy. Kalyana mitrata is essential, but it should be a spontaneous and personal experience rather than something institutionalised. People can so easily persuade themselves that they are experiencing it (when they aren’t) simply because they believe they ought to be. Kalyana mitrata is thus something that people can be encouraged to explore, but should not be pressured to undergo. Above all, it must be uncontaminated with power. I think that this is one of the main dangers facing any religious institution: notions of spiritual hierarchy tend to become identified with a power hierarchy. Here we have at least one way of explaining some of the problems we have had in the F/WBO. The problem is very difficult to avoid, but we must try. Accordingly, we have to bear this principle in mind in thinking about how we ‘design the future’.

The foundation of the Order

Bearing that in mind, where should we begin our search for the structures that we need? There are many possible answers, but my suggestion is that we start with what we all have in common. By definition, what holds our whole enterprise together is the existence of the Western Buddhist Order, Trailokya Bauddha Mahasangha. What does membership of the Order mean? It means that one has been witnessed as going for Refuge to the Three Jewels in the same way as one’s Preceptors. In this way, we become linked with one another in a common spiritual understanding, experience and commitment. That is where we must start. However urgently we may feel a need for change, I can’t imagine that we want to discard that. Indeed, I don’t see how we can discard it, because if we do, we thereby discard everything.

Now there is an important and perhaps controversial corollary to this: who began this ‘witnessing’? It was, of course, Bhante – Urgyen Sangharakshita. He was the first ‘point’ at which the current of spiritual energy that underlies the Order began to manifest. The first generation of Order members participated in that current with him, committed themselves to it, and had that commitment witnessed by him. Some members of that generation have subsequently witnessed others in the same way. Thus, Bhante's place is fundamental. No Bhante, no Order.

I suppose we could change that: we could collectively decide that our membership of the Order will, in future, rest upon quite different foundations. But that would, in effect, amount to forming a new Order. It would demand a conscious, consensual and formal recognition that the Order was being re-founded on a new basis, and was therefore becoming essentially a different Order.

Perhaps there are some Order members who would like that to happen. I haven’t yet heard anyone suggest anything so radical, but it may be that some people's confidence in Bhante has been so shaken that they can no longer regard him as the fountainhead of the Order. So perhaps some people do indeed want such a re-foundation. I respect that view, because it seems to me that, in the last analysis, it is more a matter of personal feeling than of right and wrong positions.

But as far as I can see at the moment, such a thoroughgoing rejection of Bhante, and a re-creation of the Order de novo, is not what most Order members want. Yes, troubling things have been said about the past, and valid doubts have been raised about some of Bhante’s views. Nevertheless, I and the other members of the College and Council are assuming that there is in the Order a continuing basic trust in the sincerity and depth of Bhante's spiritual commitment, and his vision of going for Refuge and of the Order. Until that situation changes, that vision must remain the historical and methodological starting point for our Order. It is represented by Bhante's place on the Refuge Tree that he devised for the Order. He has that place because it is from him that ordination derives, not merely in a theoretical sense, but in the sense of a spiritual witnessing, which has been handed on to those disciples who are Preceptors. Even if we are now developing Bhante's teaching – perhaps correcting or even rejecting some aspects of it – it is still, broadly speaking, upon his understanding of the Dharma that we base ourselves. Any revisions we make are revisions of his teaching.

The Order as a self-governing body

So what is the Order? In Bhante's words, it is a free association of individuals who share a common spiritual commitment. In the Order there is no status, or rather, there is only one status, which is a no-status. In any Order context, we meet simply as individuals who go for Refuge to the Three Jewels.

But an important consequence flows from this: the Order is self-governing. Here we come to the fundamental principle underlying the College’s recent proposals. In those proposals, the College has indicated its wish to relinquish whatever responsibility it has for the Order, either explicitly or implicitly. Naturally, we want to participate in the life of the Order and Movement, but we will do so as Order members with other Order members, not as Public Preceptors.

