The vajra: cutting through to the truth

The Guardian’s Article on the FWBO

The Croydon Buddhist Centre and the FWBO

The crucial allegations in the article concern one FWBO Centre during the 1980’s, the Croydon Buddhist Centre, and its then Chairman. The problems at the Croydon Buddhist Centre engendered the greatest difficulties the FWBO has ever experienced. What happened was highly complex and deeply regrettable. Many lessons have been learned as a result of the continuing process of discussion which has ensued.

Unfortunately, The Guardian’s presentation sensationalises these events, and does not really help anyone to understand why they happened and what conclusions should be drawn.

FWBO activities in Croydon started in 1969 with a residential Buddhist community. In 1978 co-operative businesses were set up. In 1981 these businesses moved to new premises which included the Croydon Buddhist Centre, a vegetarian restaurant called Hockneys and a wholefood shop. In 1984 an arts centre called Independent Arts was opened, and in 1987 a retreat centre called Rivendell.

During the 1980’s, developments in Croydon placed the Centre increasingly at odds with the rest of the FWBO. In 1988 these tensions came to a head the Chairman rsigned. As in any such situation the issues involved were complex, involving innumerable personal factors, and a powerful set of group dynamics. However it is fair to say that the Chaiman was a charismatic leader who inspired considerable material achievements, but lost the confidence of Order members from other centres in his ability to ensure that the Centre’s institutions were expressive of Buddhist values.

The Guardian focuses on issues of sexual abuse in Croydon. Without in any way wishing to minimise the seriousness of this, or the pain which was caused, it was only one aspect of the problem — as Matthew’s testimony suggests. Other kinds of unethical behaviour concerned harsh and bullying treatment of individuals, and an unwholesome — and essentially un-Buddhistic — absorption of some individuals in a web of group values. Paradoxically, these tendencies were stimulated by an inappropriate idealism which mistook means for ends.

For example, the businesses in Croydon were part of the FWBO’s attempt to put the Buddhist teaching of Right Livelihood into practice. Experience shows that work can be a very valuable spiritual practice — when carried out in harmony with other forms of spiritual practice. In Croydon this sense of balance and proportion was lost, and as a result many people’s fuller needs were ignored and some individuals suffered.

There was widespread concern throughout the FWBO at the rigid approach and the strong group ethos in Croydon. Again and again, criticisms were put to the Chairman and others, and many attempts were made to influence the situation. However, for important reasons of principle, every FWBO centre is legally and financially autonomous: there is no central authority exercising power over the whole. The centres are linked by connections of friendship and communication, though with the Chairman these were clearly not strong enough. As head of the FWBO, Sangharakshita could possibly have exercised his personal authority to denounce the centre, urge the dismissal of its key directors, or some such, but as well as the issue of principle, there was the very real risk that the Croydon centre would simply split off — go independent — and place itself, with its neurosis intact, entirely beyond the reach of the Western Buddhist Order’s influence.

In 1988, for the first time, a leading Order member within the Croydon sangha became critical of the Chairman, which meant that external criticisms also started to be heard. In late 1988 this came to a head the Chairman resigned and left the FWBO. These events have caused much discussion and thought. Efforts were made to contact everyone who had left Croydon before 1988 and who may have been detrementally affected by the situation. A process of discussion and reconciliation was initiated which continues right up to the present day.

The article’s presentation of events at Croydon does not make clear that this was an isolated case, and that there has never been any recurrence of this sort of situation. This is not to suggest that other centres have not had to deal with issues of ethics, of group dynamics and human relations, or of narrow interpretations of Sangharakshita’s teachings. People in Croydon were frequently challenged along these lines by senior members of the Order, but for a long time the challenges consistently fell on deaf ears.

While rejecting The Guardian’s oversimplified, fundamentally misleading analysis of the Croydon situation, the question remains, could such terrible events happen again?

The FWBO is not complacent about the possibility. After 1988 this question was vigorously addressed, and many lessons were drawn which have made a significant contribution to the FWBO’s development and maturation. Many Order members are strongly aware of the process by which unhealthy group tendencies can arise in a situation of collective spiritual practice, and are deeply concerned that all FWBO situations stay true to the values of individuality and personal responsibility on which they are founded.

These days, each FWBO centre has a President, a senior member of the Order with the respect of everyone in the situation, who is outside and independent of it, but who can influence it if necessary. This system was instituted in part as a safeguard against an individual centre becoming isolated from the FWBO as a whole, as Croydon had. Also the Chairs and Mitra Convenors of FWBO centres regularly meet to offer peer support and scrutiny. Central institutions, such as the ordination process, have been further strengthened, and there has been much discussion of ethical issues regarding communication and human relations, and the dangers of personal charisma: a constant process of reflection and learning. The Guardian article makes no mention of the examination and reconciliation which has gone on since 1988.

Some other aspects of the article’s treatment of Croydon are also misleading. It is not made clear that the man implicated in the case of Matthew is in fact the same man implicated in the case of ‘Tim’. Nor is it clear that his role as Chairman of the Croydon centre was terminated when the abuses came to light, and that he immediately resigned from the Western Buddhist Order. Finally there is no mention of the fact that the basic ethical principles of the FWBO can clearly not be used to legitimise sexual and emotional manipulation.

There has never been any attempt to conceal the events at the Croydon Buddhist Centre. There has been widespread debate and discussion of the events that took place there within the FWBO, and Order members have often discussed them with Buddhists from other traditions. There is the added factor that the truth of what happened is extremely complex — far more so that can be adduced from The Guardian’s sensationalised version — and is thus very difficult to talk or write about, except perhaps at very great length.

The Croydon Buddhist Centre and its businesses are still in operation. The Centre has been re-established on a sound and ethical basis.

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