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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.

Helper of the Oppressed


Though Kalimpong was his base from 1950 to 1964, he had a much wider sphere of operation. Most years he would spend some months away from the hills, lecturing in many parts of India. A very able speaker, he was much in demand at branches of the Maha Bodhi Society, as well as at various non-Buddhist organisations. He came to know a great variety of people: Buddhist monks of many different nationalities and schools, Western scholars who flocked to the Himalayas to study Tibetan culture and religion, Theosophists, Christian missionaries, politicians, even Raj Kapoor, the ‘Clark Gable of India’. One of his most significant encounters was with Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar. This formidable man was among the foremost Indian politicians of the day: it was he who had headed the commission that drafted the constitution of independent India. Himself born an Untouchable, he had become the unrivalled leader of his people in their struggle for social justice. Dr Ambedkar eventually concluded that the only way out of the oppression of the Hindu caste system lay in leaving Hinduism altogether. After long and careful deliberation, he decided to become a Buddhist. This was to be one of the most significant events for Buddhism in the twentieth century, initiating the conversion of millions of people. Sangharakshita was able to advise him what conversion really meant and how it was undertaken. At Dr Ambedkar’s invitation, he began teaching his followers the significance of the religion they were about to espouse.

angharakshita was not able to attend the ceremony in October 1956 at which Dr Ambedkar converted to Buddhism with nearly 400,000 of his followers. However, six weeks later he visited Nagpur, the city where the conversions had taken place, to be greeted with the news that the great leader had died just a few hours before. He had arrived at exactly the time he was most needed. Over the next few critical days he worked tirelessly to rally the grief-stricken multitudes, earning himself a secure place in their affections. Nearly every year from then until he left India he would spend several months touring among the new Buddhists of Western India, teaching them the tenets of their religion. He personally conducted the conversion ceremonies of more than 200,000 people.

Active as he was, both in Kalimpong and beyond, Sangharakshita did not neglect spiritual practice. He meditated at least every morning and evening, continued with his studies, and reflected on the Dharma. Each year he would observe the traditional ‘rains retreat’, remaining within his vihara compound for three months and devoting himself entirely to meditation, study, and writing. His situation in the border region gave him the opportunity to study Tibetan Buddhism at first hand. Many leading lamas were now escaping the Chinese invasion of their country and Kalimpong was often their first stopping-place. In 1956 he received initiation from Chetul Sangye Dorje, a highly respected, if rather unconventional, lama. He later received initiations and teachings from Jamyang Khyentse Rimpoche, Dilgo Khyentse Rimpoche, Dudjom Rimpoche, and Khachu Rimpoche, all of whom functioned within the Nyingmapa tradition, and from Dhardo Rimpoche, a Gelugpa whose previous ‘incarnations’ had all been Nyingmapas. From Dhardo Rimpoche, who became a close friend, he received, in October 1962, the Bodhisattva ordination, thus giving him ordination and initiation within all three yanas of Buddhism.

Throughout his stay in India he continued to write. Despite burning most of his poetry in 1949, he continued to pour forth verse, some of which appeared in various journals, including the widely-circulating Illustrated Weekly of India. In 1954 a volume of his poems was published, Messengers from Tibet and other Poems. Besides many articles and editorials for Stepping-Stones, The Maha Bodhi, and other periodicals, he wrote Flame in Darkness: A Biographical Sketch of Anagarika Dharmapala, and his major work, A Survey of Buddhism, both of which were published while he was in India. Two other works written at this time, The Three Jewels, an introduction to Buddhism that began life as contributions to an encyclopaedia, and The Eternal Legacy, a survey of Buddhist canonical literature, were not published until some years later.

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