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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.

A Self-made Man

Sangharakshita’s origins offer few clues to how he became what he now is. Dennis Philip Edward Lingwood, as he was first known, was born on 26 August 1925 in South London of working-class parents. Though his mother and father had little education themselves, they were upright and sensible people, providing a happy and loving home for the young Dennis and his sister. It was obvious from an early age that he was exceptionally intelligent, but life went on normally enough for him until he was eight years old. He was then diagnosed as having a serious heart condition that demanded he be kept completely immobile and calm at peril of his life. For two years he was confined to bed, seeing only his parents and the family doctor. What might have been an oppressive disaster was, for so lively a mind, a singular opportunity. Guided by a surprisingly mature sensibility, the eight-year-old boy kept himself occupied by reading: mainly the classics of English literature and all sixty-one parts of Harmsworth’s Children’s Encyclopaedia, several of which he read many times. In this way he gained an introduction to literature, philosophy, religion, and art.

Two years later, the original diagnosis being overturned by a pioneering doctor, Dennis was liberated from bed and eventually allowed to return to school. However, he himself asserts that he never learned anything useful from his formal education, particularly as it was further interrupted by the outbreak of the Second World War. He has acquired his considerable learning almost entirely by his own efforts. From the time he was confined to bed he has read several books of solid merit every week, absorbing the contents of each with keen discernment and an excellent memory. From that time also dates his love of art: indeed, so great was his early ability that it was assumed he would become a painter. But painting gave way to a new and greater love. At the age of twelve, on reading Milton’s Paradise Lost, he discovered a passion for poetry and began writing verse himself — as he has continued to do throughout his life.

With the coming of war and the threat of air raids, most of London’s children were evacuated from the city. Dennis left for Devon in 1940, in the second wave of evacuations, where he continued his self-education, spending many hours in public libraries. As soon as he could persuade his parents, he left school and took a job in a coal merchant’s office. During this period he came across Madame Blavatsky’s Isis Unveiled, a seminal work of the Theosophical movement. Reading this convinced him that he was not a Christian ‘and never had been’. He returned to London in 1941, for the next two years living at home with his parents once more and working as a clerk for the London County Council. This was a very turbulent period, during which he fell in love, began to have psychic and mystical experiences, composed much poetry, and wrote a novel — never published and now lost.

In 1942, in his insatiable scouring of the London bookshops, he purchased copies of two important works of Mahayana Buddhism: the Vajracchedika Prajnaparamita or Diamond Sutra and the Sutra of Wei-lang (otherwise known as the Sutra of Hui-neng or the Platform Sutra). These had a decisive impact, convincing him that he was a Buddhist — and that he ‘always had been’. He became a member of the London Buddhist Society, contributing an article to its journal, The Middle Way, and attending its meetings. Here he encountered Christmas Humphreys and most of the leading figures in English Buddhism of that time. The full-moon day of May 1944 saw his formal accession to Buddhism, during the Society’s celebrations of Wesak — the anniversary of the birth, Enlightenment, and parinirvana of the Buddha. On that occasion, he recited for the first time the Refuges and Precepts after the Burmese bhikkhu, U Thittila.

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