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The Order-s Relation to Sangharakshita

by Vishvapani

The Order's Relation to Sangharakshita

by Vishvapani

This article is a transcript of a talk to members of the Western Buddhist Order. For that,
reason I refer to Sangharakshita as ‘Bhante’, the term by which he is affectionately
known is known within the FWBO.

Introduction

On WBO Day 1990 Bhante delivered a paper entitled ‘My Relation to the Order’. In this
paper he remarks:

‘The first thing that occurred to me when I started preparing this paper is that besides the
question of my relation to the Order there was the question of the Order’s relation to
me… My relation to the Order and the Order’s relation to me are two sides of a single
coin… In sharing with you some of my current thinking concerning our mutual relation I
shall, however, be speaking mainly in terms of my relation to the Order, leaving it to you
to work out for yourselves what this implies in terms of your relation to me.’ (p.16)

I wasn’t ordained in 1990, but 10 years on, in August 2000, I find myself speaking to a
Men’s National Order weekend on the subject of ‘Our Relation to Bhante’. So, rather
belatedly, I shall be trying to work out some of these implications. I shall also be adding
some thoughts of my own, as it seems to me that Bhante cannot fully be expected to see
himself from our perspective any more than we can see ourselves from his. That could be
a motto for this talk. In an important sense our relation with Bhante is something we have
to create, each of us for him or herself, even if we never exchange two words with Bhante
personally.

The points I want to make about our relationship with Bhante grow from reflections on
his comments in My Relation to the Order, but do not follow the structure of that book.
First, to put things in context, I want to discuss how our relation to him is changing. Then
I want to consider from our side the first point that Bhante makes about his relation with
us – that it is important. Then I want to discuss some of the ways in which this
relationship is inherently difficult at least in some respects and for some people. I want to
talk about actual difficulties that have arisen in the light of the experience of western
Buddhists in traditions other than the FWBO. And then I will discuss our own difficulties
under the headings, Authority and Influence. Then I will conclude by suggesting how we
can develop this relationship positively.

1. A Changing Relationship

Bhante does not say why he chose to deliver his paper at this time, but he does make a
number of comments about the state of the Order at that time. In April 1990 there were
384 Order members, and the Order was 22 years old. It had therefore recently passed its
‘majority’, when it turned 21. A mark of this coming of age, of which Bhante makes a
great deal, was his ‘handing on’ of the responsibility of conferring ordinations to Subhuti
and Suvajra, the first two Order members to become fully-fledged Public Preceptors, who
made decisions regarding readiness for ordination and conducted ordinations themselves.
Bhante was clearly delighted by this development, and also by the way in which Subhuti
had undertaken his role in running the ordination process for men. At the time of
Bhante’s paper, Subhuti was in the throes of revising, not to say rejuvenating this
ordination process. I was then involved in the ordination process as a mitra, and I
remember the excitement of the time, when Subhuti applied the rhetoric of glasnost and
perestroika to the Order as a whole. Through his work on the ordination process Subhuti
waged a campaign to revitalise the Order as a whole by re-emphasising Bhante’s basic
teachings, especially the centrality of going for Refuge to the Three Jewels.

Ten years on the Order is 32 years old and it has changed considerably – I am sure the
developments are familiar to us all. There are 870 Order members, and by the end of the
year there will be around 900. The Order has changed in others ways too. The process of
‘handing on’ resulted in the appointment of more Public Preceptors (of whom there are
currently eight in addition to Bhante) who have come to comprise the College of Public
Preceptors. 1993 saw the establishment of the Preceptors College Council, initially
including seven, and now ten other senior Order members. The acquisition of
Madhyamaloka in late 1994 created a base for the College and the PCC. This process will
reach a culmination and, it seems, a conclusion in just three weeks time when Bhante
hands on the Headship of the Order on his 75th birthday.

So the first point that can be made about our relation to Bhante is that is evolving. In
retrospect is clear that the appointment of Public Preceptors in the late 1980s marked not
only the start of Bhante’s handing on of his major responsibilities, but also the start of a
major change in the Order’s relation to him. The effectiveness with which Subhuti took
on the ordination process meant that he was, in effect, taking responsibility for the
spiritual needs of the Order as a whole, and in that sense picking up a responsibility that
only Bhante had hitherto been able to exercise.

The consequences have been far reaching. Almost all of the 500 Order members who
have joined been ordained since 1990 have been ordained by people other than Bhante.
For these people, who are now the majority of the Order and include myself, Bhante is
not our preceptor, but our preceptor’s preceptor. So although this talk is entitled The
Order’s Relation to Bhante, even the formal aspects of this relationship differ between us.
So far as personal connections are concerned, we have moved from a time in the early
days when Bhante was the movement, for many people, to a time many Order members
have no direct connection with him. He seems a distant figure for many people, seen only
occasionally and usually at a distance. It is unusual that members of my generation of
Order members have the chance to spend a great deal of time with Bhante, and to make a
personal connection with him. My own experience since moving to Madhyamaloka in
March last year shows that this is still possible, but it is rare, and I am very grateful for it.

With the emergence of this third generation of Order members, new kinds of
relationships have emerged, and the Order has therefore become more complex. We are
still in the process of working out how the relation of the Preceptors College and Council
to the Order as a whole – and probably it will never be possible to define it. They cannot
replace Bhante’s relation to the Order, but for those whom they have ordained, the
College has, quite naturally, taken on one very important aspect of his role. To
accommodate this new configuration we have had to re-emphasise ways of thinking of
the Order’s hierarchies other than simply relating to a teacher. That is one reason why
there has been more and more emphasis on the cascade of kalyana mitrata, in which we
look to Order members who are more experienced than ourselves for friendship, guidance
and inspiration.

Thinking about how this new configuration affects my own relation to Bhante, I have
been starting to wonder if, precisely because Bhante isn’t my preceptor, my connection
with him can be somehow freer and more relaxed than that of Order members whose
connection goes back further. He is a kind of spiritual grandfather to me and to others in
my generation of Order members. In considering the benefits of this relationship, I am
not just thinking of the saying, ‘grandparents and children have a common enemy:
parents.’ My generation in the Order are not exactly Bhante’s charges, but he takes a
benign, yet distant interest in our development. And perhaps because our personal
engagement with him is less intense, we can appreciate him more simply.

So Bhante’s role as a preceptor is changing, and his role as Head of the Order is
changing, but there still remains his role as our teacher. But we may not have paused to
reflect that this relationship, too, is changing. Although Bhante’s teaching continues to be
central to the FWBO, often we encounter it in mediated form through the talks and books
of Bhante’s disciples. The mitra study course still revolves around Bhante’s lectures
expounding aspects of the Dharma. But the ordination retreats mostly focus on study of
talks by Subhuti and others. These talks relate Bhante’s teachings to the issues that arise
for people asking for ordination, and they fill in gaps in Bhante’s written output, covering
areas about which Bhante has spoken, but never written. Is it not extraordinary that the
importance of kalyana mitrata is one of Bhante’s principal teachings, and yet he has
hardly written on the subject at all? Instead we have Subhuti’s excellent lectures on the
subject.

Subhuti, indeed, has emerged as Bhante’s principal expositor. Sometimes, as in Women,
Men and Angels, he has been an apologist for Bhante, seeking to explain his views to
critics (though not everyone seems to understand that this is what he is doing). At other
times, particularly in his most important book, Sangharakshita: a ...

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