The Friends of the Western Buddhist Order is one of the main Buddhist movements in the UK and India. There are around eighty FWBO public centres and retreat centres in over twenty countries. These centres teach Meditation, Buddhism, Yoga, and other forms of personal development.
In India the FWBO is known as Trailokya Bauddha Mahasangha Sahayaka Gana (TBMSG), in Spanish speaking countries as Los Amigos del Orden Buddhista de Occidente (AOBO), and in France as Les Amis de l’Ordre Bouddhiste Occidental (AOBO).
The FWBO’s approach to teaching Buddhism is based on a recognition that there is an underlying unity in the Buddhist tradition as a whole. It seeks to find ways of living a genunine Buddhist life regardless of lifestyle, and to do so in ways suitable to the conditions of the modern world.
The Western Buddhist Order
Despite the name, the WBO is based not only in the West but is now a worldwide Buddhist movement. Membership of the order is limited by one main criterion, the ability to Go for Refuge to the Three Jewels; that is the Buddha, Buddhadharma, and the Sangha. Since, as Sangharakshita has emphasized, it is the act of Going For Refuge that makes one a Buddhist, it makes sense for this to be the fundamental principle of the order. That said, the order is on one level simply a network of friends committed to Dharma practice – friendships based on a shared vision of human potential.
Order members are known as Dharmacaris (masculine) or Dharmacarinis (feminine) and are ordained on an equal basis, and take the same precepts at ordination. There are no higher ordinations. And although a small number of order members take vows of celibacy, this is not accorded a higher status.
Having rejected traditional Buddhist organizations, both lay and monastic, Sangharakshita founded a new type of order, where one’s choice of lifestyle is less important than one’s commitment to Buddhist practice. This is something of a radical departure in many eyes, but Reginald Ray’s Buddhist Saints in India, points out that monasticism as we now know it was a later development, and that the lay/monastic split was not so crucial in the past. Others, basing their opinions on the traditions found in the Dhammapada and other early works, find lifestyle choices to be indispensable to a full realisation of the lessons of Buddhism. Therefore, few traditional monastics are prepared to grant a member of the WBO equal status.
Order members undertake to observe a set of ten precepts. These are different from monastic vows, but the set is mentioned in the oldest Buddhist scriptures, the Pali Canon. Beyond this, a commitment to personal Dharma practice and to remain in good communication with other order members are the only requirements of order members. Ordination confers no special status, nor any specific responsibilities, although many order members do choose to take on responsibilities for such things as teaching meditation, and the Buddhadharma.
There are now more than 1,200 members of the order, in over 20 countries in Europe, India, Africa, Australasia, and elsewhere in Asia.
Distinctive emphases of the FWBO
There are six characteristics of the FWBO that help to define the movement.
- The movement is ecumenical. The FWBO is not identified with any particular strand of Buddhism or Buddhist school, but draws inspiration from whatever seems appropriate to here and now.
- The movement is unified. The WBO ordains men and women on an equal footing – unlike most traditional Buddhist schools. The movement does regard single-sex activities as vital to spiritual growth, but men and women are, in principle, considered equally able to practise and develop spiritually.
- The act of Going for Refuge is central. Going for Refuge to the Three Jewels (i.e., the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha), is what makes someone a Buddhist. As such everyone in the FWBO is encouraged to place the Three Jewels at the center of their lives.
- Spiritual friendship. Spiritual friendship is friendship based on our highest values – especially the Three Jewels. Spending as much time as possible with friends who share our highest ideals supports ethical living.
- Team based right-livelihood. Working together in teams, in the spirit of generosity, and with a focus on ethics, is a transformative practice. The FWBO has been a pioneer in the area of right-livelihood, operating a number of successful businesses.
- Art. The arts help us to broaden our sympathies and to extend our experience; they enlarge our imaginations, they refine and direct our emotions. At their best and greatest they may be bearers of spiritual values, values which in principle are identical with those of the Dharma, values which can help us to transform our lives.
