What is Charismatic Authority and Why Is it a Problem?

In all religious organisations there is a tension between what we might call spiritual hierarchy and institutional or ecclesiastical hierarchy. It is not always the case, and indeed is often not the case, that those with a flair for organisation or an interest in exerting influence over others exhibit the finest tendencies of human nature.

The Order's governance has come to be spoken of in terms of a spiritual hierarchy with the "spiritually senior-most" individuals moving into positions of authority, specifically the College of Public Preceptors. In Triratna spiritual and organisational power have clearly become conflated. This has not always been the case, the current situation being the result of a concerted campaign to normalise this conflation waged by Sangharakshita's senior disciple Subhuti.

For example back in the 1990s, the Buddhist scholar (now ex-)Sthiramati wrote a piece for the FWBO magazine Golden Drum entitled “Buddhism and Hierarchy: a historical perspective” which showed how the tensions between different hierarchies had been managed across Buddhist movements since the time of the Buddha. However, it was pulled from publication at the last minute, not because it was believed to be untrue or unhelpful, but because it inconveniently contradicted what Subhuti had written in his own Golden Drum article “Ascending the Spiritual Hierarchy”.

The principles behind this very particular kind of hierarchy were first spelled out in this talk from Subhuti (see vimeo.com). In this video Subhuti conflates a hierarchy of realisation (deepening insight into the nature of samsaric conditioning) with taking on responsibility in the Order’s institutions (becoming responsible for others). Unsurprisingly the Public Preceptors are placed at the top of this hierarchy with Sangharakshita, as the Order’s founder, at its apex. The response to this hierarchy, Subhuti suggests, should be one of respect and gratitude because those higher in the hierarchy/institutions, through showing greater responsibility for others, have demonstrated greater spiritual maturity.

However it could be argued that to traverse this hierarchy no actual insight into the dharma as taught by the Buddha is necessary; on the contrary conformity to the "particular presentation" and the Sangharakshita personality cult (i.e. having the “reverential” relationship to Sangharakshita described in Subhuti’s summary of this presentation known as the 7 papers) is the key. The danger in stressing adherence to the founder's particular presentation is that the higher up the hierarchy you move the stronger the tendency is to discount alternative perspectives and the more cut off and insular you become. Innovation based on your own or others' experience of the dharma becomes impossible.

We suggest that rather than a "spiritual hierarchy" a better way to describe the power structures in the Order is that of charismatic authority and specifically the charisma of office. The College functions like other closed and self-selecting bodies such as the Cardinals' College within Catholicism. It is quite unlikely that practitioners who are suspicious of religious authoritarianism or who rely on the Buddha's advice to the Kalamas to be guided by their own experience will succeed in such a system. It is more likely that fidelity to the inherited belief system itself will outweigh any kind of spiritual depth or realisation. The quality that is demonstrated by members of the Preceptors' College is primarily an unwavering adherence to Sangharakshita's particular presentation of the dharma. The College is a self-electing body whose mission is to preserve that particular presentation at all costs. The authority wielded by members of the College (who to ordain or not to ordain; interpretation of what does and does not conflict with Sangharakshita's presentation; the disciplining of Order behaviour etc.) depends upon the authority of the office.

When Subhuti says that those who take on levels of institutional responsibility  should be revered and emulated, and states that responsibility within the highest echelons is directly connected to "genuine spiritual attainment" – he appears to be making claims on behalf of himself and other public preceptors. What he is in fact claiming is inherited charismatic authority (since the authority of the College system relies upon the fact that the original Preceptors were appointed by Sangharakshita, delegating his own spiritual authority). If you point to faults in Sangharakshita's behaviour or teaching and suggest that they relate to a fundamental lack of judgement and insight then the entire charismatic authority system topples over because the Preceptors' authority relies solely on their fidelity to him. This is why Max Weber, the sociologist who first came up with the term, described it as an inherently unstable form of authority. It is unstable because it depends upon the faith (that is, the projection) of the community of true believers and not upon any inherently admirable characteristics of those who wield it. You lose faith, they lose power.

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