In Ireland the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order/ Triratna Buddhist Community FWBO/TBC is known as the Dublin Buddhist Centre. They have a centre on Joyce Street, Dublin 1.
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Inside the cult of Sangharakshita
Its formative years, by an ex- long-term member.
I was involved with the FWBO/TBC intermittently from the late 70’s until the early 2000’s. Until the late 1980’s I was heavily involved and in the centre of things – including the ordination process. I was, however, never ordained into Sangharakshita’s Order; the reason will become obvious in the content of this article.
There are a few general points that I should make: as I feel that they have not been given the importance they merit in other commentaries on the FWBO/TBC that I have read.
1/ During the period of my involvement – and I believe still – there was an overwhelming cult of personality built up around the person of Sangharakshita. The sheer scale of this personality hype would be difficult for an outsider to grasp. To give a small example: In the mid-1980’s, Sangharakshita (who from now on, to save space, I will refer to as simply S) was quoted as saying that old encyclopedias were more reliable (information-wise) than more modern editions; and that order members – ie, members of S’s order – should consider carrying a dictionary with them whenever possible. Incredibly, order members that I knew at the time, took this advice seriously, and a few did start brandishing dictionaries (old ones of course) even though this topic had nothing at all to do with Buddhism.
This unconditional adulation was given added potency by the extravagant, and wholly unmerited, grandiose titles that S gave to himself. During the 70’s and 80’s he was no less than: The Venerable Maha Sthavira Sangharakshita! It is easy to imagine the effect this extravagant titling had on impressionable 20+ youths.
Almost every utterance made by S was given the sanctity of the 10 stone tablets brought down from the mountain by Moses. Most Buddhist teachers do not generate anything like this scale of extreme adulation – so why did Sangharakshita? There has to be a suspicion that it provided the perfect cover for his extra-curricular activities. Order members and mitras (meaning more committed followers and often workers for FWBO services and business ventures) were in such awe of the man, that they found it impossible to question his sexual conduct; even his closest followers felt hindered in this respect. Thus, he was able to be active as a sexual predator, with damaging effects on some of his conquests, for at least 15 years or more – no questions asked. This fact, in itself, points to the fwbo/tbc (lower case text from now on) being an insidious cult – but there is much more to support this conclusion.
2/ During the period of my involvement the fwbo/tbc was primarily a young person’s movement. In the late 70’s most of us were in our 20’s, and it was unusual to find an active order member older than 35. Young people are, of course, much easier to manipulate than 30+ folk. The Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, and now the Jihadi groups in Syria and Africa, have all found their most loyal and fanatical recruits, amongst the young.
It may seem fanciful to compare the fwbo/tbc with such homicidal groups – but is it? Recently, Buddhist monks in Burma have been involved in a brutal ethnic cleansing campaign against their neighbouring Muslim communities – deaths have occurred. I’m afraid that the image of Buddhism as being a peaceful, sublime religion is sometimes rather naive.
3/ The fwbo/tbc was, and I’m told largely still is, very insular. People from other Buddhist groups were never invited to give talks. To become a mitra until the late 90’s (there may have been some changes since) involved an undertaking not to associate with Buddhists from other groups. S, and his minions, claimed that association with other groups would ‘confuse’ the aspiring mitra.
4/ This leads to a vital point: S’s teaching diverges in important respects from mainstream Buddhist doctrine. The differences are more than just academic. S’s concept of a ‘higher evolution’ with an attendant ‘spiral path’ is alien to other Buddhists of any school. These ideas owe more to Nietzsche and Darwin than any Buddhist teacher. S, and his chief disciple Subhuti, have, since the late 70’s, tried to instil into the minds of every order member the claim that they are some sort of spiritual ‘master race’, vastly superior to any other Buddhist order. This has led to the fwbo/tbc adopting a rigid, paralysing hierarchy, and by extension an abusive, bullying attitude to the mitras they are supposedly responsible for. As one, soon to resign, order member told me in 1997: order members regarded mitras as ‘some sort of sub-human species’ in the 1980’s! He wasn’t joking, and this was the impetus for the abuse which I, and other mitras, suffered – especially during this decade.
