The Order That I Joined
Editor's note: This article was marked "open to all" when originally published, so we understand the material to be in the public domain.
This is an article I originally wrote for Shabda, August 2014
It is open to all
After hearing some of my views recently, a friend in the Order asked me ... so ... why are you still here? . In other words, if I held these views, why had I not not resigned from the Order?
It is not the first time I've been asked this. In fact, it is something I have asked myself a few times in the last few years - specifically, since the publication of "What Is the WBO?".
The Order depicted in this paper, and in the papers that have followed it, is very different from the Order I was told I was joining in 1993. In particular, the Order's relationship to Bhante, as portrayed in these papers, is fundamentally different from what I was led to believe when I was Ordained. This is not just the natural and organic development of what went before - it is, in some respects, a direct reversal of key principles that I had signed up to.
The Order that I joined was "harmonious anarchy", "a free association of individuals", and in that context, Bhante was not a guru, but a spiritual friend. He was not the source of the Dharma, but the Translator of the Buddhist tradition, comparing himself to St Jerome. He introduced us to the Dharma, but it was up to us to develop that connection and so create "Western Buddhism". As a Translator, Bhante's personal opinions were not of central importance - what mattered was that he was able to help us to connect with the Dharma and the Buddhist tradition.
There was no notion of "Bhante's Dharma", nor any question of his having created, or even aspiring to create, a finished system. On the contrary, we understood that it would take generations to "bring the Dharma to the West", and even then, to settle on a finished system would surely indicate stagnation. As Subhuti put it: "The choice facing any spiritual movement is to adapt or to fossilise quickly, because the pace of change is much faster now than in any previous era of history... We therefore have to address the world as it is, not as it was. And if we are to adapt and respond to the world as it is, that adaptation cannot be centrally planned. By the time the 'centre' has grasped the way that things have changed, and has decided on a new way of approaching them, things may have changed again. So experiment and innovation must come at grassroots level."
Back then, 'individuality' was on everyone's lips, while the words 'belief' and 'discipleship' were simply not part of our discourse. And, of course, back then, it was understood that, if necessary, "you can change anything but the Going For Refuge".
Admittedly, even back in those days, it was obvious that there was something of a personality cult around Bhante - for some people, he was not just introducing us to the Dharma, but he was in some sense the actual source of it. For some, then and now, Bhante is the focus of their spiritual lives as Order members. For some people, loyalty and devotion to Bhante is completely unquestionable, a moral absolute, even a requirement - as a member of the Ordination team told one of my friends recently: "it is not enough just to respect Bhante, you have to love him!". For some, this loyalty and devotion is synonymous with being an Order Member - indeed, I understand that some Order Members have said that they would prefer a smaller Order, made up exclusively of people "loyal to Bhante".
Perhaps there is an element of temperament to this - some people are inclined to see their spiritual life primarily in terms of devotion and worship. And, of course, some people will have been impressed by their personal contact with Bhante. Then again, some people are unashamedly Sangharakshitan first and "Buddhist" only in consequence - an Order Member told me not long ago that he doesn't actually care whether Bhante or his teaching are Buddhist at all - it is Bhante that he follows.
However, I fall into none of these categories, and I find the idealisation of Bhante to be rather distasteful, not least because it is one of the main pillars of a cultish mentality which has dogged our community in the past. My spiritual life has never been particularly focussed on the personality of Sangharakshita, and when I joined the Order in 1993, I was not told that I was joining "Bhante's Order" in which he "decides". I was not told that I had to be devoted to him personally, nor that I should consider myself to be his disciple, nor that I should have complete faith in all his "system" or "distinctive teachings". What was expected of me was that I was prepared to commit to practising the Dharma in the context of the Order he founded.
This remains true for me today. As far as I am concerned, the Order I joined is not "Bhante's Order", it is the Order that he founded. I do not practise "Bhante's Dharma", but the Buddha's Dharma, which Bhante has helped me to connect with. I am not a disciple of my preceptor, or of Bhante, but, if anyone, of the Buddha. Bhante may say "It is my Order, and I decide", but this changes the meaning of my ordination, and I do not accept that anyone has the right to impose this change upon me.
It is as if I was invited into a garden, being told "come into our garden, join us, let's all work together to make it grow for the benefit of everyone!"... then later, having joined in and worked the land, being told "right, this is my garden, so I will decide everything from now on. If you don't like it, you can leave". It is too late! The contract was made on a different basis, it can only be changed by mutual consent - and I do not consent. I was Ordained into a free association of individuals whose primary duty was to practise the Dharma - I do not consent to being redefined as Bhante's disciple, nor do I accept that my primary duty is to faithfully practise and pass on his specific teaching.
I don't object out of knee jerk conservatism, nor because I have a problem with "discipleship" per se. I object because I cannot accept making Bhante's "distinctive teachings" the central doctrinal basis for spiritual practice within the Order. If you consider yourself to be primarily a follower of Bhante, this might seem quite natural; however, as someone who is a primarily a Buddhist, I find it, frankly, horrifying.
