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Growing Pains

by Vishvapani

... areas for which they were
responsible. Another response surfaced in Autumn 2002 when it emerged that Kovida,
the Western Order Convener, had for some years been spending money to which he was
not entitled that belonged to FWBO Uddiyana, the charity looking after Sangharakshita’s
affairs. I can only speculate about why this happened, but my impression was that
spending money was a displacement of his conflicts about his work, and perhaps his life
more generally. He was capable and loyal, but his qualities and experience made him ill
suited to his work and he felt very frustrated.

Even those with the capacity to engage in strategic and organisational work wondered if
it was the best use of their time. The movement needed the inspiration of strongly
established Dharma practitioners such as Subhuti, but his place at the top of its
organisational pyramid meant that numerous issues incessantly came to him and his
associates for their urgent attention. Conversely, some other PCC Members felt they
could not fully influence its policies because of Subhuti’s dominance. The difficulties
people felt in regard to Subhuti were closely connected with his strengths: he was
uniformly respected in the PCC as having the greatest spiritual stature, intellectual
capacity, organisational ability and ability to engage with great depth with many people.
But I think that others found it hard to take initiatives themselves in the face of Subhuti’s

The College members were in an especially difficult position. By 2003 around 1,500
people worldwide had asked for ordination; and, even with the support of the ordination
teams, all of these requests converged on the eleven public preceptors for final decisions.
Between them they had already ordained around 600 people who often still looked to
them for support and guidance. As well as their responsibility for ordinations they were
the collective Head of the Order; several were also presidents and involved in Order
issues; and the four women preceptors were under particular pressure because so many
women were asking for ordination. In addition they all had to deal with the expectations,
projections and reactions attendant on their place at the top of the movement’s hierarchy.
Under considerable pressure but unable to do much to ‘lead’ the movement, the public
preceptors increasingly wondered what their Headship of the Order really meant?

The PCC and the Order

The Order itself had changed. Its 600 members in 1994, when the PCC was established,
had swelled by 2003 to 1,000 individuals spread further around the globe. The passage of
time also meant that the Order was more mature in both years and experience, and many
had been practicing for twenty or thirty years. They were living their lives in their own
ways and without a natural feeling of deference to the movement’s institutional leaders.
By this time Sangharakshita was a distant figure for many: he was preceptor to only a
third of Order members while many of the others had not had substantial contact with
him. He had handed on the Headship, withdrawn from involvement in the movement, and
finally become the subject of questioning and criticism from large numbers of Order

Behind the specific details of the PCC’s responsibilities was a larger question that is
harder to define: who ultimately ‘owns’ the FWBO and determines what it stands for?
Initially the FWBO had clearly been ‘Sangharakshita’s movement’: it was formed around
his ideas, run by people he had ordained, and guided in crucial areas by his judgment and
influence. Having succeeded to this role the PCC and the College also found themselves,
in some sense, the movement’s ultimate owners. With the handing on the Headship of the
Order to the College this seemed to be confirmed: they were ‘custodians’, charged to
safeguard and sustain the vision behind the Order; and to balance the ‘centrifugal’ forces
of increasing divergence with the ‘centripetal’ forces of coherence and a shared set of
values. In this sense the PCC and College were set up to be in tension with others in the

But the tension that many Order members felt was not so much with these bodies
themselves as with the norms and standards with which they were associated. The
movement had tended to present itself in terms of its distinctive institutions such as
centres, communities and team-based businesses, and PCC members had all devoted
themselves to these institutions as expressions of a shared cause for which they had made
sacrifices. But by 2003 only a minority of Order members were involved in all of these
institutions. Some lived in family situations; more lived on their own or in informal
arrangements with friends. Some had careers; others had found individual ways of
supporting themselves. It had even ceased to be the norm that the great majority of Order
members had a substantial involvement in FWBO centres. Connected with the sense of a
normative lifestyle was a normative set of views that followed Sangharakshita’s. Along
with disagreements about gender there were others on sex, families, Christianity and
‘pseudo-liberalism’. It was clear that individuals had the freedom to disagree; but did
such views nonetheless represent the position of the movement? Could an FWBO centre
propagate a differing view? People in the FWBO could easily feel that, to the extent that
their views and lifestyles differed from the perceived orthodoxy, they were outside the

Whatever the causes, there were signs that all was not well in the movement, and these
indications had been discussed extensively in the Madhyamaloka Meeting. Leaving aside
India, while the number of women requesting ordination was increasing, the number of
men was going down. From a peak of 92 in 1998, the number decreased every year,
eventually reaching a low of 32 in 2003. And, for all the exhortations to expand the
movement, very few new urban FWBO centres had opened in the 1990s. Conversely, the
most encouraging new development in the 1990s was the Buddhafield collective which
runs camping retreats and festivals. It had started off as a rebellious alternative to
mainstream FWBO centres and been regarded with some suspicion by many others in the
movement, and its success suggested that energy lay outside the FWBO’s mainstream.
Arguably the structures that followed Sangharakshita, which were intended to offer clear
leadership and provide a check on ethical breaches, had tended to inhibit autonomy and
initiative. They placed unrealistic expectations and unsustainable burdens on the leaders,
and perhaps exacerbated tendencies to passivity, deference and disgruntlement within the
Order as a whole. In a letter to the Order June 2003 Subhuti described ‘the dichotomy of
abdication of personal responsibility on the one hand and the egoistic abuse of respect,
whether unwittingly or not, on the other.’ The implication was that these things had
occurred in the Order itself.

In May 2003 Subhuti and I discussed the movement’s future with Mahaprabha, an Order
member who taught strategy at London Business School. We discussed how, as a young
movement the FWBO had often defined itself against the world, mirroring the defiant,
resolutely self-sufficient character of its founder. Indeed, its language and praxis had
sometimes displayed efforts to create a world unto itself, a ‘New Society’ operating
within the wider world, but not of it. Even after 2000, this attitude was still influential,
but western society and the Buddhist world in the West were changing, and the FWBO’s
tendency to isolation risked making it irrelevant to the society that surrounded it.
Mahaprabha observed that new organisations need protection and their founders often
wish to safeguard their hard-won achievements. He drew a graph with one axis marked
‘control’ and another marked ‘certainty’. He wrote ‘order’ at the point where the two
lines met: the point of maximum control and certainty. An organisation in this position is
tightly defined but isolated and liable to forfeit the ability to learn from others; it risked
losing contact with the needs it had been founded to address. The other pole, the point of
minimum control and certainty, he labeled ‘chaos’. The question was how to operate with
both flexibility and cohesion in the intermediate realm between order and chaos. The
FWBO’s tightly bounded character was breaking down and we needed to find ways to
inhabit this realm.

Subhuti’s Response: Freedom in the Order

Although I have associated the PCC with efforts to maintain cohesion and guard past
successes, there was also a countervailing trend within it. The Order’s institutions had
been intended to support a ‘cascade of spiritual friendship’ within a ‘free association of
individuals’; and the movement was intended to be a network of autonomous projects
freely collaborating rather than a unitary, streamlined organisation. Subhuti’s concern at
the declining sense of collective ownership of the FWBO prompted a talk to a Men’s UK
National Order Weekend in August 2002 entitled ‘Freedom in the Order’ in which he
urged a return ...

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