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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.

The Journey to the East

By this time, he had been conscripted into the army and had been trained as a signalman in the Royal Corps of Signals. In August 1944, he was sent with his unit to Delhi in India. He could hardly believe his good fortune, for here he was in the land of the Buddha, which he had never expected to see. However, there being little Buddhism to be encountered there, he secured a transfer to Colombo in Sri Lanka. Though now in a ‘Buddhist country’, he made no effective contact with Buddhists. It was among the Hindu swamis of the Ramakrishna Mission that he found some genuine spiritual companionship. Indeed, with the strong encouragement of the swamis, he discovered an urgentdesire to renounce the world and become a monk. On his next transfer, to Calcutta, he continued his association with the Mission, without ever losing his basic loyalty to Buddhism. In 1946 a final transfer took him to Singapore and here he did make contact with Buddhists and began the practice of meditation. Hearing that his unit was to be demobilised in England, he checked in his equipment and left camp, technically a deserter.

Back in Calcutta he worked briefly with the Ramakrishna Mission and then with the Maha Bodhi Society, the leading Buddhist organisation in India. Both these experiences convinced him of the corruption of religious bodies and strengthened his determination to renounce the world. In August 1947, at the age of twenty-two, he took one of the most important steps of his life. With a young Indian friend he burned his identification papers, gave away his possessions, and, dressed in an orange robe, ‘went forth’ as a wandering ascetic, as the Buddha had done before him. He even left behind his name, from now on calling himself Anagarika Dharmapriya. The two friends spent the next two years mainly in South India. For periods they settled in one place, meditating and studying. At other times they wandered, always depending on alms for their food and shelter. They also visited the ashrams of various Hindu teachers, such as Anandamayi, Swami Ramdas, and Ramana Maharshi. While staying in a cave near the Maharshi’s ashram he had a powerful vision of the Buddha Amitabha. This he took as confirmation that he should now seek ordination as a Buddhist monk.

Ordination did not however prove easy to come by. Their first request received a rather unceremonious rejection from the monks of the Maha Bodhi Society’s vihara or monastery at Sarnath. The two friends next approached the Burmese bhikkhu,* [Footnote: Bhikkhu: a fully ordained Buddhist monk. There are two phases in the ordination of a Buddhist monk: first one becomes a samanera and then a bhikkhu.] U Chandramani, then the seniormost monk in India, and with some difficulty persuaded him to give them the samanera, or novice, ordination. It was at this ceremony, in May 1949, that he received the name Sangharakshita: ‘Protector of (or Protected by) the Spiritual Community’. His full ordination as a bhikkhu took place at Sarnath in November of the following year, with another Burmese bhikkhu, U Kawinda, as upadhyaya or preceptor, and Ven. Jagdish Kashyap as his acarya or teacher. After their samanera ordinations, he and his friend travelled briefly into Nepal to minister to the disciples of U Chandramani, begging all the way. He then spent seven months living with Ven. Jagdish Kashyap, one of the foremost Indian Buddhist monks of the twentieth century, studying the Pali language, the Abhidhamma, and Logic. This idyllic period ended when he and his teacher went on pilgrimage through the Buddhist sites of Bihar and up into the Himalayas. In the small hill-station of Kalimpong, on the borders of India, Nepal, Bhutan, Sikkim, and Tibet, Ven. Kashyap requested him to stay and work for the good of Buddhism. In fulfilment of his teacher’s wishes, Kalimpong was to be his base for the next fourteen years.

From his arrival in Kalimpong at the age of twenty-five, Sangharakshita worked very actively for the revival of Buddhism in the border regions, which contained a large proportion of nominally Buddhist peoples. Finding the existing Buddhist groups too factious and sectarian, he started a new organisation, the Young Men’s Buddhist Association. The Association not only offered Buddhist teaching and practice but also cultural and social activities — even tutorial classes to help the young men pass their all-important examinations. It quickly established itself as a valued part of the life of the town, appreciated alike by young and old, Buddhist and non-Buddhist. Three years later, it became a branch of the Maha Bodhi Society, gaining thereby a small grant and affiliation with the major Buddhist organisation in India. Sangharakshita was however careful to ensure that it lost none of its autonomy.

During his first seven years in Kalimpong, Sangharakshita lived and worked in rented or borrowed accommodation. Despite the small grant from the Maha Bodhi Society for the branch’s activities, he himself had no regular income. He lived entirely from the donations of well-wishers, small payments for articles and poems published in various journals, and fees for English lessons — many of which, however, he gave free of charge. There were times when he quite literally had no money at all — although he says that this never worried him. In 1957, through the generosity of the King of Sikkim and of an English Buddhist friend, he was able to purchase his own vihara.

A few months after his first arrival in Kalimpong, he commenced the publication of Stepping-Stones, ;a bimonthly journal of Himalayan Buddhism. This very soon attracted an impressive list of contributors such as Lama Govinda, Dr Herbert Guenther, Dr Edward Conze, and Prince Peter of Greece. Although the journal had to cease publication after two years through lack of funds, it had achieved a wide circulation, bringing the young English bhikkhu to the notice of many in the English-speaking Buddhist world and introducing him to some prominent scholars and teachers.

Over the years he spent in the town Sangharakshita managed to unite the Buddhist community in a quite unprecedented way. He arranged the joint celebration by all local Buddhist groups of various important Buddhist festivals. He even organised the commemoration of Tsongkapa’s birthday by all the Tibetan Buddhists in the town together — a feat that brought the Dalai Lama’s personal congratulations. His activities were not confined to the town: he gave lectures and held meetings all over the region. During regular visits to Sikkim at the personal request of the royal family and of the Indian Government’s representative, he did what he could to revitalise the rather degenerate Buddhism of the kingdom, drawing up a scheme of studies for the monks of the royal monastery. So much a leader of the Buddhists in the region did he become that the Indian Government specifically asked him to stay on in the town, at a time when there were rumours of a Chinese invasion of the border regions, to help discourage the mass flight of its Buddhist inhabitants.

His association with the Maha Bodhi Society began in 1952 when he was invited by its General Secretary, Devapriya Valisinha, to write a biographical sketch of the Society’s great founder, Anagarika Dharmapala.Through this work, he came to have great admiration for Dharmapala and sympathy for Valisinha, his dedicated, if less capable, successor. He had, however, serious criticisms of the Society’s present organisation: its governing body was dominated by caste Hindus, one member being openly hostile to Buddhism. He therefore took care never to compromise himself by becoming a member. Nonetheless, he was for many years the principal editor of its organ, The Maha Bodhi, and often lectured at its premises in Calcutta and elsewhere.

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