A casual observer surfing the Buddhist scene in the West might well come to the conclusion that the whole thing was a mess. Indeed, some of us who feel ourselves to be serious practitioners may be beginning to feel like retiring to the hills. Yet that was not the Buddha's way. He stood by principle and stayed in town.

Holding fast to the Dharma brings us up sharp against Samsara within the Buddhist world itself. Nothing could be more absurd than the current Shugden controversy about the value of a medieval ghost, nothing less edifying than the apparent state of the FWBO, little less informative than disputes over whether Roshi Kapleau completed more than 32 koans, and there is no enthusiasm to be found in the dereliction from duty of corruption-prone sectarian leaders. Those of us who are happy in our simple-minded attempts to follow the Way may well be distressed by these news items that read like soundbites in the gutter press. Perhaps it is as well to be brought to earth with a thud. There is nothing special in institutionalised Dharma: reeking of ignorance it evidently perpetuates the mental suffering of disputants ego-anchored in opinion and prejudice. Where, one may ask, are the effects of following the path of wisdom and compassion to be found if not in the lives of its prime exponents? Is this all mere hypocrisy?

We need a pause for reflection. Buddhism is a growing force in the West and as it grows it picks up the prevailing trends of our culture. This is no new thing. It has happened throughout history as Buddhism, or indeed any other code of behaviour and belief, enters a world in which it is a stranger. In the late twentieth century an Eastern Way relatively unchanged since medieval times is encountering the full tide of Western capitalism and consumerism running as a cross-current through all its ancient values.

Westerners are increasingly educated to cultivate the independent self as an agent in an uncertain world in which fierce and unremitting competition sieves the talented from the less able, in which life-long employment is unlikely, in which state provision for accident and ill health is increasingly a thing of an out-dated socialist path and in which the 'post-modern' relativity of values means that any system of belief or behaviour is seemingly as good and as relevant as any other. In such a world any system of belief soon constitutes a 'market' to which 'consumers' come in hopes of a good 'buy'. And the first thing a consumer wants is concordance with his or her pre-existing comforts, beliefs or prejudices. Someone coming to a Buddhist group wants to buy a sense of understanding, belonging and uplift related to the ideas they hold on entry. Where standards are so variable that no cultural anchorage is available, the lost will grab at a straw. Strong minded, assertive individuals who appear to 'know' are exceptionally attractive in such a situation. A self-promoting teacher with the gift of the gab easily acquires charisma and followers and can infect a developing organisation of the 'faithful' with his or her own viruses. In Western Buddhism a common institutional structure is one in which a charismatic leader has full control of a blossoming, wealth-creating organisation without any form of check or balance from an evaluative membership. No one else 'knows' and the tin pot gods and goddesses of cults are created. This has occurred again and again on both small and larger scales. The loss of deep-rooted cultural means and standards for the evaluation of spirituality lies at the core of the problem. In so far as all of us are embedded in this world, the problem infects us all.

I was reminded of this in conversation recently with a young Californian social anthropologist engaged in Himalayan research. Kimber Haddix (of University of California, Davis) was comparing West Coast Buddhist centres with the small, home-spun village parish where her father, a Christian, ran the church. She told me that in the old time East Coast parish there was a real sense of community, people popped into each others' houses and helped one another, telephone chats were common on a "How are you?" basis. Families cared for their neighbours and the priest was a central facilitator for his small community of parishioners. Yet in all of this there was little talk of 'spirituality' and certainly no debate about God or theology. By contrast, in the Buddhist institutions each individual was chasing his or her own version of 'enlightenment', the key emphasis being essentially doctrinal and practice-oriented and there was remarkably little community feeling as such - more like the crew of a ship with a voyage to make and skills respected.

Similarly our own 'Community Experiment' for this June had to be changed into a shorter Ch'an retreat because an insufficient number of participants were prepared to spend longer time on a less intensive, community-building programme. In fact the extra two days some four of us spent together showed exactly what could be achieved: greater personal tolerance, liking for idiosyncrasy, respect for difference and a willingness to adopt a degree of discipline (spaced periods of silence) to sustain these things. Most of us are still gunning for the quick therapy of an enlightenment process - although without any real understanding of what such a process requires.

There is a paradox here because one of the reasons for forming the Western Ch'an Fellowship was because many people were asking for a greater sense of community. I put it to you that the 'consumer' attitudes that swamp most of our better feelings act unconsciously to prevent community developing. The reason: plain old, unconscious ego-indulgence.

There is a real danger that many beginners in Buddhism are being sucked into organisations that skilfully provide for their wants without the kind of self-confrontation that the Dharma demands. Lots of verbal 'teachings', visualisation practices involving creative fantasy; assertive even domineering leaders with strong sectarian partialities tend to produce uncritical dependencies in which a false, unchallenged self can flourish. When such an institutionalised view is challenged the adherents may defend it to the hilt because an assumed identity is now under threat.

And so we find seemingly rational Westerners engaged in the defence of protective visualisations involving a medieval and revengeful ghost or tolerating practices in which homosexual relationship is confused with spirituality or the value of the feminine ridiculed. The Buddha might well have been exasperated with bhikkhus who got involved in such things. And indeed there is ample evidence for this.

