By Mark Dunlop
There was a short (5min 40s) obituary on Sangharakshita broadcast in the UK on BBC Radio 4. It starts 13:58, ends 19:38:
Born 26 August 1925; died 30 October 2018, aged 93.
“Last Word spoke to writer and teacher of Buddhism Dharmachari Vishvapani.”
Some quotes below:
Critics from orthodox schools feel so strongly that Lingwood’s [Sangharakshita’s] teachings break Buddhist rules of sexual conduct, and undermine family life, that, for the first time, they have agreed to speak out.¹
Presenter Matthew Bannister at 18:39:
The allegation was that Sangharakshita had encouraged male students to explore homosexuality with him, even if that was not their orientation. One student told the BBC he had been unable to enjoy what he called a normal sexual relationship for many years after leaving the group. Vishvapani believes Sangharakshita was naive about his power over the students.
Vishvapani at 19:02:
I don’t think he had much sense of the kind of power dynamic between him as a teacher, and them as the students, and the result has been really, quite disastrous for his legacy, for his reputation. In the end, he acknowledged that it had been unwise, and actually quite unethical in the end for him to have acted like that. So he did, I think, see that that behaviour had caused quite a lot of pain and distress for people.
So Vishvapani appears to acknowledge that Sangharakshita had been “actually quite unethical” and that his “behaviour had caused quite a lot of pain and distress for people”.
That is about as strong an acknowledgement as I can recall from any senior Triratna member.
Incidentally, Vishvapani says Sangharakshita didn’t realise the power differential. It seems to me he did realise the power differential perfectly clearly, and exploited it ruthlessly.
It seems some Triratna order members have copied Sangharakshita’s behaviour, for example:
It does seem that many of the most successful Kalyana Mitras [spiritual friends] have an erotic interest in their mitras [students]. … sexual interest on the part of a male order member for a male mitra can create a connection which may allow kalyana mitrata [spiritual friendship] to develop. Some, of course, are predisposed to this attraction, others have deliberately chosen to change their sexual preferences in order to use sex as a medium of kalyana mitrata – and to stay clear of the dangers of male-female relationships without giving up sex.
—Subhuti (Alex Kennedy), Shabda (FWBO in-house magazine) September 1986, p.125
Kalyana Mitras [spiritual friends] are relatively senior Triratna order members who act as mentors and guides for their mitras (trainee order members).
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.
—Jayamati (John Roche), Shabda August 1998, pages 58-59
I wanted to talk about homosexuality and how it can have clear spiritual benefits and advantages over heterosexuality, and how such an idea is not like seventies furniture – once fashionable, now clearly silly as some Shabda reportings in have suggested – but a persuasively arguable point and in many cases true.
—Maitreyabandhu (Ian Johnson), Shabda June 1998
I would even go so far as to suggest that taking the passive role in a homosexual relationship could, for some men, constitute an initiation into manhood as (a) the man is surrendering his own pseudo-assertive side and therefore undergoing a sort of symbolic death, and (b) is experiencing his sexuality in a situation that is free from women and all their associations (ie emotional dependency).
—Chintamani (Jonathan Weiss), from his article “Leaving Mother and Initiation into Manhood”, around 1977
I know that a significant number of heterosexuals have, one way or another, found themselves persuaded into homosexual acts with more senior or experienced members of the Order during their involvement with the FWBO.
—Tejananda (John Wakeman), Shabda July 1998)
If there were proper safeguarding measures in place within Triratna, then they should have prevented the above sorts of sexual abuse by Sangharakshita and by those who emulated him. While Triratna claims to have safeguarding measures in place, in my experience there has been a complete absence of any safeguarding. In fact, Triratna seems to follow a sort of anti-safeguarding process: abusers are safeguarded, and victims who complain are denigrated and vilified.
Indeed, Triratna’s safeguarding officer, Munisha (Catherine Hopper) appears to endorse the idea of homosexual behaviour as a form of Buddhist practice:
“He [Lingwood] thought that it might be a good thing for them to get over their fixed self-view, and one of the things they might try doing [to achieve this] is having sex with other men”, explained Triratna’s safeguarding officer, who goes by the single Buddhist name of Munisha.
In principle, observing the Buddhist precepts should provide a similar level of protection against abuse, as would be provided by safeguarding measures. However, a major problem is that both the Buddhist precepts and also safeguarding measures are subject to interpretation.
Some Buddhists consider sexual relations between teacher and student to be contrary to the precepts. For example Rev. Daishin Morgan, Abbot of Throssel Hole Buddhist Abbey in Northumberland took part in the 1992 BBC (East) documentary about the FWBO and commented on Subhuti’s statement about homosexuality as a medium of spiritual friendship (kalyana mitrata), see quote 1 above, as follows:
To me this is totally contrary to the Buddhist precepts, its totally contrary to the Buddhist scriptures, and its absolutely contrary to any sort of good practice. It to me is a form of manipulation.
