Are we a Buddhist Order?

Editor's note: This article was marked "open to all" when originally published, so we understand the material to be in the public domain.

October 2017
Open to All

The Dharma cannot be adequately expressed in any conceptual framework or model, and yet such models are important, unavoidable even, for Dharma farers.  The model that we have of the path and goal affect our practice and indeed the whole of our lives - they matter a great deal.

If no model can perfectly encapsulate the Dharma, does that mean that they are all equally valid, and all equally wrong?  

From an absolute point of view, they are all, in a sense, equally far from the mark.  However, from a practical point of view, the relative perspective in which these models actually influence attitudes and behaviour, I would argue that some models can be good approximations, and useful in practice, while others can be just plain wrong. 

This is quite traditional, of course - right view and wrong view are terms we are all familiar with. 

So if no views can be perfect, what distinguishes a good model of the goal and path from a bad one?  Different teachers can come up with all sorts of different and even contradictory models, more or less useful to different kinds of people at different times … Some might even be damaging to the wrong person at the wrong time.  Does that mean that these teachings are right or wrong depending on who is listening?

Perhaps so… and yet there are also a class of views that are just plain wrong, not because they express the path and goal poorly or inappropriately for the person listening, but because they describe some aspect of human experience other than the path and goal pointed to by the Buddha. 

A clear and convincing presentation of something that is not the Dharma is much more dangerous than a poor presentation of the Dharma because, rather than just being confusing, it will actually make sense and provide a clear, but wrong, path to follow.  A poor presentation of the Dharma might lead to dithering and time wasting, but at least the path might be found eventually; however, a good presentation of some other path may lock the follower permanently onto a track from which the Dharma will never be found.

Our movement relies heavily on the idea that we are offering an authentic approach to the Dharma.  Our centres are called Buddhist Centres, we trade as Buddhists, so to speak, and it would harm our public image if the wider Buddhist world did not consider us to be authentically Buddhist.  It might not matter to any particular individual within Triratna - after all, if they like what is on offer, does it matter whether it is pointing to the same human experience that the Buddha taught?  I have met Order Members who are quite clear that they like what Bhante teaches, and could not care less whether or not it is authentic Dharma. But it matters to our collective identity, our reputation with the public, and no doubt to many of us individually too.

I don’t know a lot about our reputation in the wider Buddhist world, but there are undoubtedly some who consider that we offer something other than the Dharma.  For example, I have an interesting anecdote from a friend who was pursuing ordination in the Theravada sangha in the UK. During his stay in a monastery, he visited the library, and was interested to note the wide range of books on offer.  Not just Theravada books, but all sorts, even including Trungpa, Zen and so on. Knowing that I was in the WBO (as it was then) he tried to find something by Sangharakshita, but could not see anything. He asked the librarian if they had anything by Sangharakshita, and the librarian’s reply was along the lines of “Yes, but we keep it behind the desk here.  Anyone can borrow them if they ask, but we don’t like to put it up on the shelves with the Dharma books”. Perhaps this is just some longstanding grudge that the Theravada sangha holds against Bhante? I don’t know for sure, but I found it interesting that they clearly did not not consider Bhante’s work to be “Dharma” in the same way as the works of almost all other Buddhist authors.

Buddhist teachers are normally far too polite to weigh in and criticise other teachers, so it may be be hard to find public statements by anyone well known, but I have read comments in a number of places online similar to the following quote from “Alan J.W.”:

[Sangharakshita’s] teaching diverges in important respects from mainstream Buddhist doctrine (the Dharma).  The differences are more than just academic. [Sangharakshita’s] concept of a ‘Higher evolution’, with an attendant ‘Spiral path’, is alien to other Buddhists of any school.

Is it conceivable that Bhante’s teaching could have diverged in fundamental and important ways from the Dharma, and ended up presenting some alternative path?  For those of us who have grown up, spiritually speaking, within the movement, it may be almost inconceivable. In fact, owing to the fact that we have relied on Bhante’s teaching to tell us what the Dharma is in the first place, it may be literally unthinkable … Bhante’s teaching simply IS the Dharma for many of us!

