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Sangharakshita — Founder of the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order (FWBO)

The following is a short biography of Sangharakshita, the founder of the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order (FWBO). It considers his significance as an “interpreter” of Buddhism for the modern world. It is extracted from chapter one of Sangharakshita, a New Voice in the Buddhist Tradition, published by the FWBO’s publishing wing, Windhorse Publications. The last paragraph has been lightly edited to bring it up to date.

Modern Buddhism is in Crisis

The Buddhist tradition, like so many others, is being challenged by a world radically different from the one in which it has flourished for two-and-a-half millennia. Technological development is changing ever more drastically the way people live — even the way they think about their lives. In most of the lands where it has been established for centuries, Buddhism is in disarray and retreat, unable yet to adapt its old message to new circumstances. Curiously, it is in the West itself, the very heartland of technological development, that it is beginning to communicate itself most successfully to the modern world and is expanding most rapidly. But that too presents its problems. What should Buddhism in the West bring from Buddhism in the East? Which form of Buddhism is appropriate to the West? How is modern Buddhism to relate to Western culture? How is one to live the Buddhist life in the modern world? What really is Buddhism? More properly, as Buddhists themselves would prefer to say, what is the Dharma? What is the ‘Truth’, the ‘Path’, or the ‘Teaching’?

Sangharakshita is one of those who has confronted these issues most directly. In a favourite image, he is a translator. He is a translator between the East and the West, between the traditional world and the modern.

One who is a translator metaphorically brings a discipline, or set of ideas, or a culture, from the obscurity and darkness of unfamiliar terms into thelight of terms that are familiar. I myself am a translator because I elucidate, that is, elucidate the Dharma.

Above all, he is a translator between principles and practice. From his earliest contact with Buddhism, he has sought to discover its essential principles. It has been his life’s work to give those principles expression, both in ideas and in institutions and practices.

For Sangharakshita, the essential insight of the Buddha is beyond words and finds expression in different forms in different circumstances. The many schools, formed in Buddhism’s 2,500 years of history and its diffusion throughout Asia, have to a greater or lesser extent kept alive that original insight. Each has elaborated it further and explored its various aspects in diverse ways. Whether it is the rich exuberance of Tibetan Vajrayana or the austere simplicity of Japanese Zen, all schools carry the same intrinsic message. Sangharakshita has striven to discern the fundamental Buddhist experience behind these many forms and to communicate it to the modern world. He has embodied his understanding in the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order, the new Buddhist movement he has founded.

Since its initiation in 1967, Sangharakshita has devoted himself mainly to clarifying the many issues that have arisen during the establishment and growth of that movement. As his disciples have engaged more deeply with the Dharma, they have come up against innumerable problems and conflicts. What place does work have in spiritual life? Is homosexual activity a contravention of Buddhist ethics? How should Buddhists relate to the wider world? Do Western art and literature have anything to offer the Buddhist practitioner? How is one to work with the various feelings that arise in meditation? How should a residential community organise itself? As issues have arisen, Sangharakshita has elucidated the underlying principles on which a resolution depends. He has thus evolved a philosophy of active spiritual life, embracing every aspect of human affairs: community, work, sexuality, art and culture, social action, meditation, ceremony, personal relationships, and more. All have received his attention and, if he has not exhausted each topic, he has laid bare its essential principles so that his disciples can continue to live the Buddhist life in an ever-changing world.

Although Sangharakshita has devoted many years to the creation of an organised Buddhist movement, his ideas are relevant outside the circle of his own disciples. Buddhists everywhere, whether in the East or West, are moving into a new world, to which traditional forms are increasingly irrelevant. If they are not simply to become fossils, interesting relics of a bygone era, all Buddhists must look beyond the forms of their own schools.They must recognise the timeless core that each, perhaps, still conveys. They must let go of whatever in their own tradition is merely the unreflecting propagation of a culture long since dead or is simply of local significance. They must rely only on the essential Buddhist experience in their own spiritual lives. They must let the fundamental Buddhist message speak out to the men and women of the present. Since Sangharakshita has faced these issues in a particularly radical way, all Buddhists will find that he has something important to say to them. They will discover much in his teaching that will help them in their own task of spiritual renewal.

