A Way Forward?
One comment that has been received about the content of the Triratna Perspectives site is that it points out significant problems, but offers no proposed solutions or path forward. What many readers may not know is the extent to which tangible and sincere suggestions have been forwarded to the College of Public Preceptors over the years, only to have those suggestions fall upon deaf ears. It has become clear that viable solutions and paths forward aren’t actually possible if current officeholders remain unaccountable.
The very nature of Triratna’s governance structure is set up in such a way as to resist any changes which reflect poorly on Sangharakshita and what he taught; therefore it might be said that there are no suggestions that can be made that both seek necessary change and that will be received and implemented - we have learned that these are mutually-exclusive. Given that a viable path forward would require an honest and open appraisal of Sangharakshita’s teachings, behaviour and character, in effect there can be no acceptable set of suggestions that his core disciples will allow to be implemented. We believe people are deluding themselves if they believe there is some “silver bullet” by which the problems and shortcomings can be truly resolved, and at the same time preserve the image of Sangharakshita that many want and need.
Thus, Triratna Perspectives does offer a path forward, focused on adopting a realistic perspective on Sangharakshita and what he taught. Also, we have learned through experience that one has to be rather blunt in order for suggestions to be heard, and that such suggestions must be expressed in a public way for anything to actually happen. We do not suggest throwing the baby out with the bathwater, as the phrase goes, but we do suggest being honest and even critical (in the productive sense) about what is in fact bathwater. However, this path forward is utterly unthinkable for so many within Triratna that it doesn’t seem as if a path forward is being offered, because it doesn’t seem realistic or necessary to those who are so resistant to the nature of change that is in fact necessary.
Attempts at Productive Criticism in Triratna
Over the decades, sentiment in the Order toward criticism of Sangharakshita has changed to some extent. As Mark Dunlop points out in his testimony, when he publicly exposed Sangharakshita’s manipulative sexual behaviour toward himself in the late 1980s, his concerns were ignored, belittled and seen as his own problem. Unsatisfied with this lack of interest and concern, he began to say he would turn to the press and at that point he was told his behaviour was 'despicable' and Sangharakshita’s response was to expel him from the Order.
Even the 1995 publication of Subhuti’s book Women Men and Angels, written at Sangharakshita’s behest and exploring his (or rather, Otto Weininger’s) perverse views concerning women’s limitations, did not result in any serious concern over Sangharakshita’s personality. It was not until the 1997 Guardian Article that made public the abuse allegations about Sangharakshita and began to tie them together with his odd views about the dangers of heterosexual coupledom and the ‘lower evolution’ of women that space was opened up for a more critical evaluation of Triratna’s founder and teacher.
Spaces where critique was permitted continued to open up after each subsequent press exposure, like an aperture on a lens which, after taking a snapshot of sentiment at the time, would close back down again until the next press-induced scandal. Members of the order who sought to effect any kind of substantial change faced a number of obstacles. There were no official complaints processes in place, no ‘suggestion boxes’ that could reach people of influence in the organisation, no mechanism to canvass the order as a whole and gauge public sentiment.
Importantly, although after the Guardian article it became possible to disagree with Sangharakshita’s ‘personal views’ (such as on women’s supposed spiritual aptitude), disagreeing with his interpretation of the Buddha’s dharma was always and has remained off-limits. Over time, with the transition to the College system of governance, relying as it does on charismatic authority this situation has solidified into the status quo. Some limited disagreement with Sangharakshita’s views and mild disapproval of (some of) his sexual activities is permissible while any questioning of his teaching or insight into the dharma remains highly contentious.
For those of us who have joined the dots, as it were, between the strange personal views, the predatory sexual behaviour, and misunderstandings of Buddhist doctrine and ethics, our membership of the order has been threatened. In one case you can read about here, in September 2017 a now ex-order member wrote a list of suggestions for how allegations over Sangharakshita’s sexual activities might be dealt with in a more open and transparent manner and sent them to the Adhisthana Kula, the very body set up to investigate such allegations. In response he was told to stop asking such questions otherwise he would have no alternative but to leave the order.
