issue 17 winter 01
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Testing Articles of Faith

Vishvapani was in the front line when the Western Buddhist Order was criticised in a newspaper scoop. He reflects on the lessons he learnt and how the attack has affected the wider movement.

On October 26th 1997 I travelled home from a chapter meeting of the Western Buddhist Order via central London. Leaving the underground train at King's Cross, I headed for the nearest newsstand selling early editions of the next day's papers. Although I knew what to expect, I was shocked when I saw The Guardian. There on the front page was a small photograph of my teacher, Sangharakshita, a man I respect and admire; it indicated a long feature on him and the movement he founded, The Friends of the Western Buddhist Order. The image of Sangharakshita stared out, appearing sinister in the new setting, beside the words Bad Karma. The main article was headlined The Dark Side of Enlightenment.

A few weeks earlier I had been at my desk in the FWBO Communications Office when the telephone rang. It was Madeline Bunting, religious correspondent of The Guardian. 'I've recently returned from maternity leave and saw coverage of the FWBO'S 30th birthday. I thought this might be a chance to write something substantial. Could I interview Sangharakshita?' 'Great', I replied. And it might have been great. But my last contact with Bunting had been to discuss a piece she was writing about the controversial Tibetan Buddhist movement, The New Kadampa Tradition. I had tried to argue that many of her points about them were unfair, but she was annoyed by my objections. A voice whispered in my head, 'This woman isn't being straight. It's our turn now.'

When Bunting's article appeared it related, over three pages of The Guardian's tabloid supplement, the unhappy stories of several former FWBO members, the reservations of certain British Buddhists about the FWBO, and a few quotes from Sangharakshita which, taken out of context, did sound bad. In a caption was the dread word, expressing the fear in our society about a new or unorthodox religious movement: 'cult'.

This much is well known to those acquainted with the FWBO, the Buddhist movement that publishes Dharma Life. The FWBO has been the focus of controversy throughout its history. It was founded as a new, independent Buddhist movement that didn't owe allegiance to any single school of Asian Buddhism, but was committed to translating the tradition as a whole into a new 'western Buddhism' that fitted the needs of the modern world. Some conservative followers of established Buddhist schools argued that Sangharakshita had no authority to instigate this development. Others asked if the independent FWBO was teaching real Buddhism or if Sangharakshita's experimentation with western idioms (for example, speaking of the Buddhist path as 'the Higher Evolution') indicated that he had strayed from the tradition.

Over the years the FWBO spread worldwide and became one of the largest Buddhist movements in the UK, and prior reservations were compounded for those involved in small Buddhist groups by their fear of being swamped and their aversion to large organisations. When they heard that Sangharakshita, hitherto a celibate monk, considered himself 'neither monk nor lay' and had become sexually active, their suspicions were compounded. And when stories emerged of bad experiences at FWBO centres, they seemed to be confirmed.

This mistrust surfaced as outright criticism in The Guardian. Bunting's piece was prompted by a campaign waged against the FWBO by certain anonymous 'British Buddhists' - one individual in particular - who approached her with a press pack on our work. This campaign later included publishing criticism on the Internet, and attempts to discredit the FWBO's work in education. I don't want to discuss the substance of the criticisms, although I realise that by alluding to them I may raise questions. Rather I want to describe the experience of being on the receiving end of them, and to consider their effect. The publication of Bunting's article marked a watershed for the FWBO, a powerful experience from which it is only now fully FWBO emerging, and through which we have learnt something important about Sangha.

The criticisms were certainly no surprise to me. I learnt early in my involvement in the FWBO at the Croydon Buddhist Centre that the movement was not perfect. I came to see that for a few years in that Centre the FWBO's teachings were being applied crudely, insensitively, and sometimes even unethically. Individuals' needs could be overridden by institutional concerns, and the authority that some people acquired through their role in the institution meant their own unconscious failings and desires were played out in the wider community.

Two of Bunting's three case studies concerned people who had been involved in the Croydon centre. In some ways that set-up really was cultish. And yet I had discovered there something of great worth - the Dharma. I also found that Sangharakshita and senior members of the Order had long shared these concerns and sought to change the Croydon Centre. They eventually succeeded, and I concluded that the faults I had seen were not central to the FWBO's character.

Having worked through such difficulties over a number of years it was strange to find myself defending the movement against criticism that depicted it solely in terms of its flaws. My view had grown complex and modulated, and by contrast the critics' view seemed a crude stereotype. To be sure there were faults, and unresolved issues, but I was certain that the movement possessed fundamental integrity and that it was making Buddhism accessible in new and valuable ways. Despite the crudity of the image Bunting presented, her views had to be taken seriously because they were harnessed to the power of the media.

