Friday, 9 July 2010

The Triratna Story: Behind the Scenes of a New Buddhist Movement

Book Review

The Triratna Story: Behind the Scenes of a New Buddhist Movement
by Vajragupta
Review by Vajrapushpa

The Triratna Story is an account of the first 43 years of the FWBO’s - now the Triratna Buddhist Community’s - history. In his book Vajragupta combines thorough research – his listening ear – with wise reflection and, using his storyteller’s touch, conjures up vivid scenes from the early history, from meetings, ordinations, public lectures, personal experiences. Above all he tells the story with a strong desire for balance and fairness; not avoiding the more painful, troublesome and confusing episodes and issues in the history of the Triratna Community.

Both concise and comprehensive, the book describes the key events from the story so far and puts into a context some of the ideas and approaches that are still current, or perhaps that still exert their influence indirectly. That is particularly helpful for people relatively new to the Triratna Community. For those of us who have lived through a considerable chunk of its history it might fill in a few gaps in the chronology of events - sometimes useful to be reminded of - and gives us an opportunity to reflect on our personal histories.

The chapter on India could stand alone as an introduction to the Ambedkarite movement in India and the FWBO’s contribution to it, and the chapter on Right Livelihood, focusing mainly on the history of Windhore:Evolution, encapsulates in itself many of the significant trends and changes in the history of the movement.

As we approach the late 1980’s and the early 90’s, the story becomes more fragmented, or becomes a story of interconnecting stories, in which words no longer have the same meaning for everyone. What was heroic and pioneering for some, becomes naïve and narrow-minded for others. I should say that, as a member of the Triratna Order and having decided to have children and practise in the family context, I can identify, to some extent at least, with ‘the pain and unhappiness of those who’d felt excluded and disapproved of because they had not been living the full FWBO lifestyle’. I will also allow myself one small correction: Vajragita and I were ordained in 1981, not 1982, as the photo caption says.

However, as the story develops, Vajragupta writes with empathy and intelligence about the crumbling of the youthful drive and idealism. Happily - if often in a trial and error sort of way (and how else could it be for a pioneering Buddhist movement?) - the community begins to find creative and pragmatic responses to the challenges that the changing circumstances present.

Outsiders have seen the FWBO as controversial, isolationist, innovative and ‘too active in seeking converts and building (its) organisations’ - see, for instance, Jayarava’s review of British Buddhism by Robert Bluck on this website. From inside, its contribution to the introduction of Buddhism in the West feels convincing and far-reaching. It is also remarkable, as Vajragupta illustrates, how quickly and effectively the FWBO became international and how well its approach has been adapted to different cultures and societies.

Strangely and confusingly, many of the troubles in our collective history stem from our - his disciples’ - relationship with Sangharakshita. He has been different things to different people: a friend, teacher, lover, hero, a father figure or a distant figurehead and, for most of us, a link with the Buddhist traditions on which he has based his own dispensation. But it hasn’t always been easy for us, regardless of the nature of our relationship with him, to know what and who we are in relation to him.

There is no doubt about the success of the Order and the movement he founded. Sangharakshita has established a well articulated Dharmic, social and cultural context, not even forgetting the cosmic dimension, for leading a spiritual life in the modern world . Further reasons for the success are approachable meditation practices taught in accordance with clear Dharmic principles, and the friendly and sincere ambiance of the Triratna centres. Important, too, to the Triratna approach have been Sangharakshita’s teachings on the individual and the group, and dangers of literalism. In the case of the last two - with their distinct taste of freedom - the practice has proved to be distinctly more challenging than the theory.

Vajragupta’s account of the aftermath of the Guardian article in 1997 - the unravelling of the idealism and group dynamics at the Croydon centre, and the responses to the letter published by Yashomitra in 2003 - makes the reader feel he/she is in safe hands. But, occasionally the striving for a balance, applied carefully to every divisive issue and troublesome episode, begins to feel like a formula that blunts the strength of personal experience and the edge of the conflicting views and arguments.

Several snapshot-like life stories of Order members , from three different continents , illustrate well the diversity and unity within the movement. These are lives in some cases literally saved, often profoundly changed, always enriched, by the Dharma and this particular community of practitioners. The happy endings are authentic and personally felt, but they also link up with the ‘collective ending’, or the ending of the book that I was a little uncertain about.

It must have been difficult to decide where to put the final full stop as events and communications kept unfolding from one month to the next. And how, indeed, do you end a story that might still be quite close to its beginning?

Vajragupta gives us his own list of lessons that we have learnt – from ‘going for refuge with our imperfections’, ‘remembering the spirit behind the practice’, to ‘relating healthily to our teachers’, to mention just a few. To the extent that they arise from experience, the learnings point to a maturing spiritual community. As do some recent Order events, described by Vajragupta, where Order members have debated difficult issues in the spirit of friendship and harmony. And yet I couldn’t help thinking that the questions and answers currently ‘in the air’ in our community still point to unresolved tensions, differences that defy premature labelling, a lack of mutual understanding, the shadow of collusion. The ending of the book doesn’t quite escape the temptation to make it neat and comfortable, too ‘balanced’.

In writing this review, I too find myself wanting to find the elusive ‘right balance’. So much has been achieved and understood; yet the mistakes and lack of understanding have also created their own consequences. As a growing and ‘ecumenical’ Buddhist community, we seek for harmony between ‘unity’ and ‘diversity’ and do so with sincerity but also with different agendas. The pursuit of ‘unity’ and ‘diversity’ can bring about its own illusions - and the arising and dissolving of illusions is, after all, the stuff of spiritual life.

Sangharakshita talks in one of his recent communications, quoted in the book, of the fact ‘that there were aspects of modern life that were given a new kind of attention in modern culture – aspects of life that the Dharma had never previously had to address.’ He had had to work out for himself ‘how the Dharma related to these aspects of life, since there were no clear and explicit models to be found in the scriptures or in traditional Buddhism’.

As the story continues, the Triratna Order and Community, too, will encounter new issues and situations for which there are no ‘explicit models’ in traditional Buddhism, or perhaps not even our own history. If the lineage that Sangharakshita has established is going to mature and flourish spiritually, we – his disciples - will need to think for ourselves and work together, be well versed in the Dharma and attentive to our own experience. The story of the first four decades, as told by Vajragupta, offers us a pause for reflection, as well as encouragement and inspiration for the next chapter.


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