I Sangharakshita’s Place Within the Buddhist Tradition
The first section of The FWBO Files concerns Sangharakshita himself and seeks to discredit him as a prelude to discrediting the movement he founded. It portrays him as a self-taught charlatan, who is certainly not an authentic teacher of Buddhism, and has acted unscrupulously in various respects.
This chapter will attempt to establish the facts firstly of Sangharakshita’s training and secondly of his subsequent career. [ 7 ] However, behind these factual matters, lies the question of what constitutes legitimacy in a Buddhist teacher. The FWBO Files appears to take the position that in order to be a valid teacher of Buddhism one must have been authorised to teach by a single, pre-existing religious authority or tradition, and that one’s teaching must primarily comprise passing on the teachings one has oneself received from that tradition. Sangharakshita, however, has never shown an exclusive allegiance to any one Buddhist tradition. His teaching and practice draw on several Buddhist traditions, rather than just one; his writing shows a persistent desire to discern what all Buddhist traditions have in common, rather than to expound a single strand of it; his teaching is an attempt to articulate the underlying principles running through the tradition as a whole, rather than to train students in an Eastern form; he describes himself as a “translator” [ 8 ] rather than a representative; in founding the FWBO he has drawn freely on the Buddhist tradition as a whole within a system that has its own coherence yet differs, not in spirit but in various particulars, from the systems from which he has drawn.
The FWBO Files is plainly outraged by this approach, but its justification is the history and example of the Buddhist tradition itself. Buddhism has always manifested in different ways under different conditions. Its history shows continual reformulation and development, often at the instigation of a single figure. Furthermore, these adaptations have rightly been the subject of controversy — consider, for example the doctrinal disputes surrounding such figures as Nagarjuna and Bhaveviveka in India, or Tao-Sheng, Chih-I, and Hui Neng in China, Tsong-ka-pa in Tibet, Shinran and Hakuin in Japan, and more recently Buddhadasa in Thailand. The point is not that Sangharakshita claims the status of all of these figures, but that their examples illustrate the way that attempts to reformulate the teachings have often been attended by controversy. One might say that a tension between over-rigid conservation and necessary reformulation runs through the Dharma’s spread and has been particularly intense at every crucial juncture. The encounter of the Buddhist tradition as a whole with the West is generally recognised to be such a juncture, and so it is perhaps to be expected that Buddhists in the West should debate how much of what is practised as Buddhism in Asia needs to be imported, and what may be discarded. Numerous aspects of Sangharakshita’s response to these issues will be discussed throughout this Response. However, a crucial issue in understanding Sangharakshita’s relation to the Buddhist tradition is that the encounter has been between the West and the Buddhist tradition as a whole, all of whose branches have become available to Westerners at the same time. We are therefore heirs to that tradition as a whole, at the same time as being Westerners with our own cultural legacy. Similarly, Sangharakshita’s training included experience of various Buddhist schools, and was supplemented by far broader reading in Buddhist canonical literature than would be usual in any of those schools.
His conviction (and, indeed, his argument) is that there are values, goals, teachings and practices which define the core of the Buddhist tradition, as it has existed across Asian cultures, and which, naturally enough, can be expressed in many ways. His aim has been to remain true to this core and, by doing so, to be flexible and creative in re-expressing it in a new context. Sangharakshita’s approach is that in introducing Buddhism to the West we must steer a course between a superficial eclecticism and a narrow and unrealistic sectarianism. He claims that, as well as being innovative in some of its formulations, his teaching is in keeping with the principles and spirit of the Dharma as a whole and is, in this sense, wholly orthodox. [ 9 ] It is a radical orthodoxy:
The FWBO’s role ... is radical, in the sense of being a return to the spiritual roots of Buddhism, and creative, in the sense of not allowing itself to be determined by the immediate past of British Buddhism, or, for the matter of that, by the immediate past of the eastern Buddhist world. [ 10 ]
The FWBO, similarly, sees itself as wholly traditional and orthodox. It is not so in the sense of following all the observances, customs and practices which have become traditional in Buddhist countries, but in the sense that it seeks to apply the essential, traditional, principles of Buddhism to the circumstances in which it finds itself.
Thus the concerned reader who asks of the FWBO (or indeed any Buddhist tradition), “Is this real Buddhism?” will not find an answer by simply looking at other Buddhist traditions, and expecting it to be exactly the same. If pushed to extremes (as, we would say, has occurred in The FWBO Files) such a position would be fundamentalist. As an innovator, Sangharakshita, by definition, cannot be easily fitted into pre-existent sectarian categories. However, this is not because he is by nature a maverick in relation to the Buddhist tradition, but he has felt that the nature of the tradition itself demands a fresh and creative response to a unique and complex historical situation. As more Westerners gain maturity as Buddhist teachers, an increasing number are following his example, with the result that a new methodology is required to make sense of how Buddhism is developing in the West. Academic commentator Andrew Rawlinson, for example, locates Sangharakshita within
the ecumenical Sangha of non-sectarian western Buddhist teachers. [ 11 ]
However, we must first consider the nature of Sangharakshita’s own Dharmic training, so as to show, firstly, that Sangharakshita has given a faithful account of it, and secondly how this is the basis for his translation of traditional Buddhist principles into the creation of a new Buddhist tradition, the Western Buddhist Order.
[ 7 ]
See also Subhuti, Bringing Buddhism to the West (Windhorse Publications, 1995), a biographical outline of Sangharakshita's life. Sangharakshita himself has written a series of memoirs of his time in India, up to 1958: The Rainbow Road (Windhorse Publications, 1997); Facing Mt. Kanchenjunga (Windhorse Publications, 1991). There are useful accounts of Sangharakshita in Stephen Batchelor, The Awakening of the West, (HarperCollins, 1993); and Andrew Rawlinson, The Book of Enlightened Masters (Open Court, 1997).
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[ 8 ]
I was trying to communicate the spirit of the Dharma in terms of Western rather than in terms of Eastern culture. I was thus a translator, with all that that implies in the way of seeking to fathom the uttermost depths of what one is trying to translate so that one may translate it faithfully.... “The Journey to Il Convento” published in The Priceless Jewel (Windhorse Publications, 1993).
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[ 9 ]
Indeed he argues that this is the only meaningful sense of Buddhist orthodoxy: “The Meaning of Orthodoxy in Buddhism: a Protest”, France-Asie, February–June, 1957; Extending the Hand of Fellowship (Windhorse Publications, 1996), p.24–37.
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