The Long View
Sangharakshita, founder of the Western Buddhist Order, will turn 80 this year. Vajrasara went to his home in Birmingham to discuss his current life, his vision and his legacy.
Sleep deprivation is a peculiar experience; it does strange things to you. For over a year I suffered chronic insomnia and felt very unwell. I was aware of difficult changes - physical and emotional. I could stand back and observe them, but I couldn't do much to affect them; I had so little energy. And I needed to focus on the medication, and getting better.
I kept up with as many activities as I could manage; I saw a few people, and went for walks each day. I did some editing and, slowly and with difficulty, I did finish Living with Awareness and Living with Kindness. Most importantly I kept up Dharma study almost daily with my companion Nityabandhu. The Dharma seemed more relevant than ever and it was consoling to be reminded of it.
Throughout that period I had brilliant dreams: frequently in beautiful mountains, in green fields or by the sea contemplating its deep, blue colour. They were Turneresque scenes. Often I was with monks, sometimes with old friends or my teachers, chanting with them and watching them perform pujas. Perhaps it was a natural compensation for the suffering of sleep deprivation. Fortunately, last year my energy returned and my sleep improved. Although since I've been sleeping better, I've seldom had such vivid dreams.
Old age has certainly contributed to my illnesses. Sleep deprivation is often caused by ageing. And my sudden eyesight failure (macular degeneration) two years earlier was also an effect of old age. I adjusted to seeing very little quite easily. I was hardly disturbed at all, which surprised some people, given how much I have always read. Nature is reminding me that I'm pretty old, and I accept that. I now have greater opportunity to reflect.
I don't really feel old within myself. But there's a difference in the way other people regard you. Old people are less important; I've noticed this even within our Buddhist movement. For instance, when I handed on my responsibilities for the Order and movement in 2000, I specifically used the term 'handing on'. But people kept referring to me 'stepping down'. I believe this is because some people saw me as the teacher formally placed 'up there' - in their eyes I was 'in charge' and held power. I never felt I held power. But I know very well that some disciples did see me in that way; they projected power onto me. When I handed on my responsibilities, they saw me as having handed on that power. Accordingly, I became less important, and that meant they needn't take so much notice of me!
I contemplate these aspects of ageing. It's why, in one letter to the Order newsletter, I referred to King Lear. Shakespeare's play is about old age - an extreme example of an old man being ill treated after stepping down. You see a similar attitude shift in families towards grandparents, when they're no longer the bread-winners. And it's one reason why dictators are often reluctant to give up power; it's unsafe for them to step down. I felt quite safe to hand on - confident that no-one would assassinate me! It may be the minority who viewed me that way but in the early days I was seen as the one with the 'power to make you an Order member'. A few people have found it difficult to drop that type of thinking. And that attitude lingers in the way some mitras [friends] relate to the ordination teams, which is unfortunate.
I may be 80 this year but in a sense I am not 'retired' - nor do I wish to be. I've certainly handed on my organisational responsibilities. But, as founder, I feel responsible in a spiritual way for the FWBO. I cannot be indifferent to it. I still reply to letters and see disciples individually and in small groups. I am always happy to be consulted on Dharmic principles. Five years ago I said that I wanted to 'be free to be a disruptive influence', by which I meant that I wanted to help to keep us on our toes - to ensure the Order does not settle down, or ossify. Thus far circumstances have not allowed things to stay still. So I haven't yet needed to be disruptive!
As for what I've achieved, I could be paradoxical and say I personally haven't 'achieved' anything. However I feel that something - work for the Dharma - has been achieved through me. I've often had this sense of being an instrument of some force. In the past I've remarked that I wasn't the best person to start a new Buddhist movement in the West. But one was needed and I was the only western Dharma teacher available in Britain. I suppose mine has been a life of communication, of translation - allowing myself to be a channel for something beyond me.
It has certainly been satisfying work. If it had just been 'my achievement', probably it wouldn't have been worth much. But what has been created in the broad sense, collectively, has been valuable. I have felt myself a channel more strongly at certain times than others. I felt it most intensely in the West when giving lecture series in the 1970s, particularly on Mahayana sutras. By bringing in the poetic and imaginative element, these sutras lent themselves to an opening up on my part to something higher. I also felt myself a channel very intensely in India, while working among the followers of Dr Ambedkar.
