Uttaraloka Sketches 04

This is a long newsletter – but it comes as a result of me spending a few weeks pondering quite deeply on my relationship to the Triratna Buddhist Order. This was sparked off by a particular event which I mention briefly but the reflections have helped me resolve an ongoing difficulty with my relationship to the Order. Although in a way they are not anything new – just a bit more deeply appreciated

The Order Revisited – Again

In my early teens I discovered the Copenhagen Group of physicists – Bohr, Heisenberg, Dirac, et al. – and their interpretation of quantum mechanics, and realised that I wanted my life to be devoted to a valuable goal, in company with a small group of dedicated men. I soon came across a rather different ‘Circle of Friends’ in the Beat poets, and in the course of time I have been inspired by several such circles – the Romantic Poets, Cuban Revolutionaries, New England Philosophers, and Milarepa and his disciples.

In my early twenties I had a series of visionary experiences which I did not understand but which I knew would form the nucleus of my life. I called them ‘IT’ and searched for someone who knew what ‘IT’ was. Eventually on an Easter Retreat in 1970 Dhammadinna and I met Bhante and we heard his series of talks on Vision and Transformation. I’d found my man. I also found a context, a set of practices to develop this vision and build a life based on it, and I found a Circle of Friends who shared that vision and wished to live from it. After a retreat the following year five of us spent a few days together and drew up a covenant to ‘Live the Buddhist life from our vision’ – I felt then, and now, the depth and seriousness of that commitment and the indestructible nature of our spiritual fellowship. For me this was my initiation into a Vajrakula (although I would not have called it that at the time). Two years later in the summer of 1973 the two women were ordained into the Western Buddhist Order and a few months later we three men were also ordained.

I had found the nucleus of my life and a circle of friends to share it with. But this brought with it new and deeply felt issues. I had grown up with a strong independent streak and did not find fitting into groups easy, so it was not long before I felt a discomfort. I had joined something, but I did not feel comfortable being a ‘member’. After a year of so of intense and highly confused emotional conflict, I left the developing Buddhist community in London, and went to live alone in a small caravan on an isolated farm in West Cornwall. I felt deliciously happy. (Interestingly on my way to Cornwall I visited Bhante and Mark in Millbrook near Plymouth and it was shortly after that when Bhante invited me to be ordained – when I moved away from the community – not when I settled into it!)

However I still felt drawn to being part of a small circle of friends so it wasn’t long before I collected around me a dozen or so people with whom I shared my spiritual aspirations – and three years later I moved back to London to have another try at working with others to build our Buddhist movement. It was not long before I had another crisis.

This was the time when men and women’s activities were separating and there was a strong critique of ‘emotionally dependent sexual relationships between men and women’. Unpleasant words were being spoken and there was often an explicit criticism of those who did not accept these principles. I didn’t; and I felt the criticism strongly. Did I want to belong to this the sort of community? But this was the community I’d committed to work with for life? The familiar conflict had risen again but this time with a more explicit content. I struggled and, at a crisis point, a resolution eventually dawned – I can still remember the occasion with great clarity. I would have nothing more to do with the FWBO, the institution. However I drew up a list of names, of individuals with whom I felt I had a spiritual friendship – a resonance of spiritual values – and I would remain in contact with them. As I expressed it at that time, I would remain in the Order – which I understood to be a network of individual spiritual friendships – but I would no longer identify with the FWBO. I would work with my friends, but not for some religious organisation.

For the next twenty years I worked with friends in the UK and the USA to establish conditions for people to practice the Dharma and, because I worked mainly in the US with a small group of friends, it was not until the early 1990’s that my demon raised its head again.

I was on a ten week retreat at Guhyaloka with some old friends when I decided that on my return to the US I would give up working for the ‘movement’ – i.e. establishing the organisations and facilities through which we taught the Dharma – to concentrate more on developing the Order – i.e. the personal spiritual relationships that constituted the network of spiritual friendships that was the essence of our Order. Gradually our Buddhist community in the US was becoming larger and needed more organisation, and I began to feel less and less comfortable with it. A new crisis was looming. There was a dominant idea, emerging from the UK, that spiritual maturity was equated to taking responsibility for the work and development of the Buddhist movement. And yet….I was moving away from such responsibility. Was I falling away from the spiritual path? Where did I stand in relationship to the Order? Should I resign?

Precisely at this juncture Bhante published a review of Reginald Ray’s Buddhist Saints in India, in which Ray put forward the idea that the Buddhist community consisted of three strands: lay followers; settled monastics; and forest renunciants – and that these three strands were mutually supportive and dependent. By this he meant that in the Buddhist Community there would be those who practised the Buddha’s teaching but continued to live a generally conventional lifestyle; those who lived within the context of the religious institutions; and those who lived more independently – forest or mountain hermits being the paradigm. Bhante supported this view and discussed how it might apply to our own Order. He had supplied a resolution to my conflict and when I read the review I wept deep sobs of relief. I remember it well – pacing up and down the massive kitchen of the big house in which I was house sitting at the time. I would align myself with the forest dweller end of the spectrum.

