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My Relation to the Order

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by Sangharakshita

172: My Relation to the Order

Two years ago we celebrated the twentieth anniversary of the Western Buddhist Order, which was born in London on Sunday 7 April 1968. Marking as it did the completion of the first two decades of the Order's existence the occasion was an important one in many ways, and one that naturally gave rise to certain reflections on my part. Some of these reflections I communicated to you in a paper entitled `The History of My Going for Refuge', in which I cast a backward glance over the various stages whereby the significance of that `central and definitive act of the Buddhist life', as I called it, the sarana-gamana or Going for Refuge, had become clear to me. On such an occasion as the present one, I declared in the opening section of the paper, when we had assembled in (relatively) large numbers to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the spiritual community that formed the heart of our new Buddhist movement, it was no doubt appropriate that I should endeavour to trace the history of my Going for Refuge and that, having done this, I should share with you some of my current thinking as regards my own relation to the Order and the relation of the Order itself to the rest of the Buddhist world. As it happened, the tracing of that History of mine took much longer than I had expected, and in the concluding section of the paper I commented that I would obviously have to postpone my remarks on my own relation to the Order and on the relation of the Order itself to the rest of the Buddhist world to some future occasion. The nature of my relation to the Order had in any case transpired to some extent from the latter part of my narrative, while as regards the relation of the Order to the rest of the Buddhist world I would simply observe that it was a relation that subsisted, essentially, with individuals, and that, on this the occasion of our twentieth anniversary, we were happy to extend the hand of spiritual fellowship to all those Buddhists for whom commitment was primary, life-style secondary, and who, like ourselves, went for Refuge to the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha. These words were sufficient to indicate the tenor of my thinking, but they were by no means enough, and the time has now come for me to redeem my pledge of two years ago and deal more fully with the two topics that could not be dealt with properly then, viz. my own relation to the Order and the relation of the Order itself to the rest of the Buddhist world. I shall not be dealing with them at quite the same length as I dealt with the History of My Going for Refuge.

Before dealing with the twin topics of today's paper, however, I must take notice of the fact that in the two years that have elapsed since I endeavoured to trace the history of my Going for Refuge there have been some important developments within the Order, as indeed there have been in the world at large. In the first place, the Order has grown numerically. Two years ago there were 336 of us. Today there are 384, sixty men and women having been ordained during the last two years, two Order members having died, two others having resigned, and ten having had their names dropped from the Order register - in the case of the last a less happy development about which I shall have something to say later on. There has also been the increasing tendency for chapter meetings to take the form of `spiritual workshops' (a not very expressive nomenclature for which I was, I believe, myself responsible), that is to say, for them to take the form of opportunities for the deepening of our spiritual life, and in particular of our Going for Refuge, by means of free and open communication and interaction of one kind or other.

The most important development during the last two years, however, has been my handing over responsibility for conferring the Dharmachari ordination to Subhuti and Suvajra who, in the course of last year's `Guhyaloka' ordination retreat, between them ordained seven men as Dharmacharis.

Though a number of ordinations had been conferred in previous years by senior Order members acting on my behalf, so to speak, this was the first time anyone other than myself had received people into the Order entirely on their own responsibility, or without reference to me. The occasion was thus one of the utmost significance for the future of the Order, and for me personally a source of the deepest satisfaction. It was moreover wholly appropriate that this particular development should have taken place in the very year that the Order attained its `collective' majority.

But we must be on our guard against a possible misunderstanding. I have spoken of my handing over the responsibility for conferring ordination simply because that expression had somehow gained currency among us, but what has actually occurred is not so much a handing over as a handing on. In other words I have not handed over the responsibility for conferring ordination if one takes `handing over' to mean that the responsibility in question, having been handed over, now no longer appertains to me but appertains instead to the two senior Order members previously denominated. Handing over does not mean relinquishment. Thus what has really taken place is not a handing over, or even a handing on, but rather a sharing of the responsibility for receiving people into the Order. In this connection there comes to mind the image of one lamp being lit from another, the first lamp `transmitting' light to the other without thereby losing its own light. - I mention the matter not only to guard against possible misunderstanding - for the Mara of literalism is always lying in wait for us - but also because mitras sometimes ask me whether I may still on occasion confer ordination myself. This question I always answer in the affirmative. Even though light - the light of ordination - is now being transmitted by new, brightly polished lamps with ardent flames, the old lamp burns on and is still capable, I trust, of lighting at least a few more lamps before the oil finally gives out.

Since this imagery of lamp and light seems to have caught my fancy let me extend it a little. The more lamps there are, especially brightly polished ones, the more brilliant will be the light and the greater the extent to which it will propagate itself. Similarly, my sharing of the responsibility for conferring ordination is not just the most important development to have taken place within the Order during the last two years; it is also a development that has been responsible for, or associated with, a veritable Indra's net of new developments within the Order and, through the Order, within the wider Movement of which the Order is the heart. To begin with, the fact that they now share with me the responsibility for conferring ordination has moved Subhuti and Suvajra, as well as the other members of the Men's Ordination Team at `Padmaloka' (and, no doubt, the members of the more ad hoc women's ordination teams), to a more radical re-appraisal of their own Going for Refuge. As Subhuti reported-in for the October 1989 issue of Shabda*: `[Conferring ordinations] for me represents a far deeper level of responsibility than I have ever taken before. In witnessing someone else's Going for Refuge my own is called into question both by myself and by others. The whole effect of ordination derives from the fact that the one who is ordained has confidence in the integrity of the one who is ordaining. The ordinee feels a tremendous boost in confidence that his or her own Going for Refuge is genuine because the ordainer, being someone in whose Going for Refuge the ordinee has confidence, accepts and acknowledges that he or she is genuinely Going for Refuge. Indeed, the effect is that in expressing one's Going for Refuge in that context, for the first time one fully and effectively Goes for Refuge.

From this point of view at least, the ordinee's Going for Refuge rests upon the ordainer's. That is the private aspect of the responsibility. From the public point of view, the Order and the movement at large accept that someone is a member of the Order because they have confidence in the ordainer and the process of selection and preparation. All of this is very exposing ...' In witnessing someone else's Going for Refuge my own is called into question. This is the real crux of the matter, and it is the crux of the matter not just for those who have the actual responsibility for conferring ordinations; it is also the crux - the decisive point at issue - for all members of ordination teams and, indeed, for each and every individual Dharmachari and Dharmacharini who entertains an opinion, expressed or unexpressed (and such opinions ought always to be expressed), on the readiness or unreadiness for ordination of any mitra or Friend who wishes to go for Refuge to the Three Jewels within the context of the Western Buddhist Order. In a sense it is ultimately the crux for the whole Order, for it is the whole Order which, indirectly if not directly, witnesses the ordinee's Going for Refuge and therefore the whole Order whose Going for Refuge is ultimately called into question. This `calling into question', whether by oneself or by others, is not tantamount to doubting. Rather does it constitute a process of self-interrogation - even of a (metaphorical) putting oneself to the question in the archaic judicial sense. It may also be described as a trying and testing, much as gold is tested on the touchstone or tried in the fire. In the course of this process, whether described in terms of self-interrogation or of trying and testing, one discovers to what extent one is speaking the truth when one asseverates `Buddham saranam gacchami' or to what extent one's Going for Refuge is made of base metal, or mixed with impurities, rather than being solid twenty-four-carat gold. One discovers, perhaps, that without realizing it one has ...

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