If we look into the Sutras we come to realise that stupidities of this sort existed even in the Buddha's time. At first there were no rules, a group of friends constituted the early Sangha. As the teachings spread and numbers grew, so accurate understanding of the Buddha's message was less immediate and the Buddha was repeatedly confronted by silly things his followers did. The Vinaya as a code of conduct was essentially a developing case law emerging from events in which the Buddha made a behavioural ruling to safeguard the spiritual progress of the monks.

If, therefore, we are faced merely by a modern version of innate stupidity what can we do about it?

The first thing is to remind ourselves of compassion, of Avalokitesvara weeping over the innate stupidity of the world. Tara was born from his tears. True Bodhisattvas do not lose patience; knowing ignorance to be pervasive he and she take it lightly and engage only mindfully in debate. This mindfulness does not mean a lack of critical acuity. There is a real risk that as large hegemonic Buddhist institutions, possessors of sometimes dubiously acquired wealth, might seek to dominate the rendering of the Dharma in the state, (in education for example) so governmental acceptance could lead to the purveying of false or inadequate Dharma in schools and the undermining of the true Way. The critical Bodhisattva will have to stand up and oppose such developments with all the skills that persuasive argument can deploy. If this means unfavourable assessments of some Buddhist institutions so be it. The name 'Buddhist' does not imply anything sacrosanct, indeed sadly, at present, sometimes the reverse. At another level, close attention needs to be paid to developing a mutual accountability between teachers and taught. Our own constitution is an attempt along this path and we must watch carefully to see how it works out. Authority needs to be appropriately employed. Thus the interlinking of the authority of the teacher to provide Dharma and the authority of an Executive Committee and Advisory Board in examining the means need developing as twin poles of a safety-conscious structure. It is exactly in this constitutional area that so many Western Buddhist institutions are currently severely incompetent. An institutional Vinaya needs to be debated and put into practice (see discussions with the Dalai Lama, page 10 and the article on pages 31-41).

We cannot ignore the world. Samsara and Nirvana are twin perspectives on one whole. What goes on in the world requires confrontation - even as the Buddha, a skilled politician, had to confront it. Yet it needs a quality of ego-disengagement if one is not merely to contribute to destructive debate. And here practice becomes all-important. It is essential to examine one's own life in the light of the Eight-Fold Way with great care. In particular, to know that only through concentration and meditation is underlying falsity disclosed and the Way made plain. To construct institutions without a personal humility, to advocate practices that are nonsensical given the state of Western scientific and psychological knowledge, and to engage in vicious and aggressive defence of held-onto positions is to undermine the whole project. Ultimately, true teachers have an option to retire to the hills and await those who seek truth to come to them. In such an option may lie the salvation of the Way. We have not come to that yet. Watch out!!


This article begins the process of establishing appropriate training for those wishing to teach meditation and run groups or retreats under the auspices of the Western Ch'an Fellowship. This text deals with preliminary orientations and the task of teaching meditation in local groups. Other articles will follow. We are publishing it here so that group participants and beginners know what is expected of their local teachers and the training they are required to undergo.

Part 1 The Meditation Group


The Western Ch'an Fellowship provides training in the practice of Ch'an/Zen. What is Ch'an all about? Most of us live lives that are to varying degrees unsatisfactory. It may be that we suffer considerably from personal disabilities, problematic relationships, troublesome family or social situations or from anxieties that our own minds generate. It may be no more than a vague feeling of unsatisfactoriness; that there ought to be more to life than the humdrum mundane existence some of us feel we endure from day to day. Maybe we feel ourselves victims of our life circumstances and feel resentful. Maybe we have not been able to achieve what we expected, or done something we regret, and then experience guilt or shame because of that. All of this the Buddha termed suffering (dukkha). The purpose of training in Ch'an is to lift the burden of such suffering through the discovery of a fresh way of being.

The method is based on the original formulation of mindfulness by the Buddha. Mindfulness means being aware of what is going on inside one's mind and also the influences that impinge upon it. Mindfulness requires paying attention to what is actually happening, not only through intellectual examination but through direct experience. In Ch'an/Zen this approach is especially emphasised and the training is focussed initially in 'sitting' (zazen). The mind is calmed and then inspected as to its activity. There are a number of methods. These are, however, not ends but means to cultivating a dynamic attitude of attentive appraisal in all aspects of life. In the end the everyday life is Zen.

It must be understood that a brief experience of 'enlightenment' does not remove all traces of suffering from our lives. Various difficulties remain and need continuing attention. Yet the determined treading of the Buddha's way leads to new realisations about oneself and the Universe in which we dwell and to new experiments in being. It is not the case that we have to create an extraordinary mind; rather we have to drop illusions that maintain unrealisable desire and in that letting-go we find out what an everyday mind free from such illusion can become. There is a task of clarification here and, as we progress, we may find we wish to help others on their way. The essential feature of Ch'an/Zen is enquiry.

Local groups usually form around those enthusiastic enough to offer time and space to set up sitting sessions. Soon a leader will be asked to offer instruction in sitting meditation and perhaps some teaching on Buddhism. It is important that he/she should be able to respond with some authoritative teaching that will be helpful rather than inventing some plausible story out of their own limited experience. Within the Western Ch'an Fellowship a number of local groups are now developing centred on the longer retreats at the Maenllwyd. It is essential that these local groups cover the same or similar ground in providing practice and training.