Right from the beginning there was an emphasis on teaching meditation in urban centers. Retreats in the countryside followed, as did lecture series on aspects of Buddhist thought and practice. Residential communities developed out of retreats, when people decided they wanted to live together, and team-based right-livelihood projects were started to fund activities. Eventually, permanent retreat centers were established.
Centers were established in other countries including New Zealand and Australia. The FWBO is now actively teaching Buddhism and meditation in France, Germany, Poland, Estonia, Sweden, Finland, South Africa, Mexico, USA, Venezuela, New Zealand, India, Malaysia, and elsewhere.
More recently FWBO activities have diversified to include outdoor festivals, online meditation teaching, arts festivals, poetry and writing workshops, yoga, tai chi, karate, and pilgrimages to Buddhist holy sites in India.
For many years the FWBO charity Karuna Trust has raised money for aid projects in India, including supporting the small school for Tibetan refugees established by Dhardo Rimpoche, and a range of projects to assist the Dalit or ex-Untouchable community.
Because it draws on the whole of the Buddhist tradition there are a wide variety of practices current in the FWBO.
Many meditation practices are current within the FWBO. Sangharakshita has described the way he teaches meditation as having four phases, and the practices fall roughly into these four phases. The first two are, broadly speaking, calming or samatha practices, and the last two are insight or vipassana practices.
- Integration – The main practice at this stage is the Mindfulness of Breathing, which has the effect of “integrating the psyche” (improving mindfulness and concentration).
- Positive Emotion – The second aspect of calm is developing positivity. The Brahmavihara meditations, especially the ‘metta bhavana‘ or cultivation of loving kindness meditations, are the key practices for developing positive emotion.
- Spiritual Death – The beginning of insight is to examine aspects of reality and to see how all things are impermanent, lacking an essential nature, and lead to dissatisfaction. A key Buddhist technique for developing this insight has always been the breaking of things into parts. In the Six Element practice the individual looks at their whole psychophysical organism in terms of earth, water, air, fire, space, and consciousness. Other techniques are contemplating impermance, especially of the body; contemplating suffering; and contemplating Shunyata. This leads to a spiritual death, as through insight into the nature of things, one’s sense of oneself as a separate, isolated being is broken down. It is considered important to approach these meditation practices from a strong base of integration and positivity.
- Spiritual Rebirth – With the development of insight, and the death of the limited ego-self a person is spiritually reborn. In the ultimate sense this is Bodhi or enlightenment. Practices which involve the visualization of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas are the main practices used in the FWBO in this phase.
Other common practices include
- Just sitting, a formless meditation with no focus where one just sits and nothing else. Just sitting can be a good practice to help assimilate experience from other meditation practices. The just sitting practice is akin to the practice of zazen in the Zen tradition.
- A similar practice that has recently become popular is Pure Awareness where the focus of the meditation is whatever happens to be in one’s mind at the time – one allows sensations and thoughts to arise, observes them, and lets them go.
- Walking meditation is popular on retreats and inbetween series of several sitting sessions. The primary focus in this case is usually the physical movements of the body, or the soles of the feet (touch), but could also be whatever one might notice through the other senses while walking (sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and thoughts). This is an integrative practice.
Worship or Puja can be thought of as a kind of theatre, in which one recites verse, performs physical acts such as mudra and prostrations, and uses imaginative imagery to evoke a particular experience. The experience is one which includes compassion for all living beings, and a desire to liberate them from suffering. The FWBO has a range of pujas but the most common one is composed of verses from the Bodhicaryavatara of Shantideva. It consists of seven stages: worship, salutation, going for refuge, confession of faults, rejoicing in merit, entreaty and supplication, and transference of merit & self-surrender.
These verses can be thought of evoking an image of the Buddha as being like a far-off mountain. First one glimpses the mountain-top peeking through some clouds; then the clouds clear and one has a stunning vision of the mountain; in that moment one knows that one must go to the mountain; but one realizes that one has many unnecessary burdens; having unburdened oneself one stocks up on energy; then one asks for directions; and finally one expresses gratitude and devotes any good that accrues to the benefit of all beings.
