Triratna as a New Religious Movement Inspired by Buddhism (among other things)
What does one do if they realise that the "Buddhist" organisation they joined is not actually Buddhist?
Despite having misgivings, many now ex-order members believed for a long time that there somehow must be a solid Dharmic basis to Triratna, and they just needed to help uncover and/or salvage it, separating it out from the dysfunctional ideology arising from Sangharakshita’s ‘marks of personality’. Some eventually realized, though, that Triratna is and has always been a syncretistic New Religious Movement (NRM) that was inspired by Buddhism, as well as by other of Sangharakshita’s interests such as Theosophy, neo-Platonism, German Romanticism, Jungian archetypes and the spiritual efficacy of Art. In reality, there was never a bona fide Dharmic foundation to uncover or salvage, and engaging in conversation with the College about trying to make it more focused on awakening was inherently doomed because the Dharma is so antithetical to what Sangharakshita actually believed and taught.
In a way, Sangharakshita’s biggest mistake was to create a NRM ostensibly based upon a spiritual tradition like Buddhism whose teachings are verifiable in lived experience, as opposed to remaining a matter of faith. Indeed, many in Triratna assume that one cannot know if one is making any progress along the path of awakening, and believe it is a virtue to be unconcerned about actually getting anywhere (which, conveniently, is what Sangharakshita taught). However, as more and more people now know, and as the Buddhist tradition clearly states, one can in fact know, and in particular we can know that suffering does in fact cease. They also now know that a reasonably accurate description of the experience of awakening cannot be found in what Sangharakshita taught, and that for Triratna to be or become a truly Buddhist organisation, you'd literally have to start over in terms of what is taught.
Put another way, if you take the cultish norms out of it -- charismatic devotion to Sangharakshita, a closed hierarchy based on loyalty to him, unwavering belief in what Sangharakshita taught as the explication of the Dharma, etc. – what would remain? It has always been a NRM, at least partially designed to recruit for and reproduce its own institutions, often through teachings of convenience like the idea that the best way to transcend ego was to work selflessly (and for low pay) for those institutions. There was (and is) the notion that there can be a group arising of the bodhicitta or aspiration to awaken, which could magically happen in a warehouse or vegetarian cafe somewhere (where you were working for a minimum wage while sleeping on the floor in a shared house) and which effectively discourages individuals to seek out the teachings that actually work for them. People who came seeking the Dharma because they already had the aspiration to awaken, who have spent many years, and even their entire adult lives taking on ‘spiritual responsibility’, still aren’t able to understand or even hear the lived experience of the Dharma, experience which those who haven’t been caught up in that system are now seeing in their own lives (and trying in vain to make it part of what Triratna teaches).
In 1994, when the College system comprising the 'spiritually senior-most' members of the order was taking shape, Subhuti gave a talk on the 'Need for Spiritual Hierarchy' in which he, with an approving Sangharakshita in attendance, placed Sangharakshita and then College members at the top of that spiritual hierarchy. In the talk, Subhuti decried the ideology of ‘pseudo-egalitarianism’, in which no-one should enjoy greater benefit or respect than anyone else because all are seen as equal, even if they are not. Subhuti offered, as an alternative to this, the ideal of ‘spiritual hierarchy’ by which Triratna might avoid the danger of pseudo-egalitarianism, and in which he himself was essentially the second-most spiritually advanced.
However, up to this point in the order, the idea of spiritual hierarchy (outside of Sangharakshita) had been poorly defined -- Subhuti filled out the concept, rather conveniently, by conflating spiritual maturity with the organisational responsibility he and others were taking. As a result, Subhuti was able to claim that the College’s ability to take organisational responsibility was a mark of each College member’s genuine insight and understanding of the dharma, otherwise they wouldn’t have risen to that position. Taking on such responsibility, Subhuti argued, is also the principle way in which we develop as individuals, encouraging others to do so as well. Even more naively, Subhuti claimed that the Order is an unambiguously ethical context in which to take on such responsibility. As seen with the Catholic church and its own sex scandals, this is of course not true, since the ‘responsibility’ shown by institutional hierarchies is always to the preservation of those hierarchies and not the people they are supposed to protect and serve.
It might be noted that Subhuti’s talk was given some three years prior to the 1997 Guardian article, the first of many media exposures and other revealing events which shed light on the fallacy that organisational responsibility, whether that held by Sangharakshita, his appointees or anyone else, somehow equates to spiritual maturity. Nevertheless, the conflation of organisational responsibilities and spiritual maturity served an important purpose: placing those loyal to Sangharakshita into a self-selecting oligarchy (the College) that Sangharakshita was able to control and influence, thereby preserving the institutions and his ‘particular presentation’ at all cost. Triratna thus remains stuck with a situation in which those with organisational control still see themselves as inherently legitimate spiritual arbiters of what is taught and practiced, based on their loyalty to Sangharakshita and what he taught, and who do not see themselves as being accountable to anyone else. Further, they are able to obfuscate regarding what is and isn’t culpable behaviour in Buddhist terms, even though what has come to light over the past 20 years or so about Sangharakshita and others’ behaviour makes clear that equating organisational and spiritual hierarchies within Triratna was yet another ‘teaching of convenience’.