S’s negative attitude to the practice of insight meditation (vipassana) is an attendant problem. The meditation practices taught by his order are regarded by genuine Buddhists as supplementary practices, optional to the main practice of insight meditation: which leads to spiritual insight, and eventually enlightenment. S, in the past, has made the ridiculous claim that insight meditation, in its most popular forms, leads to alienation and even mental illness; even though 1000’s of people in Britain and abroad – including myself – are practising some form of insight meditation, without any discernable ill effects!
So, these are the factors which lead me, and many other people, to conclude that the fwbo/tbc is really the cult of Sangharakshita – not a genuine Buddhist group. That it is potentially, and in the past was actually, inherently abusive and a danger to the mental and emotional well- being of its members.
In 1978 I was living in an fwbo/tbc community and working in an fwbo business. I had developed a close relationship with an older order member – let’s call him P. Although I knew that P was bisexual this had never been a problem. In the spring 1978, senior order member Subhuti came to give a talk at a community meeting, which outlined the, soon to be notorious, ‘Greek love’ model of spiritual friendship.
According to Subhuti, relationships between members of the opposite sex are often marred by ‘neurotic dependence’; this is stifling to the spiritual growth of both partners. He suggested, therefore, that two possible alternatives should be considered as alternative outlets for sexual gratification: promiscuous, casual heterosexual sex, free of serious commitment, or a gay sexual relationship: particularly – and this is the crucial point– between an older, or more experienced, teacher and his pupil. This, of course, was to initiate the wave of sometimes deeply inappropriate relationships between order members and mitras, which were a conspicuous feature of the late 70’s and 80’s. I noticed my friend P enthusiastically supporting this latter proposal, and realised that it had been talked about within exclusive order member meetings. I did not know then that these ideas originated from S.
Shortly after Subhuti gave this talk, P tried to forcibly seduce me: he simply pulled me into his room and started groping at my genitals. Because we were friends: he could see how ‘freaked out’ I was, and stopped after about 4 minutes – so the act was not consummated. Because we were friends: I kept quiet about the incident and never mentioned it to anyone. P died some time ago. A few other sexually charged incidents – less serious but still disturbing – involving other, same sex, community members occurred about the same time.
I strongly believed then that P had been manipulated by Subhuti, and through him by S, into behaving in a way that was out of character for him – and it was shockingly so. I still believe this. Subhuti, and his teacher S, bear a direct responsibility for the emotional distress this and other similar incidents – like that described by ex-Yashomitra in his open letter of 2003, which occurred during his first visit to Padmaloka in 1980 – had on the young, impressionable and traumatically shocked recipients. My relationship with P was seriously damaged by this incident, and we failed to keep in contact after I left the community a few months later.
It had been intimated to me that S was gay (although it was sacrilege to say so openly). I also knew that S always seemed to have a close young male companion; there were about 4 different consorts for S during the period of my fwbo involvement. I knew all of these young guys: not well, but I mixed with them during the normal course of my fwbo activities. They were all around 20 years old, easy-going and straightforward types – but most importantly they were all sexually straight! I could tell this the way that guys generally can. Consequently, it seemed inconceivable to me that any of these relationships could be sexual in nature: why would a gay man like S want a close relationship with consecutive youths who were not gay themselves? I found this puzzling, but knew of the dangers of consulting senior members of S’s order on such a touchy subject.
What I had failed to realise, in my naivety, was that S preferred very young and sexually straight companions. I can’t possibly prove it, but I believe that he was sexually excited by the prospect of a gay relationship with a young straight consort, whom he could ‘convert’ to his own sexual orientation; and then cast aside when he wanted a change. I am convinced that this was the case. Instead of examining this potentially harmful aspect of his sexual nature, within the context of insight meditation practice, and the Buddhist precepts (ie, moral guidelines), he simply tried to incorporate all of this into his teaching: with damaging consequences for some of his young companions, and eventually the small group of order members who followed his example.