Retreats provide an opportunity for practitioners to focus on their practice with little or no interruption. Beginners’ retreats are usually two or three days, while a regular program of two-week retreats is available to more experienced and committed members. The typical retreat program would include several sessions of meditation, some Dharma study, and a puja or devotional ritual in the evenings. Afternoons are usually free for people to rest or meet together. More intensive retreats might have less study and more meditation.
Unlike in the Christian tradition, Buddhists do not confess in order to be forgiven. Buddhists believe that actions have consequences, and that regret after the fact is only useful if it prevents a repetition of the deed. Hence true confession can only be made when it is accompanied by remorse and resolution not to repeat the deed. Confession is seen as an act of purification.
Early on in the history of the FWBO it became apparent that it needed to raise funds for various projects. This became especially apparent with the decision to purchase and renovate a disused fire station in Bethnal Green. At this time several small businesses were set up including a wholefood shop and a building team. These were run by collectives of people who almost immediately discovered that working together as a team seemed like a very good spiritual practice in itself. Right livelihood is one of the limbs of the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path and consists essentially in applying Buddhist ethics to work. Right livelihood businesses now contribute substantial funds for the movement as well as providing very positive environments for spiritual growth.
Another practice that emerged from the early milieu of the FWBO is residential spiritual communities. The first community was formed after a retreat when several of the participants decided they wanted to try to continue the retreat-style living. The most stable communities tended to be single sex, and most FWBO communities these days are single sex affairs. Some of the most intensive situations are where people live and work together as a spiritual practice – the constant reminders about ethics, and the support from fellow practitioners, are seen to be particularly effective in helping people in their practice.
As an international movement diversity is a distinguishing feature. While England remains the main base of the movement, the TBMSG is growing rapidly in India. Most Indian members come from the lowest strata of Indian society, from the castes that were formerly known as untouchables (even though untouchability was outlawed by the first Independent Indian government).
The FWBO claims a wide range of people involved, from academics to working-class people, to artists, accountants, and doctors. The majority of people involved with the FWBO live conventional lives. A small number live in single-sex communities and work in right-livelihood businesses – a lifestyle which has come to be called semi-monastic.
A group of people who are involved in the festival scene in the UK run a project called Buddhafield. Buddhafield both attends festivals such as , and runs its own outdoor events which regularly attract several hundred people.
The FWBO after Sangharakshita
In the 1990s Sangharakshita began handing over spiritual and administrative responsibility for the FWBO and WBO to a group of senior men and women disciples. This transfer was completed by 2000. Since then Sangharakshita’s health has declined, but the movement continues to thrive.
Leadership was vested in the College of Public Preceptors, a group of men and women who take overall responsibility for ordaining new members. With over 1,000 members, and a continuing commitment to consensus decision-making, the order is now having to explore new ways of communicating on issues of concern to all. One such issue, which has highlighted the need for change, is the name of the order, which is now considered to be inappropriate since the movement is no longer a purely Western one. However, getting consensus from 1,000+ people is a difficult business and progress in making the change has been slow.
In 2003 the Public Preceptors, responding to feedback from the Order and the movement, but also following their own inclinations and pressures on their resources, decided to move away from having a formal relationship to the Order and movement, and to concentrate on what they see as their primary role in regard to the ordination of the new members of the Order. Many of the preceptors want to focus on teaching and Dharma practice. At the same time they have expanded the number of preceptors to introduce flexibility.
Change has also been fuelled by allegations of sexual misconduct by Sangharakshita during the 1970s and early 1980s. He has not responded directly to these allegations, but they brought widespread debate within the FWBO. A small number of order members have resigned, but most have stayed on and take advantage of a more relaxed and flexible atmosphere, in which they feel free to question and update the way things have been done, and even to question Sangharakshita.
