What Unites Us, What Divides Us
Posted by Kulananda on Thu, 14 September, 2017 - 12:18
What I Said (and Didn’t Say) at the Combined Area Order Weekend
A little while ago, Dhirangama and I went to Adhisthana for the Combined Area Order Weekend. We travelled there with some trepidation as neither of us has spent much time in Order gatherings for many years and we wondered what we’d find.
It was good to see several old friends and I was delighted to hear Vishvapani’s landmark talk. We missed Lokeshvara’s closing talk, but I’ve since caught it online and very much appreciated what he said.
It was the openness of the programme that drew me to brave a cold and wet weekend with 300 other people at Adhisthana. The Order is a rich and diverse collection of individuals, the organisers told us, come and tell us what you do – how you’re contributing to the project of spreading the Dharma in the world.
I was very pleased to get that email. I’ve advocated for that attitude for many years and couldn’t turn the invitation down. I offered to give a talk on “What Unites Us, What Divides Us” and also to lead a workshop on the work I do bringing mindfulness into organisations and with leaders. The organisers took me up on both of these and I’ll say something about my talk below.
My over-riding impression of the weekend was of a new openness. The receptive attention with which people listened to Vishvapani, for example, as he spoke some humbling truths. When last I was at such an event the overall tenor was somewhat more triumphalist, defensive and very much more homogenous. We’re going through turbulent times in the Order and I was impressed by the Convenors’ willingness to admit that diversity and try to hold the space open for everyone.
What I Said in My Talk (More or Less) and Further Reflections
I can’t give a fully accurate version of my talk, “What Unites Us, What Divides Us”, because I never made notes and I didn’t record it. But here’s the gist of it – along with a few more thoughts.
I began with a sketch outline of my biography in the Order, including my complex relationship with Bhante. Over the last decade or so I’ve struggled on and off with a question: how can I keep to my ordination vow of loyalty to my teacher while I’m sometimes critical of him?
Increasingly this has come to seem to me to be a central problem at the heart of our Order. Can we be critical of Bhante, questioning aspects of what he has said at times and some of the ways in which he’s behaved, while still holding to the heart of his fundamental teachings?
This is, I believe, an existential question for the Order as a whole. If we can allow for that kind of nuance and complexity in our relationship to Bhante and some of his teachings, we can hold together as an Order. If not, then I fear we must split. I believe that the attempt to unite Triratna by insisting that Bhante occupies an unquestioned and sacred place at the heart of our mandala has failed – and will fail over and over.
As a man, Bhante has his strengths and his weaknesses. Some of us may wish to look only at the brightness, and it is considerable, but when you insist that we all do that and that the brightness is all there is, then other voices and other stories crowd in and the project fails.
Here’s some of my own story. It is partial, for sure. We write and re-write our autobiographical memories all the time and things change. The past isn’t stable. No doubt there are other views on the same events. I don’t insist on any absolute factual accuracy here. But I do hope I can prompt a helpful conversation.
As a recently ordained Order member, I’d begun an intimate relationship with Bhante in 1977 and was suddenly and starkly dropped from that in 1979. One moment we were very close, living together at Padmaloka, seeing each other several times a day, then one day – without warning or discussion – I was simply dropped. It was as if I ceased to exist in his world – almost literally. He came down to breakfast, I said hello, he ignored me as if I were invisible and didn’t speak to me again one-to-one for many months. His attention turned to another young man. That led to my leaving Padmaloka in a state of furious confusion. I went to London and founded Windhorse Trading.
After a year or two I made my peace with what had happened. Bhante and I never discussed it and I returned to work for him in various ways in the years that followed. I don’t know what his side of the story was, but for my part I let it all drop.
I love the Order and am grateful to Bhante for having founded it. I’m hugely grateful to him for having helped me to the Dharmic perspectives I take on things. I would never have arrived at these without him. They are a gift beyond price.
