The FWBO — a Community in Transition Part II


1/ The Biological Clock

When I first made contact with the FWBO in 1970, Sangharakshita was roughly twice as old as I. Addressing the Order convention in 1989, I had to acknowledge that I was now about two thirds his age. In one respect at least I was catching him up!

On that evening most of the people I was talking to were in their mid-to-late thirties. Many of them, like me, had been involved with the FWBO since their late teens or early twenties. The core community at the heart of our movement was entering mid-life. Perhaps our years of practice would protect us from the common effects of age, but it was worth bearing in mind, I warned, that many of us were approaching a phase of life traditionally associated with questioning and reassessment, even crisis.

A common mid-life pattern could be that someone who has devoted themselves to the pursuit of mundane goals might, at mid-life, seek new meaning in more spiritual pursuits. Was it possible, I wondered, that some of us, who had been devoting our lives to spiritual pursuits, might at mid-life choose to review the possibility of fulfilment in the mundane? After all, many of us had got involved with the FWBO and joined the Order when we were young, idealistic and full of naive optimism, before our experience of the Dharma had gone very deep, and at a time when the FWBO was surrounded by a reasonably supportive youth-subculture. Surely it shouldn’t be too surprising if some of us might wobble, feel impelled to question things with a new urgency, and in some cases even make a dash for more earthly delights, or more mundane security, as the ageing process began to make itself felt.

Writing in Shabda a few weeks later I suggested that such a dash might take place behind a smokescreen of ‘objective criticism’. Few of us might be likely to admit even to ourselves that we no longer felt able to live up to our youthful ideals — ideals in which we had invested so much of our time and energy. More likely, someone considering such a step might prefer to believe that it was the FWBO that had in some way let them down, and so prepare the way for an honourable exit. We should be ready, I said, to face — in ourselves and others — an era not only of honest questioning but also of sometimes harsh criticism. There could even be a rash of resignations. I did see a silver lining to this cloud, however. Even if some of us were to step back, there would be many who would come through this phase with increased confidence and a more authentic commitment, and our community would surely be stronger when nourished by the experience of people who had passed through the fires of such a process. And what mentors, what a resource, such veterans would be.

When I gave my follow-up talk (the basis of the present article) to a men’s Order weekend at Padmaloka in November 2002, I confessed some surprise that less people had visibly ‘wobbled’, and certainly less people had resigned from the Order, than I had expected back in 1989. But perhaps I spoke too soon.

Forgive me, gentle reader. A magazine article based on a talk that was itself a revisiting of a talk given thirteen years earlier is already complicated enough for some tastes. Who was to know, when this article was commissioned (even when I wrote the first section of it) just how much the earth was moving? The past year or so has seen an enormous amount of questioning, criticism, and reassessment, sparked off by Yashomitra’s letter to Shabda alleging experiences of unwelcome sexual approaches and inappropriate teacher-pupil relations in the early years of his involvement with the FWBO.

It is not in my brief to engage with Yashomitra’s letter or the allegations it contained. But I can report that the questioning process primed by Yashomitra’s letter, which has now extended to embrace such themes as gender attitudes, hierarchy, spiritual authority, FWBO group norms, and a few more besides, has created a landscape more like the one I predicted back in 1989. So far this period of reassessment has resulted in few resignations from our Order. But it has involved a lot of wobbling, and has arguably accelerated (though by no means exclusively caused, as we saw in Part I) a retreat from the vision of a relatively monolithic FWBO characterized by the ‘semi monastic’, ‘New Society’ lifestyle that to some extent defined our movement, at least in the UK, for so many years.

As the demographics of the FWBO shift, as the ideological climate and economic conditions surrounding us change, and as so many of us reach middle age, it is reasonable, even necessary, that some people should be questioning things. Sangharakshita once wrote, ‘You can only be a Buddhist if you feel free not to be one.’ If some of us have not dared to check, even occasionally, whether or not we are still Buddhists in the way we once thought we were, whether the FWBO really does offer us a congenial and inspiring context, whether we are happy living in our residential communities or working in our team-based right livelihood businesses, or whether we can authentically engage with the FWBO’s Bodhisattva spirit, then it is surely time we did. Perhaps one should set oneself such questions every day, or at least once a month. But it also seems crucial that as we ask such questions, and work with the answers we receive, we recognise that we are engaged in, at least to begin with, an entirely personal process. And we need to be careful to distinguish this personal process in its raw state from notions of ‘objective critique’.

This isn’t always easy. Inevitably much of our questioning seems to contain an implicit element of critique: What’s so special about Sangharakshita? Why is my centre being run by a team of ego-trippers? Are people not letting me have my girlfriend stay for the night in the community because they’re blocked and uptight? And so on.... But the fact that such questions may deserve objective consideration and broader discussion should not distract us from our primary duty, which is to explore what is happening in ourselves as we start asking such questions. The issues that face us as the FWBO moves into a new era are too important to be addressed in a mood of reactive cynicism. I suspect that only when we all know where we’re coming from will we be able to work effectively with the objective dimensions of our questions, and so work together to make the FWBO a more ideal spiritual community.

For some of my friends, mid-life questioning has focused on the issue of lifestyle. Some people who have for years been happily working in our businesses or living in our residential communities now find themselves thinking about long-term security and pension plans. Others wonder whether they couldn’t after all achieve some success and well being by proving themselves in the context of an ordinary career. Some may feel their aching bones and diminishing physical vitality inadequate as supports to yet more tireless bodhisattva activity, living in ‘cremation grounds’, and being all things to all men.... Others might simply decide that they no longer wish to deprive themselves of the simple pleasures of intimacy afforded by a committed live-in sexual partnership. And some are realising they want to become parents before it’s too late.

