The Thought of Sangharakshita: Sample

The following extract consists in the Introduction to The Thought of Sangharakshita: A Critical Assessment, reproduced by permission of the publisher, Equinox.

1.   Introduction

a.    Meeting Sangharakshita

It’s a pleasant but chilly winter’s day as I cycle through the lanes of Herefordshire, England, and leave my bike by the pond at the entrance to Adhisthana, the Buddhist centre where Sangharakshita lives. I pass through the courtyard of this former school, to the old house where he has his apartment, and am asked to wait a few minutes in the office next to it, until he is ready to see me.

As I wait, I reflect on the unlikeliness of the whole scenario: both that I now wish to see Sangharakshita, and that he now wishes to see me. After all, I resigned from the Buddhist Order that he founded ten years ago. Since then I’ve been developing a different approach – Middle Way Philosophy – and have started a society quite distinct from that Order and from the Buddhist tradition. Anyone breaking free of a religious group that used to play such a large role in their lives will tend to find themselves emphasising the distance at first, in order to establish their independence. They then need to engage themselves in something else that is positive, which I have done, in order not to spend the rest of their lives reacting counter-dependently to the old organisation.

It is important to move on; but it’s also important, as I’ve since discovered, to then look back and to engage with one’s roots. Sangharakshita’s influence shaped the Western (now Triratna) Buddhist Order and Community, and that Order shaped my thinking in various important ways all through my twenties and thirties. Meditation practice, solitary reflection, deeper friendship, aesthetic appreciation, moral adequacy, transformative social structures, spiritual or integrative development itself – all of these are practical expectations that I learnt in large measure from the Order. I could have learnt about them in theory elsewhere, but the emphasis in the Order was on the frontline of practice. The very idea of an ongoing practice that permeates one’s life, that engages ideals fully with actual experience, does not often get the kind of emphasis elsewhere that it does there. All of these things became important to me through that Order and its work, with Sangharakshita as its instigator.

The guide and inspiration of my life has since become a more general principle, the Middle Way, in which one recognises what is positive in all areas of one’s experience, whilst avoiding turning them into absolute beliefs. So, after writing a detailed account of Middle Way Philosophy itself, it has begun to seem that the next priority for me is a detailed sorting process of the traditions and perspectives that have meant most to me. In this spirit, I’ve written recent books about Christianity, about Jung, and about the Buddha, all distinguishing what I find genuinely helpful in those sources from the things that get in the way. However, as a young man, I doubt if I would have become particularly interested in the Buddha if it wasn’t for the effects of Sangharakshita’s interpretation of Buddhism. I would thus never have even become aware of the Middle Way as a possible approach. So I began to think about the possibility of writing a similar ‘sorting’ book about Sangharakshita.

At first, I did not expect meeting Sangharakshita himself to form part of the project. I expected it to consist mainly of research and thinking. After all, he was ninety-two, and had been in variable health. Nor had I had any personal contact with him for many years, even though by coincidence he now lived only a few miles from me. However, when I sent an email to Adhisthana asking if they’d be interested in assisting me with the project, the email was passed on to Sangharakshita himself. To my surprise, he immediately asked to see me. His health had been stably good of late. Several discussions followed, of which this was the third.

When I’m shown into the room to see Sangharakshita, he is sitting in a high-backed armchair with a somewhat frail but alert gravity. He is positively interested in being challenged, in a way that one would expect of few leaders, and indeed of few ninety-two year olds. He makes a point of explaining, this time, what he gets from seeing me. He says that he sees few people outside the circle of his immediate disciples these days, and still fewer people who challenge him. I am also put in mind of another suggestion made by an older friend of mine: that at this age, people like to take stock.

On this occasion, as on previous ones, we talk of a range of topics: doctrine versus methodology, the nature of objectivity, evolution, the nature of spiritual commitment. I try to strike a balance between listening respectfully, and putting in the occasional question or opinion that pushes the boundaries. Sometimes he gets diverted into anecdote, or his memory fails. However, when offered a critical perspective, he always pauses and weighs it up with awareness rather than reacting too quickly, and sometimes clarifies or adjusts his position. He is also aware of his limitations, for example, in knowledge of recent psychology and neuroscience. But there are also limits to what I could expect in terms of critical discussion. He tends not to follow through the implications of any concessions that he makes, but rather then to head back to more familiar territory.

