The vajra: cutting through to the truth

4 Allegations against the FWBO

III The Ambitions of the FWBO

The principal ambition of the FWBO... is to become the only form of Buddhism in the West. To this end they represent themselves as “Western Buddhists”. Whilst claiming strong links with Asian Buddhism they carry out, in their literature and classes, systematic attacks on Asian forms of Buddhism which, it is argued, are “merely ethnic”, as they manifest in both Asia and the West. [ The FWBO Files p.15 ]

The claim that the FWBO seeks to be the only form of Buddhism in the West is entirely unsubstantiated. It is absurd to think that any single Buddhist movement could become the only form of Buddhism in the West. There are thousands of Buddhist centres affiliated to many Buddhist movements across the western world, and these will plainly continue to develop in their own way regardless of any actions of the FWBO. Paranoia aside, it is hard to see how the FWBO could threaten other Buddhist traditions. [ 189 ]

For the FWBO to describe its approach as “Western Buddhism” is entirely natural. The central project of the FWBO is developing a tradition of Buddhism that is rooted in tradition yet is appropriate to the modern world; one that speaks the language of Western culture, just as Japanese Buddhism speaks the language of Japanese culture, and so on. Understanding what of the Buddhist tradition is applicable in this way plainly involves a critique of former traditions. And all Buddhists who are teaching Westerners, whatever tradition they follow, must apply such a critique in their own distinctive way, in order to distinguish what in Asian Buddhism pertains to particular national (i.e. “ethnic” cultures) and what is universally applicable. For example, the Dalai Lama insists that Westerners need not be concerned about wearing Tibetan clothes, playing Tibetan instruments etc. Sangharakshita has sometimes been critical of other attempts to apply Buddhism to the West because he has felt this critique has not been applied with sufficient thoroughness, but there is no need to interpret this as hostility.

Most aggressively, the organization name their centres as the definitive regional Buddhist centre, such as “The Birmingham Buddhist Centre” or “The London Buddhist Centre”, despite the existence of numerous other Buddhist centres and groups. [ The FWBO Files p.15 ]

FWBO Centres have never claimed to be the sole or representative centre in their area. To interpret their names as acts of aggression seems strange, as the same criticism could be made of “The Hampstead Buddhist Vihara”, “The Buddhist Society” etc. As a rule FWBO publicity materials make it plain that the centre is a part of the FWBO, and outline its approach to Buddhism. The FWBO does not seek to subvert and incorporate local groups and University Buddhist societies and no evidence for this assertion is offered.

Nor does the FWBO aggressively send out teams to missionise areas... in a fashion very similar to Christian Evangelicals [ The FWBO Files p.16 ], although like most other Buddhist organisations it does start up centres for the purpose of teaching meditation and Buddhism. These are generally advertised locally in a low-key way and people are invited to attend courses and classes. This is how most Buddhist centres in the West function. As academic commentator Peggy Morgan comments: I have found something of a middle way in the styles referred to above in the activities of the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order, who do actively initiate contacts and discussion, and seek to inform people, but who have never been accused of putting any undue pressure on people.190 ]

The FWBO has never claimed to teach ‘pure’ Buddhism as The FWBO Files suggests [ The FWBO Files p.15 ]. Clearly, there is no such thing. Any expression of the Dharma, including the FWBO’s, will be limited by its cultural context. The FWBO does, however, seek to remain true to the values of the Dharma, especially as these are expressed in Buddhist canonical literature. Sangharakshita expresses how he conceives the relationship of people in the FWBO with other Buddhists in Extending the Hand of Fellowship:

The Order and with it the FWBO is a branch of the mighty tree of Buddhism which for 2,500 years has sheltered a considerable portion of humanity... It is important that we should not only acknowledge this intellectually, but also feel it... to feel a sense of solidarity with the spiritual and cultural ecumene of which we form a part and with which, moreover we might be expected to be in communication. [ 191 ]

For this reason the standard constitution of FWBO charities includes the aim of working in harmony with Buddhists of all traditions.

One medium of communication between Buddhists is organisational, and therefore the FWBO has been active in a variety of pan-Buddhist organisations. However, The FWBO Files has its own interpretation of this involvement.

