A Study in Evasion: Triratna's Responses and Non-Responses to Sexual Abuse Allegations
The fact that Sangharakshita was sexually involved with some of his male disciples has been common knowledge in the Order he founded since at least 1987 when Mark Dunlop (the then-Vajrakumara) had written a long letter to the order gazette, complaining about his treatment and warning about Sangharakshita’s shadow side. As Mark Dunlop himself recounts, his letter had little effect on general sentiment, as Sangharakshita’s behaviour was not perceived by most members of the order as a problem. Indeed Mark’s experience (which was repeated with others) is that he was scapegoated and cast as a ‘difficult’ person and even as emotionally and mentally unstable.
We may speculate as to why this transpired as it did, but until Sangharakshita began to hand over his responsibilities as head of the order in the early 1990s, there was no centralised governing body within Triratna that could have undertaken an investigation, much less taken any action. Moreover, once such a body - the College of Public Preceptors - had come together by the mid-1990s, its membership having been hand-picked by Sangharakshita himself, it was predictable that these devoted disciples lacked the motivation to critique the actions of their sole teacher and benefactor.
Significant criticism of Sangharakshita’s sexual relationships with those he saw as his disciples did not start until the 1997 Guardian article exposed Sangharakshita’s actions to the general public. It was only the Guardian article, and subsequent instances of scrutiny from the outside, that have elicited responses from Sangharakshita and from Triratna office bearers explaining this behaviour, (only some of) which Sangharakshita eventually acknowledged was harmful.
Below is a set of statements or quotes which we believe are representative of the progression of responses over the years, along with some observations. This is not meant to be exhaustive of all that has been written by Sangharakshita or on his behalf concerning his sexual relations with his disciples, but is intended to identify significant statements. All are encouraged to familiarise themselves with all that has been said and make their own judgments as to its adequacy.
One criticism of Triratna’s response to these issues, a criticism which many within the organisation have come to share, is that Triratna does not recognise that a problem needs resolving unless and until there is external investigation (usually initiated by the media) - Triratna does not voluntarily get its own house in order. Also, while such external enquiries might prompt some sort of response and internal change, such responses and changes so often fall short of what is needed. Sangharakshita has never been censured by the organisation, nor has an apology or even a recognition of the harmfulness of his actions ever been requested of him. Neither Sangharakshita himself nor any Triratna spokesperson has admitted that his actions constituted 'abuse' despite at least two of his accusers claiming on public record that their treatment at his hands had been abusive. All response efforts so far appear to seek to maintain the status quo regarding the perception of Sangharakshita as an outstanding dharma teacher, and of his teachings and organisation as representative of the Buddhist tradition, rather than effect any significant change.
As a result, by doing only as little as the members of the central core of Triratna believe is called for or necessary, and in effect 'preaching to the choir', the organisation merely sets itself up in a holding pattern awaiting the next leak of news and the ensuing public embarrassment. The inevitability of this cycle, and the content of each subsequent enquiry, negatively impacts everyone within Triratna, though it seems clear that those within the institutions able to choose what the response is (and is not) don’t really want to address the underlying issues; in effect, they find weathering the public embarrassment preferable to undertaking the institutional change that is required to break this cycle. This is because resolving the underlying issues would require an honest and open criticism of Sangharakshita’s personality, actions and teaching, an investigation which those in charge simply cannot allow.
Consider that each statement below was intended to reach closure of the issues concerned - these repeated failures alone are indicative of how Triratna has consistently misjudged these issues and how to respond to them. In addition, the statements variously allege that the problem arises only because the reader or complainant sees things in a particular way, offer only vague indications of what Sangharakshita actually did or that he did anything wrong, suggest reasons and rationalisations for the harmful behaviour, and seek to address a different issue than the one to hand.
Is it any wonder that this elephant remains in Triratna’s collective shrine room?