The ambience of that discussion – of respectful listening, of testing questions, of a degree of admiration tempered by a recognition of limitations – is the one that I would like to shape this book. I am glad that it has been possible for it to be informed by personal contact, because I believe that this will add, not detract, from its objectivity. Objectivity, in my view, is not an absolute, but a quality one can cultivate. It involves, more than anything, the capacity to consider alternatives to one’s current beliefs. At a basic level it does require the capacity for distancing, so as to avoid being overwhelmed by the apparent “truths” one is encountering at present. However, that distancing process can also become too much of an end in itself, and require a return to the personal. As anyone who has ever written a comment online will know, it is too easy to comment unreflectively and on the basis of limited assumptions about someone else from the distance of a wholly abstracted perspective. To meet them in person, in their complexity, is often the best antidote to that tendency.

Before I had completed my planned series of discussions with Sangharakshita in relation to this book, however, I learned of his death on 30th October 2018. This death, at the age of 93, was long expected, but sudden when it occurred. He always seemed to be very straightforward and open about his death, and had apparently discouraged his disciples from building an over-grand stupa to mark his grave. It is because of the timing of his death that I was unable to ask him in detail about much of the material in the final ‘controversies’ section of this book. It is also due to this particular set of circumstances that he is usually referred to in the present rather than the past tense in this book: on reflection I have decided not to revise this.

Having set out this positive context, though, I should also acknowledge previous more negative views of Sangharakshita. I had met him on previous occasions (that he does not remember), perhaps fourteen or fifteen years earlier. Two memories are dominant. One is joining a meal at the community known as Madhyamaloka in Birmingham, where he used to live, and finding him totally dominant at the dinner-table conversation. My own contributions, which I think involved beginning to question the basis of one of his assertions, were not taken up nor given any space. Another memory is of going for a walk with him round the local park, and listening to his very conservative – and I thought, ill-informed – views on language, but not at that time having the courage to fully challenge him face-to-face.

Both of these occasions illustrate a certain unfortunate dynamic of spiritual leadership: one that can seemingly occur regardless of the leader’s best intentions to avoid the crude features of the repressive cult. A person who gains an important position because others recognise their profound objectivity – an objectivity that is partly dependent on their openness to other ideas – can end up discouraging that objectivity in their disciples. This happens because of a self-reinforcing tendency for the leader to always be listened to first, because he has the most insights on most topics, which then prevent others from developing, because they lack either the confidence or the social opportunity to challenge him. It is perhaps this dynamic that led to Stephen Batchelor’s past impression of Sangharakshita and his movement: “They operate as a self-enclosed system and their writings have the predictability of those who believe they have all the answers. They are structured in a rigid hierarchy and do not seem to question the teachings of their leader.”[1]

The Triratna Buddhist Community is a New Religious Movement, but not a cult in the most widely used pejorative sense of the term[2], and Sangharakshita is not an authoritarian leader. However, that has not prevented others from relating to him as one, whether positively or negatively. Their tendency to do so has then had complex and far-reaching effects. Whether Sangharakshita could possibly have done more to discourage this tendency is one of the more important questions that I want to examine in this book.

This dynamic has contributed a good deal to the other controversies that have surrounded Sangharakshita: the ones that I will consider in the final section of my book. Perhaps the rawest of these concern Sangharakshita’s homosexual relationships with young men: relationships that his critics have regarded as abusive because they have involved the abuse of a power imbalance. Sangharakshita’s expressed views about the relative spiritual status of men and women, and about marriage and family life have also caused substantial controversy. My goal in this book is not to examine the specifics of any particular allegation, for example of Sangharakshita’s sexual misconduct, but rather to create a wider context in which these cases might be fairly judged. I want, as best I can, to try to assess the underlying motives and assumptions that created these controversies. Are they in any sense inseparable from a wider set of attitudes that are helpful? Do they just involve a failure to apply his wider values consistently? Or are they indicative of deeper problems in Sangharakshita’s teachings as a whole?

To be able to fully contextualise these controversies, we will need to start by exploring Sangharakshita’s most universal and widely helpful ideas. These have arisen from a highly creative set of circumstances: those of a Buddhist monk, trained for twenty years in India, widely read in traditional Buddhist sources and embedded in the practices of a variety of Buddhist schools and teachers, returning to England and founding a new Western Buddhist movement. Creativity arises from synthesis: in this case the bringing together of East and West. But we should add to the factors contributing to that creativity Sangharakshita’s own breadth of character: a poet as well as a thinker, an organiser as well as a practitioner, a Romantic as well as a pragmatist.

