The FWBO — a Community in Transition Part I


1/ The size and identity of the F/WBO

When I spoke in 1989 there were about three hundred and fifty members of the Western Buddhist Order worldwide. There are now more than a thousand. In the last third of its lifespan to date, the Order has tripled in size. That is pretty good news: it suggests that our approach to Dharma practice – and to sharing that practice – has remained attractive, and has offered an effective context for people who want to commit themselves to the ideals and practice of Buddhism.

Although the FWBO’s spread has been mainly unplanned and uneven, there are now Order members and FWBO activities on every continent. This makes for an extremely rich and diverse community. Fourteen years ago, I anticipated this expansion cheerfully, but injected a warning note to the effect that unless we made considerable efforts to keep in good contact with each other we might find ourselves falling into a complex of regional ghettos – in poor communication with each other and occasionally suffering from bouts of misunderstanding and mistrust.

I don’t think this has happened – yet. For sure, we can find it hard to understand each other’s ephemeral preoccupations, and the pages of Shabda can occasionally host unfortunate lapses of sensitivity to the mores of cultures other than the contributor’s own, but we’ve never yet experienced any serious rift merely on the grounds of geography or race.

Probably the greatest difficulties we’ve faced in this regard have been in our attempts to negotiate, especially in our public life, the gaping difference between the conventionally held moral attitudes of Indian society and those of the western world where most of the rest of the FWBO/TBMSG is located.

For example, some people in the western wing of our Movement were troubled by what they saw as a duplicitous economy with truth in the FWBO’s official responses to the Guardian article and the —FWBO Files’. The authors of those responses were themselves uncomfortable, but sources in India had warned them that a complete and open account of some relevant aspects of the FWBO’s (western) history — particularly in the area of sexual behaviour — might well expose our Indian Friends, Mitras and Order members not merely to unpopularity or ridicule, but to actual physical danger. I know the authors of the responses well, and know they acted in good faith, and had little freedom for manoeuvre. But they would be the first to admit that the choices they made have left a legacy that we are still addressing.

This is probably the biggest single predicament our global spread has created. But although the relative mores of the East and West created a problem in the West, to my knowledge it did nothing to dent the goodwill flowing between eastern and western wings of the FWBO/TBMSG.

The fact is we all seem to get on pretty well with each other, and actually manage to experience ourselves as a coherent community. Windhorse:evolution, our giftware company based in Cambridge, England, has played a key part in this sense of unity, by offering team-based right livelihood opportunities and a substantial taste of residential community life to Friends, Mitras, and Order members from all over the world. The extended ordination retreats at Guhyaloka and in Tuscany also provide a context in which people of many nationalities and social backgrounds spend long enough in each other’s company, and go through a sufficiently intense time together, to form friendships that can last a lifetime. As we currently contemplate a future in which many of our activities, systems and structures look likely to get more regionalised, even atomised, we should bear in mind the crucial bonding value of these more —central’ institutions, and do what we can to support and preserve them.

Despite a few prominent exceptions, most Order members in 1989 followed a pretty standard regime of meditation and devotional practice. And although today the majority of Order members maintain an approach to meditation best epitomised in Sangharakshita's lecture, 'A System Of Meditation', certain preferences and special interests are emerging. I suspect we can look forward to a far richer mix of approaches and practices in the future, even, quite possibly, to the emergence of ‘schools’, as likeminded individuals cluster together for guidance and inspiration in fulfilment of more personal spiritual leanings. I don’t know whether or not this kind of diversification will create tensions, but I would like to think that Sangharakshita’s —system’ – if interpreted flexibly as an outline of the stages in the meditation process, and of the way meditation actually works on consciousness, irrespective of the specific practices involved — is probably broad enough to embrace and unite us spiritually for a good time to come.

In 1989 it was just about possible to relate to the Order and even to large sections of the Movement as a fairly coherent social group. Most of us still knew each other by sight and by name. Many of us had visited each other’s homes or at least home centres. Moods, issues, innovations, even emphases in thought and spiritual practice, could spread through the Order and movement very quickly (if not always efficiently) on the grapevine. Despite the extraordinary opportunities provided by cheap air travel and telephone connections, and of course e-mail and the Internet, no one could claim that we function in that way any more. We are definitely no longer a cosy group. And while we continue to maintain certain institutions that cater for the Order or Movement as a whole (for example Shabda, the biennial International Order convention, Dharma Life and the College of Public Preceptors) the likelihood is that our Order and Movement will become more regionalized in the coming years, with higher and higher levels of responsibility being decentralised and devolved — or even deconstructed.

