The FWBO — a Community in Transition Part I


3/ Ideological Shifts

In 1987 I predicted that the changes in the economic climate would bring about significant shifts in the ideological —atmosphere’ in the wider world. The FWBO emerged in 1960s Britain. We suffered no oppression from the state or established religious institutions. If anything, we found our feet in the context of a culture (or at least a substantial subculture) that was largely supportive of our goals and lifestyle choices. As the surrounding world became more frankly materialistic, I warned that we would find ourselves pitted for the first time against contrary forces that were coherent and confident. Would this era of triumphant materialism erode our focus and idealism? Would enough of us be immune to the gravitational pull of worldly success, or worldly anxieties? Would anyone be interested in meditation any more? Or in living a Buddhist life? We would need to redouble our Bodhisattva aspiration, I said, if we were to keep our communities and co-operative businesses, our New Society, vigorous and viable.

Even when I spoke I was addressing what were in fact parochial, FWBO-UK, concerns. Today my words seem so archaic that I am surprised there isn't more hiss and crackle on the tape. But does this shift in emphasis away from the —FWBO lifestyle’ represent a loss of idealism or focus?

I don’t think there is a simple answer to this, and I do not find generalisations helpful. As a centre president I have got used to mentoring FWBO situations where residential communities or right livelihood businesses are in danger of collapse through loss of personnel. And it has become a familiar feature of my work to visit centres where only a very few of the Order members living nearby have much, if anything, to do with centre activities. Yet even if I, an old-timer, have found myself bewildered, even frustrated, by these new realities, and sometimes tempted to think of them as —crisis situations’, the fact remains that the so-called —peripheral’ Order members I meet almost invariably impress me with the sincerity of their practice, their contribution to chapter meetings, and the thoughtfulness with which they are making their life decisions.

‘For the sake of all beings I accept this ordination.’ The WBO’s public ordination ceremony includes this explicit acknowledgement of the fact that our commitment to the Three Jewels has social implications, or as we sometimes put it, an intrinsic altruistic dimension. Some of those Order members who have little involvement in FWBO institutions work out the altruistic dimension of their going for Refuge through vocational work, or voluntary service, or in kalyana mitra relationships with individuals with whom they have made a connection. Others, however, seem poised between two worlds: for whatever reason, they do not feel drawn to the old ways of working within FWBO institutions, but they have not yet found alternative channels for their altruistic aspirations. In some cases the breakthrough hasn’t come because they are unable to resolve some residual conflict as to whether or not they should be working in the ‘old’ way. In others they feel themselves to be recovering from a premature plunge into Bodhisattva activity (about which more later).

Like the FWBO itself, perhaps, I think it possible that some individuals may find themselves living for a while in a sort of —identity bardo’. Once upon a time the FWBO, at least in the UK, was almost defined by its espousal of the vision of a total Buddhist lifestyle within a Western context. We saw ourselves building a radical but viable alternative to the options provided by conventional society. To be involved with the FWBO was to be involved in building that society – and inhabiting it. Outside observers perusing the Buddhist world characterised us not as gentle folk who spent their leisure time in vibrant shrine rooms reaching for the void in deep meditation, but as a cocky young community of squatters who liked nothing better than a good building project. This caricature could frustrate us (since we did after all take shrine room activities and Dharma study seriously) and yet tickled our sometimes triumphalistic pride in the ‘New Society’ we were creating.

Sangharakshita's exhortations to build this world, combined with a bit of straightforward group pride and peer pressure, gave life a definite edge. Even if family or career commitments prevented you from plunging in completely, many – even most – of your friends would be trying to live a full-time FWBO life, and this could bring a valuable if sometimes uncomfortable quality of self-consciousness to any other choices you were making. To be involved with the FWBO was to live with the koan: ‘Could I be more fully involved in some way?’ Irrespective of the answers one came up with, the tensions that built up around that koan were for many of us significant factors in our spiritual development.

So if we are no longer a community united by our active participation in a tangible common project, then what are we? What is our unique selling feature? Just who do we think we are? Maybe it’s enough to say that we're Buddhists, that we belong to a common Order, take inspiration from a common body of Dharma teachings, respect Sangharakshita as our founder and root teacher, and so on. There is still plenty to do and plenty that unites us. But we are definitely entering a new era. There was a time when there were few people in the Order I hadn’t lived with, or worked with closely in some context or other. The bonds that linked us had been forged in a series of do-or-die enterprises and adventures. That is what it meant to be an Order member, and to be involved in the FWBO....

Ah, but we were younger then! And the Movement was younger too, and so much smaller. I do not expect or even hanker after a return to those days. But I do feel a certain awe as I contemplate the mystery of what the Order and Movement will become and feel like in the coming years. And I wonder, too, whence will come the equivalents to the kind of intensity — of friendship, of vision and aspiration — that lit the fire in our bellies once upon a time.

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

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