For the last dozen or so years they have been joining and attempting to infiltrate and dominate national and international Buddhist organizations and conferences (e.g. the UK Network of Buddhists NBO), the European Union of Buddhism (EBU), the Network of Western Buddhist Teachers (NWBT))... [ 192 ] in early 1992 Jack Austin wrote that Sangharakshita had wider ambitions to take over the Buddhist Union of Europe [29]. That year the FWBO became treasurers of the organization. [ The FWBO Files p.16 ]

The principal functions of these organisations is that they enable Buddhist organisations to be in communication, in the interests of harmony and understanding, and for individuals from those organisations to get to know one another. It makes no sense to speak of any group dominating them. Indeed, the FWBO has been influential in the establishment of such organisations, for instance being a founder member of the NBO and the NWBT. The constitutions of the NBO and the EBU (which the FWBO was influential in framing) ensure that they will operate by consensus, so that they cannot be taken over any one organisation. Each of them has proved to be a valuable forum for overcoming misunderstanding and sectarianism in the Buddhist world, and the FWBO is proud of its contribution in this respect. Such accusations as The FWBO Files makes put the FWBO in a double bind. If it does get involved it can be said to be seeking power; if it does not it can be said to be isolationist. One or other such criticism could be applied to all Buddhist groups whatsoever, and if taken seriously they are capable of producing endless mistrust and recrimination. The FWBO is happy to be judged on its record in seeking to help these bodies, and The FWBO Files gives no evidence that its involvement has been anything other than friendly and supportive. [ 193 ]

So far as Sangharakshita’s vitriolic attacks on the Japanese, Thai and Tibetan traditions in... Extending the Hand of Fellowship are concerned, those referring to the original text will find it a balanced and judicious account of the virtues and pitfalls of engagement with the Buddhist world at large. It is a plea for genuine dialogue between individuals in the FWBO and Buddhists of other traditions which seeks to be realistic about the difficulties that dialogue can bring.

The FWBO is happy to be a part of the broader Buddhist community and to engage with that community in friendly and constructive ways. Reference to any edition of its principal magazine, Dharma Life, will suggest the scope of this engagement. [ 194 ]

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Footnotes

189 ]
The FWBO Files’ quotation from Sangharakshita is highly misleading: Zen and Tibetan practitioners are just as likely to be narrow minded, bigoted, dogmatic and literalistic as any Theravadin. [ The FWBO Files p.15 ] The following sentence qualifies this: There is a tendency towards literalism in all schools of Buddhism because it is a tendency in the human mind itself. Sangharakshita, Wisdom Beyond Words (Windhorse Publications, 1995). This is hardly a surprising comment to find in a commentary on the Perfection of Wisdom Literature, and plainly does not exclude the FWBO from its scope.
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190 ]
Methods and Aims of Evangelisation and Conversion in Buddhism with reference to Nichiren Shoshu-Soka Gakkai, Centre for New Religious Movements Seminar 14/6/85.
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191 ]
Extending the Hand of Fellowship, op. cit., pp.13–14.
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192 ]
The FWBO Files might also have mentioned the International Network of Engaged Buddhists; the Network of International Buddhist Women’s Organisations (NIBWA), Sakyaditya; the Buddhist Unions of Germany, Spain and Holland; and local groups such as the Bath and Bristol Buddhist Alliance. The FWBO has been consistently active in this field, in pursuit of its genuine goal of helping co-operation between Buddhists. It has never been accused of seeking to dominate any of these organisations by any individuals who have worked alongside people from the FWBO within them.
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193 ]
It is true that in 1992 Kulananda became the Treasurer of the European Buddhist Union somewhat reluctantly, and mainly because no one else in the EBU would. He did his duty for a spell. But the document fails to add that in the same year Dharmachari Nagabodhi was asked to take the chair of that organisation and declined.
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194 ]
For example Dharma Life 7 (Spring 1998) on the theme of “the Legacy of Tibet” included an article by Dagyab Rimpoche, an interview with Robert Thurman, pieces on the Tibetan community in exile, Ayya Khema, and developments in Sri Lankan, Thai and Cambodian Buddhism.
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