The vajra: cutting through to the truth

2 Sangharakshita

IV. Sangharakshita’s Career

b | Sangharakshita’s involvement with British Buddhism in the 1960s

The Hampstead Buddhist Vihara

[Christmas] Humphreys [the President of the Buddhist Society] [ 59 ] was... colluding with one of India’s senior-most political figures, in a plan to get Sangharakshita out of India before a scandal erupted which would scar the face of both Buddhism and Britain in Indian eyes irretrievably. The senior official, a pro-Buddhist and confirmed Anglophile, had had to intervene personally in the case of a wealthy Indian family whose under-age son had been seduced into engaging in homosexual acts by a British Buddhist bhikkhu... They were determinedly pressing for charges to be brought against the bhikkhu. The bhikkhu in question was Sangharakshita... Recognising the potential disaster for Anglo-Indian relations, the official contacted Humphreys, and a deal was made to get Sangharakshita out of the country... The family agreed not to press charges if he left India immediately. Humphreys kept quiet and allowed the EST to believe Sangharakshita’s credentials were impeccable. [ The FWBO Files, 10 ]. [ 60 ]

The FWBO Files cites three independent sources [ The FWBO Files, 11 ] for this accusation. Two of them are identified only by initials; the other quote is twenty years old. These accounts are anonymous hearsay, and in the absence of more substantial evidence must be regarded as rumours. [ 61 ] Bhikkhu Khantipalo, one of Sangharakshita’s English colleagues in India, is also cited, allegedly having said that Sangharakshita’s behaviour in India was off the rails for a celibate monk, and that they parted because he found the homosexual evidence a bit hard to fit in with my idea of being a bhikkhu. [ The FWBO Files, 11 ]. In 1997, however, Khantipalo (now Lawrence Khantipalo, living in Australia) wished to set the story straight:

I regarded Sangharakshita as one of my Teachers and I was grateful to him for the insights I had gained from living with him in Kalimpong, Poona and Bombay. I have no evidence that Sangharakshita ever was involved in any homosexual relationship. There were, of course, a number of young men at the Vihara, visiting and occasionally staying but I saw no evidence of any sexual relations. [ 62 ]

The FWBO Files suggests that the threat of scandal was the real background to Sangharakshita’s invitation to return to the UK. As with any conspiracy theory, this is impossible to disprove, but The FWBO Files account is highly improbable. The strongest argument against it is the inherent implausibility of an English High Court judge (Humphreys) and a senior Indian official colluding in covering up a criminal act, and that of Humphreys’ risking his reputation and the harmony of British Buddhism through a possible repetition in the UK. The FWBO Files’ alleged and unsubstantiated claim that Shortly before his death in 1983, Humphreys spoke of his intense guilt and personal dismay over what he had done, [ The FWBO Files, 10 ] does not square with the high regard in which Humphreys publicly held both Sangharakshita and the FWBO, as is recorded in his autobiography where he gives both his full support.63 ]. Indeed, Sangharakshita and Humphreys were in regular contact from the early fifties right up until Humphreys’ death.

A more straightforward explanation of the EST’s invitation to Sangharakshita is as follows. Prior to Sangharakshita’s arrival the Vihara was under the direction of a Canadian bhikkhu, Ananda Bodhi. Disagreement between Ananda Bodhi and Christmas Humphreys was disrupting the small British Buddhist world, and Sangharakshita, as a senior English bhikkhu, ordained in the Theravadin tradition, was an obvious candidate to help heal the rift. He would also be able to advance the Trust’s over-riding aim of establishing an English monastic Sangha. This is what Humphreys recommended to the EST, and Sangharakshita agreed to make a short visit for four months. Since his visit went so well, and as Sangharakshita saw the potential for spreading the Dharma in the West, this invitation was extended, and he decided to return to the UK permanently. [ 64 ] Reinforcing this refreshingly straightforward version of events, Maurice Walshe, then Chairman of the English Sangha Trust, simply writes: One not entirely satisfactory teacher was leaving us, we thought we were on to a good thing when the famous ‘Sangharakshita’ agreed to come.65 ]

However, Sangharakshita’s incumbency at the Hampstead Vihara was to end abruptly in November 1966 whilst he was in India when he received a letter from the EST’s trustees. The FWBO Files ascribes the trustees’ decision to fear of sexual scandal. While such fears may indeed have prompted the trustees’ action, at the same time records of the period also point to fundamental differences in the approach to Buddhism of the parties concerned. The socially conventional and doctrinally sectarian members of the English Sangha Trust, in particular Maurice Walshe, interpreted Sangharakshita as dangerously innovative, emphasising as he did the unity of all Buddhist schools and teaching a socially-engaged, non-denominational approach to the Dharma. As Stephen Batchelor writes:

