Triratna's Charismatic Succession Problem
Triratna’s Charismatic Succession Problem
The Triratna Buddhist Order (formerly the Western Buddhist Order) was founded by the English bhikkhu (Theravadin monk) Sangharakshita (Dennis Lingwood) in 1967. For better or worse, for the next 50 years of his long life, his teachings, moral example and personality traits left an indelible imprint on the Order and wider movement.
For two decades before Sangharakshita’s passing in 2017, a group of hand-picked disciples known as the College of Public Preceptors gradually took over the ‘spiritual’ duties that had previously been undertaken exclusively by Sangharakshita himself. These included overseeing training and ordination into the Order, the vetting of teachings and practices undertaken in the movement’s many centres, oversight of senior appointments and regulation of ethical infractions of members of the Order. However, even during this time of transition, Sangharakshita’s authority remained absolute, as became clear in 2010 when he ‘suggested’ the movement’s name change from that of the Western Buddhist Order to Triratna. Although the College moved to generate discussion on the implications and feasibility of this change, it quickly became apparent that the suggestion was more of a fiat, and the name was duly changed without any consultation.
Although ordained as a monk in the Theravada school, Sangharakshita was only loosely tied to any specific Buddhist tradition. While living and studying in India and Nepal in the late 1940s and 50s he studied and engaged in conversation with teachers from various Theravada, Tibetan and (in one instance) Chan traditions. Upon returning to the UK in the late 1960s he ceased to live by the code of the Theravada vinaya (set of formal rules and moral codes for monks) but never formally left that order, continuing to enjoy the status of an ordained monk. From the late 60s onward, Sangharakshita communicated a highly syncretistic and idiosyncratic presentation taken from Buddhism and other traditions, that eventually culminated in 27 volumes of collected writings. Sangharakshita’s exclusive prominence as both founder and teacher in Triratna is clear in that what is on offer within the Triratna movement is not Buddhism of any single tradition, but rather Sangharakshita’s ‘particular presentation’ of Buddhism, mingled as it is with other interests of his derived from Western society and its various literary, philosophical and mystical systems.
Charismatic Authority within Triratna
Lacking the designated spiritual authority that comes with being an acknowledged successor in an established lineage, Sangharakshita’s authority in Triratna was closer to the ‘charismatic’ kind described by Sociologist Max Weber. As Weber points out, such authority is wielded ‘by virtue of personal trust in his [sic] revelation, and his exemplary qualities so far as they fall within the scope of the individual’s belief in charisma.’ Charisma relies upon the perception of the leader by his followers, and a relationship of projection between the authority figure and his/her audience, rather than relying on any actual leadership attributes of the authority figure.
Unlike what Weber terms ‘lego-rational’ forms of authority (such as modern representational democracy where a constituency votes for its leaders), charismatic authority is highly unstable because it depends upon followers’ ‘belief’ and ‘personal trust’ in their leader – essentially on a kind of faith. This trust can easily be lost when the leader displays qualities that are far from ‘exemplary’, or if other factors arise which bring the leader’s ‘revelation’ into question. Another important point about charismatic authority is that it is very difficult to pass on after the death of the leader.
In his text Economy and Society, Weber outlines five possible ways in which charismatic authority can be passed on, namely by way of:
The transmission of authority in Triratna has followed a mixture of the third and fifth of Weber’s possible pathways, particularly ‘charisma of office’. For Weber, the charisma of office requires the ‘dissociation of charisma from a particular individual, making it an objective transferable entity’. In the case of Triratna, Sangharakshita’s personal charisma as founder of the Order, its primary teacher and moral guide, and (for some) ‘Enlightened guru’ was passed on to a designated group of disciples who were subsequently entrusted with picking their successors. This group is the College of Public Preceptors. All College members, by virtue of having been hand-picked for inclusion by those hand-picked by Sangharakshita, share to some extent in the charisma of office that derives from Sangharakshita’s charisma as founder and teacher. The fact that the College remains the final arbiter for the selection of other significant office holders throughout the wider Triratna movement ensures that power is channelled downward from the College throughout the system. The choice of the name Adhisthana for the physical location of the College, which references a teacher’s grace or blessing, indicates how College members see themselves as channelling this charismatic power which they have referred to as a 'supra-personal force'.
Below are listed some of the ways in which Sangharakshita’s role in Triratna fits Weber’s charismatic model and the problems that have developed because of the failure to transition to more transparent and ‘rational’ modes of governance under the current College system.
One major problem with charismatic authority is its lack of stability. This arises because the authority exercised is relational -- the charismatic leader may not, in fact, possess any outstanding characteristics: his or her followers simply believe that they do. The leader may seem to be exceptional in some regard, but as soon as evidence is revealed to the contrary and the followers lose faith, then the spell is broken and the authority lost. And yet, followers are often reluctant to entertain any evidence that challenges their belief. For followers who may have sacrificed years or decades of their lives following a leader, they will have many ‘sunken costs’ that make it difficult to take on board evidence that the leader is not all that has been claimed.
