Friends of the Western Buddhist Order

The Friends of the Western Buddhist Order (FWBO) is an association of Buddhists, and others who follow its path of mindfulness, under the leadership of the Western Buddhist Order. It was founded in the UK in 1967, and describes itself as "an international network dedicated to communicating Buddhist truths in ways appropriate to the modern world". In keeping with Buddhist traditions, it also pays attention to contemporary ideas, particularly drawn from Western philosophy, psychotherapy, and art. Along with Soka Gakkai and the New Kadampa Tradition, the FWBO is one of the largest Buddhist new religious movements in the UK, supported by a federation of some 30 urban centres and retreat centres. More than 100 groups and centres worldwide are part of the FWBO family, including in North America, Australasia and Europe, with its second largest following in India, where it is known as Trailokya Bauddha Mahasangha Sahayaka Gana (TBMSG).

The FWBO has sometimes proved controversial. It has been accused of radicalism, and criticised for what some commentators have seen as unorthodox teachings and unconventional ritual practices. During the 1990s, some order members, including its founder and former leader, Sangharakshita, were accused of sexually exploiting younger order members, and of misogyny. The FWBO has been considered by some commentators on Buddhism to have features of a cult, and it is included in a number of website listings of cult, controversial and new religious groups..

Practices and activities

Meditation is the common thread through FWBO activities. Order members teach two practices to friends: (a) "The mindfulness of breathing" (anapanasati), in which practitioners focus on the rise and fall of the breath; and (b) "The metta bhavana", which approximately translates from the original Pali as "the cultivation of lovingkindness (Metta)". These practices are felt to be complimentary in promoting equanimity and friendliness towards others. Some friends of the order may have little, if any, other involvement in its activities, making the FWBO comparable, in this respect, to the US new vipassana movement, personified by Jack Kornfield and Gil Fronsdal, which stresses mindfulness as essential to Buddhism, but insist that Buddhism is not essential to mindfulness.

The founder, Sangharakshita, described meditation as having four phases. The first two, he felt, are "calming" or "samatha" practices, and the last two are "insight" or "vipassana" practices. For those not ordained into the WBO, the first two are given almost exclusive emphasis.

  1. Integration - The main practice at this stage is the mindfulness of breathing, which has the effect of "integrating the psyche" - improving mindfulness and concentration, and reducing psychological conflict.
  2. Positive emotion - The second aspect of samatha is developing positivity - an other-regarding, life-affirming attitude. The Brahmavihara meditations, especially the 'metta bhavana' or cultivation of loving kindness meditations, are the key practices for developing 'positive emotion'.
  3. Spiritual death - The next stage is to develop insight into the emptiness of the self and reality. Meditations at this stage include considering the elements of which self and world are composed; contemplating impermance, particularly that of the body; contemplating suffering; and contemplating Shunyata. It is considered important to approach these practices from a strong base of integration and positive emotion.
  4. Spiritual rebirth - the FWBO teaches that with the development of insight, and the death of the limited ego-self, a person is spiritually reborn. Practices which involve the visualization of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas become the main practices used in this phase. At ordination each dharmachari(ni) is given a more advanced visualisation meditation on a particular Buddhist figure.

FWBO centres also teach Buddhist scripture, yoga and other methods of self-improvement, some of which are felt by some commentators to come from outside the Buddhist tradition. Recently FWBO activities have begun to include outdoor festivals, online meditation courses, arts festivals, poetry and writing workshops, tai chi, karate, and pilgrimages to Buddhist holy sites in India. For many years, the FWBO charity Karuna Trust has raised money for aid projects in India.

As among Buddhists generally, Puja is a ritual practice at some FWBO events, intended to awaken the desire to liberate all beings from suffering. The most common ritual practiced in the FWBO is comprised of the puja section at the beginning of the Bodhicaryavatara of Shantideva.

Retreats provide a chance to focus on meditational practice more intensely, in a residential context outside of a retreatant's everyday life. FWBO retreats can be broadly categorized into meditation retreats, study retreats, and solitary retreats. Retreat lengths vary from short weekends to one or two weeks.

"Right livelihood" businesses generate funds for the movement, as well as providing environments for spiritual growth. Emphasis is placed on teamwork with other practitioners and making a contribution to the welfare of others, e.g. by funding social projects and considering ethical matters such as fair trade. The largest FWBO business is the Evolution chain of fairtrade gift shops.

Many cities with an FWBO centre also have a residential community of Buddhists. The first of these communities was formed after a retreat where several of the participants wanted to continue retreat-style living. Since the most stable communities tended to be single sex, this has since become the main paradigm for FWBO communities. Support from fellow practitioners in a community is seen to be effective in helping members make spiritual progress.

