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How the FWBO Presents Itself

by Vishvapani

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How the FWBO Presents Itself
by Vishavapani

Paper for Representing Buddhism Conference, Institute of Oriental Philosophy
European Centre, March 1999

1. Introduction

The Friends of the Western Buddhist Order (FWBO) is one of the largest Buddhist
movements in Britain. To be more precise it is one of the three largest movements
catering principally to Westerners, the other two being Soka Gakkai and the New
Kadampa Tradition each of which gives its membership as 'several thousand'. Taking the
numbers affiliated and the number of FWBO centres in the UK, the FWBO may fairly be
said to account for between ten and fifteen percent of Britain's non-Asian Buddhist
community. There is no doubt then that the FWBO is a significant aspect of Buddhism in
Britain. However it is a disproportionately significant force in the dissemination of
Buddhism, and in shaping perceptions of Buddhism in British society. The FWBO has
always placed a strong emphasis on teaching and communicating its message and around
20,000 people a year learn meditation at an FWBO Centre or outreach activity in the UK.
Many thousands more have contact with one of the FWBO's ancillary activities, such as
hatha yoga classes or arts events, not to mention going into a shop run as one of the
FWBO's 'right livelihood' businesses, or supporting its social work projects in India,
through the Karuna Trust fundraising charity.

In addition, the FWBO's emphasis on external communications is evident in the three
magazines it publishes, in Windhorse Publications the FWBO has its own publishing
house, and there are two video production companies creating FWBO-related material.
The work of the FWBO Communications Office, which is the UK's only dedicated
Buddhist press office, has ensured that it has a fairly high profile in the media, and that
members of the Western Buddhist Order are to be heard broadcasting on UK radio. I
must confess my own role in this communicative zeal as I myself edit Dharma Life, the
leading FWBO magazine, and am the Director of the FWBO Communications Office.

How the FWBO presents itself is therefore an important aspect of how Buddhism is
presented, re-presented and perceived in Britain. But before it is possible to discuss
FWBO this, it is necessary to ask what the FWBO is.

2. The FWBO's Stance

The FWBO conceives itself as a middle way within the transmission of Buddhism to the
West between the approaches of transplantation and westernisation. By 'transplantation' I
mean the approach of the many representatives of traditional Asian schools in the West,
whose concern tends to be the transmission of 'authentic' traditions of Buddhism. The
FWBO's approach is based on a belief that it is impossible to transplant developed
Buddhist traditions from an Asian society into the West without creating many problems
and anomalies. One will inevitably be importing a large amount of Asian culture which
has no spiritual significance for westerners Therefore, as Stephen Batchelor argues,
‘adaptation is not so much an option as a matter of degree' for all Buddhists in the West.
The question posed by Sangharakshita's writings is, on what basis does this adaptation
take place, so that it makes Buddhism relevant to the new context, but does not
compromise the integrity of the tradition?

At the same time the FWBO sees itself as distinct from the secularised and 'westernised'
approach which understands Buddhism in the light of particular traditions of western
thought, such as psychotherapy or socialism, drawing on it as a source of techniques and
instruction. Those Buddhist movements that might be characterised in this way tend to
me lay-oriented and to place a relatively low emphasis on affiliation. They also tend to
emphasise meditation rather than engagement with the full range of the Buddhist
teachings and practice. Sometimes it has been assumed that the FWBO's 'Western
Buddhism' is an adaptation of this sort. However the FWBO is a very different body than,
say, the Insight Meditation Society. It emphasises affiliation and tends to require a
relatively high level of commitment; it teaches a systematic path that draws on a range of
Buddhist practices; and it presents these in the context of the ultimate aims of Buddhism.
It also stresses the roots of its teachings in the Buddhist tradition, and indeed its non-
sectarian engagement with all aspects of that tradition. From the FWBO's perspective the
danger of the secularising approach is that it may reduce the Buddhadharma to a set of
ideas and techniques that ignore its soteriological dimension and assimilate it to a
materialist worldview that is fundamentally at odds with that of Buddhism.

