issue 26 Winter/Spring 05
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Vision and Transformations

Nagabodhi draws out the many dimensions of Sangharakshita and muses on his relationship to his teacher over 35 years

Back in 1976 the Croydon Buddhist Centre wasn't in Croydon and it wasn't really a centre. We held a few yoga and meditation classes every week at Aryatara community in suburban Surrey, and had just a dozen regular visitors. But we had our dreams. Those guys building the London Buddhist Centre in Bethnal Green would have to watch their backs. We'd show 'em how it's done.

At that time Sangharakshita was settling into Padmaloka retreat centre, his new home in Norfolk, so why he invited himself to spend a few days with us at that primitive point in our development I no longer remember. I guess he was keen to encourage anything that looked like initiative. Or maybe he wanted a breath of suburban air. Anyway, he appeared one afternoon with a couple of surprisingly bulky suitcases and tucked himself into the tidiest room we could offer. In the mornings, as was (and remains) his custom, he kept himself to himself, writing, editing, corresponding, perhaps composing poems; in the afternoons he ventured out for walks or visits to the shops and local tea houses. On Tuesday night he joined our regulars' class to conduct a question and answer session, and in one of his replies launched into a comprehensive overview of meditation, focusing on the differing goals of samatha and vipassana practice.

Now I don't want to slander the memory of those regulars, but let's just say they weren't the most exciting or lively bunch of people you could choose to spend a Tuesday night with. Scions of a provincial world, they'd never got out much, physically or spiritually, and had a comfortable habit of slipping into a drowsy stupor once a taped lecture had begun (a habit they shared, to be fair, with many people attending FWBO events in those days). But that night, as Sangharakshita spoke about the refreshment of mundane consciousness, about tranquillity and bliss, about insight and the possibility of seeing things as they really are, an uncharacteristic thrill of excitement passed through their ranks. It was subtle, it was restrained, but it was unmistakable: Sangharakshita had ignited something. But how had he done it? There'd been no verbal fireworks, and certainly no obvious show of charisma; just a 50-year-old man in a tweed jacket, framed by a threadbare armchair, talking quietly of things he knew.

And that's the key, I realised. When Sangharakshita spoke about the Dharma he was talking about something he was completely at home with. He'd seen it and done it. He'd made it his own. He didn't have to cajole, persuade or impress. All he had to do was sit there and talk his walk. Even when he spoke about the Transcendental he made it sound so undeniable that you felt you could reach out and touch it. No-one could fail to pick up on this - be they a suburban solicitor, an illiterate Indian field worker, or a university professor. It was deeply impressive. This isn't my first memory of Sangharakshita, but it marks the time when I really got a sense of who and what he is, and realised why I'd decided not only to stick with him but to devote my life to helping him realise his vision for a new kind of Buddhist movement.

In the few years I'd known him I'd seen him go through a series of transformations. At first there was the highly focused but extraordinarily benign and tolerant man who led the FWBO's classes and twice-yearly retreats at Keffolds, a hired country house. Ever mindful, ever serious about his business, Sangharakshita would pace the terraces deep in solitary thought, or stride along pathways in earnest conversation with a newcomer, seeming but probably only seeming blind to the extra-curricular antics in the woods around him. Whatever the silliness of our distractions, however far we fell short of his hopes for a new kind of western Buddhist, he corralled us with smiles and the simple gift of intimacy as he sat up front in the shrine room, draped in an extra blanket for warmth, and tinkled the little bell to mark the stages.

Since founding the FWBO he wore robes when on duty, but none of us thought of him as a monk in any ordinary sense. His black hair tumbled over his shoulders, his fingers bore rings, he ate an evening meal, and he had a sex life. None of that bothered me, and I don't think it bothered anyone else. Mainly we delighted in his ways, exchanged 'Bhante anecdotes' with an affectionate pride, as if by focusing on those idiosyncratic or simply human aspects of his nature we could somehow contain and perhaps put off a confrontation with this rather awesome creature that had entered our lives. None of us had found our way to the FWBO because we were looking for a traditional Buddhist regime. Few of us probably had any idea what that would have meant, anyway. Somehow or other we had stumbled upon Sangharakshita, taken him as we found him, and got ourselves hooked.

