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.
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.
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. Hinayana 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.
The act of Going for Refuge is central to Sangharakshita's thinking about the Dharma. He sees it as the central act of Buddhism. In response to suffering and dissatisfaction people seek refuge in many things that do not in fact give lasting satisfaction: relationships, sex, chocolate, material things etc. However, the only True Refuges, according to Buddhism, are the Three Jewels, i.e. the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. A Buddhist, therefore, is someone who goes for refuge to the Three Jewels.
One can trace the development of Sangharakshita's thought in his writings. In A Survey of Buddhism for instance, he suggests that it is the Bodhisattva Ideal that provides the unifying factor that ties all the disparate threads of Buddhism together. However, several years later, by the time the Three Jewels was published, his emphasis had changed and Going for Refuge had become central. Sangharakshita traces the development of his thinking in A History of My Going For Refuge. He sees this re-emphasis of Going for Refuge as a restatement of the original central, authentic Buddhist experience. Sangharakshita sees Going for Refuge as taking place on several differnet levels. Ethnic Going for Refuge is when one is born into a Buddhist culture and 'practice' is a matter more of social conditioning than personal commitment. Having made a decision to undertake actual, more or less regular, Buddhist practice , one is Provisionally Going for Refuge. When Going for Refuge has become central to one's life, and that commitment is manifesting in ethical behaviour and an ability to practise the Dharma effectively, this is what Sangharakshita calls Effective Going for Refuge. Beyond this are Real Going for Refuge which corresponds with the arising of the Bodhicitta and with Stream Entry, and Absolute Going for Refuge which corresponds with realisation of the Dharmakaya.
Another key theme of Sangharakshita's teaching is the importance of friendship. Kalyana mitrata or spiritual friendship is lauded in the Buddhist scriptures, and Sangharakshita has encouraged his followers to explore same-sex friendship as a spiritual practice. It is said for instance that the Order he founded is simply a network of friendships between people who are effectively Going for Refuge. In practice, it has been observed that Sangharakshita himself does not have friends in the usual sense: he has disciples who tend to defer to him, and teachers in India who he never sees. This has raised questions about the validity of his teaching in this area. There is a wider question here, in that for example Sangharakshita rarely meditates, yet has no hesitation putting forward his own very definite views on the subject - his opposition, for example, to 'formless meditation'. While there is no questioning Sangharakshita's ability to comprehend and pass on Buddhist doctrine, the extent to which he has deep personal experience of the teachings, and is therefore a teacher in the full sense of the word, remains open to debate.
The Order that Sangharakshita founded is neither monastic nor lay, and this aspect of his teachings has attracted much disapproval from traditional Buddhists. He wanted to de-emphasize the distinction between lay people and monastics because he had observed during his time in India that many bhikkhus were just 'going through the motions' of being Buddhist, whilst many laypeople were devout and effective practitioners. Mahayana Buddhism has attacked - in such texts as the Vimalakirti Nirdesa - the idea that only monks can practise effectively, so Sangharakshita is by no means unique in this respect. However, the Order he created, where effective Going for Refuge is central, is unique. Since Order members are not necessarily celibate it has meant that monks and nuns from traditional orders are unsure what to make of them, and usually decide that they are lay. However, most Order members consider themselves neither wholly lay - since they are often full-time practitioners, and all undertake to follow the Ten Principles of skilful conduct - nor are they wholly monastic, since they are under no obligation to follow all 227 rules of the Vinaya, many of which are no longer relevant to living the Buddhist life under contemporary conditions.
Another teaching which Sangharakshita has emphasised is that the Buddha taught two types of Dependent Arising, or Conditioned Co-production. The first is familiar to most Buddhists and teaches that things and mental states arise in dependence on causes, and that we react between states such as birth and death, pleasure and pain, loss and gain, praise and blame. Reaching Nirvana from this perspective consists in cutting off the causes of birth and death, etc. The second type of conditionality is cumulative or progressive, indicating that suffering leads to faith (in the realisation that one's suffering is often caused by one's own behaviour and attitudes - which can be transformed). Such faith then leads to joy in the realisation that one can change in the direction of less suffering and towards greater happiness, and so on. From this point of view Nirvana arises in dependence on causes. This teaching is apparent in several texts in the Pali Canon, but seems largely overlooked by other Buddhists. It is important because it shows how Dependent Arising is an all-encompassing model of reality - i.e. it includes both the transcendental and the mundane worlds.
One of the contributions of Sangharakshita is that he considers Buddhism as a whole and tries to see the common element in all the different traditions. He sees this element as being of a purely transcendental nature, and argues it in many of his writings.
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).
Sangharakshita has been criticised for his ideas concerning the relative spiritual advantage that men generally have over women. In this he considers himself simply to be following Buddhist tradition as well as his own observation. In practice, this translated in 1993 into his appointment of 11 men and just 2 women to the College (now defunct) that was intended to replace his leadership of the F/WBO. In the absence of his influence, a re-balancing of the sexes in influential positions has since occurred; nevertheless his views, as seen through his actions, are clear. Though he would only consider it to be a minor teaching, it has nevertheless caused much controversy within his movement as well as amongst the wider Buddhist Sangha. This came to the fore when in 1993, one of his disciples, Dharmachari Subhuti, published, with Sangharakshita's approval, a book called 'Women, Men and Angels' which purported to show that women are, on the whole, at a relative spiritual disadvantage compared to men at the beginning of their spiritual lives. It contained also a critique of modern militant or extreme feminist discourse, claiming that most of its stance belonged to the realm of myth rather than fact.
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