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Commitment and Spiritual Community

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by Sangharakshita

Lecture 142: Commitment and Spiritual Community

Urgyen Sangharakshita I think that most of you know already that in the course of these talks, these three talks, we are exploring.

We're exploring a new spiritual movement - exploring a new Buddhist movement. A movement known as the FWBO, or to give it its full title `The Friends of the Western Buddhist Order', and we're simply trying to understand the nature of that Movement. And we're trying to understand the nature of that Movement through an examination of the meaning of the name - FWBO - itself, and in our first talk two weeks ago, as those of you who were present then may remember, we saw in what sense the FWBO is a Western, a specifically Western movement. We saw, two weeks ago, that the FWBO is Western in the sense that it arose under the conditions of modern Western civilisation, a civilisation which is now virtually world-wide. A civilisation in which unfortunately there is a serious imbalance, an imbalance between the individual and what we call the group. And the FWBO, we saw two weeks ago, in our first talk, seeks to correct that particular imbalance, the imbalance between the individual and the group, and it seeks to correct it with the help of Buddhism. And the title of the first talk was therefore `The Individual and the World Today'. Last week we moved on. Last week we saw in what sense the FWBO was a Buddhist movement. We saw that it was Buddhist in the sense that it concerns itself with the spiritual development of the individual. The FWBO is not Buddhist in the sense that it follows Eastern Buddhist culture, however great, however beautiful, that may be. In fact in the FWBO we distinguish quite sharply between Buddhism, the Dharma, on the one hand and its various Eastern cultural forms on the other. And we define Buddhism, we define the Dharma, as the Buddha himself defined it as whatever helps the individual to grow, whatever helps the individual to progress in his inner and his outer life. We also saw that in the same way the FWBO does not identify itself with any one form of Buddhism. It appreciates all the different forms of Buddhism, whether Theravada, Mahayana, Zen, Tibetan Buddhism and so on, it appreciates them all, it seeks to learn from them all, but it does not identify itself exclusively with any one of them. Our talk last week was therefore entitled `Western Buddhists and Eastern Buddhism'.

Tonight we come to our third and last talk. Tonight we are going to see, or to try to see, in what sense the FWBO is an Order, in what sense it is also a movement of Friends, and this may not be quite so easy to do. So I am going to adopt tonight a slightly different approach. Tonight I am going to be just a little bit autobiographical. I'm going to tell you what it was that led me to start an Order, what led me to start a movement of Friends, rather than say another Buddhist organisation of the usual type. I'm going to take this as our point of departure.

As you know, as I think you were told some weeks ago, I spent altogether twenty years in the East. I spent most of them in India, I spent initially a couple of years as a wandering ascetic, of a sort of Hindu-Buddhist type, one might say, in South India, just moving from place to place, staying here, staying there, meditating, studying, meeting famous teachers, and so on. This story, or this part of the story, some of you may know is related in my volume of memoirs entitled `The Thousand-Petalled Lotus'. After that I spent a year in Benares. In Benares I was studying Pali and Abhidharma and also Logic, and finally I spent fourteen years in a place called Kalimpong. Kalimpong is in the foothills of the Himalayas, about four thousand feet above sea level. It's sort of sandwiched in between Nepal to the West, Bhutan to the East, Sikkim to the North, and beyond Sikkim, of course, Tibet. And from where I was staying most or much of the time I could see, I had a beautiful view of the snow peaks of the Himalayas. So there in Kalimpong I spent fourteen years. But during all this time, during my stay in Benares, during my fourteen years in Kalimpong, I kept in touch, very often just by letter, with various Indian Buddhist organisations, but although I kept in touch I did not join any of them, I never became a member of any Indian Buddhist organisation. I don't know quite why this was, but it seems as though at the time a sort of instinct held me back. I kept in touch, but I never joined. And I kept in touch with one organisation in particular and this was quite an old organisation. It was quite big, at least by Buddhist standards, and it was quite well known and in its day it had done quite a lot of good work for Buddhism in India in one way or another.

So with this organisation I was mainly in touch, but I hadn't been in touch with it for very long before I started feeling quite dissatisfied with it, not to say very dissatisfied. And the more I saw of it, the more dissatisfied I became. My dealings both by letter and also from time to time in person, were mainly with the governing body of this particular organisation, including the office bearers. That governing body consisted of about forty different people. And before long I discovered that most of them were in fact not Buddhists, and this surprised me not a little. In those days you might say I was a little inexperienced, not to say naive, and I was rather surprised to find that the majority of the members of the governing body of this Buddhist organisation were not even Buddhists, but anyway I thought at first that it must be all Lecture 141: Commitment and Spiritual Community Page 1 right, that probably they were genuine sympathisers with Buddhism, even though they were not actually Buddhists. But again before long I discovered that this was not the case. Very much to my dismay I discovered that some members of that governing body had no sympathy in fact with Buddhism at all. One might even say that in some cases they were actually hostile to it, but there they were running the affairs of this Buddhist organisation. So I started asking myself `well, how had this happened?'. Well, they were there running the affairs of this Buddhist organisation because they'd been elected to that governing body, but then how had they been elected? Well they'd been elected at an Annual General Meeting, but how had they come to be present at that Annual General Meeting? Well, they were there because they were members, paid-up members of the organisation. And how had they become members of the organisation? Simply by paying a subscription. So this seems to me to be the root of the trouble, that these people had got where they were simply by paying a small sum of money, a subscription, plus of course a bit of string-pulling.

So this seemed to me a very strange way to run a Buddhist organisation, and no wonder it was not functioning very well. Now you might wonder why it was that people not really sympathetic to Buddhism should spend their time, should take the trouble of running the affairs of a Buddhist organisation, even though that governing body met only once a month, but it seems to me - and after many years of experience I think I know it very well - that there are some people who like to belong to organisations.

They like to get on to governing bodies, whether religious, or political, or civic, social, they just like to get on to governing bodies and managing committees and so on, because it gives them a sort of feeling of power. They like to run things, and they don't mind very much what it is that they're running. The main thing is that they should be running it, and in the case of this particular organisation, this particular Buddhist organisation, there was another factor at work too. I've said that this particular organisation was quite well known, it used to organise big public meetings, for instance to celebrate the Buddha's birthday, and in India, public meetings are really very big. I don't know how things go in New Zealand, probably if you got ten thousand people you'd think it was quite a big meeting, quite a big public meeting, if you got a hundred thousand I suppose that would be considered very big, whereas in India ten thousand is nothing; you can have a hundred thousand people, you can have five hundred thousand people at a public meeting very easily indeed. So this particular organisation used to organ public meetings of this sort, and they used to invite famous politicians and prominent businessmen to preside over these meetings, these religious meetings, so that if you were a member of the governing body, there you would be sitting up on the platform, with all these people, you'd get to know them, you'd bask as it were in their reflected glory. Not only that, getting to know them would be very useful to you, useful in your own political, or your own business life, you might even get some favour in that way, because in India, after all, everything is done by personal influence. So this is what I saw happening in this Buddhist organisation, and it made me rather disillusioned with Buddhist organisations. And then after twenty years in the East I went back to England, and I thought things would be different there, so I spent two years working with the existing Buddhist organisations in England, mainly in London, but there I found things pretty much the same as in India, only of course on a very much smaller scale. I found plenty of non-Buddhists having quite a big say in the running of Buddhist organisations, and consequently these organisations too were not functioning very well, at least not very well from the Buddhist point of view. In fact they were functioning quite badly, so I decided that something had to be done. I decided that a new Buddhist organisation would have to be started, an organisation that would not be ...

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