For me, this is not just a theoretical position, but also a personal experience. It struck me forcefully during the recent Order Convention, which for me had a radically different ‘feel’ from previous ones. I felt much freer than I have on Conventions in the past, because it dawned on me that I was not in some obscure way ‘responsible’ for what was happening (while somehow not being quite conscious of that sense of responsibility!) That was a big relief for me – and perhaps an even bigger one for other people!

Of course, we Public Preceptors will do our best to continue to practise the Dharma and to share our understanding of it. And no doubt, because we are Order members of long experience, our efforts will be influential. But we recognise that we will not be the only sources of spiritual leadership. Indeed we don’t want to be. We do not feel that we have a special role in the Order ‘as of right’.

Perhaps the best way of making my meaning clear is with reference to the question of the Headship. For me, this question had a very personal ‘edge’. After Bhante handed on the Headship and appointed me the first Chairman of the Preceptors’ College, some people began to say to me, ‘Well of course, Subhuti, you are the real Head of the Order.’ I would reply, ‘No, Bhante handed that responsibility to all the Public Preceptors.’ And they would give me a wry look, as if to say, ‘Doesn't he realise?’ But I know where that road would lead me, and I don’t want to go there. Yes, I find the power and the glory pleasant, but I know too well that, unfortunately, they are mixed with other, much less pleasant, things.

What it boils down to is this: I don't think it is appropriate to speak in terms of a Head of the Order at all. I don't think the Order needs a Head, or has a Head, or could have a Head. Or, if you insist on having a Head, I would say that we are all Heads, or the Head. Perhaps the Order used to have a Head – Bhante – but I don't think it is possible for anyone, or even any group of people, to be Head of the Order any more.

Of course, the Order does need some means by which it can make decisions on matters of general concern. The College and Council have been encouraging the development of such means in various ways. For example, part of the purpose of the Chapter retreats that we have been holding at Madhyamaloka was to try to awaken a sense of ‘the will’ of the Order. And the new institution of Order forums has the same purpose. I am glad to say that some of these forums are developing independent life, and that we in the College and Council are increasingly able to participate in them simply as Order members rather than as ‘leaders’.

This is the direction in which the College would like things to go. How it will all work out in practice we are not sure. And actually, it is a good thing that we are not sure: it is not for us as Public Preceptors – and certainly not for me personally – to work it all out, or even to think it all out. I will continue to play my part as an Order member, but I mean to play it somewhat circumspectly (although that isn’t easy for me!)

At the moment, for example, I am International Order Convenor, but I have been doing less and less in that role over the last year or so. It has just been too much for me, particularly with so much going on in my personal life, and around me. I would really like to relinquish that responsibility, partly because I am not doing it justice, partly because I think it is a responsibility that needs to be recreated under the new conditions we now find ourselves in.

I do think that we still need an International Order Convenor (although that is also open to discussion), at least for the time being. I see a need for one, for example, to help in the integration of the Order internationally, and especially as between East and West. I think that integration is taking place – it was wonderful, for example, to see so many Indian Order members attending the recent Convention – but there is still a long way to go. The differences in assumptions between India and the West are considerable. This is why I feel there is a role for an International Order Convenor. But I don't think I am the best person to do it, especially because I have a weighty responsibility in the College.

Implications for the Movement

I’ve been talking so far mainly about the Order, but what about the Movement – the FWBO? In the College’s current proposals for change, we regard the FWBO not as a set of institutions, but as arising from the creative and altruistic activity of all Order members: it is what Order members do to manifest their love for the Dharma and their concern for others. In some cases, Order members band together to carry out that activity: they create Buddhist Centres, businesses, and so on. In other cases, their work manifests in different ways – perhaps more individual and less organised ways. Thus, in a sense, the Movement is the sum total of all the interactions that Order members have with other people. For Order members who are married and have children, for example, their behaviour towards their family members may be part of the way they express their spiritual commitment.