Some will undoubtedly be scandalised by his [Sangharakshita’s] behaviour. However, it is surely in the nature of experimentation that it defies norms, and at this time Sangharakshita was prepared to experiment in all areas of his life, including sex. In an interview published in Golden Drum in 1988 Sangharakshita is quoting as saying — in relation to homosexual sex:
‘I therefore thought I should perhaps experiment a little in this field’, and that although there was ‘some appetite — I was guided more by intuition than appetite… One of my conclusions was that sex didn't really play much of a part in human communication. Bodily contact sometimes functioned as a means of breakthrough in communication, but didn't result in a permanent breakthrough: it only gave one a certain opportunity, which one then had to develop. Sometimes the breakthrough came to an end and things were as they were before. In fact, that was almost always the case. So I came to the conclusion that sexual contact wasn't really much help in developing human communication, and again I ended up celibate.'
This response is inadequate for a number of reasons. Most obvious is the fact that any ‘experiment’ that involves human subjects requires stringent consent procedures. All persons engaged in the experiment need to be clear about what the experiment entails and what its expected outcomes (and possible harms) may be. In Darren’s (ex-Prasannasiddhi’s) case he makes clear that he was encouraged to enter the relationship with Sangharakshita under false pretenses, believing that Sangharakshita too was setting aside his natural inclination for sexual relations with women. In fact, as it became clear to Darren at a later point, Sangharakshita’s sexual inclinations had always been directed at young men like himself. While Darren sacrificed a great deal (including the opportunity to move in and live with the mother of his child), Sangharakshita had sacrificed nothing.
The response also seeks to shift responsibility to the 'scandalised' reader for there being a problem in the first place, promotes the notion that 'experimentation' justifies a particular outcome, and fails to mention that the ‘experiment’ actually lasted some 20 years or more and involved multiple partners (and illustrated how Sangharakshita's spiritual intuition was obviously off the mark). It is also not clear why Sangharakshita never ‘experimented’ with an age-appropriate relationship, always choosing men decades younger than himself, or why he never ‘experimented’ with sexual relationships with women in order to break his own conditioning.
In the end, one has to acknowledge that in any human encounter there are risks of misunderstanding on one or other side or on both, and that is also true of the sexual encounter, especially given some of the loading that sex has in British culture – although there are many for whom sex is not particularly loaded. Naturally, misunderstandings are to be regretted, but they are perhaps an unavoidable part of human interaction. We should remember that I have had many, many human encounters, the great majority non-sexual, and most of those encounters, including the sexual ones, have been satisfactory for both parties. If there were any encounters that were not satisfactory for the other person, whether at the time or in retrospect, then that is a pity and I am truly sorry that that should be the case.
This is an example of paltering, the use of ‘truthful facts’ to deceive, a common tendency in communications from Triratna. While it is clearly true that Sangharakshita ‘had many, many human encounters, the great majority non-sexual’ (as have we all!), the issue here is specifically Sangharakshita’s sexual encounters. Whether ‘most’ of Sangharakshita’s sexual encounters have been satisfactory or not we can never know, however this is beside the point. In a court of law, the fact that one has mostly paid for one’s groceries does not diminish one’s culpability for those times when one stole them.
Also, once again the responsibility (for any unsatisfactory encounter) is shifted away from Sangharakshita and onto the British reader and to those with whom he had sex. This 'it is a pity if they feel…' sort of response is, in fact, a standard non-apology, similar to the British Home Secretary’s recent non-apology for NHS workers not having enough personal protective equipment (PPE) during the coronavirus pandemic, saying that 'I am sorry if people feel there have been failings'.
I being its founder, Triratna sometimes bears the mark not of the Dharma but of my own particular personality. That personality is a complex one and in certain respects I did not act in accordance with what my position in the movement demanded or even as a true Buddhist. I am thinking in particular of the times when I have hurt, harmed or upset fellow Buddhists, whether within Triratna or out of it.
These thoughts have borne all the more upon me in the course of the last week, when I was in hospital with pneumonia. As I was well aware pneumonia can be fatal to a man of my age and I knew that I could die, even though I did not feel that I was dying, despite being very ill.
I would therefore like to express my deep regret for all the occasions on which I have hurt, harmed or upset fellow Buddhists, and ask for their forgiveness.
