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The Order-s Relation to Sangharakshita

by Vishvapani

You searched for SANGHARAKSHITA

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... of Tibetan Buddhism, for example,
and still derive inspiration from its spiritual teachings. Perhaps we tend to take this for
granted, but Bhante consciously made a decisive break with the past, at the risk of
incurring the accusation that he was making it all up. We may be sure that Bhante had at
least some sense how much poison he might have to swallow as a result.

All this is due to the thought and practice of Bhante, without which I very much doubt I
would be a Buddhist at all. In addition in my time living with Bhante for a little more
than a year I have personally benefited from Bhante’s example, and I have had a glimpse
of some of what my own preceptor and his peers have themselves gained from Bhante
over so many more years. Who can quantify all of this? Who can say how much we have
all gained in so many ways?

3. Issues and Difficulties

This brings me to a second observation that arises from comparing the position in 1990
with that in 2000. Not only is our relation to Bhante changing, it also contains difficulties.
I shall have a fair bit to say on this topic, though I am well aware that the things I shall be
discussing are not issues for everyone. Some people are complex, and some are simple.
Some people are faith followers, happy to walk the path Bhante has cleared; others are
doctrine followers, for whom asking questions is a quality of their being. Not everyone
experiences difficulties in having a teacher, but from what I have seen over the years I
suspect that at some point in their Order lives, most people do.

As Bhante says in My Relation to the Order, the two years before the paper was delivered
was a period of some turbulence in the Order, if not exactly turmoil. In 1988 Stephen
Barnham, the ex-Padmaraja, resigned as Chairman of the Croydon Buddhist Centre,
which was then probably the second largest public FWBO centre, and left the Order amid
acrimony and soul-searching. And also in 1988 Mark Dunlop, the ex-Vajrakumara, was
dropped from the Order register after he had commenced a campaign against Bhante and
the FWBO. He had then gone on to contact the press and to publish potentially damaging
material from Shabda.

As in 1990, in 2000 we are emerging (at least I hope we are emerging) from a period of
turbulence. In India the movement has experienced not only turbulence but turmoil
provoked, in part, by the bad publicity that appeared in the West, and this brought to a
head various personal, cultural and ideological tensions within TBMSG. So far as the
West is concerned I think it is hard to say how we have been affected by recent
difficulties. In part this is because it is too soon to say, but I think it is also significant that
whereas the problems of the late 1980s, like our recent problems in India, were internal,
the attacks in the West came from without, and our responses to them were secondary
phenomena.

None the less the recent spate of criticisms has had an effect on some of us individually.
Some people have had many questions and doubts about Bhante, some of which were
prompted by the public criticisms, while others were reinforced. These doubts have
created a wedge which has eventually led to their drifting further and further from close
engagement with the Order, and sometimes from practising the Dharma. Each case needs
to be understood separately, and in some cases issues around Bhante provided a hook or
justification, or even a rationalisation for other forces. But what is most sad to me is
where issues in relation to Bhante have come to comprise a barrier between those people
and the Dharma, and undermining their spiritual lives.

I have thought a good deal about these issues because I have found myself in the position
of having to respond to the criticisms of Bhante. For one thing I needed to understand the
criticisms in order to know how to respond, but as a matter of integrity, I also needed to
be confident in my own mind that I was not acting merely as an apologist, or even a ‘spin
doctor’. I always saw my role in the FWBO Communications Office as spreading the
Dharma through the mass media, not as being Buddhism’s answer to Alistair Campbell.

Leaving aside for now what others think of us, I have come to think that there will always
be some degree of difficulty in our relation to Bhante. Beneath the particular criticisms I
think there lie deeper tensions which can only be worked with, never resolved to the
satisfaction of all. The first area in which these issues are found is that of authority. The
second is the area of ethics; and the third issue relates to what one could call ‘the
psychology of discipleship, the issue of ‘influence’.

The Teacher Student Relationship in Western Buddhism

Before looking at these issues I want to put them in a wider context. They arise from the
fact that Bhante is our teacher, and this is a problem-prone role. A relationship with a
spiritual teacher is not a one for which much else in our culture has helped us prepare. It
is not like that between a parishioner and a priest or a synagogue member and a rabbi. It
is not – at one end of the spectrum of relationships with which we might compare it – like
a Catholic’s relationship to the Pope; and it is not, at the other end, like a client’s
relationship with a therapist.

Furthermore, many of the models of what has been termed ‘the teacher-student
relationship’ that obtain in the East are problematic when applied to the West. Accounts
of the history of Buddhism in the West, and particularly in America over the last 30 years
routinely focus on the scandals concerning teachers’ ‘abuse’ of sex, money or power. The
wave of ‘revelations’ concerning these and other Buddhist teachers in the 1980s led to
widespread questioning of the deferential attitude with which roshis, lamas and so on had
previously been regarded. Some argued that the forms of deference that had applied in
Asia were inherently authoritarian or even ‘patriarchal’, and were of no value even in
Asia. Others argued that they had become dangerous only in the West in the absence of a
cultural context for the teacher’s role. So a crisis of confidence ensued. In response some
people have advocated non-hierarchical, democratised structures for Dharma
organisation. There have been many casualties, people who have become disillusioned
not only with teachers, but with Dharma organisations, and even with Buddhism.

Recently more thoughtful responses to the teacher-student issue have started to appear
among western Buddhists, which have grown from experience of these difficulties, and
seek to safeguard the autonomy of the student, while remaining open to the wisdom of
the teacher. My own thoughts have been influenced by these responses. I would
particularly mention Pema Chodron, and Rita Gross (it is interesting that these women
are both students of Trungpa Rimpoche, whom they both consider to have been brilliant,
yet flawed). I also recommend a new book entitled ‘Relating to a Spiritual Teacher:
Building a Healthy Relationship’, by Alex Berzin, who comments:

‘Resolution of the problems and healing of the wounds are desperately needed so that
sincere seekers may get on with their work of spiritual development. The teacher-student
relationship as understood in the West needs re-examination and perhaps revision.’

Returning to our relation to Bhante and the criticisms that have been levelled at him,
there are some similarities with these American experiences, and some differences.
Bhante too has been accused of having abused his position in the area of sex, and of
being unaccountable to any outside body. His name is, I am afraid, likely to be added to
the list of controversial teachers, and Order members and others are likely to continue to
find this difficult or disillusioning.

However, the principal difference between our relation with Bhante and others
experiences with traditional style teachers is that the way in which he has seen his role is
itself a revision of traditional understandings. In particular Bhante does not invoke what
Dayamati, in ‘Land of No Buddha’ calls ‘the mythology of enlightenment’ – the notion
that a person occupying the role of a Zen roshi or a Tibetan lama is necessarily a realised
spiritual being whose words carry the authority of that attainment. Bhante has been called
many things over the years, including being called ‘the Enlightened Englishman’ by a
television documentary. But he has never himself made any claims to a particular
attainment himself, and he has certainly not claimed an authority deriving from this.
What, then, is Bhante’s authority?

Bhante’s Authority

This question can be put another way. If Bhante isn’t a traditional-style guru, what is his
role? ‘My Relation to the Order’ was, perhaps, written as an attempt to answer that
question, but I am not sure that it fully succeeds. The closest Bhante comes is saying that,
in addition to being the founder and teacher of the Order, he sees himself simply as a
friend. This definition is helpful in that it removes the relationship from a formal context
and sees ...

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