The FWBO — a Community in Transition Part II


We are a nice bunch of people who mean well. We take the Dharma seriously and do our best to practise it, teach it, and live it. It can hurt to be the object of criticism, particularly when that criticism seems unfair or based on little real knowledge of us. Personally I would much prefer it if my Buddhist brothers and sisters around the world took our project seriously. I would really like it if they liked us. But whether we are an in-group or an out-group, whether we are liked or not, is much less important than the business of cultivating our garden. So long as we continue to deepen our practice, so long as we go for Refuge to the Three Jewels ever more effectively, and so long as we maintain a friendly attitude towards the Buddhist world, and above all so long as we create a movement that is an effective medium for communicating authentic spiritual experience and insight then we can’t go wrong. How we are seen by others, and what part we play in the development of Western Buddhism, will sort itself out in time. It is still very early days.

3/ Sangharakshita’s ‘Withdrawal’

When I gave my talk in 1989, a vigorous sixty-four year old Sangharakshita was sitting in the front row. Although for some years he had been urging us to prepare for his old age and eventual death, it didn’t seem much more than a theoretical concept. He was still very much in charge, still actively participating in and guiding the life of our movement.

In the intervening years Sangharakshita has shared his responsibilities with individual preceptors, presidents, Order convenors, the Preceptors College and so on. In a number of areas and on a number of levels he has made himself dispensable. Indeed, the transition has been so complete that his recent bout of ill health, and complete withdrawal from the affairs of the FWBO, has had little or no apparent effect on the running of our institutions, or on the spiritual lives of countless people involved in the FWBO. That it has been possible for so many people to debate some of his views and opinions, even some aspects of his past actions, so actively in the past year, without withdrawing from the Order or movement, shows just how far we’ve come — how far, in fact, Sangharakshita has led us.

The transition has not only been complete but it has been fairly smooth, with few of the bumps and shocks that have characterised similar transitions in a number of other Buddhist movements around the world. But of course, Sangharakshita has always been there. He has not died. And while he lives, even when he is not actively participating and when people are reassessing their relationship with him, he is there in the background somehow bestowing, by the simple fact of his existence, a spirit of confidence and inspiration, and still acting as a focal point of unity. Many of our presidents are highly respected people. And I have noticed that some preceptors, particularly ‘public’ preceptors, occupy a place in the psyches of their students not dissimilar to that which Sangharakshita occupied for so many of us. But only time will tell how great and how significant a hole Sangharakshita will leave in our minds, our hearts, and our collective enterprise when he actually dies. In so many ways the FWBO is still very much the child of his complex genius.

What is clear is that as Sangharakshita withdraws, and as the FWBO grows, spreads, and diversifies, we need to find more people willing to take on new levels of spiritual responsibility. No matter how regionalized, atomised or innovative we become, we will remain a community, even a community of institutions. And that community will surely need to be nourished by the time, energy and guidance of people with maturity and experience. We already need more kalyana mitras, more presidents, more preceptors, more people willing to take active responsibility in our centres. And the FWBO needs spiritual guidance: high-level spiritual input and inspiration. It follows, then, that we will each need to dig deeper into our practice if we are to give birth to the kind of genius that will help our movement to prosper in the coming years.

Sangharakshita has confessed many times that he never felt cut out to found a spiritual movement. Given an entirely free choice, he once said, he would have preferred to spend the rest of his life writing poetry and books on Buddhist metaphysics. But having made the decision, back in 1966, to found a new Buddhist movement in the West he gave himself to it completely, with an energy and zeal that has frequently put a number of his younger disciples to shame. Even as I was giving my follow-up talk at Padmaloka in November 2002, a seventy-seven year old Sangharakshita was touring Poland, giving talks and meeting people interested in the FWBO. From the beginning Sangharakshita has tried to infect the FWBO with something of his missionary spirit. Having worked closely with him for a number of years I know just how important he believes our movement to be. It would be no exaggeration to suggest that he believes the world’s survival to depend on the effective spread of the Dharma.

I wonder, do enough of us have the same spirit? Do we have the same sense of urgency? These are not just rhetorical questions. How I answer them, how you answer them, means life or death for the FWBO. As things stand, although we are attracting some younger people into at least some of our centres, the average age of our Order, even of our general membership, is rising all the time....

Those of us involved with the FWBO at the moment are living through interesting times indeed. Perhaps as we embark on the adventure of whatever the future holds we will give birth to a range of approaches to Dharma work that will inspire and guide a new generation of friends and Order members. If we don’t then our movement will become a footnote in Buddhist history. When I think of everything the FWBO has given me, if I think of the way I have seen it benefit so many others, and if I imagine how much the future could hold, for me, for my friends, and for friends still to be discovered, I think that would be a terrible, terrible shame.

Most of the time I feel confident that most of us want the FWBO to survive and thrive. Much of this current era seems to be about leaving behind the tramlines of our past. The FWBO is an evolving organism with an intriguing past and a mysterious future. But it is still very young, and still tender. It will only survive this critical stage of its life if enough of us decide we really want it to, and if enough of us are prepared to play a part — whatever that might mean, whatever creative challenge that might involve for each of us — in making its future happen.

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

Refer back to Living in Interesting Times, Part I

Nagabodhi reflects on his relationship with Sangharakshita as a teacher in issue 26 of Dharma Life magazine.

This article orignally saw print as Living in Interesting Times Part I

Nagabodhi reflects on his relationship with Sangharakshita as a teacher in issue 26 of Dharma Life magazine