This is the closest that Sangharakshita ever came to an apology, though it falls well short of what a 'confession' entails. In both the Buddhist tradition, and in everyday life, an actual confession requires one to clearly state what they did, why it was wrong or harmful, what they have done or intend to do in order to make amends, and what they intend to do to correct their own behaviour to prevent recurrence. Sangharakshita’s statement contains none of these elements, and those who were harmed had to come to him to seek amends (and in many cases were apparently told by Sangharakshita that he had no recollection of the events). Indeed it makes no reference to his sexual behaviour at all, which has consistently been the main concern raised about him. It also offers his 'complex' personality as at least a partial defense or explanation, which no court of law, or harmed individual, would likely find helpful or meaningful. Finally, it also illustrates how it is only public inquiry and criticism by which substantial change occurs within Triratna.
Sangharakshita has confirmed that his apology extends to anyone he has harmed in any way at all, including those who were Buddhists at the time if not now, and their non-Buddhist family and friends. He further wishes to make it clear that his statement was a confession. As the acknowledgment of having breached the Buddhist ethical precepts, Buddhist confession can most fully be made to other Buddhists. His statement was therefore addressed to Buddhists, whether within or without Triratna, for the reason that the confession of evil is part of the spiritual context which he shares with other Buddhists.
We note that although Sangharakshita’s apology has now been unilaterally reframed as a ‘confession’, it fails the canonical test as outlined above. Also, it was his disciples, rather than Sangharakshita, who stated that he breached the Buddhist ethical precepts - Sangharakshita himself never acknowledged this.
Sangharakshita (who has always openly acknowledged that he was sexually involved with some of his adult male disciples thirty years ago or more) wrote a statement where he expressed deep regret for all the occasions on which he had caused ‘hurt, harm or upset’. This was then followed by a statement from the College of Public Preceptors, welcoming his message and thereby acknowledging his admission of unskillfulness in some of his sexual activity.
Again, this is paltering. Certainly Sangharakshita’s actions were, in a Buddhist sense, ‘unskillful’ but more importantly they were abusive and they exploited the bond of trust between teacher and disciple. At no point has the abusive nature of Sangharakshita’s actions ever been publicly acknowledged by the organisation; this is, indeed, ‘regrettable’. Also, Sangharakshita never indicated what harm he was acknowledging - it was only the Adhisthana Kula which stated that it had to do with unskillfulness in some of his sexual activity.
Q: Why did Sangharakshita wait until he thought he might be dying to make his confessional statement?
A: Sangharakshita did not say as much over the years as some people would have liked about controversy around his sexual activity. In a 2009 interview with Subhuti and Mahamati, published as ‘Conversations with Bhante’, he did talk about his sexual relations, including indicating some regret in some cases. Again, some people felt this did not go far enough.
With the more recent discussions of his sexual past (November 2016), Sangharakshita was initially too unwell to be told about the BBC programme. By the beginning of December 2016, however, he had recovered sufficiently to be told about what had been said in the programme and in the ensuing discussion; including details of the questions being raised and of the upset within the Order and wider community.
Although he did not think he was dying, he decided that he needed to say something new in response and was already actively thinking about what this might be. Whilst ill in hospital it became clear to him exactly what he wanted to say and how he wanted to say it.
The question might be asked: would it not have been better for Sangharakshita to have begun this process of self examination in 1987 after Mark Dunlop first aired his grievances? Why wait some thirty years (and several other damaging exposures) before finally making a public statement of regret? However, the Adhisthana Kula, though it acknowledged that this question had to do with the responses given over many years, declined to answer that question, explaining instead why Sangharakshita waited some thirty days after being told of the BBC programme, a completely different matter.
Here, the Adhisthana Kula once again sought to shift the responsibility to those asking the question, for whom Sangharakshita 'did not say as much over the years as some people would have liked' and who 'felt this did not go far enough'. In another FAQ, the Adhisthana Kula also gave a non-answer to the question of why the organisation itself didn’t do anything over the years about the harm until Sangharakshita said something.
In the personal statement that I issued on December 30th 2016…These words have been the subject of much discussion within the Order and in some quarters they have been seriously misunderstood. 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… Friends have always been important to me, and recognizing the significance of friendship to the spiritual life is another of the distinctive features of Triratna. The nature of this friendship is still a matter of discussion in Triratna, and I suspect that it will be a long time before the last word on the subject will have been spoken. Meanwhile, personal experience has shown me that it is better to keep one’s sexual relations and one’s spiritual friendships separate.