Of course, I am speaking of what Order members do at their best. We don’t always act from our going for Refuge! Indeed, we Order members must recognise that nothing that we do (including what we do by collective and institutional means) is guaranteed by definition to be an aspect of the Movement in this sense.

If ‘the Movement’ is thus understood as comprising the totality of Order members’ relations with the world – insofar as they act from their going for Refuge – we can then recognise and affirm the creative and altruistic activity that every Order member is engaged in to some extent, even if in quite silent and invisible ways. That affirmation could bring us a much greater sense of effectiveness, and of working in harmony together. It could allow the Bodhicitta to manifest among us more fully. The Movement is not an organisation, and it is not defined by organisations, even though there are organisations within it. It is indeed a movement. I have used that word ‘Movement’ for many years, but have tended to think of it as an organisation. But the word itself implies something more diffuse and much less formal than an organisation. For example, historians speak of ‘movements’ within society or culture – tendencies that are not bounded within institutions or organisations. As a ‘movement’, in that sense, we need no central authority.

Understandably, some people have expressed worries about what will happen to ethical standards if we all start thinking in these very ‘liberal’ terms. If we give Order members free rein, won’t some of them start behaving in very unorthodox – and perhaps ethically questionable – ways? I agree that this problem is likely to arise. Anxiety on this score is stronger in India than here in the West, because India is still a traditional society. There, one’s good standing in society is vitally important, so if the organisation you are associated with comes into disrepute, you – and every member of the organisation – get tarred with the same brush. In the West, by contrast, we are much more anxious about protecting our individual freedom from control. This contrast highlights an important issue: no less than a quarter of our Order members live in a traditional society. The forms and structures that we devise must therefore do justice to that fact. Nevertheless, I believe that the question of standards must be worked out by communication within the Order itself rather than by means of institutional control ‘from above’. Of course, this will demand a far greater degree of personal vigilance from every one of us.

We all like having our own autonomy, but we don’t always like the outcome of other people’s. In a culture that stresses autonomy, Order members will not infrequently find themselves feeling uneasy about the actions of other Order members. More often than not, such discomfort will be a matter of taste, style, culture, or conventional morality. Sometimes it will be a matter of natural morality, and then one will have to consult one’s conscience as to what to do about it. Sometimes it will be difficult to decide whether the issue is one of conventional morality or natural morality.

But whatever form it takes, each of us in the Order is likely to have the experience, at some time or other, of looking at something that another Order member is doing, and thinking, ‘I don't like that.’ We might say to ourselves, ‘That’s a bit tacky’ or ‘that’s too regimented’ – or whatever our particular aversion is. This is one of the demands that diversity will make upon us: it will require of us the imagination and sympathy to appreciate – or at least tolerate – expressions of going for Refuge that we do not personally find congenial. I’ve been through this myself. My reaction to Buddhafield, for example, was not very favourable at first. However, I have gradually learnt to appreciate that Buddhafield has brought our spiritual ideal to life in a new way – one that appeals to a lot of people.

Indian Order members are also familiar with this problem. They have had to come to terms with the fact that Western Order members often behave in ways that are completely unacceptable in their culture. Actually, I think we Order members in the West ought to be more aware of the tolerance that they show towards us! My experience suggests that Westerners, while commonly priding themselves on their cultural tolerance, can often be quite intolerant.

The College’s desire to relinquish its implied responsibility for the Movement has implications for the system of Centre Presidents. At the moment, the College’s approval is required for their appointment. Perhaps the very concept of Presidents needs to be considered again, but I won’t address that question here. Without doubt, Presidents have important roles as the guardians of the unity of the Movement, and the protectors of ‘the rights’ of dissenting voices within Centres. Those functions still need to be performed, but we in the College have indicated in our recent proposal that we don't want to go on supervising the system. We think that any ‘supervision’ should come from the Movement as a whole.

