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How The FWBO Presents Itself by Vishvapani

by Vishvapani

how the fwbo presents itself
by vishvapani
thebuddhistcentre.com: triratna writing
Paper for Representing Buddhism Conference, Institute of Oriental Philosophy

European Centre, March 1999
I. introduction
The Friends of the Western Buddhist Order (FWBO) is one of the largest Buddhist movements in
Britain. To be more precise it is one of the three largest movements catering principally to Westerners,
the other two being Soka Gakkai and the New Kadampa Tradition each of which gives its
membership as ‘several thousand’. Taking the numbers affiliated and the number of FWBO centres in
the UK, the FWBO may fairly be said to account for between ten and fifteen percent of Britain’s non-
Asian Buddhist community. There is no doubt then that the FWBO is a significant aspect of Buddhism
in Britain. However it is a disproportionately significant force in the dissemination of Buddhism, and in
shaping perceptions of Buddhism in British society. The FWBO has always placed a strong emphasis
on teaching and communicating its message and around 20,000 people a year learn meditation at an
FWBO Centre or outreach activity in the UK. Many thousands more have contact with one of the
FWBO’s ancillary activities, such as hatha yoga classes or arts events, not to mention going into a
shop run as one of the FWBO’s ‘right livelihood’ businesses, or supporting its social work projects in
India, through the Karuna Trust fundraising charity.
In addition, the FWBO’s emphasis on external communications is evident in the three magazines it
publishes, in Windhorse Publications the FWBO has its own publishing house, and there are two
video production companies creating FWBO-related material. The work of the FWBO
Communications Office, which is the UK’s only dedicated Buddhist press office, has ensured that it
has a fairly high profile in the media, and that members of the Western Buddhist Order are to be heard
broadcasting on UK radio. I must confess my own role in this communicative zeal as I myself edit
Dharma Life, the leading FWBO magazine, and am the Director of the FWBO Communications Office.
How the FWBO presents itself is therefore an important aspect of how Buddhism is presented, re-
presented and perceived in Britain. But before it is possible to discuss FWBO this, it is necessary to
ask what the FWBO is.
II. the fwbo’s stance
The FWBO conceives itself as a middle way within the transmission of Buddhism to the West between
the approaches of transplantation and westernisation. By ‘transplantation’ I mean the approach of the
many representatives of traditional Asian schools in the West, whose concern tends to be the
transmission of ‘authentic’ traditions of Buddhism. The FWBO’s approach is based on a belief that it is
impossible to transplant developed Buddhist traditions from an Asian society into the West without
creating many problems and anomalies. One will inevitably be importing a large amount of Asian
culture which has no spiritual significance for westerners Therefore, as Stephen Batchelor argues,
‘adaptation is not so much an option as a matter of degree’ for all Buddhists in the West. The
question posed by Sangharakshita’s writings is, on what basis does this adaptation take place, so
that it makes Buddhism relevant to the new context, but does not compromise the integrity of the
thebuddhistcentre.com: triratna writing
At the same time the FWBO sees itself as distinct from the secularised and ‘westernised’ approach
which understands Buddhism in the light of particular traditions of western thought, such as
psychotherapy or socialism, drawing on it as a source of techniques and instruction. Those Buddhist
movements that might be characterised in this way tend to me lay-oriented and to place a relatively
low emphasis on affiliation. They also tend to emphasise meditation rather than engagement with the
full range of the Buddhist teachings and practice. Sometimes it has been assumed that the FWBO’s
‘Western Buddhism’ is an adaptation of this sort. However the FWBO is a very different body than,
say, the Insight Meditation Society. It emphasises affiliation and tends to require a relatively high level
of commitment; it teaches a systematic path that draws on a range of Buddhist practices; and it
presents these in the context of the ultimate aims of Buddhism. It also stresses the roots of its
teachings in the Buddhist tradition, and indeed its non-sectarian engagement with all aspects of that
tradition. From the FWBO’s perspective the danger of the secularising approach is that it may reduce
the Buddhadharma to a set of ideas and techniques that ignore its soteriological dimension and
assimilate it to a materialist worldview that is fundamentally at odds with that of Buddhism.
The premise underlying FWBO’s approach is that the central insights and teachings of the
Buddhadharma are extra-historical and universal, while the forms Buddhism has taken are historically
specific and contingent. Sangharakshita expresses this point in his key teaching of the centrality of
going for Refuge to the Three Jewels (the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha). ‘Going for Refuge is
the essential Buddhist act,’ he says. For Sangharakshita this traditional formula, which is common to
all Buddhist schools, encapsulates the spirit and fundamental orientation of Buddhism and the
individual’s relation to it. Being a Buddhist therefore means reorienting one’s body speech and mind
towards the values, qualities and understanding that are represented in the Three Jewels and to
following the Buddha’s path to Enlightenment. Because individuals do this to differing degrees it
follows that there are different levels of going for Refuge. Practising the Dharma means learning to go
for Refuge more fully. This same spirit is expressed in the core teachings that are common to all
schools which emphasise that Buddhism is a path to Enlightenment, rather than a set of customs or
injunctions regarding lifestyle.
The FWBO seeks to adhere to these central teachings and this timeless core, but to apply them
pragmatically within the cultural context of its practitioners. This makes the FWBO’s praxis varied and
flexible in some respects and remarkably coherent in others. At the heart of the FWBO is the Western
Buddhist Order, a community of nearly 800 men and women whose commitment is described as
‘effective going for Refuge to the Three Jewels’. Their ordination is described as being ‘neither lay nor
monastic’, and is based on the principle that ‘going for Refuge is primary, and lifestyle is secondary’.
Some Order members lead a fully monastic life, and practice chastity; others have families. But the
commitment each has made to Dharma practice is the same, and it is for each individual to find their
own way to live that out in practice. The FWBO is in one sense no more than the product of the joint
efforts of those 800 people, and the flexible, adaptive forms they have developed in the FWBO are
expressions of their responses to the circumstances in which they found themselves. This is the great
virtue of the contingency of lifestyle in the FWBO, its middle way between monk and lay. As Andrew
thebuddhistcentre.com: triratna writing
Rawlinson says, ‘Sangharakshita is equally critical of orthodox “cultural” monasticism and innovative
“rational” non-monasticism. The FWBO is apart from – one might almost say, above – these
From the point of view of its practitioners the FWBO is an expression of their own relation to the core
of the Buddhadharma itself. ‘How the FWBO presents itself’ is therefore a secondary concern.
Primarily its adherents are concerned with the practice and communication of Buddhism as they
understand it, and with their personal Dharma practice. As Sangharakshita puts it, the work of the
FWBO to spread its version of the Dharma represents ‘the altruistic dimension of going for Refuge’.
It would be wrong to suggest that the FWBO has an overarching presentational policy, as particular
expression of what it stands for reflect the individual approaches of particular Order members.
Moreover the FWBO’s distinction between the underlying principles of the Dharma and their cultural
expression implies that these expressions should vary according to local cultures. The FWBO is now
active in twenty countries, including such diverse cultural contexts as the Indian Ambedkarite
movement and the South American bourgeoisie, and how it presents itself varies accordingly. Having
said that FWBO centres follow broadly follow a common syllabus; they are based on the same core
set of teachings; they attempt to co-ordinate their teaching work; and they fund collective bodies
such as the FWBO Communications Office. In this paper I hope to suggest something of the variety of
presentations of the FWBO, and yet also to suggest some of the principles and common concerns
which structure these presentations.
As its dialectical relationship to other Buddhist movements suggests, the FWBO is built upon an
awareness of the cultural and historical forces that mediate the expression of individuals’ ...

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