Wednesday, November 29, 2006

belonging

In the last few weeks I have been teaching Portugal and several FWBO centres in the UK, notably the North London Buddhist centre, where I am President. The contrast was very striking between activities in Portugal and the rest.

Sagarapriya has been teaching for two years and has established a flourishing group that operates out of the Portugese Buddhist Union in Lisbon. He is well-respected as part of the city's small Buddhist scene, and has strong links with Tibetan Buddhists (he translates for visiting lamas) and Theravadins as well. When I visited he was in the process of buying a large building close to central Lisbon to be a Buddhist and natural health centre. However, Sagarapriya doesn't label his activities 'FWBO' and he is happy to invite teachers from various traditions to teach his group. Also, he sometimes refers to Sangharakshita's teachings, but he doesn't set out to teach them himself. He wants to address Buddhism in a more generic way, and he is not intending to designate his new building an FWBO Centre.

This is interesting, and it raises lots of questions. What does it mean for an Order member to teach Buddhism but for this not to be part of the FWBO. What is the FWBO? Is it an organisation, to which people affiliate, or is it a wider network that includes all 'altruistic and creative activities of Order members?' If Sagarapriya is not teaching FWBO Buddhism, what kind of Buddhism is he teaching? The same question applies to the FWBO as a whole, but the usual answer in that case refers back to Sangharakshita. The FWBO rests on his authority and qualifications to teach; can Sagarapriya say the same thing?

To be fair to Sagarapriya, he is a very straightforward person, not proud and not on an ego trip, just wanting to make the Dharma available to people. I like working with him and am happy to support his group. I think that in the FWBO we are suffering the consequences of an over-emphasis on affiliation, and Sagarapriya is exploring another model of engagement with the Dharma. The questions I posed will arise more acutely when the people in his group become experienced practitioners. Where will he point them to develop their engagement with the Dharma? And what would happen if others in Portugal did want to have something more like a typical FWBO group?

Sagarapriya exemplifies the freedom that a Dharma teacher can have if they are on their own. He can do what he wants, how he wants, without having to negotiate with a group of others who share the running of a centre. How different things are in the UK where many of the FWBO situations I know are large and demanding, and have to negotiate between the demands of inclusion and plurality and those of clarity and purpose. I arrived straight back from Lisbon to an NLBC weekend which had somehow expanded from a planning weekend for the charity's Council, to include the whole sangha in a participatory process of co-creating the centre's future vision.

It wouldn't be appropriate for me to comment on this process here, but a striking feature is that many of those keenest to be involved have opted not to involve themselves in the FWBO's established structures. That is, some experienced members of the sangha have dropped out of the ordination process and some don't want to become mitras. However, they do love their centre very much and rather than wishing to leave they want a greater say in how it is run. Clearly, this makes things rather complicated, raising the another question in regard to the same themes I noted in Portugal about what it means for a centre to be part of the FWBO. Who says?

3 comments:

Padmakara said...

Hi Visvapani. Your blog regarding Sagarapriya did tweak some emotional buttons for me. I feel somewhat upset because I am unresolved about the issue of FWBO affiliation. I often feel trapped by my logstanding affiliation - in fact rather unfree. And yet I am still here (15 years in the WBO). When I ask myself why I am still an Order member, it usually comes down to the same things: 1) I still value the diverse connections and friendships in our sangha 2)the WBO/FWBO, for all its shortcomings, does seem to keep evolving and changing and experimenting with new approaches (we are still a dynamic Buddhist movement) 3)Habitual affiliation, safety of the familiar.
However, I still have that lingering sense of being tagged an 'FWBO Buddhist' and sometimes just want to be free of that identity. Anyway, I'm agreeing with your point that we may have had a culture of 'over-affilliation' and I still feel the negative effects of that.
Linked to this is our tradition of taking Buddhist names. I have wanted to open this up much more for a long time. Taking a buddhist name, and generally using it as our primary name, as we do in the WBO, has an enormous effect. Again, I feel mixed because I love my dharma name and yet do also feel trapped and restricted by it. But maybe the issue of 'affiliation' is even broader here. Use a Buddhist name and you are overtly, explicitly and constantly affiliating and expressing your affiliation with Buddhism. That, of course, is part of the whole point of having the name in the first place. But I would like to see a much fuller debate about this.
Best wishes,
Padmakara

Geoffrey said...

Hi Vishvapani,
Whilst I am the first to praise the changes and broadening out that has gone on in the F/WBO over the last few years having argued for it for ages and thinking it long overdue I am also getting very conservative in my old age! These days I find myself thinking very carefully, and then thinking very carefully again before disagreeing with with Bhante especially in the area of principles elucidated by him! One such area would be around the old principle of the institutions of the Order being ultimately in the control of the spiritually comitted. For example while i am happy to have the confidence of the Vajraloka community such that they ask me to be a trustee I personally do not feel that it is principially appropriate for me to be a member of the charity - the body which ultimately sanctions the authority of the Council. Not that in touch with all the changes going on at the moment - is even this now up for grabs?
Take care
Geoffrey

Paul Wady said...

It is all politics. Order member interactions and teachings. Arguments and petty power. What is Dharma?? More like how charismatically could you teach people what Dharma was?

I think you will find that all the Fwbo ever was, was a middle class style social club. A very effective one. Most of the 'old' Nlbc have long gone, and many are bitter about their involvement. Many just forgot it and did other things, as it got boring or not as good as it used to be.

You have no idea what I put up with in the Centre, or the movement in general. I have never said, and probably never will, just how bad my experience of the Order, the Fwbo and the Centre really was.

I loved the place, and Holy Dharma, very much. In the end it was a bit of a joke just how much so many of the Order Members didn't know themselves, and believe me I am not alone in all this. Others agree.

It is inevitable, and inescapable, that 'shopping around' happens simply due to people genuinely wanting to go for refuge, and growing out of Sangharakshita's initial scenario. I have contact with a Tibetan group now. Strange, no heirarchy of people expecting you to get things right and behave a certain way? What is wrong? Such kind and loving people, so sincere and positive. Surely this cannot be Buddhism?

A lot of people in the Order and movement generally pursue other teachers now, apparently. Meanwhile, the Order blogs in its chat rooms that Sangharakshita is diagnosable as having Aspergers Syndrome, something that buddhists have never to my knowledge written about anywhere, or shown any understanding of that I or others have heard.

Of course, I have the condition. So I am not surprised that people are looking at other teachers. They would not have much in common with the man personally. I do of course, and it has always been comically obvious how little I related to most of the Order.

I could say so much but to conclude with some succinctness, it seems to be that someone like you would have no idea what it is not to be middle class Cambridge Post Grad who is not 'in', in a gang like the Fwbo. Thank fully it took you 14 years to be ordained so you had that on your side.

So, you are not the best person to comment on reacting to the Fwbo's inevitable doctrinal and 'guru' disintegration, are you? You are too 'in'.

Personally, I'd worry about my syntax and spelling in this entry since that was always the level the Order in general was at. I spent all those years in the movement, looking over my shoulder in case I wasn't being smart enough...

I never made a good job of it, did I?

Vasumitra is a Buddha. People are going to other traditions, to varying degrees, from the Fwbo because they've seen through it, Simon. Grow up and get real.