The vajra: cutting through to the truth

A Comment on the Refutation of the FWBO’s Response
to the FWBO Files

In March 1999 a 60,000-word document was posted on the Internet. This was a A Refutation of the FWBO’s Response to the FWBO Files. Some readers of this have asked if we will be writing a “Rebuttal” of the Refutation, and the answer is that we do not intend to write an in-depth rebuttal. The debate has gone on long enough and become too intricate for all but the most dedicated readers, and little purpose would be served by writing a further lengthy document.

However, this should not be taken as an acceptance that the claims of the Refutation are true simply because they are the “last word”. Together with The FWBO Files the Refutation shows that the author is extremely persistent in pursuing his aim of discrediting the FWBO, and determined to believe only the worst of it. It is also clear that any argument put forward in defence of the FWBO will be disputed and ridiculed by him. Indeed to the authors of the Response the Refutation seems in many places to be a systematic misreading of our text, and a further document would, for the most part, simply repeat the points made previously, explaining how they have been misconstrued or misrepresented.

When an interlocutor is determined to believe only the worst there is no basis for a dialogue from which mutual understanding might arise. As the discussion polarises, one is placed in a position in which it becomes increasingly difficult to communicate in accordance with the Buddha’s precepts of using speech that is gentle, not harsh, and conducive to harmony, not to disharmony. However, at the risk of prolonging the contention we would like to make a few further comments to help clarify why we consider that it has reached a dead end.

Much of the Refutation is taken up with factual matters regarding Sangharakshita’s training and behaviour. In doing this it expands on the accusations made in The FWBO Files which the Response attempted to refute. The Refutation rightly argues that the FWBO cannot show the claims in The FWBO Files to be false. Indeed it is true that one cannot prove that one did not do something in these sorts of cases. Many questions have been asked in many areas: whether Sangharakshita received various initiations, why he left India, or why Terry Delamere’s suicide took place, and so on. Accusations have been made, an explanation that we believe to be entirely credible has been presented, and the Refutation predictably disbelieves this. It repeats The FWBO Files’ assertions, only louder, in greater detail and with added vituperation.

The Refutation says, Sangharakshita is in effect ‘on trial’. The author, then, has set himself up as a prosecuting counsel, and naturally makes the strongest case he can, but he cannot also be the judge or the jury. In a court of law one is ‘innocent’ until proven guilty and, on this basis, in a court the accusations against Sangharakshita would be dismissed. However gossip and rumour operate require proof, but on the basis that “there’s no smoke without fire”. In this case the mere fact of accusations having been made is grounds for their being credited. All we can do, while insisting that we believe these accusations to be groundless, is to suggest that no one can know the truth of personal affairs and motivations dating back up to fifty years, and where Sangharakshita is often the only direct witness. We would request that readers consider giving Sangharakshita the benefit of the doubt.

Most of the points raised by the Refutation are not matters of fact but of interpretation. The author has a view of Buddhism that is so at odds with that of the FWBO that he is convinced the FWBO’s view is a wilful and dangerous misrepresentation. The FWBO is founded on the belief that Buddhism needs to be re-expressed in the context of modern Western Society. The FWBO Files and the Refutation seem to have no interest or sympathy with this approach. The FWBO’s core project of establishing the basis for Buddhist practice within the conditions of Western culture (indeed, within modern culture in general) while staying true to the core of the Buddha’s teaching, is therefore quite alien to the author. The FWBO has no precise prescription for what Western Buddhism should look like, but the author appears to consider that there is no reason for it to look any different from the forms it has taken in Asia. Without an understanding of this project the FWBO will be incomprehensible, and malign motives may be assumed to lie behind the institutions and practices it has developed in pursuit of this goal.

