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Perceptions Of The FWBO In British Buddhism by Vishvapani

by Vishvapani

perceptions of the fwbo
in british buddhism by vishvapani
thebuddhistcentre.com: triratna writing
I. introduction

Sometime in 1997 several British Buddhists started an anonymous campaign against the Friends of
the Western Buddhist Order. Although over the years I have observed a number of controversies in
the Buddhist world, some of them very unpleasant, I have not seen anything quite so pointed or
venomous as their attempts to ‘put Sangharakshita on trial’, and discredit the FWBO’s work. Their
efforts prompted a substantial and critical article on the FWBO in The Guardian1, and their own
‘researches’ were published as a more worked-out critique in The FWBO Files2. In turn this text has
been widely distributed, and its highly unfavourable portrait of the FWBO has been given some
When all this happened I was the Director of the FWBO Communication Office, and it fell to me to co-
ordinate our response, and to work on our rebuttals. I co-authored the FWBO’s Response to the
FWBO Files. Along with my colleague Guhyapati I worked closely with Madeline Bunting, the author of
The Guardian’s article, and later I had dealings with the Files ’author as well. These events were
something of a denouement for my engagement with the world of British Buddhism and in the
FWBO’s relations with other Buddhists. I have long been aware that there were problems in relations
between the FWBO and other Buddhists, and my own engagement with this issue started in 1987 when I helped to run the Cambridge University Buddhist Society. Sometimes when I have told other
Buddhists of my affiliation I have been met by mistrust, or even aversion. I have become aware of an
undertow of rumour in the British Buddhist world, and I think I have seen some of the assumptions,
predilections and prejudices that were have been brought to the encounter and skewed the ensuing
In these ways I have heard innumerable criticisms of the FWBO from many perspectives, and I
continue to hear them. I have grown familiar with these criticisms, and equally familiar with the
counter-arguments. I have not lost my faith in the FWBO as a result of this experience and,
conversely, I hope I have not reacted to the experience of being attacked by resorting to the security
of an entrenched position. I have felt perplexed that well-intentioned people – Buddhists at that –
apparently acting in good faith, can have reactions to the FWBO that are so different from my own.
The question with which I have been confronted is, why do my own perceptions of the FWBO differ
so radically from those of its critics? Are my colleagues in the FWBO and I blind to the movement’s
faults? Are we in denial? Have we rejected our shadow? I can hardly answer that question, of course,
and this paper is written in the belief that my own perceptions have at least some validity. Furthermore
I am sure that some criticisms of the FWBO can be made quite legitimately, and I sometimes have my
own criticisms of the FWBO. One could hardly hope for a better illustration of the Buddhist teaching of
the subjectivity and relativity of perceptions.
1 The Dark Side of Enlightenment, The Guardian, 27/9/97, G2 p.1.
See also the FWBO’s communiqué responding to the article: The Guardian’s Article On The FWBO, FWBO Communications
Office, 31/10/97, http://www.discussion.fwbo.org/ and further discussion in The Guardian: Vishvapani, Buddhism Distorted,
Face to Faith The Guardian 28/11/97, and: E. Harris, Face to Faith, The Guardian 5/12/97.
2 The FWBO Files: The History and Teachings of The Friends of the Western Buddhist Order (FWBO), and its leader, Sang-
harakshita may be viewed at http://www.fwbo-files.com/.
thebuddhistcentre.com: triratna writing
The first subject of this article is how some outsiders perceive the FWBO. I offer these observations in
the hope of clarifying a sometimes tangled debate, and to explain to people from the FWBO some of
the responses with which they may be confronted. Its second subject is why these perceptions arise,
and this is harder to know for sure. As a point of ethics I believe that one should not ascribe nefarious
motives to one’s interlocutors, but I do think that one can legitimately seek to tease out their
assumptions, and clarify underlying points of difference. I hope my reflections offer a starting point for
understanding the deeper issues that are raised by the controversy around the FWBO, which may
shed some light more widely, on issues that face Buddhism in its transmission to the West.
My comments primarily concern the world of British Buddhism because in most other countries,
especially the US, the FWBO is too small to attract much interest or attention, while within Indian
Buddhism, where it is a considerable presence, the context is so different that it would require
separate treatment. Even within the UK these generalisations may go too far. The British Buddhist
world is varied: many people look favourably on the FWBO, and many have no opinion of it. It is not
true that the FWBO’s relations with other Buddhists are universally problematic. Perhaps it is best to
say that the FWBO raises a variety of issues for other Buddhists, with the proviso that those
Buddhists respond to those issues to the issues in a variety of ways.
In my account I am not be concerned to prove that these perceptions exist, or where they exist – that
is, I will not be quoting from critical documents, recounting anecdotes, or repeating conversations.
This article offers an analysis of my perceptions of others’ perceptions. I am sure that this account is
not comprehensive, and that further perceptions could be unearthed.
I want to emphasise one point at the outset. My subject is not the reality of the FWBO – not what it is
actually like, but how it is perceived by some observers. Perhaps there is a need for another article
dealing with the true nature of the FWBO in the light of criticisms it has confronted. Although I shall
make some comments along these lines in the course of the article, that is another subject. I hope
this present article can make a small contribution to moving on the dialogue between the FWBO and
its critics.
II. the context of difficulties
1. british buddhist history
The FWBO’s troubles are not new. It was born in conflict when Sangharakshita was excluded from the
Hampstead Buddhist Vihara, and for many years its relations with other Buddhists were clouded by
the bad feeling generated in the 1960s. But to show the full context requires a step further back in the
history of British Buddhism.
Looking at this history from an institutional perspective, up to the 1960s British Buddhism largely
meant the Buddhist Society and associated organisations, plus various scholars. That Buddhist world
may well have been fractious and limited by its orientation towards texts rather than committed
personal Dharma practice, but it was small and relatively homogenous. Things changed when the
Buddhist world started to expand in the 1960s with the arrival of experienced practitioners and
teachers, including Sangharakshita. These people started teaching and founded centres and then
thebuddhistcentre.com: triratna writing
movements that were oriented towards committed study and practice. Sangharakshita’s
estrangement from the previous Buddhist ‘establishment’ was particularly intense, but it was not
unique. Several other teachers also fell out with the Society, or at least felt a desire to establish their
independence from it, notwithstanding its desire to represent the whole of Buddhism in Britain.
This is one reason why the movements that started after the 1960s, which now comprise the core of
the British Buddhist world and include the FWBO, developed in isolation from one another. Whatever
further reasons there may have been, the result was that, although there has always been a
background noise of mistrust and criticism between the various organisations and traditions, it was
possible for people following different traditions largely to ignore each other.
This is no longer the case. Things started to change with the emergence of various teachers and
movements into public forums, such as the media, education, and inter-Buddhist groupings such as
the Network of Buddhist Organisations, where they became visible to each other. With the
proliferation of Dharma centres, especially in London, the various Buddhist organisations came into
closer physical proximity, and found that their meditation classes and Buddhism courses attracted the
same people. Then there was the effect of developments in the US, where a parallel process of self-
awareness had been taking place, prompted by the scandals and crises of confidence of American
Buddhism in the 1980s. This led to books, conferences, teachers’ forums, and publications such as
Tricycle that articulated an inter-Buddhist awareness, and whose effects spread to the ...

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