Just raising the question immediately raises so many others …. Who could possibly be in a position to say that Bhante had got something important wrong, and on what basis?  Who could possibly be an authority? What if Bhante’s vision is actually deeper and broader than that of anyone else alive - who then could possibly judge his teaching? If someone thinks Bhante is misguided, could this not just as easily mean that they are wrong and Bhante is right?

And what about our own experience - if we have felt the benefit of Bhante’s teaching, then how could it possibly be fundamentally wrong?  And even if it does appear to contradict some obscure philosophical point from the Pali Canon or what-not, does that actually matter if it works in our own experience?

The questions just pile in, one after another … if we were to believe that Bhante had got it wrong in some fundamental way, what would that mean for those of us who have followed his teaching?  Have we been wasting our time? If we lost faith in Bhante’s teaching, would that be the end of our spiritual life? What would hold the movement together if we were to question the validity of Bhante’s teaching?  Would everything fall apart?

Then there is the question of what, exactly, we consider to be “Bhante’s teaching”.  Which of his myriad teachings should we consider? Dozens of talks, dozens of seminars, millions of words over several decades…. Whatever he may have said in one place, he may have counterbalanced by a complementary teaching elsewhere, so by picking examples from just one half of his teaching, so to speak, it would be possible to construct a false impression of his total teaching and unfairly criticise a straw-man version of it.

Then, of course, there is the haunting question that is never far from the surface in any discussion of this kind - if an Order Member has come to the conclusion that there are fundamental problems with aspects of Bhante’s teaching, why on Earth would they stay around and not just resign?

Well, I do believe that Bhante has presented a model of the Dharma that is, simply, a wrong view.  This is, in my opinion, extremely important, and must be put right eventually if we are to continue to claim to be a Buddhist movement.  However, it does not, thankfully, invalidate everything - it is a problem that it is entirely possible to put right without destroying what is best about our community and our culture.  Bhante’s unique vision and practical wisdom have created something of extraordinary value, and the fact that there is so much about our community and culture that is unique, valuable and worth preserving is an important reason why I do not consider resigning. 

I don't for a moment expect (or want) anyone to just take my word for this.  Uncritically taking on board the views of others is rarely a good idea, particularly when it comes to the Dharma.  So how can we approach an evaluation of Bhante's teaching? Reference to scriptures, reasoning and intuition all have a part to play, but above all, I think it is crucial to consider our own and others' direct experience, and to acknowledge that, unlike 40 years ago, we are no longer in a position where Bhante is the only one who could be considered "the wise".  There are now quite a number of Order Members (and indeed some Mitras) who have had enough insight into the Dharma to be able to discuss the merits of various ideas and teachings on the basis of direct experience - we have moved beyond the point where we must be guided by faith alone.

I have come on quite a long journey to get to this point.  It all came together during a single meditation on a retreat at Vajraloka five or six years ago, but I had been puzzling over various issues for many years before this point. 

For example, I found it very odd that Bhante taught that enlightenment was not an event that could occur at any one point in time, but that it was just the far horizon in the direction of travel towards higher and higher states of being and consciousness.  This view stands in stark contrast to the resounding note of finality that we read so often in the Pali Canon: “the holy life has been lived, what had to be done has been done, there is no more coming to any state of being”. Of course, normal human learning might carry on as long as someone is alive, whether they are enlightened or not, but this hardly constitutes a continuation of the path - if it were true that the path continued indefinitely in the same direction, as Bhante indicates, then why would the Buddha and his disciples have so resoundingly declared the opposite? 

Another major puzzle was how to reconcile Bhante’s model of progression along a spiral path of augmentative conditionality with my own experience of insight, which was unambiguously about cessation, not augmentation, about completely dropping conditioned coproduction, not riding a different trend of it.

