Whitewashing, Dishonesty & Culture of Abuse in the Triratna Buddhist Order (TBO)

Guest Post

The real beauty of a sexual relationship between an Order Member and a Mitra is that if the OM is sufficiently mature then the other person stands to gain considerably from the experience. This was the basis for the famed Greek model of love between the older man and the younger one which served that society so well for so long.

Tejananda’s final point is that we should be careful not to “alienate the vast majority of its (Society’s) members by engaging in, or condoning behaviour which they would find morally reprehensible and utterly repugnant” … he is quite right to point out that such bigotry does exist and that we must be very careful not to inflame ignorant passions by introducing such radical concepts too abruptly and without the opportunity to carefully explain the context that surrounds these ideas and principles. Thus one would need to be discreet in negotiating these principles with the general public. – Jayamati, August 1998, pages 58-59 in FWBO’s order magazine, Shabda

In late 1997, the Guardian newspaper published an article, The Dark Side of Enlightenment. The article echoed allegations first made in the FWBO Files that the Triratna Buddhist Community [then known as the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order] was practicing spurious teachings, the inventions of their founder Dennis Lingwood [Sangharakshita], teachings that led deliberately to widespread alienation from and contempt for the nuclear family. These pseudo Buddhist teachings further encouraged young male converts, alienated from their families, to engage in homosexual acts so as to help them ‘overcome their conditioning’. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the false doctrines were used in particular to facilitate sex between the founder, Lingwood and younger, somewhat credulous male newcomers to FWBO ‘Dharma’. In one case, a young man seeking FWBO ‘ordination’ but who had struggled to “overcome his conditioning” and found himself unwilling to submit to homosexual acts, became so depressed that he took his own life.

The FWBO’s response to allegations in both the Guardian and the Files for the last 20 years has been overwhelmingly one of uncompromising denial. Yes, abuse had occurred, but not at the hands of Lingwood. Rather, it happened at the behest of another senior figure in the Order they claimed, at only one centre [Croydon] and all a “very long time ago”. In summary, the issue of systemic abuse facilitated by false, non Buddhist doctrines and perpetrated by the founder and others was deliberately ignored. Through the calculated and wilful application of a straw man argument, the response whitewashed the actual issues and scapegoated a single, senior, now ex Order member as being solely responsible for actions which were, in truth, far more widespread and deep rooted. It was a thoroughly disingenuous, highly politicised response aimed, not at resolving the issue and offering help to those damaged, but rather at deflecting criticism and maintaining the toxic status quo within the Order’s upper echelons.

However, as they say ‘what  goes around, comes around’, and it was not long before further, numerous allegations of widespread systemic sexual and psychological abuse, both by the founder and a number of other senior Order figures, began to surface.

Finally, in September 2016, BBC East ran a piece in which three men alleged that they too had been abused at Triratna’s Padmaloka centre in Norwich and once again, the finger was pointed directly at Lingwood. To avoid him being interviewed and confronted about these new allegations, Triratna’s PR representative Munisha deliberately lied to the BBC, claiming Lingwood was “blind”.

This deliberate, seemingly innocuous lie was seen by some within Triratna as an indication of a continuing tendency within the group’s leadership to deceive the public and younger community members about the past and led to a good deal of discussion and even dissent within the Order, not simply because of the new revelations of abuse but more so, the continued, disingenuous and self serving nature of the response.

The situation appeared so potentially damaging that, on the advice of senior Triratna figures, Lingwood issued a somewhat nebulous apology for “any hurt, harm or upset” he had caused and asking for “forgiveness”. However, the deliberate vagueness of the apology only added to the already considerable anger in the community. Why would Lingwood not name names and apologise for specific actions to specific people? Why weren’t victims acknowledged and offered help or even compensation? More importantly perhaps, why were hierarchs in the organization still refusing to come clean about the misdemeanours committed by their founder and his close associates in the name of the Buddha, behind the closed doors of their single sex communities?

