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Growing Pains

by Vishvapani

Growing Pains
An Inside View of Change in the FWBO by Vishvapani

In January 2003 I started a new job. I was to survey the FWBO in the UK and make
recommendations on how it should develop. I agreed to take this on for two years while
living at Madhyamaloka and continuing to edit Dharma Life. The job meant that I would
rejoin the Chairmen’s meeting, become an auxiliary member of the Preceptors College
Council (PCC), and join the Madhyamaloka Meeting – the small working group that
Subhuti had gathered around him to look at how the movement was developing. I
continued in this post for the next two-and-a-half years up to summer 2005 and in that
time the movement went through considerable turmoil and change. I did engage with the
movement in the UK but, at least to start with, the job I had been asked to do turned out
not to be the job that needed doing: that job was working with Subhuti to help the
movement make a transition in its organisation and culture.

I have finished this work now, and as a last bow I am writing this account. I have taken
my own perspective and experiences as a starting point because that offers a useful focus,
and it is part of what I want to communicate, but I have also tried to describe what
happened to the movement as a whole, and to suggest why. Of course, there are many
other perspectives and many other possible interpretations of this period, and I would not
claim that mine is the most accurate: no doubt even others who were involved would give
different accounts; and it is very soon to make such an attempt. But despite this article’s
necessary limitations, my intention is to offer information and background on what has
happened for people within the FWBO. I hope that this will be helpful to others who are
interested in our community, as well.
I


2003: The Need for Change

i. Starting Work

In August 2000, on his 75th birthday Sangharakshita handed on of the Headship of the
Western Buddhist Order to the College of Public Preceptors and appointed Subhuti to be
its Chairman for a five year term. The College, which was responsible for ordinations,
had eleven members and it was to continue to work with centre presidents in the PCC as
it had since had since 1994. It may have seemed that the seal was being set on a second
generation who had now wholly succeeded Sangharakshita in the movement’s
‘leadership’ while he withdrew into a peaceful retirement. But this was also the point at
which the prevailing model of leadership came under scrutiny by this second generation
of leaders. As Subhuti later commented, once the College had been given full
responsibility he felt more free to question the status quo. There was reason to question.
Members of the Madhyamaloka Meeting had been becoming aware that something in the
current arrangements wasn’t working: the movement seemed to be settling into safe and
predictable patterns and losing the dynamism of earlier years; some quite senior Order
members did not fully trust the ‘Madhyamaloka’ leadership; and Public Preceptors felt
increasingly over-stretched. The College and the PCC were unable to address these
underlying issues: members of the former were too caught up with ordination processes,
the latter was too unwieldy, and the individuals members of both bodies were not
necessarily suited to asking such questions.

In 2001 Subhuti formed the Madhyamaloka Meeting as a think-tank, more manageable
and focused than the PCC, with a brief to review the movement ‘from top to bottom’. Its
initial members were Subhuti, Sona, Kovida, Srimala, Dhammarati, Cittapala and
Kulananda; and by 2003 Sona and Kovida had left the group while Dayanandi and I had
joined. They quickly concluded that what was needed was a concerted campaign of
revival and change, encapsulated in the slogan, ‘Deepen the Order; open up the
movement’, but by 2003 more progress had been made with the second of these
objectives than the first. Deepening the Order meant emphasising chapters, and a series
of retreats was held at Madhyamaloka in which Order chapters met with Subhuti, the
local president and others to explore how they could be more effective. Two new UK
Order Conveners were appointed: Mahamati for men and Dayanandi for women; a
network of regional Order Forums was established in which Order members discussed
issues affecting the Order; and more energy went into chapter conveners retreats. Despite
all these initiatives, my impression is that those concerned felt they were taking a thimble
to the ocean: the Order had a life of its own, and attempts to change things from ‘above’
had a limited affect. But ‘opening up the movement’ (i.e. the activities of the FWBO
beyond the Order) involved structures such as the mitra ‘system’ and the centralised
ordination process. The College, supported by the PCC, had ultimate responsibility for
these, and the Madhyamaloka Meeting had influence as the advisor to the College and
PCC.

The two main initiatives to ‘open up’ the movement prior to 2003 concerned changes to
the mitra system, to which I shall return, and ‘regionalisation’. This meant locating
responsibility for the movement’s coordination and strategic development with the people
already taking responsibility at local and regional level, not with the PCC. A group of
senior Order members was already meeting in India, and other meetings started in the US
and Germany, where there are just a few centres. But the real problem was the UK which
in early 2003 had thirty centres and around 600 Order members: a meeting of those
taking major responsibilities would include up to 100 people. Someone needed to take a
good look and find a way forward.
Madhyamaloka Meeting and the European Chairs Assembly asked me to take on this job
and I agreed, but with some reservations. I doubted that the FWBO in the UK was
manageable in the way that had been suggested. The UK makes up at least 70 percent of
the FWBO outside India, and addressing its needs would in fact require looking not just
at the symptoms (the limitations of the movement in the UK) but also identifying the
underlying causes that were affecting the whole FWBO. But before I had gone far in
doing this, a development occurred that changed the landscape in which I was searching.

ii. Sangharakshita and Yashomitra: January 2003

In January 2003 I heard that a long-standing Order member called Yashomitra had
submitted an article to Shabda, the Order’s confidential journal, detailing his sexual
contact with Sangharakshita and making some trenchant criticisms. A debate ensued at
Madhyamaloka: Should Yashomitra’s piece be published? Should it be withheld? Who
should decide? Should we ask Sangharakshita, anticipating that he might well say no?
Was it fair on him to publish it – or even to ask him, given his current ill health? What if
it killed him? But then, was it fair on Yashomitra not to publish? On one side was loyalty
to Sangharakshita, a desire to protect him – especially now he was ill – and exasperation
at the seemingly endless stream of criticism. On the other side, for Kulananda and
myself, was frustration at the constraints on talking publicly about Sangharakshita’s
sexual past. We had had the task of responding to the 1997-9 campaign against
Sangharakshita and the FWBO that used the press and the internet; and in August 1998
we had co-authored with Cittapala The FWBO Files: a Response. This document had
offered only minimal comment on the accusations about sex: one reason was the request
from Lokamitra and a a team of senior Order members in India that he had convened to
say as little as possible to confirm that Sangharakshita had been homosexually active.
They told us they were afraid of the response in their community, even fearing that there
would be violence against members of the movement. The other reason was that
Sangharakshita himself had said that he wanted to write his own account in his next
volume of memoirs. But when he came to write that volume he covered only a period in
which he was still celibate. By 2003 we could wait no longer.

When I read Yashomitra’s article I saw it was incendiary stuff. I had heard his story from
his own lips ten years before, and I had been forced to think hard about issues around
Sangharakshita’s sexual history when responding to our public critics. In a sense there
was nothing surprising in what he had to say: it always seemed inevitable to me that
Sangharakshita’s behaviour would produce feelings such as Yashomitra’s in at least some
of his partners. But the article was made especially powerful by its tone. Unlike some
previous accounts, Yashomitra’s was largely free of rhetoric and venom, and portrayed
Sangharakshita in a credible yet troubling light. Telling details included descriptions of
Yashomitra’s sense that Sangharakshita had lost interest in him when their sexual
relationship ended, and his frustration when he had tried to discuss the events with
Sangharakshita years later and, as he saw it, been rebuffed.

My own response to reading this was mixed. I admired Sangharakshita greatly and felt
great affection for ...

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