Laurence Cox and the FWBO

Someone who left a comment today which linked Laurence Cox one of the main organisers of the Maynooth conference with the FWBO. It is clear he has done a lot of research on Buddhism. It is difficult to see what his position in regard to the FWBO is now, but in 2007 he seemed to be close to them. I had done an interview with RTE and he was involved through Indymedia with a defence of the the group.

Here are some of his reflections on this topic from earlier, and hopefully he can speak with his own voice.

FWBO discussion

In late 1997, the Manchester Guardian’s article on scandals in the FWBO sparked a flamewar that raged across the Internet. In the relative quiet of the BUDDHIST mailing list, it was possible to think a bit more calmly about some of the issues it raised….

Like a number of people who feel themselves close to the FWBO (I’ve been involved for 4-5 years, but am neither ordained nor a mitra -roughly a team member at a local centre), I was disturbed by the Guardian article and some of the issues it raised, or raised again, not just from the POV of my interest in the FWBO, but because many of these issues – in varying forms – seem relevant to any discussion of Buddhism in the West. In particular, I’ve been asking myself:

– Should I be bothered by Sangharakshita’s past, or more generally what should I expect of or look for in a Dharma teacher?

– Is there something about the nature of the FWBO that make situations like the Croydon case particularly likely, or more generally are there problems with the shape of Buddhist organisations in the West?

– Where do these views about gender come from, and what should I make of them as a “male feminist” involved in the FWBO, or more generally how do Buddhists come to hold views that go beyond the scope of the Dharma?

Here are some of the answers I’ve come to from listening to the various postings on this subject here and on Buddha-L and from thinking and reading about the subject. I’m not sure they’re right, or even particularly new at this stage (at least for Buddha-L subscribers). But the delete button is always close to hand….

Sex, Sangharakshita and the role of the teacher

SR’s past seems to raise strong views on both sides; otherwise calm Buddhists have come perilously close to the unskilful speech acts of harsh speech and gossip on the subject. For me, it seems unresolvable whether SR, as is claimed, broke his vows while still a monk. Senior Buddhists whose views I’d take seriously claim that he did, but on the basis of second-hand reports. Others, who I’d take equally seriously, deny it vehemently. The story is complicated further by the very public breach between SR and the Hampstead Buddhist Vihara over issues of lifestyle and deportment – in other words, over differing conceptions of how a “proper monk” should act.

More convincing seems to be the charge that SR’s sexual experiments after he disrobed didn’t draw a sharp enough line between the Dharmic context of teacher-student or kalyana mitrata relationships and sexual ones. My own sense of what comes across from the different versions that have been posted is that the same events may have had a very different meaning for a self-confident and charismatic teacher and for those he was in contact with. What from one side is seen as a context of “ordinary friendship” may from the other side have much more than that invested in it in terms of people’s spiritual hopes and psychological projections; similarly, what looks like open experimentation to one person may feel like manipulation to another person.

These are difficult areas which Western Buddhist lay teachers are still grappling with. Jack Kornfield’s A path with heart devotes a thoughtful and Dharmic chapter to these issues, and includes an appendix with the house rules developed by the Insight Meditation teachers to cover this area. The eclectic school of Chinese philosophy held that the excellence of each individual philosopher was at the same time their weakest point. It seems possible at least that the excellence of SR’s teaching – his activist emphasis, his focus on commitment to the Dharma, and his radical orientation towards achieving stream-entry – may at the same time be something of a “shadow” in its impatience with, and relative lack of attention to, the nature of the mud in which the lotus grows. But I only know him at second-hand, through his pupils and his writings, so I may be very wrong here.

But does it matter? I’m not convinced. It certainly matters to me to take my own teachers (incidentally, both pupils of SR) seriously as people. Otherwise it would be hard to give them the kind of confidence that’s needed, say, in a retreat. This doesn’t mean demanding perfection, though, any more than it makes sense to demand perfection from partners, parents, friends or anyone else I take seriously. Similarly, I think, with the Dharma. What SR has to say, or Trungpa, or Kornfield – or Hakuin or Buddhaghosa for that matter – is valuable to me because I work with it: I find what seems to be helpful, try to come to terms with the views of more experienced Buddhists, ask myself what sense I can make out of it. I don’t, and I don’t think anyone can, somehow adopt the whole of somebody’s views en bloc, still less somehow absorb their personality. Spiritual development is not some sort of cloning process, turning out carbon copies of the Master!