In 1997 I returned to the UK and lived and worked at Padmaloka as part of the team preparing men for ordination. I was very happy working exactly where I wanted – engaging with individual men who wanted to understand, and then join, our Order. Of course we were supported by the institution of Padmaloka and the wider movement but I had little to do with that – especially when I later moved to Guhyaloka to support the facilities and retreats for men completing the last few steps into the Order. All went well for the next ten or fifteen years but then a mini-issue arose followed by a new major outburst of my conflict.

The mini issue arose out of concerns with ‘The unity of the Order.’ I found myself at the centre of a minor controversy. I’d given a talk in response to another which claimed that if you didn’t believe in rebirth you could not be a Buddhist. I explained that I was a Buddhist but I did not believe in ‘literal’ rebirth and that I didn’t think the Buddha did either. It created a little ripple and some people thought I should certainly be removed from the College of Public Preceptors and a few thought that I should be expelled from the Order because I did not agree with Bhante on this matter. I was questioned – interrogated even – to determine whether my views were in line with Bhante’s and eventually it was agreed that my views were not sufficiently unorthodox to require expulsion.

I learned two things from this incident. Firstly very few of those criticising me had actually read and understood what I wrote, and only one or two people were actually interested to understand my views. The only concern was whether or not I agreed with Bhante. The second discovery was that the College had found itself in the position of having to judge the orthodoxy of an individual’s views. I was not comfortable with this and, for this among several other more practical reasons, I decided to retire from the College. (I believe that it is now understood that an order member cannot be expelled for holding particular views – presumably within reason – but only for severe ethical breaches.)

However the major occasion for the return of my old demon is the intrusion of the ethos of institutional safeguarding into the movement and order – and the way my friends have been treated under its influence. I am generally very uncomfortable with ‘Triratna Safeguarding’ for reasons that I’ve written about elsewhere. I realise that this is the price we have to pay for being a growing movement with established religious institutions, but none-the-less for me the old question arises and is valid. Do I want to be part of a religious institution? Should I withdraw from the Order? I’d like to resolve this issue once and for all. It has plagued my spiritual life. I’d like to leave it behind.

The Nature of the Order.

Twenty years ago Bhante came under a lot of criticism for his sexual relationships and many people reassessed their relationship with him. Although I didn’t share any of the criticisms that I heard about Bhante, I looked more closely into the nature of my relationship with him. My overwhelming feeling towards him was one of gratitude. I was lost and confused when I met him, he illumined a vision that I’d already felt deeply, but vaguely, and he continued to support and encourage me to clarify and follow this vision. I feel that Bhante gave me my life and I have both enjoyed it and feel deeply satisfied with what I have done. Had he not revealed the Dharma to me I do not think it would have gone so well. So my gratitude is literally infinite. I am therefore proud to consider myself his disciple. I have a spiritual link with Bhante – he is the golden node in my network of spiritual friendships.

Through my ordination he recognised our spiritual fellowship, and over the decades I have felt it grow ever more strongly. In very traditional terms he is my guru and my link to the spiritual lineage **. That link is unbreakable – no matter what! To break it would be to deny my deepest vision and aspiration. So I guess he is my Vajraguru. I feel a similar link with my brothers and sisters albeit sometimes less clearly or strongly. The Order, as has often been said, does not have a corporate existence. It is a spiritual community. I cannot leave this Order, I cannot break that link with Urgen Sangharakshita, or my brothers and sisters. No one, in my opinion can leave – or be expelled from – this Order, as long as they retain their spiritual bond with Urgen Sangharakshita, or with a firm disciple of Urgen Sangharakshita etc. etc.. But if that bond breaks they have expelled themselves and it will be recognised without formal registration. The traditional samaya is not just a fancy idea is it a real experience – and those who share it form a Vajrakula – a secret, in the sense of occult, order – a purely spiritual, mythic, order. It is to this Order that I owe my allegiance. The Triratna Buddhist Order as an institution is only a manifestation of this Vajrakula on the level of everyday life, and as such it will inevitably have to compromise with the world. You may say that this is hopelessly idealistic – I am proudly idealistic, I’m a mystic, a believer in spiritual realities – but many of us are idealists and although we may realise that the Actual will always fall short of the Ideal, we should resist any falling away from the Ideal.

In the first decade of its existence our vision of the order as a network of individual friendships was, I believe, understood by all order members. But as it became larger the tendency for the Order to become organised and regulated was always present, and under pressures from the world at large this has strengthened. As a counter to this tendency the idea of chapters was introduced to maintain the intimacy of a small network of friends – with cross connections to other chapters and occasional ‘meetings in large numbers’ – to maintain the wider order – as proposed by the Buddha. The personal reporting-in section of Shabda also supports the myth of the Order.

The Vajrakula does not exist, chapters do not exist (even taking a name is perhaps a corruption). Individuals have connections from one chapter to another. And occasionally a meeting in large numbers is convened and organised by an ad hoc committee. There is no list of members – the members know who they are – partly by their attendance at a chapter meeting – but mainly by their awareness of being disciples of Urgen Sangharakshita, or disciples of his disciples etc..etc..