Likewise, the offering of Western Zen Retreats (WZRs) and Ch'an Retreats requires facilitation by someone who knows what he/she is doing. In both these forms of practice participants may come across memories or states of mind that are vexatious or distressing. This is inevitable when a key motif in such retreats is a confrontational examination of self. Help may be needed and the facilitator who leads such groups needs experience to handle these occasions. At present only one qualified teacher leads such events within the WCF. To allow the fellowship to develop, training of new leaders in all these ways of exploration is becoming important. This article begins the examination of what is needed for the facilitation of local groups by Meditation Instructors acting as group leaders. Part 2 ( not provided here) will discuss training for retreat facilitation .

Local groups

Someone offers time and place for others to gather together and 'sit'. Initially that may be all and a group of friends may be quite happy with their own practice. One day a newcomer arrives and says he or she wants to learn. The initiator now has the responsibility of explaining to the beginner how to start. The WCF needs to have a policy that ensures that the guidance offered in such circumstances is reliable, conforms to a lineage and is not merely idiosyncratic. We are suggesting, therefore, that local leaders should attend a number of events exploring this question, during which they will learn how to meet the demands that may be made upon them. In particular they will need to know how to present what they know effectively and how to resist speculating about aspects of the path they may not have experienced or only read about. When a leader has shown suitable understanding, he or she may receive authorisation to teach meditation within the WCF. The following paragraphs list issues that need to be addressed in any syllabus for such training.

1 Find out where the questioner is coming from

Let us suppose that Mary appears at a session for the first time. Why has she come? How has she heard about the group? What does she want? What does she know already about Zen? Has she attended such a group or a retreat before? All these questions need to be explored in an introductory 'interview' which is best conducted privately in an atmosphere of confidentiality. The very asking of such questions requires that the leader show him/herself to be an open, friendly person who is quite happy if Mary remains reticent and does not wish to be very forthcoming about herself. After all she may, quite reasonably, only wish to dip her toe into Zen at the moment. The merely curious should be encouraged to sit and find out through experience what the group is 'on about'. Those who have come out of some painful experience may need time to disclose their pain. Time must be allowed. People should never be pushed into disclosure nor should exaggerated enthusiasm for Zen allow a leader to suggest that phenomenal results may be obtained by sitting. That may by no means be so. Cautious and kindly sharing is the best way to allow Mary to disclose, in her own way, whatever it is she wishes to explore.

2 The enquiring mind

Mary may not know why she is there. Whether she does or not, the first step must be the cultivation of mindfulness. Mindfulness is simply knowing where you are, what you are on about, what you want, need or fear. Later on it concerns the states the mind may be experiencing and recognising what these may be. A practitioner, whether experienced or a beginner, needs to know what she is doing at the very moment of asking herself the question. Pretences, avoidances, self-delusions need to be recognised and, whether the experience is pleasant or unpleasant, it is essential to say "This is what is going on now: this is my experience now." Whatever that experience may be has to be accepted as what it is. If she rejects her experience then she must learn to say "Right now I am rejecting my experience, that is my experience now." From such a place one can begin.

Mary needs to understand this before she begins to sit. Sitting is above all a form of enquiry. It is never a descent into a sort of trance - if that is what is happening the practice is incorrect. From the first the beginner needs to understand this point and the leader must represent it to her.

3 Calming the mind

The essence of sitting is to begin at the right place. If the mind is agitated, preoccupied with an issue, or grinding an axe in some form of self promotion, then the first thing is to challenge that very preoccupation. This is done by calming the mind, for which the time-honoured methods of samatha are useful. For beginners, many sessions will be taken up in establishing a relatively calmed mind. In weekly groups most people will be coming in from busy days and cannot expect to do much more than that in two half-hour sessions. None the less this is valuable. This process needs to be presented with accuracy and care.

4 Investigation

The group leader will have some knowledge of tsan (investigation) from retreat experience. It arises when a calmed mind gazes directly into its own condition. Shi fu's discussion of this in connection with Silent Illumination is important here (NCF 15). Some beginners may be able to begin this inner research and the leader needs to know how to advise them and how to use a koan-like question to assist in understanding. The leader needs to know when it would be advisable for the sitter to attend a longer retreat with an accredited teacher.

5 The use of ritual

The leader should provide simple texts for use in a short ritual with the stated function of motivating the practice and inspiring the endeavour. Ritual helps to provide the sense of a sacred space and time in which a particular activity is being undertaken. Respect for the sacred space in which the sitting session is being carried out needs to be expressed in bowing or prostration as taught appropriately.

Although Ch'an practice itself is relatively culture-free and we are engaged in establishing it in contemporary Britain, the attitudes to be cultivated had their origin in Indo-Tibetan and Sino-Japanese environments and this should be acknowledged and understood. Ritual establishes some contact with the historical and cultural context of Ch'an /Zen. The leader needs to make clear, however, that such ritual is to facilitate the practice and to create the thought as to how it may be maintained in everyday life. Ritual is a means, not the expression of some end.