Bunting's opinion changed as she researched her piece. The critics who had contacted her presented the FWBO as a sinister organisation whose malevolence was testified by the bad experiences recounted in the press pack. But Bunting liked the people she met from the FWBO, and she expressed her respect for some of them. And yet ... there were the testimonies, the views that bothered her, the deadline approaching ...

It is not that Bunting was unscrupulous. But when she came to write her article I think the demands of telling a story left little room for the ambivalence that she expressed privately, nor the more rounded picture she had started to see. Not only could she not fit her understanding into a journalistic slot - indeed her article contained many riders - but she seemed truly baffled by what she encountered. After publication she was at pains to say that shedidn't consider the FWBO a cult - the word was the work of a sub-editor. She gave us a column in the paper to put our own perspective. She even apologised to me personally.

But the damage had been done, and the stereotype was what the world saw. That was unjust and I knew the article would mould many people's perceptions. I had a similar sense of unfairness when debate on the FWBO started on Internet Newsgroups. I discovered that other participants angrily dismissed the slightest questioning of the motives or credentials of critics (some of whom were anonymous) as a diversion. Conversely the most outrageous claims on the other side went unquestioned. Given what I knew privately, this was unfair - two of our most vocal Internet critics have subsequently offered to maintain silence in return for payment (we ignored these proposals).

Yet I have learnt from the bracing experience of being upbraided. I have to watch my words. In any case, was it not naive to expect fairness? I found it helpful when Sanghadevi, a senior Order member, pointed out that misperceptions are inevitable, and public ones mirror those in our personal lives. 'It is interesting to see how others perceive you,' she said. 'They may well be wrong, but you can generally learn something.'

I felt embarrassed that something to which I was committed had been cast in dark terms by the very newspaper I read and trusted. I felt the cold breath of society's disapproval. What would my family think, or my non-Buddhist friends? 'Cult' spells danger. It consigns a religious community to a netherworld of otherness and illegitimacy, with overtones of 'brainwashing' - mindless devotees in thrall to a charismatic leader and isolated communities spiralling into madness.

Yet the experience of being fingered as one of society's bogeymen was educational. I have come to mistrust 'anti-cult' rhetoric, and see it as a way of dismissing groups that may be perceived as anomalous, transgressive or subversive. I don't doubt that there are unhealthy or coercive religious groups. But when one thinks of the religious communities, whom 'everyone knows' to be wacky or dangerous, it is worth asking, 'how do we know?' We read it in the papers, of course.

In order to address the criticisms my colleagues and I sought to remain open to the possibility they were true. But this was hard: to listen when under attack; to resist the temptation to dismiss criticisms; to forswear the 'bunker mentality'. I felt shaken. Perhaps, I wondered, the FWBO is a malign influence? What from one perspective looks like an ethos freely offered by a religious community, from another looks like an ideological straitjacket. Could I really vouch for my teacher's probity? Was my interpretation of difficulties just sophistry and evasion? Even if it is hard, I think such questioning is in the spirit of the Buddha's teaching and it helped me to find a balanced and reasonable response.

What shocked me most was the realisation that fellow Buddhists had stimulated the article. I knew about the background of difficulty, but I hadn't expected Buddhists to be so vindictive or underhand. Mistrust runs through the British Buddhist world and its causes are buried deep in its history and the psychology of its adherents. These cases include concerns about what is and isn't 'real' Buddhism. In drawing on the whole Buddhist tradition, the FWBO does not conform to the map of Buddhism that is carried on the heads of certain Buddhists, and this - to some - makes it suspect.

The FWBO also offends some attitudes to affiliation. There are three categories of Buddhists in the West. There are independent practitioners; there are people involved in small groups with informal membership. These two groups often regard with suspicion members of the third group - people who are fully committed to and actively involved in a large, organised Buddhist movement. Most bigger movements cater for a range of involvement, but they have a committed core for whom Sangha is the context of their whole lives.

Unaffiliated Buddhists often cannot imagine being part of a large organisation; they assume this would imply conformity and subjection to power structures. For example, John Crook, a British Ch'an teacher, recently complained that the British Buddhist world is dominated by 'cult-like mega-organisations'. One might question his knowledge, but from where he stands this is how they look.

