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Our Work as Teachers and Practitioners

by Kamalashila

You searched for SANGHARAKSHITA

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... because it can seem so limited, so lacking in perspective. It can look like empire building; it can
look like meditation taught by the book. This in turn may also create distrust. Forgive me for
exaggerating the polarity somewhat; and no doubt the real situation at centres is more complex. But
there does seem to be an issue, and when I first saw it, it really gave me a big nudge. The
suggestions below (under ‘evolving a fresh view’) are conceived as a way to establish greater
harmony amongst us.
the issue of insight training
There have been other nudges as well, indicating deeper elements of disharmony still contained
within the Order’s web. The element that has most struck me arose along with the great process of
review that has been under way since Bhante started passing on his responsibilities. I don't really
like to raise the spectre of the FWBO Files, but I believe they have played an important role in our
process. I know in many ways it was an odious document - its intention seemed solely to harm, it
used highly improper arguments, its author hid under a cloak of anonymity, etc. Nonetheless, from
its own perhaps rather rigid point of view, it seems to have been sincerely motivated. And that raised
important questions about Bhante and his relation to the Order – questions we had not faced before,
questions which might have remained unfaced had we not been publicly attacked.
One’s enemies can sometimes prove helpful; for despite the hostile presentation of the Files, they
forced us to look at issues that genuinely troubled some of our fellow Buddhists. The issues may
have been wrongly conceived, but before we could feel comfortable dismissing them, we needed to
understand them. That’s why the Files caused such an upheaval: when they appeared in 1997 it
wasn’t at all easy for us to understand what was coming at us. For thirty years we’d remained in
virtual isolation from the growing western Buddhist world, while at the same time being vocally critical
of many of its aspects. This stance was no doubt justified in some ways, and other Buddhist groups
had operated similarly. Yet it was inevitable this would eventually meet some kind of retribution; it
was bound to cause confusion and misunderstanding, both within and without our movement.
Most of us disagreed strongly with the idea that Bhante’s Dharma training was inadequate. His own
account shows that as a monk in India he’d been self trained to quite a large extent, but we didn’t see
that as an inadequacy. It seemed to many of us that his very independence qualified him as a
teacher. We knew Bhante had special abilities as a communicator and interlocutor, qualities that
would enable him to discover the truth. And wherever he’d got it, he’d clearly acquired deep spiritual
experience, kindness and commitment. He had obviously learned richly from his teachers. And to
prove it, he had received their blessing to act as a Dharma teacher. So all this amounted to sufficient
qualification for Bhante to teach us the Dharma. Thus I, for one, didn’t need Bhante to have had the
monastic or yogic training of a Tibetan tulku. Such things seemed of little relevance. There is
emphasis in certain Buddhist circles of the essential need for an ‘authentic teacher’ – which is
perfectly right, but it seems to me that authenticity has little to do, necessarily, with training. I see an
authentic teacher as one who is both realised and able to communicate the realisation, at least to
some people. This is something Bhante is, and it is what he has done. How he managed it is a
secondary matter. I think I speak for others in saying that what I needed from him was not to be a
monastic or a yogin - but to have a fine brain, to be very articulate in English, and to have a deep,
extensive and emotional understanding of both European and Buddhist cultures. I needed him to be
available, and to teach abundantly; he did all that.
Bhante had been fortunate to know personally many eminent teachers and to receive many important
teachings from them. The alleged disqualification seemed to be that he hadn't received from them a
thorough monastic or yogic training - the kind he would have obtained had he been born, say, in
Tibet, or lived in a monastery over many years – a degree of training that has been made available to
westerners only in recent decades. It seems to me that such training is secondary to one’s overall
Dharma training, and my impression is that Bhante received the latter especially from his teachers
Yogi Chen, Jagdish Kasyap, Kachu Rinpoche and Dhardo Rinpoche. It seems, moreover, to have
been well understood, deeply reflected upon, and transmitted with integrity.
Everyone has limitations. Not having a full monastic or yogic training must represent a limitation of
some kind - but how is one to assess its effects? Bhante received from his teachers a training that
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Our Work as Teachers and Practitioners
11/22/2006 02:24 PM
was full and deep, but non-specialised. What we received from him were basic principles that would
need to be filled out gradually as the movement developed. And that was very appropriate for our
needs in the 70s. Most of us were young and naïve, and Bhante quite rightly trained us in basic
dharma – not in esoteric teachings we would be incapable of putting into effect. We were well
educated in dharma study, meditation and ethics, with a stress – at least, by the 80s - on teaching
Maybe that outgoing Mahayana emphasis absorbed too much of our energy. For in the 90s an
inconsistency came into view as we emerged into the light of world Buddhism. Insight is fundamental
to Buddhist realisation, the basis of the Buddha’s Enlightenment and his path leading to
Enlightenment. But we were not emphasising training in insight. We clearly taught the principle of
insight, but we did not emphasise training in it. This has, in my view, led to some dilution of
confidence in the effectiveness of our methods as means to Enlightenment.
I think this may be one of the reasons why some Order members have resigned in recent years, why
a number have apparently taken a diminished interest in the Order, and why quite a number are
exploring teachings outside it. As an Order member myself, while I feel a deep loyalty and
connection with our Dharma teachings and Sangha, I feel uneasy that there is so little emphasis on
insight training. It can make it seem that our teachings and lifestyles are only theoretically about
actual realisation of Dharma. Where there is little emphasis on insight training, our friendly centres,
community houses and workplaces may appear disappointingly lacking in spiritual edge.
In saying this I do not feel at all unappreciative of the many inspiring aspects of our work. Yet
vipashyana alone is what turns ‘Buddhism’ into Buddhadharma. It is not that we do not teach it in the
FWBO, nor is it that we do not try to practice it. It is of course implicit in all dharma teaching, and we
do, generally, try to practice vipashyana. Yet generally, I believe, both our teaching and our practice
has tended to be hampered by the way we have imbibed it. Our way of transmission and practice is
changing now, but there seem to have been strong conditioning factors.
I think these are worth exploring. I realise not everyone is going to share my reading of our past. I
would welcome more considered attempts at understanding our roots, for we are all conditioned by
historical facts and there is much we need to learn about what has happened. And I feel I must
discuss this issue of vipashyana in the WBO in terms of our conditioning, even though my reading of
the actual conditioning factors may be imperfect. So please be patient.
I feel we are strongly influenced by one fact in particular: Sangharakshita started the Western
Buddhist Order on his own. Despite Bhante’s inheritance from his own dharma teachers, and despite
his enormous empathy and breadth of character, aloneness inevitably confers constraints. Members
of traditional Buddhist groups usually have access to an extended Sangha of teachers with a variety
of viewpoints and experience. That kind of Sangha is what the WBO is now developing into, but it has
taken us many years to get to that stage. There is much further to go before our tradition is as rich in
teachers. Yet we have taken some important steps on that road.
I started seeing our need for training in insight after living for a few years at Vajraloka. Indeed, it
seemed that Bhante also saw the need, because at one point in the mid eighties he asked me to go
and explore ‘vipassana’ meditation. This was the ten day retreat variety popularised in particular by
S.N.Goenka, a lay Theravada teacher. Bhante had taught us vipashyana in seminars, in talks, and
through personal example. But he now saw, it seems, our need to learn more thoroughly from those
with special experience teaching insight. Speaking of Goenka etc., he said we should “Go and take a
leaf from their book” (he intended that we should then place that leaf in our own book rather than
discarding ours for theirs).
The vipassana retreat that I subsequently attended influenced me profoundly. Just to mention one
example: I sat in ...

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