Sexual harassment, ideology and organisation

The department I work in teaches child-care workers in a country which has gone through a number of very public scandals involving family and clerical sex abuse. I’m not myself an expert, but you come to hold definite views in a situation like this; it is in any case something you can’t avoid thinking about.

Sexual harassment, almost by definition, comes out of a power relationship. To coerce people into sexual definitions of situations requires a definite imbalance of power of some kind. Such situations are extremely widespread: they include families, workplaces, residential institutions of all kinds, therapeutic relationships, and religious contexts. The power available in religious contexts includes emotional power and intellectual power – the power to define the meaning of an event.

I’m extremely sceptical of the view that specific ideologies are more or less conducive to this form of abuse. Abusing parents will make use of the normal rhetoric of the “ideology of the family”; abusing priests will make use of religious rhetoric. (In the 60s, left-wing radical men and male hippies used their own ideologies to justify exploitative relationships with women.) Pretty much any set of ideas, and any language, can be abused for the purpose of manipulation; and I suspect it could happen without language.

In particular, the FWBO seems an odd target for this form of criticism. SR’s views on sexuality, relationships and family life are considerably more tolerant than the dominant ideas of traditional Buddhism, which enjoin complete chastity (monastic ordination), in some cases at least are strongly anti-homosexual (recall the debates on this in Tibetan Buddhism), and see the “household life” as the opposite of the religious life (particularly in Theravada). A brief scan through the Visuddhimagga or the Bodhicaryavatara gives a sufficient indication of how little “pro-family” traditional Buddhism has been. If raising questions about the value of relationships and families is a problem, then it is a problem for the whole Buddhist tradition, and one within which SR’s views are remarkable for their mildness.

The FWBO could certainly be criticised from the other side, for being too lax, too samsaric in its approach and its willingness to ordain people in all kinds of sexual relationships. “Commitment is primary, lifestyle secondary” could be seen as a gateway to all sorts of unspeakable abuses. One reason I’m sceptical of this is my doubt that there is *any* necessary link between ideology and abuse: an abuser can in principle manipulate anything. A more specific objection is that the experience of Irish Catholicism – probably the most rigidly anti-sex Catholic church around – does not suggest that an ideological hardline is any guarantee of anything. Priests abused children. Monks abused children. Good Catholic parents abused children. If anything, my sense would be that the institutional power of the Church – the unquestioned access of churchmen to young people, their unquestioned power over them, people’s unwillingness to believe accusations against priests – made abuse more, rather than less, likely; but this is about power, not about ideas. (Incidentally, the Irish experience makes me sceptical of the view that traditional Asian Buddhism had no problems of abuse. It may simply be a question of institutional power preventing such abuse coming to light; in Ireland, abuse cases have started to surface as the Church’s power has been eroded.)

So power relationships seem to be the key. Here again my initial reaction was to be sceptical that this was a peculiar weakness of the FWBO. Again by comparison with traditional Buddhist groups, institutional power is very weak: the legal independence of the different FWBO centres, the emphasis placed on kalyana-mitrata between people at similar levels rather than on teacher-student relationships, the willingness to explore all the different schools of traditional Buddhism rather than to take one as an unquestioned orthodoxy, the rejection of the idea of anyone speaking on behalf of the Order, all undercut the authoritarian tendencies of Buddhist organisations. (Again, one could argue from the other side that the FWBO is too anarchist rather than too authoritarian.) Coming from a political background, these were the kinds of things I was looking for, rather than religious versions of Leninist or managerial organisational strategies.

But over time I’ve come to the view that there’s more to it than the formal power structures, and I’d like to offer some ideas on how this might work. This is really speculation as far as the mechanism goes, but it’s based on my own experience of the FWBO. Although formally the movement is extremely decentralised, in practice there are strong informal hierarchies. While in theory there’s little orthodoxy in the movement, in practice there is strong deference shown to a particular set of views. Although SR has AFAIK no longer any formal organisational role, his influence on the movement’s direction is still very strong.