The Buddhist, especially Theravada, view on sexual desire is unambiguous: whilst practicing insight meditation, one focuses on the arising of feelings of sexual desire. One observes these feelings objectively and dispassionately; and changes in their intensity. One notes the passing of these desires. They are just transient phenomena: they arise and then die. There is no meaning or purpose in becoming attached to such ephemeral feelings – but that is exactly what S did for a minimum of 15 years!
So there are serious questions about S’s teaching – if he presents it, as he does, as being Buddhist. His attitude to the subject of sexual desire being a strong indication of a seriously flawed interpretation of the Buddha’s teaching.
During the 1980’s the ordination process became lengthy and arduous. The way mitras where prepared for ordination varied: some, including myself, where treated to a sustained course of what became known as ‘fierce friendship’ or ‘feedback’. This latest perversion of the Buddha’s teaching, like all new ‘developments’ in the fwbo, had its origins in closed, secretive meetings between order members. I do know that S and Subhuti were well aware of what was becoming a noticeable part of the ordination process.
In the mid-1980’s in a wave of enthusiasm, I asked S for ordination. We had a familiarity with each other from previous contacts. I remember that he looked at me rather coldly and said, ‘you’re putting your head on a block’. He might well claim that he has no recollection of such a conversation; but selective amnesia has become S’s ‘stock-in-trade’ hasn’t it? He claims that he does not recall having a sexual relationship with ex-Yashomitra in 1982, a relationship that lasted for around 6 months from the spring of that year. The problem is that everyone knows that S has an excellent memory – as his latest volume of memoirs, and the infamous ‘Conversations with Bhante (sangharakshita), August 2009’ proves. Perhaps the fact that ex-Yashomitra was only 18 at the time – turning 19 during the course of the relationship – has something to do with his uncharacteristic memory lapse! After-all, if S had admitted that at the age of 56, he had lured an 18 year old heterosexual youth into having sex with him over a period of 6 months, it would have seriously damaged his reputation, and that of his order.
What S meant by his comment, about putting my head on a block, was a mystery to me for about 7 months; but I was about to be targeted for a bout of ‘fierce friendship’.
It is partly for this reason that I am convinced that S knew about this new venture into abusive behaviour. For a period of several months, I was endlessly criticised for practically everything I did; I could not do anything right. It was obvious I was being bullied, and the abuse was becoming unrelenting. Some of the criticism seemed to be projections from my assailants own minds; inappropriate and inaccurate: more to do with their own psychological tensions than my own failings. It seemed to me that the intention was, to either force me to withdraw my ordination request, or to break down my personality: to make me ‘more receptive to the order’, as one order member put it. Other mitras had similar experiences.
I remember that one of my fellow mitras was forced to come to my aid on one occasion, the abuse was so spiteful; so this was spiritual friendship fwbo style!
Some mitras sought to have a sexual relationship with a senior order member of the same sex – an alternative to ‘feedback’. In a speech given to an FWBO conference on the ordination of men in July 1986 (see: http://www.ex-cult.org/fwbo/SubQuote.htm), Subhuti outlined the same points I described in the above section on the ‘Greek love’ model of spiritual friendship, which I heard him give in around April 1978. So this idea was not just a suggestion for discussion, or a passing whim, it had been an on-going practice by S, and a few of his closest disciples, for more than 8 years! The truth is that a small group in the order, had adopted the practice of having sexual relationships with mitras – often more than one at a time – in direct imitation of S’s behaviour; and had done so throughout the 1980’s!
Experienced and less impressionable mitras, knew that the sexual variant of order member/ mitra relationships, were tacitly considered, by both parties in these arrangements, as a quicker route to ordination than simply waiting for your turn in the queue. These secret homosexual liaisons were unlikely to be discussed in such blunt terms, but the implication was obvious – to most of us. A sexual relationship with S, of course, was an even faster track to ordination.
Another problem involved the financial side of fwbo business ventures. I worked in a number of work schemes and was told, in more than one case, to register as unemployed – so that I would receive benefits. Another possibility was a government cash support scheme for new enterprises. The money I received in benefits, was topped up with an allowance from the business for lunches and retreats – an illegal practice of course. These funding methods were considered as ethically acceptable: although likely to lead to great personal difficulties if discovered by the relevant government department. It was by using such reprehensible tactics that the fwbo/tbc acquired some of its wealth.