My goodness, though, he knew a lot! He was an astonishing, eat-all-you-can buffet of knowledge. To listen to him talking about Buddhism, Hinduism, philosophy, history, literature, and more, was a marvel. He was our champion. When newcomers turned up for the weekly class, we old hands would sneak crafty glances in their direction as Sangharakshita spoke, waiting to see their faces register that state of amazement in which the rest of us were now living.

After a few years there came a shift. Perhaps he was growing impatient with us, or perhaps he had decided the time had come to take us seriously. For whatever reason, he began to allow a sterner, even wrathful side of himself to show. Meditation sessions became longer and were regularly followed by exhortations to be more mindful, more considerate, quieter, more reflective... Suddenly our coin-in-the-slot guru was challenging our half-heartedness and our vague, incoherent questions. And he talked a lot about commitment. 'Don't worry', I heard someone say one afternoon at Pundarika (the FWBO's north London centre). 'It's only another phase.' But it wasn't.

I joined the Western Buddhist Order on the eve of its first Convention, a weekend gathering at Aryatara community in south London with about 20 participants. Over those two days Sangharakshita, fresh from a year-long sabbatical, outlined his vision for a movement. There were going to be more centres, all kinds of developments, all kinds of possibilities. We were sitting on a treasure chest and it would be blatant selfishness to keep it to ourselves. Were we ready? Were we willing to put ourselves behind that project? Would we work with him? It was a relaxed, easy-going affair, Sangharakshita all smiles and jokes. But none of us left in any doubt that we had just received an initiation.

Sangharakshita is a rich, passionate, complex, multi-talented, multi-dimensional man. He once admitted that if he hadn't found some object of commitment as worthy, as all-consuming, or as noble as the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha, then the powerful and diverse forces of his nature would have ripped him apart. 'I honestly think I would have gone mad,' he said. He has written about the fundamental tension between Sangharakshita I, the poet, dreamer and visionary, and Sangharakshita II, the thinker, scholar and monk, and it is sometimes (but not always) possible to witness the dynamic interplay of these and other forces within him. But however he is manifesting, however he is behaving, my experience of him has been that his total, uncompromising commitment to his mission of practising and sharing the Dharma has never wavered. It's what his life has been about, pure and simple, and any attempts I have made to probe through to depths, workings and motivations beneath or beyond that have brought me up against the same realisation. He may be a complex individual, but he's found a way of channelling everything about him in the direction of his chosen goal, and you're missing him completely if you don't see that.

Were you to put yourself forward for a responsible role, he would take you at your word - even perhaps overriding the suspicions of a sharp intuition - and expect nothing less than a conscientious, wholehearted follow-through. He could certainly drive his colleagues hard but that was probably because he would quite naturally expect others to be as willing to give themselves to their Dharma work as he was.

He has always burnt with a strong inner fire but airy firebrand he ain't. His passions are mediated by an exceptional level of mindfulness, and by his double-Virgoan reliance on reason and commonsense. He will set off for an airport hours before check-in time,

This doesn't make him easy to work with. He can seem fussy, pedantic, cautious, even parsimonious with encouragement or praise. This is in part because he senses danger in being treated as a bestower or witholder of approval, but in larger part because, in his view, things can always be better, we can always be better. It is an axiom of his work as a teacher, I think, that one is much closer to the truth of Buddhism if one is striving after excellence rather than experience. When he talked of the Higher Evolution, the New Society or the True Individual, he was not just reaching for metaphors and analogues that might resonate with the western mind; he was trying to say something fundamental about the nature of spiritual life.

He knows that for most westerners the word 'spiritual' contains a core association with darkness, magic, mystery and at least a whiff of a disempowering divinity. But try as he might (and he has, the word 'normative' being one of his less felicitous attempts) he hasn't been able to come up with a better term that wins its way to currency. So what can he do but try, in written word, in speech and in day-to-day action, to instill in his followers the view that a spiritual life is about pursuing excellence, about growth, about fulfilling one's potential? For sure, that potential includes a capacity for mystical, even Transcendental vision and experience, but the point of a spiritual life is to strive, not to grab at experience. This concern, I'd suggest, explains his extreme caution around the language of immanence. It's not just that he thinks we'll stop making an effort if we fondly assume we're already Buddhas. It's more that we'll fall into a counter-productive, conditioned way of relating to the spiritual life if we think of it as having a goal that is a pre-existing, self-natured thing to be grasped or experienced - be it on the inside or the outside.