The premise underlying FWBO's approach is that the central insights and teachings of the
Buddhadharma are extra-historical and universal, while the forms Buddhism has taken
are historically specific and contingent. Sangharakshita expresses this point in his key
teaching of the centrality of going for Refuge to the Three Jewels (the Buddha, the
Dharma and the Sangha). 'Going for Refuge is the essential Buddhist act,' he says. For
Sangharakshita this traditional formula, which is common to all Buddhist schools,
encapsulates the spirit and fundamental orientation of Buddhism and the individual's
relation to it. Being a Buddhist therefore means reorienting one's body speech and mind
towards the values, qualities and understanding that are represented in the Three Jewels
and to following the Buddha's path to Enlightenment. Because individuals do this to
differing degrees it follows that there are different levels of going for Refuge. Practising
the Dharma means learning to go for Refuge more fully. This same spirit is expressed in
the core teachings that are common to all schools which emphasise that Buddhism is a
path to Enlightenment, rather than a set of customs or injunctions regarding lifestyle.

The FWBO seeks to adhere to these central teachings and this timeless core, but to apply
them pragmatically within the cultural context of its practitioners. This makes the
FWBO's praxis varied and flexible in some respects and remarkably coherent in others.
At the heart of the FWBO is the Western Buddhist Order, a community of nearly 800
men and women whose commitment is described as 'effective going for Refuge to the
Three Jewels'. Their ordination is described as being 'neither lay nor monastic', and is
based on the principle that 'going for Refuge is primary, and lifestyle is secondary'. Some
Order members lead a fully monastic life, and practice chastity; others have families. But
the commitment each has made to Dharma practice is the same, and it is for each
individual to find their own way to live that out in practice. The FWBO is in one sense no
more than the product of the joint efforts of those 800 people, and the flexible, adaptive
forms they have developed in the FWBO are expressions of their responses to the
circumstances in which they found themselves. This is the great virtue of the contingency
of lifestyle in the FWBO, its middle way between monk and lay. As Andrew Rawlinson
says, ‘Sangharakshita is equally critical of orthodox “cultural” monasticism and
innovative “rational” non-monasticism. The FWBO is apart from - one might almost say,
above - these extremes.’

From the point of view of its practitioners the FWBO is an expression of their own
relation to the core of the Buddhadharma itself. 'How the FWBO presents itself' is
therefore a secondary concern. Primarily its adherents are concerned with the practice
and communication of Buddhism as they understand it, and with their personal Dharma
practice. As Sangharakshita puts it, the work of the FWBO to spread its version of the
Dharma represents 'the altruistic dimension of going for Refuge'.

It would be wrong to suggest that the FWBO has an overarching presentational policy, as
particular expression of what it stands for reflect the individual approaches of particular
Order members. Moreover the FWBO's distinction between the underlying principles of
the Dharma and their cultural expression implies that these expressions should vary
according to local cultures. The FWBO is now active in twenty countries, including such
diverse cultural contexts as the Indian Ambedkarite movement and the South American
bourgeoisie, and how it presents itself varies accordingly. Having said that FWBO
centres follow broadly follow a common syllabus; they are based on the same core set of
teachings; they attempt to co-ordinate their teaching work; and they fund collective
bodies such as the FWBO Communications Office. In this paper I hope to suggest
something of the variety of presentations of the FWBO, and yet also to suggest some of
the principles and common concerns which structure these presentations.

As its dialectical relationship to other Buddhist movements suggests, the FWBO is built
upon an awareness of the cultural and historical forces that mediate the expression of
individuals' going for Refuge. Indeed it may be said that the over-arching project of the
FWBO is the creation of a tradition of Buddhism that is genuinely at home in the modern
world and Western culture. While Buddhists ...

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