It is not surprising, then, that we should find Sangharakshita looking for elements of Western culture that he could incorporate into a Buddhist vision, whether that means William Blake or Saint Jerome. Nor should it be a surprise that his most pragmatic teachings incorporate elements shared with psychology (the concept of integration), democracy (the concept of individuality) and science (the concept of provisionality). Sangharakshita is also well known for not accepting any of these aspects of Western culture indiscriminately. In his critical selection from Western culture lies a good deal of the interest and innovation of his approach. But it should also not be forgotten that at every stage these innovations were applied in the context of practice: whether that of meditation, the arts, friendship, or new forms of social organisation.

The Triratna view of the world emphasises personal commitment to practice, but the strength of the community required to support that practice also creates a barrier that prevents their discoveries being known more widely. However, you do not need to sign up to a Triratna view of the world to learn from Triratna and from the views that have informed it. It is time that Sangharakshita’s thinking, both in its successes and its sometimes creative failures, played more of a part in a wider discourse amongst all those who are concerned with human development.

b.    A Sketch of Sangharakshita’s Life and Work

This book is not a biography, but nevertheless, some understanding of Sangharakshita’s life will be helpful for the full understanding of the discussion that follows. Full details of much of his life, at least prior to his foundation of the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order in 1968, can be found in the four substantial volumes of his memoirs[3].

Sangharakshita was born as Dennis Lingwood, to what are often described as working-class parents in Tooting, South London, in 1925. As a child, he was diagnosed with a heart condition that meant that he spent two years in bed from the age of eight. This episode seems to have strongly set the tone of Sangharakshita’s distinctive individuality and autodidacticism. He read voraciously, including the whole of a children’s encyclopedia and many classic works of literature. After two years, the diagnosis of a heart condition was overturned, and he had to learn to walk again. After getting over-excited and running on an excursion, he then collapsed and had go back to bed and start the whole process all over again.

The way that he must have learnt determination in the face of setbacks, and of a gradualist attitude to progress, becomes evident from these early episodes. His remarkable ability to remain mindful may well have been influenced by the formative experience of having to relearn how to walk twice as an older child. However, these experiences also seem to have left a negative mark on his relationship with his body, making him cerebral and uninterested in bodily cultivation. According to one friend, he made some efforts later to compensate for this, for example through yoga or Tai Chi, but these could not entirely overcome the effects of such childhood conditioning. Some of his critics also say they have been put off by his idiosyncratic body language and speech mannerisms, which may have been influenced by these early experiences.

After leaving school at fourteen, Dennis worked for a coal merchant and the London county council. His lack of formal education did not prevent him from continuing to read prodigiously, from Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason to the theosophical writings of Madame Blavatsky. He also developed a lifelong love of the arts, which always tended towards the refined, classical and romantic. At the age of sixteen he read the Diamond Sutra, which is one of the best-known Mahayana Buddhist scriptures, full of soaring paradox. He had a powerful experience in response to it, of which he has written that he then knew that he was a Buddhist. When I asked him face-to-face what that meant to him at that time, he said that he accepted what Buddhism stood for, even though he had little understanding of the text at that time. He was reluctant to accept labels like ‘intuitive’ or ‘spiritual’ for the experience because he regarded them as inadequate, but it is clear that this was amongst the first of many powerful experiences of that kind that inspired him. From that point he started to attend the Buddhist Society in London.

On reaching the age of eighteen, he was conscripted into the army and joined a signals corps. Even under military discipline, his inner life continued, and he composed ‘Persian-style quatrains’ in his head whilst marching on the parade ground. In 1944 he was sent to India. Though delighted to be posted to the land of the Buddha, Sangharakshita at first encountered little Buddhism, but instead met Hindu teachers and practised Hindu meditation whenever his duties allowed. It was only when he was re-posted to Singapore that he met Buddhist monks and took up specifically Buddhist practices. After the end of the war, he was informed that his unit was to be demobilised in England, but he applied for leave in India and then failed to return, technically a deserter.

