issue 20 summer 03
15 | 16 | 17 | 18 | 19 | 21 | 22 | 23 | 24 | 25 | 26 | current

Return Journey

Vishvapani talks to Sangharakshita about his latest memoir, Moving Against The Stream, the birth of a Buddhist movement.

Old age has come to Sangharakshita. He is 77 and a year ago he lost much of his eyesight to macular degeneration. 'I can see your face when you sit next to me,' he tells me, 'but across the room it's just a blur'. His mind is still sharp, and the lifetime of encyclopaedic reading – evidence of which is arrayed in the books that line the walls of the Birmingham flat where we met – is still there. His eyes sparkle as he throws in a quote or an allusion, and he likes it if you get the reference. But he can no longer read, write or go for walks alone, and the plans he had made for travel and writing in a well-earned retirement seem unrealisable.

Sangharakshita's outer world has receded. There has been a rapid change from vigorous middle age to debilitating old age. He moves slowly, with a frailty that was absent even two years ago when he announced how he would be handing on the headship of the Western Buddhist Order (WBO), and leadership of the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order (FWBO), the Buddhist movement he founded. The loss of independence has hit him hard. 'I think I have come to terms with death, but as for old age ...' The sentence trails off as if he's wondering what faculties he might lose next.

Sangharakshita's life overlaps with a key period in the development of Buddhism in the West, and it is no overstatement to describe him as one of the founding fathers of western Buddhism. We met to discuss his latest volume of memoirs, covering the period 1964 to1967, that led up to the foundation of the FWBO. The last chapters were dictated to a secretary, and polished in a painstaking process of reading back and revision. As we speak I see that he has been reliving intensely the events of nearly 40 years ago – and he wants to talk.

The three well-received previous volumes of memoirs concerned Sangharakshita's early spiritual career and his life as a young bhikkhu (Buddhist monk) based in Kalimpong in North-eastern India in the 1950s. This volume starts with his return to the West after a 20-year absence. He was invited back to conciliate fractious strands of British Buddhism, but three turbulent years later he had himself been sidelined by the British Buddhist establishment, begun his own movement, watched the mental breakdown and suicide of his best friend, and started moving away from a strict monastic lifestyle.

The controversy sparked then lives on 35 years later. For some British Buddhists a cloud settled over Sangharakshita at that time which can never pass. So here we are: me and Sangharakshita. He's written a book about it, and this is my chance to ask what he thinks it meant. He even skipped several years following the period described in his last volume of memoirs to take up the story when he returned to England.

As the previous volumes attest, Sangharakshita's years in Kalimpong were intensely creative. He was involved with the conversion to Buddhism of millions of Dalits ('Untouchables' under the Hindu caste system); he wrote extensively and published his most famous book, A Survey of Buddhism; he studied with Tibetan teachers; and he made contacts across Indian society. The invitation to return came from the English Sangha Trust, which owned the Hampstead Buddhist Vihara, where controversy had arisen around Ananda Bodhi, their incumbent bhikkhu, and the strict form of vipassana meditation he taught. 'As I was the seniormost English monk, the hope was that I might restore harmony,' Sangharakshita explains. 'I'd had no thought of returning to England, but Khantipalo [the young monk who lived at his Kalimpong Vihara] felt it was my duty to respond.'

The initial four months of Sangharakshita's stay extended to 18, and eventually it became indefinite. Staying in India was not straightforward. 'Kalimpong was a restricted area and I'd even been accused of spying. I had done all I could with the Dalits by way of travelling and lecturing, but their new Buddhist movement had split, both politically and as regards Buddhist activities, into numerous splinter groups. The leaders of each group tried to get me to identify with them and I could not start my own activities without inviting hostility.'

There were factions in England, too, and that's where the trouble started. 'The difficulties were between the people associated with the Hampstead Vihara, who were more Theravadin, and the Buddhist Society led by Christmas Humphreys, who were ecumenical, with a strong element of Zen. Conflict arose partly through the abrasive personality of Ananda Bodhi.' Differences focused on the strict regime of vipassana meditation that Ananda Bodhi taught and his 'hell and brimstone' style. Having heard the concerns of the practice's critics, and visited people who'd experienced its harmful consequences, Sangharakshita concluded it should not be taught. Ananda Bodhi's departure for Canada meant there was no showdown, but his supporters were unhappy.

Sangharakshita settled into a new life as an intensively active Dharma teacher with the whole of the UK as his parish. He lectured each week at both Hampstead and the London Buddhist Society, in the hope that this would help to heal the rift between them. He taught at the Society's Summer School and visited regional Buddhist groups nationwide. Occasionally there were invitations from non-Buddhist organisations – including the Young Farmers Association, and a group of young poets who asked him to join a poetry reading in a pub.

Moving Against the Stream recounts many such incidents; it also suggests how Sangharakshita was changing after his return to the West – even in ways he himself did not recognise. 'Writing this book has rekindled memories and feelings. But the biggest effect is seeing that I was moving in the direction of something like the FWBO, even though I didn't see that at the time.' One of the changes was Sangharakshita's readiness to experiment with new ways of expressing Buddhism in order both to address his audience and express his own understanding of the teaching more adequately. There were also changes in his life-style. But a key consideration is the emotional stirring deep within him.

