The FWBO — a Community in Transition Part I


3/ The Economic Climate

In 1987 many western economies were passing through a phase of radical change. Governments, whether nominally of the right or left, were loosening their grip on things, allowing market forces free rein. The oft-stated vision was of a thrusting global economy, powered by unrestrained enterprise and initiative, generating unprecedented wealth – a proportion of which would —trickle down′ to benefit even the least successful members of the community. The reality actually experienced by many was one of fiercer competition for jobs, greater workloads, more stress, and an increasingly bleak set of expectations about any possibility of security in the future.

While proposing that such a climate might bring a bracing edge of commitment and realism to our team-based right livelihood enterprises, I admitted it was also likely that less people would be prepared to take the financial risk of involving themselves in these institutions, or would feel immune to the increasingly confident Siren call of material security, even prosperity (a call that had been relatively unfashionable for people within the FWBO’s predominant age-range and social groupings from the sixties to the early eighties). Within the coming decade or so, I said, we would probably see a much higher proportion of Order members working out in the world's marketplaces.

Such a prospect, I argued, needn’t be a threat. Out in the world people earned more money than our relatively simple lives required, leaving a surplus that could fund Dharma and social projects. Out in the world, too, we would learn new skills, develop new kinds of expertise – all of which might find their way back into team-based projects within the sangha at some future point. After all, the pendulum might swing the other way, as some people, after a taste of life out in the world, would investigate the possibility of working with fellow Dharma-farers once again. In the final analysis, I said, we would do well to remember that right livelihood was a practice that can be taken up in all kinds of situations and circumstances. It was quite possible that many people would benefit greatly – and perhaps communicate the Dharma more effectively – as they tried to practise right livelihood in the challenging climate of the commercial world.

Today, as we have seen, there are indeed proportionately far less Order members and Mitras working in FWBO-run, team-based right livelihood businesses, even in the UK, than there were a dozen years ago. Back then, the pages of Golden Drum (the FWBO's quarterly newsletter of the time) chronicled the emergence of new businesses with reassuring frequency. These days, new business ventures are something of a rarity and it is not uncommon instead to hear of an FWBO business that is closing, or employing a proportion of non-Buddhist workers.

The major exception to this trend has been windhorse:evolution, which has grown in just about every way, year on year, until very recently. In its warehouse and administrative headquarters in Cambridge, and its chain of Evolution retail stores, windhorse:evolution employs some two hundred or more people, most of them living a classic FWBO-UK lifestyle. It should be borne in mind though that many of those people are actually visitors from overseas, spending a period of time at windhorse:evolution as a training experience. Whether or not windhorse:evolution will succeed in attracting people who want to make a long-term commitment to the kind of lifestyle it offers remains to be seen.

windhorse:evolution is by far the largest single financial donor to FWBO projects around the world. Without a detailed survey it is hard to know to how much of the wealth being accumulated by those working outside FWBO contexts is being made available to the movement through donations. Certainly, major fund-raising campaigns in recent years (the latest being in aid of Aranya, the women's ordination retreat centre) have done fairly well. But as one looks around, one can easily see a lot of projects and Dharma workers needing urgent financial help.

And as for whether or not the pendulum will swing back, bringing a rush of refugees from the outside world into new FWBO enterprises, it is too early to say. If and when such a trend occurs, I doubt we'll see a renaissance of wholefood shops and vegetarian restaurants – the staples of our early ventures into team-based right livelihood. I suspect that people with professionally trained and tested skills will form partnerships so as to be able to continue doing what they do well, and lucratively, but in a more morally and ideologically congenial context.

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