In India he worked temporarily for three different Hindu religious organisations, but he became disillusioned with their organisational politics and continued allegiance to caste rules. Accompanied by a friend and taking the name Dharmapriya, he thus decided to go forth, renouncing all possessions and social status. This decision tells us much about Sangharakshita’s commitment to the intuitive understanding of the spiritual life he had maintained since reading the Diamond Sutra, as well as his courage.

For two years he then lived the life of an Indian sadhu, wandering around southern India and often staying at ashrams. At one of these he had another strong spiritual experience: a vision of the Buddha Amitabha. Despite his immersion in a Hindu context, his commitment to Buddhism increased, and he sought ordination as a Buddhist monk, which he completed in Sarnath (the place of the Buddha’s first sermon) in 1950. It is from his minor Buddhist ordination in 1949 that he took the name Sangharakshita. After a visit to Nepal, Sangharakshita then studied the Pali language and scriptures for seven months with the Indian Buddhist monk, Ven. Jagdish Kashyap. Kashyap then asked him to stay in Kalimpong, in the Himalayas, and work ‘for the good of Buddhism’, which he did for fourteen years.

During his period in Kalimpong, Sangharakshita increasingly developed the interpretation of Buddhism that would be put to the test when he later returned to the UK. Despite his Theravada ordination, he had contact with a variety of different Mahayana Buddhist teachers – many of them lamas newly fled from Tibet. He was thus able to evaluate by comparison, not only between cultures, but between schools of Buddhism. He produced a flow of writing, including ‘A Survey of Buddhism’[4], which many followers consider his magnum opus. He engaged with a range of Buddhist scholars and practitioners, partly by editing a magazine, Stepping Stones. He also began to show a talent for organisation, developing the YMBA (Young Men’s Buddhist Association) to help provide a positive focus for young people in Kalimpong, and assisting the King of Sikkim in the reform of Sikkimese monasteries.

During this period, however, Sangharakshita was not confined to Kalimpong, but regularly travelled in the rest of India. At this time he met the great Indian Dalit (‘Untouchable’) leader, Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar, who had become the first Law Minister of India and had headed the commission that drafted the Indian Constitution. After long deliberation, Ambedkar had decided that, due to the oppression of the Dalits within Hinduism, he would become a Buddhist. Just six weeks before his death, he led a mass conversion ceremony of his Dalit followers. By coincidence, Sangharakshita arrived in Nagpur, where the conversion ceremonies had taken place, just after Ambedkar’s death was announced, and was able to console and aid the huge numbers of Dalits who had followed Ambedkar into Buddhism on the basis of personal faith in him, but who knew almost nothing about it. Sangharakshita continued to work in this community for several months a year during the remainder of his time in India, and Indian Dalit Buddhists have since become a significant part of the Triratna Buddhist movement. This involvement has equipped Sangharakshita with a strong sense of the social importance of Buddhism, and the ways that it can potentially be a tool of liberation for desperately poor and uneducated people.

Sangharakshita returned to the UK in 1964 at the invitation of the English Sangha Trust (the ruling body of Theravada monks in England), to help resolve disputes with the Buddhist Society. However, Sangharakshita’s idiosyncratic approach to Buddhism itself soon caused new controversy. Sangharakshita quickly gained popularity amongst ordinary people in the UK who were interested in Buddhism, for the same reasons that he was unpopular with the Buddhist establishment. He thought that spiritual life in general took priority over monastic tradition, and offered ideas that crossed sectarian boundaries. He initially came to England on a temporary basis, then decided to stay permanently, and returned to India to wind up his affairs. Whilst in India, however, he was informed by the English Sangha Trust that he would not be invited back. In another of the courageous decisions that punctuate his life history, Sangharakshita decided to go back anyway and to start his own movement.

Thus in 1967, the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order (FWBO) was founded[5]. This was followed the following year by the first ordinations into the Western Buddhist Order. From the beginning, then, the idea of adapting Buddhism appropriately to Western conditions was embodied in the name of the new organisation. Sangharakshita encountered a very different society in the UK of the 1960’s to either the one he had left behind in the 1940’s or the one he had left in India. Norms of traditional society were being questioned at an unprecedented rate as the post-war ‘baby-boomer’ generation reached adulthood. Sexual, cultural and political freedom were all central to this. Experimentation and encounter with new cultures and religions provided an atmosphere in which many young people wanted to try out Buddhism. It was, in many ways, a uniquely receptive time, at least amongst the young urban elites of the West, and Sangharakshita was fortunate in being able to harness that zeitgeist.

