The vajra: cutting through to the truth

3 Sangharakshita’s Teachings in Theory and Practice

I Sangharakshita’s Actual Teaching

b | Translation and Adaptation

The FWBO Files holds that far from achieving a synthesis, Sangharakshita’s approach is a “pick’n’mix” eclecticism, which introduces fundamental distortions:

The “Buddhism” propounded by the FWBO... is in fact, at its heart, not Buddhism at all. Rather it is Sangharakshita’s opinion of what Buddhism is, his own reworking of it combined with a number of totally alien doctrines, sold as Buddhism. [ The FWBO Files, 16 ]

A variety of approaches has been taken in bringing Buddhism to the West. One approach is to import an Eastern school wholesale. However in the process of making the transition, whilst preservation is theorectically possible as an idea, in practice change is inevitable given the need to accomodate to the new cultural and intellectual environment. Batchelor makes this point in considering the dynamics of the transmission of Buddhism to the West when he says, adaptation is not so much an option as a matter of degree, [ 98 ] for all Buddhists in the West.

A second option in bringing Buddhism to the West is to strip it down to a set of ideas and techniques that may be grafted on to an otherwise unchanged western lifestyle. This is not Sangharakshita’s approach, although The FWBO Files appears to consider that it is. Sangharakshita is interested in something far deeper than the outer manifestations of Buddhism — the techniques of meditation, or Buddhist psychology. As Rawlinson says: Sangharakshita is equally critical of orthodox ‘cultural’ monasticism and innovative ‘rational’ non-monasticism. The FWBO is apart from — one might almost say, above — these extremes.99 ]

Sangharakshita is a member of the first generation of Westerners to complete the circle of going East to study and practise Buddhism, and then returning to teach in the West. He is distinctive in combining broad knowledge of the canonical Buddhist scriptures with the awareness of the findings of modern scholarship on Buddhism. While Sangharakshita consistently maintained an unshakeable conviction that there was a timeless core within Buddhism, he was also aware of the incompatibility of many of its claims with the findings of modern science and scholarship. Buddhist cosmology, for example, cannot be upheld in the face of astronomy; and the Mahayana’s view of the origins of its Sutras is equally contradicted by textual and historical scholarship. This means that it is necessary for western Buddhists to find a way to critique Buddhism. Not only do the particular schools need to be critiqued in terms of Buddhist teachings, but — as those teachings are manifold, and sometimes untenable in the face of modern scholarship — the great mass of the teachings themselves need to be understood in terms of the core principles of the Dharma. As these principles are universal and essentially irrefutable, a new Western Buddhism would then have a sound philosophical basis, that was in keeping with the Dharma as a whole. A similar process underlies Sangharakshita’s introduction of Buddhist practice to Western culture, principally through the work of the FWBO . Rather than seeking to westernise Buddhism, his ambition is for a genuinely Buddhist West.

Sangharakshita describes himself not as an adapter or innovator, but as a “translator”, who seeks to re-express the original meaning in a new vernacular, so as to make it available in a new way:

One who is a translator metaphorically brings a discipline, or a set of ideas, or a culture, from the obscurity and darkness of unfamiliar terms into the light of terms that are familiar. I myself am a translator because I elucidate, that is, elucidate the Dharma. [ 100 ]

This is what underlies his occasional restatement of Buddhism in terms drawn from Western sources. These elements are not “combined” willy-nilly in his teaching, still less in the self-serving manner The FWBO Files suggests. New expressions of the teaching are carefully explored on the basis of a comprehensive and searching discussion of traditional Eastern formulations.

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98 ]
The Awakening of the West, op. cit., p.337.
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99 ]
The Book of Enlightened Masters, op. cit., p.504.
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100 ]
My Relation to The Order (Windhorse Publications, 1990), p.22.
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