To use FWBO language, there is a strong “group” element to the FWBO; it is by no means the simple association of individuals presented as normative. While the sangha is formally encouraged to avoid the “power mode” entirely and to function only in the “love mode”, in practice the two tend to coincide to a great extent. Part of this experience may come from the sharp distinction between the Order and the movement. It’s possible that the Order’s own internal relations are considerably more open than this suggests. >From the “outside” – i.e. the situation of most people involved in the FWBO – it’s impossible to tell, and the overall power relations seem fairly clear: on the one side a number of Order members whose organisational and ideological role is very clear; on the other, FWBO members and perhaps many Order members, whose primary choice is between putting up with this situation and leaving.

Maybe I should stress here that this is coming out of my own strong attraction for the movement: I’ve learned meditation from Order members, I take part in as many retreats and seminars as I can, and I still intend to deepen my involvement as far as I feel able to without compromising my own sense of integrity and honesty. While it’s hardly surprising that life in samsara is subject to all sorts of samsaric processes, there’s still some disappointment when this turns out actually to be the case!

On to the speculation, then. One of the purposes of education – formal or informal – is to socialise people for their future work situations. For most people, who will be working under fairly direct surveillance and fairly tight controls, it’s sufficient for people to learn how to work in a disciplined manner, how to manage a steady workflow and take orders. For professionals, though, who typically have a greater degree of immediate freedom in their work, there’s naturally a concern over how they will behave. A doctor, for example, or a social worker has a considerable amount of discretion, and supervision is typically retrospective, if it occurs at all. With the more independent professionals – for example psychotherapists or lawyers with private practices – there are few control mechanisms available except the blunt instrument of striking them off the relevant register. So professional socialisation in these cases involves – formally or informally – trying to build in forms of internal discipline, inner motivation, ethical and professional standards, codes of practice, and all the rest of it. If people cannot be externally controlled, they can learn how to control themselves.

Now consider the situation of the lay meditation teacher. As they are not in a formal monastic institution, with its strict ethical rules and wide variety of institutional control mechanisms, they will have a very great amount of freedom and power in their teaching situations. As we see from the Croydon case and similar situations in other Buddhist groups, this is quite a problematic situation, and not just because of the potential of sexual abuse. There is scope for problems around money, power and stimulants; there is scope for wide divergences in the ideas and practices that are being taught, and more general categories that an earlier age described as “bringing the institution into disrepute”. So for many reasons, some thoroughly honourable and some perhaps less so, it makes sense to try to emulate the formal professions.

In one sense, this is built into the whole business of meditation training. By the time anyone has reached the stage in a particular movement where they might start thinking of becoming a teacher themselves, they have of course been confronted with a wide variety of ethical precepts, meditation practices and Buddhist ideas which themselves form a strong safeguard against abuse. (On the whole, I’d find the fact that someone is a consistent meditator one of the strongest reasons for trusting someone.) At the same time, it’s clearly not enough; as Kornfield puts it, people can be very highly developed in some areas without having carried the consequences of that through to other parts of their life. (The same principle is illustrated in the Pali canon with reference to the effect of past lives on some of the Buddha’s disciples.)

>From this point of view, it strikes me as significant that the Western Buddhist Order, over the years, has changed the meaning of ordination considerably. Initially, it was (according to FWBO literature) relatively easy to become ordained, as it is of course in most traditional Buddhism. Increasingly, however, ordination has become something quite difficult to achieve, and to depend in particular on the “Going for Refuge” retreats for would-be ordinands. I haven’t been on these retreats, but the central theme appears to be around the area of commitment to the business of spiritual development. This is hardly something to be objected to, and in my view the fact that someone has been ordained within the Order is a major recommendation for that person: the process is clearly an effective one both from the point of view of increasing people’s commitment to spiritual development and from the point of view of preventing people who aren’t yet ready for it from becoming ordained.

(At a lower level, mitrahood also entails strong commitment – in the requirements that the mitra build kalyana-mitrata relationships with other people in the FBWO, that they avoid other religious groups, that they make themselves available to work voluntarily for the movement, and that they have a regular meditation practice. Again, this is hardly objectionable in itself.)