But towards the end of my time as a member of the Preceptors’ College and increasingly since then, my love of the Order and my gratitude to Bhante have come to be mixed-in with perceptions that are increasingly critical of how certain aspects of his personality play out in the Triratna project. I believe that our collective failure to address these leads to unreality and distortion. It can leave an almost cultish-ness at the heart of things that, I believe, will ultimately be our downfall.
I’ve given much of my life to the Order. For the 28 years between 1977 and 2005 I lived my life very much at the heart of things, co-founding the Cambridge and North London centres, being presidential in Croydon, Dublin and North London, starting the communications and liaison offices, working as Bhante’s secretary from time to time, becoming the overall Order Convenor for a time, being a Public Preceptor and an early member of the Madhyamaloka community, privately ordaining 20-plus Order members, writing books for Windhorse Publications and so on.
But in 2003 I’d come to the end of my tether at Madhyamaloka – then the home of the Preceptors’ College. The five years leading up to that point had been riddled with crises and difficulties – the FWBO Files, the first Guardian article, Yashomitra’s letter, to say nothing of the onset of Bhante’s visual impairment. By 2002 Bhante had fallen into a state of insomnia and extreme anxiety. He couldn’t be alone for more than a few minutes, literally, and needed constant company and reassurance.
The dynamics of life at Madhyamaloka were never easy. In the twin shadows of Bhante on the one hand and Subhuti on the other, I struggled to find any space for meaningful initiative. Much of the time I accepted that – I even thought of my deference as a spiritual practice of sorts – but I now see how unwise it was to have given over so much of my own agency to theirs.
Following the publication of the FWBO Files in 1998, Vishvapani, Cittapala and I had worked hard on our Response. I was never happy with that document. Bhante was still loathe to give a full account of his sexual activity and we were assured by those responsible for our activities in India that too frank an account would be incendiary there. In any event, the Files themselves were riddled were inaccuracy and over-statement and we did our best to address these and redress the balance. But in the end our Response felt a bit like a fudge. That left a bad taste.
But it was just the start. Over the next five years crisis followed crisis and we never seemed able to get on top of things. On reflection, I think there was something fundamentally flawed in the model of leadership we were struggling to implement. There was a lack of clarity about lines of authority and we weren’t entirely clear about what kind of leadership team we wanted to be (and whether we had any real authority anyway – Bhante was always there, casting his shadow).
I felt an increasing claustrophobia with life at Madhyamaloka. By 2003 it was time for me to move on.
Recently, Bhante has spoken of his complex personality and how that has shaped the Order. Much of that rings true. But in speaking of his personality as though all of its features were entirely positive in the second piece he wrote on theme he has detracted from an earlier statement where he seemed to acknowledge that that complexity had led him to act in ways that weren’t in accordance with his position.
As I write, I feel my reluctance to go into this territory. But from my discussions with certain College members over the past few years and in some of the documents we’ve all been sent, I sense what has been a strategy for forging unity in Triratna by insisting on Bhante’s place in the centre of our mandala. And when you insist on Bhante’s position at the centre of the mandala, and try to use that to forge unity, then that necessarily calls for a discussion of the complex personality around which we are being asked to cohere.
From my own observations and experience, for example, there appears to me to be an element of Bhante’s personality that is marked by caution at best and anxiety at worst. That can play out as a need to control the world he’s a part of and I sense echoes of that same tendency in some of what has emerged at times from Adhisthana and the College.
So much of what I hear from College members and others about ‘the need to preserve Bhante’s legacy’ seems to me to carry imprints of elements of Bhante’s complex personality that he never spoke about in his recent article on the theme.
Am I alone in sensing a whiff of vanity, for example, in some of what Bhante wrote about in his second piece about his personality? Indeed, in much of what he’s written about himself? Or, in fact, the whole ‘legacy project’? Is that too an aspect of his complex personality? Those of us who have lived with Bhante have sometimes been maddened by his unflinching self-certainty – should that be in the mix too? And then there is that anxiety – the apparent need for constant control.