For some, the jewel in the FWBO's crown in the UK is the London Buddhist Centre in Bethnall Green, east London, which offers drop-in lunchtime meditation sessions each weekday, open to beginners. The centre's courses for depression, based on the mindfulness-based cognitive behavioral therapy methodology of Jon Kabat-Zinn at the University of Massachusetts, featured in the Financial Times in 2008. This is supported by the local authority, the London borough of Tower Hamlets.

Defining the movement

According to the FWBO, six characteristics define the movement.

  1. The Movement is ecumenical. The FWBO is not identified with any particular strand of Buddhism or Buddhist school, but draws inspiration from the full array of schools. It calls itself "ecumenical" rather than "eclectic" because it is founded on the premise that there is an underlying unity to all Buddhist schools.
  2. The act of "going for refuge" is central. "Going for Refuge to the Three Jewels" - meaning the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha - is considered to be what makes someone a Buddhist
  3. The movement is unified. Unlike some Buddhist sangha, the FWBO does not propagate a monastic lineage. Sangharakshita devised a non-monastic ordination system, whilst also allowing the undertaking of the "anagarika" precept which enjoins celibacy. Identical ordination is open to both sexes. While the movement regards single-sex activities as important to spiritual growth, men and women are recognised as being equally able to practice and develop spiritually.
  4. Spiritual friendship. In the FWBO there is a strong emphasis on the sangha, and spiritual friendship based on shared values. The FWBO teaches that spending time with friends who share ideals, and engaging in ritual practice with them, supports ethical living and the arising of the Bodhicitta.
  5. Team based right-livelihood. Working together in teams, in the spirit of generosity and with a focus on ethics, is considered a transformative spiritual practice.
  6. Art. Engagement in, and an appreciation of, the arts are considered to be a valuable aspect of spiritual practice. The FWBO teaches that a refinement of one's artistic tastes can help refine emotional sensitivity and provide a channel for the expression of right living, and spiritual growth.

The Western Buddhist Order

The WBO is the focal-point of the FWBO. The WBO is a network of friendships between individuals who have made personal commitments to the Buddha, the dharma and the sangha, in communion with others. Order members are known as Dharmacharis (masculine) or Dharmacharinis (feminine), and they are ordained in accord with a ceremony formulated by the founder. At ordination they are given a religious name in Pali or Sanskrit. While there is an informal hierarchy within the WBO, there are no higher ordinations. A small number of order members, however, take vows of celibacy and adopt a simpler lifestyle. Contrary to the traditional Buddhist structure of separating lay and monastic members, the WBO combines monastic and lay lifestyles under one ordination, a practice not dissimilar to that which evolved down the centuries in various Japanese schools of Buddhism.

Like followers of the Shingon school of Buddhism, order members observe ten precepts (ethical training rules). These precepts are different from monastic vows and do not appear in the Vinaya Pitaka, but were formulated on the basis of the "dasa-kusala-dhammas" (ten wholesome actions). These are found in several places in the Pāli Canon, as well as in several Sanskrit sources. The karma sections of the fundamental meditation texts of all four schools of Tibetan Buddhism also list these acts as basic guidelines for any lay or ordained practitioner intent on observing the law of cause and effect.

Beyond this, a commitment to personal dharma practice and to remain in communication with other members are the only requirements. Ordination confers no special status, nor any specific responsibilities, although many order members choose to take on responsibilities for such things as teaching meditation and dharma. In mid-2008, there were around 1,500 members of the order, in more than 20 countries.

The wider FWBO sangha

In the FWBO, as in the Theravada, Mahayana and Vajrayana traditions, sangha is interpreted as the Buddhist community as a whole. In this instance, this includes friends (all those who attend meetings at centres are thus regarded), mitras, and order members.

Someone who regularly attends FWBO activities is considered to be a "friend." Friends do not have to consider themselves Buddhists, and can be of any faith, or none. Some people choose, after some time, to participate in a formal ceremony of affiliation, and thus become a "mitra." "Mitra" is Sanskrit for "friend", which in this case denotes a person who considers themselves Buddhist, who makes an effort to live in accordance with the five ethical precepts, and who feels that the FWBO is the appropriate spiritual community for them.

Those who wish to join the WBO must request ordination in writing. Following this, it can sometimes take several years to prepare for ordination. Preparation is an informal process, the focus of which is to deepen one's going for refuge.

Some friends, mitras and order members decide, at least for a while, to study teachings from outside the FWBO, including non-Buddhist traditions such as Sufism.