The result is polarisation. In my experience many people in this small world hold opinions - often forceful and antagonistic ones like Crook's - about Buddhist traditions other than their own. But few make an effort to establish if these are accurate. I think this is because their views are based on assumptions about legitimacy and affiliation, indeed an entire, unconscious ideology of Sangha. But they manifest in mistrust: 'Are these people kosher? Are we on the same side?' Sometimes in inter-Buddhist meetings I have felt met by a kind of aversion because of my affiliation that I can only compare to being subject to racial prejudice.

I've felt pretty fed up with being on the receiving end of such responses. But what if there really is a basis for the mistrust? Is it not right to be cautious of religious movements in general? And shouldn't westerners in search of the Buddha's teachings be careful to ensure that this is what they are finding? The answer to these questions is that, yes, one does indeed need to be cautious, and questioning is good, provided that it is part of a genuine search for truth. But this is quite different from prejudice or the cynical assumption that the worst is probably true.

As the difference between these two kinds of questioning is to a large extent a matter of trust, I want to raise a further question, which underpins the mistrust of those who dislike affiliation. Why does one need to 'join' any organisation when one can carry on with one's practice alone, without the pressure of involvement or the risk that an organisation might go wrong? This is a central issue for all religious communities, and one that everyone involved will probably encounter at some point.

For many in the FWBO that point came with the test of faith when their movement was criticised in the media. Why be involved in a movement, especially an unpopular one? I cannot give an account of how others see these issues - I think we are still too close to the events - but I would like to offer my own reflections.

First, a little background. The FWBO was founded at the height of the 1960s counterculture, and it was moulded by counter-cultural concerns. Rejection of the values and lifestyle of mainstream society led to the need for a movement that offered an alternative in all areas of life. But society has changed; individuals have far more choice about how to live and work, and less sense that most members of society consider one set of values to be normative. So the rationale underlying Buddhist movements is perhaps being eroded and many people who encounter them want to know why you'd need a spiritual community to provide a lifestyle for you, if you can follow the path in your own way?

My answer, in brief, is that Sangha - close involvement with others living the spiritual life - is necessary to practice. However, it is not easy. On first encountering a Buddhist community people can assume that its members are near to Enlightenment, that their relations are idyllically harmonious, and that to join will mean bathing in an ocean of wisdom. I guess that more harmony and wisdom is indeed often found in Buddhist communities than elsewhere; the fact remains, however, that Buddhists are flawed human beings, and that one's own flaws persist even in the Sangha. But the practice of working with these difficulties has the power to change one more deeply than perhaps any other practice.

Ideals and aspirations have to be brought down to earth, and one has to learn to listen, empathise and see oneself as others see one. I think I have learnt most about myself, and made the greatest changes, when I found myself in conflict with others and had to restore communication; or when I needed to address a complex and difficult situation with understanding, sympathy and imagination. The difficulties that come with Sangha can show one's limitations more directly and forcefully than any amount of study or meditation alone. Therefore Sangha is not something that one can expect - rather it is something one has to create.

Difficulties will arise not only between individuals but also within and between groups of people. A group that forms around shared ideals will probably have a high degree of coherence, but it takes time to learn how those ideals can be applied. The FWBO's emphasis for many years was on the establishment of urban Buddhist centres, retreat centres, residential communities and shared work. But what about people who couldn't or didn't want to engage in the institutions? Often they felt excluded because the emphasis was elsewhere. While some of the people applying those ideals were young, inexperienced and over-zealous. The FWBO's pioneering phase certainly caused casualties, and at least one unhealthy centre. But painful as these things have been, they should not be unexpected. As I said - Sangha is difficult.

I should add that my own experience of the FWBO's Sangha includes the joy of deep engagement with friends; the inspiration of seeing others develop impressive virtues through their spiritual practice; and the support and guidance that comes from other Buddhists. But I hope I don't blanche at troubles, and I have come to think that the test of a community's health is not whether problems arise but whether they are acknowledged and addressed when they do. The FWBO has changed greatly over the years that I have been involved with it, and I think this is because individuals have learnt from their experience how to apply their ideals flexibly and sensitively.

To tell those involved in the challenge of establishing a Sangha that things have sometimes gone wrong is to say nothing they don't already know. It is salutary and sobering to confront failures, but criticisms from outside are no different from the self-criticism and ethical scrutiny that many Order members continually try to exercise.

Just as it is hard truly to know another person, so it is hard to know a religious community from the outside. The FWBO, for example, is diverse and changing; its organisation is based on careful thought and original ideas - which may be unfamiliar at first. Prejudice and stereotyping do not promote understanding. Perhaps at least Buddhists should renounce the shortcuts employed by the media, and learn to dwell a little more happily with life's uncertainty.