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Growing Pains

von Vishvapani

... of dismay, shock, anger and sadness; as well as
relief that the issues were at last being confronted fully. Some people suffered a crisis of
faith, asking if the Western Buddhist Order was truly founded on sound spiritual
experience, and if the sacrifices they had made were worth the cost. As well as these
immediate factors changes in the Order and movement, the response in the Order was
also influenced by changes in the culture of the Order (which I will discuss later) that
made many Order members more open to hearing criticisms of their teacher.

Responses in Shabda also included expressions of love for Sangharakshita, gratitude for
his teachings and his other personal qualities, and some questioning of Yashomitra
himself. Some people wanted to defend Sangharakshita against the accusations.
Nonetheless, while there was a strong wish not to be uniformly condemnatory, criticism
of Sangharakshita’s behaviour with Yashomitra and his sexual history in general was a
strong element in many contributions to this discussion. Some people said they thought
he had been unskillful, while others emphasised the difficulty of knowing motives or
making moral judgments about others. However, from this point on I think it has been
possible to speak of a broad swathe of agreement within the FWBO that Sangharakshita
had been unwise in his sexual dealings. Some would dissent from this, while others
would make criticisms of him in much stronger terms.

Several of the personal accounts in Shabda described homosexual experiences in the
FWBO (many of them on the part of men with a largely heterosexual orientation),
including encounters with Sangharakshita. These were mostly reflective in tone: after all,
they were describing events that had taken place twenty or thirty years earlier, when the
now-middle aged writers were young men. Neither condemning nor condoning, several
people said that, while they did not regret what had happened, they realised it had
brought them difficulties later on. A number of writers were at pains to resist a caricature
of the movement’s past as an unbridled sexual ferment, and to emphasise the variety of
experiences and the relative unimportance of the sexual side for them. A view of
Sangharakshita was increasingly articulated that included more ambiguity, more criticism
and more sense of his complexity than had previously been common.

A further theme was the attitudes and ideas that had led to these difficult experiences.
These included views on sex that tended to value homosexuality more highly than
heterosexuality; views on gender that tended to value men more highly than women; and
views about lifestyle that tended to value single sex communal living more highly than
family living. The perception among these writers was that such views were interwoven
and therefore relevant to the events described in Yashomitra’s article. One writer used the
blunt traditional term ‘wrong views’ to describe them. Debate on gender topics had for
some years been the sharpest point of dissention, and a test case for the degree of
agreement that was required of Order members in relation to their teacher.

As well as being about sex, Yashomitra’s article stirred up other unresolved shadows
from the Order’s past. In its early years as a tightly defined group of idealistic, mainly
young people who were strongly influenced by the movement’s leader and on a mission
they considered to have unbounded significance, the FWBO had made rapid progress; but
it had also left behind many painful experiences. So the stories Order members told
included sexual experiences, but also concerned difficulties affecting lifestyle (especially
people with families who had felt excluded), beliefs, gender (including suggestions that
misogynist attitudes had sometimes flourished in the FWBO), and pressures that had
arisen at work or in centres. In 2003 the FWBO’s culture was far more diverse and
inclusive than in its early years, but it had sometimes seemed that the cloud of these old,
painful experiences remained hanging over it. The debates of 2003 offered room for them
to come out in an atmosphere that was free from judgment; and I for one hoped that their
influence over would at last be dispelled.

v. The Question of Authority

Debate continued in the Order and movement over the following months, but while the
discussion was still young, Subhuti made a contribution in his March letter to the Order
that took it in a direction it might not otherwise have followed. He connected this debate
with his underlying concerns about how the movement was structured: ‘The article must
raise questions in many people’s minds about spiritual “authority” in the Order. I regard
this as a very good thing - although not one that is easily and finally resolved. ... Early on,
Bhante’s spiritual authority was everything. Simply with growing numbers and greater
geographical spread, increasing experience and maturity among Order members, the
emergence of new Preceptors, and Bhante’s withdrawal, the situation is much more
complex and requires a new consensus. Revelations about Bhante’s behaviour underline
that questions must be asked about spiritual authority, including about who confers
ordination and on what basis. I believe we need to debate this very widely so that we can
try to reach a new common understanding on the subject.’

Over the next few months the Madhyamaloka Meeting explored these issues, identified
the need for a transition to another way of conceiving and organising responsibilities, and
formulated the outlines of a new structure intended to match its current reality. In fact,
the question of authority had been discussed before 2003. At the 2001 Order Convention
Subhuti gave a talk on this very subject, seeking to clarify the role of the College and the
limits of its authority; and in November 2002 the Public Preceptors meeting had agreed
that the College was too centralised. But by early 2003 the time had come to take this
much further. Before describing what took place in the Madhyamaloka Meeting and the
proposals that emerged from it, I want to suggest some of the tensions that had been
developing in the movement and how these connected with the effects of Yashomitra’s
article and the question of authority.

The College and the PCC

The College of Public Preceptors was authorised by Sangharakshita to have the final say
over ordinations and the appointment of new public and private preceptors and chapter
and Order conveners. It also had the power to exclude people from the Order. Presidents
were appointed by the PCC and had an undefined influence over what happened at
centres: they were key players in the appointment of new chairmen, and sometimes
policed the limits of what centres could do. It would be wrong to suggest that the College
and the PCC ‘ran the movement’: the College’s powers were usually used sensitively and
often embedded in processes of consultation; while the PCC was reluctant to impose its
views and made policy statements very rarely. More important than the formal powers of
the PCC and the College was their place in the Order’s culture. Even before the formation
of the PCC, Subhuti gave a talk at Sangharakshita’s suggestion on the ‘hierarchy of
responsibilities’, suggesting that taking a higher level of responsibility within the
FWBO’s structures required a higher level of spiritual qualities. He was mainly trying to
encourage people to take more responsibility by suggesting that this could be a path of
spiritual practice, but his ideas were easily read as implying an equation between the
FWBO’s institutional hierarchies and its spiritual hierarchy. Membership of the PCC
came to be associated with spiritual status.

But when I joined the Madhyamaloka community in February 1999 I discovered that
reality of the PCC reality differed from its appearance. Members of the PCC and the
College did not regard themselves as being powerful, privileged or spiritually superior.
Although most people in the FWBO assumed the PCC was guiding the movement’s
development, in fact they had never tried to produce strategies for its spread or its
teaching methods, and had no power to apportion resources or direct people to start new
projects. The Madhyamaloka Meeting, with just seven members, had in effect taken over
the functions of the PCC and the Presidents Meeting in keeping an overview. And, since
its formation in 2001, the Meeting had been concerned with structural issues such as the
changes to the mitra system, and never got down to looking at what went on in centres or
regions in detail.

Some individual members of the PCC lacked the capacity to encompass a movement-
wide perspective, and some lacked the spiritual stature required to be an exemplar.
Sangharakshita had chosen the PCC from those he knew well and trusted; but my
impression was that some had been drawn to working with him because they were loyal
and faithful followers, and this did not necessarily equip them to be leaders or organisers.
I think that one or two people in this position found themselves out of their depth, and
responded by trying to control more and more tightly the ...

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