At the same time, as the history of Buddhism suggests, there are often unintended effects even from Dharmically praiseworthy developments. My own impression is that the very commitment which I see as valuable in the Order is at the same time one of its weaknesses, in that there is a strong tendency to “groupism” – to purely organisational loyalties, to a “common line”, to a strange kind of what used to be called “democratic centralism” perhaps – which operates largely without any formal supports. This is perhaps strengthened by the natural emotional slippage between commitment to the Dharma and commitment to SR’s interpretation of the Dharma, between commitment to the Sangha and commitment to the Order, and so on.

Whether this “explains” sexual harassment is another issue entirely. In my view the power situation alone is sufficient to explain that. But it does seem that there may be more general problems in this area, problems which are perhaps not unique to the FWBO. In family situations, people may become confused around areas like sex if their parents are sending out double messages: verbally saying that it’s OK to have partners, for example, but denying it with their emotional responses. In some ways, my experience of the FWBO has been a bit like this. The surface message – in terms of ideas, organisation and so on – is very attractive. But sometimes the underlying emotional tone belies the openness of the message. This is probably natural in any group that’s exploring new territory, and certainly it’s common enough. But it may also be something to work on.

Gender, views and competence

So many keyboards have been battered over this subject in the last few weeks that I’m reluctant to add anything to the flames. I’d like to try and make a different kind of point.

As a working sociologist, I notice a number of areas where senior figures in the FWBO hold views which I disagree with. This is natural, and hardly something to get upset about. What worries me, rather, is the situation where something comes to be presented as the “party line” – in other words, as in some way binding for the movement – without being grounded in anything solid. Kornfield’s story, of the lama who advised a couple on natural childbirth without knowing anything other than Tibetan folklore, springs to mind.

In the FWBO this kind of thing is rarely a problem. As far as I can tell, what SR, Subhuti and so on say does typically grow out of issues they’ve come across in teaching. Thus the question of the different feelings men and women have around commitment, say, how students react to teachers’ claims to competence in certain areas, political criticisms of Buddhist ethics or the different kinds of art that people find useful are all issues that teachers are likely to think about and respond to. Here, as in the area of meditation experience, I will listen quite carefully to what is being said.

One of the difficulties, though, is that I find SR and Subhuti – and many other Buddhist teachers! – rarely draw this line themselves. There seems to be no sense of the distinction between the practical observation that men and women, as they are now, in our current society, react to things differently, and the ontological view that these reactions are driven by different biologies. To know this would require an engagement with philosophical, biological and sociological issues which are simply ignored. This is of course how everyday thought works, but it’s disappointing (to say the least) that Dharma teachers too are not really aware of the limitations of their own knowledge, particularly within a tradition which places so much stress on the distinction between methodology and ontology.

Similarly, Subhuti’s work on citizenship appears innocent of any knowledge of e.g. the foundations of liberal and democratic political theory. Sangharakshita’s theories on culture have failed to register the existence of four decades of cultural studies, and so on. I’m not of course arguing that they should really try to become academics, far from it. But I am bothered that people whose understanding I respect very strongly in some areas should seem so unclear about where the limits of this knowledge are.

For me this really came out when I listened to my own teachers give talks on environmentalism and on economics. In each case it was painfully clear to me that they simply didn’t know what they were talking about. (I’m sure the Buddhologists on this list can sympathise with the feeling of listening to people make a fool of themselves about subjects you’ve put a lot of thought into.) Instead, what was coming out was simply “views”, and more accurately “views about views” – not the actual engagement of Buddhists with specific issues, but a reaction to second-hand opinions and things they’d seen on TV or heard from other Buddhists. There may well be a need to react to the emotional, ethical etc. content of those views, but it helps to be clear that that is what’s going on, rather than providing “a Buddhist solution to the environmental crisis” or whatever.

It seems likely that most people, placed in a position where their views are taken seriously, will tend to give opinions on things that they are less than qualified to pronounce on, and as a teacher I can hardly object! But the situation within the Sangha involves giving rather more attention to your teacher’s views than one might in a college; it rather depends on having a certain amount of confidence in their understanding. So there are ethical questions about abusing that confidence. I think there also have to be questions about a situation where “views” of this kind become the unofficial dogma of a religious movement – particularly if it’s one that one is actually committed to!