Sangharakshita’s teaching has wider relevance yet. A great many people today sense that humanity has a higher purpose than mere material advancement. They are seeking some new vision to give their lives greater meaning and purpose. Many are strongly drawn to Buddhism’s non-theism and to its teachings of nonviolence and of universal fellowship. However, they are not attracted to its present cultural forms. If they are to respond at all it will be to a presentation like Sangharakshita’s: clear and intelligent, taking into account modern concerns and susceptibilities, and free from cultural anachronism. Sangharakshita’s appeal is broad, for he points tosomething beyond type to be found in all human beings. His disciples already include people of very diverse backgrounds and temperaments: illiterate peasants and sophisticated professionals, ex-Christians and ex-communists, Indians and Americans, intellectuals and devotees, hermits and activists. Sangharakshita’s ideas can surely help more people understand the real significance of their lives.

It is Sangharakshita’s ideas that we will now set out to explore. While we are contemplating Sangharakshita’s thought, we should not forget the perspective within which he himself functions. He is a bold and original thinker and, at the same time, a faithful follower of the Buddha. To some this has seemed paradoxical: I remember the poet Allen Ginsberg pondering, after a visit to Sangharakshita, why one so unconventional and revolutionary in his outlook should write poetry so traditional in form. When I reported this to Sangharakshita, he laughed and reflected that he is but a reluctant revolutionary. Really he is a complete traditionalist, forced by circumstances to take to revolution. His tastes are thoroughly traditional, and he says that, if circumstances had allowed it, he would have found fulfilment living in a very traditional Buddhist monastery in a very traditional Buddhist culture: studying, meditating, writing. But circumstances have not allowed it. He has been called upon to give new life to the old truths, not only through ideas but through practical guidance and new institutions. All his work is entirely fresh, revolutionary even, yet completely faithful to the original insight and teaching of the Buddha. His own teaching consists essentially of restating that insight within the modern context or else working out its unexplored implications.

So that we can better appreciate the significance of Sangharakshita’s ideas, we must learn more about their author. It is, however, not easy to get a full impression of the man. Sangharakshita is a complex figure who has lived a singular life and has a very individual intelligence. He has formed himself under rather unusual conditions and speaks with a particular voice. Thinker, poet, communicator, mystic, organiser, scholar, guide: it is hard to comprehend so many-sided and unique a character.

Who am I? I must confess I do not know. I am as much a mystery to myself as I probably am to you. Not that I am a mystery to everyone, apparently. Quite a lot of people know exactly who and what I am (I am speaking of people outside the [FWBO]). Quite a lot of people ‘see’ me. But they see me in different ways. This was very much the case when I lived in India. According to who it was that did the seeing, I was ‘the English monk’, ‘a rabid Mahayanist’, ‘a narrow-minded Hinayanist’, ‘the Enemy of the Church’, ‘a Russian spy’, ‘an American agent’, ‘the Editor of the Maha Bodhi’, ‘an impractical young idealist’, ‘a good speaker’, ‘the invader of Suez’, ‘the guru of the Untouchables’, and so on. More recently, here in England, I have been ‘a good monk’, ‘a bad monk’, ‘the Buddhist counterpart of the Vicar of Hampstead’, ‘the author of [A Survey of Buddhism]’, ‘a crypto-Vajrayanist’, ‘a lecturer at Yale’, ‘the hippie guru’, ‘a first-class organizer’, ‘a traditionalist’, ‘a maverick’, ‘a misogynist’, ‘a sexist’, ‘a controversial figure’, and ‘An Enlightened Englishman’.

