Saturday, November 28, 2009

new interview with Sangharakshita

On his website, Sangharakshita published his latest conversation. I found out about it from the FWBO/TBMSG News Website.

Here is a sample quote:

"I find it very easy to venerate, to look up: I enjoy looking up to those who are better or more advanced than me in this or that respect. I found it easy to look up to my own Buddhist teachers and I find it easy to look up to the great religious figures, philosophers, poets, and artists of the past. I am very glad that there are people who have been much greater than me: I would hate to think I was the summit of human evolution – that would be a terrible thought. Of course, I have no problem looking up to the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas."

Here is another related quote:

"I am not happy with cynicism and debunking or anything like that and I strongly dislike the tendency to that sort of thing in the Movement and the Order."

In these quotes he expresses his credulity, his receptivity to others, his lack of cynicism, his positivity.

I think a major interest is in his discussing his own homosexuality activity, a word he doesn't so much like to use (I'll let you read why in the interview yourself). Others have accused him of internalized homophobia, which he denies, but he empathizes when others struggle with it. He goes into quite depth in his sexual evolution and can be quite specific at times. He's also sensitive to how this is all perceived in India, where a large part of the movement exists. I was interested in whether he had a relationship with Terry, and he explicitly denies it. But it's much more than about sex, it's also about his rejecting monasticism.

He also discusses his drug use, I'll let you read about that in the interview

He also discusses Muriel Paine, whom he got the communication exercises from.

He has an interesting aphorism: "Where there is trust, explanations are unnecessary. Where there is no trust, explanations are useless." He discusses why he didn't respond right away to the Yashomitra letter. He was sick, and he felt that people judged him quickly and would not listen to him. Earlier in the essay he says he does not even remember an encounter with him, which is certainly interesting.

I love Sangharakshita for founding the order, teaching my friends, writing all those wonderful books. I don't agree that he was equal to his sexual partners, even if that is how he approached people. As humble as he is, he's denying himself as the leader of the order.

He admits people had projections towards him, and insofar as he does that he's not relating to someone as an individual. He says that when you get Sangharakshita you get all of him, not just the good parts, you can't reject the bad parts, it's not helpful to see good and bad sangharakshita. He wants to be met more intimately. It's all from the same person. He never sets himself up as perfect. I think there's a lot of interesting stuff here, but in the end, it's like Subhuti's withdrawn book, a lot of fancy dancing, but for what? In this case, we get to know Sangharakshita quite a bit more, and for that I'm grateful.

More information hasn't really shed light onto the Yashomitra situation, because he can't remember it. It puts it more into a personal context, from his perspective. I don't hear him say it's unfortunate that Yashomitra took things the way he did, and that by no means did he mean for them to go that way. Of course he can't remember the incident, so I suppose it's hard to apologize for something he can't remember. As I say, while I helps one to understand what Bante was doing at that time, it still doesn't really shed light on the incidents that Yashomitra discuss, and the impact it had on him.

He does go on to say that his sexual exploration were a good thing, in that it was an exploration of sexuality within the Dharma life, and that for him the key was not to create children that would distract one from the Dharma life.

You can read Yashomitra's letter and the Guarding article on the FWBO Files, a anti-FWBO website produced by a former member of the order (which I don't feel like linking, but have in the past). I won't go into what is said about the author of the website, either.

Finally there is a lot about the nuclear family. He sees family life as in competition with the full time Dharma life.

I have to admit, children have taken a lot from me, my personal present Dharma malaise is related to my crushing responsibilities, my need for sleep, the need to provide for my family. My single friends are however under a similar crush with their careers, the struggle for self actualization and paying rent. It's not clear in NYC that I'm less committed than the single mitras and friends. Perhaps that's more a statement about the NYC sangha than parenthood and leading the Dharma life. I also wonder about integrations of family and Dharma life. Perhaps that's up to others to explore.

So on the whole a very interesting and informative letter. I recommend it to all those interested in the FWBO/WBO/TBMSG. In many ways it says things that haven't been said before. I am very grateful it's been shared.


Jayarava said...

Hi Stephen

That's yashomitra, not yashamitra. It's as well to spell his name correctly given his place in our history.

Bhante's views on the family are a lot less radical than the Buddha's (taking the Pāli canon to be representative of his views which I suppose is questionable).

The comparison with someone driven to work in a career is not a good one. The comparison I think Bhante might wish to draw is between family/career and full-time Dharma practice. Again Bhante is less radical in his expressed views on career than the Buddha.

Many of Bhante's early disciples gave up work and family to create the movement as we know it. It still happens where there is a context for doing so - I don't think the USA has quite caught the bug yet (perhaps the extensive welfare state in 60's and 70's UK provided a safety net you don't have there). The comparison should be with people like Manjuvajra, Dhammarati, Nagabodhi (no longer single I know), Subhuti, Parami etc. No career, no family ties, full-time for the Dharma, and look at what they have achieved!

