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Growing Pains

by Vishvapani

... to the FWBO’s founding principles: ‘I think we need to learn – or re-learn
– the habit of seeing the Movement as the sum total of the altruistic activities of Order
members, not as a particular set of institutions.’ At the organisational level, too, he
emphasised that power should not play a part as: ‘There is no hierarchical “chain of
command”. If there is any centralising influence at the organisational level, it should
come about in response to some common interest, in relation to which co-operation
enhances effectiveness.’

Part of Subhuti’s motivation for giving this talk was frustration that his own institutional
role, with its connotations of power, constrained his ability to speak his mind freely,
especially when he had criticisms. And he advocated an atmosphere of greater freedom of
expression for all on a basis of mutual trust and respect. Another motivation was
frustration at the growing criticism of those holding institutional responsibilities by others
who felt more marginal. He exhorted these individuals to find an alternative: ‘their best
strategy is to show another way ... the more approaches we have, the better.’ This
suggestion didn’t address the underlying reasons why people felt critical, but the
intention was clearly to embrace the new conditions in which the Order was operating: ‘I
think we must accept – and even aim for – a more diverse Order and Movement, and
rejoice in that as a sign of spiritual vitality.’

vi. Madhyamaloka Meeting 2: the Search for Alternatives

If the Order’s debates marked a change in views of Sangharakshita, attitudes were also
changing among PCC members themselves. As I had realised in moving to
Madhyamaloka, for many, their connection with Sangharakshita was one of the most
important relationships in their lives; they had learned to practice, even to think, under his
tutelage; their experience of the Order had been formed by the roles to which he had
appointed them; and their motivation for taking responsibility was often loyalty and
gratitude to him as a teacher. In 2003 Sangharakshita’s sleeplessness and accompanying
distress made the community’s collective relationship with him, which had been polite
but distant, much more demanding; and this confronted some people with unresolved
difficulties in their personal connections with him. Subhuti expressed his experience of
the intellectual side of his changing relationship in his June letter to the Order, while
discussing Women, Men and Angels: ‘At the time that I wrote [1994] I was inclined to
give Sangharakshita’s ideas a lot more priority than I am now. I don’t think that even
then I adopted them blindly and I don’t think that even now I dismiss them easily -
indeed, Sangharakshita’s thought is still central to my own. But there has been a
progression in my relationship to him.’ He concluded: ‘Over time ... I have increasingly
found myself diverging from Sangharakshita on some of his views about the times we
live in and the way the Dharma should be communicated.’

A decline in Sangharakshita’s standing also affected that of his successors. While
‘Freedom in the Order’ admirably outlined the spirit of the changes Subhuti thought were
necessary, its appraisal of problematic attitudes did not extend to the structures that had
helped to produce them. By the time I joined the Madhyamaloka Meeting, Subhuti’s
thinking had moved on. He suggested to the meeting that underlying the concerns about
the state of the movement, the tensions around the PCC, and the controversy around
Sangharakshita, lay questions about the authority of the movement’s leadership. When
Sangharakshita had handed on the Headship to the College it may have seemed that they
would now fulfill the role he had once had, but it had become clear that this was
impossible. We needed more than a transfer of responsibilities; we needed to find an
entirely new way of organising ourselves that took into account the Order’s greater size,
its increased diversity, and the gradual decay of the authority that had been inherited from
its founder.

For Subhuti, authority and legitimacy were not abstract issues: they defined the limits of
his capacity for action and initiative as Chair of the Preceptors College. He was keenly
aware that the questioning of Sangharakshita affected his own standing. As he put it, he
thought that he had a limited period of legitimacy in which he could make changes; and
he wanted to use that time to implement a transition to new arrangements that would be
self-legitimating. Working with him in this period, hammering out issues that were
central to the movement we had been involved in for most of our lives, was genuinely
exciting. His willingness to countenance change, and the atmosphere of controversy, lent
an air of urgency, even drama, to our discussions. It sometimes seemed that old attitudes
and ways of working were crumbling before our eyes.

However, even Subhuti’s limited legitimacy could not be taken for granted considering
his involvement with Kovida and his authorship of Women, Men and Angels. In his
March letter, Subhuti noted that some people had resigned from the Order because of this
book and he said: ‘I would far rather that doubts and concerns about me are articulated
openly and my suitability to carry my present responsibilities is called into question than
that someone should leave the Order ... I am quite happy to complete my term of office as
Chairman of the Preceptors‚ College and Council. But I don’t want to do so if most Order
members do not believe that is in the best interests of the Order.’ The response was
generally supportive, but this request showed how seriously he regarded the issue.

Reviewing the College

The agenda Subhuti presented to the Madhyamaloka Meeting focused on the College. It
was the Head of the Order and, through its connection with the PCC, it had a role in the
leadership of the movement. But its core responsibility was for ordinations, and this was
crucial. Ordination was the only point at which standards could really be asserted, and the
Order’s existence depended on its members’ mutual acceptance of one another’s
ordinations. As Subhuti put it, ‘ordination is the only “sacrament” within the FWBO’s
system.’ As we understood it, ordination centred on the preceptor’s ‘witnessing’ that the
candidate was going for Refuge to the Three Jewels; and this witnessing required
considerable depth of Dharma practice and engagement with the WBO sangha. For these
reasons, authority to confer ordination had been restricted to a tight group of senior and
trusted Order members, then numbering eleven.

By early 2003 this arrangement was buckling. The Public Preceptors were coming to the
limits of their energy at a time when, as confidence drained away from the movement’s
normative beliefs and lifestyles, their standing was affected. In the previous
circumstances authority and legitimacy naturally flowed from Sangharakshita; in the new
ones it also needed to emerge from the Order as a whole. As Subhuti put it in his March
2003 letter to the Order: ‘We are in transition from a band of Bhante’s personal disciples
who were constituted into an Order by him to an Order that was founded many years ago
by Bhante.’ Did this mean that the old basis for ordinations was no longer sustainable?
This was asked in all seriousness, and the Madhyamaloka Meeting discussed the
spectrum of alternatives for how ordinations could be conducted, and requested views
from Order members. At one end of the spectrum of possibilities was a tightly controlled
lineage of teachers authorised to confer ordination: in a sense this is what we already had.
At the other end was a radical decentralisation. In its most extreme form this could mean
that people selected themselves with no external check; or less radically, in the manner of
Theravadin Bhikkhus, ordination could be conferred by any gathering of a given number
of Order members. As we mulled over what the Order might be like with these
arrangements, more and more concerns surfaced: how would ‘standards’ be maintained
between chapters? Was there any place for the ‘witnessing ‘ element of the ceremony and
the relationship with the preceptor? In the absence of these, how would confidence be
maintained between Order members that they shared the same understanding of
ordination? And without that, how could the Order persist? I think all the meeting’s
members soon felt that such an Order would rapidly cease to have any meaning.

In fact it would be wrong to characterize the existing system as simply hierarchical: it
was tripartite and contained checks and balances. The views of local Order members on a
person’s readiness for ordination were extensively canvassed and with very few
exceptions their support was before someone could be ordained. Each ordinand also had a
private preceptor, a senior Order member with a particular personal connection with the
candidate, who conducted the private ordination ceremony. Although they had the final
say, the public preceptor’s task was often to supervise the other parties to ensure the
maintenance ...

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