All these different ‘sightings’ have at least some truth in them, even though the people doing the ‘seeing’ may have looked at me from the wrong angle, in the wrong kind of light, through tinted spectacles, or through the wrong end of the telescope. They may even have had spots floating before their eyes. The reason why all these different sightings have at least some truth in them is that I am a rather complex person.

His life is immediately striking for the number of modern myths it embodies. To begin with, Sangharakshita is a ‘self-made man’. He was born in relatively humble circumstances with few material or cultural advantages, without much benefit of formal education, and with little or no religious background and no effective spiritual mentors. Yet he has become a man of formidable learning, with a penetrating and creative mind, one of the leading Buddhist teachers of his age. Further, Sangharakshita made the ‘journey to the East’ and he made it well before the era of the package-deal spiritual trip. He did not merely drop in on oriental culture for a few weeks, but lived in the immemorial traditions of Indian asceticism and immersed himself in Indian culture. He met Indian gurus and Tibetan lamas and studied at first hand the great spiritual riches of the East. Sangharakshita made the ‘return journey’. He ‘came back home’, bringing back to the land and culture from which he sprang the wealth that he had found while he was in India.

In India he began his career as ‘helper of the oppressed’. He devoted himself to teaching hundreds of thousands of ex-Untouchables the true significance of the Dharma. Their recent conversion to Buddhism was of immense social significance since it gave them a basis for dignity and confidence. Later he encouraged his Western disciples to continue that work, supplementing the teaching of Buddhism with social action. Here, Sangharakshita reverses the modern myth: for he is a Westerner who brings wisdom to the East! In a certain sense, Sangharakshita is a ‘rebel’, the ‘individual against the group’, a gadfly to the herd. He has often found himself at odds with ‘establishments’, whether the authorities of the Maha Bodhi Society in India or the leaders of Buddhist organisations in London in the sixties. However, he has no psychological compulsion to rebellion: he has often shown he can co-operate well with others. The ‘establishments’ have found him inconvenient because of his fearless and uncompromising adherence to spiritual truth and his willingness to speak out when he sees hypocrisy and confusion.

The variety of the myths exemplified in his life illustrates the breadth and complexity of his character. He is a man with the inclinations of a hermit, preferring the peace of his hermitage and the company of a few close friends: yet he functions on an increasingly large stage, before the thousands of people who consider him their spiritual teacher and the many more who are interested in what he has to say. He is by nature a scholar and an artist: but he has shown himself to be a formidable organiser who has founded a movement of great flexibility and effectiveness. He is a witty and charming conversationalist, a sympathetic listener and counsellor, and a firm and faithful friend: yet he can be a fierce polemicist and a few of his works have aroused some controversy and even hostility.

Many who meet him for the first time are astonished that this man should be so ‘ordinary’ in appearance. His spiritual perspicacity shines out from his writing and speaking and he is honoured and respected by many — yet he is entirely lacking in ‘charisma’, as popularly understood. Several tell of first meeting Sangharakshita at an FWBO [Footnote: FWBO: Friends of the Western Buddhist Order — the name of the new Buddhist movement founded by Sangharakshita. WBO: the Western Buddhist Order.] centre without realising who he was. He lacks, even disdains, that animal magnetism that gains many a guru his following. Yet, if one attends closely when one is with him, one will feel the force of his presence. He has a great stillness and self-possession, a mindfulness of every movement. In his eyes there is an extraordinary watchfulness, betokening a deep awareness and an exceptionally penetrating mind. Yet those detached and watchful eyes that can make him seem somewhat Olympian can suddenly spark with humour, flash mischievously, or even blaze with a kind of angry fire. For, although he is invariably kindly and considerate in his dealings with people, and although he has always shown outstanding patience and perseverance in the face of some considerable difficulties, he has that underlying confidence, vigour, and determination that alone make possible the successful completion of worthwhile tasks.

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Extracted from Sangharakshita — A New Voice in the Buddhist Tradition (Windhorse Publications, 1994).