These are pretty run-of-the-mill human urges and ambitions, the realization of which does not in itself preclude spiritual effort, spiritual progress, or altruistic activity. But for some people who have grown up in the highly idealistic, semi-monastic culture of the British FWBO, such desires, not to speak of the taking of steps towards their fulfilment, can be accompanied by a sense of shame, even of spiritual failure. And someone feeling such shame can feel tempted to drift to the periphery of things, to distance themselves from old friends and connections, to assume themselves condemned, and thus unwittingly condemn themselves, to a life beyond the pale.

This seems terribly sad, and terribly unnecessary, for an Order member is an Order member, whatever his or her lifestyle, so long as he or she is effectively going for Refuge to the Three Jewels. I have already discussed our need to re-engage with one of Sangharakshita’s most quoted maxims: ‘Commitment is primary, lifestyle is secondary’, so I will mention here another of his sayings. One day I told him that a few of us at Madhyamaloka had spent the morning discussing the pros and cons of introducing some sort of marriage ceremony to our cluster of liturgies. ‘Ah yes,’ he said, ‘It’s good you’re thinking about such matters because the FWBO is going to become much more than a spiritual movement or organisation. It is going to be a people.’

An Order member contemplating a change of lifestyle has the responsibility of doing whatever he or she can to turn the new lifestyle into an effective context for spiritual practice and spiritual unfolding. Primary among the many things required by such an undertaking is, I suspect, the need to free oneself from the idea that one is thereby shooting oneself in the foot. After all, if you and your friends really think you are about to do something irredeemably un-conducive to spiritual practice, don’t do it! But if on reflection you genuinely believe that the step you’re taking, albeit radical, albeit subject to the cautious questioning of your friends, will provide you with a new and beneficial set of spiritual challenges and opportunities (whilst not denying basic spiritual needs, such as time for meditation and Dharma study, the opportunity to meet with spiritual friends, and freedom to go on retreat occasionally) then why not go for it? Who knows what discoveries you’ll make, what new riches you’ll re unearth and make available to others? Who knows what breakthroughs might arise from the tensions and difficulties of your new situation? How sad it would be if we denied ourselves the freedom to explore new ways of living a Dharma life in the West out of an unimaginative allegiance to a narrow idea of how things ought to be done.

As with the individual, so with the collective. As a community, I suggest, we must become more open to the — as one of my friends put it the other day — adventure of pluralism. For sure, it is highly likely that our movement will benefit enormously from, and perhaps depends on a backbone of individuals happily living and working together in semi-monastic situations. But as we see such situations comprising a smaller proportion of our total enterprise, let’s not panic. Let’s cultivate instead an attitude of rejoicing in the increasing diversity and richness of our Western Buddhist world. And let’s start learning how to live in it creatively.

The new spirit of freedom currently being felt by many of my friends in the UK will no doubt produce a crop of mistakes, even disasters, as some of them make choices that will lead them out of their spiritual depth in uncharted waters. But I suspect we have passed the point at which our community’s safety and health can be maintained by a culture hostile to new departures, new risks. I have never felt less clear about what the future holds for the FWBO, what shape it will take, what institutions or non-institutions will emerge, what its cultural forms will be. But I do feel clear (as do many of my friends in the — now deconstructed — Preceptors College Council) that there is a lot of good sense and goodwill in our movement, that the future holds many new and exciting possibilities, and that we can afford to trust ourselves a little.

Back in 1989 I wondered aloud whether some of us might try to appease our mid-life demons by bringing mundane ambitions and attitudes into the way we operated within the institutions of the FWBO. Well, those institutions are, always have been, and always will be, prey to our lack of integration and ambivalence, but I have very rarely seen the integrity of any of our centres, businesses, or communities seriously compromised for any length of time by the worldly ambitions of the people inhabiting them. If anything I have seen an opposite tendency: the emergence of the part-time team.

Back in 1989 most of our centres and businesses were run by core teams of people living full-time FWBO lives. These days many of those teams are made up of people, or at least have a majority of people, who do not live in our residential communities, and who have substantial responsibilities outside the FWBO. In such centres activities are run and duties performed in a piecemeal way according to rota systems, with a lot of volunteer help.

Several such centres are thriving, or at least managing to stay to afloat reasonably comfortably. But there can be stresses and weaknesses. In some situations where just one or two full-timers are surrounded by a core team of part timers, I have noticed a tendency on the part of the part-timers to cherry-pick the tasks and teaching situations they find most alluring. They then leave the other classes and most of the day-to-day organisational work to the full-timers. Sometimes this works and sometimes it is fair. But sometimes it leaves the full-timers feeling overburdened, put upon, even resentful. If the full-timers are also living with a lot of complex responsibilities, say as the only Order member in a residential community, or if they are also trying to get a right livelihood business off the ground, or if they are simply trying to deepen their meditation practice in order to remain inspired, then the strain can be too much, and various forms of burn-out can ensue.

Somehow or other we are going to have to get this right, for I suspect that such heterodox teams are here to stay. This will take honesty, openness, empathy, and careful thought. Only time will tell whether teams of people for whom ‘centre work’ forms just one thread in their busy lives can generate the enthusiasm, mutual commitment, and friendship-in-action that makes the long-term running of an inspirational public centre possible. Perhaps the era of the FWBO public centre, at least as the defining institution of our outreach project, is coming to an end. In Buddhafield, at least, we have seen people working together very successfully to spread the Dharma in an entirely new way. Hopefully we will see a lot more developments and experiments in the coming years. The FWBO’s style hitherto has been quite institutional, based largely around a communion of fairly uniform public centres, businesses, and communities. But if we can be true to what the FWBO essentially is, namely, the totality of the altruistic, Dharma-inspired activity of Order members and their friends, then the possibilities for creative innovation, whether large or small scale, are limitless.

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