And then there was the idea of the Bodhicitta arising in a collective context… This had started out as an interesting observation - perhaps, where several people were working together, the Bodhicitta might arise in them all simultaneously.  Gradually, over the years, this idea evolved and hardened - first to the point where the Bodhicitta was supposed to be more likely to arise in a collective context than individually, and then eventually, in the seven papers, to the point where we are told that it is meaningless even to consider the arising of insight to be an individual realisation, because it is inherently transpersonal, and so can only fully manifest through a collective.  [edit: I remember this latter point about fully manifesting through a collective being stated quite explicitly when I first read one of the seven papers.  However, having gone back to them again and checked, as far as I can see in their current versions, this conclusion is not drawn explicitly. I don't know whether my memory is faulty, or whether the papers have been edited, but either way, I am very glad that this explicit conclusion is not drawn there.] This ‘suprapersonal’ idea puzzled me immensely, since it seemed to be a fundamental category error, and I found no way reconcile this idea either with my own experience of the Dharma, or indeed any part of the Buddhist tradition that I was aware of.

These puzzles, and many others besides, all fell into place that day in the Vajraloka shrine room.  I had been trying for some time to make sense of Subhuti’s paper “Revering and Relying on the Dharma”, and on sitting down to meditate, I could feel a great weight of confusion weighing down my mind.  It occurred to me to seek release by visualising Vairocana. To me, Vairocana symbolises the free-flowing interpenetration of all things, and so therefore the complete resolution of all paradox and contradiction.  After a short period of visualisation, all the observations, experiences, questions and puzzles that had clogged up my mind over the previous years suddenly resolved into a single, simple understanding. 

I realised that, the whole time, I had been looking at Bhante’s idiosyncratic teachings through the lens of my own experience of the Dharma, and trying to reconcile them… Looking at some of Bhante’s key teachings, I could see the Dharma only by, metaphorically, squinting and tilting my head until there was a certain resemblance.  “Well … I suppose you COULD put it like that… poetically speaking…. But I would never put it like that myself”.

However, everything fell into place when I looked clearly and squarely at Bhante’s teaching as laid out by Subhuti in those papers without any kind of assumption that it ‘had to be’ saying the same thing as the Buddha.  Suddenly, I saw clearly that Bhante’s distinctive views were their own unique and perfect thing, which made complete sense in their own right, and could even be seen as a modern reinvention of other spiritual traditions. They were describing a path and goal that is coherent, and psychologically real, but quite different from any Buddhist account of the path and goal.  They were, quite simply, describing the path to a human experience different from the goal pointed to by the Buddha.

This was difficult to see at first for a number of reasons.  Of course, one big reason was that I had ‘grown up’ within the sphere of influence of Bhante’s teaching, and so my view of what the Dharma was had been heavily influenced by his presentation.  But there were other reasons too. 

Another reason was that much of what Bhante has taught is not actually directly connected with the path and goal, but presents general principles that are fundamentally sound.  There are many examples which are embedded into the foundations of our community, for example “commitment is primary, lifestyle is secondary”, the value of spiritual friendship, the unity of the Buddhist tradition, the importance of ordination …. It goes on and on.  With so many gems of practical wisdom and incisive clarity, I just got used to assuming that everything Bhante said was sound. Indeed, as an introduction to practice, I still believe that what Bhante has given us is essentially sound - what we offer to beginners is really good, and the experience of so many people coming along and getting involved is good… so like one of those nodding dogs in the back of a car, I got used to assenting to everything. I assumed everything must be good. 

Another reason it was hard to spot a problem was that, even when Bhante has been expressing his own non-Dharmic views of the path and goal, he has done so using language peppered with Buddhist terminology, which acts as a kind of disguise.  Perhaps this is why the ‘higher evolution’ teaching, which did not rely on Buddhist terminology, has stood out for many people as a bit dubious, and indeed in the first paper Bhante explicitly said that he did not feel that his disciples had to take this teaching on board.  Yet the ‘higher evolution’ teaching is completely congruent with, and indeed a particularly vivid expression of, Bhante’s own core ideas about the path and goal, so there is no clear reason why one should feel comfortable with one and not the other.