It has been our experience over the last decade now that any attempt to engage the College in a meaningful discussion about change -- which necessarily requires that they change the way they operate, moving from charismatic to a more open, transparent and rational way of relating to the wider order -- has fallen on deaf ears.
With the advent of the internet and widespread use of social media there are now mechanisms whereby the mood of the order in general can be canvassed. These mechanisms were in fact deployed by the College some years ago when Subhuti, in one of his ‘7 papers’ suggested that because Sangharakshita said that all members of the order were his disciples, we could safely assume that everyone in fact saw themselves as his disciples. The feedback from this survey was not, however, in favour of the motion, with almost 90% of order members rejecting that assumption. It was in response to this setback that the College decided that discipleship was no longer a necessary criterion for joining the order but that one must at least express ‘reverence’ in relation to Sangharakshita. There have been no subsequent surveys of order opinion by the College.
Some years ago a coalition of order members concerned about the inability of the College to demonstrate leadership when it came to recognising and making amends for past abuses workshopped a series of six proposals for discussion and review. Given that the authors of the proposals did not have permission to access the order list for purposes of a survey of opinion, the proposals were released via social media for discussion on various order sites, as well as sent to the Adhisthana Kula and members of the College for commentary. No official response or recognition was received. We contacted several of the original signatories to the proposals and, with their permission, reproduce them below.
The Six Proposals (February 2017)
We suggest that with authority comes responsibility. If the College is concerned with preserving Sangharakshita’s legacy then it needs to do so in a critical and receptive manner, acknowledging aspects of that legacy that have not worked and have indeed been detrimental to the living of the very Dharma life that we, as Order Members, commit ourselves to. If the College as an institution proves unable or unwilling to face and acknowledge the negative, controversial aspects of our history, then we need to agree as an Order that the College system as it is currently instituted is incapable of taking us as an Order forward.
We believe that the reluctance of the College to acknowledge our founder’s unskilful behaviour is the main obstacle to the future growth and development of the Order, and severely impacts the positive effect that the Order may have on the Buddhist world and beyond.
1. We propose that we publicly acknowledge that Sangharakshita and others caused harm through their sexual and other forms of misconduct, and that we collectively, and as individuals, extend compassion to those harmed and those who caused harm.
This could include an update or revision to “The Triratna Story” so it does not appear as a damage limitation exercise. In terms of extending compassion to those harmed by the actions of Sangharakshita and others, it could be a permanent link on the main Triratna website, acknowledging the types of activities (sexual relationships, bullying, emotional manipulation, etc.) and seeking to engage with, and help, those who have been hurt.
2. We propose that ordination training should include a module on Sangharakshita’s sexual history and include a discussion of the nature of informed consent.
We recommend that there should be a written document to be studied during preparation for Ordination, which explains unflinchingly why Sangharakshita’s sexual history has been so controversial, why some of the young men involved feel themselves to have been misled or abused, and consequently why so many people consider his behaviour to have been unskilful.
Again this should not be written in the spirit of a damage limitation exercise, but be as open, honest and thorough as possible. It cannot be written entirely by the Ordination teams or the College, but should be co-written by critics, and take input from those still in the Order who have been directly affected by the issues, otherwise it will still be liable to be something of a sanitised version.
If this is not done, then every few years, the revelations will come to light again, and recently Ordained members of the Order will, again, feel shocked and betrayed and the impression given to the general public will be that the Order is still unable to fully face its shadow.
3. We propose that “reverence” (as opposed to a more straightforward appreciation) for Sangharakshita should not be mandatory.
At the moment, mitras preparing for ordination are strongly encouraged, even required, to cultivate reverence for Sangharakshita, including via practices like prostrating to his image on the Refuge Tree. In addition, some senior Order Members have publicly stated positions that indicate that there is no place in the Order for those who do not revere Sangharakshita.
This kind of reverence is clearly in tension with an honest appreciation of Sangharakshita’s ethical shortcomings. For most people, this understanding of Sangharakshita’s past will make reverence impossible. Or conversely reverence will make it impossible to fully acknowledge Sangharakshita’s past. Revering Sangharakshita should not be seen as a requirement for being a “proper” Order Member.
