3 Sangharakshita and sex
The early part of this Response described Sangharakshita's career up to the time of the establishment of the FWBO, and vigorously argued that he was celibate during this period. However, for a number of years subsequently he was not celibate. He was always open about his sexual activity and there was no element of deception.
Having returned to the West to establish a new Buddhist movement in a new culture, Sangharakshita entered a period of intense creativity and also of experimentation. It is worth quoting at length from Subhuti's description of this period in Bringing Buddhism to the West:
'Since he no longer felt himself to be bound by existing models and conventions he was free to experiment and explore. He did not know what form the new Buddhist movement was to take and he simply opened himself up to what was going on around him, seeing what could and what could not be used, without preconception. His own explorations coincided with a period of exceptional ferment in the surrounding culture, with the boundaries of what could be publicly said and done being pushed back day by day. Sangharakshita dipped into some of the new and exciting currents that swirled around him. He read widely in the ideas activating many people at that time. He became involved with a circle of experimental poets, went a few times to an avant-garde arts centre, saw a number of innovative films, and even went to a rock concert or two. Finding that many of the young people he met had taken marijuana and LSD, he too tried these 'mind-altering' substances on a few occasions, having interesting but not particularly significant experiences. In these and other ways he explored what was happening around him.
'Sangharakshita had now entered a no-man's-land between the old Buddhist movement and the new. He still wore the yellow robes of a bhikkhu on public occasions and still allowed himself to be referred to as 'Maha Sthavira', an honorific deriving from his fifteen years as a monk. However, although he still regarded monastic life as a very positive basis for spiritual progress, he had come to see that much traditional monastic practice was actually counter-productive since it elevated formal observance above genuine asceticism. He therefore no longer considered the traditional formalised monastic structure to be of relevance. He simply continued to use its conventions in his relations with other Buddhists in the absence of any alternative. As the new movement he created has become more established he has felt himself increasingly able to abandon the forms and styles of that old Buddhist world and to present himself exclusively in terms of the new. His has been a transitional role, between the old and the new, and it was at this point in his career, on his return from India, that he effectively stepped out of the old and began to create the new. '
This transitional role also accounts for his seemingly anomalous position of appearing to maintain some of the trappings of monk-hood (principally maintaining the title Venerable Maha Sthavira in his literary work) whilst no longer following the vinaya. From Sangharakshita's perspective, he was not becoming a layman, but establishing a new identity which was neither monastic nor lay, for which there was no immediate precedent to hand. While Sangharakshita's position at this time might certainly appear to be anomalous, to interpret it as deception suggests a failure of imagination in understanding Sangharakshita's process of exploration and discovery.
Some will undoubtedly be scandalised by his behaviour. However, it is surely in the nature of experimentation that it defies norms, and at this time Sangharakshita was prepared to experiment in all areas of his life, including sex. Sangharakshita has now been celibate for at least a decade. In an interview with Golden Drum in 1988 he commented on his period of sexual activity:
'One of my conclusions was that sex didn't really play much of a part in human communication. Bodily contact sometimes functioned as a means of breakthrough in communication, but didn't result in a permanent breakthrough: it only gave one a certain opportunity, which one then had to develop. Sometimes the breakthrough came to an end and things were as they were before. In fact, that was almost always the case. So I came to the conclusion that sexual contact wasn't really much help in developing human communication, and again I ended up celibate.'