This seems more than enough for the moment. I’d like to stress again that I’m not trying to attack the movement. At present I still hope to become a mitra once I’m in a position to get involved more fully, and to seek ordination at some future stage if the Order can tolerate me and vice versa – and presumably to do my bit in making the soup, as Richard puts it. But, like Kolya, I have some very mixed feelings about the movement, and I think they raise issues which are by no means house specials of the FWBO.

With metta,



Buddhism and politics

Responding to Richard Hayes on the politics of Buddhism

On 21 Jun 97 at 14:54, Richard Hayes wrote:


> >Given the tendency in the western counter culture over the

> >past three decades or so for religion to appear as an

> >alternative lifestyle option to politics, maybe we should

> >turn the question on its head and ask in what ways our own

> >religious choices have been conditioned by our social and

> >political context – and what the implications of that might

> >be for our spiritual practice.


> It is no accident, I think, that less than 5% of all

> non-Asian Buddhists in the United States are registered

> Republicans. It is not because there is anything intrinsic

> to Buddhist doctrines as such that would oppose liberal or

> even ultra-liberal (or, as Americans call them,

> conservative and ultra-conservative) political values.

> After all, Buddhists and Republicans both tend to oppose

> any but the most minimalist government. And both love

> elephants. Rather, I think, the reason for Euro- and

> Afro-American Buddhist disinclination to support the

> Republican Party is that in the United States the

> Republican Party has linked itself with patriotism,

> conservative Christian (and especially Protestant) moral

> values, and the interests of corporate business. People

> who favour such “mainstream” American values are not the

> ones who tend to drop out in various ways (such as by

> becoming marginalized academics who teach arcane subjects

> such as Sanskrit grammar and medieval Indian philosophy).

> So far, non-Asian Buddhism in the United States has been

> most attractive to people who are alienated from

> “mainstream” values. Most converts to Buddhism in the

> United States are from the social margins: unusually

> highly educated people, academics, homosexuals, political

> radicals, former drug users, performing artists and other

> people who have very little real influence or political or

> economic power (and very little interest in having real

> power). These are the very people many Republicans point

> to as the root of nearly all of society’s ills. (I am sure

> that if more Republicans knew anything at all about

> Buddhism, at least some of them would be opposed to

> extending the rights of religious freedom to practising

> Buddhists.)

> In short, I think most Euro-American and Afro-American

> Buddhists are Buddhists as part of their social and

> political alienation, and that this alienation also

> expresses itself in the form of being apolitical or

> politically active against the goals of most Republicans.

> It is not that being Buddhist is the cause of being

> non-Republican, but that being Buddhist and being

> non-Republican both have a deeper root cause, namely, some

> form of personal alienation and social disenfranchisement.

> As Lawrence Cox suggests, this alienation could have

> serious implications for one’s Buddhist practice. The

> question is: what are those implications? Any ideas?

Well, I was hoping that someone else would jump in here, but no such luck. So I suppose I’ll have to do my thinking for myself….

Over the past three to four decades, new forms of oppositional culture (neither the traditional working class nor the traditional intelligentsia) have sprung up across western societies, to the extent that wandering through Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco, George’s Street in Dublin or Ottensen in Hamburg are in some ways remarkably similar experiences (and all sharply distinguished from the broader cultures that surround them). These cultures share not just a context but a history.

Part of this history is the search for specific ways to organise one’s own experience and practice of opposition. One of the forms in which this has been done has been political, geared to criticising and dismantling the external structures of contemporary society; one has been cultural, geared to criticising and dismantling its internal experiences and ways of feeling. (The “anti-rationalist” turn in Buddhism then makes sense within this context, as part of the same historical movement as the exploration of psychedelics, the rise of alternative medicine and the resurgence of interest in occultism.)