On the surface Sangharakshita took the alteration in his circumstances in his stride. He was struck by the orderliness of England in contrast to India. He often thought about the friends he had left behind, especially his teachers, but he didn't miss them. Was this indifference, he wondered? Was there even 'a general lack of emotion in my make-up?' On reflection he concluded, 'I was neither without concern for other people nor lacking in emotion generally. But my feelings were to a great extent buried ... beneath layers of reticence and reserve through which it was difficult for them to break.'

The portrait of the 40-year-old Sangharakshita that emerges from the book is of a perceptive, learned, self-contained man. He was also a singular individual who, in some sense, didn't fit anywhere – certainly not in the drawing-room chatter and committee-room politics of English Buddhism. When he read Hans Jonas' The Gnostic Religion, he writes, 'I understood what had led the ancient Gnostics to formulate their doctrine ... of the Alien whose true home was Elsewhere and who sojourns on earth as in a foreign land'. Wasn't it ironic, I asked, that he should feel such estrangement on returning to his home country? 'The strangeness was not cultural but existential,' he explains. 'It was not so much about not feeling at home in a particular culture, as not feeling at home in conditioned existence itself.'

To counter this sense of alienation Sangharakshita formed a friendship with Terry Delamare, who had been attending his lectures. The two men sensed an 'affinity' and often talked deep into the night. Sangharakshita's understanding of Buddhism was founded on mystical experiences after reading The Diamond Sutra aged 17. Terry had been treated some years earlier for emotional problems; his doctor had prescribed ether treatment, which prompted intense mystical experiences. Sangharakshita writes, 'Just as two exiles in the literal sense are overjoyed when they happen to meet and at once feel at home with each other, so Terry and I, recognising that we were citizens of another realm, were able to communicate without too much difficulty and to develop, before many weeks had passed, a friendship such as neither of us had experienced previously.'

By the time the two men attended a retreat together their bond was so strong it 'created between us a field of spiritual energy that was almost palpable'. Such a friendship was a new and powerful experience for Sangharakshita. 'In my whole life I probably hadn't had a friend who was more or less on a level with me, neither a teacher nor a disciple. With Terry there was a spiritual resonance. He was a kindred spirit.'

Sangharakshita continued to explore new ways to communicate Buddhism. In India he had for the most part been teaching people with little education. Now he lectured in Hampstead to a growing congregation each Sunday and could develop his ideas in relation to a responsive, western audience. This meant identifying Buddhism's core teachings, and drawing on the whole tradition to elaborate them. 'All Buddhists go for Refuge to the Three Jewels,' he explains. 'So in principle they constitute a single sangha. Therefore one should give attention to the many forms of Buddhism, as well as the basic teachings. I also discussed the Bodhisattva Ideal and Tibetan Buddhism.'

Communicating with this audience meant exploring how Buddhist teachings could be translated into a western idiom. Sangharakshita gave two series of lectures on Buddhism as 'the path of the Higher Evolution'; he considered affinities between Buddhism and western philosophy and psychology; and he sprinkled his talks with literary references and anecdotes. His approach attracted many people who were new to Buddhism, an atmosphere of enthusiasm and excitement spread, and soon his lectures were filled to bursting. But others, especially the Theravadins who had considered the Vihara their own, were less pleased and many stopped coming.

Changes to Sangharakshita's lifestyle were less dramatic, but also noticeable. In India he had always followed the monastic code (Vinaya) that defined the traditional bhikkhu's life, but he had also questioned their rigid application. Now he let his hair grow longer than the regulation finger's breadth, he sometimes ate after midday, and occasionally he ventured out of his London flat wearing ordinary clothes, rather than the saffron robes that attracted strange looks. Sometimes people thought he was in fancy dress, wearing a sari, or even a transvestite.

Sangharakshita was now re-engaging with the western culture he loved and from which he had been separated for many years; and he questioned certain Vinaya restrictions in this regard. He listened to classical music and saw Wagner's 'Ring' at the Royal Opera House. 'I simply thought, this has cultural, even spiritual significance, and I see no reason not to attend. It didn't seem to fall under 'unseemly shows' [which the Vinaya proscribes]. I was aware that others might not agree.'

The culmination of Sangharakshita's cultural re-engagement was a 'pilgrimage' to Greece and Italy. Terry drove them across Europe and they spent two months taking in classical sites and Renaissance art. Even before they set off Sangharakshita had decided he wouldn't be returning to India for more than a farewell visit. He had found a group of 'disciples' in England to whom he felt growing loyalty, not to mention the continuing task of resolving differences between the British Buddhist factions. England also offered the opportunity to continue the creative vein he was mining in his lectures, to see more of his parents, to engage with western culture, and to deepen his friendship with Terry. Six weeks after returning from Greece, they boarded a plane for India where Sangharakshita would bid his farewells.

