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A Letter to Norman Fischer

by Vishvapani

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A Letter to Norman Fischer
January 28th 2003

Dear Norman, I'm writing to ask your guidance: or perhaps your response. That's to say I
have some questions I'd like to ask, even though I don't really expect you to answer them.
But I'd still like to ask these questions and I'd like to ask you. I hope you don't mind. This
letter has grown rather long by now, but it still seems very short. We met in Spring 2001,
when I interviewed you for Dharma Life, if you recall, and I also ran a piece you write
about Richard Baker in Dharma Life a few years ago. Well, these questions aren't about
being Jewish and Buddhist; they are closer to the things you wrote in regard to Baker-
roshi. I'm writing in confidence, for reasons you'll understand, and I'm sure you will
respect that.

The topic is Sangharakshita and sex. You will know some of it, but probably not the
whole story. It's a story because that's a way to think about it. It goes like this or, at least,
this is one of the ways it goes.

A solitary young man called Dennis was growing up in London before the war. He was
very intelligent and he read everything he could lay his hands on in the way of literature,
philosophy and religion. In this way he discovered Buddhism. Mystical experiences
followed, and with the help of these he was able to make sense of the things he read
about Buddhism. He was interested in what was in the middle of all these strange texts, or
perhaps somewhere above or behind them: the core of Buddhism that he had contacted in
his mystical insights.

He was posted East in the War and after it finished he decided he wanted to stay on and
become a monk. He had many adventures and eventually he took Theravadin ordination.
Now he was called Sangharakkhita, and soon that changed, following the Indian custom,
to Sangharakshita. As this was India, rather than joining a monastery he found himself on
his own again in Kalimpong studying, practising, and teaching the Dharma. He was a
prodigy who wrote books, edited magazines and travelled India. He helped the Dalits
who were converting to Buddhism and they saw him as a kind of saviour. He spoke to
tens of thousands wherever he went. And he had Tibetan teachers who thought very
highly of him.

Sangharakshita was very disciplined, but there was another side to him as well. He was a
poet, and in his poetry he wrote about his inner life, his feelings and his sense of beauty.
He loved nature; he loved meditation; he loved the Dharma, and he wrote about all of
these. He even wrote about falling in love with some of the young men he taught at his
vihara. He wrote about the hopelessness of this love and how he tried to transform it. He
did transform it; but the love was still there and so was the hopelessness.

Eventually Sangharakshita was invited to return to England. He hadn't thought of leaving
India, but there were real problems among the English Buddhists. They thought he could
help, his friends thought he should go, and in any case there were political difficulties
with staying in India. So he went back, and he felt at home. He listened to music, visited
historical sights and, perhaps for the first time ever, he made real friends. One friend in
particular became a soul-mate. Terry. He'd had mystical experiences of his own, and he
lived on a fascinating kind of edge. And he turned to Sangharakshita for help.

Sangharakshita had to make some tough decisions about the problems among the English
Buddhists, and he made enemies. He had sided against the orthodox Theravadins, and
they wouldn't forget it. The breach got wider when they discovered what his approach to
the Dharma really meant. For the first time, when he taught there were people who could
understand his allusions and got excited by the way he presented Buddhism. He grew
bolder and more experimental, as he searched for ways to connect the teachings he knew
so well with the audience. It was the sixties and something exciting was bubbling up. He
decided to stay.

While he and Terry were making a farewell trip to India Sangharakshita got a letter that
said he was being removed from the post he had in England. It was a kind of committee-
room coup, a very British sort of thing. They didn't say why, but it was clear there had
been gossip according to which there was something sexual between him and Terry. Add
to that the unhappiness of orthodox Theravadins at his approach to the Dharma and it was
clear to them. He had to go.

Sangharakshita's friends were incensed, and they weren't going to put up with it, but in
the end there was nothing they could do. So when he got back to England Sangharakshita
started his own activities. He was on his own. He taught the Dharma as he understood it
for himself: the essential Dharma, not just one tradition. He found his own way to put
things, he experimented, he explored. He read and read and thought and thought. He
asked himself, what is the Dharma at bottom? Take away all the forms, and what do you
have? What is left if you are prepared to challenge everything while forgetting nothing?

The poet in him burst out again, and his lectures were full of images and inspiration. He
was on fire. His activities were starting to become a movement. And then Terry, who he
had helped and encouraged and chastely loved; whose suffering was beyond help; whose
soul had been in the twilight his whole life, stepped into the dark. He stepped under a
tube train, and Sangharakshita's heart was broken all over again.

Sangharakshita realised that he no longer wanted to be celibate. When he had loved
chastely he was disbelieved, so why be chaste? He wanted human contact. He believed in
it, and friendship became a kind of a creed for him. By now it was the late-sixties and he
was spending his time with young people, radicals and hippies. Some of them were
beautiful boys, and he took them to bed with him. It made him happy, and he felt even
more inspired; it helped his Dharma teaching.

What did his robes mean now? He wasn't acting like a monk, but he was sure he wasn't a
lay-person. He hadn't stepped down from anything: all his Buddhist practice had led him
to this point, and he felt he was still moving forward. So he continued to wear the robe at
ceremonies, but he also grew his hair. Others disapproved, he knew, but he was on his
own now. He had thrown away the rule-book, and he let his instincts guide him. What
else could guide him in the strange land he now travelled in order to know the Dharma
directly. Only thus could he speak directly from it and find fresh ways to express its
truths. But all the same it was hard, and he sometimes felt that in his own life he was
carrying the pain and difficulty of bringing together the Dharma and the West, with all
their contradictions.

His classes were still popular. A centre opened, and then another. More and more people
were meditating, practising together and, a little later, living and working together. They
were inspired by his vision of a new society based on Buddhist practice and ideals. They
glowed with the happiness of it all, and this made him happy, too. And there were more
beautiful young men. Some of them fascinated him. Sometimes in the intimacy of the
bedroom they would talk and talk, and he was no longer in the role of a teacher. They
were just two human beings with all the veils stripped away, and then he felt he was
really teaching.

The years passed. The movement grew, so that now there were centres around the world.
There were communities and businesses, and there were people in his Order who were
making the whole thing their own. It was very, very hard, because people were so
complicated, but he kept on reminding them what it was all based on. Awareness,
sharing, honesty, love, clarity. Because he wanted to nurture the movement, and because
he had been hurt so much by the Buddhist world, and because he knew that others would
disapprove of him, he kept out other teachers. Some people questioned that, and it
certainly made a big difference.

In fact there were lots of things people didn't like, and lots of problems, but overall it
worked. And that was incredible. That meant the Dharma was taking root in western soil
in a way that was adapted to it; in a way that could last. A kind of miracle was happening.
It wasn't the miracle of meditation, or art, or some of the other things people had
anticipated. The name of the miracle was community, or sangha, or maybe just
friendship. Men and women lived and worked separately, which helped a lot, though
maybe it also made things a little artificial. But something grew between people that was
bigger than any of them, and also bigger than Sangharakshita.

Many of his followers felt they owed him everything that gave their lives meaning. They
knew they wouldn't have responded to Buddhism if it had come wrapped up in Asian
clothes. They thought they were building western Buddhism, and they thought they were
the only ones really doing so. They were making history, maybe creating a new world.
And even though the hubris in that view meant that they were establishing the seeds of
suffering, for the time being it didn't matter.

Sangharakshita had been so kind to ...

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