This was the first indication from Sangharakshita’s own hand that his December 2016 statement may have had something to do with sexual relations. However, it was cast in the form of a 'meanwhile…' aside in the final sentence, therefore it is still not clear at this point that he believed there was harm caused in those relations, or that his spiritual 'intuition' was ever off the mark. This statement also indicates that Sangharakshita believed he had done little, if any, actual harm, and instead sought to focus on all of his almost entirely positive influences.
Statement by Subhuti (via email), September 2017
You should be under no doubt that Bhante is definitely not going to say any more about his sexual history, and there’s no reason why he should. He’s quite clearly confessed any harm he may have done and given an apology but he cannot go into details; that would be completely inappropriate, as it would involve discussion of personal relations with other people that cannot take place in public and anyway will almost inevitably lead to further misinterpretation, upset and disturbance. He’s made his apology, he’s made his confession, and I, for one, accept it fully.
Furthermore, you should be clear that, so far as I am concerned, the College of Public Preceptors is not going to criticise Bhante or do any more to apologise or go into these matters. We’ve made ourselves perfectly clear by saying that we definitely do not consider that Preceptors and other teachers should have sexual relations with those they ordain or teach. That is as much as we are going to do and it is quite enough. We’ve also acknowledged the pain that has been caused, and we’ve gone out of our way to connect with those who may feel they’ve been harmed to help them resolve things. That’s it – we’re not going to do any more. Indeed, in my view there is no need for any further discussion.
Subhuti wrote this to an order member who had written an email to the Adhisthana Kula with suggestions to that group on how to properly respond publicly to Sangharakshita’s sexual relations. Though Subhuti was not on the Adhisthana Kula, the email was nevertheless passed to Subhuti, who provided the only response to the order member. As the most influential Public Preceptor, Subhuti’s response makes clear that there was in fact no more that Triratna would do in this area. Subhuti also included an ultimatum that the order member recant what they said, the only other option being that they leave the order.
This shows that the position one is required to take in order to remain in good standing with Triratna’s officialdom is to 'hold the contradiction'. This allows for recognising (to a limited extent) that Sangharakshita sometimes made (unspecified) mistakes, while continuing to affirm that he remains a consummate dharma teacher and exemplar of the Buddhist path. What is impossible (at least if one wants to hold any kind of public office in the organisation - and this includes becoming a ‘preceptor’ or guide for those in the ordination process) is to suggest that Sangharakshita’s imperfect morals, apparent lack of self-awareness, lack of concern for the men he harmed, and lack of humility in recognising and apologising for his actions all reflect on his understanding of the responsibilities of a teacher in the Buddhist tradition, and indeed on his understandings of the teachings of that tradition.
When I was in hospital last year, and close to death, I not only confessed my unskillful actions but asked for the forgiveness of those I had harmed. Reflecting on this recently, I realised that I had been wrong to ask for forgiveness. It was enough that I had confessed and that I had also forgiven all those who had offended me. My confession covered a wide field, as my unskillfulness had done, from being disrespectful to my father as a teenager to some of my sexual activity with Order members and Mitras.
Sangharakshita indicated for the first time here that some of his sexual activity was unskillful, though he undercuts the seriousness of this recognition by mentioning it in the same sentence as being disrespectful to his father as a teenager. A reasonable interpretation of this and previous statements was that, in December 2016, Sangharakshita only sought to say, in effect, 'if I’ve hurt, harmed or upset anyone in my life, I regret it, though I don’t want to go into it'. Also, from the fact that he only had some of his sexual activity in mind, it is clear that he didn’t see having sex with disciples as a problem in and of itself, and it isn’t clear that he didn’t still believe that any (perceived) harm was due to a 'misunderstanding' on the part of the other person (see 2009 Conversations, above).
Recently Bhante's attention was drawn to the fact that the 'Conversations' of 2009, dealing especially with his personality and his sexual activity, was still available on his web-site. He was surprised at this, not anticipating that the discussions would have remained of interest. Since he was aware that some of what he said has been a cause of controversy and misunderstanding, he was inclined simply to withdraw the piece, especially in the light of recent statements he has made of confession and regret, including for some of his sexual encounters.
This, to our knowledge, is the last time Sangharakshita addressed his sexual abuse allegations, and seemed to confirm that Sangharakshita believed he had done what was necessary to achieve closure on those issues.