Anger at the deliberate vagueness and insensitivity of the Triratna response finally spilled out into the public arena and on the 19th of February 2017, the Guardian newspaper published the following critical report.

Reading the new Guardian article, it should be taken into consideration that:

  1. Safeguarding policies were introduced only after the BBC started to investigate some stories of abuse in 2016.
  2. The Triratna (TBO) “overall safeguarding officer” is also the TBO’s communications head – Munisha (Katherine Hopper) – whose main work over the last two decades has been to praise and defend Sangharakshita and to limit damage to the organisation, while at the same time rarely expressing any true compassion or sympathy for the victims of abuse.
  3. Munisha claims that there is now a “safe space” for abused disciples but this is a space exclusively controlled by Triratna – there is no counselling by any qualified external source, nor is there any independent body investigating or helping those who have been harmed by the leader of Triratna, Dennis Lingwood (Sangharakhsita). And yet it is the culture of Triratna itself that forms the very basis for these abuses. The limitations of such in-house counselling are obvious: a) the Triratna organisation can maintain control over all information and reports of abuse, b) it can influence those reporting to follow an already well established and pervasive narrative that these abuses were also somewhat beneficial to many c) the blind spots of the Triratna leadership and their role in the whole setup of power and sexual abuse are not questioned or scrutinized at all. A mark of genuine organisations who take the suffering of victims of abuse seriously is that they invite independent professional organisations and experts to investigate these cases of abuse. Such organisations do not attempt to address or fix the problems congruent with the abuse of power and sexual abuse in the very same environment that enabled abuse. The Triratna leadership must therefore ask themselves why they are unwilling to rely on external professionals and would rather employ in-house counselling in an in-house safe space that is under their sole control. Are they taking the harm and damage done seriously or are all of these new measures simply manifestations of a ‘damage control’ mentality?
  4. Munisha’s seemingly rational and balanced response at the end of the Guardian article – “Everybody knows he’s had sexual relationships with some of the people in the community. Some people around today say they were very happy with those relationships, and some say, no, they didn’t really want to, and felt confused by his advances and felt he should not have put them in that position.” – is in fact nothing more than the downplaying of the deep harm people have experienced (e.g. MarkPrasannasiddhiGlenYashomitraAnanda or Björn).
  5. The Triratna leadership has played a critical role in justifying a culture that enables systematic power and sexual abuse; many critics of the movement or victims of this abuse have been disparaged in public or in internal communications, deliberately undermining their credibility in order to preserve the reputation and financial status of the TBO and Sangharakshita (Dennis Lingwood). Up until now, the TBO leadership has neither acknowledged nor excused itself for having perpetrated these abuses.
  6. There is no critical investigation by the TBO leadership into widely disseminated non-Buddhist views within their movement which portray gay sex and gay relationships as superior to heterosexual relationships – views that have led to the marginalising and branding of heterosexual relationships as obstacles along the path which should be kept “at the edge of the mandala.”
  7. In an Amazon Review of The Triratna Story – Triratna’s official historical narrative – Stanley asks the following important questions about the sexual narrative within Lingwood’s teachings: “… how did Vajragupta – and in fact the FWBO (Triratna) itself – come to focus so exclusively on the provision of conducive and non-distractive contexts for the spiritual practice of heterosexual men and women only? Why are the spiritual needs of gay men and women apparently not being considered and catered for? Surrounded by the same sex at home, at work and while on retreat, what are gay men and women to do with their sexual tension? Amid all the sophisticated and deeply considered contexts for spiritual development, how come no comparably conducive situations were set up for gay men and women? How did this apparently hetero-centric world develop, especially considering that the man on top, Sangharakshita, is a gay man himself? How strange that they should place such an emphasis upon heterosexuals? What a confusing omission to not cater for the spiritual needs of gay men and women.”

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BBC / Guardian (Observer)

Safeguarding in Triratna

More

Confronting Abuse

Update May 2017