However, perhaps the biggest reason that I found it hard, for so long, to identify this faulty model at the core of Bhante’s thinking is that so much of what he has taught over the decades has been not his own views, but his attempt to present the views of others, particularly great teachers of the past.  I believe he has a huge talent for this, and is able to put his own views to one side and almost ‘channel’ the thoughts of others. I can see why he wrote that he identifies with the archetype of the ‘translator’, embodied in St Jerome. There is therefore much ‘straight down the line Dharma’ within the totality of Bhante’s teaching, and within this, much that I believe to be of permanent value as a restatement of, and commentary on, what others have taught. 

However, as he has pointed out himself, the fact that he has presented another teacher’s teaching, even the fact that he has put a teacher on the Refuge Tree, should not be taken to mean that he actually agrees with them. 

So it is not the totality of Bhante’s teaching, but some of his own views about the path and goal, that are problematic.  Fortunately, these ideas have all been pulled together now in the “Seven Papers”, with the core model of the path and goal laid out in detail in “Revering and Relying on the Dharma”. 

In my view, the views codified in the seven papers cannot possibly be the basis of a truly Buddhist order, because they contain a core model of the path and goal that is simply not Buddhist.  So when Bhante wrote that Triratna, in parts, bears marks “not of the Dharma but of my own particular personality”, I understood this to include the way his idiosyncratic views have begun to take precedence over traditional Dharma in these papers.

Expanding on this later, Bhante wrote that

I had a natural tendency to look up to and to revere what was above me meant that I had an affinity with Buddhism inasmuch as the path taught by the Buddha led to higher and ever higher states of being and consciousness.  In a sense, I was a born Buddhist. 

So Bhante agrees that much of his teaching has been based on his own innate natural tendencies towards reverence and ascent rather than anything he later learned about the Dharma …. The question is, of course, whether Bhante’s natural inclination to reverence and ascent really do capture the essence of what the Buddha taught. 

It seems obvious to me that one cannot be born a Buddhist in this sense, because if the Dharma could be followed by going with the flow of a particular temperamental disposition, it would not have required the Buddha to discover it, and he would not have described it as

abstruse, subtle, deep, hard to see, going against the flow

It seems much more likely to me that Bhante has seen the Buddhist tradition through the filter of his temperamental disposition.

So which exactly of Bhante’s ideas do I consider not to be Buddhist?  I will only give an overview here - for a more detailed discussion of the key element, you could look at the Shabda article in which I responded to “Revering and Relying on the Dharma”: .  

There are several key elements to Bhante’s model of the path and goal which all fit together and amplify his temperamental disposition towards reverence and ascent.  He has described his teaching as leading to “progress to ever higher levels of being and consciousness, even from the mundane at its most refined to the transcendental”.  Progress along the path comes about as a result of reverence for what is higher, and so it is of critical importance to have in mind an inspiring vision of the goal. Through reverence and devotion, one becomes drawn towards what is higher, receiving support and blessing from above, and leaving behind the cruder aspects of one’s being.  Through this process of refinement, one’s gross egotistical desires are gradually eliminated, until eventually one’s being becomes a vehicle for the expression of selfless transpersonal forces. 

This is perhaps so familiar and ‘obviously the Dharma’ that it might come as some surprise to discover that this would not be recognisable to Buddhists outside of Triratna.  However, it would be entirely recognisable to students of German Romantic philosophical literature, followers of the Neoplatonic path, or to anyone interested in the esoteric Western Hermetic ‘Magickal’ tradition explored by groups like the Golden Dawn.  In fact, if the language were tweaked a little, it would probably be rather familiar to many followers of other mainstream religions too - this resonates rather well with the path of prayer leading to the descent of the Holy Spirit.

Is this simply because all religions are, when it comes down to it, fundamentally the same?  I think not. I think it is because most religious and spiritual traditions are one or another species of ‘heaven-yana’.  They are teaching how to get into samsaric heaven realms, whether after death or during this life, and this path of ‘ascent through reverence’ is exactly how to access those realms.  For better or for worse, it works! Practicing this path will therefore have some positive results. 

