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Buddhadharma : Winter 2010
81 winter 2 01 0 buddhadharma: the practitioner’s quarterly but this book is evidence that they, like Western Buddhism in general, have mellowed with age. Triratna has proven to have broad appeal beyond Brit- ain, and has chapters in numerous other Western countries. It is unique among major Western Buddhist groups in having attracted more members in Asia than in the West. During his time in India, Sangharakshita had several dialogues about Buddhism with B.R. Ambedkar, the famous political leader who sponsored a mass conversion from Hinduism to Bud- dhism among India’s outcaste Dalits. Sangharakshita spoke to more than 100,000 people who gathered to honor Ambedkar when he died in 1956, and spent as many as six months a year teaching dharma to Ambedkarite Buddhists from 1957 to 1964, when he returned to England. After the FWBO was firmly established in Britain, several of its teachers returned to India and started what is now a flourishing community within the Ambedkarite movement. The Triratna Story is surprisingly short on details about the group’s doctrines and practices, but Vajragupta (Richard Staunton) does a wonderful job of bringing to life many of the stories of struggle and fulfillment of its members. He also makes a commendable effort to bring an open heart and a fair mind to his discussion of the scandals, crises, and problems that have rocked the organization. The problems the FWBO had in the eighties at its Croy- don Center in a suburb south of London will sound familiar to anyone who knows the history of the San Francisco Zen Center’s business operations when Richard Baker was abbot. As in San Francisco, young idealistic students were pushed to the breaking point, working long hours for low pay in order to turn a profit for the businesses owned by the center. The similarities go right down to the highly successful vegetarian restaurants each organization ran. The Triratna community also has been the subject of some of the most serious complaints of gender discrimination made against any Western Buddhist group. During the seventies, there was a movement toward sex segregation in FWBO’s resi- dential communities and businesses. The men’s organizations, which developed faster, seemed to receive more resources and exercise far more power than the women’s groups. There also has been strong criticism of the founder’s view that women are less inclined to commit themselves to spiritual practice than men, and especially of the views expressed by Subhuti, the organization’s second-most influential figure, in a 1995 book also issued by Triratna’s Windhorse Publications. Among other controversial claims in the book, Subhuti explicitly states that the spiritual capacity of women is inferior to that of men. Like so many other Western Buddhist groups, though, Triratna’s biggest problems have been with sex. The promi- nent British newspaper The Guardian ran an article in 1997 in which it alleged that the FWBO had pressured some of its male members into homosexuality and that at least one of them had committed suicide as a result. Vajragupta tries his best to rebut those charges and those of a more vitriolic website cre- ated explicitly to challenge the organization, but he does take to heart the claims of one of Sangharakshita’s former lovers, Yashomitra, a respected, longtime member of the group. In 2003, Yashomitra published a letter stating that when he was eighteen he was pressured into a harmful sexual relationship by Sangharakshita, who was his preceptor and nearly forty years his senior. These problems have clearly been the subject of much soul-searching both by Vajragupta and the Triratna community as a whole. The book contends that they have learned some hard and valuable lessons from their mistakes, and it appears that the group has emerged the stronger for it. What can the wider Buddhist community learn from Trirat- na’s experience, and from the other scandals that have accom- panied Buddhism’s spread in the West? On an institutional level, it is clear that any organization dominated by a single charismatic individual is more vulner- able to corruption and abuse than more democratic ones, and this may be especially true of religious groups that see their leader as more spiritually realized than the rank and file, and thus harder to judge. The unfolding history of Western Bud- dhism seems to point to the conclusion that the best organi- zational response to this problem is to rely on the leadership of a group of more or less equal teachers, rather than a single individual. Though students may be ill equipped to objectively evaluate the behavior of a spiritual teacher they idolize, other teachers have both the experience and motivation to challenge abusive behavior among their colleagues, who may, after all, be rivals for prestige and power. This model has worked effectively in large Vipassana groups, such as the Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Marin County, and that is the direction the Triratna community itself has taken since Sangharakshita began withdrawing from his day-to-day supervision of the organization. Of course, that is hardly an option for most small groups, but at least in areas that have a variety of Buddhist organizations, the overall Bud- dhist community can perform some of the same functions. On an individual level, some would say that we need to take a more mature attitude toward our teachers, and to stop idolizing them and ignoring misbehavior. That is an obvious and reasonable suggestion, but it brings a serious problem. Many students have found it a privilege to be able to revere their teachers, and I think it would be a significant loss to Western Buddhism to abandon that ancient tradition. Perhaps we would do better to learn to extend some of that reverence to the malcontents and whistleblowers, for they are the ones who keep us honest and our organizations healthy. One of the best ways to avoid repeating the errors of the past is to study and understand them, and with that in mind I recommend The Triratna Story to anyone who is unfamiliar with the history of this group. Reviews