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A Letter to Norman Fischer

by Vishvapani

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... to them personally and he was so wise that they felt a
deep love and deep gratitude to him. But there was always a shadow. For one thing to
many outsiders Sangharakshita was a pariah for his sex life and for his unorthodoxy. For
another there were times when the intensity of Sangharakshita's vision was taken up by
his followers as an intolerant zeal, especially by young men with a fire of their own.
Sometimes people acted badly and, without really seeing what they were doing, they used
bullying or manipulation to keep going the businesses and institutions they had started in
order to realise his vision. Sometimes that got really bad, and sometimes they copied
Sangharakshita's sex life, which made it worse still. He didn't want to step in. He wanted
to let people sort difficulties out for themselves so that they would learn. But he
eventually did step in, and that was very hard as well.

He didn't want to talk about his sex life. For one thing he was a very private person. For
another he knew that people would never understand the mix of needs it had served. That
was especially true in India, where homosexuality was illegal and taboo. So he kept quiet,
and eventually returned to celibacy.

But others did want to talk about it. One of his former lovers filled with hatred, and he
started to campaign against Sangharakshita and his movement. He caused a stir, but the
man was ineffective. None of the other lovers said anything, even the ones who felt hurt.
They didn't want to harm Sangharakshita or the movement they had given their lives to
and which they loved.

Some years later a more serious campaign was started by people who kept anonymous. A
journalist picked it up, and there it was at last: Sangharakshita's picture on a newspaper
with 'bad karma' written across it. The article made all sorts of accusations, and his sex
life was among them.

Sangharakshita's followers' responses varied. Some felt that what they had received from
him was so important that anything else didn't matter. But others were stirred up. Even
though they had really known all along what had happened, now their mixed feelings
were disturbed. A few of these left, and quite a number withdrew from active
involvement. Most people came to an accommodation with Sangharakshita's past that
mixed the good with the bad. Why shouldn't he have sex? It was 'experimentation', it was
'exploration'. It was just a period in a long life. In any case most members of the
movement didn't know him personally and judged it by their local situations and the
people they did know. They stopped thinking about it. Some members of the Order found
themselves having to respond to the accusations publicly, to make the movement's case.
Many of the accusations were unfair, and they said so; and they stressed the way the
movement was in the present. They also talked about some of the problems from the past,
but they also wanted to talk about Sangharakshita's sex life and their instincts told them
that they should. But they couldn't, not in public. The Indians weren't ready and, in any
case, what could they say that wouldn't involve criticising their teacher? And how could
they do that when they were responding in the name of his movement? What could they
say when he said nothing? But at the same time, as people had matured and assumed
responsibility for helping others in the Sangha, they had had to think through the ethics of
sex between teachers and students for themselves. They wouldn't countenance the way
their teacher acted if anyone else was doing it now, but they couldn't criticise him. They
couldn't say anything at all. Wasn't that strange?

Discussion flared up in the Order's confidential magazine, and Sangharakshita found this
painful. It was ingratitude, he said. At worst it felt like betrayal. The debate died down
and a new rule came in saying that the journal wasn't the place for personal criticism of
anyone.

Sangharakshita was old now. He handed on the last of his responsibilities to a trusted
group of disciples. He'd been gradually withdrawing for many years, so it all went
smoothly, and he was looking forward to a retirement free of institutional concerns. He
had an excellent successor called Subhuti, who had a very good group of people around
him. But then Sangharakshita's eyesight suddenly deteriorated: macular degeneration.
Now he couldn't read or write, or travel, or even go for a walk on his own.

Sangharakshita's successors were making the movement their own. In some places it was
going very well; in others it seemed to be seizing up. People wondered if it could take
them the whole way along the Dharma path. Some had picked up wounds when things
had got difficult. Some had thrown themselves into the movement when they were
young, and now, in middle age, wondered if they had made a mistake. What had they
missed by not having children? What would happen to them in old age?

The new leaders wanted to clear away rules and structures that had built up over the
years. They wanted to get back to first principles, including openness, honesty and
transparency. They didn't want to be part of a power structure as that just created
tensions. Things were changing, and a mood of revival started to go through the Order.
Many, many people were being ordained and there were now over a thousand Order
members. But in the back of all this openness was a subject that still couldn't be talked
about.

Sangharakshita's health got worse. He changed in a few months from vigorous late
middle-age being an old man. In his contracted world difficulties affected him badly. He
stopped listening to the news. Then it appeared that one of his closest disciples had been
taking money on expenses he wasn't entitled to. This man had once been a lover, and had
had many lovers of his own. That upset him. Sangharakshita worried about his legacy,
and there wasn't enough money to build the dharma shrine he had dreamed of, a library
that would contain the thousands of books he had bought and read and loved over the
years, as well as his personal effects. He couldn't sleep. Who knows why? Perhaps it was
stress, perhaps old age, perhaps just one of those things. He entered a twilight state of his
own. He just wanted peace.

But the Order was stirring. The newspaper revelations had created a crisis, but it wasn't
their crisis. It came from outside, and all the reactions were affected by that. Now people
wanted to talk, and one of Sangharakshita's former lovers wrote a long article about his
experience. He had many friends in the Order, and everyone knew he was a good person.
At one time he had felt very angry, and he hadn't written while he felt like that. But now
he felt that the Order had avoided an uncomfortable truth, and that he couldn't live in
such a way.

The detail made it worse, as some people had always known it would. It wasn't just a
short period of experimentation, it went on for twenty years. It wasn't just a few lovers, it
was dozens of people. And was it really an aspect of friendship, as Sangharakshita had
said? Some of the men were very young, even under the legal age of consent, which had
been 21, and they hadn't always felt free to say no. And when he moved on some of them
had felt dumped. Perhaps that was actually the worst thing, because it suggested that it
hadn't been about friendship at all in the first place.

It wasn't a crisis like 1983 at Zen Centre, because Sangharakshita was no longer in charge
and people had had many years to get used to the issues. But then again it did concern the
founder, not his successor. And it wasn't like 1987 in Shambhala, because the protagonist
was still alive. That made it really hard. Maybe it wasn't a crisis at all, but it was certainly
a crux. As for the new leaders, what should they do? Should they publish the article,
knowing that it might affect Sangharakshita's health? If they did, perhaps he would feel
betrayed by them. Most likely he would. Perhaps, people said, it would kill him. How
could they possibly do that to the man who had given them so much? Sangharakshita
wanted peace. Didn't they at least owe him that much?

But if they didn't publish it, what would that say about the new openness? What would it
say to the people who loved the Order but felt they couldn't wholly be themselves within
it; or that they were implicated in its compromises and were wondering whether to stay?
And what about the people like the author who had their stories to tell? What would it
mean not to be able to write about this topic in the Order journal when it was being
discussed everywhere else?

Some of these leaders, especially the ones who had had to deal with public responses,
were tired of having to evade or skirt round the topic. They were honest people and they
felt compromised. And though they were loyal they weren't blind: they shared the
criticisms. In the end, they knew, the shadow over the Order would only disappear when
nothing was off limits for public discussion and people in leading positions weren't
automatically loyal. But could they do that? Could they do that while he was still alive?
And did that mean that, as well as loving him, they were also waiting for him to die
before ...

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