Sangharakshita recognised that there was tremendous potential for the Dharma in Britain. The English Sangha Trust, however, believed that the only acceptable form of sangha was the kind of traditional Theravada monasticism, of which he had been so critical in India, while the Buddhist Society seemed to promote Buddhism as a kind of spiritual pastime rather than a fully-committed engagement with the Dharma. (Awakening of the West, p.333) [ 66 ]

At Hampstead Sangharakshita was outspoken in his criticisms of the formalism, or else lack of spiritual seriousness, he saw in those around him (this is presumably why Walshe later called him arrogant). [ 67 ] Sangharakshita had always regarded himself as first and foremost a Buddhist — formal monasticism was a secondary matter. [ 68 ] While continuing strictly to observe the major rules of the monastic code, he was not willing to fall in with others’ ideas of the rigidly prescribed role to which they felt he, as a bhikkhu, should conform. [ 69 ] He was not the narrowly conventional bhikkhu they wanted. While being consistent with the traditions of the Mahayana, and with the more broad-minded elements within the Theravada, Sangharakshita’s approach did not live up to the expectations of the EST trustees. To their dismay, moreover, it proved hugely popular. He was soon busy with teaching engagements and other activities across the UK, and the English Sangha Association (ESA), the lay organisation associated with the EST, swelled as people who were attracted by Sangharakshita became involved and increasingly active within it.

Sangharakshita happily engaged with younger people themselves involved with the emerging hippie sub-culture, although its character was quite inimical to the more socially conventional members of the English Sangha Trust. This would appear to be the basis of Walshe’s mention of a string of young men of ill repute. [ The FWBO Files, 11 ]70 ] The Hampstead Vihara’s activities were developing around Sangharakshita in a way the trustees did not like and could not control. [ 71 ]

A further issue concerned the dispute about vipassana meditation which was the background to Sangharakshita’s initial invitation to the UK. Sangharakshita had no quarrels with vipassana meditation per se — indeed, he had written warmly of it in A Survey of Buddhism. But in England he met a number of people suffering mental difficulties apparently as a consequence of engaging in the particular form of vipassana meditation practice they had been taught at the Vihara, and he visited several in mental hospital. Sangharakshita made the decision to end the vipassana class in the Vihara, effectively siding against Maurice Walshe in doing so. [ 72 ]

The FWBO Files’ allegation that Sangharakshita was sexually active at this time, and that as his fame increased, so did his sexual exploits, is entirely unsubstantiated. Nor does it name any individuals allegedly concerned. Sangharakshita has always strongly denied this rumour; no evidence for it has ever been produced and The FWBO Files merely repeats gossip. [ 73 ] If Maurice Walshe’s own words were heeded, a great deal of misunderstanding might have been avoided:

It is much to be regretted that temporary credence was given to certain damaging allegations respecting the moral character of Ven. Sangharakshita which are now known to be totally false. The exact source of these allegations, which seem to have been deliberately ‘planted’ in several quarters, is not yet known, but their falsity is evident and they should be denied if further repeated. signed: Maurice Walshe, Chairman English Sangha Trust (statement in The Buddhist Path, July 1967). [ 74 ]

