Do some Buddhist groups see themselves as above the law? – The Subjective Morality of Triratna

GUEST POST by Mark Dunlop

This article is prompted by a video talk given by Carol Merchasin, an American lawyer. Her talk is part of a video presentation titled “Speaking As, With, and For Survivors”, in which a number of people examine various aspects of abuse in certain Buddhist communities, and discuss ways to alleviate the dangers of such abusive environments. This video link was originally posted on the buddhism-controversy-blog by Tenzin.

Carol Merchasin’s talk starts at 47m 38s, and lasts for just over 15mins. The following link goes straight to the start of her talk:

Carol Merchasin, as a lawyer, examines how the law might be helpful in countering abuse in certain Buddhist communities. She gives an overview of the legal responsibilities, legal duties, and also the legal opportunities regarding abuse in Buddhist communities. In this article, I outline her comments, and then go on to discuss how the points she raises might be relevant to a particular (pseudo)-Buddhist group I used to be involved with, Triratna (formerly The Friends of the Western Buddhist Order or FWBO).

At approximately 2 1/2 minutes into her talk, Carol Merchasin says that too many Buddhist communities either don’t know the law, or believe the law doesn’t apply to them, but it does.

I experience buddhism as a place where people talk about right speech right conduct and compassion. and yet in my 30 years of experience corporations are doing a much better job, not just better, much better job than buddhist communities in dealing with sexual misconduct. Now that’s not they’re not doing a better job because they don’t have sexual misconduct taking place,
that’s not the reason. it’s because they understand the law and they have a healthy fear of the law. religious organiSations often don’t have any idea of what the law is and too many leaders in buddhist communities either are ignorant of it completely or don’t believe that it applies to them. But it does. Carol Merchasin

She goes on to say that, under American law, the leadership of a Buddhist community may be liable for negligence, if they knew or should have known about a teacher’s misconduct, and if they knew or should have known that they needed to intervene to protect the victim / claimant by adequately supervising, controlling, regulating, disciplining or otherwise penalising the teacher. If they failed to do so, they effectively condoned and worsened the teacher’s conduct. In failing to take those actions, the conduct of the leadership could be deemed to be wanton and reckless, and they could potentially be liable for punitive damages.

She concludes by saying that the law is “very much in line with survivor-centred activities, with right action and right conduct.”

A UK solicitor who listened to Carol Merchasin’s talk, said that, in their opinion, the same principles would apply under UK law.

This article now goes on to consider how Carol Merchasin’s points may be relevant to one particular Buddhist group, the Triratna Buddhist community. This is a UK-based organisation, which also has numerous centres in other parts of the world.

In the case of Triratna, not only have the leadership (Triratna’s directors) failed to regulate their former (now deceased) leader Sangharakshita’s (Dennis Lingwood’s) conduct, or indeed the conduct of some of the senior members who appear to have copied Sangharakshita’s abusive behaviour, but some at least of the membership seem to think they are beyond the law.

They tend to see themselves as beyond the law, partly because they regard themselves as being spiritually advanced people who are able, to some extent at least, to see and understand the world in terms of what they believe to be “ultimate reality”. They regard themselves as being able to see and experience the world from “a truer, wider perspective” than conventional, mundane society.

As Sangharakshita put it in 1992, comparing mundane awareness and transcendental awareness:

I see it [the Buddhist path] in terms of a very definite transition from what we regard as a mundane way of seeing the world and experiencing the world, to what we would describe as a transcendental way, seeing it in terms of wisdom, seeing it in terms of real knowledge, seeing it in terms of ultimate reality, seeing it in terms of a truer, wider perspective. Sangharakshita, at 5m 18s, in ‘Going for Refuge’, TV programme, BBC East 12.11.1992

Another, related reason why Triratna members may see themselves as above the law, is because they tend to see themselves as operating on a higher, more spiritual moral plane than conventional society. They make a distinction between ‘conventional morality’, and their own superior ‘natural morality’.