In India the two men visited the Dalits of Bombay and Nagpur, then travelled north to Bodh Gaya and Kalimpong. It was there that Sangharakshita received a letter from the English Sangha Trust that changed everything. The trustees felt that his long absences and 'extra-mural activities' were not 'in accordance with the Theravada's high standards of discipline and ethics'. Moreover he 'had not comported [him]self in a manner fitting the religious office that [he] held'. Sangharakshita was not being invited to return.

What lay behind this dramatic turn of events? Although he was never confronted with the key accusation, it became clear that the trustees believed rumours that Sangharakshita's relationship with Terry was sexual. Sangharakshita adamantly denies this charge. But, considering that after the foundation of the FWBO Sangharakshita was homosexually active, might it be that observers picked up a romantic dimension to the relationship which they interpreted as being sexual? 'It's hard to say,' replies Sangharakshita. 'It isn't as though our behaviour called for any comment. Terry and I were both undemonstrative sort of people. We never hugged each other or anything like that.'

Alongside the gossip was concern that Sangharakshita was taking the Hampstead Vihara away from the Theravadins. With hindsight Sangharakshita accepts such a clash was probably inevitable. 'Sooner or later there would have been difficulties on account of my lifestyle. Even if I had not let my hair grow, gone to the opera or had a friend like Terry, it would have been hard to avoid conflict because I did not believe the whole truth of Buddhism was contained in the Theravada.'

Sangharakshita graphically describes his response to the Trustees' letter: 'Do you know what this means?' I asked Terry. 'It means a new Buddhist movement.' The words sprang spontaneously from my lips. It was as if the letter, coming as it did like a flash of lightening, had suddenly revealed possibilities that had hitherto been shrouded in darkness or perceived only dimly É I now saw that a new Buddhist movement was what was really needed, and that the Trust's letter had opened the way to my starting it.'

As he comments to me, 'I didn't feel sore, I felt invigorated. It was a challenge to express my own ideas about the Dharma and create a vehicle for them.' But what did he mean by a new Buddhist movement? 'I don't think I knew. But I was surprised that [the Trustees] could have thought that having given my word I was coming back that I would not adhere to that. Perhaps they didn't realise I felt I had a following and had a loyalty to them. In other words they didn't really know me.'

It was to these supporters that Sangharakshita returned, and with them that he worked to start a new framework for his activities. So on April 6 1967, in a basement below a shop selling Buddhist artefacts in London's Covent Garden, the Friends of the Western Sangha was founded. A year later, with the foundation of the WBO, the movement's name changed to the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order.

Now that the FWBO has spread worldwide and the Order has over 1,000 members, how does Sangharakshita regard these events? For example, what would have happened if he hadn't been expelled from Hampstead? 'I can't say if I would have remained celibate, given the differences in the cultural situation of the West. But I would not have chosen to start a movement. I would have preferred to function under the auspices of an existing institution, just teaching and writing.'

Given that he was teaching his own synthesis of Buddhist traditions, was it inevitable that he would require his own forum? 'I think sooner or later those ideas would have worked their way into the wider Buddhist world and some people would have been moved to found something, but not necessarily me. I might have simply provided the literature.' So, then, I wonder, was his expulsion from Hampstead a blessing in disguise? 'Perhaps,' Sangharakshita replies. 'Though the disguise was very heavy.' He pauses. 'And of course my experience with the FWBO has not been without its difficulties.'

These memoirs end with the founding of the FWBO and leaves Sangharakshita looking into the uncharted territory beyond Buddhism's traditional categories and roles. Given his health it seems unlikely that he will take the story any further. That's a pity. The following years were highly creative, as Sangharakshita involved himself in the era's counter-culture and developed his teaching. An account of them would also enable him to discuss the period when he was sexually active that has continued to surround him with controversy. When I ask him about this he simply says, 'I didn't feel comfortable in the bhikkhu role, nor did I feel comfortable in the lay role. I was trying to create something in between and in a way I fell between two stools.'

There is an important coda to the book, however. Terry Delamare, as well as, in Sangharakshita's view, possessing spiritual depth, was also subject to deep depression. He had many ups and downs, but by early 1968 he'd reached rock bottom. So, at the same time as founding a new movement, Sangharakshita watched the man he cared for so deeply slip into despair. This story, as much as the foundation of the FWBO, is the emotional core of Moving Against The Stream. 'It was very difficult and in the end very painful,' Sangharakshita says. 'It brought me up against the fact that in the last resort there's nothing one can do for another person. I had to accept my own helplessness and that was a major experience in my life.'

On April 13 1968, a few days after founding the WBO, Sangharakshita heard that Terry had thrown himself under a tube train. It was a time of high emotion, as Sangharakshita suggests in the book's eloquent conclusion. 'Though I missed Terry, and wept every day for six months, what he had called 'this event' was not an unrelieved tragedy. The day after Terry's death I took classes as usual. While meditating I heard these words: 'Pain shall be transmuted into joy, suffering into ecstasy, / When to eternal life of Buddhahood/ We all awaken'.

Moving Against The Stream, The Birth of a New Buddhist Movement, by Sangharakshita, Windhorse 2003, £17.99/$29.95 p/b