There tends to be quite a tension between these two forms. The more systematically one organises one’s thinking around political change, the harder it becomes to orient oneself to cultural change, and vice versa. Marxism and Buddhism are good examples: as systems of thought and as traditions, it is very difficult to raise within either one the kinds of concerns that are central to the other. At a more basic level, the kinds of pressure that the “mainstream” is always exerting mean that it’s enough of an effort for most people to step out of line in one area of life and defend that; sustaining a different way of life on every count is extremely difficult.

So while there is certainly a tendency for Buddhists not to be on the far right, and for Marxists not to be fundamentalist Christians, there seem to me to be surprisingly few people sustaining a systematic interest in both internal and external change. Not that there aren’t honourable exceptions (Allen Ginsberg and Raymond Williams come to mind), but they’re precisely exceptions. Even movements like the women’s movement and the ecology movement have tended to diverge along these lines – here the political activists and the sociologists, there the poets and the mystics.

Hence I think the tone of some of the discussion on this topic (including myself, I should add – for some reason I find making these posts far more stressful than making the odd comment on matters mystical, and it seems from what one or two other people have said that they feel the same). The amount of tension around the idea of political activism reflects a sense that this is a possible alternative, within our own kinds of cultural contexts (in a way that, say, developing an obsessive interest with golf is unlikely to be): “there but for the grace of Avalokiteshvara go I”….

Similarly, I’m sure that if I made posts on the relevance of spiritual practice to, say, the anarchy-ireland list I’d be howled off. (Our local anarchist bookshop just banned the local pagans on the grounds that they were an organised religion. Disorganised religion might have been closer to the mark….) At street level, the Hare Krishnas and the Socialist Workers exemplify both the antagonism and the similarity quite nicely. The similarity is what’s really interesting here….

Let’s say that one characteristic of movements like our own is that one of their attractions is to offer something “completely different” to the mainstream. This means in effect something which offers the appearance of starting from scratch and rethinking the world on the basis of what has to be (in the nature of things) a fairly limited set of ideas. So we have, say, a Zen fundamentalism in which what’s initially learned seems to be simply a style and a set of attitudes – but which can be used to generate a response to any problem that turns up. (Of course, actual Zen practice might well deepen people’s understanding far beyond this. But these are the most general “ideas”, as David says, not the “realisation” that they might later give rise to). This may also make some sense of the tendency to “a la carte Buddhism”, where people adopt what is for them a workable set of core ideas along with stock rejections of other, associated ideas whose intellectual or historical connection to the views they hold isn’t clear to them. Anti-intellectualism and irrationalism (both of course practised by intellectuals and in the form of communication) help to prop this up.

I think there’s some of this style of thought in the belief in many posts that one can simply deduce both the nature of politics and how it should be done from a few simple ideas that fit in with one’s own particular style of Buddhist rhetoric. (Presumably the same is true of playing an instrument, speaking a language or doing ethnographic research.) Unfortunately, this viewpoint isn’t likely to be resolved by greater sophistication in and understanding of Buddhist teachings, but only by a broader engagement with experience (in whatever form). I think this is underlined not just by the angry denial that there might actually *be* conflicts in society that need to be expressed in the form of movements and parties, but in particular by the absence of any recognition of the conflict of interests that in a broader sense is part of daily life for most if not all of us – in the workplace, in the family, in the community or wherever.

The rise of this kind of autodidactic intelligentsia is by no means a bad thing: it corresponds to a context where older subcultures (the traditional cultural elites, conventional religious subcultures, the traditional working class and so on) have become increasingly closed, unable to engage with social change and more concerned to exclude new social groups than to interact with them. So most of us educate ourselves to a greater or lesser extent (even if we’re holding student cards at the time!), picking and mixing from what’s around us. (EP Thompson described this, a little nastily, as a lumpenintelligentsia.)

One of the great advantages of this world of drifters and seekers is that it offers us a great deal of space in which to define our own directions and make our own mistakes. Because we value this, we quite rightly find it difficult to identify with highly organised groups or systems of thought. Thus the seekers outnumber the committed, and the rate of turnover even of the latter is high. Socialist radicals turn into ecomystics, and acid freaks become anarchist activists. It’s certainly easier than trying to be both simultaneously. But it also makes it difficult to ground our thinking not just in our own experience, but also in other people’s. Ruth [Rickard] puts this better:

[Ruth:] > I’m an old hippy, always in revolt against authority and

> discipline, but I’ve found it true these last years that

> the more time I spend really trying to understand what two

> thousand five hundred years of scholars thought worth

> understanding, the more I have an understanding I can take

> refuge in.