Some lifestyles are more conducive to mindfulness and contentment, and therefore to meditation, and to insight. Insight requires a sustained intensity of practice that is seldom attained in lay lifestyles. If we're talking about being good people, fine, I'm sure there are lots of good ethical people; but if we're talking taking liberation seriously then I don't see many people with jobs and families breaking free of attachments. That said it is amazing what some Indian order members achieve despite having both careers and families under far more difficult conditions than Westerners experience! Look to them for inspiration and models. Their priorities are very clear and they are not distracted from the Dharma!

Personally I think it's a bit sad to be discussing the sex-life of an 84 year old English man.

Bhante never characterised his relationship with his disciples in terms of power but in terms of friendship, taught specifically against any exertion of power, set up the order and the movement as a network of friendships with the first precept it's heart, and (as far as I can see) always acted accordance with this ethos. Exerting power was and is anathema to Bhante. I think he is genuinely like that, and must be quite stung and hurt by the accusations levelled at him. We're quite unkind to him at times.

The whole discourse of characterising all relationships in terms of power reminds me of the feminist rhetoric of the 1980's. Back then women friends told me in all sincerity that "all men are rapists" was a reasonable point of view. Not a reasonable point of view really, because it proceeds from completely bogus premises.

So I hope that those who've clamoured for this glimpse will be finally satisfied and let us get on with living and spreading the Dharma.

Best Wishes

Stephen Parks Bell said...

Thank you Jayarava.

Stephen Parks Bell said...

I'm certainly not saying "all men are rapist" It doesn't bother me that my writing might have similarity with early feminist rhetoric.

I have not met him. You, presumably have. My good friends have met him and say they can not really completely understand him, they feel he is a big person.

So I want to be open minded towards him, and all, but I'm also, in my remove from him, not inclined to give him a free pass.

In a way, it seems such a big thing for encounters he doesn't remember. Yashomitra does remember then though, and we can read his letter. We can read this as a kind of reply that allows us to see into his process of exploring sexuality, and I think he shares his conclusion: It's not some transcendent level of communication, nor is it trivial, somewhere in between.

Anyway, I want to remain open to him, and I think I don't really have enough information to judge the situation, and I appreciate more information, including your considered response, thank you.

Jayarava said...

Hi Stephen

I've oscillated around a bit - in the end decided that my opinion is not that important (despite my prolixity!) But yes I have met him a couple of times - notably we did several sessions of study with him on a retreat a couple of years ago. My real teachers are his disciples. I can't say I understand him either. But I understand what I have gained by my association with him!

To clarify a bit I was complaining generally about the rhetoric of power, not specifically. I just don't feel that it describes any relationship I have been in (at least not fully). Indeed where there has been any power exerted there has been little or no room for love; and contrarily where there is love, power seems very much in the background, if present at all. I don't experience my relationships with Senior members of the WBO or with Sangharakshita in terms of power that they seek to exert, or which I capitulate to (or buck against). Where does love fit into the picture?

The 'power' rhetoric seems to belong to an ideology that I cannot subscribe to on the grounds of personal experience. No doubt people do have power over me, but not in the spiritual movement.

I see Yashomitra as a young man trying to get ahead by having sex with his teacher! And then later complaining that it got him nowhere!

Ironically I think Sangharakshita's views on sex might have been different if his sexual activity had gone beyond the manual. His (apparently) most intimate sexual acts count amongst my least intimate and least preferred. I think perhaps he underestimated sex. Mind you I would have been very surprised if he had not come out (so to speak) in favour of celibacy. I was surprised that he did not mention his prostate operation and the impact it had on his sex life. But I'm no longer really that interested in this stuff - my interestes lay in the Dharma as I write about it on my blog.

Anyway thanks for allowing me a voice on your blog.


Stephen Parks Bell said...

No, thank you Jayarava. Sometimes I get lulled into thinking nobody is reading this, and I have been tempted to retract the little note, but I thought your comment was so good that I had to keep it up.

I think the important thing is to keep open and receptive to spiritual teachers, and when I process this stuff, I feel as though I am getting to know him deeper, even if he doesn't respond to my note. I hope it's not too irresponsible to voice an imperfect opinion, but I like to hear your responses, I learn a lot from them. I'm tempted to just erase my original note, and post your responses.

Thank you, Steve

Jayarava said...

Hi Steve

I'm just one person responding to another person. They're just my opinions, and all opinions are imperfect. One of the reasons for expressing opinions is to hear how they sound - to ourselves and to others.

I guess we all have to think and feel through our responses to Sangharakshita as authentically as we can.

I can think of many times having expressed what I thought was a reasonably opinion, only to have it come back and bit me on the ass! Though never in court (yet!) :-) (I'm not sure if my cyber-stalker is still searching out everything I write and copying it for posterity, but he may well find this!)

Anyway thanks again for being open to this dialogue - it's helped me refine my own thinking. I might do a blog post on power mode/love mode, or at least track down the talks and writing on the subject.

Best Wishes

Stephen Parks Bell said...


If you ever come to NYC please look me up. I hope to meet you some day on an international retreat, when some day, I hope, to be ordained.

I was hoping to go to see Bante this year, but an incident with bedbugs left our finances in ruins when we had to throw out our mattresses and couches.

