4 Allegations against the FWBO
a | Supplementary Benefit and Housing Benefit
After describing something of the successful growth of the FWBO, The FWBO Files concludes
The FWBO, then, appears to be extremely astute in the realm of so-called ethical business projects... If however, one examines the content of the FWBO inner circle magazine, Shabda, [ 166 ] it is clear that the collateral used to establish these “ethical” businesses was accumulated in an extremely unethical manner. [ The FWBO Files p.14 ]
The FWBO has indeed grown steadily over its thirty-one year history into a substantial Buddhist movement. Its growth has paralleled that of numerous other Buddhist movements in the West such as FPMT, Shambhala, the Community of Interbeing, and so on, and has occurred for broadly the same reasons: the rising interest in Buddhism in the West, and the intrinsic value of its distinctive approach to Buddhist practice. The FWBO has succeeded in making Buddhism accessible and relevant in Western culture. All FWBO centres (in the UK) are legally autonomous charities, and their ability to establish themselves by teaching meditation and Buddhism, thereby generating financial turnover, [ 167 ] is simply a reflection of the demand for this to happen, and the determination and ability of individual Order members to respond. Many FWBO charities have been financially hard-pressed for much of their history, some struggling to survive. The same is true of the various Right Livelihood ventures that have been started over the years. Some have done well, but others, like many new businesses, have failed. Unlike some Buddhist organisations in the West, the FWBO has never received financial help from Asian donors, nor has it had wealthy Western sponsors. Indeed, Sangharakshita has always stressed the importance of self-sufficiency, having observed the undermining influence of patronage on Buddhism in the East.
The historically weak financial position of many FWBO charities has had implications for individuals who are drawn to working for them. There are widely differing degrees of involvement with the FWBO and only a few of the more fully committed are financially supported. In the 1970s many of those getting involved with FWBO Centres were young, and generally poor; often they were unemployed and, lacking skills, likely to remain so, particularly in a climate of high unemployment which prevailed in such depressed areas as East London, Glasgow, and Manchester, the sites of some of the FWBO’s larger centres. As a matter of course, many such people would have claimed Social Security allowances. In the social climate of the day that was the norm. [ 168 ] As they became involved in FWBO activities such people often volunteered to help with the Centre’s work. For their part, Centres are very happy to have offers of help with areas such as cleaning, maintenance, book-keeping and reception. The more people become involved in their different ways, the richer and more vital the Centre becomes. But a potential failing is that in their enthusiasm to make use of what volunteers have to offer, Centres may prematurely come to depend on such people’s input before it can be financially underwritten.
The consequence was that Centres sometimes developed in such a way that they were to some extent run by people who were claiming state benefits. However, dependence on the state, although the legal entitlement of any individual who met the criteria, was never official or unofficial FWBO policy upon which financial growth was planned, [ 169 ] and a major aspect of the FWBO’s 31 year history is the constant struggle to create the conditions for financial self-reliance. Each Centre being autonomous, meetings of FWBO Centre Chairmen, or Co-op Managers, although from time to time focusing on these issues, could only recommend to the respective Centre Councils the need to take action in these areas. But the detailed and often complex issues surrounding the financial standing of any particular Centre had to be left to that Centre’s Council.
For these reasons, and because working with other Buddhists can be a valuable spiritual practice in its own right, as well as out of a desire to change society for the better, some Order members decided as early as the mid-1970s to establish Right Livelihood businesses. Many businesses were started in the 1970s and 1980s — without capital, skills or business experience; somewhat predictably, several barely managed to get by and, being essentially unprofitable, eventually closed. A few were more successful. In particular, Windhorse Trading eventually prospered and has developed into a substantial concern, contributing very greatly to the development of the FWBO’s financial security. As experience of Right Livelihood has grown, Windhorse and the other surviving businesses have learnt how to provide excellent conditions for Dharma practice. [ 170 ] Similarly, some of the larger Centres now generate sufficient income to support all those working within them.