6 The leadership of local groups

The task of a local group leader is to:

7 Teaching meditation

When you start a group make sure everyone is appropriately motivated, respectful of the occasion and of the 'sacred space' and knows how to 'sit'.Provide the texts for a simple liturgy and encourage others beside yourself to bring short readings to share and discuss. You must know how to provide instruction concerning : i) The posture and the permissable variants. ii) How to focus the attention and hold awareness steady. iii) The deviations from effective meditation through fatigue, drowsiness, sinking of energy and wandering thoughts. iv) Use of breathing and exercise to reduce sleepiness and sinking. v) Watching the breath, counting the breath etc as a means for reducing wandering thoughts. vi) Kinhin practice and exercises for use before or between sits. vii) Take care not to be drawn into intellectual discussions where your understanding may be defective or misleading. In discussion, keep the focus on practice, emphasising discovery through experience rather than through reading.viii) Emphasise the key point in Western Ch'an teaching - that it is the expression of Ch'an in everyday attitudes that is crucial and, in the end, more important than 'correct' sitting. When Ch'an is well-expressed off the cushion and without dependency on either group or individual retreats then a practitioner is certainly getting somewhere. Furthermore he/she will then be providing unspoken teaching for others.

8 The Event

You may construct your event according to your own genius and insight concerning your particular group. It is better to stay simple than to become too complex with respect to ritual, teaching or meditation instructions. The Bristol Ch'an Group evenings usually begin with a short ritual (copies available and based on Maenllwyd practice) partly in English but including some Chinese chanting. There are then two half-hour sits with kinhin between. After a short closing ritual the leader will present either a short talk (if qualified to do so) or give a reading from a well-known author or from the sutras or Ch'an scriptures. This may be followed by discussion, which the leader should guide without being dogmatically assertive. People have to find their own way to the central ideas of Buddhism and this usually only occurs effectively when based on a developing meditative experience. Variants on this theme can be constructed to provide a custom-built approach suited to the participants who join you. When your group is well-established, has accumulated some effective practice and has reached around a dozen members you may want to provide occasional weekend or residential retreats. Initially these can follow the pattern already established. Retreats will however make greater demands on your own understanding and the WCF will expect you to attend further training sessions in the setting up and running of retreats. Discussion documents on this will be prepared as Part 2 of this paper.


Western Buddhism: problems and presentations

In recent years a number of cases of individual corruption in sexual and financial matters have been exposed in Buddhist organisations, usually the result of the behaviour or indiscretions of individuals in leadership roles2. Ken Jones' recent discussion3 has raised further important issues concerning the development in Britain of large Buddhist organisations that appeared to him to resemble cults more than they did a traditional Buddhist Sangha.

Two substantial articles have appeared in the national press4 suggesting that Ken had every reason to be alarmed. The articles present a view of institutional Buddhism in Britain (the New Kadhampa Trust and the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order) from the critical, debunking perspective characteristic of contemporary journalism. We live in a post-modern world of ethical relativity in which any creed or custom is easily interpreted in terms of ego defensive and self-serving motivations. Cynicism abounds as the ethics of religious forms are called into question in numerous ways. While the press functions in justifying the scepticism of non-believers in the mediocrity of contemporary religion, it none the less also calls attention to the very real problems faced by those inspired by forms of spirituality that still seem relevant to our time. Then, early this summer, a large, carefully printed pamphlet, anonymously authored, hit my desk. The 'FWBO Files' is a point by point, blow by blow, examination of the problems the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order presents to its colleagues in Buddhism. If it is to be taken on trust, there is clearly a very great deal amiss and it is right that these matters should be widely examined. If misrepresentation of the Buddhist tradition is actually occurring it needs to be exposed.

The Files make five main charges alleging:

The FWBO Files and the FWBO Response5

Reading the 'FWBO Files' is as distressing an experience as is the reading of the 'Response' in its defence put together by leading FWBO members. The tone of the two documents is very different. The Files presents a case for the 'prosecution' in a forthright style lacking in compassion but impassioned by a desire to put the record straight. The persistent anonymity of its author weakens his/her case but also raises suspicions about the possible coercion he/she appears to fear. The Response is surprisingly reticent, concedes that all has not been well in the organisation but insists that at heart the FWBO remains a substantial contribution to the spreading of the Buddha Dharma in the West and that its various experiments in social living are justified. It does not seek to whitewash the behaviour of its charismatic leader Sangharakshita, but rather to contextualise it with understanding. Sangharakshita himself continues to say nothing nor has he given any opinion on a dispute that centres upon his personality.

The assertiveness that some see as characteristic of the FWBO comes over strongly in the Response. The compilers argue "... some readers may feel that the mere fact of controversy lends credence to the accusers: 'there's no smoke without fire!' We would ask readers to pause before making this essentially lazy assumption and carefully consider what issues of substance actually remain..." And in Appendix 3 it is argued that the FWBO is the victim of a smear campaign rather than an organisation which has plausibly brought its troubles on itself. Given the strength of the prosecutors' case (and independent evidence from other sources6) few will doubt that the smoke has a genuine origin in fire. Yet the significance of the conflagration does remain in question.

A careful reading of the two documents leads me to a surprising conclusion. It is not a question of one being true and the other false. Both statements actually support one another in a variety of ways and on a variety of matters. Of course they draw different conclusions from their contrasting presentations and the Response succeeds in showing through textual quotes that Sangharakshita has in places been misinterpreted. Even so the documents often point to a common issue. I am concerned here with the questions concerning the representation of the Dharma and the problem of personal ethics shown by teachers. On the other issues readers of these documents must make up their own minds.

