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Bad Press and Its Net Effect

by Vishvapani

Bad Press and its Net Effect

by Vishvapani

‘Bad karma’ read the headline on the front of The Guardian’s tabloid supplement in late
October 1997. It was emblazoned across a picture of Sangharakshita, founder of the
Friends of the Western Buddhist Order, who the paper described as: ‘the man at the
centre of the sex and suicide scandal that is haunting Britain’s Buddhists’. Inside was a
substantial article by the paper’s religious correspondent, Madelaine Bunting, based on a
few case studies presenting bad experiences within the fwbo which, it suggested, were
cause for concern about this Buddhist movement.

Bunting first contacted the fwbo about six weeks before the article appeared, with an
apparently innocent request to interview Sangharakshita which he declined, because he is
now in semi-retirement. In 1996 Bunting had written an article on the New Kadampa
Tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, which many observers considered partisan and
sensationalised. It soon became clear that Bunting’s interest in the fwbo came from her
contacts with its critics in the British Buddhist community, and that the article she had in
mind would itself be critical of Sangharakshita, his teachings and the fwbo. Nevertheless
the fwbo communications office worked closely with Bunting as she researched her piece
and maintained friendly relations with her.

Bunting’s first case study was a former member of the wbo who described a sexual
involvement with Sangharakshita in the 1970s and alleged that it had included an element
of coercion. The second case was ‘Tim’, a pseudonym for a man who had been practising
within the fwbo for 10 years. He was first involved at the Croydon Buddhist Centre (for a
full account of these difficulties see ‘Learning the Harsh Way at the Croydon Buddhist
Centre’) and he described having been induced into homosexual activity with the
Centre’s chairman. Finally there was Matthew, who had also worked at the cbc in the
1980s and who killed himself three years after leaving. There were extensive quotations
from Matthew’s diaries, which complained of the oppressive atmosphere at the Centre,
the implication being that this had contributed to his suicide.

Individuals from the fwbo were quoted as arguing that the cbc’s difficulties had arisen for
specific reasons and that safeguards had been instituted against a recurrence. Bunting
suggested, however, that certain teachings by Sangharakshita could be used to legitimise
abuse and coercion. She gave a brief account of his teachings on the family (which she
thinks the fwbo considers ‘addictive and neurotic’); the respective spiritual aptitude of
men and women (characterised, according to her, by ‘a misogynistic biological
determinism’); and sex, implying that homosexuality was considered somehow superior
to heterosexuality.

Finally three individuals, whom Bunting described as ‘senior British Buddhists’ were
quoted criticising the fwbo. Buddhist commentator Stephen Batchelor suggested that the
fwbo is a ‘potentially closed system’; Ken Jones, a long-term activist in the engaged
Buddhist movement, went further, and called it ‘deviant’. While the third figure, who
wished to remain anonymous, described it as a ‘westernised semi-intellectual pot-pourri
of Buddhism’.

Bunting comments that these stories are hard to match up with virtues she also sees in the
fwbo: the ‘sincere idealism’ of its members; its charitable work; its innovative approach
to business; its influence as a voice for Buddhism in British society at large, and its
‘respectability’. Publication of the article has caused much interest and some
consternation, both inside and outside the fwbo. The Guardian received many letters both
defending and criticising the fwbo – though only one was printed on either side of the
debate. The bbc World Service Religious Department, which has worked closely with the
fwbo in the past, broadcast a debate around the article between Madelaine Bunting,
Subhuti (a senior Order member) and academic commentator, Elizabeth Harris.

Shortly after publication, the fwbo communications office submitted a complaint to The
Guardian’s editor arguing that the article contained many inaccuracies. It suggested that
Bunting had presented a distorted view of the fwbo’s teachings, ignoring the alternative
interpretations of those teachings that had been given to her by people from the fwbo in
interviews and in writing, which contradicted hers. It also said that the article contained a
highly selective presentation of the views of other Buddhists – many of whom it
suggested have sympathy with the fwbo’s work. It argued that Bunting had used the
figures she had quoted to question the legitimacy of the fwbo as a Buddhist tradition, but
that she had not substantiated these points, nor given the fwbo an opportunity to respond.
In addition, the editorial presentation tended to sensationalise the material. For instance a
headline referred to the fwbo as a ‘cult’ while Bunting herself had told the
communications office that she did not regard it as such.

Bunting acknowledged there was a case for putting another side of the story, and agreed
to let someone from the fwbo write a response. This was a virtually unprecedented
concession – so much so that when The Guardian’s Readers’ Editor heard of it, he was at
pains to emphasise that the paper was not formally admitting fault and that this should
not establish a precedent for future complaints. The paper’s syndication service continued
to carry the story, and this led to its appearance in several other countries.

Taking up the paper’s offer, Vishvapani wrote a column attempting to place the fwbo in a
historical context. It was an evolving tradition, he suggested, that was learning through
experience how to practice Buddhism in the West. While admitting that the fwbo had
experienced difficulties, he suggested it was a sincere, careful and largely successful
attempt to create a western Buddhist tradition. The following week Elizabeth Harris
wrote another column. She expressed appreciation of the fwbo’s work and agreed that
difficulties were inevitable in any religious community. The fwbo functions
independently of Asian traditions, and Harris expressed concern that it should not ‘stand
alone’ in isolation from other Buddhists.

Meanwhile a debate about issues raised by the article sprang up on Internet discussion
groups devoted to Buddhist subjects. A wide-ranging and sometimes acrimonious debate
ensued that included people from the fwbo as well as critics. Vishvapani, one of the
protagonists in this debate from the fwbo commented: ‘These days if a controversy blows
up it always gets taken up on the Internet and that is true of Buddhist controversies. On
the positive side it means that there is a public forum where issues can be aired – you can
put your side of the story. But, being entirely unedited and uncensored, such debates can
also contain things that are untrue or unethical and, in any case, they are inevitably
inconclusive.’

Finally INFORM, a government-funded academic department within the London School
of Economics organised a forum including Madelaine Bunting and Guhyapati of the fwbo
communications office as part of a seminar on relations between New Religious
Movements and the media. Bunting described the difficulties in her position as a religious
correspondent – the intense pressure to meet deadlines and write a good story; and the
problem of evaluating conflicting information about very different religious traditions.
She reiterated her concerns about certain aspects of the fwbo, and said she stood by what
she had written, but also expressed her respect for those Order members she had met.

Guhyapati outlined the fwbo’s experience of working with Bunting on the story,
emphasisng that it had tried to avoid being defensive in the face of hostile media
attention, and to maintain good relations with Bunting herself. He described the range of
responses within the Order -– from offence, to indifference, to acknowledgment that the
article contained some valid criticisms. Academics from inform commented that they
were impressed by the reasonable tone of the debate and expressed a hope that other
religious movements could learn from the fwbo’s avoidance of a ‘siege mentality’.

Within the fwbo itself the article sparked considerable reflection and debate particularly
within Shabda, the Order’s confidential journal, and a wide-ranging consideration of
what could be learnt from this media criticism. One lesson is that the legacy of
difficulties between British Buddhist groups cannot be ignored, and that it has generated
an atmosphere of some misunderstanding and mistrust. Similarly there has also been
discussion between the fwbo and other British Buddhists about the accusations. Stephen
Batchelor stressed that while he stood by his comments, he had also said much that was
favourable but that was not quoted. Likewise he said his criticism of the fwbo as a
‘potentially totalitarian system’ could apply to Buddhist organisations in general.

What effect will this episode have on ...

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