Unsurprisingly, then, the author consistently misreads the FWBO and Sangharakshita’s teaching. He takes peripheral aspects of that teaching, such as Sangharakshita’s occasional employment of the language of evolution, to be central to his teaching. Sangharakshita repeatedly asserts that the core is going for Refuge to the Three Jewels, which expresses the essential spirit, orientation, and methodology of the Dharma. Another way of putting this is to say that Buddhism is fundamentally a path to Enlightenment, and that practising Buddhism is about following that path. Everything else is secondary, although the key Buddhist teachings are those which articulate this core. This is done most importantly by teachings such as the Four Noble Truths, the Eight-Fold Path, and pratitya samutpada. These are the most basic and general principles of the Buddha’s teaching, held in common by all schools, and these in fact are the most important teachings within the FWBO. Sangharakshita sees other teachings as applications of these fundamental ones and his occasional re-expressions of the Dharma are understood in the light of them.

Because it turns this procedure on its head, the Refutation’s version of FWBO teachings is completely unlike that which is given at FWBO Centres, and it is essentially the author’s construction. The affinities he finds in Nietszche, Nazism, and Nichiren are similarly his own fabrication, not with true characteristics if the FWBO or its teachings.

We would like to conclude this Comment by indicating three fundamental misunderstandings in the Refutation. The first is its belief that the FWBO claims to be a “Three Vehicle” tradition. The Refutation says, This author would have no complaint if [the FWBO] would admit that it does not practice a three-vehicle system. We are more than happy to “admit” this. The FWBO does not practice Triyana Buddhism and never has claimed to do so. It seeks to return to the core teachings that underlie the Buddhist tradition as a whole, and, in doing so, to draw inspiration from its various manifestations. We do not seek to practice the Hinayana, the Mahayana, or the Vajrayana, but something that might be described as the “Buddhayana”.

Second is the author’s belief that Sangharakshita claims the extraordinary authority to discern a timeless core to the Dharma that has eluded previous teachers; and that the FWBO looks down on other Buddhists. Sangharakshita has never made any such claim. He describes himself as a translator from one cultural medium to another, not as some kind of prophet. In seeking to discern what the Buddhist traditions have most fundamentally in common, he shares the vision of the many people who see Buddhism as one, rather than as a number of mutually exclusive developments. They all teach paths to Enlightenment as expounded by and embodied in Shakyamuni Buddha. In Asia geography, language, and culture have separated these traditions, but they have all become available in the modern world. Sangharakshita’s project of discerning their common principles is therefore an issue for all modern Buddhists.

The third misunderstanding is the belief that the FWBO considers Asian traditions necessarily degenerate and “ethnic”. It does not. The perspective of Western Buddhists is different from that of their Asian precursors, and it is natural that Westerners will bring a critical eye to their encounter with Buddhism as it exists in Asia. However Sangharakshita and the FWBO wish nothing but success to the genuine practice of the Buddhist path in Tibetan, Theravadin, and any other traditions. Debate and critical engagement have here been mistaken for hostility, and the many positive aspects of the FWBO engagement with Buddhism in Asia have been ignored. The FWBO has good and sympathetic relationships with many practitioners of Buddhism, both Eastern and Western, from many schools following Asian Buddhist traditions as it exists in Asia.

Not only are these misunderstandings evident in the text of the Refutation, but the author draws conclusions from them about the nature and intentions of the FWBO. He writes:

[the FWBO’s] attitude towards orthodox traditions, their increasing wealth and power combined with an aggressively condemnatory attitude towards those traditions, could well prove severely damaging, indeed possibly fatal, toward those traditions.

It is extraordinary to witness such fear of the FWBO. When all is said, it is a small movement by the standards of both UK religious denominations and the Buddhist world. To repeat , these fears have arisen from misunderstanding of the FWBO, not from the truth about its actions or intentions.

Other Buddhists who have concerns for the future of Western Buddhism and the FWBO’s role within it are warmly invited to enter into constructive dialogue with us. We believe that this is a far better path for Buddhists to tread than mistrust and recrimination.

Vishvapani, Cittapala

FWBO Communications Office, June 1999