I know there is alarm among some people, especially in Centres outside the UK, that the College is ‘abandoning’ the Presidential system. In this fear, by the way, one sees again how the main issues for Centres in other countries can be very different from those in Britain. On the whole, Centres outside the UK don't worry much about being ‘controlled’ by a central authority. The reverse is often the case: they tend to feel too much on their own, and to worry more about being neglected by those to whom they look for inspiration and guidance. It is difficult to bring the Movement to life in places where there are only a handful of Order members. Again, I think that we have to bear this in mind.

But I want to assure Centres outside the UK, that the College is not going to ‘abandon’ the Presidential system. We just think that it needs to be reconceived in a new form. We know that the responsibility presently rests with us, and we mean to devolve it responsibly, not just to drop it. But we want the Order and the Movement to help us carry out that devolution.

Maintaining unity

I have been speaking so far about the primacy of individual responsibility. But that doesn’t mean we can ignore the very real need for unity. How can we reconcile these two values? We in the College have been thinking about this problem, and getting views from various people about it.

For example, Visvapani and I have discussed the problem with Mahaprabha, who is highly experienced in business management and management systems. He began by telling us a story. It was about Apple, the computer firm. (Don't take what follows as a historically accurate account, but I think the gist of it is more or less true!) Apparently, when Apple was founded, their idea was that they would do everything: they would design computers, build them, design the software and build that too, and market the lot. Apple wanted to be a self-sufficient unity. And they were very creative and – some people say – made the best-designed computers in history! But then another company came along – Microsoft – and they had a very different policy. They decided simply to create an operating system and a few key applications to go with it, not to make hardware at all, and to allow other people to make software for use with their system. We all know how successful Microsoft has been. It grew very rapidly and completely swamped Apple. In fact, if I understood Mahaprabha correctly, Apple is now kept afloat partly by Bill Gates, simply because Microsoft actually needs a rival in order not to fall foul of the trust-busting laws.

Our approach in the FWBO has been more like Apple than Microsoft. We have been quite highly centralised, and we have tried to do it all ourselves. Some of us have been a little – sometimes more than a little – snooty about other Buddhist groups. Nevertheless, we have made a good product and been quite successful up to a point. We did expand pretty rapidly for a while, and we created some very effective institutions. But in recent years we have been slowing down. The model that served us at first has run out of steam. Unfortunately, Bill Gates is not subsidising us.

So we said to Mahaprabha, ‘OK, we take the point. We’ll relinquish central control. We will let initiative and creativity bloom!’ Mahaprabha then said, ‘Hmm. Well, there is another story I’d like to tell you. There was a company that had precisely that policy. The management wanted to free the company from the dead hand of centralisation and hierarchy. So they decided, in effect, to allow unlimited decision-making power to all its divisions. They really gave enterprising managers a free hand to be creative. The name of that company was Enron.’ As you probably know very well, Enron was a company in which a lot of unethical things happened, and which got into deep trouble, because it lacked adequate central scrutiny and control.

Now, these analogies are only useful up to a point, because, after all, we are a spiritual movement and not a business corporation. Nevertheless, I find them quite suggestive of the dilemma that faces us – how to promote autonomy, creativity and initiative, while also maintaining integration, harmony, a shared sense of identity and common standards.

One thing seems clear. In our Order, the most effective tool we have for promoting and preserving the unity and high spiritual standards of our community lies in the conferring of ordinations. In the last analysis, this is the only ‘control’ we have over what Order members do. After people have been ordained, we have no sure means of regulating unacceptable behaviour on their part, except by expelling them from the Order. (Indeed, we explicitly eschew such means of regulating behaviour because we are a free association of individuals.) And expelling people is not easy: we lack strong mechanisms for it, and I don't regret that lack, because the task of expelling an Order member is a very painful one to perform (as I know because I have had to perform it twice). To my recollection, there have only been, in total, four occasions when people been expelled from the Order, and each of those only occurred as the result of extreme circumstances.

