In recent years Sangharakshita, the teacher and founder of the Triratna Buddhist Order has restated the importance of discipleship. But what does it means to be a disciple – in general and in relation to Sangharakshita in particular? How can we acknowledge squarely the difficulties this relationship can contain?

In ‘What is the Western Buddhist Order?’* (2009), Sangharakshita defines the Order as ‘the community of my disciples.’ This is a very strong statement, but what does it mean? Like any relationship, discipleship brings complications and I suggest that no teacher can wholly define from his or her side what the relationship means from the student’s. Sangharakshita’s definition of discipleship can’t be the end of the story. Those like me who are members of the Triratna Buddhist Order need to explore what discipleship means for us, and this exploration must include the difficulties that go with being a disciple of Sangharakshita in particular.

First, let me say that I am happy and proud to be Sangharakshita’s disciple. When I joined the Triratna Buddhist Order I understood that I was committing myself to a particular approach that derived from his guidance and teachings. All Order members do the same and that unites us. The Dharma I know in my bones has come to me through Sangharakshita and going deeper in my Dharma practice usually means going more deeply into his teachings. I have never wanted to graduate from the relationship, as if it were a form of ‘apprenticeship’. That would cut me off from a source of inspiration, challenge and a vision of life and the Dharma that is much larger than my own.

However, over the years my feelings about Sangharakshita have also included more difficult emotions such as disappointment and frustration and I have encountered areas of criticisms and disagreement. I have often felt constrained, for a variety of reasons, from expressing these publicly. However, I don’t think these emotions and views represent a failing on my part as an Order member. Rather, I think we need an expanded view of discipleship that takes them into account.

The Tensions in Discipleship

I believe a degree of tension is inherent in discipleship. We don’t live in a deferential or hierarchical culture, we aren’t all faith-types and in any culture simply following another person may be a form of weakness. Some tension between receptivity and independence – the anxiety of influence – should be expected, and balancing them is challenging. With experience, most of us become more skilled in doing that and members of the Triratna Buddhist Order are fortunate that, as teachers go, Sangharakshita is exceptionally thoughtful about the relationship. Nonetheless, the complexity of our discipleship is likely to increase as we mature in our practice, find our own approaches, make our own interpretations and have more capacity to absorb other influences. Many of our discussions in the Order turn on this, and I think that, as well as promoting unity, we should embrace that complexity.

Problems Specific to Sangharakshita

Next, I think we must acknowledge the particular difficulties that go with being a disciple of Sangharakshita. Over the last twenty years the relationship of Order members to Sangharakshita has been punctuated by crises. The first followed the publication of Women, Men and Angels in 1995, which confronted us with his views on gender. The second was prompted by criticisms in The Guardian and The FWBO Files that raised questions about Sangharakshita’s behaviour, his teachings and the movement’s record. The third came in 2003 with an account by an Order member of his sexual relationship with Sangharakshita that prompted much turmoil and soul-searching.

I have no wish to rehearse these issues here, but we must acknowledge their effect. The row about Women, Men and Angels was partly about gender and partly about the problems involved in disagreeing with one’s teacher. In ‘What is the Western Buddhist Order?’Sangharakshita says of disagreement in this area, ‘I regard that as a difference of opinion that does not affect [a person’s] discipleship.’ That’s an important clarification, but the disagreement remains significant.

When it comes to Sangharakshita’s sexual history, I think most Order members feel, as I do, troubled by his actions and critical of him to some degree. We can’t discount the testimony of former partners and wouldn’t countenance similar behaviour in others. Quite a few Order members have resigned because of this issue and those who have worked it through have often changed their views of Sangharakshita in the process. This issue has profoundly affected the reception of Sangharakshita’s work beyond Triratna and, for his disciples, it’s complicated when your love and respect for our teacher is matched by a strong sense of his fallibility.

Interpreting Sangharakshita

Finally, understanding the complexities of Sangharakshita’s character means standing back to gain a perspective on him. This goes along with another process. To understand our teacher I think we need to reflect on the influence of his temperament, generation, cultural affinities, and his place in Buddhist history and the modern Buddhist world. In other words, we need to interpret Sangharakshita. I could say much more about this, but for now I will simply suggest that this is a large task on which we have barely started.

For some people, including some of the most influential Order members, discipleship is seemingly uncomplicated and unproblematic. I rejoice in their merits. But the Order’s history shows that there are other aspects of the Order’s relationship with Sangharakshita and other important perspectives.

It’s awkward to discuss these matters while Sangharakshita is still among us, actively participating in the Order’s life. It’s even harder to discuss them publicly when some outsiders are happy to point out Sangharakshita’s faults, but have no regard to his virtues. However, I believe we must face them squarely and discuss them frankly if we are to survive and flourish. If Order members are waiting until he is no longer with us before raising doubts and objections, we are storing up trouble. I fear that this may be happening, and I would be failing in my duty as a disciple if I did not share my concerns.

* The Order has since changed its name to Triratna Buddhist Order

Note: until now I have not used this blog to air things I have written about issues within the Triratna Buddhist Community, even though I have written about similar issues in the Buddhist and mindfulness worlds. However, the distinction is rather artificial and I am posting this contribution to discussion of discipleship and Triratna as an experiment. It is intended mainly for others in Triratna, though I welcome comments from anyone who is interested. In moderating comments I will not accept any that echo the vitriolic tone that is sometimes found in other internet forums.