In fact, I would even say that there is a place in a Buddhist life for this path of ‘ascent through reverence’, but its place is to help lead from the lower realms to the human realm, not to lead beyond the human realm.  I have some experience myself of ascending out of hellish states using this path, and it is very effective, but when this practice is continued from the human realm, it simply leads onwards to samsaric heavenly realms, where the arising of insight is actually less likely than in the human realm.  Of course, someone well established in insight might have good reason to explore such realms too, but the point is, insight and liberation are not direct consequences of following this path in the way described in “Revering and Relying on the Dharma”. If they were, the Buddha would not have needed to discover the Dharma, because the heavenly realms revealed by the path of ascent through reverence had been well explored even before the Buddha’s time. 

So if we spend our lives trying to progress, as Bhante suggests, “from the mundane at its most refined to the transcendental”, then we will just be trying to evolve into super refined devas-of-the-earth, following a standard heaven-yana, and whatever the merits of this path, we will be missing altogether the point of the Dharma. 

We all know of course, theoretically at least, that the point of the Dharma is not about getting into samsaric heaven realms, but about dropping samsara altogether.  According to basic Dharma, enlightenment is not typically found beyond the most subtle heaven realms, but here and now in ordinary human consciousness. So how, in the Buddhist tradition, is liberation found in ordinary consciousness?  I am no scholar, but as far as I know, every Buddhist tradition has at its core a very simple practice of formless meditation - essentially ‘just sitting’, allowing experience to rise and fall without clinging. This is normally considered to be the highest ‘completion’ practice in whichever system it appears, like Mahamudra or Dzogchen - not a marginal ‘add-on’ practice to keep other practices balanced, but the practice that finally leads to the complete abandonment of clinging.  It is the most quintessentially Buddhist form of mindfulness meditation. 

This kind of formless practice, and the fruit it brings, is very clearly stated in many places in the Pali Canon, for example this quote from the Majjhima Nikaya:

When he abides contemplating rise and fall in these five aggregates affected by clinging, the conception 'I am' based on these five aggregates affected by clinging is abandoned in him.

This is so central to the Dharma that I would consider it impossible to have a profound grasp of the Dharma without the importance of such practices being obvious.  However, if one is pursuing a ‘heaven-yana’, such practices have no significant role to play, since they are not going anywhere, not developing or refining anything, and the crucial elements of reverence and aspiration are absent.

And sure enough, in the first of the Seven Papers, Bhante shows how little regard he has for such practices:

There is the question of where the so-called 'formless practice' fits in - although I've never been too sure what that means, it's always seemed a bit vague to me. To the extent that I've understood what people are talking about, I've always regarded it as an extension of the Just Sitting that I have taught from the beginning. [...]. I doubt very much whether Just Sitting or 'Pure Awareness', as it is termed, will take you all the way by itself

The quote from the Majjhima Nikaya illustrates another stark difference between the Buddhist tradition and Bhante’s model of ascent through reverence.  The formless mindfulness practice leads to the abandonment of conceit and clinging, and this refrain of cessation and abandonment runs throughout the Pali Canon.  When the causes of suffering are dropped, the negative nidanas of samsara no longer operate, and the path is complete. This is, unavoidably, a negative process, in the sense that clinging and delusion are activities that must come to an end through the light of awareness - though of course the fruits of this process are experienced as psychologically ”positive”.  In the Buddhist model, the links of conditioned coproduction describe the way the clinging mind works; when clinging is dropped, they no longer apply.

However, in Bhante’s model of ascent through reverence, there is no end to the path, and rather than escaping from conditioned coproduction, one continues to be subject to it, while learning how to get the best out of it through the ascending ‘spiral path’.  I can see that the ‘spiral path’ is a good metaphor for the path of ascent through reverence, but Bhante goes further and identifies this spiral path with the ‘positive nidanas’. This requires an interpretation of the positive nidanas that makes no sense in relation to other nidana formulations in the Pali Canon, nor even with what is presented in the Upanisa Sutta itself, where the 'positive nidanas' appear.  The sutta opens: "The destruction of the cankers, monks, is for one who knows and sees", so it is clearly dealing with a path that comes to a finite conclusion. Like many suttas, the Upanisa Sutta then enumerates the negative nidanas, however, this sutta does so with a difference. The negative nidanas are usually presented first in forward order, describing how suffering arises, and then in negative order, presenting the path as the  progressive abandonment of the causes suffering. In the Upanisa Sutta, the negative nidanas are enumerated in the forward direction as usual, but instead of enumerating them in reverse direction, the 'positive nidanas' are enumerated instead. The positive nidanas are clearly equivalent to the cessation of the negative nidanas, but expressed in psychologically positive terms, not a different form of conditionality. Once the causes of suffering have been destroyed, the negative nidanas cease and the path is complete - there is no way for the positive nidanas to carry on forever.  (I wrote about this many years ago in Shabda ). 

