Sangharakshita's "Marks of Personality" Writ Large
Sangharaksthia once said that "I don't think that the Order or movement should be Sangharakshita writ large; by which I mean that my own particularities of character and interest should not determine other people's interests." Unfortunately, it turns out that is exactly what has happened, in many significant and quite damaging ways.
Sangharakshita was happy to challenge binaries in relation to hetero/homosexuality, once declaring that changing one’s sexual preference was as easy as ‘switching from tea to coffee’, akin to the assumption that makes so-called ‘gay conversion therapy’ a valid possibility for fundamentalist Christians. However, he remained perversely wedded to keeping the sexes separate by setting up male and female ‘wings’ of the order, living in separate communities and attending separate events, which of course made it impracticable for him to test out his 'tea/coffee' theory on himself by having sex with women. A publicly available account from one of his many straight male partners describes how he was led to believe that, by agreeing to have sex with Sangharakshita, they were both making a sacrifice by 'giving up (their) natural attraction towards women for the sake of the Dharma'. What had not been made clear to this former partner is that, in fact, Sangharakshita’s sexual interests were only ever in young men (he never matured sexually or had an ‘age-appropriate’ relationship), and he was therefore merely having sex consistent with his sexual preference.
The inflexibility of this binary division has been the cause of considerable suffering for those already members of the order later diagnosed with Gender Identity Disorder and who requested alteration of their order name to reflect the gender change (which was often already official in terms of public law) and to move over to the other ‘wing’ of the order. These requests often met with blank incomprehension and institutional paralysis, especially from the men’s side -- that is until they were made aware of the legal implications of stalling and taking no action. Similarly, transgender and non-binary folk face difficulties in the ordination process because no-body knows where to ‘place’ them, and some in the College believe these folk to be deluded or worse. Why so flexible on sexual orientation, and so strict on gender identity?
The need to hold fast to the gender binary is tied up with Sangharakshita’s self-serving ideology of women’s ‘lower evolution,’ and this has been a particular problem for the many then-young women who were persuaded to limit their reproductive choices by the rhetoric of Subhuti’s book Women Men & Angels (WM&A), and now regret it. Interestingly, the argument concerning women’s lower, ‘biological’ nature was not an original ‘insight’ of Sangharakshita’s: he lifted it from Otto Weininger’s 1903 book Sex and Character. Weininger was a somewhat mad ‘philosopher’ who killed himself in his 20s, but his book proved influential, and there was (and may still be) a copy in the order library at Adhisthana. In any event, not only did WM&A serve to limit women's reproductive choices, but it also served to emphasise Sangharakshita's views on evolution and hierarchy of beings. This had the divisive and unhelpful effect of some people being able to confidently assert their superiority over others based on these myopic views, it acted as a misogynistic counterweight to the positives ostensibly provided by Triratna’s 'equal' ordination status, and compelled many women to leave or be discouraged from practising within Triratna or even as Buddhists.
The dangers inherent in this view should have been plain to all and, indeed, in the late 1990s a now resigned order member wrote an article for the Order gazette entitled ‘Our Bog is Dood’ (playing on the Stevie Smith poem of the same title where she exposes the nonsensical credulity of ‘true believers’). That article drew attention to the growing problem of ‘charismatic authority’ in Triratna, under which influence people were being encouraged to be ‘receptive’ to some very weird views about women, about the virtues of sex between men, and about the spiritual disadvantages of children and families. We might add to this also Sangharakshita’s assertion that engagement with ‘Art’, a personal interest of his and a distinctive emphasis of Triratna, can be a bona fide means of awakening and that the ‘artist’ represents a more evolved mode of being.
As a result, throughout the 1990s WM&A was used by ‘senior’ and influential women to manipulate and persuade younger women not to have children because this would limit the time, energy and finances they could otherwise dedicate to institution building. A now resigned woman order member commented that the most persuasive women OMs who argued for not having children were those who’d done the best job repressing/suppressing the urge themselves. She remembers some ‘senior’ women having long conversations with her about that and how they had finally won the battle over these ‘urges’, but that their cognitive dissonance was plain to see as they reeked pain in the present, to the extent that she literally didn’t believe them.
The arguments in the book were also used by many men in relationships with women in the movement to keep their relationships ‘at the edge of the mandala’ lest they be distracted from their path on the ‘higher evolution’. The possibility that women could be a support to men in their pursuit of ‘self transformation’ seemed ridiculous. This attitude still exists among some College members as we saw in a recent warning sent to all centre chairs about the dangers of 'teaching couples' -- as if monogamous and heterosexually partnered senior order members leading retreats together was a problem whereas the founder of a Buddhist order promiscuously sleeping with his male disciples was somehow not.
In 2017 Subhuti finally made a public statement of regret for publishing the book, admitting the harm that it had done to many of the order's women practitioners and to the movement's reputation more generally. He regretted that the book "drew attention to a relatively peripheral aspect of Sangharakshita’s thinking, giving it a status it did not warrant" (one wonders, then, why Sangharakshita had asked Subhuti to author the book in the first place?). However Sangharakshita himself never revised the views attributed to him in that book. Indeed, as outlined above, Sangharakshita's speculations about the relative spiritual aptitude of women were part of a much larger ideological commitment to the notion of a "higher evolution" and they had serious repercussions and implications for many in the order -- men as well as women -- that are still being experienced today.
Fortunately, as is now becoming apparent, women, people with families and careers, and those otherwise not leading the 'ideal' life that Sangharakshita suggested was most conducive to spiritual awakening, are likely to be those who are actually awakening. Conversely, those who took Sangharakshita’s advice and committed to an institutional lifestyle are unable to recognise spiritual awakening as it starts to occur around them, in part because it doesn’t match the description they credulously accepted from Sangharakshita, and in part because to recognise spiritual awakening in others would mean they would have to question what they have devoted their entire adult lives to.
In August 2017, in response to widespread speculation as to the meaning of his vague and non-specific apology for actions that might have harmed "fellow Buddhists", Sangharakshita commented that
the fact that I spoke of the FWBO/Triratna sometimes bearing the marks not of the Dharma but of my own particular personality has been taken to mean that those marks were always negative. Far from this being the case, I believe that those marks were almost entirely positive.
It may be that he, and those faithful to him, want and need to believe that this is the case, though in light of the "marks" discussed above, is this really true?
Note: Subhuti publicly apologized for the publication of Women, Men and Angels in 2017, admitting it “was a serious mistake". Sangharakshita, however, remained silent on whether he still held the views that Subhuti had attributed to him in that publication. You can read Subhuti's statement at this link.