The Order and movement (the organisations of the FWBO) are exploring ways to organise themselves and develop their work in this more decentralised model. Debates continue about how to ensure both coherence and flexibility, as well as spiritual depth in the Order and movement.
|1964||Sangharakshita returns to England after 20 years in India|
|1967||Founding of the FWBO|
|Aspects of Buddhist Psychology Lecture series|
|1968||Founding of the Western Buddhist Order|
|7 April: 12 men and women ordained Noble Eightfold Path Lecture series (later published as Vision & Transformation)|
|1969||Aspects of the Bodhisattva Ideal Lecture series|
|1971||Sangharakshita takes a year off, leaving order members to run things on their own.|
|1972||First single-sex retreats|
|1975||First ordinations in New Zealand.|
|Sukhavati project started — a derelict fire station is transformed into the London Buddhist Centre and a residential community. Out of this project would also come the first team-based right-livelihood businesses.|
|1976||Padmaloka Buddhist Retreat Centre purchased, Sangharakshita makes it his base|
|1978||Indian wing of the FWBO founded. Known as the Trailokya Bauddha Mahasangha Sahayaka Gana (TBMSG)|
|1980||Formation of Aid for India, now known as the Karuna Trust, to raise funds for aid projects in India, particularly amongst the so called “ex-untouchable” Buddhists.|
|1990||Death of Dhardo Rimpoche, one of Sangharakshita’s main teachers|
|1992||Sangharakshita addresses the European Buddhist Union.|
|1997||The Guardian publishes an article critical of the FWBO; the FWBO’s response is largely ignored, even though it is clear that the reporter has misrepresented the movement.|
|2000||Sangharakshita hands on the headship of the order to the College of Public Preceptors.|
|2002||The order reaches 1,000 members. Major changes announced in the “mitra system”|
|2003||A letter is published by an order member alleging unwelcome sexual advances and a cult-like situation at times in the past. The result is a wide ranging debate about the past of the FWBO, and questioning of attitudes, institutions and practices. Sangharakshita is seriously ill, his role in the movement is now minimal.|
|2004||The FWBO continues to undergo major changes. The Council of the College of Public Preceptors (the effective leadership of the FWBO), an administrative body set up to support the leaders of the FWBO dissolves itself. Plans are in place to rapidly expand the number of Public preceptors and to move away from them being administrators towards their spiritual role as guardians of the order whose primary function is to ordain new members of the order. Administrative functions are decentralised which more accurately reflects the ethos and actuality of the movement – centres now have more autonomy.|
Criticism of the FWBO
Since its inception the FWBO has been a focus of controversy in the British Buddhist community, particularly regarding their non-traditional views and practices of Buddhism. Criticism in general has been focused on the conduct of Sangharakshita and some other order members. Critics believe that without the total denunciation of the founder and other senior Orders members who committed unethical conducts, the FWBO cannot be considered a legitimate representation of Buddhism. The perceived inaction of people within the FWBO in addressing these criticisms is still claimed to be tainting the organisation.
Sangharakshita’s non-traditional views have received much attention from critics. For example, in one of Sangharakshita’s writings he states
- The couple is the enemy of the spititual community. By couple, in this context, one means two people, usually of the opposite sex, who are neurotically dependent on each other and whose relationship, therefore, is one of mutual exploitation and mutual addiction’
- (Sangharakshita, 1986, Alternative Traditions).
Similarly, Subhuti states in a personal letter to order members:
- Sexual interest on the part of a male Order member for a male mitra can create a connection which may allow kalyana mitrata spiritual friendship to develop. Some, of course, are predisposed to this attraction, others have deliberately chosen to change their sexual preferences in order to use sex as a medium of kalyana mitrata – and to stay clear of the dangers of male-female relationships without giving up sex.
- (Subhuti, 1986)
It is also admitted by the organisation that Shangharakshita experimented with drugs (marijuana and LSD) which amounts to immediate expulsion as a monk under many Buddhist tradition including Theravada Sangha where he received his orddination. Still, “He still wore the yellow robes of a bhikkhu on public occasions and still allowed himself to be referred to as ‘Maha Sthavira’, an honorific deriving from his fifteen years as a monk”. (Bringing Buddhism to the West, pp.110-111.)
