The FWBO — a Community in Transition Part II


2/ The Changing Buddhist World

In its early-years, at least in England, the FWBO was pretty much alone in offering not only an array of Buddhist practices and study opportunities but also the funkily experimental beginnings of a total Buddhist lifestyle in the Western context. Moreover, Sangharakshita’s recension of the Dharma contained some highly original emphases and interpretations of fundamental Buddhist teachings. For such reasons, the British Buddhist world looked on Sangharakshita as something of a maverick, and his movement as almost a heretical sect. For our part, I think it’s fair to say that we saw the British Buddhist scene as a world of armchair dilettantes governed by pompous, hostile dinosaurs. Relations were frosty and we had as little to do with each other as possible.

In 1989 I assured my audience on the Order convention that things were changing. The Western Buddhist, and even the English Buddhist world had grown up enormously and was increasingly dominated by serious practitioners studying under teachers who were trying to make their teachings relevant and accessible in the Western context. In recent years I’d been ‘representing’ the FWBO at a number of Buddhist conferences and conventions. And I was finding increasing numbers of people open to and interested in the FWBO’s approach. More importantly, I now found myself hanging out in the breaks with people from other Buddhist movements who really did feel like Dharma brothers and sisters. It was time, I suggested, to draw a line under the past and prepare to enjoy an era of kinship and co-operation, and to welcome the fact that we were now sharing the project of developing Western Buddhism with many others.

The last fifteen years have seen that Buddhist world grow and strengthen. Buddhism is still a minority faith in the West, but it is growing stronger all the time. A new generation of Western teachers is emerging, and new experiments are being undertaken. Recent years have also seen the emergence of a kind of A-list of Western Buddhist luminaries. They are ubiquitous, their books dominating the shelves in bookstores, their faces appearing regularly in advertisements for international Buddhist symposia and colloquia. These superstars are backed, in most cases, by years of sincere practice, and their own quantum of original thought. Yet many of them are currently non-aligned, freelance: either so loosely involved in any identifiable sangha as to make no odds, or not involved in one at all.

The mid-to-late Eighties saw a number of Buddhist movements, particularly in the United States racked by scandal and confusion. A wave of disillusionment cast literally thousands of Western Buddhists adrift. These people did not want to give up Buddhism, but they didn’t any longer feel able to trust Buddhism in institutional form. Those writers, thinkers, and even traditional Buddhist teachers (notably Thich Nhat Hanh) who met such people head on by upholding the validity, even sometimes superiority, of a non-aligned Buddhism have achieved something considerable by answering the immediate needs of people who might so easily have turned away from the Dharma altogether. They have also brought a fascinating, sometimes highly charged debate to the Western Buddhist world.

Now while the FWBO’s institutional life seemed radically and enticingly ‘light’ if contrasted to the traditional models available in the 70s and 80s, when seen in the context of an emerging mass-movement of non-aligned Buddhists in the 90s the FWBO could appear hidebound, over-hierarchical, and insular. That it also had a habit of serving as a channel for unfashionable views, views that could even seem howlingly politically incorrect at times, well, that was the giddy limit. It wasn’t nearly as bad as it used to be in the distant past, but once again we were an object of caution, criticism, and even scorn.

By and large I think we have responded to this turn of events pretty well. I don’t think many of us have retreated into the defensiveness that perhaps characterised our stance some years ago. And many Order members have repeatedly taken initiatives to keep in friendly dialogue with our critics. I think we have learnt to listen. And I think we have learned to bring more of our self-questioning into the open so that it informs not only our internal discussions but our public profile.

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.

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