Personally, I do find the 'spiral path' to be quite a compelling symbol.  However, rather than seeing the spiral as ascending and widening, I see it as a journey inwards, back against the normal flow of mental events, down towards the point of ignorance that is at the root of the whole mass of suffering.  Lama Govinda offered a similar metaphor, where the outward journey extends only as far as self-consciousness, from which point the journey involved taking awareness back inwards to discover the basis upon which self-consciousness had been unconsciously constructed.

So what Bhante has identified as a positive trend in conditioned coproduction, ascent through reverence, leading to ever higher and more refined states of being, is not the unwinding and cessation of the samsaric nidanas, but a ‘stairway to heaven’.  Instead of identifying how to bring the samsaric nidanas to an end, Bhante has taught how to use them to navigate to the heaven realms within samsara. This is why Bhante, in stark contrast to the Buddha, says that the path never comes to an end. It is also why there is no mention in Bhante’s system of one of the central higher meditative ‘attainments’, nirodha, in which all experience temporarily ceases.

This is not to say that ascent through reverence is without any value.  In fact, at certain stages of the path, it may be exactly what is needed, and depending upon temperament, it might become an important pillar of one’s practice longer term after insight has arisen.  During the early stages, this approach can serve as a path from any of the the lower realms to the human realm, and it is undoubtedly valuable to understand the psychology at work. The problem is not with the psycho spiritual dynamics of this approach per se, but with the idea that it is this dynamic that leads to insight and liberation by gradually eliminating ‘self will’, and most particularly the idea that this dynamic is essential to every stage of the path. 

Unfortunately, these are exactly the claims made in the seven papers.

When an entire culture is based around this path of ascent through reverence, there will be problems that would not crop up in a true sangha.  For one thing, after an initial rush of progress for a number of years, most people will reach a plateau beyond which no further progress seems possible.  I believe that even some of Bhante’s most loyal supporters will acknowledge that this has generally been the case. What is perhaps most problematic, though, is that the heaven-yana approach creates a big shadow, psychologically speaking.  The heaven-yana practitioner will feel that they are making spiritual progress when, and only when, they are inspired and revering. They must therefore be concerned to avoid anything that deflates their inspiration and reverence, which will include not only inconvenient facts and their own conflicting mental states, but also anyone else who does not share this reverence.  This creates a culture where there is a substratum of fear - fear of falling out of the light, of losing inspiration, of losing connection with the object of reverence and source of blessings. This is not a path of freedom, but increasing rigidity and closed-mindedness, as one tries to build a life that supports a particular mental state, and excludes all that might puncture that mental state. 

In contrast, true Buddhist insight, which is about non-judgemental awareness of what is ACTUALLY  going on rather than what SHOULD be going on, dissolves shadows and dissolves fear, leading to ever greater freedom rather than rigidity.

If we seek to preserve Bhante’s legacy of teachings uncritically, we will never cast off this confusion about the path and goal.  If we want to call ourselves a Buddhist order, and really to be a Buddhist sangha through-and-through, then sooner or later, we will have to root out the ‘marks not of the Dharma’ that are embedded in the seven papers and elsewhere in our doctrinal legacy. 


Dh. Ratnaguna wrote a detailed reply entitled “Yes we are a Buddhist Order”, which has been published on various Facebook pages as well as in the Order Only section of “The Buddhist Centre Online”.

My reply to Ratnaguna’s article will probably help clarify what I have written above, whether or not you have read Ratnaguna’s article.  My reply is here:

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