The pivot on which both presentations revolve is the person of Sangharakshita himself. As a charismatic leader his influence is all-pervading and appears to determine the argument wherever one arises. Who Sangharakshita was and what he has become are thus critical matters, as is the issue of his position in the institution both in the past and at the present time.

It is clear that his behaviour in India was not that of a normal Theravadan monk. Seeking to find the common roots of the Buddhist tradition he explored Theravadan, Mahayanist and Vajrayana approaches and sought to discover the quintessence of Buddhism. His restless exploratory mind thus showed a marked individualism and a failure to adopt the social identity of a conforming and practising monk. He remained an individualistic robe-wearing Westerner sincerely on a personal quest. Inevitably, given the vast scope of the Dharma, the diversity of its range of philosophical insights and practices, he necessarily picked and chose until he was personally satisfied. It remains a matter of debate as to whether he found a core to the diverse forms of Buddhism and particularly one which could be the foundation for a new order or for a Western Buddhism as such.

In fairness to Sangharakshita it must be said that such a quest is quite usual among Westerners attracted by Buddhism, and Sangharakshita's writings certainly show an impressive depth of scholarship. After World War II Christmas Humphreys had travelled widely looking for points in common between various traditions. Stephen Batchelor has investigated parallels between existentialist Western philosophy and Buddhism7 and many writers, including this one, have explored parallels between Buddhist practice, psychotherapy and Western psychology8. There is, however, a distinction to be made between these personal and intellectual explorations and an ideological closure around a viewpoint subsequently made basic to the doctrines of an institution claiming to offer Buddhism to the West9.

Sangharakshita's moral behaviour during his time in India remains debatable but it seems unlikely that any conclusive evidence concerning his private affairs will emerge. It is clear, however, that from the time of his return to England he was a controversial figure generating both powerful support and opposition. These controversies did not only concern his views on the Dharma and the nature of Buddhism in the 'hippy period' but extended to his life style. It is acknowledged that he experimented with sexuality in ways unacceptable from a professed monk but characteristic of the 'permissiveness' of the time. What does remain strange is that he continued to wear robes, hold a title and appear frequently in the guise of a monk even though his behaviour was typical of a young Western lay person of the period.

Sangharakshita's powerful and persuasive character led him into the role of leadership and once he had become the guru of the FWBO his views and attitudes necessarily began to colour those of his followers. I accept the Response's defence that his homosexual orientation probably never had the deliberate and coercive motivation imputed in the Files but it would be natural that his inclinations would influence those near to him. If his intentions had been more self-reflective and critical it is doubtful whether his sexual affairs would have generated so much distress.

On this matter the Files uses a highly personal approach documenting individual experiences in close relationships with Sangharakshita. The Response tends to side-step such personal accounts but admits that "there have been instances in the FWBO when relationships of kalyana mitrata have included a sexual element ... these instances have involved homosexuality. Some people will consider there is no place for this, and may even regard it as inherently abusive." The discussion then becomes general, outlining the common experience of Westerners during this period remarking that "the best safeguard against people being hurt through their sexual activity is maturity, awareness and the cultivation of keen ethical sensitivity." While this may well be what "the FWBO seeks to encourage," the Files suggest such qualities were singularly lacking in Sangharakshita himself.

The problem here is that it becomes impossible to separate the FWBO from the personality of Sangharakshita. Individualist, scholar, homosexual, idealist, charismatic leader, authoritarian, prickly and often strongly liked or disliked, Sangharakshita emerges as an important figure in Western Buddhism. Such an influential person placed in charge of an institution inevitably affects his followers, especially those close to him in temperament and viewpoint. The result is the gradual formation of an institutional climate expressing not necessarily merely the informed, indeed scholarly, views of the leader but, more diffusely, his personality. If lacking in a necessary humility, the shadow side of such a leader may become expressed institutionally with little awareness of the process among devoted followers. Every human being has a 'shadow' and we are usually unconscious of its underground activity. It requires exceptional awareness to gain understanding of the transference and counter-transference that soon comes into play among mutually dependent persons seeking to create an institutional perspective under the eye of a powerful leader. In this area the FWBO continues to show a blindness reflected in the way both the documents under consideration focus almost exclusively on the person of the leader rather than on the institution and its organisation. It is this that leads many of us to see the FWBO more as a cult than as a Buddhist institution or school in accordance with tradition.