The fact is that we have only one mechanism to ensure unity and high spiritual standards: that is by admitting to the Order only those people who really are in harmony with the Order and its ideals. We have to ensure that people are effectively going for Refuge at ordination: that they understand the principles of spiritual life, are in tune with our collective enterprise, and have bonds of friendship with other Order members. What an Order member does after ordination, the rest of us may hope to influence but cannot control (and indeed I hope we would not want to control it in any coercive sense).

The role of the Preceptors

The proper preparation and selection of people for ordination is therefore by far the most important means that we have at our disposal to ensure the unity of the Order and Movement. This fact puts a weighty responsibility on Preceptors. They (and all of us) need to understand that responsibility clearly.

In this connection, there are two crucial things to bear in mind. Firstly, Preceptors are Order members first and last: they have no special position within the Order. They participate in the Order and Movement as Order members – not as Preceptors. Secondly, they perform ordinations as a personal act. This was always a very important principle in Bhante’s thinking, and I too believe it is vital. To ordain some one is not to carry out an impersonal official function: it is a real recognition of a spiritual commitment in the other individual. Such ‘witnessing’ is not a role, but a step in a personal relationship.

Being a Preceptor is not a rank or status. There is nothing about the role of Preceptors that makes it desirable to restrict their number. In principle, each and every Order member could be a Preceptor, and that would be a very happy state of affairs. But at the same time, there are certain criteria (I don't like that word but I can’t think of another one at the moment) that a person needs to satisfy in order to become a Preceptor. These include, for example, a certain depth of experience of spiritual life, a familiarity with its variety; a proven capacity as a kalyana mitra; and the ability to work with people without relying on authority. I also think that a person should only become a Preceptor when somebody actually wants that person to be their Preceptor – because they already see the person in that sort of way – and not just because the person is on a list of people who have been approved (in the abstract, so to speak) as Preceptors. In other words, there should be a real relationship that is simply taken a step further through the ordination. Being a Preceptor is thus fundamentally a matter of having a certain kind of personal relationship with some one, and not a status in the Order.

There is also another point that needs to be borne in mind. If they are to do their job of ensuring that people’s going for Refuge is effective, the Preceptors need to be in communication with each other, and to ensure that they share the same understanding of going for Refuge.

For all these reasons, new Preceptors need to go through a sort of process of assimilation into the fellowship of those already performing the role. Here we come to an important part of our recent proposals. We in the College think that process should start with an enquiry into the life and practice of the aspiring Preceptor. That enquiry should be sympathetic but thorough. I have thought about the kinds of things that should be explored. I won't expound my ideas in great detail here, but I will give some suggestions.

I believe, for example, that the enquiry should address such questions as: ‘Do you – the aspiring Preceptor – know yourself well enough to know your limitations? And in particular, are you aware of the aspects of your personality that can lead to problems in your communication with other people?’ I think this kind of critical self-knowledge is vital.

The aspiring Preceptor’s personal history could be explored quite fully, and any issues hanging over from the past looked at with a view to seeking resolution. The depth of the aspirant’s spiritual practice and understanding could also be explored. Of course, the whole thing would be done in a friendly and helpful spirit. From the aspirant’s viewpoint, it would be a voluntary process, and indeed a joint one, in so far as the aspiring Preceptor would be an active partner in the enquiry.

The enquiry would draw on the contributions of as many Order members as possible, particularly those who have been in a formal or informal kalyana mitra relationship with the aspiring Preceptor (from whichever side – ‘senior’ or ‘junior’). The aspirant’s chapter would be asked to comment. Indeed, perhaps it should be open to anyone in the Order to comment. Such comments would be given very careful attention.

Acceptance of a new Preceptor would not be a once-and-for-all ‘stamp of approval’. We envisage that all Preceptors should be subject to a review process every five years so.

