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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 Return Journey

He had followed with sympathy the fortunes of the Buddhist movement in theWest, particularly through correspondence with some of his English Buddhist friends. In 1964 he was invited to London for six months to help restore harmony in the already factious British Buddhist world. Realising that, for many reasons, he could do little more for Buddhism in India, he decided to see what opportunities awaited him in the West and accepted the invitation. He soon breathed new spirit into the rather staid atmosphere of English Buddhism, plunging into a vigorous round of classes, lectures, and meetings. He was clearly very popular and numbers at meetings began to mount. It was obvious that Buddhism had great potential in the West. Six months stretched to eighteen, and finally he decided that he would say farewell to his friends in India and then return permanently to London.

While he was in London he had been incumbent of the Hampstead Buddhist Vihara, and it was to the Vihara that he intended to return. However, his nonsectarian approach and refusal to fit narrow expectations of what a Buddhist monk should and should not do turned some of the Vihara’s trustees against him. While he was on his farewell tour of India he received notice that he would not be allowed to take up his former post. Despite the outcry of the greater part of those attending the Vihara, by a narrow majority the trustees had voted to exclude him. Sangharakshita’s first response was one of relief. He was free to start again, free from the confusion and disharmony of the present British Buddhist world. With the full blessings of his teachers and friends in India, he returned to England. Just a few days after his arrival, in April 1967, he founded the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order with a small band of his disciples from the Vihara. One year later he ordained the first thirteen men and women into the Western Buddhist Order itself.

The rest of Sangharakshita’s life is so closely bound up with the development of the FWBO that it is difficult to reduce it to a simple account. Broadly, he completely devoted himself to the movement, which grew, on the whole, very steadily and surely. The first five years or so proved intensely creative. He had, so to speak, served his apprenticeship in the traditional Buddhist world: he had thought deeply about the Dharma and had practised it intensively. He was now on his own and must bring Buddhism to life in an entirely new environment, basing himself only on its fundamental principles. Step by step, Sangharakshita formed his new Buddhist movement.

Each week there would be three or four classes. At first activities were held in a rented basement in central London, then in borrowed rooms at a macrobiotic restaurant and ‘new age’ centre, and finally in a disused factory in an area of North London scheduled for redevelopment. Not only was Sangharakshita taking all the classes but he personally did much of the organisational work, gradually training his disciples in the tasks of running a Buddhist movement. He gave several important lecture series in which he set out the essential teachings of Buddhism, drawing on all schools and traditions. Twice a year he led major retreats, and throughout the year there were weekend or day seminars and workshops. Much of his time was spent in personal interviews with the many people who wished to see him - for he was not merely a teacher and leader to his disciples but a friend.

By 1973 it seemed that the new Buddhist movement was firmly enough established for its founder to withdraw from daily involvement. Not only was it possible, it was desirable. Order members needed the opportunity to take more responsibility themselves, and Sangharakshita himself needed to function in new ways. The movement now had two centres in London and two in New Zealand, besides substantial groups in Glasgow and Brighton and smaller ones elsewhere. Sangharakshita was the leader of a growing movement and could not remain involved in one centre alone. He moved first to a small chalet overlooking the sea in Cornwall and then to various cottages in East Anglia. He completed the first part of his memoirs, published in two volumes as Learning to Walk and The Thousand-Petalled Lotus, and wrote several articles and papers.

Although he was no longer involved in daily organisation, he still kept a close eye on everything that happened, being particularly concerned with new developments. As the movement expanded and deepened, he elaborated his teaching ever more fully, thinking out the principles that underlay its evolution at every stage. He continued, over the next fifteen years, to give several important lectures, and conducted seminars for small groups of his disciples on various Buddhist texts, modern accounts of the Dharma, and a few works from other sources.

Each year he would visit several centres and groups, both in Britain and abroad, meeting people, giving lectures, and talking with Order members. London was still the main focus and here he was a frequent visitor, particularly after the opening in 1979 of the large London Buddhist Centre, where he had a small flat. In 1977 he had shifted his principal residence to a country house in Norfolk, which became the Padmaloka Men’s Retreat Centre. Here he gathered around him a small community, some of whom functioned as his secretaries, forming the nucleus of the Office of the Western Buddhist Order. By the end of the seventies the movement consisted of some fifteen centres, several of which had communities and businesses attached to them. The FWBO no longer offered only teachings and practices but a new and radical way of life, developing under the personal guidance of the founder.

In 1977 one of Sangharakshita’s leading disciples made contact with some of his followers in India and, with their help, began to establish the FWBO there - where it was known as the Trailokya Bauddha Mahasangha Sahayak Gana (TBMSG).[Footnote: ‘The Community of Helpers of the Buddhist Order of the Three Worlds’ - the three worlds being an allusion both to the three worlds of Buddhist cosmology and to the First, Second, and Third Worlds of modern politics.] It was soon clear that Sangharakshita was not forgotten and that the principles of his new Buddhist movement were as applicable in India as in the West. Very quickly many thousands of people became involved with the movement. Sangharakshita himself visited India two years later, and conducted the first ordinations of Indians into the Order. He has visited India periodically since then and has interested himself closely in activities there, which are growing far more rapidly than anywhere else in the world. At his urging, his disciples in the West began to raise money for social projects among the new Buddhists of India. They formed what has now become a substantial fund-raising charity, the Karuna Trust.

By now Sangharakshita had an extremely heavy workload. Simply keeping himself informed of what was happening and maintaining contact with all those he had ordained occupied much of his time. By virtue of strong self-discipline, he kept at his literary work while also visiting centres, giving personal interviews, lecturing and leading seminars, and dealing with the many questions and problems that flowed in from all parts of the movement. In 1981 he instituted an annual three-month-long retreat for men who were nearing ordination in a former Catholic monastery in Italy, himself leading many activities and supervising study. For the next eight years these retreats, though still demanding, were an opportunity to stand back from the regular duties of the ever-expanding movement. He also spent some time each year attending women’s ordination retreats.

Fortunately, his senior disciples were maturing. In 1985 and 1986 he delegated the conferring of ordinations in India to teams of men and women Order members, and in 1989 he handed on responsibility for ordinations in the West. There were by now some capable teachers and leaders among Order members, well imbued with the principles he had been clarifying over the last twenty years. He decided that he needed to concentrate yet more on his literary work, as much as possible leaving others to direct the movement. Since 1989 he has been living in his flat at the London Buddhist Centre, paradoxically finding seclusion in the midst of the city. He retains several important central responsibilities, although he is in the process of handing these over. Besides his writing and organisational responsibilities, Sangharakshita keeps contact with his many disciples, seeing several each day and corresponding with others. From time to time he visits FWBO centres, taking a particular interest in places where the movement is newly taking hold.

The movement has grown now to the point at which the great majority of those involved have had little or no personal contact with its founder. Whilst there is no ‘cult of personality’ in the FWBO, Sangharakshita is very much appreciated and his influence pervades every aspect of the movement. But he has always been keenly aware that his disciples must learn to carry on the work without him. From the outset he has engaged in a conscious process of stepping back, so that others have to take up the responsibilities he leaves behind. On his seventieth year he handed over his final duties to his senior disciples. Sangharakshita currently lives in Birmingham UK, where he now concentrates on personal contact with people, and on his writing.

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