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The Order-s Relation to Sangharakshita

by Vishvapani

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... a New Voice in the
Buddhist Tradition, Subhuti has presented Bhante’s disparate teachings as a coherent and
systematic account of the spiritual life, the Buddhist path, and the practice of the FWBO.
This book, rather than anything Bhante has himself written, forms the core of the Order
study course.

In a way it is curious that this has been necessary. Bhante’s role was itself to apply the
Dharma to the West, making it comprehensible and relevant. In ‘My Relation to the
Order’ he describes his role as that of an ‘elucidator’, one who ‘throws light upon’ the
Dharma ‘in certain fundamental respects’ (p.22). He also describes himself as a
translator, and invokes the figure of St Jerome as an image of the archetypal translator.
He quotes his essay Saint Jerome Revisited in which he described his response to St
Jerome in the 1960s when he was founding the FWBO:

‘I was living in the desert. I had left the “Rome” of collective, official, even establishment
Buddhism, and was seeking to return to the origins of Buddhism in the actual life and
experience of the Buddha and his immediate disciples. Not only that, I was trying to teach
Buddhism in the West, which meant I was trying to communicate the Dharma in terms of
western rather than eastern culture. I was thus a translator with all that implies in terms
of trying to fathom the uttermost depths of what one is trying to translate, so that one may
translate it faithfully, i.e. bring its meaning to the surface, or from darkness into the
light.’

Bhante translates the Dharma into the language of the West, yet as time passes it is
becoming clearer that Bhante’s teaching itself needs translation. That is to say firstly that
the Dharma needs further elucidation in terms of Bhante’s teaching, secondly that his
teaching needs elucidating itself, if its relevance is to be clear to us. And thirdly that
Bhante’s teaching will sometimes need to be corrected where it seems that it has failed to
elucidate the Dharma adequately.

But none of this means that the elucidations of a Subhuti are themselves definitive. It is
open, in principal at least, to any of Bhante’s students (or, indeed, to anyone else who
cares to do so) to trawl through his writing as Subhuti has done, and present their own
synopsese of his thought. This is not to say that all such expositions will be equally
accurate, interesting, or helpful – and some may be downright pernicious. But none of
them can be final. The point is that to be a disciple is not just to learn, but also to apply,
expound, explain and interpret. In due course Subhuti’s elucidations will require
elucidation themselves, and so it will continue. As Bhante comments in My Relation to
the Order, ‘This is the way a tradition – a lineage – develops’. (p. 22)

It is right that our relationship with Bhante should change – this is a sign that the Order is
alive, but the changes we have seen and are continuing to see are also a preparation for
Bhante’s death, which, as Wallace Stevens says, ‘ is the final form of change.’ We should
feel grateful that Bhante has himself given so much thought to the impact of his death on
the Order, and prepared the way for it by handing on his responsibilities. But we won’t
know the effect of Bhante’s death until he has died, and we probably won’t fully
understand his influence as a living presence until then either. Buddhism corrects Stevens
sense of death’s finality, and should instruct us that there can be no definitive
understanding of our teachers role in life or death. We shall continue to review and
remake it in our own lives, in our own deaths.

2. An Important Relationship

Even starting to think of the Order without Bhante brings one to the next point, which is
the first point that Bhante makes in My Relation to the Order. He says that the Order is
important to him, and who among us will not agree with the corollary from our side, that
Bhante is important to Order members. However there is a difference. When Bhante says
that the Order is important to him he is not doing much more than stating a simple fact.
He describes how he takes an interest in the lives of Order members, reads all their
letters, goes through Shabda from cover to cover each month as soon as it is published,
and so on. In short, he cares. We probably do not put an equal amount of interest, care,
attention and energy into our relation to Bhante, though some of us might.

Nevertheless Bhante is important to all Order members, whether we think about that
importance or not. Even if Bhante is not our preceptor, even if we have never spoken to
him, or perhaps never seen him, and even if the relationship is changing, Bhante is still
out teacher. Tibetans speak of one teacher being one’s root guru. This person may not be
the first to teach us meditation, but they have a special place in our hearts, because they
have enabled us to see the Dharma. In some sense similar to this, Bhante is a teacher to us
all. His elucidation has made the Dharma accessible to us, so everything we have gained
from practising the Dharma is traceable back to – or perhaps I should say through – him.
That is why, as Bhante explained in his talk on Wesak last year, Buddhist tradition
stresses that we should feel gratitude towards our teachers. Gratitude is a natural and
healthy response if we value what we have received.

Furthermore, in our ordination ceremonies each of us recites a set of ‘ordination vows’,
the first line of which is ‘with loyalty to my teachers … I accept this ordination.’ I must
confess that I have no recollection whatsoever of taking doing this at my own ordination,
but I am confident enough in Subhuti to assume that he did not forget, and that these lines
were lost in a haze of euphoria. Be that as it may, now that I know this is what I vowed I
am happy to restate this affirmation. Not only have I vowed loyalty to my teachers, but I
feel it, simply because they are my teachers, and because of everything I have gained
from them.

In other words we need teachers, mentors, guides on the path. The Buddha is our ultimate
teacher, and our kalyana mitras are our immediate mentors. But Bhante has a crucial
place between these distant and proximate objects I won’t dwell now on why we need
people to fulfil these roles – let me take that as read. More pertinent is that we consider
our own responsibilities in this regard – consider, that is, what it is to be a disciple. We
don’t have a word for this in the FWBO. We don’t even have a word for the junior party
in a kalyana mitra relationship. But in Sanskrit there is the word ‘shaiksha’, one who
offers him or herself for training – specifically the three trainings of sila, samadhi, and
prajna. Then there is the word ‘shishya’, a contemplator, one who observes or ‘takes in’
his teacher’s character and qualities. And finally there is the word ‘bhajana’, meaning a
receptacle or pot into which the Dharma may be poured. According to a Tibetan analogy
some pots are upturned, unreceptive to the Dharma. Some are holed and whatever is
poured in drains away, just as the Dharma pours from our unretentive minds when we
forget what we have been taught. And some pots are filled with poisonous herbs which
contaminate the water just as our own negative states of mind may taint what we have
been taught. So to the extent that we wish to commit ourselves to the Dharma our
responsibility is to become a pure vessel, a true disciple.

Not only is Bhante our teacher, he is the founder of our Order, and the chief elucidator of
what Buddhism means for us. In my dealings with other Buddhists, I am often struck that
aspects of Bhante’s role which Order members usually take for granted, can seem
extraordinary or even outrageous to outsiders. It is no commonplace thing to found a
Buddhist Order, as opposed to establishing an existing one in a new context. Buddhist
history does not readily offer precedents for consciously establishing a new Order outside
the categories of monks and lay people. For our critics this is a knock-down argument
that demonstrates that the Western Buddhist order lacks legitimacy, and on its own terms
this argument cannot be countered. I won’t rehearse the arguments concerning legitimacy
of our Order and movement now – I feel I have spent quite enough time doing so over the
last three years. Today I want to rejoice in the benefits of Bhante’s approach.

The great creative endeavour that is the FWBO was only possible because of Bhante’s
fresh start. Following his example we, too, are neither monks nor lay people. We can live
lives wholeheartedly devoted to the Dharma without either the encumberance of the
vinaya, or the subordinate status of lay-people. We have a clear sense of what is central to
the Buddhist path – going for Refuge to the Three Jewels. And this affords the freedom to
question and explore the Buddhist tradition confident that in questioning peripheral
aspects of the Dharma we will not be undermining its basis in our lives. We can dispense
with the medieval nonsense and feudal hierarchies ...

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