The FWBO after Sangharakshita

Sangharakshita retired from active leadership of the FWBO and WBO in 1995. In 1997, the responsibility for ordination and spiritual leadership passed to the preceptor's college, based in Birmingham. Since then Sangharakshita's health has declined. In 2000, the first chair of the preceptor's council was chosen by Sangharakshita. In future, this position will be elected by the WBO to five-year terms.

In 2003 the public preceptors, responding to feedback from the order and the movement, decided to move away from a formal relationship to the order and movement, and to concentrate on the ordination of new members of the order, teaching and dharma practice. At the same time, to increase flexibility, the number of preceptors was expanded.

Controversies and criticism

In addition to the founder's increasing age, the need for change was fuelled in the 1990s by allegations of sexual misconduct, including the exploitation of some younger members, by Sangharakshita and a number of others. Allegations were also made of cultic behaviour by at least one senior member, and of a climate of misogyny and manipulation. Some members resigned as a result of the controversies. Issues concerning potential sexual exploitation and misogyny, which had their peak in the late 1970s and early 1980s, have been reported to have caused great distress to victims, and the persistent revisitation of these issues by the FWBO's critics continues to bring discomfort.

The FWBO and WBO have not denied the substance of the concerns, but insist that the allegations led to difficult issues being squarely addressed, and, they say, resolved. Order members have stayed on, and the movement has continued to grow, in what is said to be a more relaxed and flexible atmosphere, in which they feel free to question and update the way things have been done, and to question Sangharakshita's teachings.

The most public criticism of the FWBO is manifest in allegations gathered together as the "FWBO Files, originally circulated in 1998, and in an article published in the Guardian in 1997 called, "The Dark Side of Enlightenment.".. The FWBO-Files and the Guardian article (both based on evidence from a single highly motivated individual) have since been met with a response from the FWBO. The UK Network of Buddhist Organisations (NBO) has also issued a response to attacks made on that organisation.

In recent years, The Guardian, and its sister Sunday newspaper, The Observer, have since run many supportive items, recommending FWBO activities to their readers. An Education Guardian report lists FWBO as "A good starting point for children

Criticism on grounds of doctrine

While most commentators consider the FWBO to be a sincere Buddhist movement, others suggest it may only be "pseudo-Buddhist".

Although Sangharakshita received a number of important initiations from eminent Buddhist teachers during his early years in India, some critics argue that he never worked closely enough with any of them to be considered their "dharma-heir". According to these critics' academic theories about traditional Buddhism, the FWBO has no legitimate spiritual lineage. Implicitly, they say, the checks and balances provided by the institution of lineage have not been present in the founding and growth of the FWBO.

What some see as the critical stance of the FWBO towards Asian schools has also contributed to its unpopularity amongst some adherents of those schools. In describing itself as being a movement "fully appropriate to Western society", it has attracted the criticism that this implies is that other Buddhist traditions are not so fully appropriate. For instance, Sangharakshita has criticised the inappropriate teaching of so-called vipassana methods to people who do not have extensive experience of samatha meditation practice, arguing that such imbalance can have alienating consequences. The result is that the FWBO criticizes - in the opinion of some, quite rightly - both orthodoxy (in the narrow sense) and libertarianism, and portrays itself as the balance between extremes.

Sangharakshita's drug use and sex life

While leading the order, Sangharakshita, who is described by Vessantara, a prominent author of FWBO-published books, as "gay", became involved in a number of sexual relationships.

Some critics say he violated the rules of the Theravada monastic code many times, and in a number of ways. He has admitted to having experimented with drugs on two occasions in 1969 and 1970, saying that, since he was so often asked for his opinion on the topic, he should be able to speak from experience. He is also criticised for apparently wearing the robes of a monk in India, while allegedly having sex during periods in England. This episode led to a number of Indian mitras criticising him, and rejecting the TBMSG in 1999. A letter signed by 88 Indian mitras, all from the Mumbai (Bombay) area stated:

"...while claiming to be a properly ordained Buddhist monk, a Bhikshu, you showed no respect for the devout feelings Buddhists associated with the robe by indulging in sexual misconduct, experimenting with drugs and teaching the 'neutrality' of sexual activities. In our opinion, this final act of yours was nothing more than an attempt to cover up your misbehaviour as a monk while still holding onto the power and prestige which the yellow robe along with the epithets Bhikshu and Mahasthavir held in the eyes of the common people. Thus you have cheated us."[15]

Sangharakshita has never replied directly to the criticisms, but in September 2006 at an FWBO-operated blog discussion site, one order member, Adiccabandhu, gives what appears to be an authoritative account of the founder's thinking ("A reflection on the controversy around Sangarakshita, my teacher"):

"Sangharakshita asserts that all sex is unskilful, as it is an exprsssion of greed for sense pleasure. To that extent, he says, he has been unskilful, but no further. He has always insisted that he understood his sexual relationships were consensual, and that people could, and often did, refuse. He believes he has done nothing for which he should apologise."