We tend, I would think, to be dogmatic groups of one (not unlike Trotskyists…), defending our own hard-won ideas (and even realisations) but finding effective communication threatening, particularly when it brings us the bad news that other people don’t see things the way we do. Sooner break off communication with a dogmatic assertion of our own superior realisation than learn why someone else sees things the way they do. Our attempts to develop autonomously, because they run in different directions to other people’s, tend to keep us separate from other people. The really difficult skills, of accepting the existence of diversity and conflict and still trying to communicate and cooperate, take a lot of work. I’ve met people who are convinced that it’s wrong to try and convince other people of anything….

At the same time, the fact that we are trying to do things differently and on the basis that (in principle at least) nothing is sacred makes any kind of sustained activity quite an achievement. One of the advantages of taking things for granted and not asking too many questions is that it makes everyday activity easy to produce. Once everything – the reasons for an action, the state of mind we are in when we produce it, the way we go about it, how we link it to other actions – is up for grabs, it’s relatively difficult to act. Joy [Vriens]put it this way:


> I am not an old hippy and also think authority is an

> outdated structure. I do think some discipline is

> necessary, not by imposing oneself hardships and ascesis,

> but by being true to oneself and the choices one has

> made in one’s life.

So one way of thinking about the kinds of things many of us have been looking for from Buddhism is that we’ve been looking for a way to challenge everyday ways of thinking and feeling, to develop our own independent position and perspective, and to find ways of stabilising what we’ve learnt. Personally, I think this is an extremely valuable project; I’d go so far as to say that we’re collectively very fortunate to live in a time and place where this kind of project is relatively easily accessible to so many people.

At the same time, apart from the difficulties I’ve outlined, it is a quite different project from that of many Buddhists through the ages. Most notably, it is a polar opposite of the way monastic Buddhism has traditionally been organised. In most traditional Buddhist countries, “serious Buddhists” have tended to become monks or nuns. This has typically entailed extensive study of a single scriptural and commentarial tradition, along with a single school of practice. So people have been required to accept and practice a single, shared, form of Buddhism, ratified by the weight of teachers and tradition, as opposed to a situation where at its extreme everyone has their own “unique” brand of the Dharma.

At the same time, their other activities have been extremely curtailed and formalised, as any collection of monastic rules makes clear. Far from life being extremely open and fluid, one of the points of monastic rules is in a sense to focus people’s attention on what are defined as the key issues.

These divergences don’t invalidate modern Buddhism (if its validity depended only on a single, unchanging institution its lifespan would be considerably shorter than the 5,000 years traditionally predicted). But they do mean that it’s liable to characteristic pressures. If there is a tendency to scholasticism in monastic Buddhism, there’s a tendency to shallow and unsystematic eclecticism in contemporary Buddhism. If there’s a pressure towards the dead weight of authority and ritual in the monastery, there’s a tendency for incoherence and bricolage in our own practices. To find the middle way, we need to have a sense of the specific directions we’re being pushed in, and of their strengths and weaknesses. I’m sure other list members can find deeper and more helpful ways of thinking about this kind of issue.

In his biography of Blake, EP Thompson situates him in precisely this world of religious and political drifters and seekers, of conflicts within the Swedenborgians and of the attempt to combine a cultural alternative to utilitarian rationalism with a political alternative to the reactionary monarchy of his day. He argues that Blake’s iconography draws on that of the Muggletonians, a curious sect born out of radical Dissent and political nonconformism that Blake’s mother was apparently a member of.

No better place to wind up this post than this: “In 1968 I gave an early lecture on Blake at Columbia University, at a time of excitement when some kind of campus revolution against the Moral Law was going on, and I startled the audience by acclaiming William Blake as ‘the founder of the obscure sect to which I myself belong, the Muggletonian Marxists’. Instantly I found that many fellow-sectaries were in the room.”

Maybe we need an analysis of the forms and practices of Muggletonian Buddhism….

With Metta,


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