At an early stage, we – the present Public Preceptors – would submit ourselves for evaluation in like manner – submit ourselves to exactly the same process that we intend to put others through. As part of that process, we would ask those we have ordained, others who know us, and even our critics, what they had to say about us.

Such are my present thoughts on the process, but I am interested to hear other people’s suggestions about the nature and methods of the enquiry.

More Preceptors and a flexible approach to ordination

Another aspect of our proposal is to increase the number of Preceptors substantially. Our first step would be to augment the College of Public Preceptors by appointing new ones from among the Private Preceptors. There are already some sixty Private Preceptors – which is perhaps more than many people realise – and there are quite a number of other people who are currently ‘candidates’. Naturally, in looking for new Public Preceptors, we will consider first those who are most experienced and whom we know well. We anticipate that we might increase the number of Public Preceptors to a total of between twenty and thirty in the next year or so. Such an increase would immediately have an effect, significantly broadening the currently very small body of people in the College.

The process of appointing more Preceptors – both Public and Private – needs to conducted at a carefully judged pace. The College plans to consult the Order as a whole about that pace. An overly rapid growth could cause us to lose the cohesion that presently exists in the Preceptors’ community.

Not only will we have more Preceptors, but we also want to introduce a much higher measure of flexibility into the way they discharge their role. We envisage that in future Preceptors will function in a range of teams – both small and large – each of which would be essentially autonomous. Nothing is fixed, but I envisage a continuing need for something like our current ordination teams – organised bodies with a high level of continuity, focussed on the task of preparing some people for ordination. But other teams, in contrast, could be much more ad hoc, perhaps coming together to prepare as few as one or two people. Each team would determine for itself how best to do its job. Some of the teams might be based at retreat centres, running retreats on major themes relevant to ordination – much as we have at present. In other cases, preparation might be more ‘tailor-made’ for individuals. But clearly, if this vision comes to fruition, it won’t be possible to speak any more of a single, monolithic ‘ordination process’ in which candidates have very little choice about how they prepare themselves.

To us members of the College, such a flexible and diverse system would be attractive, both for its own sake and because it will substantially lighten what has become a heavy burden. Naturally, in order to preserve the integrity of the system, we in the College would continue to come together from time to time to meditate, study the Dharma, and to share and evaluate our experience. That ‘coming-together’ would constitute us as a sort self-governing community, but one that is open and expanding. In this way we will make sure that continue to share the same understanding of what ordination means.

We envisage bringing these changes about over the next three or four years. I myself intend to use the remaining two years of my Chairmanship of the Preceptors’ College to promote them. At the end of that time I will take stock of the situation, listen to what the others have to say, and see whether it is appropriate for me to go on – and whether I want to.

Such then are our proposals, and the background to them. We want to see what Order members make of them in discussion at Order Forums, in comments in Shabda, and in personal discussion.

It is clearly going to be a discussion in which views will be very diverse. That is already becoming evident. For instance, in private conversations, some people have expressed to me a desire to see Madhyamaloka dissolved. Others have told me that things are moving too fast, and they are worried that all coherence will be lost. Of course it is important that we come to a consensus although it is unlikely to be one in which everybody is completely happy.

We in the College are very open to ways in which Order members’ suggestions might change or modify our ideas. Although we are putting forward something that is fairly worked-out, that doesn’t mean that we see the issue as settled.

I hope the discussion that we have will be frank but mutually respectful. I believe that we can have very different views about the future of the Order and Movement, but communicate them in a sensitive way that honours our spiritual ideals.

I am looking forward to the debate, and I welcome our evident capacity for debate as a sign of the health of the Order and Movement. At the same time, I hope it doesn’t take us too long to reach a clear outcome, and one that is based upon a strong and truly harmonious consensus. After all, we can’t constantly be debating the way we do things. For my part, I look forward to getting beyond the present stage, in which we are thinking and talking a lot about the form of the Order and Movement, and getting to the point where we can concentrate more fully on studying and practising the Dharma, and sharing it with the world.