In print Sangharakhita is meticulous, scholarly, magisterially opinionated, an auto-didact triumphantly enjoying himself. Because he uses long sentences and big words, especially in his earlier works, people complain that his writing is difficult. It isn't really; the logic is very straightforward if you just stay with it. He makes his points precisely and comprehensively, venturing into elaborate parentheses and sub-clauses quite frequently, but only because he feels an absolute duty to express as faithfully as he can the highly nuanced nature of the insights he is trying to express in mere words. If he set out to write a manual on, say, Windows XP, he would work just as hard and use all the same skills, but I suspect the result would be simplicity itself.

When making public appearances in more recent years he has come across as a smiling, avuncular, almost self-deprecating figure. He likes to be liked. But he isn't a populariser. It's not just that his style is too dated, his stance too politically incorrect, it's more that he's never wanted to be a populariser. For a start he has a built-in unease amounting to repugnance when it comes to oversimplification, compromise and fudge. Then, he is acutely aware of his place in history. For Sangharakshita time is as tangible a context as space is for most others. He believes he is setting something in motion that will last for years, perhaps centuries. And he takes it for granted, I think, that the tradition he is establishing will evolve, dilute and deviate over time. So his job has been to set it rolling with as precise and accurate a shove as he can give it. Above all, perhaps, he knows that the Dharma, if it really is the Dharma, will always offer a profound challenge to the fashionable ideas at large in its host cultures. 'If I have a particular, even defining, skill,' I once heard him say, 'it is in the identification and exposure of miccha-ditthis [wrong views] in the world around us.' That this is a skill which can upset his followers, and even put off some newcomers, has never really worried him. 'Ah,' he'll ask, 'but what about those people who will be relieved to find someone saying the things we're prepared to say?' They are the people he's after. One-to-one he is invariably kind, broad-minded, empathic and patient. But as a public figure, as founder of the FWBO, he is here to represent the Buddha's teaching, nothing less.

During the years I lived with Sangharakshita, until 1998, he would preside over the after-dinner conversation with thoughtful enthusiasm, sometimes failing to see that he was the only person present to have heard of the author whose book he was reading or indeed of the poet or thinker who was the subject of the book. It must be frustrating, even isolating, to find oneself so often surrounded by people whose intellectual and literary horizons are so limited compared to one's own. This has probably been his fate since the age of nine when he read Milton's Paradise Lost for the first time. That so few of his friends and colleagues have shared his level of mindfulness or sense of urgency must occasionally worry him. And yet he's stayed with us as we have stayed with him. It upsets him, I know, that for all their love and devotion, and for all his playfulness and teasing, people would breathe a sigh of relief and relax a notch or two when he left the room. But what could he do? He was irredeemably and unfailingly, the grown-up of the family.

And that's the other thing about him that has bound me and many others to him for life. Whatever his idiosyncrasies, foibles and even failings, you can't shake off an almost animal response to someone who takes the business of being himself, of honouring his deepest truth, to such a pitch of focus, refinement and action. I have known him for 35 years and worked with him for 30. I've travelled with him in India, lived with him, been uplifted, humbled, inspired and infuriated by him. But I've never been able to ignore or escape his influence. Explicit or implicit, it is a force-field of authentic, determined purpose and, having felt its touch, I and many of my friends have lived with the challenge of measuring everything else by its light.

Now, as the movement he founded grows and broadens, as his followers explore more ways of living in tune with his dictum, 'Commitment is primary, lifestyle is secondary', I hope that we manage to keep faith with that extraordinary force-field, which has given our project its radical foundation. He will be a hard act to follow and, as things stand - indeed, as he intends - no single person will be stepping forward to take on his mantle. It's too late for that. The FWBO is too widespread, too complex and diverse for any one person to keep their hand on the pulse in the way Sangharakshita liked to do. And it's also too early. The qualities and skills he brought with him, from goodness knows where, are not of themselves unique to him or beyond anyone else's reach. Between us we're already finding and developing them. But it's work in progress. The longer he sticks around, to be appreciated, honoured and seen for who he is and what he represents, the better.