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59 ]
Founded by Humphreys in 1924, and with whose activities Sangharakshita came into contact in 1943, becoming a regular contributor to the Society’s magazine, The Middle Way.
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60 ]
Another version of this story was posted to Internet Newsgroups by Mark Dunlop (uk.religion.buddhist, November 1997), identifying the Indian official as Nehru, the Prime Minister of India. Dunlop also repeats a rumour that since Sangharakshita was allegedly working for British Intelligence in relation to Chinese activities in Tibet, potential publicity would have been a diplomatic disaster.
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61 ]
It is, of course, possible that there were rumours concerning Sangharakshita in Kalimpong. Sangharakshita’s memoirs describes a small town that was rife with gossip. Sangharakshita had enemies, for example some Catholic missionaries, one of whom reported him as being a Communist spy. But the existence of rumours does not constitute evidence that they were well-founded (see Bringing Buddhism to the West, op.cit., p.52).
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62 ]
Letter to Dharmachari Buddhadasa, 21.11.97. Copy in WBO Archive. Khantipalo continues: Before I went to Triyana Vardhana Vihara I had the misfortune to listen to a person in robes who told me stories — likely, I think, to be his own fantasies — about Sangharakshita’s sexual predilections. Perhaps my youth and inexperience may excuse (not to speak of a fairly strong prudishness) my listening to this... Although I may have written to Mark Dunlop a letter in March ’91 — quite possibly I did — the sentence [i.e. Mark’s quoting of Khantipalo’s alleged words], ‘But I found the homosexual evidence...’ sounds phony. What evidence? Did I have evidence then that I do not now? I presume he is able to produce that letter. If indeed I did write such a sentence, though it seems unlikely, I should make it plain that I retract that remark entirely.
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63 ]
Bhante has tried to build up a new form of Sangha more appropriate to the West... This was his Western Buddhist Order, and I gave it my full support, for I never felt the least enthusiasm for an English branch of the [bhikkhu] Sangha. Bhante’s... Order is spreading rapidly. He himself is a first-class lecturer, writer and meditation teacher and the prospects are good. May it encourage more and more who accept the basic principles of Buddhism to apply them constantly, at all times and in all places. Christmas Humphreys Both Sides of the Circle: The Autobiography of Christmas Humphreys (Allen & Unwin, 1978), p.218ff. While it is true that for a period after Sangharakshita’s departure from Hampstead there were difficulties between Sangharakshita and Humphreys, by the end of Humphreys life these were long past. Sangharakshita’s copy of Both Sides of the Circle is inscribed For Bhante Sangharakshita from a friend of many years upon the Way 19/3/78.
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64 ]
There is a short account of Sangharakshita’s reasons for exploring the option of leaving India in Bringing Buddhism to the West, op. cit., p.92. See also Batchelor, p332.
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65 ]
Letter from Maurice Walshe to Mark Dunlop, 16 March 1989, quoted on Internet Newsgroup uk.religion.buddhist, November 1997; Dunlop claims possession of original.
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66 ]
Walshe, writing eight months after Sangharakshita’s dismissal, says: This is a Theravadin Vihara, and all teaching will be given on this basis. Editorial in The Buddhist Path — Journal of the Hampstead Buddhist Vihara, September 1967. In his January 1968 editorial Walshe adds, There are far too many spurious ‘Buddhists’ about, whose self-invented teachings at best spread confusion and at worst, when combined with drug-taking and other practices, lead to moral degradation and personal tragedy. It is not only the right but the duty of true Buddhists to proclaim the genuine teaching and denounce imposters and spiritual demagogues... This as we have frequently repeated lately is a Theravada Vihara. There are respectable and responsible Oriental representatives of other Buddhist schools in Britain and of these we make no criticism: indeed we hold them in the highest esteem. But such tolerance implies no indiscriminate permissiveness, as some in ‘robes’ or otherwise, having misread the signs, have found to their cost.
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67 ]
His arrogance and sarcasm soon became intolerable, letter to Dunlop above n.63.
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68 ]
Nevertheless, Far from rejecting monasticism, I have a very high regard for it, but as an expression of commitment to the Three Jewels, not as constitutive of that commitment. For the greater part of my own adult life I have lived as a monk, ... indeed I rejoice that I could live in this way, regretting only that I was not a better monk. Sangharakshita, Forty-Three Years Ago.
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69 ]
A few days after my arrival in England, I shocked some participants in the Buddhist Society’s annual Summer School (and surprised and delighted others) by actually eating at the same table as everyone else. It was on account of incidents like this that I eventually concluded that while there was a potential for the Dharma in the West the existing British Buddhist movement had already strayed from the right path in certain respects and that a new Buddhist movement was badly needed. History of My Going for Refuge,op. cit., p.75. The FWBO Files alleges: On occasions Sangharakshita would dress in lay clothes and travel to Covent Garden Opera with his companions. In fact Sangharakshita went to the Opera once, with a woman friend, whilst wearing his robes.
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70 ]
The subsequent history of Western Buddhism as a whole shows that members of the hippie generation were, indeed, to be vital to its future.
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71 ]
As a founding member of the EST wrote, somewhat despairingly, a little later, the EST was never intended as a propagator of Buddhism in general for which there existed several other organisations, nor did it envisage a numerous following. Letter from R.C. Howes on behalf of four EST settlors to the ESA Executive Committee, 8.6.67, WBO Archive.
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72 ]
C.f. A Survey of Buddhism: As taught by some teachers, at least, and as practised by some pupils, [the New Burman Satipatthana Vipassana Meditation] could lead to extreme nervous tension and to a schizoid state for which I coined the term ‘alienated awareness’. On my return to England in 1964 I met twelve or fourteen people who were suffering from severe mental disturbance as a direct result of practising the so called ‘Vipassana Meditation’. Four or five others had to be confined to mental hospitals. Preface to A Survey of Buddhism, op. cit., p.xiii. It should be noted that Sangharakshita has subsequently made it clear that he has no necessary objection to vipassana meditation practice per se, as practised in the Theravada in general, or as taught by the Insight Meditation Society.
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73 ]
The FWBO Files, again without citing references, refers to similar stories having appeared on the Internet; but other participants in these same Newsgroup discussions recall no such testimonies; even if they had appeared, without being substantiated they would surely constitute the lowest grade of evidence.
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74 ]
The Buddhist Path Vol. 1, 3, July 1967.
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