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A Letter to Norman Fischer

by Vishvapani

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... they could be properly honest? And what did that mean?

And all these people the critics, the doubters, the writers, the leaders, Sangharakshita and
everyone else had shared their lives for maybe two or three decades. They had wound
round each other, and lived with each other, and sometimes slept with each other. If these
people weren't their lives, then what were their lives?

Sangharakshita's life had always seemed to take place somewhere above or beyond their
own in a misty land sign-posted 'Dharma'. But now they weren't so sure that this country
existed. He had started this sangha, and yet he had never fully been a member of it. That
must have been hard for him, and now it was hard for everyone. The Order had a life of
its own now, that valued honesty and openness so strongly that it couldn't not act from
them and remain itself.

That was wonderful and it was, in a way, tragic. They saw that, for all their idealism,
their practice had to start from reality, and they saw that, in the end, 'reality' means
people. They needed to include him now in their reality, but maybe that wasn't possible;
maybe it was too late.

And everyone had a different opinion about all of this, and it seemed that whatever they
did would be painful. And what should we do?

With metta,


4 Feb 2003

Dear Vishvapani,

Yes of course I remember you and our interview in the Dining Room at Green Gulch.
Thanks for your email. I read it over several times. A sad - but beautiful - story, one that
has echoes for me of stories from Zen Center and other places. You are right that the
story was not entirely unknown to me. It was more or less what I had already known -
what I suppose most people in the Buddhist world already knew. But the way you told it
with so much understanding and compassion made it more clear to me than it had been.
Of course I can't know what you should do or even have any useful point of view on the
situation. I know how specific and particular these things go. There are no general rules.
Still, I had many thoughts reading your story and I will be happy to share them with you
for what they are worth.

To me the main message I hear in stories like this is the teaching of humility - we really
don't ever know what we are doing, we are simply trying our best, we may be - probably
are - overlooking something important. We must always keep that in mind and be modest
and humble. Most of the great teachers who established Dharma in the West
(Sangharakshita certainly among them) were not modest. The times were like that- we
were all caught up in some grandiose vision of a new world, a new Buddhism, etc and
thought we knew what we were doing, how it had been done wrong in the past. We were
none of us humble enough. We got stuck on the brilliance of our own viewpoints and the
success of our missions.

It seems as if the spiritual path presents us with some very tough alternatives when it
comes to sexuality. Celibacy is possible- but very difficult. The chances of actually
practicing it without becoming a narrow minded sourpuss are slim (though by no means
nonexistent- some do it). Marriage or other long term relationships are good but have
many disadvantages, having to do with divided commitments. The choice that
Sangharakshita made seems the least tenable of all since no doubt in the end lovers will
feel betrayed, make trouble etc. Seems as if what happened, with the lurid disclosures,
should have been perfectly predictable. It seems as if spiritual teachers really cannot
"date," having serial relationships, especially with Dharma students. Maybe we have
learned this. It seems (in hindsight of course) obvious that the shit, as they say around
here, would hit the fan sooner or later.

Still, various sorts of blindness or arrogance don't obviate wonderful accomplishments.
The Western Buddhist Order is a tremendous achievement and will remain so. Bhante has
a lot to be proud of and so do you all. How could anyone imagine that such a complicated
thing - and done in such a short time!- could happen without blindness and pain. This just
seems to be how things advance. We end up becoming the universe's victims, paying
somehow for our good fortune. It seems to be part of the plan. All the pain just makes us
deeper and wiser.

One thing seems clear to me: it does no good at all to try to keep a lid on things, to
control who says what and how. That just doesn't work. It only encourages speculation
and lowers the group in the eyes of the world. I think this did happen with the Order. I
myself noticed how, suddenly, people in the Order I had known seemed no longer to be
reaching out to me. There seemed to be a retreating and a withdrawing. A sense of
secrecy that was palpable. That was a bad thing I think. But how to maintain a sense of
intimacy within a sangha without that turning sour, into self protection and secrecy,
exclusivity. "The outsiders will never understand." This is seductive because the intimacy
really is wonderful and wholesome, and it seems that to be more open would destroy it.
But the very intimacy fosters the secrecy and distortion that can eventually set in.

When there's trouble in the sangha, and you are open about it, things can get pretty
chaotic. All sorts of people feel encouraged to speak out, and they tend to pile on, and
many distortions and exaggerations fly out into the open. It's hard to take. But the
alternative, to try to control this, or to prevent it, is really impossible. You just make it
worse. So you have to endure it the best you can, trusting that in the end what's really true
will settle out and the craziness and distortion will eventually be seen for what it is.

As for Bhante himself, it sounds very sad and difficult. Of course whatever flap occurs
will hurt him deeply. And he may reject everyone, including those leaders who allow
others to express themselves fully and openly. He may feel betrayed by everyone. But it
seems to me that if there is a group of elders who sees the situation truly, as you seem to,
and appreciates him for who he is and has been and what he has done, and holds him
close, expressing their love and appreciation for him, but also reflecting the whole of the
situation to him, including the part of it that he may be blind to - then I think in the long
run he will be all right, and this will be something he will grow from, even if he never
entirely comes to understand it.

These are my thoughts. I have no idea whether they are of any use or whether they strike
you as having anything whatsoever to do with your situation. They may well just be my
own projection; I may only be talking about our situation, what we went through, what
we did. But I offer them in friendship and in the hope that they may at least make you
feel as though someone cares and offers support. I feel honored that you asked my
opinion. Please give Bhante my best, tell him I have fond memories of the few times we
were together, and that I use his books constantly. Also thank Kulananda for the recent
book about money that he sent me. I often think of him - tell him I say hello.

Yours, Norman

(Norman's reply is published with his permission)

(c) Vishvapani, 2006

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