By 2003 I couldn’t bear the confining tension of Madhyamaloka any longer. I left there and went to Abbey House in Cambridge, where I could focus on my friendships and various presidencies, spend more time with Dhirangama who lived nearby, and get my masters’ degree in Mindfulness-Based Approaches at Bangor University completed.
I became increasingly drawn into the rapidly unfolding ‘Mindfulness Revolution’ which seemed to me to be opening extraordinary opportunities for those of us concerned with bringing the Dharma to the modern world.
One of the things I found so liberating about leaving Madhyamaloka, stepping aside from my various Triratna duties and going on to develop my current career teaching mindfulness, is that it enabled me to get down off the pedestal I occupied in our little self-enclosed Buddhist world. In a sense, it allowed me to join the rest of humanity.
In the Order, I was Kulananda, with a kesa and status. Big fish, small pond. Now, in the very much wider world of organisational consultancy, I’m Michael where I work. No big deal at all. Just another greying guy with a home, a marriage, and a method to pitch. If what I say is helpful, great. But I’m nothing special. When I came off it, it was liberating – and revealing – to see how much I’d relied on my old pedestal.
That speaks to me of something one of my colleagues at the Centre for Mindfulness in Bangor mentioned when we were discussing the many and various Triratna Order members who have trained there. “They’re so obviously well-trained” she said. “They can meditate well, and they can communicate. But they’re often strangely arrogant.” I get that. I wonder whether the ‘specialness’ we get from our membership of the Order doesn’t somehow infect some of us in unhelpful ways.
I spoke next about my love of the Order. In all my travels through the modern Buddhist world when working for the Liaison Office I never found any Sangha remotely like it. I spoke of my gratitude to Bhante – how my understanding of the Dharma, the lenses through which I perceive, were his gift and how happy I am with that.
And I spoke of my deep sadness and dismay at seeing how Bhante’s apparent anxiety and need for control appear increasingly to have come to inform the attempts from him, from Subhuti and from others centrally engaged in our project to stamp a template of unity on the Order – and how that just doesn’t work. In fact, from where I sit, the very attempts to forge unity that were embodied in the 7 papers that thudded into our in-trays with such authority (endorsed by Bhante, no less) seem to have divided more than they united us.
Part of my dismay at that came from my sense that the Order is in many ways actually already united. We share so much, we see things so similarly in so many crucial respects.
To illustrate this, I invited those listening to my talk to stand up and gather in the middle of the room, just getting a sense of comfortably being together in that space. I then said that I was going to call out a variety of statements and, so long as they were in accordance with these, they should just stay where they were. Together. But if any of my statements made them uncomfortable or if they disagreed with them, they should just find another place to stand that somehow accorded with their position in relation to what I said.
It was a crude, rough and ready exercise and my lack of a nuanced knowledge of the most recent discussions certainly impacted it, but I hope it made my point – at least to some extent.
I began with the easy pickings. What follows isn’t an exact replication of what I said, but it went something like this:
“Going for Refuge is primary, lifestyle is secondary.”
“The ten precepts are an adequate template for the ethics of a committed Dharma life.”
“Pratitya-samutpada is the central Buddhist doctrine, although not only expressed in terms of the 12 nidanas…”
“Spiritual friendship is a crucial spiritual practice and a vital support to practice…”
“Engagement with art and culture can be hugely supportive to spiritual life…”
“The many and various historical and cultural expressions of Buddhism contain the same underlying ineffable truth – and by and large they can be understood in terms of one another…”
“The are no higher teachings, there are only deeper understandings….”
And so on. I listed these ideas to edge of the audience’s boredom. There was a twitch or two at the clumsiness of my expression in this section, but nothing that broke the sense of unity.
That’s my main point. As an Order, we have been given these extraordinary gifts – the products of Bhante’s deep understanding of the Dharma and of the tradition. They are beyond price. And they are the source of our genuine unity.
But then we come to what divides us. Here, my statements were sometimes not adequately informed by a more nuanced understanding of current conversations. I was trying to show that the ways some try to control and unify things actually end up driving us apart.