Some key aspects of Sangharakshita’s temperament emerged in this situation. On the one hand, it did not suit him at all, because his tendencies were quite conservative. Traditional society, classical art, conservative politics, and metaphysical philosophy continued to attract him even in the midst of the experimental movement that he himself was initiating. On the other hand, however, there was also a pragmatic flexibility in Sangharakshita’s character, and a great willingness to adopt what Buddhists refer to as ‘skilful means’. One story of this time is that, despite a lifetime’s abstention from alcohol, he would sit in the corner of a pub and spin out a drink in order to listen to the conversation and get the measure of the society in which he found himself. According to other stories, he was also willing to offer people a few drinks if he thought that would help them loosen up a bit, even though this was a strictly temporary expedient and not at all part of the culture of the FWBO. He grew his hair long, and tried LSD. His sexual experimentation from this time onwards, whilst he continued to wear the orange robe of the celibate monk, is also a particularly controversial aspect of his practice.

The apparent contradictions need to be understood by returning to Sangharakshita’s grounding in traditional Buddhism. This provided him with a confidence in the spiritual life that he felt able to adapt to an entirely different situation. The ways in which his experience crossed East and West and crossed different Buddhist schools provided him with a model of Buddhism which was independent of specific cultural contexts to an extent that was unusual amongst Buddhist teachers. However, that independence never seems to have prevented him from remaining stubbornly attached to the features of Buddhism that he considered to be core and non-negotiable (the nature of those will be discussed later in this book). For traditional rule-followers whose experience is narrower and temperament less pragmatic, Sangharakshita’s conduct in the early years of the new movement will seem to be a descent into rootless relativism; but for him, on the contrary, it was in harmony with what he considered to be the flexible universal core of Buddhism.

The new movement began with a basement in central London, but by the early 1970’s was already beginning to expand to other places, including beyond the UK. At first, Sangharakshita ran everything, but as his followers developed he increasingly passed on responsibilities to them. At the time of writing, fifty years later, the Triratna Buddhist Community (as it is now called) has 65 city centres around the world, 15 retreat centres, and around 1900 Order Members[6]. As early as 1973, he left the running of the movement to others whilst taking an extended retreat, in order to enable them to take responsibility in a space free of his influence. During the 1990’s he gradually handed on his responsibilities for running the Order and movement, leaving him free to concentrate on practice, literary work, and supporting others at a personal level.

A large number of books represent the records of Sangharakshita’s teachings during the period since the foundation of the movement. Many of these were delivered in oral form in the context of talks and seminars, and then transcribed and edited by others. The oral origins of this material give it a very different flavour to the books he directly composed, such as ‘A Survey of Buddhism’. It covers a very wide range of topics, but is most commonly based on the interpretation of a Buddhist text from any of the periods or schools of Buddhism. Sangharakshita’s goal always seems to have been to bring out the practical and inspirational relevance of these texts for Western practitioners today.

Sangharakshita’s connections with India, and particularly with the Dalit communities led by Ambedkar, did not end with his move back to the UK. In 1977, with his encouragement, some Western Order members began to work in India, creating a new wing of the movement there. This was initially known as Trailokya Bauddh Mahasangha, but the change of name to Triratna was largely motivated by a wish to have a common name for both Indian and Western wings of the movement. The movement in India was challenged by quite different conditions from those in the West. Ambedkar’s Dalit followers had converted to Buddhism with little understanding of the implications, and they continued to be constrained by poverty and lack of education and opportunity. The FWBO was able to initiate a charity (the Karuna Trust) to help meet some of these people’s social and material needs, as well as help develop a form of Buddhism appropriate for them. From the point of view of Western Buddhists in the new movement, this has provided a strong social element to its work that might otherwise be missing.

Sangharakshita was a complex and multi-faceted character. This complexity is something he has discussed himself, in identifying two sub-personalities: ‘Sangharakshita 1’ and ‘Sangharakshita 2’.

