FWBO - Not Modernist; Probably Not for Non-Realists

Some years ago I discovered how the history and self-presentation of the Bahai faith does not go along with independent scholarship. A religion emphasising peace, unity and equality between the sexes, as the revelation for this age, in fact had violent origins, direction-changing leadership disputes and excommunications, Koran like literalism of its founders and leaders and the Universal House of Justice, intended as a parliament for all of us in the world, completely excludes women.
So whenever the representative of a religion gives a positive talk about it my response is first to give the benefit of any doubt, and then test it. If it is good and attractive, I might even join up. Kulananda gave such a talk at Sea of Faith VI which offered an attractive alternative to flogging the dead horse of Christianity. So what, by contact, and reading, have I found?
The Friends of the Western Buddhist Order (FWBO) is an association, I suppose, of spiritual friends. Committed friends will go on to be mitras, a half way house to being ordained into the Western Buddhist Order (WBO). On the whole WBO members live in single sex communities. Each centre is autonomous, although the binding element between them is the ordained who run them. They are not monks but self-supporting or intend to be through ethical businesses like publishing, vegetarian cafes, gardening or whatever, and by the running of meditation classes and lecturing. Some do massage. The mitras and especially the WBO commit themselves to the three jewels: going for refuge in the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha through meditation and study.
So much for the description, but how can this be understood and analysed? Is the FWBO suitable for Sea of Faith type thinking?
Some have likened the FWBO to a "Protestant Buddhism", being deliberately Western orientated, choice based, individualist and simple, removed from the traditional imported monastic and lay cultural forms of Buddhism also available in different world regions. The FWBO is seen as a continuation of Protestant culture. Some at Sea of Faith last year saw it as liberal Buddhism on the basis, for example, that reincarnation is an option of belief.
One problem is that labels and tools of analysis (called ideal types) already available to a sociologist are often Christian in origin, and even a notion such as secularisation can be regarded as a post-Christian term. But it is worth a go at some terminologies at least.
I would start with the word cult. Initially one might detect cultic overtones. First of all the group has a living founder, little criticised, revered even. He writes most of the books and his ideas of what Western Buddhism should be fully guide this movement. It is his notion of "going for refuge" that stands as central, his ideas on organisation that are being built up. Sangharakshita was ordained through many Buddhist traditions through his time in the Indian subcontinent, though some do not recognise their validity (a good thing - human institutional division reassures!) and so reject the Orders of the WBO. He, an Englishman, has that position that would be found in a usual "cult", understood here as a leader dominated group and unstable in the long term because of it.
The second cult thing is always sexuality. Married couples in the WBO will quite happily regard their religious quest as so important that they may live apart (hundreds of miles!) in the single sex communities because single sex spiritual friendship is seen as so important. Order members may pursue abstinence from sex. Sangharakshita has written that female friendships can be more emotional than male and therefore may be slightly more of a hindrance to the dharma when too attached, and carry the potential of a slide into lesbianism, although he does not criticise lesbian relationships as such. Now, wherever there is a cult, there is some situation of diverse or different sexuality.
But the term cult will not do. Sangharakshita does not wield power as do some leaders of cults, the centres are autonomous, and there is no big money in the FWBO. And in any case, in Buddhism, the tradition of a master and of spiritual inequality is well established. He has a mastery of Buddhism. And it may well be a good analysis that in the West friendship is neglected and too much revolves around having sex. Cults centre around having sex, the FWBO/ WBO centres around not having sex!
Nevertheless a member of the WBO is not entitled to a private moral life. He and she is subject to the active scrutiny of peers. In this sense, yes, there are cultic overtones - but I would say only just, and it is hardly helpful.
The FWBO is likely to be too stable to be regarded as like a cult. It isn't into big business but careful growth where available.
But I am not sure if anyone would criticise a Sangharakshita book like I am about to. I read his book, The FWBO and 'Protestant Buddhism': An Affirmation and a Protest (Windhorse, 1992). It is a criticism of an alleged misleading article in the January 1991 journal Religion (Department of Religious Studies, Lancaster University) called "Protestant Buddhism"? The cultural Translation of Buddhism in England. The article calls the FWBO Protestant, modernist and individualist, fitting into a continuum of our liberal Protestant culture, as opposed to, say, the English Sangha which is an example of a traditional collective monastic Buddhism brought here lock, stock and barrel from Thailand. From the book it would seem the article was misleading; I guess Philip Mellor went for contrasting and inappropriate ideal types too readily. However, my interest was in the book itself.
The book by Sangharakshita is awful to read and depressing and mean in tone. Sangharakshita cannot engage in academic discourse (illustrated if by nothing else by the repeatedly tedious way he reaches for dictionaries to get defintions for words). No one would ever have published this except the FWBO's own publishing house. His writings on sutras I have found really useful and even convincing, but this book has been an eye opener. Even from a Buddhist perspective, it can hardly even be regarded as "skilful". It is, of course, a promotion of the FWBO and the FWBO is always keen on this. But, usefully, it offers quite some information (if anyone can stick it out).