For those of us who were around in the earliest days – who can remember, for example, the first Order convention, when just twenty of us spent a few days with Sangharakshita in the front room of a house in Purley – such a transformation might seem overwhelming; but it surely promises an exciting prospect of liberated creativity, greater depth, and approaches to Dharma practice more specifically geared to the individual needs of people of varying temperaments and living under differing conditions. Indeed, I suspect one of the challenges of the coming years will be finding ways of bringing to our —local’ institutions – such as Order chapters, regional gatherings, meditation kulas, and public centres – a substance and intensity equivalent to that which we used to gain from our participation in the total Movement in the days when such participation was possible – or at least, seemed possible. (To the extent that such participation was really always something of an imaginative construct, the strengthening of local institutions might actually constitute a step forward.)

Over the past fourteen years, a number of Order members have initiated projects such as public centres and right livelihood businesses. But the days when most Order members found themselves living in relatively small concentrations around an FWBO centre (to which all of them gave some, if not all, of their time) seem to be over, even in the UK. Although most Order members still live within easy reach of a centre, it is now quite common to find many who have little or nothing to do with its day-to-day life. Proportionately, too, far less Order members – again, even in the UK – work in FWBO right livelihood businesses. In other words, the idea that an Order member is someone who pretty much lives and breathes within an FWBO context (something which was never explicitly prescribed, and never even realised in most countries outside the UK) is fast losing currency. The FWBO, and even the Order, are far more heterodox communities than they were a decade or so ago.

‘Commitment is primary; Lifestyle is secondary.’ With this maxim, Sangharakshita once expressed his hope that the WBO would be neither monastic nor lay. In the UK, at least, whilst explicitly articulating this vision, I believe we’ve lived through an era when many of us perhaps paid Sangharakshita’s maxim little more than lip service, believing somewhere in our hearts that unless we were following a supposedly normative ‘centre/single-sex community/team-based right livelihood business’ lifestyle, we would not be quite the full ticket. I suspect it will always be essential to the health of our Movement that a significant number of people choose to live a —semi monastic’ (even fully monastic, even —forest renunciate’) lifestyle. But it will be equally essential that those choosing to live in other ways honour their commitment to the Three Jewels by doing everything they can to turn their life and work, whatever it is, into a form of full-on spiritual practice. Unless we accept this challenge then it will probably not be many decades before the Order evolves into a two-tier Community of full-time FWBO-style —monastics’ and half-hearted —lay people’.

The increasing diversity of lifestyles within the F/WBO therefore presents an interesting challenge. Such a community requires guidance, nourishment, and inspiration in forms that are specific to as many of its needs and concerns as possible. When Sangharakshita was most active as a teacher – giving lectures, leading seminars, giving personal interviews – most of the people he was talking to were British, relatively young, unmarried, and living the ‘classic’ FWBO lifestyle. Accordingly, much of the material we have on record from those days is geared to the needs of such people. It therefore seems important that we now start to develop a much broader body of —lifestyle teachings’ than we presently have to hand. But who will give them? Who will write the books, give the lectures and lead the seminars? The obvious candidates are those who are trying to practice the Dharma within some of those hitherto undervalued contexts. There are now a good number of people who have spent years trying to live a Dharma life whilst fulfilling family responsibilities, or working in the wider world. Surely by now they have insights to share and struggles to record. Get out your word processors, folks! It’s time to tell us what you’ve learned.

Fourteen years ago the gender balance was very lopsided, with many more men in the Order than women, and more ordinations taking place among men each year. Things are certainly changing. There are still more Dharmacharis than Dharmacharinis, but the annual ordination tallies are evening out. Teams of Dharmacharinis are playing leading roles at several of our centres, and in some regions there are considerably more women than men in the process of preparing themselves for ordination. Should this trend continue, it is quite conceivable that there will be more women in the Order than men within a few decades, and it will be fascinating to see how this shift affects us.

The F/WBO is fast becoming very different to the F/WBO in which many of us grew up – and on the basis of which we formed our visions for the future. It is time to take up the task of recording the stories of those early days, before the memories of that very different world fade away completely, or seem too bizarre to be credible. Those stories would communicate the spirit, the culture, the understandings and misunderstandings out of which our present Movement has grown. They will have a lot to teach us, I suspect – about ourselves if nothing else. I hope they will also remind us of some principles from which we can still learn. Doubtless they will also highlight some of the naive assumptions and expectations from which we must free ourselves, if we have not done so already.

Since I made this point in my talk last November, the Order, and to some extent the wider FWBO, has in fact witnessed quite an explosion of Order members’ reminiscences of its early days. This was sparked off by a single contribution to Shabda, which posed directly and indirectly a number of questions about the FWBO's attitudes to sex, sexual relationships, to the family, to gender, and to the uses and abuses of spiritual authority. Although the questioning and reminiscing is still very much a feature of our life at the moment, and still putting some of us in touch with painful memories, my sense is that most of us are finding the process enormously productive and liberating.

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