Sangharakshita

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Sangharakshita (1925-) is the founder of the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order (FWBO), and the Western Buddhist Order (WBO). He is a prodigious author and public speaker on the subject of Buddhism, especially Buddhism in the West. A somewhat controversial figure, he is admired by his followers for his work in India and the West and for his efforts to make the Buddha’s teachings accessible to many people throughout the world, yet is viewed by some in the wider Buddhist world as the leader of a personality cult; by some ex-disciples he is viewed as having fallen into the classic guru pitfalls of narcissism and misuse of power.

Early life

Sangharakshita was born in Tooting, London, in 1925. During his childhood he was confined to bed for two years due to a wrongly diagnosed heart condition, during which time he read prodigiously and started to become acquainted with art, culture and philosophy. At 16 he read a copy of the Diamond Sutra and had mystical experiences which confirmed for him that he was a Buddhist and always had been. During World War II he was posted to India, and after the war stayed on to pursue ordination as a Bhikkhu.

India

While he was waiting to be demobilised after World War II, Sangharakshita decided that he was going to stay in India. He gave away his possessions and burnt his identification. For the next two years, he and a companion wandered around India, mostly in the south. They lived on almsfood and practised meditation. During this period, Sangharakshita met many well known Hindu teachers including Ramana Maharshi. He also made contact with the Mahabodhi Society. At the end of this period of wandering, Sangharakshita determined to seek ordination as a Buddhist monk. To this end he and his companion caught a train to Delhi and then made their way to Sarnath. The monks there were suspicious of this wild-looking pair that appeared out of nowhere and refused to give them the ordination. They then travelled on foot, during the hottest time of the year, to Kushinara where they were both given the shramana, or novice, ordination, by the Burmese monk U Chandramani. However, although they were ordained, U Chandramani and the other monks at Kushinara made it clear that he could offer nothing in the way of on going support, and suggested that they contact Bhikkhu Jagdish Kashyap in Benares. Kasyap, professor of Pali at Benares Hindu University, welcomed Sangharakshita, who stayed on for 8 months studying Pali, Abhidhamma, and Buddhist logic. At the end of this period Sangharakshita and Kashyap went on a tour in the region of Darjeeling. Kashyap had been considering his own future, and was planning to leave the university. Consequently he, rather unceremoniously, left Sangharakshita in the hill town of Kalimpong with the injunction to "work for the good of Buddhism". Kalimpong was to be his base for 14 years until his return to England in 1966.

During his time in India Sangharakshita met many remarkable spiritual teachers, and although ordained in the Theravada school was always open to other forms of Buddhism. In particular Sangharakshita was influenced by Tibetan Buddhist teachers who fled Tibet after the Chinese invasion in the 1950s. Perhaps the most influential was Dhardo Rimpoche an incarnate lama who, like the Dalai Lama, is said to be reborn in the world again and again, out of compassion for beings. Dhardo Rimpoche was both friend and teacher to Sangharakshita, and gave him the Bodhisattva ordination - which consists of a series of vows which commit the ordinand to saving all beings, everywhere from all suffering, over as many lifetimes as it takes, by what ever means necessary. C. M. Chen was also a strong influence on Sangharakshita, teaching him about Ch'an and Vajrayana practices.

Return to the West

In the mid 1960s Sangharakshita received an invitation to visit England, to help with a dispute that had arisen at the Hampstead Buddhist Vihara. Sangharakshita's ecumenical approach, which embraced many strands of the Buddhist tradition, was in contrast to the strict Theravadin style Buddhism at the vihara. This won him both friends and enemies. It became clear to him that there was a desire and a need amongst many of his friends for more thorough-going Buddhist teaching and a willingness on their part to respond positively to that, and he decided to stay in England. However after he had left for a farewell tour of India he received a letter telling him he was no longer welcome at the Hampstead Vihara, and that he should not return. The Vihara's organising committee were perhaps piqued by his committed and uncompromisingly non-sectarian approach. It has been said that they tried to discredit him by casting aspersions on the nature of his close friendship with Terry Delamare among other things. In his latest biography he mentions the nature of his relation to Terry, and however passionate their relationship may have been, and despite the accusations, it was evidently not a sexual one. On the other hand he was seen by some at the Hampstead Buddhist Vihara as authoritarian and "impossible to work with" (Rev. Jack Austin). Part of the controversy also involved the scholar Maurice O’Connell Walshe (1911–1998), who distanced himself from Sangharakshita after what he did, in his capacity as senior Theravada monk in residence, to stop certain so-called Vipassanā practices being taught at the Hampstead Buddhist Vihara. Sangharakshita was instrumental in stopping these practices on the grounds that they were inducing nervous breakdowns in some people.

The result was that after consulting with friends and teachers in India, especially Dhardo Rimpoche, Sangharakshita decided to return to England and take the bold step of starting a new Buddhist movement. He founded the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order in 1967, and the Western Buddhist Order itself was founded a year later when he ordained the first dozen men and women, who thus became the first members of this new Buddhist Order.

At first, the members of the Order were styled Upasakas and Upasikas, in accordance with traditional Eastern nomenclature for 'lay' followers of Buddhism. This nomenclature was later discontinued however, and Order members came to be referred to as Dharmacharis (men) and Dharmacharinis (women) - a title meaning 'practitioner of the (Buddha-)dharma', since their level of practice and commitment soon became significantly deeper and more extensive than that of most Upasakas and Upasikas - indeed, of at least some Bhikkhus - in the East. The ordination of members of the Western Buddhist Order came to be seen, in fact, as transcending the distinction of 'lay' and 'monastic'.

The first home of the new movement was a basement shop in Monmouth Street in central London, where Sangharakshita not only led meditation and pujas and conducted question and answer sessions, but also set out the cushions, made the tea, and cleaned up afterwards.

The FWBO and the WBO translate Buddhism into a western context without the sectarianism that often characterises Buddhism in the East. One of the emphases of the Order is its ecumenicity - it respects all the schools of traditional Buddhism. Sangharakshita has however critiqued all the main extant schools and some practices of traditional Buddhism i.e. Theravada Buddhism, Mahayana Buddhism, Vajrayana Buddhism, the Pure Land School and the Tathagatagarbha or 'Buddha Nature' Doctrine. In the West, he has also occasionally treated the Buddhist Society with an element of ridicule. His Order however utilises all practices, from whatever school of Buddhism they come, that genuinely lead to personal spiritual development. The FWBO is a growing international movement with over 1500 members, and Dharma Centres in more than 20 countries.

Ironically, while doctrinally the FWBO embraces most forms of Buddhism, its refusal to allow non-WBO teachers to teach at its Centres, and its past discouragement of WBO members from visiting other Buddhist groups has created an impression of sectarianism.

Core principles of FWBO

He sees the FWBO/WBO as having six distinctive emphases:

  1. The centrality of Going for Refuge.
  2. The importance of Spiritual Friendship.
  3. Ecumenicity - the essential unity of Buddhism, respecting all its schools.
  4. An Order united by a single type of ordination open to all without any exception or discrimination.
  5. The importance of the Arts and Sciences (both Oriental and Western) as possessing the capacity to give expression to Buddhist principles.
  6. The importance of Team-based Right Livelihood (teams of Buddhists working together both for their own development and for the good of humanity).