During the mid-1980’s, my relationship with members of my family became strained – and in one case, fatally damaged. Relationships with friends outside the fwbo were also seriously impaired. This, of course, is a frequent outcome for people who become inducted into a cult; as you develop relationships with people in the cult, your previous long-term friendships run into difficulties – which become increasingly pronounced as your involvement intensifies. The dynamics involved here are quite complex, but I think the reader will have an intuitive sense of how this joint process of induction into a cult, and alienation from previous, sometimes lifelong relationships, works.
It is for this reason, I feel, that people often find it hard and painful to leave the fwbo/tbc: they are leaving the relationships they have built behind to re-enter, effectively, a vacuum. To heal the damage done to their old associations is difficult and deeply distressing – this is how I found it.
The late 1990’s
The difficulties for the fwbo/tbc began in late 1997. There was a famous article in The Guardian newspaper, and websites sprang up criticising S, and his organisation, in troubling terms.
In the wake of all this, the wbo/tbo (S’s order) became withdrawn and inactive, at the centre where I was warily involved. In the months that followed, in 1998, it became clear to all of us what position the order where taking. A portion of The Guardian article had been devoted to outlining the difficulties that increasingly developed at the Croydon centre, outside London, England. Particular criticism had been cast on the behaviour of its former chair-person: ex-Padmaraja. Consequently, the inner circle of the wbo/tbo decided that all the blame for the troubles within the fwbo/tbc should be laid at the feet of ex-Padmaraja – instead of the real culprit Sangharakshita!
This policy seemed to work reasonably well – at least temporarily. Even order members who had been active in the 1980’s and knew the truth (that S and Subhuti were largely responsible for the growth of extreme views and modes of behaviour ) could be relied upon to ‘tow the party line’. They were fearful of the consequences of ‘rocking the boat’: alienating their colleagues and risking possible expulsion from the order. People outside the order, mostly old mitras, who knew the truth and might be tempted to speak out, were dealt with on an individual basis. In my own case, I was effectively excluded from a local centre and its activities by the anxious chairman, after tentatively raising concerns about historical accuracy – at the end of the 1990’s.
I only saw Kulananda’s letter to the Guardian newspaper (see: www.ex-cult.org/fwbo/Guardian.htm ) very recently for the first time: I was shocked and mortified. Written in the immediate aftermath of the critical Guardian article of October 1997, it reveals the extent to which S’s inner circle, of favoured order members, are willing to deceive the interested public, and re-write the darker aspects of the history of their organisation.
It would be illuminating to look closely at the letter’s contents. Kulananda claims that ‘difficult, indeed tragic, events’ never happened at any other centre: this is a deliberate falsity! Kulananda knows that a semi-official policy of ‘fierce friendship’ or ‘feedback’ was commonplace at other centres in the UK; he knows that this involved many order members in the practice of savage criticism ( to put it very tactfully) of mitras in their charge – often those who had asked S for ordination. He knows that this behaviour often descended into outright bullying and intimidation. He also knows that this practice was officially brought to an end in the early 1990’s, after discussions at order meetings – presumably because of the troubles at the Croydon centre, and the broadcast of the critical BBC film (view on the ‘Dialogue Ireland’ main webpage). I checked all of these facts with a senior order member in the late 1990’s, so the information is reliably sourced.
Kulananda then claims that lessons have been learned and safeguards put in place, to prevent a recurrence of abusive situations. Well, the only ‘safeguard’ at that time, 1997, was the appointment of a ‘President’ to oversee the activities at allocated fwbo/tbc centres – usually more than one. At that time, the president of the Dublin centre was Kulananda himself: I can’t help wondering – with a wry grin – just how ‘safe’ the fair people of Dublin felt, at having such a reprehensible character as the overseer of their fwbo/tbc centre!
The other presidents were S sycophants: guaranteed to quash creative innovations, like the introduction of different meditation techniques, which a few order members might have wanted to experiment with. In short, their job was to ensure the continuation of S’s tired and failed formula.