Views on sexuality

Some disaffected members have complained that there has been "active promotion of homosexuality" by some [male] Order members.. In contrast, concerns have been raised by some within the FWBO that these continuing attacks - now based on alleged events dating back between one and three decades - are driven by homophobia and aversion, and that, in the spirit of Buddhism, the order should challenge discrimination and oppression.

In 1986, Sangharakshita asserted that the heterosexual couple and the nuclear family are sources of neurosis.

"A couple consists, in fact, of two half-people, each of whom unconsciously invests part of his or her total being in the other: each is dependent on the other for the kind of psychological security that can be found, ultimately, only within oneself."
(Sangharakshita, 1986, Alternative Traditions).

Some critics are said to allege that this claim led to even more controversial ideas. The view is apparently said to have arisen among some order members that all forms of sexuality are conditioned, and that, since same-sex communities were a source of harmony, homosexuality would not be neurotic in the same way as heterosexuality. In the 1990s, this was said to have paved the way to the view that homoerotic sexual interest could aid the development of Kalyana Mitrata.

"Sexual interest on the part of a male Order member for a male Mitra [novice] can create a connection which may allow Kalyana Mitrata [spiritual friendship] to develop. Some, of course, are predisposed to this attraction, others have deliberately chosen to change their sexual preferences in order to use sex as a medium of Kalyana Mitrata - and to stay clear of the dangers of male-female relationships without giving up sex." (Subhuti, pub. Shabda, September 1986, p125).

These ideas were reported to have aided what was felt to be sexual manipulation by at least one order member, the one-time leader of the Croydon Buddhist Centre, who was reported to have coerced FWBO members into having sex with him. In the Guardian article the senior order member Subhuti was said to have admitted that this behaviour bore characteristics of a cult, and left at least 30 people damaged psychologically. However, it is reported that only one of these alleged victims has since left the FWBO, though the leader of the centre at that time has gone. It is also said that one of the early men's communities at Padmaloka developed a culture of sexual exploitation, and that this community too subsequently disbanded. It appears from the order's private newsletter Shabda that any such misconduct occurred mainly in the Croydon centre and at Padmaloka..

In March 2003, an order member called Yashomitra wrote an account of his sexual relationship with Sangharakshita, and published this in Shabda, the WBO journal. In the article, he claims that he was manipulated in having sex with Sangharakshita, and suggests that the same thing happened to dozens of men. In this account, he says that the "FWBO did seek to undermine heterosexual relationships and family life. It did teach that homosexuality was superior to heterosexuality. Members were 'converted' to homosexuality through coercive psychological means. Coercion of any sort was not anathema within the FWBO." Yashomitra resigned shortly after the Shabda publication.

In a letter to The Times(March 9, 2002) one ex-member said it had "taken four years of psychotherapy to heal the damage done to me" as a result of his experiences while living at an FWBO centre.

Charges of misogyny and of being "anti-family"

Sangharakshita has stated that, at least in the early stages of their spiritual careers, men are more apt to commit themselves to the spiritual life than women. Some critics of the organisation claim a culture of misogyny developed in the FWBO in the 1980s and that this was fed by single-sex activities, which bred ignorance of women and a sense of superiority among men.. Senior order member Subhuti says in his book, 'Women, men and angels,' that to be reborn as a woman was to be less spiritually able than to be reborn as a man..


The FWBO operates under a "friendly hierarchy, which is said to be dangerous when combined with enthusiasm for the teachings practiced - though how matters could be otherwise is far from clear. In 1997, The Guardian article reported:
' ... Stephen Batchelor, a prominent Buddhist commentator and author of Buddhism without Beliefs ... says: "They [the FWBO] operate as a self-enclosed system and their writings have the predictability of those who believe they have all the answers. They are structured in a rigid hierarchy and do not seem to question the teachings of their leader. As with many new religious movements, their enthusiasm and unconventional convictions have the potential to lead to problems associated with 'cults' ..." '

Each FWBO centre, however, is financially autonomous, not subject to control by any central "headquarters". Senior order member Ananda, himself ordained by Sangharakshita, commented:

"People who had been ordained by Sangharakshita tended to develop their own little castles of which they were the unchallenged masters.


External links

FWBO sites

Outside views of the FWBO

Critical views of the FWBO

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