And the Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh wrote, in an article about the Buddhist precept of abstaining from sexual misconduct:
If a teacher cannot refrain from sleeping with one of his or her students, he or she will destroy everything, possibly for several generations.
Within Triratna however, only people approved of by Sangharakshita, or approved of by people of whom he has approved, are allowed to become Order members. As Sangharakshita puts it:
Basically the Order can be defined as the community of my disciples and the disciples of my disciples and the disciples of my disciples’ disciples and so on.
This effectively means that anyone who criticises or seriously questions Sangharakshita’s teaching or behaviour is ineligible to be a Triratna order member. Because order members hold all the power in Triratna, this in turn means that Triratna is able to insulate itself against any outside, independent individuals or agencies who might question Sangharakshita’s self-serving (mis)-interpretations of Buddhist ethics (or indeed, any of his (mis)-interpretations of Buddhist teaching in general).
So, among other things, this means that Triratna’s safeguarding officer, Munisha, is a disciple of Sangharakshita – she describes him as her “beloved teacher”, and writes of her “deep gratitude to my teacher [Sangharakshita] who has given me so much.” Effectively, this means that she basically continues to promulgate Sangharakshita’s self-serving (mis)-interpretations of Buddhist ethics. She would not have been appointed to the role of safeguarding officer otherwise. The situation is rather like that of foxes safeguarding the henhouse.
To be fair, there are some Triratna order members who have expressed misgivings about aspects of Sangharakshita’s behaviour, but they seem to have little influence or power.
In the UK, Triratna operates through a chain of registered charities. However, in the case of religious charities, the Charity Commission is legally barred from “interfering in doctrine”. So even they appear to have no power to question the religious teaching of Sangharakshita or his disciples, or their interpretation of Buddhist ethics.
However, the Charity Commission has recently opened a statutory inquiry into Rigpa Fellowship (279315), over serious concerns about adult safeguarding. It may be that in due course they will also investigate Triratna.
In a wider context, many professional organisations have codes of conduct which, among other things, prohibit sexual relations between professionals in a position of power and trust, and their clients. Relationships of power and trust include psychotherapist and client, teacher and student, doctor and patient, etc. One of the best known explanations of the importance of respecting boundaries and avoiding sexual relations in such circumstances is the book “Sex in the Forbidden Zone” by Peter Rutter M.D.
Finally, in more general terms, the power differential between teacher and student can enable various other forms of manipulation and abuse, not just sexual, such as pressuring people to work long hours for the organisation for low pay, or to donate money. There are allegations that Triratna members have been pressured to work more or less full-time for Triratna while fraudulently continuing to claim various forms of unemployment benefit. One Order member in 1986 described the UK wing of the Order as “half living off the State”. However, details of such alleged abuses are beyond the scope of this short report, which concentrates on Vishvapani’s comments in the BBC obituary on Sangharakshita.
¹ This is an audio extract from the 1992 BBC (East) TV programme about the FWBO.
More by Mark Dunlop
- Why are cults so difficult to oppose? – Mark Dunlop on “brainwashing” (2018/08/01)
- Mark Dunlop’s Response to Sangharakshita’s February 2017 Memoir 2017/09/02
- Mark Dunlop’s Involvement with the FWBO / Triratna 2017/06/19
BBC / Guardian (Observer)
- Apology sought over ‘abuse’ at Buddhist retreat – BBC (2016)
- BBC’s “Inside Out East” documentary in which Jo Taylor examines allegations of historic abuse at the Padmaloka Buddhist Retreat Centre // → Watch that documentary on Vimeo (2016)
- Fears mount over scale of Buddhist sect sexual abuse – The Guardian / Observer (2017)
- The dark side of enlightenment – The Guardian
- BBC documentary on YouTube “Going for Refuge“
- Abuse in Triratna – Sue Jackson (11/2018)
- A Letter To The College of Public Preceptors By The Aryaloka Spiritual Vitality Council 2017/05/04
- Yashomitra’s Shabda Article March 2003
- Whitewashing, Dishonesty & Culture of Abuse in the Triratna Buddhist Order (TBO) 2017/02/19
- FWBO / Triratna – Sangharakshita – Cases of Sexual Abuse 2016/09/27
- Triratna: The Eye of the Storm by Alan J.W. (2018/07/03)
- Clergy Sexual Abuse & Buddhist Ways of Dealing With Abuse | Triratna’s Whitewashing Terminology 2018/15/03
- Triratna Buddhist Community – The Friends of the Western Buddhist Order’s New Disguise by British Buddhism Blogspot (2012)
- Resignation letter from 88 Indian FWBO members (1999)
- Ex-FWBO (A great collection of background material, including testimonies)
- Critique of Sangharakshita / Triratna / FWBO by Eisel Mazard (Medium)
- How You Can Support a Victim of Clergy Sexual Misconduct – Lama Miller (Lion’s Roar)