Sangharakshita 1 wanted to enjoy the beauty of nature, to read and write poetry, to listen to music, to look at paintings and sculpture, to experience emotion, to lie in bed and dream, to see places, to meet people. Sangharakshita 2 wanted to realise the truth, to read and write philosophy, to observe the precepts, to get up early and meditate, to mortify the flesh, to fast and pray.[7]

These two sub-personalities are hardly unique. They reflect the varying dominance of the right and left hemispheres of the brain, and reflect similar tensions in all of us. However, Sangharakshita’s awareness of the tensions they produced and of the difficulties in integrating them form the biographical basis of some of the most important of his ideas. It is only through our practical engagement with our contradictions that we make spiritual progress.

c.    The Practical Standpoint for Assessment

How is it possible to assess the work of such a substantial but yet elusive figure as Sangharakshita? The task is difficult. Anybody undertaking it will have a point of view, and, however great the care with which they proceed, may misinterpret him or be partial in their assessments. But it is also important to attempt an assessment. Discussion about Sangharakshita’s ideas has too often been polarised between uncritical insiders and dismissive outsiders, each equipped with an entirely different selection of assumptions and a different set of priorities. For the uncritical insiders to edge towards a fuller understanding of the limitations of Sangharakshita’s thinking, and the dismissive outsiders to recognise more of what it has to offer, some assessment needs to be attempted, however imperfect, that attempts to address both.

To make it clearer from what standpoint I intend to assess Sangharakshita’s thought, I will first say a little more about my own standpoint.

My own point of view is formed by commitment to the Middle Way, which I understand as a general principal of integrated judgement that can be followed by anyone in any context or tradition. My understanding of the Middle Way has been profoundly shaped by Buddhism and indeed by Sangharakshita’s thinking, but it has also been influenced by many other sources: for example by study of the Western philosophical tradition and its limitations; by the Critical Thinking tradition in education; by the philosophy of science; by psychology – Jungian, cognitive and developmental; by the neuroscience of brain lateralisation as developed by Iain McGilchrist; by the embodied meaning theory of George Lakoff and Mark Johnson. These other influences, though, are intellectual ones that have helped me to interpret the direction of practice that I originally absorbed from my formative time in contact with the Triratna Buddhist Order.

The Middle Way is a method of judging that implies a motive and direction of life informed by developing awareness. It can perhaps be most immediately experienced in meditation, in the process of distraction from one’s intended focus and recovery, where we become aware of our tendency to temporarily slip into entirely different goals and assumptions from the ones we thought we were motivated by. When we do this, we temporarily lose our capacity to hold more than one motive in mind in a wider awareness, and become fixated by the distraction: it becomes the whole story. The recognition of this tendency to believe we have the whole story, and the practice of avoiding it through wider and more integrated awareness, is the Middle Way. It can be applied in almost any situation, because it is a feature of human judgement, and is very obviously not limited to Buddhist contexts of practice.

I have produced a developed body of work, including the four volume Middle Way Philosophy series[8], which explores this perspective and its application. So, I have my theory, you might say. Am I thus planning to evaluate Sangharakshita solely by judging how far it agrees with or disagrees with that theory? The idea of such an approach conjures up the disagreeable image of the Procrustean Bed, whose occupants are trimmed to fit its pre-existing length. What I hope will save me from such a torturous approach is the recognition of how much these ideas are themselves a development of some of Sangharakshita’s.

It is only in retrospect that I have recognised how much I owe some of the central, universal elements of Middle Way Philosophy to Sangharakshita’s influence. Taking the Middle Way itself seriously is one of these. The concept of integration, though broadly Jungian, is one that I first understood via Sangharakshita, and, in discussion, Sangharakshita says he largely developed it for himself rather than from Jung. Sangharakshita’s ‘provisional belief’ becomes ‘provisionality’ – a central theme of Middle Way Philosophy. Perhaps most importantly, Sangharakshita’s essay ‘Mind Reactive and Creative’ is almost certainly the first source of my understanding of open and closed feedback loops – which one can also find in many other places, helping to distinguish a provisional (creative) way of thinking from a dogmatic and absolute one. It is these kinds of universal ideas in Sangharakshita that I will begin with, because in my view they form the basis for a wider understanding of Sangharakshita’s importance.

