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Growing Pains

by Vishvapani

... him; but I saw that some of his actions had led to suffering in ways he
seemed unwilling to consider. I had tried hard to understand this apparent incongruity
while living with him, and had seen something of the complexity of his character and the
peculiarity of his life experience. But it wasn’t just a matter of making an ethical
assessment: reflecting on these issues I felt very, very sad. I had known both Yashomitra
and Sangharakshita since I fifteen years old and thought of them both as friends. I found
myself writing out my thoughts on Sangharakshita’s life in a letter to Zoketsu Norman
Fischer, who I knew a little and who had lived through the San Francisco Zen Center’s
struggles to come to terms with the flaws and virtues of its former leader, Richard Baker
Roshi. I later published my letter and his response in Shabda. I saw that the issues needed
to be faced squarely and that doing so touched strong feelings for everyone in the FWBO,
whether or not we were directly involved in these events. As I wrote: ‘all these people –
the critics, the doubters, the writers, the leaders, Sangharakshita and everyone else – had
shared their lives for two or three decades. They had wound round each other, and lived
with each other, and sometimes slept with each other. If these people weren’t their lives,
then what were their lives?’

iii. Madhyamaloka Meetings 1: Attitudes

A problem with publishing Yashomitra’s article was that Shabda had a policy of not
printing personal criticisms of individuals. So I contacted Subhuti, who in India, for
advice. He proposed that we hold off publication until key people were back in the UK,
and in mid- February 2003 the Madhyamaloka Meeting gathered (the Preceptors’ College
having delegated the decision about publication to us). Concerns about the effect on
Sangharakshita were allayed when we heard that he didn’t want to be told anything that
might hinder his ability to sleep. The meeting was unanimous that we should advise the
Order conveners to revoke the injunction against personal criticisms and publish the
article. The mood of the meeting and the enthusiasm for publishing surprised me, and it
seemed significant that the article would appear with the conscious agreement of people
at the heart of the movement. It appeared in the March 2003 Shabda along with a preface
by Subhuti, saying: ‘Yashomitra writes with honesty and objectivity and raises issues
that, in our view, do need to be aired in the Order and movement, whether or not one
agrees with everything that he says. Indeed, I am glad that Yashomitra has written the
article and am pleased that another piece of our collective history is being opened to us
all.’
Over my years in the Order, even while working hard for the movement, standing up for
it in public and living with its leaders at Madhyamaloka, I often disagreed with
Sangharakshita’s views and was sceptical of the PCC’s leadership role. I admired some
of them, and some were my friends, but I favoured greater openness in our
communication, diversity in our norms and reform of our structures. Dharma Life
magazine, which I had founded in 1996 and had edited since then, had been my main
attempt to influence the movement’s discourse and frames of reference in this way. I had
expected that in joining the PCC and the Madhyamaloka Meeting I would find myself
fighting those more concerned to conserve the movement’s cohesive values. What I
actually found was a group led by Subhuti that was willing to consider changes to the
movement’s structures that were more radical than any I had thought possible.

An agenda for change had been emerging in the Madhyamaloka Meeting over the
previous two years. The main change it had already achieved was to the mitra system.
Perhaps someone closer to events will one day give an account of why the mitra system
developed as it did. But by 2000 an arrangement that had started as a way to help
newcomers connect with the FWBO and the Order required a lengthy handbook to guide
mitra conveners through the many expectations the candidate mitra was expected to
fulfill, including declaring that they would not have or encourage others to have an
abortion and that they did not adhere to a strong political philosophy deemed antipathetic
to Buddhism. The resulting arrangements were often experienced as a demand for
conformity from the candidate, while Order members had the role of judging and
approving them. What is more, Order members in general were not involved in deciding
the criteria they were expected to enforce. The Madhyamaloka Meeting’s solution was
simple and radical. They proposed that becoming a mitra should be entirely up to the
candidate, who simply needed to make three declarations: that they were a Buddhist, that
they would follow the five precepts, and that they saw the FWBO as the current context
for their spiritual lives. Notions of acceptance and criteria were discarded and the mitra
‘system’ was finished. This was an early sign that serious changes were afoot, and that
the future of the movement lay in an as yet undefined, but definitely more voluntaristic
arrangement.

While the appearance of the article was painful for everyone, at least some at
Madhyamaloka thought it was also fortuitous. A number of us agreed with Yashomitra
that the issues stirred up in 1997 by the Guardian lingered as unfinished business, and his
article brought these into the open. We actively embraced the opportunity to open up a
range of issues that started with Sangharakshita’s sexual ethics but went much further.


iv. Responses to Yashomitra

It was in this spirit that the Madhyamaloka Meeting decided not to make a collective
statement in response to Yashomitra’s article: that would have reinforced the role of
‘Madhyamaloka’ as owners of the FWBO’s ‘official’ position. Instead, Subhuti proposed
in a letter he sent to Order members in late March 2003 (published in the May 2003
Shabda): ‘It seems to me the most important thing is that those of us who want to tell our
stories, and that we just let everything come out into the open ... I would value hearing
from as many Order members as possible about their experience of their past in the Order
and movement, if they feel there is something unexpressed.’

This suggestion was taken up widely, and the Order embarked on a period of turmoil and
soul-searching that reached a climax at the Open Forum at the August 2003 Order
Convention and gradually settling down in the following year-and-a-half. Yashomitra’s
article was discussed at Order gatherings, along with other personal stories. Many Order
members contributed articles and reports to Shabda, and we proposed to the Order
conveners that a digest of these should also be circulated to interested non-Order
members. Many contributions were thoughtful, balanced and kind, and the discussion
was far too varied to be neatly encapsulated. But I want to suggest elements that I think
were significant for the movement’s future development.

Similar stories to Yashomitra’s had appeared in The Guardian newspaper, been
explicated by The FWBO Files, and endlessly repeated on the internet by long-time critic
Mark Dunlop and others. In 1998 Shabda contained many angry reports about
Sangharakshita’s sexual history and the movement’s other troubles. And yet the repeated
cry in 2003 was, ‘Why weren’t we told?’ and even, ‘Why was this hidden?’

What explains this response in the Order at this time? One reason was suggested by the
character of those who were affected this time around. Whereas many of those who had
been most outspoken in 1998 were already to some degree disaffected, it seems
significant to me that in 2003 Yashomitra touched many who were inclined by
experience and temperament to be loyal supporters of Sangharakshita and the movement.
Such people were touched because of Yashomitra’s character: he was generally liked and
respected within the Order – and the honest tone of his article. Whereas previous
criticisms had come from outside, and perhaps been disregarded, Yashomitra’s story was
a part of the Order’s own experience and his words matched its ethos of open
communication. Significantly, and in contrast to 1997/8, those at Madhyamaloka, from
whom these loyal Order members tended to take a lead, were at pains not to defend
Sangharakshita: indeed, open discussion was encouraged. Subhuti wrote in his March
letter to the Order: ‘I shall not defend Bhante’s actions as described by Yashomitra.
Although I was well aware that Bhante was sexually active at the time Yashomitra writes
of, with a number of partners, Yashomitra’s article presented me, for the first time that I
am aware of, with activity of this kind that I cannot condone.’

Many Order members were also stung by Yashomitra’s suggestion that the Order was in
a state of collective denial about Sangharakshita’s sexual activity and its consequences in
the movement. Perhaps ‘denial’ is the mind’s tendency to avoid what it finds painful, and
in 2003 people were confronted by a painful reality in a way that could no longer be set
aside. There were many expressions of ...

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