I like the power/love mode distinction. My only concern is that one person could be in the love mode while everyone around him could be in the power mode. I suppose that doesn't matter in a way. NYC is a power mode kind of town, mostly, though there are lots of kindnesses. I suppose in a way that's why I like Avalokiteshvara, he shatters when he realizes all the work to be done.

But recently, in one of my early morning half awake, half dream states, I decided to control the thoughts and I had a vision of Avalokiteshvara's thousand arms and I felt a kind of comfort I haven't really felt before from him. The phrase, "be a hand of Avalokiteshvara" made more sense to me.

I hope to operate more frequently in the love mode!


James Murphy said...

Stephen, you are not a proverbial lone voice crying in the (Buddhist) wilderness! There IS, or ought to be, an ongoing crisis of confidence in the FWBO - oops, sorry. Triratna. I don't wish to sound unduly critical of Jayarava, but he is an FWBO Order member with a party line to preach. - Of course, Sangharakshita is a great man, no question about that. He is, and continues to be, an inspiration to me; but that said, he has undeniably made great mistakes commensurate with his own greatness: you cannot have sex with your disciples and NOT confuse the clarity of their 'going for refuge'. It simply won't wash to gloss over the whole thing as 'prurience' on the part of those trying to work out what they feel about Bhante and his sexual activity twenty years ago - whether he's now 84 or not! The essential question that still hasn't been asked in this saga is: how far can we trust Bhante's interpretation of Buddhist spiritual ideals? Put another way: - to what extent is one's faith in spiritual ideals undermined and destroyed by the discovery that one's spiritual master has himself not been practising certain aspects of them? Take the celibacy issue: I can personally vouch for the fact that most of us during the 70s and 80s not in Bhante's inner circle believed in the power of celibacy to drive the spiritual life, because we believed Bhante was a living example of it. Indeed, he let this be known. I well recall a dictum of his repeated in FWBO circles - 'Bhante jokes that he offers three cheer for individuals who declare celibacy at the age of 20, two at 30, and one at forty..." etc. Of course, all the time - at this time - Bhante himself was far from celibate! Anyway Stephen, you may be interested to hear that I am writing a small book about the FWBO, containing the good (and there is a great deal of it), the bad and the ugly. The publication is due for release in autumn. I will let you know more if you are interested. Ps - I, too am married with a lovely 18 year old son. It's been tough going combining an aspiration for spiritual practice with worldly responsibility - but such is the battleground! Great good wishes to you. James Murphy

Jayarava said...

Dear James

You say:

"I don't wish to sound unduly critical of Jayarava, but he is an FWBO Order member with a party line to preach."

Actually, that is unduly critical.

And so we can be clear I am a member of the Triratna Buddhist Order, the auxiliary movement of which is called the Triratna Buddhist Community (or will be when we've finished bickering about it). Even in the old terms one cannot be an "FWBO Order member" - spell out the acronyms to see how wrong that looks. How can you be writing a book about us when you don't even get this basic distinction?

You also say:

"The essential question that still hasn't been asked in this saga is: how far can we trust Bhante's interpretation of Buddhist spiritual ideals?"

Of course we must ask this question of every spiritual teacher. It is an ongoing question for each and every one of us. And you must be grossly out of touch to suggest that the question is not being asked in the Triratna Buddhist Order and of the Triratna Buddhist Order.

But it is not a question that can be answered in the abstract. It can only be answered in practice, and largely through personal (i.e. face to face) interaction, and that over a considerable period.

It's much more difficult to take responsibility for one's own naivety causing one pain, than to blame someone else for betraying that naivety. And yet as Robert Bly said "naivety demands betrayal". Sadly many Westerners drag childish naivety into adulthood; and nurture hurt feelings in ourselves with triumphant self-justification (sometimes for decades). It seems to be a characteristic of the contemporary Western male especially. People seldom admit to being naive, or that their naivety was the cause of their problems. Instead they blame someone and set out (in good Judeo-Christian fashion) to punish them. I've always found this aspect of human behaviour fascinating.

It is so bracing to go back and read those first few verses of the Dhammapada time and again. I read them in Pāli these days which has an extra piquancy.

The problem with living in the past is twofold. Firstly memory is a funny thing - it is far more reliant on interpretation than we like to let on. Neuroscientists have shown that the more we revisit the past with a certain take on it, the more the memory conforms to that view. Memory of events is plastic and self-reinforcing; especially when nursing resentments over decades! Secondly by living in the past one is not living in the present. Change only comes about in the present moment. Living in the past is akin to death, spiritual death anyway.

The Order may have many faults, but it is, to paraphrase Bhante, far better than most people think, and far worse. One of the main faults of the Order, despite what people seem to think, is a lack of unity; another is a lack of respect for authority and refusal to cooperate with authority.

To be criticised for the opposite (on an organisational and/or personal level) is always a puzzle to me because it is such an glaring failure to grasp the obvious! How can anyone take it seriously? I don't.


"No one ever erected a statue to a critic" ~ Sibelius.