Cultic Buddhism : a brief analysis

In his book 'Religion in the Modern world: from Cathedral to Cults' Steve Bruce10 argues that contemporary religion has moved away from monasteries, churches, denominations, to a predominance of cults, usually of the type designated as 'New Age'. Bruce is concerned primarily with Christian history but his analysis is useful here. He argues that the fragmentation of modern societies and the relativity of all ethical systems since the post-modern turn makes the institution of a widely relevant and meaningful "church" untenable. Cult, according to Bruce, is a "small loosely-knit group organised around some common themes and interests but lacking a sharply defined and exclusive belief system. Each individual member is the final authority as to what constitutes the truth or the path to salvation." A cult "hardly has members, instead it has consumers who pick and choose those bits of the product that suits them." Most cults focus on some 'mystical' practice that seems to be the way to salvation. It is togetherness in a self-serving practice that forms the core. Bruce does not however discuss a further dimension of the 'cult' - that is, its leadership. When the 'mystical' activity is prescribed by an individual of persuasive mien he or she quickly becomes the exemplar to whom charisma is attributed by seekers who rapidly develop dependencies, since to loose the affiliation with the leader would be to abandon a project in which self-identity has become deeply involved. Cults with such leadership soon create formulae for attitudes, behaviours, rituals and relationships inevitably reflecting the character of the 'guru'. And as a number of examples have shown this can lead to extraordinary collective action including millennial group suicide. Buddhism in the West has gone through parallel phases. An intellectual interest in Buddhism among non-Christians seeking a spiritual Humanism led to loose groupings of independent individuals exploring Buddhist ideas. As Eastern teachers, particularly Zen masters and Tibetan lamas, appeared or were invited into this scene a gradual growth in the traditional 'Buddhist churches' took place and today every city has its Zen or Tibetan temple and small groups of practitioners. But not all such teachers remain true to the strict discipline of the Eastern institutions to which they belonged.

In Britain the Tibetan lama Geshe Keltsang Gyatso broke away from the tradition of the Gelugpa Order to found the New Kadampa Trust of which he is the presiding authority and teacher. The purpose was to find a digest of the Tibetan Dharma best suited to Western consumption. Like Sangharakshita, the Geshe is a fine scholar and his publications continue to pour forth from an enthusiastic editorial team. He is alleged to allow his followers to consider him to be a Buddha and has authorised active disputes with the Dalai Lama over the nature of a protective "deity", the ethics of which are questionable. The cult surrounding him has cut itself off from the parent tradition and has become a free-floating institution dominated by his personal influence.

The FWBO has, on a similar pretext, created an institution which was at first very attractive to free-floating quasi-Buddhists and which has proven to be creative in spawning businesses and charitable enterprises of several kinds, many of which are beneficial. Its increasing authoritarianism and social biases which eventually led to the problems detailed in the Files may be attributed to the dominance of one individual. It therefore also has the form of a 'cult' independent from other forms of traditional Buddhism.

These Buddhist cults resemble the guru-based institutions of Hinduism more than they do their Buddhist origins. In Hinduism, gifted and charismatic gurus become the focus of a personal cult of devotional practice and at any one time there are many of these for potential devotees to choose from. The loose framework of Hindu belief and practice allows a high level of personal choice in such matters but not all gurus are free from the many forms of ethical corruption. How do such 'cults' arise? The psychology of such processes has become clear in recent years. Individual identity requires the formation of key values for which social approval is given and without which an individual experiences painful alienation. Traditionally these were given by the society in which a person lived, and we had monolithic religions dominating large areas of the world.Since in contemporary society the philosophical basis for values has become culturally relative and science has for many removed the belief in supernatural forces, individuals are forced to choose between a range of equally valid interpretations of the cosmos and of the way to personal salvation. Once a 'way' is chosen it becomes an area of profound psychological investment so that anything that threatens it also threatens the self. On accepting an institutionalised value system personal identity is largely replaced by social identity - that is the individual identifies with the social norms of the group. Value systems are based in what Muscovici11 has called social representations. These are ideas and attitudes that are seen to represent the "real" and which are believed to be the truth. Social identity is rooted in the adoption of representations of "truth" and anything that threatens their credibility thus comes also to threaten the person. When the fount of wisdom is a particular individual, an unthinking devotion may develop which in worst-case scenarios leads to the establishment of an accepted tyranny. When an individual finally rumbles what is happening and attempts to break away into independence and an acceptance of his or her existential aloneness the reaction of other believers is apt to be intense. The question must therefore be asked whether cults of this kind and with this psychological causation are compatible with traditional Buddhist understanding in which freedom from suffering remains the goal. This question is vital not only in relation to the institutions which we have been discussing but for all attempts to form an organisation in which 'enlightenment ' is sought and within which teachers and their shadows operate.

Open Buddhism in the context of Practice

On his deathbed the Buddha told his followers to use the Dharma as a guide not the teacher. His profound advice throws the individual back into himself and his questioning appraisal of what Dharma can be. It does not lie in the views of a teacher, however helpful these can be and however fine an exemplar he or she is, but in the heart where the meaning of selfhood resides. The path to such understanding is essentially a lone quest, just as it was for the Buddha. Guidance lies in the teachings not in a teacher. Essentially the Four Noble Truths, the principles of impermanence, emptiness and the law of interdependent causation lie at the heart of the matter and require experiential realisation not mere intellectual assent. While vehicles for the transmission of the Dharma are essential, realisation is essentially an individual matter in which clinging to identity and all forms of representation is abandoned.

What then is the role of the teacher? The vehicles (Theravada, Mahayana, Zen etc.) are perspectives on the Dharma with the power to induce realisation. The teacher is a facilitator of this individual process. Any attempt to be an authority on the scriptures, a paragon of virtue, or a defender of a faith misses the point. A great lama or a solitary yogin consulted in some remote cave only have Buddhist validity if they facilitate the insight of others. There are many skilful means, as the Lotus Sutra makes clear. There is no absolute truth which has to be believed. All views disappear in absurdity. Attachment to any representation is thus an error. Krishnamurti was right in arguing that any institutionalisation of religion becomes divisive and yet a vehicle for the Dharma needs a structure.