With regards to the Going for Refuge and Prostration Practice, we propose that;
a) If prostration practice is engaged in, it is explained and led in a way that emphasises connection with qualities of Enlightenment and developing prajna;
b) that prostration practice should not be formally encouraged as part of Ordination training, but optional for those people who find it useful and able to connect with the practice.
4. We propose that we publicly acknowledge;
a) the “teaching” about women’s lesser spiritual aptitude
b) the inferiority of the family as a unit of social organisation
c) seeing heterosexual relationships as spiritually distracting or inferior to same sex relationships, particularly for men, are expressions of Sangharakshita’s personal views and biases and have nothing to do with the Dharma.
The propagation of these views has frequently had negative effects within Triratna, has caused and continues to cause much suffering to many Sangha members and their families. Further, we can look to those within the Order and Community who have made significant spiritual strides to see that being a woman, being in a heterosexual relationship and/or in a traditional family can be supportive to a full spiritual life.
5. We propose clarifying that the College’s role should not be about preserving any legacy, unless that includes recognising and promoting practices that actually work, and either revising or discarding those that don’t.
For example, we should recognise that the Triratna emphasis on faith and reverence has led to senior people taking on and replicating attitudes that have led to abuse, and that it is appropriate to call for a greater appreciation of the need for Prajna. Also, with Insight being much more common, we should move toward Insight being a prerequisite for teaching past the introductory level, rather than what has been called “the blind leading the blind” based on legacy teaching, passing on practices that anyone can teach despite those practices having not borne the fruit of Insight in the presenter’s spiritual life.
We should also recognise that, as demonstrated by so many of the recognised teachers in the Order seeking other teachers, and by the huge impact of Liberation Unleashed and other non-Triratna methods, the Insight practices that Sangharakshita has suggested are of limited effectiveness.
6. We propose following through on the recent statement by a College member in a public talk that “Insight will be seen in our behaviour”.
We should acknowledge that there is a serious discrepancy between Sangharakshita’s teaching regarding sila and his own behaviour, and we need to see some clarity around this statement in relation to the persistent and long-term sexual unskillfulness demonstrated by Sangharakshita, and his apparent reluctance to be challenged by his spiritual friends in this area. This is confirmed in the lived experience of a growing number in the Order and Community, who know that at a certain point along the Buddhist path such unskilful sexual behaviour is not possible, much less a dominant aspect of one’s life.
Regarding the suspension from the Order of Manjunatha who was similarly engaged in unskilful sexual acts with those he was entrusted to teach, no such injunction was applied to Sangharakshita. We request clarification on the apparent double standard evident in this case, which has not helped Bhante to see his behaviour, and we feel that is our duty as his students.
The College was resistant to, and even outraged at, these proposals, interpreting them to be a “manifesto” or a “petition”. While some proposals were eventually implemented to one extent or another, it was proposal #6 that was the most unacceptable to the College. Only recently, this proposal was read aloud at a meeting with College members, to one of the order members who originally signed the proposals, asking what that order member’s stance now was on this issue. This was shortly after one of the College members at the table had expressed their criticism and skepticism over what they perceived were the disconnects between certain people’s behaviour and their alleged spiritual “attainment”.
The order member who was questioned responded that, just as the College member had just judged others, so too should Sangharakshita be judged -- basically that ‘insight will be seen in our behaviour’ applies to everyone. This literally made the critical and skeptical College member run to the toilet and vomit a few minutes later. Such is the trauma triggered when it is suggested that Sangharakshita’s spiritual maturity should be judged by his behaviour, even though the College are adamant that all members of the order (except Sangharakshita) should be evaluated in this way.
This incident illustrated the resistance to, and indeed impossibility of, actual and meaningful change that might portray Sangharakshita in an objective light: a truly balanced appreciation of him as founder of the order, a dharma teacher and Buddhist practitioner is impossible. And yet, that is exactly the type of change necessary for Triratna to move forward as a credible Buddhist movement, not simply a personality cult that reveres the person of Sangharakshita and his ‘particular presentation’ above all else.