No non-Buddhist will accept his distinctions. For example, he rejects individualism but promotes instead 'true individualism in Buddhahood.' Well, I'm sorry, but this is a religious belief and it might well be regarded as individualism by anyone else. The issue of its place within the religious map - that it is continuous with liberal Protestantism - is also a valid enquiry which might find in favour, even though, of course, liberal Protestantism then becomes a sociologist's term only derived from a religious description.
For my own view, the "cultic overtones" described above (as far as I am willing to use that phrase) means that the WBO/FWBO is too collective to be individualist. The FWBO also uses the full weight of especially Mahayana Buddhist tradition and practice (often described, by idiots, as the Roman Catholic end of Buddhism as opposed to the Protestant Hinayana end). The fact that Order members do not usually (they do sometimes) wear robes is neither here nor there. Even as the broadest possible sociological term, the word 'Protestant', meaning the idea that religion is fluid, translatable, marketable, choice requiring (i.e. how even Roman Catholicism must present itself within a Protestant culture), is probably not useful because then "secularisation" or "pluralism" is a better term. And Sangharakshita accepts that he has to use the secular to get his undiluted Buddhism across.
More importantly, the book perfectly illustrates what critics, including other Buddhists, say about Sangharakshita, the FWBO and the WBO. It is this, that the FWBO is far too keen to criticise other Buddhists as being not as dedicated to true Buddhism as themselves. It often sees other Buddhists as being over cultural or degraded, as opposed to itself which focusses on the three jewels. It is this FWBO and WBO dedication and simplification which leads people to say it is "Protestant".
Their second criticism is this. Who is to say that what the FWBO does is actually the model for Western Buddhism? It might take hundreds of years to know. It is just as likely that a monastic-lay form might become the model of English Buddhism that suits. People leave it to the monks, and spend a weekend in a monastery or longer, supporting and identifying. The English are not dedicated in religion, they are passive and pass the salvation buck!
Oh dear! Sangharakshita makes the same error he complains about when others mislabel the FWBO. He regards all forms of Protestantism as diluted Roman Catholicism, diluted by secularism, whereas, of course, this is a distortion of history and many claim Protestantism goes to the heart of the Biblical message before a massive cultural Christian machine took over.
This is the pot calling the kettle black - and please note that he is as opposed to liberal and radical Christianity and secularisation as the rest, and rejects any importation of Christianity into Buddhism.
I doubt that any other religion will grow enough to replace our fragmented degraded cultural Christianity. But if there is to be a Western Buddhism that is culturally valid, it will almost certainly be to some degree post-Christian and the customers come with its baggage. Of course the FWBO can be pure but then it will stay smaller and more 'sectarian' than it might have been. On the other hand, it does have a stable enough structure to change, if the WBO so develops (on this score, Sea of Faith might develop such a new religious imprint, a mishmash of a doubting, confused, passive, ex-Christian Buddhism!)
Sangharakshita and others may say that Buddhist non-theism is not an 'alternative theism' and meditation is not alternative prayer, but it may be that Westerners and their baggage regard them that way.
To be sure, the FWBO is not a home for non-realists, unless people have become non-realist only about Christianity (many, I suspect, are only this). Reincarnation may be speculative, but the FWBO does have some odd beliefs.
It thinks that Darwinian evolution is "lower evolution". Then you move to "higher evolution" practising the dharma. What rubbish! One is a falsifiable theory of biological and genetic development and the other a religious belief related in some part to moral development - entirely different language games. Or take the belief in "stream entry". As the Dharma is practised, improvement happens to a point called stream entry where you cannot backtrack. I don't believe this for a minute - everything, anyone, is reversible: this is only a fantasy of belief.
Liberal and radical westerners in religion are too muddled for the purity of the likes of the FWBO. They really do doubt, and live with complex doubt. They really do regard all these beliefs, including Buddhist, as cultural constructions. Buddhism does not deliver by practice objective truths to Enlightenment. I actually agree with Sangharakshita when he promotes that view that ultimately the Dharma must be a No-Dharma, that everything must lose the objective-subjective division otherwise Enlightenment itself becomes something to be craved and therefore is not Enlightenment at all. I agree, I really do, but then I say what Buddhism delivers it does not deliver, and I don't think they agree that it doesn't deliver when it does! Buddhism and Enlightenment are religious fantasies (and no worse for that).
Kulananda was a missionary Buddhist amongst us in 1993. Alright: he and the spiritual friends might convince me. I may have the wrong end of the stick. I'd still hang around, learn, be involved, join in, be friends. They are nothing like the Bahais - what you see is what you get.
Cult? Not really. Sect? Another difficult term, but possibly. Individualist? Maybe, but the WBO group is too collective. Liberal? No. Radical? No - well some overlap with the rejection of traditional Western metaphysics. Protestant? An utterly pointless ideal type. Actually, if I did research on the FWBO I'd invent new ideal types (don't worry, I'd do the Unitarians first if I had the money!). To conclude, I'm not sure that the FWBO is in fact much to do with where Sea of Faith is at. If you are the dedicated type, it may be.


Adrian Worsfold

Pluralist - Liberal and Thoughtful