Sangharakshita: Time to Depolarize the Discussion
The mention of the name of Sangharakshita, founder of the Triratna Buddhist Movement, tends to produce two very different kinds of reaction. From many in Triratna there is still reverence — uncritical for some, increasingly hedged by reservations for others. From many outside Triratna, there is an immediate dismissal due to a tarnished reputation, after revelations of the ways he abused his position to have very unequal sexual relationships with much younger male disciples. However, Sangharakshita (who died in 2018) was also a pioneer of Buddhism in the West, a maverick creative thinker about how to synthesise Buddhist and Western thinking and practice without losing what he saw as the core insights of Buddhism. It’s high time those outside Triratna put his sins in context (which does not mean he has to be absolved of them). Yes, people are complex, folks. Extremely creative people can also have shocking flaws. You can study and consider their achievements without condoning their flaws.
My recent book, The Thought of Sangharakshita: A Critical Assessment (Equinox, 2020) is, as far as I’m aware, the first ever attempt to put Sangharakshita’s thinking in a balanced critical context. I wrote it from a practical point of view that is in some ways inspired by Buddhism, and also influenced by some of Sangharakshita’s ideas and by his emphasis on practice. However, that influence occurred in a period now well past. Though I was once involved in Triratna, I am no longer so, and indeed do not identify as a Buddhist, because although I share many of Buddhists’ practical concerns and techniques, I have no commitment to the authority of the Buddhist tradition. Instead, I have gone on to develop Middle Way Philosophy as a universal perspective initially inspired by some aspects of Buddhism. So, I was able to attempt this task from a point of view that was sympathetic to some of Sangharakshita’s most noble goals in bringing Buddhism and the West together, but also very critical of some of the mistakes he made in trying to fulfil those goals.
Whilst researching for the book, I was able to clarify my understanding of Sangharakshita’s view of things right at the end of his life, in a series of interviews with him at intervals over 2017–18. I found a dignified man who, even into his nineties, was well able to consider criticisms of his positions and weigh them up thoughtfully. In some ways he was aware of his limitations, but in other respects there was also a deep stubbornness that many have remarked. I suspect I share that psychological trait with him, of being happy to compromise only until some bedrock point connected to an intuitive perspective is reached, beyond which it is practically impossible to shift.
One of the early positive elements in my book is an attempt to identify some of the key aspects of Sangharakshita’s thought that bridged Buddhist and Western perspectives, and thus allowed new helpful interpretations of Buddhism to emerge. I came up with the following list, each of which provides a chapter in my book. In all but the first, I think he was very original, at least in the way he connected and used the ideas:
- The Dharma as a universal, to be potentially found in Western and other contexts as well as in Buddhism. Sangharakshita’s love of Western art, literature and thought constantly informs his expositions of Buddhism. As I discuss below, though, this actually co-existed in his mind with much narrower views about the uniqueness of Buddhist teachings.
- Mind reactive and creative: an early presentation of conditionality in terms of the human experience of reactive and creative mental states.
- Provisionality: a term I now use a lot, but that strangely virtually nobody else apart from Sangharakshita uses. His insight (very inconsistently applied) is that Buddhism and scientific method share the practice of provisional belief.
- Integration: This is a largely Jungian concept (now more widely used in other psychotherapeutic contexts too) that is now also very widely used in Triratna. A great deal can be added to the Buddhist understanding of spiritual development by linking it to integration as the overcoming of psychological conflict.
- Individuality: Sangharakshita spoke a lot about ‘The True Individual’ as finding the Middle Way between group-mindedness and individualism. His awareness of the drawbacks of group thinking has been much confirmed by psychological research into group biases, and connects positively with Western democratic social and political traditions. Triratna application of this in the past has, though, unfortunately been patchy.
- The Middle Way: Sangharakshita showed a lot of subtlety at times in his understanding of the Middle Way, which he also sometimes applied ethically, particularly in one of his best talks, ‘Twenty Years on the Middle Way’. However, his theoretical account of it was clogged with traditional Buddhist metaphysics, and his application of it very patchy.
Alongside these creative achievements in thought were also of course Sangharakshita’s achievements as a practitioner and as a leader. He emphasised a range of meditation practice, taking ethical practice seriously but not narrowly, the practice of friendship, the use of the arts and ritual for inspiration, and the use of archetypal explanations for the power of the Buddha as a symbol. In all this, he has inspired many thousands of people into developing a personal practice that is not mechanically limited to fixing a particular problem, but central to the whole development of one’s life. As a leader, he also appreciated the value of getting out of other people’s way so they can develop a sense of responsibility for their own development, and encouraged all sorts of innovations in Triratna such as businesses, communities, and arts centres.
Once one has seen Sangharakshita’s achievements in this positive context, though, it’s also important to acknowledge all the negatives. One of the major points in my book is that the sexual abuse issues did not arise out of nowhere as an isolated failure of Sangharakshita to practice what he preached: rather there were glaring inconsistencies in his teachings throughout that seem to have contributed to the practical issues. These inconsistencies were perhaps unavoidable given that in many ways he had a very conservative adherence to the Buddhist tradition, with the belief that enlightenment provides a source of authority. When that authority takes precedence over experience is often unclear, but he still obviously felt that there was a need to give your teacher seemingly endless benefits of the doubt at times in order to develop. However, this conservatism managed to co-exist with his radical re-presentation of Buddhism in the West, and in many ways helps to explain why he let himself be treated as a guru in many respects, despite his explicit attempts to re-cast the guru tradition in the less fraught terms of friendship. It’s only because people had an excessive regard for his status as a teacher that the abuse of that status could occur, and only because of a tendency to idealize him that his moral mistakes were so shocking for the whole movement.
Sangharakshita also had strong Romantic and Platonic tendencies that fed into his interpretation of Buddhism and coloured his philosophical explanation of it. His Platonism, in particular, led to his views about what he saw as an intrinsic female disadvantage in the spiritual life, expressed controversially in the now pulped book by his disciple Subhuti, ‘Women, Men and Angels’. Women are, he thought (even to the end of his life), more controlled by biology than men: and he took this to be a problem because he assumed that spirituality is somehow connected to being free of the body. This is just one (particularly damaging) example of various odd views that crop up in Sangharakshita, fed primarily by bits of Western philosophy that happened to appeal to him. He was also rather prone to speculative interpretations of history, and sweeping generalizations about social issues based only on anecdote.
I can’t summarize every aspect of Sangharakshita’s complex thinking in a blog post. The main thing I wanted to express in my book, though, is that Sangharakshita is worth studying — though with wariness and criticality. He was a very inconsistent thinker, and that inconsistency was also practically damaging. However, he was also an extremely creative thinker whose thoughts were strongly connected to his practice. He was prompted by a breadth of experience, a synthetic ability, and a practical context where he could try to apply his experimental synthesis of east and west. In the world today, where polarized views fester in social media echo chambers, and over-specialized academics seldom do much to relieve this, that makes him a breath of fresh air.
My book The Thought of Sangharakshita: A Critical Assessment is available directly from publishers Equinox, as well as from other major booksellers. You can also listen to a talk about the book on Youtube from the online launch event and to an interview with me about it on the Middle Way Society podcast.