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The FWBO - A Community in Transition by Nagabodhi

by Nagabodhi

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the fwbo: a community in transition
by nagabodhi
thebuddhistcentre.com: triratna writing
part I

1/ the size and identity of the f/wbo
When I spoke in 1989 there were about three hundred and fifty members of the Western Buddhist
Order worldwide. There are now more than a thousand. In the last third of its lifespan to date, the
Order has tripled in size. That is pretty good news: it suggests that our approach to Dharma practice
– and to sharing that practice – has remained attractive, and has offered an effective context for
people who want to commit themselves to the ideals and practice of Buddhism.
Although the FWBO’s spread has been mainly unplanned and uneven, there are now Order members
and FWBO activities on every continent. This makes for an extremely rich and diverse community.
Fourteen years ago, I anticipated this expansion cheerfully, but injected a warning note to the effect
that unless we made considerable efforts to keep in good contact with each other we might find
ourselves falling into a complex of regional ghettos – in poor communication with each other and
occasionally suffering from bouts of misunderstanding and mistrust.
I don’t think this has happened – yet. For sure, we can find it hard to understand each other’s
ephemeral preoccupations, and the pages of Shabda can occasionally host unfortunate lapses of
sensitivity to the mores of cultures other than the contributor’s own, but we’ve never yet experienced
any serious rift merely on the grounds of geography or race.
Probably the greatest difficulties we’ve faced in this regard have been in our attempts to negotiate,
especially in our public life, the gaping difference between the conventionally held moral attitudes of
Indian society and those of the western world where most of the rest of the FWBO/TBMSG is located.
For example, some people in the western wing of our Movement were troubled by what they saw as a
duplicitous economy with truth in the FWBO’s official responses to the Guardian article and the FWBO
Files. The authors of those responses were themselves uncomfortable, but sources in India had
warned them that a complete and open account of some relevant aspects of the FWBO’s (western)
history — particularly in the area of sexual behaviour — might well expose our Indian Friends, Mitras
and Order members not merely to unpopularity or ridicule, but to actual physical danger. I know the
authors of the responses well, and know they acted in good faith, and had little freedom for
manoeuvre. But they would be the first to admit that the choices they made have left a legacy that we
are still addressing.
This is probably the biggest single predicament our global spread has created. But although the
relative mores of the East and West created a problem in the West, to my knowledge it did nothing to
dent the goodwill flowing between eastern and western wings of the FWBO/TBMSG.
The fact is we all seem to get on pretty well with each other, and actually manage to experience
ourselves as a coherent community. Windhorse:evolution, our giftware company based in Cambridge,
England, has played a key part in this sense of unity, by offering team-based right livelihood
opportunities and a substantial taste of residential community life to Friends, Mitras, and Order
members from all over the world. The extended ordination retreats at Guhyaloka and in Tuscany also
provide a context in which people of many nationalities and social backgrounds spend long enough in
thebuddhistcentre.com: triratna writing
each other’s company, and go through a sufficiently intense time together, to form friendships that can
last a lifetime. As we currently contemplate a future in which many of our activities, systems and
structures look likely to get more regionalised, even atomised, we should bear in mind the crucial
bonding value of these more —central’ institutions, and do what we can to support and preserve
Despite a few prominent exceptions, most Order members in 1989 followed a pretty standard regime
of meditation and devotional practice. And although today the majority of Order members maintain an
approach to meditation best epitomised in Sangharakshita's lecture, 'A System Of Meditation', certain
preferences and special interests are emerging. I suspect we can look forward to a far richer mix of
approaches and practices in the future, even, quite possibly, to the emergence of ‘schools’, as
likeminded individuals cluster together for guidance and inspiration in fulfilment of more personal
spiritual leanings. I don’t know whether or not this kind of diversification will create tensions, but I
would like to think that Sangharakshita’s —system’ – if interpreted flexibly as an outline of the stages
in the meditation process, and of the way meditation actually works on consciousness, irrespective of
the specific practices involved — is probably broad enough to embrace and unite us spiritually for a
good time to come.
In 1989 it was just about possible to relate to the Order and even to large sections of the Movement
as a fairly coherent social group. Most of us still knew each other by sight and by name. Many of us
had visited each other’s homes or at least home centres. Moods, issues, innovations, even emphases
in thought and spiritual practice, could spread through the Order and movement very quickly (if not
always efficiently) on the grapevine. Despite the extraordinary opportunities provided by cheap air
travel and telephone connections, and of course e-mail and the Internet, no one could claim that we
function in that way any more. We are definitely no longer a cosy group. And while we continue to
maintain certain institutions that cater for the Order or Movement as a whole (for example Shabda, the
biennial International Order convention, Dharma Life and the College of Public Preceptors) the
likelihood is that our Order and Movement will become more regionalized in the coming years, with
higher and higher levels of responsibility being decentralised and devolved — or even deconstructed.
For those of us who were around in the earliest days – who can remember, for example, the first
Order convention, when just twenty of us spent a few days with Sangharakshita in the front room of a
house in Purley – such a transformation might seem overwhelming; but it surely promises an exciting
prospect of liberated creativity, greater depth, and approaches to Dharma practice more specifically
geared to the individual needs of people of varying temperaments and living under differing
conditions. Indeed, I suspect one of the challenges of the coming years will be finding ways of
bringing to our —local’ institutions – such as Order chapters, regional gatherings, meditation kulas,
and public centres – a substance and intensity equivalent to that which we used to gain from our
participation in the total Movement in the days when such participation was possible – or at least,
seemed possible. (To the extent that such participation was really always something of an imaginative
construct, the strengthening of local institutions might actually constitute a step forward.)
Over the past fourteen years, a number of Order members have initiated projects such as public
centres and right livelihood businesses. But the days when most Order members found themselves
thebuddhistcentre.com: triratna writing
living in relatively small concentrations around an FWBO centre (to which all of them gave some, if not
all, of their time) seem to be over, even in the UK. Although most Order members still live within easy
reach of a centre, it is now quite common to find many who have little or nothing to do with its day-to-
day life. Proportionately, too, far less Order members – again, even in the UK – work in FWBO right
livelihood businesses. In other words, the idea that an Order member is someone who pretty much
lives and breathes within an FWBO context (something which was never explicitly prescribed, and
never even realised in most countries outside the UK) is fast losing currency. The FWBO, and even the
Order, are far more heterodox communities than they were a decade or so ago.
‘Commitment is primary; Lifestyle is secondary.’ With this maxim, Sangharakshita once expressed his
hope that the WBO would be neither monastic nor lay. In the UK, at least, whilst explicitly articulating
this vision, I believe we’ve lived through an era when many of us perhaps paid Sangharakshita’s
maxim little more than lip service, believing somewhere in our hearts that unless we were following a
supposedly normative ‘centre/single-sex community/team-based right livelihood business’ lifestyle,
we would not be quite the full ticket. I suspect it will always be essential to the health of our
Movement that a significant number of people choose to live a —semi monastic’ (even fully monastic,
even —forest renunciate’) lifestyle. But it will be equally essential that those choosing to live in other
ways honour their commitment to the Three Jewels by doing everything they can to turn their life and
work, whatever it is, into a form of full-on spiritual practice. Unless we accept this ...

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