I have felt for many years that, however brilliantly Bhante can enter into the minds of the great Buddhist teachers of the past, and translate them for our ears, his own views are actually quite at odds with the Buddhist tradition. This has become much clearer in the light of the publication of the papers of the last few years. For example, Bhante summarises his entire teaching in the phrase - "progress to ever higher levels of being and consciousness, even from the mundane at its most refined to the transcendental". This might be a great description of Neoplatonism, but I have no doubt that it is a very unfaithful summary of the path that the Buddha taught. I am not complaining that these papers contain a poor presentation of the Dharma - I am pointing out that they contain a perfectly coherent presentation of a different path, leading to a different goal (I've written about one aspect of this in an article for Shabda Feb 2013). As a Buddhist, I simply cannot promise to faithfully learn, practise and pass on this teaching.
If I do not think that Bhante's personal views are a faithful transmission of the Buddha's teaching, why do I not resign from the Order? Simply, this is not a big problem in the version of the Order that I joined. In this version, Bhante has founded the Order, but not finally defined it. In this version, Bhante's teaching is an introduction to the Buddhist tradition not a replacement for it. In this version, there is no finished system that we must assent to, incorporating all of Bhante's "distinctive teachings". In this version, there is plenty of room for error and correction, for picking out the gold in Bhante's legacy and passing over the dross. In this version, it is up to us, over time, to continue to define and develop the Dharma culture of the Order in the light of our wisdom and experience. In this version, it is enough to respect Bhante as the founder of the Order, a man of powerful intellect and wide knowledge, a pioneering Translator of the Buddhist tradition, the source of a goldmine of talks and seminars that is the foundation of our community's culture, without needing to take his views as articles of faith.
Nor, in this version, is it necessary to consider Bhante to be a paragon of virtue, a great holy man in the traditional Buddhist sense, or for him to be an object of faith and devotion. I have no need to believe that he has led an ethically blameless life, nor to believe that he is particularly truthful in his communication. This is fortunate, because I am faced with so much evidence that Bhante is, to put it charitably, no saint.
Should I resign from the Order if I do not consider Bhante to have led a particularly ethical life, even by ordinary standards? I see no reason why I should. Acknowledging this fact in no way undermines my own commitment to the Dharma, nor is it in conflict with my commitment to the Order as I was taught to understand it.
Of course, if you feel that your spiritual life is sustained by grace flowing directly from Bhante, or if you believe that your membership of the Order entails subscribing to all of Bhante's "distinctive teachings", then you may feel that if you lost your faith in Bhante, then you would have to resign from the Order. As far as I am concerned, though, if this is the case, then you are participating in something more like a personality cult than a sangha.
I believe there's a huge problem with trying to sustain a personality cult around Bhante. To do so involves trying to portray him as some kind of Buddhist saint, which simply does not stand up to scrutiny. Any attempt to build up a perfect archetypal image of the man will always be tainted by what is known about his human past. True devotees have to tie themselves in knots to reconcile the two, or else repress their knowledge of the facts - and repress any individuals who remind them of these facts.
Moreover, in a personality cult centred around Bhante and his distinctive teaching, Order Members will increasingly find it necessary to isolate themselves from the influence of the wider Buddhist tradition as the conflicts between Bhante's "distinctive teaching" and the actual Dharma become more apparent. Like the Nichirens, we will stand outside the wider Buddhist world, isolated within a bubble of our own certainty, unrecognised by other Buddhists.
Of course my position is very much at odds with the vision laid out in the papers published over the last few years. Does that mean that I should resign? I do not think so. I am still committed to the Order I joined, and in that Order, no individual, not even Bhante, has the right to redefine the Order as these papers do. If I accepted he had this right, then perhaps it would be logical to resign, but I do not.
Also, although these papers are trying to lay down the basis for the future of the Order, I believe that they are actually just one step in a dialectic between the Order as cult and the order as Sangha. In its earlier days, and in some of its institutions, our community has undoubtedly functioned as a textbook cult, completely at odds with the rhetoric of developing individuality and independence. It is impossible to be both a cult and a free association of individuals practising the Dharma. However helpful these cultish currents may be in creating energy and commitment, they cannot survive indefinitely if the Order is actually becoming a free association of mature Dharma farers. Eventually, one trend or the other has to give.
The papers published in the last few years seem to be a desperate (though presumably unconscious) attempt to lock the Order into a cultish future, and to encourage the resignation of anyone unwilling to be part of that future. Elements in all the papers work together to encourage a passive, collectivist and credulous vision of the spiritual life, all revolving around an artificially inflated vision of Bhante.
I believe these papers represent the death throes of the Order's cultish past, and I have no qualms in rejecting them. I am optimistic that the Order can completely outgrow its cultish past, in which case I hope these papers will either be quietly forgotten, or perhaps remembered as one of our many aberrations along the bumpy path to maturity as a Sangha.
And to answer my friend's question: in spite of my views about these papers, and about Bhante and his role in the Order, I have not resigned because the vision and principles I signed up to are still good, and I don't accept either the wisdom or the moral legitimacy of this attempt to 'refound' the Order. Most importantly, I still believe that the Order can become a mature Sangha, without having to pretend that Bhante is anything other than he is.