This leads to a tendency common in new religious movements (NRMs) whereby suspicious behaviour on the part of the leader is put down to idiosyncrasy, ‘crazy wisdom’ or, in the case of Sangharakshita, what he suggested be seen as his ‘complex personality’. Personality traits or actions of the leader that to anyone outside of the bubble of belief would seem extremely damning are thus rationalised away. There comes a point, though, when the body of evidence is such that the bubble is burst, after which fewer and fewer followers are able to ‘hold the contradiction’ between the idealised image and the actual behaviour of the leader. As Weber points out, charismatic authority can collapse at any moment when the bulk of followers withdraw their credulity.
Another problem with charismatic authority that distinguishes it from lego-rational forms of power are the lack of checks and balances. There are few institutional restraints or procedures that can hold a charismatic leader in check. This is clear in Sangharakshita’s history of exploitative sexual relations with young men who saw him as their teacher. As can be seen in Mark Dunlop’s account (available in testimonies on this site), in 1987 there were no internal mechanisms whereby Mark could protest his treatment by Sangharakshita other than writing an account in the order gazette. There was no procedure (such as safeguarding) whereby Sangharakshita’s behaviour could be investigated or his version of events challenged. Accordingly, nothing was done at the time and Mark, left with no option but to go to the press, was ejected from the order by Sangharakshita himself -- who continued the same pattern of abuse with other young men for another decade. This lack of accountability which, because Sangharakshita never fully acknowledged the harm done, lasted his entire lifetime, provided an enabling environment for him to express the shadow side of his personality, particularly his sexual dysfunction, without ever being challenged.
The difference between the authority wielded by charismatic office bearers as opposed to those whose status is based on lego-rational procedures (most usually some kind of electoral mandate) is clear in the College’s response to allegations of abuse by Sangharakshita. The main response to the allegations against Sangharakshita, as the response has been put forward internally by the College, has been that order members must learn to ‘hold the contradiction’ whereby Sangharakshita’s ethical missteps (the abuse word is avoided) are recognised alongside his role as a fully realised Buddhist teacher and practitioner.
Unfortunately, this argument only holds water inside the charisma bubble. It makes no sense to someone outside this bubble (and even to many of those still within Triratna) to claim that someone held up as a teacher (indeed founder of an entire new religious movement) is a great moral exemplar and leader in the Buddhist tradition, while at the same time he was manipulating his young male disciples into sexual relationships that he later claimed were an (over 20-year-long) ‘experiment’ in spiritual friendship. In a lego-rational system, the inconsistency of such a claim would be widely apparent, and no ‘leader’ would dare make such a claim (which is why this excuse isn’t used to persons outside the bubble, like the press, where the official line is to talk instead about recent safeguarding procedures that have been put in place -- rather too late to help people like Mark Dunlop). However, within the Triratna bubble, the ability to hold this contradiction is seen as a sign of spiritual maturity, and is in fact insisted upon for those who wish to advance within the organisation’s institutions. Such is the disconnect between the two styles of leadership.
The fact that there are few mechanisms of restraint on the leader’s excesses within the charisma bubble does not of course stop those outside the leader’s sphere of influence from voicing concern and criticism of their behaviour -- as has been seen by the succession of press exposures of Triratna commencing with the 1997 Guardian article. These exposures foster what Weber calls an ‘us against them’ dynamic whereby those on the inside (who believe themselves the only ones who truly understand the leader) resist any kind of input from outside voices. Likewise, from within Triratna, the usual suspects whose perspectives have been consistently ‘othered’ are naturally and derogatorily labeled as ‘feminists’ and ‘social justice warriors’ -- precisely because their views are most likely to problematise and call to account sexual relations that rely on the deployment of an unequal age or power dynamic, as has typified all of Sangharakshita’s sexual relations.
Charismatic Succession In Triratna
As noted earlier, charismatic authority is very hard to pass on, because second-generation leaders are seldom able to claim the same access to the kinds of revelatory experiences upon which the founder’s authority has been based. One way in which charisma can be passed on to the leader’s senior followers is, however, known as the ‘charisma of office’. Charisma of office refers to the perception that individuals, through being appointed to a specific office, have or acquire the specific powers or qualities associated with that office. This is what happened in the case of Triratna where Sangharakshita appointed senior disciples to the College of Public Preceptors and devolved to them the authority to appoint their own successors. The rationale for this move, largely articulated by Subhuti, the original chair of the College, is that institutional and spiritual authority are two sides of a coin: those who show care and concern for others through taking on senior institutional roles have demonstrated that they are among the spiritually senior-most, since they would not be appointed to those duties if they were were not able to function at such a high level spiritually.