In setting up something new - non-denominational and separate from established traditions - I was primarily concerned with the people I met. They were evidently suffering, and I was communicating the Dharma to them. So meeting their needs determined the outward form of my approach. I've regularly had letters from western Buddhists saying that if they'd met the Dharma in a traditional Asian form it wouldn't have felt accessible. Some have explored traditional groups and couldn't connect with them. And evidently many others find the traditional approaches appeal.
In the FWBO I've continually emphasised 'clear Dharma teaching and a sense of Sangha'. Again and again in letters of gratitude these are the two factors singled out. They seem to be our strength. Of course the movement could have been set up in all sorts of different ways. And it has evolved in surprising ways over its 38 years. But clearly this approach enables many people to benefit from the Dharma.
Obviously I hope the FWBO survives but that depends on those who comprise it. We all need to go deeper into the fundamental teachings. If Order members remain committed to embodying the Three Jewels in their own lives, then it will survive. The FWBO is part of a worldwide Buddhist movement, so it will be affected by what happens elsewhere - as well as by broader political and economic factors. I imagine more and more people will find Buddhism attractive. But then many Moslems are making converts in the West outside their racial groups. Perhaps some ex-Christians who might have been drawn to Buddhism will take to Islam instead, especially its mystical Sufi side. We just don't know. However, within the broader Buddhist context I hope the FWBO will maintain its distinctive character, especially of metta and spiritual friendship.
Although I'm less visible these days, I still hear a lot about what's going on. I wasn't well informed during my year of illness. But now, as well as visitors, I have the Order newsletter read to me and a great many people write to me - I even hear things I'm not meant to. So I feel I'm in touch with the grass roots of the movement, and I don't rely on any one source of information.
For instance, I am aware of the current questioning of the developmental model of meditation. Actually this model is an integral part of the Buddha's teaching. To the extent you get away from that model you move away from Buddhism itself. You need to face the fact that transformation takes work. If you look closely into the lives and experience of those who claim to be following a non-developmental or formless approach, you find they are in fact practising a developmental model, but in a somewhat different or subtle way.
If you take one of the figures on the FWBO Refuge Tree: the Japanese master Shinran. I wouldn't say that Shinran simply abandoned himself to the 'other power'. In the Pure Land tradition you have to put yourself into a frame of mind in which you are receptive to the other power. And that is not easy. That requires a whole series of steps, a series of efforts, before you can open yourself up in that way. So I don't take this talk of rejecting the non-developmental model too seriously. It's a fashion that will pass.
Perhaps people could ask themselves whether they have a correct view of the developmental model, or a caricature. It's often more subtle and less gung-ho than people realise. Some people see it very one-sidedly; there is a potential weakness in each model. Opening up to 'other power', or immanence, certainly does have its place, but we cannot solely rely on it.
We can't really get away from the need for Right Effort - it's integral to the Noble Eightfold Path. But there are different ways of practising the four Right Efforts. According to the Buddha, you can watch an unskilful thought, letting it pass like a cloud in the sky. This is one way of applying Right Effort, though some might describe this as Pure Awareness. But of course if it's a powerful unskilful mental state, impelling you to act, simply watching it may not be enough. You will need to apply other methods.
You ask why I've been cautious about the Buddha-nature approach. In the early days people read Zen books and seized the idea that they were already Buddhas. I saw how very unhelpful this was. Taking an example from the Tathagathagarbha Sutra of the golden statue covered in dirt: some people would imagine the golden image was there not just in potential but already developed. Yes, it might sound naïve, and most people would understand they needed to work to purify themselves. But not all. I have learnt not to underestimate people's capacity to be literal-minded.
Taking another current development, I was pleased to learn of the appointment of more public and private preceptors [those responsible for admitting others into the Order]. To me it seems an obvious need. I know the existing preceptors have been overburdened; so it is a logical step. It's also interesting that some thought I might be displeased. Why would they imagine I'd want things to stay as they were? Whereas I would be more concerned if things did stay the same. Stasis is not the answer. I am glad there's a substantial body of experienced practitioners willing to take on such a significant responsibility.
I also know there's currently concern about coherence. My impression is that there's quite a lot of coherence. Order unity consists in the fact that we are all going for Refuge to the Three Jewels, we're all meditating, trying to practise the 10 ethical precepts and studying the Dharma; our urban centres are flourishing, many live in Buddhist communities, most Order members attend chapter meetings and Order weekends. There are more and more kalyana mitra relationships, and large numbers are getting ordained each year. I don't think we need to worry. Coherence isn't ensured through organisational frameworks. All the spiritual elements are in place, they just need to be maintained, and deepened.