The biggest blow to the credibility of the organisation occurred with the publication of a highly damaging article in The Guardian in 1997 titled “The Dark Side of Enlightenment”. The Guardian alleged serious cases of sexual abuse in the FWBO centre in Croydon, with one person later committing suicide blaming the organisation and its founder. It also included multiple instances of sexual manipulation of young (some heterosexual) male members by Sangharakshita. The FWBO issued an official response to the article, stating that FWBO centers are largely autonomous, and to a large extent set their own agendas and standards. Also, while conceding that Sangharakshita and other members experimented with drugs and engaged in sexual relationships with younger male members, the organisation insisted that these relationships were, on the whole, consensual and not manipulative.
The official response from FWBO to the allegations made in the Guardian article is available at . The text also touches on some of the other issues laid out in the above paragraphs.
In March 2003, Shabda, the internal newsletter of Western Buddhist Order, published a personal account of one of the members, Yashomitra, who later left the organisation. In the article, he described how he was manipulated in having sex with Sangharakshitata and revealed that sexual exploit of Sangharakshita with his young male diciples went on even after the publication of the Guardian article despite the denial made in the organisation’s response. He went on to state that “he FWBO did seek to undermine heterosexual relationships and family life. It did teach that homosexuality was superior to heterosexuality. Members were ‘converted’ to homosexuality through coercive psychological means. Coercion of any sort was not anathema within the FWBO.”
False Wearing of Robes
Another allegation is that Sangharakshita wore the robes of a celebate Buddhist monk while on tour in India in the 1980’s, and that he did so with the intention of deceiving Indian members of the TBMSG into believing that he was still an ordained monk. This episode led to a number of mitras (friends) denoucing him by and rejecting the TBMSG en masse in 1999. A letter signed by the 88 Indian mitras, all from the Mumbai (Bombay) area stated:
- ..while claiming to be a properly ordained Buddhist monk, a Bhikshu, you showed no respect for the devout feelings Buddhists associated with the robe by indulging in sexual misconduct, experimenting with drugs and teaching the ‘neutrality’ of sexual activities. In our opinion, this final act of yours was nothing more than an attempt to cover up your misbehaviour as a monk while still holding onto the power and prestige which the yellow robe along with the epithets Bhikshu and Mahasthavir held in the eyes of the common people. Thus you have cheated us. Why didn’t you tell us right from the beginning that you weren’t a monk? Why didn’t you feel ashamed appearing before us in the yellow robe between 1979 and 1993? How can this falsehood be considered spiritual, nay, even common human behaviour? Yet you and your disciples talk of being a spiritual movement, a misnomer which amounts to a denigration of the truly spiritual.
Further to this allegation is that the Indian government declared Sangharakshita persona non grata and no longer grant him entry visa.
Outside views of the FWBO
- by Ken Jones in Buddhist Peace Fellowship
- Research summary by Sally A. McAra, (2000). Investigates Order members’ narratives about their transformative relationship with the land, focusing on the retreat center Sudarshanaloka in New Zealand.
- by Sandra Bell, University of Durham. Journal of Buddhist Ethics
- by Martin Baumann, University of Hannover. Journal of Buddhist Ethics. The application of Buddhist Right Livelihood in the FWBO.
- By Dharmachari Vishvapani. Although written by a member of the WBO it attempts to summarise views of the FWBO from the outside, including many criticisms.
Critical views of the FWBO
- – Anonymous anti-FWBO site, including details of Yashomitra’s Shabda article.
- – Another anti FWBO site. Part of ex-cult Resource Centre
- by John Crook in Western Chan Fellowship Freunde des Westlichen Buddhistischen Ordens
AOBO Vrienden van de Westerse Boeddhistische Orde
- Sangharakshita (1986), Alternative Traditions. FWBO/Windhorse. pp. 178-181.
- Subhuti, “—”. Shabda, September 1986, pp. 125-126.