It is clear that many people have benefited to one degree or another from their experiences in Triratna. It should be noted, though, that what Triratna is able to offer (a sense of belonging and purpose, calming of the mind, development of positive emotion, personality integration, etc.) is available in other contexts too – like a yoga studio or even the Catholic church. In other words, the positive (though preliminary) results people get within Triratna don’t require the Dharma per se. However, that natural, preliminary set of experiences has been used as 'proof' that what happens in Triratna is uniquely effective and special, and those experiences are in many ways set up as ends in themselves. Triratna has therefore inspired significant commitment and focus on the part of those who have had those preliminary experiences, in part because for that type of commitment and focus to exist, the assumption is that surely there HAS to be something special and truly Dharmic as its basis.
The preliminary results of affiliation within Triratna (e.g., integration, commitment to awakening, focus on ‘Going For Refuge’, etc.) thus set up a continuing cycle or feedback loop, where you keep doing all that because it both creates and proves the specialness that people (and the organisation) want, a self-fulfilling process which thereafter needn’t be questioned. However, if you stop doing all that, what if there's no ‘there’ there which remains? What if, to quote Stevie Smith, there's no Bog that could be Dood in the first place? There might be a bit of panic, by which you redouble your efforts, because surely there's something there: after all, all your friends say there is as well. However, it is slowly becoming obvious that, in terms of the Dharma as a means to actual spiritual awakening, there is no 'there' there to Triratna.
In order to preserve what they see as the integrity of Sangharakshita's vision, the College have sought to impose a 'high degree of commonality' on Triratna teaching and practice. In 2014, partially in response to a series of publications known as the '7 Papers' authored by Subhuti but purporting to represent Sangharakshita’s latest thoughts about his legacy, the College surveyed the Order as a whole to gauge agreement with the naive notion that, simply because Sangharakshita stated that the Order is the community of his disciples, one could safely assume that anyone remaining in the Order indeed saw themselves as his disciple; a full 88% of those surveyed disagreed with that notion. It is probably this lack of agreement, even over basic terminology, that has deterred the College from venturing forth into any further surveys of the Order, despite the fact that electronic survey mechanisms are cheap and effective in gauging opinion. Although the College are obliged by their office to follow Sangharakshita’s latest directives in the 7 Papers, many members of the order were perplexed by the ‘refounding of the Order’ rhetoric contained there, being happy to instead have their own understanding of their relationship with Sangharakshita and his teaching. It may be that the College simply don't want to again memorialise that they are in the minority regarding their views around Sangharakshita, which eliciting the spectrum of views among members of the order would once again show, and also illustrate the lack of the very ‘commonality’ (on their terms) the College seeks.
Another vocal disagreement within the order concerns the ‘wearing of robes’, with many members arguing that they joined a Western Buddhist order precisely so they didn't have to do something like this, whereas others argue that robes are conducive to establishing a sense of common practice and purpose at communal events. Unfortunately, despite this diversity of opinion, the wearing of robes on ordination retreats has been made compulsory by default since the decision whether those being ordained (as well as those conducting ordinations as private preceptors) should wear them is ‘made by the retreat leader’ -- in the case of ordination events, this is always a member of the Preceptors’ College. Whether it is still possible to act as a private preceptor and choose not to wear robes at these events is unclear.
One problem faced by the College is that many order members ordained by Sangharakhita himself still hold to the early definition of the order as a 'free association of individuals associating freely'. However, the College cannot allow that to be the case, since they have established themselves as the supposed arbiters of what is and is not held in common. Despite this drive toward 'commonality,' it seems clear that the College still struggle to dictate what the Order is, or what kind of relationship order members "should" hold toward Sangharakshita and his teaching; there are simply too many versions of it all, and there isn’t any actual Dharmic or moral integrity to hold it all together. There isn’t even a clear consensus on what a 'confession' for past unethical actions should look like or how detailed it should be. Indeed in 2019 an independent team of order members named The Interkula (interkula.net), who had released results on a survey of order members and mitras concerning their perspectives on how well Triratna was handling abuse claims, was strongly criticised by College members who found the survey ‘unhelpful’. Perhaps the College found it unhelpful because it showed how little agreement or commonality actually exists on this issue?
Given Sangharakshita’s mistaken perspective on the Dharma and poor ethical example, for someone to choose to stay, and work toward making Triratna a truly Buddhist organisation where freedom from suffering is on the table as a goal to be realised now (rather than in some distant future after decades of service), you'd have to first convince everyone else that it's NOT a Buddhist organisation, and therefore there's a reason to work toward (what would obviously feel like) such a significant change. In reality, though, it is impossible to point this out because, as many know, the College refuses to hear it, and has the ability to impose and enforce that type of silence. Like many of the institutional hierarchies in the Tibetan Buddhist movements studied by Anne Anders that similarly resist transparency about their teacher’s failings, College members spend much of their time ‘denying and suspending unpleasant truths’, while displaying a ‘neurotic devotion to a strictly hierarchical and non-transparent system that confuses spiritual devotion with self-abandonment’.
While what Sangharakshita taught (up to a certain point) can be helpful, a truly Dharmic exploration of his teachings would mean exposing the fact that what Sangharakshita taught is fundamentally in error. Unfortunately, the College won't allow that exploration to happen, because it would show how far off Sangharakshita was, and that his 'particular presentation' is really just a speculative (and often misleading) introduction. It would also show the College up as the supporters of an ineffective system of practice that they (albeit unwittingly) attempt to spread, and undermine their inherited charismatic authority, given that they are members of an institutional and not a spiritual hierarchy. That many or most in the College lack the spiritual experience to see this themselves of course compounds the problem, since as far as they are concerned they ARE practicing and teaching the Dharma. However, their general inability to understand much less support the arising of true Insight is an obvious marker that what they have been taught by Sangharakshita is something quite different than what the Buddha taught.