As for the question of leadership, I don't think we need a single head of the Order. I think it's mistaken to think in those terms. I never thought of myself as 'leading' the Order. The movement is large and widespread; it won't take 'orders' from any one person. I hope we never have a leader: that would suggest we'd become politicised. We can look to the Buddha for a model; he didn't appoint one successor. When asked who would lead the monks after his death, he said the Dharma will be your guide.
Likewise, our direction is determined by our practice. If Order members are faithful to the Dharma, and if we collectively maintain our distinctiveness, I feel confident the FWBO will go in the right direction (to the extent that we are going in any direction). We must beware of importing political terms into a spiritual context. As individuals we have the ideal of Enlightenment - freedom from greed, hatred and delusion - and our institutions are intended purely to facilitate us moving in that direction.
My current sources of inspiration lie primarily in the Dharma. Memories of my teachers also sustain me; I recall them all a great deal. As for archetypal figures, well, I have been reflecting more than usual on the historical Buddha. I have recently been studying the Pali scriptures again. I believe we don't have a strong enough sense of Shakyamuni in our movement, of his historical presence and his 'achievement'. It is vital that Shakyamuni becomes a living figure and exemplar for us. Pilgrimage to the holy places in India can certainly help to bring him alive. And it is important to study deeply the Buddha's teachings in the Pali scriptures. It will strengthen our understanding that Buddhism's unity stems from the Buddha.
Unfortunately Buddha images are usually so idealised that we have little impression of how he looked. We know he was tall, dark-haired, fair-skinned and well built. But some images depict him like a modern bhikkhu with laundered robes and a shoulder bag! He certainly would have looked far more unkempt and worn, in ragged robes - more like the sadhus wandering in India today.
Speaking of my own teachers, during the week before I officially handed on my responsibilities in 2000 I had unusually vivid dreams. Every night I dreamt - sometimes multiple dreams - of my teachers. I dreamt of them all a number of times. Each morning I told the dreams to a friend who wrote them down. These dreams stopped the day after the handing-on ceremony. They felt very significant - visionary or archetypal. I understood them to mean I had the blessings of my teachers in taking that step. I certainly feel I've kept in touch with my teachers, especially through the sadhanas [meditations] I've done, and still do sometimes. And I'm still in contact with Chattrul Sangye Dorje, the only one who is alive; he sends me messages from Nepal from time to time.
It has occurred to me that I could write more about these teachers. Perhaps a little book, not a scholarly study but personal reminiscences and impressions, what these teachers from so many
different traditions meant to me. Maybe I will ... I can see how it might help my disciples to feel part of our lineage and linked to the wider tradition.
Although I'm a Buddhist, I was brought up a Christian and am working in a post-Christian environment. Recently I have been writing some reflections on Buddhism and Christianity. It's not an academic study, more a short review of my contact with Christians over the decades, some comparison of the two teachings, some art appreciation, critical comment and so on; I don't know if it will be published. This is the first time I've given Christianity such sustained attention.
Looking back over my 80 years, I'd say the happiest time was spreading the Dharma among the Buddhists in central and western India. I felt this especially after the sudden death of Dr Ambedkar in 1956, when I stepped in to support and guide the grieving millions, and to bring hope to those newly converted Buddhists. As I wrote in my memoirs, I felt very much like a channel for a positive force working through me, so I was able to rise to that challenging situation almost effortlessly. It was deeply satisfying. The saddest time was in England in 1969 when a close friend, Terry Delamare, committed suicide. That was a very painful period of my life.
Would I like to be reborn near an FWBO centre? Well, I suppose there would be a karmic link! But it's all so unknown. For instance, I don't know how soon I'd be reborn. Above all, I hope to remain in contact with the Dharma - somewhere it is genuinely being practised. It wouldn't really matter where, or which tradition. (And of course, it might be disconcerting if I were to appear at an FWBO centre as a child and chide people for not teaching the Dharma properly!) I'm not sure about monastic life - I have experienced both the benefits and the defects. I would want to be a full-time Buddhist, though. I certainly wouldn't want a worldly life in the ordinary sense.
I have no particular plans for whatever time remains to me. I shall simply carry on doing what I do - which is a fair bit for my age. Writing, studying, reflecting, editing seminars, listening to music, talking to people. As long as I'm alive and have energy I'll keep working - though I don't regard it as work. It is simply my life, and I certainly enjoy it.