Kulananda’s comments about ex-Padmaraja’s role in the crisis at the Croydon centre, in the late 1980’s, is a misrepresentation of the truth. He claims that the former Croydon chairman was distorting S’s teaching. The truth is that ex-Padmaraja was the head of a team of about 7 order members; some of these were involved in bullying mitras (including one who is now responsible for ordaining people) as were order members at other centres.
Most of these Croydon order members – although admittedly not ex-Padmaraja – were well connected to the rest of the order: they attended regional order meetings, conventions, etc. As a result, the order as a whole were well aware of what was going on in Croydon; the fact that mitras were being abused was not unusual – after all the same bullying was going on elsewhere. There was little concern over events in Croydon until the latter half of the 1980’s – why? The reason was because fewer and fewer Croydon based mitras were being deemed ready for ordination as the decade progressed.
S’s primary concern has always been with the growth of his order. The success of any fwbo/tbc centre was measured, by him, in terms of how many potential order members they put forward. S, and his inner circle, have their own criteria for the ‘readiness’ of a mitra for ordination; the problem was that by around 1986, ex-Padmaraja’s criteria was diverging from S’s. Thus there was a mismatch, and the differences of opinion (on readiness for ordination) were irreconcilable. This is what caused S to move against the former Croydon chairman – not Kulananda’s allegation that he was distorting S’s teaching. During the 1980’s, I do not remember there being any concerns about this; indeed the situation in Croydon was widely admired by many order members I knew at the time. S’s ambition to ordain as many people as possible was at the root of the problem.
This information was given to me by people who had lived and worked in the Croydon situation for years – so again, it is reliably sourced. I have to say that the attempt by Kulananda, and other members of S’s inner circle, to blame ex-Padmaraja for everything that went wrong at the Croydon centre, is one of the most despicable and cowardly acts in fwbo/tbc history – why? Because further to the fabricated fantasy that unethical behaviour only occurred in Croydon, S’s inner circle have tried to coalesce all the blame for this misconduct on one key member of the Croydon order – ex-Padmaraja. Thus ex-Padmaraja was, by implication, the source of all the past woes of the fwbo/tbc: instead of the real culprit – their founder S himself!
Finally, Kulananda’s suggestion that the behaviour of order members is somehow monitored, or affected in any way, by the scrutiny of their peers simply does not conform to my past experience. In practice, once someone is ordained they are free to behave any way they wish; there is no real accountability in the order. I remember complaining about the behaviour of an order member, once, and being told curtly that ‘the order isn’t some sort of court’. If it were true that accountability in the order was ever in practice, the bullying and abuse that went on throughout the 1980’s would have been stopped much sooner – instead of going on for circa 10 years!
Admittedly, there is very little here that is new; and this article is probably about 12 years too late to make much of an impression. It does, however, give a different perspective on the troubled ethos of the fwbo/tbc. Instead of an outsider, or an ex-order member writing it, it is authored by a partial insider who wrestled with persistent doubts.
Moreover, I feel that too much attention has been given to the sexual behaviour of S and some of his followers; this has detracted attention away from the main problem: the culture of abuse, especially in the 1980’s, which sometimes seemed to be embedded in the very fabric of the fwbo/tbc. This commentary is an attempt to rectify this imbalance.
If you have an interest in Buddhist teaching and meditation, I suggest that you do plenty of research on the internet. It is not good to depend on Wikipedia for information: I am told that they rely too much on material given by the organisations themselves.
You need to dig much deeper. Use a search engine to look for personal stories, endorsements, and particularly criticisms of Buddhist groups you may wish to visit – good luck!
It is important to point out, that not all members of S’s order were guilty of gross unethical behaviour; there were some who were vocal in their opposition to the ‘feedback’ bullying and sexual misconduct that went on – centering in intensity in the 80’s. Others quietly yearned for the ‘bad vibes’ to go away; I knew such people in the order.
I am withholding my name at the emphatic request of a family member.
A former veteran fwbo mitra September 2015