“The Order was founded by Bhante and he has the exclusive right to define it…”
There was a lot of movement.
“There is no need for Order members to visit other Buddhist teachers. In fact, that is discouraged….”
“Friends and Mitras ought not to do insight meditation practices…”
“A picture of Bhante ought always to be on the shrine of a Triratna Centre…”
“Deep spiritual friendships between men and women aren’t possible…”
“You cannot go deeper at a mixed event…”
“Couples ought not to teach together at centres and on retreats…”
And so on.
The room became pretty mobile.
I talked about how it seemed to me that statements like these seemed to be expressive of a kind of anxiety. How, rather than unifying us around a single ideology and methodology, they actually drive us apart.
Now it’s not that all of the statements above were contained in those 7 papers. Possibly none of them were. But versions of some of those statements will have been spoken at seminars with Bhante I’ve attended over the years, they’ve been spoken at dinner tables with him and they are expressive of a more general tendency to want to control that stifles innovation and experiment. When we are asked to cohere unreservedly around Bhante and his teachings, statements like these – and many, many more – are in the mix.
Following the publication of Subhuti’s papers I have had so many conversations with distressed friends who wondered whether those papers really meant that they ought to resign from the Order. Was there any conscious intent at work, I wonder? A feeling that the Order would be better-off without people like me in it?
Like many of us I’ve given hugely to the Order over the years. I’ve invested a great deal of my life in it and I love it. I’ve no plans to leave and I don’t see why I should.
I’m troubled that at this weekend, for the first time, I heard a deeply committed Order member and long-standing friend of mine talking about the desirability of schism. That does seem to be where we stand – on the brink of breaking apart. In his talk Lokeshvara, who I don’t think wants a schism, told us that he’s not afraid of it. I’m not so sanguine. It would, I think, be psychically devastating. It would set in train hundreds of betrayals and leave a wake of unresolved conflict that would echo on and on (and find expression in any number of internet rants and press-releases for ages to come).
Can we avoid it?
I believe that it would help if we can all somehow genuinely allow for the true complexity of Bhante’s character. He has so many good qualities that have informed the culture of the Order. And yet he can sometimes be anxious and controlling. Many of us speak of how kind and empathic they’ve found him to be. And clearly much of that capacity vanished when it came to some of his sexual dealings. Much of what he has said is profound and wise. Some of it has been daft and plainly misogynistic.
In his more recent article on his complex personality, Bhante says that “… personal experience has shown me that it is better to keep one’s sexual relations and one’s spiritual friendships separate.” That may be true, but I wonder if it doesn’t miss the point. What I think has bothered many people much more is the extent to which so many of the stories that are emerging have revealed the way in which Bhante sometimes failed to treat his sexual partners with kindness and sensitivity. How he failed to see their side of things and the impact that he had on them. That apparent lack of kindness and awareness of others has in its turn impacted the respect others have for him.
So yes – Bhante is complex. And it’s not all positive. Can we live with this complexity and ambiguities it throws up?
Can Bhante’s need to contain and control be something we can grow beyond, so that we can be open to other influences and other approaches? Can we be really free to innovate and develop new approaches or must everything be passed through an august committee before we try it?
Can we learn to live with one another’s differences of approach, seeing the underlying unity that binds us together?
Can we allow one another to hold different views on Bhante and still remain one Order? Can we love and hold to those central teachings while taking a more rounded and ambiguous view of the person of the teacher?
I know there are people in the Order, possibly many, who will read this with a twinge of anger and maybe even disgust. How could I, having spoken of all the good things I’ve received from Bhante, speak so disrespectfully of him?
Truly, I mean no disrespect. But I believe we need to hold a more grounded, realistic picture of the man and his legacy. We need to stand in the truth of things or else we topple.
I absolutely don’t insist that my view should be adopted. To anyone who reveres Bhante much more unreservedly, and who has read this far, I put a gentle challenge. I can live with you taking the view of Bhante that you do and I can accept that you and I are both members of this wonderful Order. I don’t need you to abandon your views and attitudes for us to co-exist in the same Order or for that Order to flourish. Can you allow me that same space? If so, we have no problem. If not, I fear there are painful times ahead.