All schools of Buddhism hinge upon and return to the understanding of emptiness. This insight is conveyed in a variety of ways and nothing can be picked or chosen as more relevant than anything else. That which is relevant is that which works. As Wittgenstein advised - look for the use and not the meaning. If a device or an idea works that is enough, for there is no ultimately discoverable meaning. This means that when a great Zen master and a fine lama meet there are no barriers between them. Although one may be riding a horse and the other a camel they both survey the same view. If this is not the case, understanding of the Dharma has at some point been lost.

The implication of this is that the Buddha Dharma must be 'open'. Even though individuals may subscribe to contrasting traditions of practice and viewpoint if there is openness to the underlying empty vision then understanding can arise. We need therefore to cultivate a tradition of 'open Buddhism' and only if we manage to do so will the Buddha Dharma find a place in the West free from cultic factionalism and argument.

It follows that all would-be teachers must understand what being a facilitator rather than an authority means. Essentially a Buddhist teacher is what in Christian terms is called a "spiritual director". It may therefore be valuable to consider the 'Code of Ethics for Spiritual Directors' compiled by the staff of the Center for Sacred Psychology in California12. They are concerned about what code of practise should determine the qualification for a person with this title. Although Christian in focus this document can help us formulate a Buddhist perspective on the same problem. This is not a matter of dictating how teachers should be but rather of defining their commitment to society in a way that people can understand and respect without fear of abuse. The following paragraphs are thus tentative suggestions concerning the attitude to be adopted by anyone attempting to be a Buddhist teacher in the West.

i) The essential relationship is a unique one-to-one, face-to-face confrontation or meeting between two people. One is acting as a facilitator while the other is seeking spiritual insight based in his or her own resources. This definition covers Zen interviews and consultations between lamas or monks and those seeking their guidance. A teacher may also provide instruction on meditation techniques and Buddhist philosophical psychology to groups but his or her essential function remains in a personal ministry in the context of the selfhood of another. The activities of meditation instruction and Dharma teaching are distinct from those of spiritual ministry but it is in the latter that the critical function of the teacher resides.ii) A Buddhist teacher has felt a 'call' to such activity through personal experience in the Dharma. The call needs to be authenticated through experiencing transmission from a 'master' or 'lama' in which the latter affirms the experience and understanding of the teacher and expresses faith in his/her ability to facilitate others.iii) Teachers need at all times to examine their own lives and personal relationships. Everyone has a shadow side and experiences psychological difficulties arising from their karma. These need to be seen, understood and accepted to whatever degree is possible. Help in this task from a practitioner of a Western psychotherapeutic process or counselling is a normal requirement for a teacher and should be entered into willingly. Western insights into the self process are now profound and Eastern practices do not replace this. Of course interaction with a traditional Buddhist teacher (as ii) is likewise essential. iv) In an interview the teacher is first and foremost a skilled listener who can experience others as themselves and not through his/her own interpretation due to theoretical or personal bias. It is the other engaged in his/her own exploration that is the focus. The teacher may be able to draw on his/her own experiences in discussion but must be aware of allowing these to intrude on the otherness of the other. v) Essentially the interviewee discovers his/her own solution in solitude and walks his own path. The teacher can, however, draw attention to the pitfalls, ego indulgence, failures to confront the self etc. that will be inherent in the interviewee's presentation. This requires skilful means in relation to the other's receptivity The relationship involves an implicit power imbalance in which one is a teacher or facilitator and the other to some extent a recipient. This imbalance creates numerous interpersonal consequences concerning which the teacher should be watchful and Even an experienced teacher should seek occasional supervision in which problems in his/her work can be discussed with an advisor. vii) Confidentiality in the relationship is essential and must be preserved. Furthermore the teacher should be aware of the phenomena of transference and counter-transference which inevitably occur in this work. In particular no sexual interaction should take place and if such seems to be consensually appropriate the relationship of teacher/ taught should be abandoned and the implicit power imbalance removed. viii) Teachers should be aware of other techniques useful in this art but take care not to turn the session into psychotherapy. The latter is essentially a means for adjusting the self to existing conditions of life and to better functioning in the social world. Buddhist spiritual counselling challenges the very nature of the self process as illusion and seeks to go beyond self concerns. It is transcendental work.ix) Teachers need to know when an interviewee requires help from other services and to feel free to recommend such help.x) Teachers and recipients should evaluate their relationship periodically, change it or terminate it as seems appropriate. Choice of a guru is mutual. The teacher has the option of accepting or rejecting those who wish to receive interview. Likewise the recipient needs to feel free in evaluating the teacher and in expressing his thoughts and feelings in this area. These ten points have much in common with codes of conduct used by therapists. This is appropriate since, although the goals differ, the therapist and the spiritual counsellor are both facilitators and facilitation of another's process in each perspective has many features in common.

Democracy in Buddhist institutions

There remains one final point. The problems of many Buddhist organisations have rested on the unlimited authority of the guru. This has often extended to matters of belief, practice, financial control and property. It is hardly surprising that mistakes have been made which have usually been as much a result of devotees' lack of responsibility as it is due to the leader's failure in self control and insight.

Cults can be profitably undone by democracy. All that is needed is proper attention to the creation of an institutional structure in which the power relations between guru and followers is balanced, in which problems and disputes can be raised and discussed and in which the formation of appropriate committees allows decision making processes reflecting the wishes of the membership. Many Buddhist institutions lack proper constitutional organisation and a prime recommendation may be that this issue be immediately addressed.