There are things that go on in the world that upset and disturb me greatly; there are things that go on in the Triratna Buddhist Community that upset and disturb me greatly, and there are things that go on in the Order that upset and disturb me greatly. This is the nature of the Human Realm – it will always disappoint and sadden. Without the Ideal of the spiritual community there would be no escape from the ugliness of the human realm.

So where do I stand in relation to the order. I am bound to the Vajrakula, the mythic Order that Urgen Sangharakshita founded and ordained me into, I feel re-inspired to connect more strongly with a chapter or two to maintain and develop those individual connections that make up the Order, but I feel more loosely connected to the Order manifest as an institution, and much less so to the Triratna Buddhist community. Both of these have inevitably changed since I first came across them fifty years ago. The Triratna Community now caters mainly to those who live a fairly conventional lifestyle while I still feel inspired by a dedicated pursuit of the Vision that captured me in my youth. Of course, I will be involved in all sorts of worldly activities that I hope will not detract from my fundamental spiritual commitment – including perhaps some gentle involvement with some aspects of the Order and Triratna Buddhist Community.


** In Planting a Seed p141-2 I wrote:

“Ananda Dalenberg and I talked extensively about the Western Buddhist Order, the Sangha, and Spiritual Friendship. He had an ideal of Sangha that in many ways coincided with my own, but there was an important difference.

Ananda was very attracted by Spiritual Friendship in the sense of peer friendship based on a shared spiritual Vision. He felt that this kind of relationship did not exist in the Zen tradition because it was so strongly dependent on the vertical relationship with the Zen Master who has unquestionable authority. Ananda longed for the experience of peer friendship and also felt a deep sense of gratitude and commitment to his teacher and the Zen Tradition even though he saw no contradiction in practicing nembutsu, nor in his study and practice of elements of other Buddhist (and even non-Buddhist) traditions. I felt a genuine spiritual friendship with Ananda, and he with me. I was very clearly a member of the Western Buddhist Order; Sangharakshita was my teacher, and I felt gratitude and commitment to my tradition, although I was also interested in, and open to the influence of other Buddhist (and even, in principle, non-Buddhist) traditions. So the question was, could we both be part of the same Sangha?

Ananda had as his model the Bhikkhu Sangha of China which was apparently one Sangha even though its members could be followers of Chan, Tien Tai, or Hua Yen Schools. At first he thought that the WBO might be that kind of Sangha because we talked in terms of being a network of Spiritual Friends whose individual relationships with one another are based primarily on commitment to the Three Jewels. He said that he thought there were a lot of people in the US in his position, i.e. serious Buddhists of long standing who had the first two of the Three Jewels, but were missing the third. He thought that they would be drawn naturally to the FWBO so he wondered why they were not joining the WBO. At that time ordinations were performed only in Europe and India, as were the final stages of the training for ordination. This purely geographical limitation put ordination into the WBO out of the reach of many people in the US – but were there other more fundamental reasons?

During our discussions it became clear that the WBO was not the Sangha in that universal sense. This Mahasangha clearly exists but it can have no formal existence because any attempt to define membership would necessarily fail. The WBO was a sub set of the Mahasangha but members of the Western Buddhist Order had something in common in addition to their commitment to the Three Jewels. I think that, until those discussions with Ananda, I had held the view that the WBO was this Mahasangha. This view may well have been motivated by a desire to present the WBO as a non-exclusive fellowship, but it became clear that it does in fact have specific characteristics. The question then became: what is it that members of the WBO have in common other than their commitment to the Three Jewels? Is it the precepts we take, the form of our Order meetings, the particular teachings that we follow? If so, which ones are crucial? Is it that we are ordained by Sangharakshita or his nominated successors? I had to rethink what it actually meant to be a member of the WBO and what the actual requirements were in practice – as opposed to the general principles involved.

Although Ananda did not feel that he had the Sangha Jewel among fellow disciples of Suzuki Roshi, he was in no doubt that Suzuki Roshi was his primary teacher, and he felt himself to be part of the tradition that came down through his teacher. I, and other members of the WBO, considered Sangharakshita to be our primary teacher. This was the essential difference and it was perhaps what defined the nature of our Order. We were all disciples of Sangharakshita and although his teaching was not as clearly defined as other more established traditions, our spiritual inspiration came through him. Ananda’s inspiration came through Suzuki Roshi and nothing could change that, it was a deeply felt heart connection. Eventually Ananda and I came to the conclusion that it was this fact that meant he was unable to join our Order – whilst at the same time it did not diminish the depth of spiritual friendship that we felt with each other. Clearly all Buddhists trace their faith back to the Buddha but on a practical level, on the level of any particular order, their faith is in a particular teacher’s communication of the Buddha’s teaching. This was an important realization for me because not only did it clarify my understanding of our Order but it also opened up my acceptance of other Buddhist orders and traditions.”

Ananda Dalenberg