When one of my grand-daughters was four she told us about the baby chicks they had incubated in her class. They were so nice to hold. “But you mustn’t hold them too tight,” she told us, “because then you’ll make them dead.”
It’s the same with the Order. Hold it too tight and you make it dead.
There’s so much that unites us. We share so much. But if we’re going to stay together we need room to breathe.
I think this calls for another approach to leadership in the Order and Triratna.
I don’t know what currently goes on in the College and other bodies. From where I sit the College is strangely mute. I don’t doubt their goodwill, their sincerity or that they’re doing their best to manage the ongoing torrent of crises. But the last defining leadership statements I heard were from Subhuti, speaking somehow as if for Bhante, in tones that were often unhelpful.
If we’re to hold together we need outspoken voices at the top which embrace the whole of the Order and convincingly allow it to be what it is before trying to encourage it any new directions. We need a leadership that accepts us for who we are, rather than trying to prune us into a more amenable shape. That’s not easy as we grow increasingly fractious.
In his talk at the Order weekend Lokeshvara shared a tenet of the Mennonite Church – “Unity in Principle, Freedom in Action”. That’s good. And he quoted Bhante from the Survey – “Though the doctrine is the same for all, the method may be applied in a manner that is peculiar to each.”
More of that kind of voice, less attempt to control, and maybe we can stay united.
What I Didn’t Say in My Talk (But Should Have)
When I outlined my biography, I didn’t talk about my marriage to Dhirangama and how my life has changed since we got married. I said nothing of the family I’m now a part of – my step-daughters, sons-in-law and four wonderful grandchildren. The relationships I have with Dhirangama and the rest of the family bring me a depth, a richness, and a groundedness that I’d not previously found. Dhirangama is a constant source of love and support – and she very ably keeps me from getting over-inflated!
Family life is rich in joy and sorrow. Through mine, I feel a connectedness with the rest of humanity that was sometimes lacking when I gazed at the world from the ivory tower of my elevated position in the Triratna mandala.
Dhirangama was present at the talk and not acknowledging her or our family as part of my biography was weird and insensitive of me. I deeply regret it. After all, it’s a large part of my current existence.
Around the time Dhirangama and I got married in 2007, several other Order members were coming to the end of their willingness to maintain ‘semi-detached’ relationships. Many of us were beginning to feel the need to make our commitment to our partners publicly manifest. There was a merry flurry of marriages.
Speaking personally, I have loved Dhirangama deeply all the time we’ve been together and it seemed to me to call for an element of hypocrisy on my part to treat our relationship as if it could somehow be relegated to a ‘periphery’. But I know that for several of my friends in the College and at Madhyamaloka, our marriage felt like a betrayal. There were a few stark absences from our wedding.
After the talk a good friend of mine came up to me and pointed out to me how much I had myself participated in the culture of sometimes harsh certainty that prevailed in the Order and amongst its leaders for much of the time I was at Madhyamaloka. I immediately saw that was true. In fact I’ve uncomfortably known it for some time and I regret it. I was very much signed-up to the prevailing ideology for most of that time and looking back, I see that I wasn’t always kind in the way I tried at times to get others to toe the Triratna line. If any reader of this was harmed in any way by the stands I sometimes took and by the way I sometimes spoke, I am truly sorry and ask for their forgiveness.
If you’ve read this far, thank you for bearing with me. I’ve said a lot – maybe used too many words. But I’ve been away for a while and I begin to feel that it may just be possible to come back. I’m still a little hesitant. My work is rewarding in so many ways and makes so many demands on my time. That work still feels like a good way to be fulfilling the dream of helping to change the world for the better which brought me into the Order in the first place. But maybe there’s now more overtly space for people like me in the Triratna Mandala. I hope so.
(I am happy for this article to be read by anyone)