The debate in Shabda during 1986 which was sparked by Vajraketu’s exhortation to Order members to end dependence on state benefits marked a shift in attitudes as people came to realise that current tendencies were unsustainable. [ 171 ] The FWBO Files’ presentation of that debate, however, gives a false impression of the resistance to this view. [ 172 ] Some only wanted to work in ways that were directly concerned with spreading the Dharma. Others espoused social attitudes which derived from the youth counter-culture of the 1970s. Some who claimed Social Security disclosed their voluntary work to the officers at their local DHSS office and received a favourable hearing. Others did so in the context of authorised DHSS job training schemes. [ 173 ]
It must be admitted that some Centre Councils took the easy option for a number of years, of relying on people who resorted to these means of support, rather than launching other schemes for generating funds and some volunteers may well have worked more than 22 hours a week. None the less, the longer-term ambition of those in the FWBO to become financially self-sufficient has largely been achieved. There has been a considerable reduction in the number of people working in any FWBO context who claim state benefits, [ 174 ] and we are unaware of any who do so in contravention of the current regulations. [ 175 ]
[ 166 ]
Shabda is a monthly collation of open letters to and articles for other Order members only. It is unedited and its contributors’ views and opinions are their own — they cannot be taken to be representative of the FWBO as a whole. Points are often debated over several issues, with participants voicing substantially different positions. Decontextualised quotations from Shabda lacking the background that contributors and readers take for granted, easily misrepresent what was actually happening, and in this particular case they make things appear much more black and white than they really were.
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[ 167 ]
Not all FWBO Centres charge for classes; in many cases a “Dana Economy” operates, where participants are encouraged to contribute as much as they feel able towards the running costs of the Centre or events from which they are benefiting, and there is no formal charge for events.
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[ 169 ]
The FWBO Files, in effect, suggests that the FWBO deliberately set out to defraud and exploit the taxpayer. To the extent that such dependence was relied upon institutionally, it was often in extenuating circumstances, and invariably legitimate. As the history of the Movement bears out, the various FWBO charities have succeeded in becoming financially autonomous.
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[ 170 ]
See Subhadramati, “Working Wonders”, Dharma Life 5; Vajraketu, “Marketing Values”, Dharma Life 6; Martin Baumann ”Working in the Right Spirit: The Application of Buddhist Right Livelihood in the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order,“ published in the on-line Journal of Buddhist Ethics, 5, 1998. As investigation of FWBO Right Livelihood businesses will show, The FWBO Files’ charge of exploitation of workers, is quite groundless. People are supported on the basis of their needs, and the general level of support in cash and kind is sufficient for a comfortable, though simple, standard of living. Where this level of support is above the tax and N.I. threshold these are paid. Windhorse Trading has produced a booklet giving the guidelines of its support policy.
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[ 171 ]
Vajraketu, a junior Order member at the time, had just started working for Windhorse Trading; he was keen to promote the possibility that he believed this business held. The business then being quite small could only have offered a few vacancies. He admits his figures are a rough estimate; he does not take account of those participating in DHSS job creation schemes.
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[ 172 ]
Bodhiraja’s Shabda report has been garbled (missing elements in italics).
Personally, I don’t care anymore if we are a little inept at business (Aryatara excepted), or if the UK wing is half living off the state. I’ve seen the world of wealth, power and influence, and frankly I don’t want anything to do with it. The Order, for all its faults, has many qualities amongst its members, qualities the world sorely lacks, such as honesty, patience and kindness... I hate to read these diatribes in the pages of Shabda, where Order members describe their fellow members as whimpish, or precious, or lazy. Bodhiraja is not advocating that people in the FWBO remain on state support. He is criticising what he considered to be Vajraketu’s harsh response to that fact.
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[ 173 ]
A claimant was allowed do up to 22 hours’ unpaid voluntary work a week (subsequently reduced to 15 hours) so long as this was declared and the individual was available for work. In some areas and during periods of high unemployment, the likelihood of being offered work was small, but if an offer had been made they would either have had to take it or end their claim.
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[ 174 ]
Housing benefit is available to people claiming Social Security, or on low incomes; accordingly, many of those involved with the FWBO claim this too as they genuinely belong to the category for whom housing benefit is intended. The FWBO Files’ comment on the level of rent,
The housing benefit figure was again underestimated at £15 per person per week, a remarkably low rent by 1986 standards, suggests unawareness of the genuine poverty of most FWBO charities in the 1980s. This was, indeed, the level of assessed fair rent in Phoenix Housing Association.
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