Unfortunately charisma of office also tends to be less stable than lego-rational forms of authority (such as democractic procedures where office bearers are voted on and held accountable to voters through successive elections). College members, appointed to their positions for life by their peers, lack the accountability that was lacking in the case of the charismatic founder. Since any procedures or mechanisms aimed at ensuring accountability are devised by the College and are overseen by College members, it is impossible to ensure any kind of impartial review of their conduct. There is little inclination for those benefiting from the charisma of office to introduce lego-rational measures that might hold them accountable to insiders (much less outsiders) or to entertain any shrinkage of their role -- a role that, due to the mythmaking that surrounds them, only they are thought capable of fulfilling.
Those who depend on the charisma of office, then, often demonstrate a kind of paranoia, by which they must control the discourse within the organisation, minimising or controlling dissent. One way that the College has attempted to do just this is through insisting on a ‘high degree of commonality’ concerning the adoption of views, teachings, and practices among members of the Triratna Order. Rather than surveying the Order so as to discover what its members themselves felt they had in common, the College itself decided on the commonality criteria. This involved codifying and simplifying what was an extremely broad range of (often contradictory) teachings delivered by Sangharakshita over 50 years, promulgated by Subhuti (supposedly on behalf of Sangharakshita) via his ‘Seven Papers’. Since then, they have sought to instill this ‘high degree of commonality’ regardless of what the majority of the Order actually thinks, believes or has discovered as a result of their own Dharma practice.
Hence another challenging ‘reality check’ regarding Sangharakshita’s charismatic authority, and therefore of the College’s ability to wield similar authority, has been the broad realisation that his ‘revelation’ is not actually an accurate presentation of the Dharma. As described in articles elsewhere on this site, what people are finding as they awaken in the way the Buddha taught is that it stands in stark contrast to what Sangharakshita speculated they would find in his ‘particular presentation’. While Sangharkashita’s history of sexual abuse might lead one to infer that he had definite limits as a Buddhist teacher, personal experience that what he taught contradicts the Dharma leaves no doubt whatsoever as to these limitations. As a result, as the reality of this situation continues to sink in, the College will likely find it harder and harder to encourage people to ‘hold the contradiction’ that is necessary for their charisma of office to hold up. As Weber predicts, the College guards against what Sangharakshita himself labeled as ‘dissidents’ who attempt to point out that what Sangharkashita taught (and what the College has appointed itself to be guardians of) is being seen to be false. The College have gone so far as to assume that those who attempt to point this out see themselves as rivals to Sangharakshita’s position as teacher and therefore seek to gather a group of disciples around themselves just as Sangharakshita did, as if there were no other way Triratna could possibly be structured.
Although over time seemingly clear rules and procedures may develop for the appointment to certain offices (such as centre chairs or Presidents, private preceptors or Order convenors, etc.), the fact that the College remains the final arbiter of these rules and appointments means that the College are an impediment to the transition to lego-rational procedures. As a result, they have an inherent conflict of interest in any matter which calls into question their authority. For a time, the charismatic nature of this authority may remain disguised by seemingly lego-rational procedures, but its charismatic nature soon becomes apparent when, for example (as happened recently in North America), the decision by a local centre to appoint a new President and a retreat leader (both disapproved of by some College members for not acceding to the ‘high degree of commonality’ or not sufficiently ‘holding the contradiction’) was challenged by the College on the basis of their feelings about the persons in question. It is at this point that the constraint upon the seeming freedom of each local Triratna centre becomes apparent. Efforts to question the College in these matters invariably falls upon deaf ears and no mechanism exists whereby their judgements can be challenged or even opened to scrutiny.
What usually happens eventually in the case of new religious movements after the passing of the founder is that authority becomes ‘routinised’. This requires that the exercise of authority passes from a faith-based system (trusting that the leader[s] know what they are doing based on their unique revelation and exemplary qualities) to a more open and transparent rule-based system whereby the constituency transfers its ‘faith’ from individuals to generally agreed-upon procedures and institutions. Hence, the persistence of charismatic authority in an organisation like Triratna is problematic because most people in today’s world expect high degrees of mutual ‘buy-in’, and place more ‘faith’ in clear and open lego-rational procedures than they do in office bearers whose decision-making is opaque, unaccountable and often unintelligible - as is characteristic of systems relying on charismatic leadership.
The inability of a local centre to act autonomously, despite following the lego-rational rules set out for, say, the appointment of a new centre President, can fatally undermine the confidence that members of the local community have that the rational, reasonable structures within which they thought they were operating in good faith have any weight whatsoever. In instances such as these, the influence that distant ‘leaders’ (that local communities have perhaps never sighted and certainly didn’t vote for) have over local preferences (say for a particular retreat leader or style of teaching) can emerge as a site of contention. While it is in the interests of the centralised leadership to maintain ‘a high degree of commonality’ across a dispersed movement, charismatic authority is unable to deliver this cohesion because it requires the ‘buy in’ of all the faithful, and this is hard to achieve when dealing with an opaque governing body that cannot be held accountable or voted out for its missteps. It is for this reason that charismatic authority is usually short-lived, being among the least effective ways of governing groups of people, whether they be in religious organisations, political movements or even nation states.