According to FWBO/Triratna teaching, ‘conventional morality’ is based on guilt and fear – fear of punishment by the law, or by God. Such fear-based conventional morality is therefore, in their view, only a pseudo-morality. True morality, or ‘natural morality’, is not based on external authority or on commonly agreed standards, but on an individual’s own appraisal of what is ‘skilful’ or ‘unskilful’.

As senior member Subhuti puts it in his book ‘Buddhism for Today’:

A morality which relies upon external sanction is not real morality. Such pseudo-morality relieves the individual of responsibility. …

Natural morality does not try to impose moral absolutes onto all behaviour. The words “good” and “bad” have no place in the vocabulary of real ethics. More suitable terms of ethical evaluation are morally “skilful” and “unskilful”. A skilful action requires an intelligent and practical awareness. No moral rulebook can lay down how to be skilful. Skilfulness depends on an appraisal of the particular situation and the likely outcome of any action for oneself as well as for those whom it will affect. Moral action is, then, a craft, a skill which is learnt by practice and persistence. Mistakes, perhaps many of them, will be made but each one provides its lessons in how best to act. Subhuti, ‘Buddhism for Today’, pub FWBO/Windhorse 1983 rev. 1988, p 73-74, see also

NSPCC, the Triratna Buddhist Community and the Safeguarding of Children

So a newcomer becoming involved with a group like Triratna may be vulnerable to manipulation, because they may not realise quite what they are letting themselves in for. They may not realise that some of the more senior leadership may not follow the established conventional ethical norms of society that the newcomer is probably reasonably familiar with, but may follow their own unconventional morality, in which each person is free to decide for themselves what constitutes skilful or unskilful action. That kind of subjective morality sidesteps external oversight or regulation, and can in practice become a kind of abusers’s charter.

As one Triratna order member put it after a critical 1997 Guardian newspaper article about the then FWBO:

Don’t let “the papers” bring conventional morality into the Order. We don’t need it. Vajranatha, Venezuela, March ’98

Another order member wrote:

We are revolutionary in many aspects. We are critical of the nuclear family, of [hetero or long term] sexual relationships, of theistic religions, of conventional morality. … The Guardian was only the first mild attack on us. More and nastier attacks will follow by those who cherish the rotten institutions we criticise. Ratnotarra, Feb 98

And another order member wrote in a Buddhist forum in Oct 2000:

Do you think the general public understands the first thing about Buddhist values and ethics? Generally in England the morals are protestant. There’s no way that any Buddhist should be called to account for themselves on anything other than Buddhist terms.

What would a court of English law know about Buddhist ethics. How can any Buddhist allow themselves to be judged on judeo-xtian based standards?

Triratna members don’t necessarily ignore or break the law in a wilfully criminal manner, it is rather that they tend to believe they follow a higher truth and a higher law – the Dharma. [see note 1]

In Buddhism, dharma means “cosmic law and order”, as expressed by the teachings of the Buddha. Wikipedia

The belief among Triratna members that they are on a spiritual, or even a cosmic path, and are following a higher truth and a higher law, is not purely an intellectual belief, there can also be a strong emotional attachment to such a belief. The ideals of the belief system inspire them and give meaning and purpose to their lives.

It is perhaps worth mentioning that Buddhism tends to be viewed in the West more as a philosophy, or even as a lifestyle, rather than as a religion (in the theistic sense of the term), and therefore can be quite appealing to people who regard themselves as rational secularists. In that sense, it perhaps reaches the parts that other religions fail to reach.

A lack of respect for the law might not necessarily be a problem in itself, if Triratna was a bona fide Buddhist organisation. After all, Buddhism does have its own moral codes, as expressed for example in the 5 Precepts. However, Triratna does diverge quite significantly from authentic Buddhism.

Searching using a term such as “Triratna controversy” or “Triratna abuse” will bring up a wealth of material (including some of Triratna’s own efforts to defend itself against the various allegations). The critical material includes not only allegations of sexual and/or spiritual abuse, but also a number of articles and websites which analyse some of the ways in which Triratna’s teaching and ethics diverge from genuine Buddhist teaching and ethics. For example: Teaching: Dharma Misunderstood.