This task is not simple. The teacher is often the bearer of a lineage of teaching going back many centuries, maybe even to the Buddha himself. The teacher has received some form of transmission from his own guru to pass the way on to others. Those who have not received such transmission are hardly in a position to criticise the essential message. Too much democracy could mean that anybody's version of what the Buddha may or may not have said could gain equal credence with an inevitable regression to an ill-prepared salad13. It is rather the manner in which teachers present themselves, their attitude to others, their ethical stance and correctness in relationship and in financial concerns that become the legitimate focus of committees set up to monitor an institution's well-being. It is to this concern that an institutional constitution should be directed14.

Given the nature of the psychological process active in cults such a change may not be easy. It will often require grassroots action within the institution. Indeed, if these institutions are to survive, this will become essential. Further publication of destructive arguments such as those we have discussed here will be to the detriment of all Buddhist institutions in the West. It is time to set our houses in order.

This paper has been much exercised with the internal affairs of the FWBO. My intention has not been to denigrate this organisation but to explore two of the wider issues to which the disputes within and about the FWBO draw attention. The FWBO has been and remains an important contributor to Buddhism on the world stage. Its social and sexual experiments have proven valuable to many15. There will be many Friends who are puzzled by the current uproar, many teachers entirely innocent of the errors that have been described. The position of their leader at the present time remains unclear. The whole matter is to be much regretted, yet the Files have drawn attention to abuses of power and to the serious problems facing any major 'spiritual' organisation today. It is to be hoped that the grassroots membership of all such organisations will from now on insist that social accountability be made a prime focus of attention. We can all then focus without dissension on the central task - the practice of Dharma itself.


This paper discusses recent controversies concerning the activities and orientation of the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order in the context of the character of institutionalisation in Western Buddhism. The two sides in the controversy show considerable convergence focusing on the role of the teacher and the authority of the teacher.

The nature of cult-like institutions in Buddhism is discussed and the role of teacher examined. It is suggested that teachers should function as spiritual facilitators and not as institutionalised authorities and that an 'open Buddhism' is required if Western Buddhism is to be true to its roots and thrive without bitter controversy. Democratisation of many current Buddhist organisations is seen as an essential prerequisite to change needed at a structural level, yet this is a task that will require careful understanding of the social and personal forces at work before it can be successful.


Paper presented at the conference ' The Psychology of Awakening II' at Dartington Hall, October 1998.
Lachs, S.' A Slice of Zen in America'. New Ch'an Forum 10, Autumn 1994.
Jones, K. 'Movements in British Buddhism'. New Ch'an Forum 13, 1996. Also: 'Response to Vishvapani'. New Ch'an Forum 14, 24-25 (1997).
The Guardian 6th July 1996 and 27th October 1997. See also a reply by Vishvapani, 8th November 1997.
Anonymous. The FWBO Files. Distributed by post. Available on the internet. The FWBO Files: a Response. FWBO Communications Office, 1998.
Personal statements made privately in interview by former members of the FWBO on retreat and in unsolicited email correspondence with two Americans detailing their reasons for leaving the Order.
Batchelor, S. Alone with Others: an Existential Approach to Buddhism. Grove Press Inc, New York, 1983. and Buddhism without Beliefs: a Contemporary Guide to Awakening. Bloomsbury Press, London, 1997.
Crook, J.H. and Fontana, D. Space in Mind: East-West Psychology and Contemporary Buddhism. Element, Warminster, 1990.
This is not the place for an extended analysis of Sangharakshita's views. A taste of his approach can be seen in a 48-page justification entitled Extending the Hand of Fellowship: The relationship of the Western Buddhist Order to the rest of the Buddhist world (Windhorse Press), which makes his claims clear.
10 Bruce, S. Religion in the Modern World: from Cathedrals to Cults. Oxford, 1996.
11 Muscovici, S. 'The phenomenon of social representations'. In Farr, R.M. and Muscovici, S. (eds) Social Representations, Cambridge, 1984.
12 Hedberg, T.M. and Caprio, B. A Code of Ethics for Spiritual Directors. Dove Publications, Pecos, New Mexico, (undated). Available from The Center for Sacred Psychology, Box 643, Gateway Station, Culver City, CA 90232, USA.
13 Indeed, this may well prove to be the defect of attempts at "mainstreaming" the Dharma through teaching meditation practices without acknowledgement of their roots in specific Dharma.
14 The Western Ch'an Fellowship has been much concerned with this issue. The constitution on which its charitable status is based is available in New Ch'an Forum 16:11.
15 See for example: 'Dhammadinna. Sexual Evolution'. Dharma Life, Summer 1998. Also published in the FWBO Response as Appendix 1.


The preparation of this article has been a painful and self-searching process. I am grateful to those who have aided me with their opinions and reflections. In particular I have benefited from correspondence with Ken Jones, Stephen Batchelor and James Low. Iris Tute introduced me to The Code For Spiritual Directors; and Fellows of the WCF, Simon Child, Ken Robinson and Tim Paine, have responded generously with their perspectives which have not necessarily always been in agreement with mine. Needless to say, I remain wholly responsible for what has been written here.