So, no, I am not setting out to fit Sangharakshita’s thought to a Procrustean Bed. Rather I will be using the most universal and helpful elements of Sangharakshita’s teachings (which happen to be consistent with my own views) as the basis for judging the rest. Of course, the selection of what is most universal and helpful remains my own selection, despite the justifications I will give to it. It is not a divinely ordained perfect selection, and I expect some to disagree with it. Nevertheless, this still seems to me the best way to approach a critical reading of Sangharakshita. I would ask those who disagree with it, rather than criticising it only in the abstract, to reflect on what alternative means they would use to accomplish the same end.

Those with a traditionalist allegiance to Buddhism may well respond that it is the Buddhist tradition itself that they would prefer to use as basis of judgement. After all, Sangharakshita’s own allegiance to that tradition has been profound since he first read the Diamond Sutra at the age of sixteen. In practice, however, I think that this would result in a much cruder Procrustean Bed than any other approach. The Buddhist tradition is a very varied and disputed tradition, and Sangharakshita’s approach has always been to try to find the helpful core of that tradition. If you want to limit your evaluation to an appeal to Buddhist tradition, but do not simply accept Sangharakshita’s own interpretation of that tradition as an absolute source of knowledge, then you will have to adopt the standpoint of another traditional school of Buddhism to evaluate his interpretation. Sangharakshita has challenged all of these schools, from the hypocrisy created by Theravadin monasticism to the ethical limitations of Zen. Despite drawing on all the Buddhist schools, he does not wholly accept any of them. Some of Sangharakshita’s crudest critics, such as the author of the online ‘FWBO Files’[9] take the approach that Sangharakshita’s teachings are ‘not true Buddhism’ because they don’t accord with a traditional Buddhist school or lineage. Ironically, then, some of the least Buddhist in spirit are the most ‘Buddhist’ in form. There is no chance of even understanding Sangharakshita’s approach fully if you are not willing to move beyond the assumption that one traditional school of Buddhism is the correct one.

Another possible approach would, of course, be a scholarly one based on reference to Buddhist scriptures. The challenge would then be to judge whether Sangharakshita’s teachings accorded with those scriptures. However, given that Sangharakshita has already made a lifetime’s project of studying and interpreting those scriptures, not only would such a scholarly survey be forbiddingly vast, but it would also have to be based on some other assumptions than his about how those scriptures should be selected and interpreted. The Procrustean Bed would then be applied indeed, with a particular scholarly basis of interpretation merely opposed to his. Such an approach would also be missing a more basic point: that scriptures are there to serve human practical insight, not vice-versa. Your view may be inspired and informed by Buddhist scriptures, but it cannot be entirely justified by them. It must stand in its own right for its practical value.

These traditionalist and scholarly ways of judging Sangharakshita’s ideas, then, would in my view not be adequate. They would also be of very limited interest, directed only at a small group of narrowly focused Buddhist scholars. To judge Sangharakshita’s ideas in a relevant and helpful way, the criteria for doing so must be practical and universal. I use the term ‘practical’ here in a broad sense. It does not necessarily mean offering specific instructions for how to act in a specific situation. However, a ‘practical’ teaching does offer the potential to change one’s approach to a specific situation in experience, when reflected upon and applied.

In this sense, assertions of a kind that only have an abstract, self-reinforcing significance, and that cannot be applied in this way, can be judged unhelpful because they are not practical. Generalisation by itself is not a bar to practicality – the test being whether a generalisation does in fact apply to a wide range of cases without evident exception. Judgements about which beliefs can be helpfully applied and which cannot of course need to take as much account as possible of the context in which those beliefs are understood. They also need to be provisional – open to comparison and correction.

This book aims to make practically helpful generalisations about the helpfulness or otherwise of Sangharakshita’s generalisations about the spiritual life. Its judgements aim to be provisional, and will be made on the basis of listening to both sides of the debate about Sangharakshita, as well as responding to feedback. However, in the end, judgements are needed, and I take responsibility for those judgements. Even if you end up disagreeing with them, I hope that you will feel that I have proceeded in a spirit of provisionality, and that they are practically motivated.

[1] Quoted in Bunting (1997)

[2] The Cult Information Centre offers five defining features of a cult, none of which can be clearly applied to Triratna:

[3] Sangharakshita (1991,1996,1997a & 2003)

[4] Sangharakshita (1987)

[5] Vajragupta (2010) gives a reliable account of the history of the movement from this point.

[6] See for up to date information

[7] Sangharakshita (1996) p.436

[8] Ellis (2012, 2013a, 2013b, & 2015)