However. it is beyond the scope of this article to attempt to summarise the ways in which Triratna’s teaching diverges from genuine Buddhist teaching. And in any case, a court of law is unlikely to be willing to be drawn into analysing doctrines. The court will be focused on determining the facts of a case, so far as possible, and whether any laws have been broken.

This article only mentions the issue of the authenticity of teachings and doctrines, to point out that it is relatively easy for some “religious” organisations to promote specious and potentially harmful teachings, without any real accountability. Religious teachers can have considerable power and influence over their students, and power tends to corrupt, especially when combined with a lack of accountability.

Triratna order member Lokabandhu wrote a paper titled “How Triratna Works“, which states that:

… the ‘College of Public Preceptors’ [senior Triratna members] … have final responsibility for Triratna’s integrity and continued fidelity to Sangharakshita’s teaching. see p.14

It is noteworthy that they don’t say ‘continued fidelity to the Buddha’s teaching’. Sangharakshita’s teaching does diverge in some significant ways from the Buddha’s teaching.

There are a couple of reasons why Triratna is able to get away with promoting pseudo-Buddhist ideas and teachings. Firstly, they are organisationally independent from other Buddhist organisations. Sangharakshita himself wrote of his “conviction that the less the FWBO is involved with ‘Buddhist groups’ and with individuals affiliated to existing Buddhist traditions, the better.” (Sangharakshita, Travel Letters, Windhorse Publications,1985, p.173)

So that means that knowledgeable Buddhists from outside Triratna are not in a position to question the authenticity of Triratna teachings, or at least not from within Triratna. It is left to the ‘College of Public Preceptors’ to determine the authenticity of Triratna teachings. Triratna members who seriously question the authenticity of Triratna teachings, tend to either resign, or are expelled, and there are a number of examples of this.

Additionally, Triratna members, or at least the more committed ones, tend to sincerely believe they are practising the Dharma, the “cosmic law and order” revealed by the Buddha (and interpreted by Sangharakshita). In such people’s eyes it tends to logically follow that anyone who criticises the beliefs or behaviour of senior Triratna “Dharma-farers”, self-evidently cannot be speaking from a true Dharmic perspective, and therefore can be safely ignored. This in turn means that Triratna is probably unable to reform itself from within.

Another reason why Triratna is able to get away with promoting pseudo-Buddhist ideas and teachings is that, in the case of a religious charity like Triratna, the UK Charity Commission is legally barred from ‘interfering with doctrine and teachings’. So that leaves Triratna free to promote teachings which are not really Buddhist, but based more on the personal opinions and interpretations of their founder Sangharakshita.

So Triratna’s belief system and teaching is effectively a closed system, largely insulated from external criticism or correction. Which allows their teaching and ethics to be self-referential and self-justifying.

Additionally, few lawyers understand how cults work, which means victims who have escaped a cult, and who wish to bring a claim for any personal injury they feel they have suffered as a result of their cult involvement, will likely find it quite difficult to find a legal adviser who understands their case. So that is another factor which tends to place cults beyond the reach of the law.

So to summarise, this article has attempted to outline some of the ways in which a pseudo-Buddhist organisation like Triratna has, so far, managed to position themselves largely beyond the reach of the law.

It may be argued that people make their own choices, and that it is inappropriate to limit the choices available to them, including by labelling certain organisations as “cultic”. However, it could equally be argued that cultic organisations are potentially quite dangerous, because few people understand how cults work, and how they can be drawn in. They may not realise what they may potentially be letting themselves in for. In other words, they may not be able to make an informed choice about whether or not to become involved with a particular apparently charitable organisation.

Arguably, true religious freedom should include some legal protection against deceptive pseudo-religions.

It is sometimes said that the legal process can be a bit of a blunt instrument, and this may be true in some cases, but from what Carol Merchasin says above, it potentially has quite a lot to offer in terms of supporting ethical behaviour by individuals and organisations, and particularly cultic organisations (defined as manipulative religious or ideology-based organisations).

[note 1]
“Dharma” (dhamma in Pali) is a complex concept with multiple meanings in Indian philosophy and in Buddhism. There is no direct single-word translation for dharma in European languages.

The following webpage provides a list of some 13 sub-meanings of Dharma