The Friends of the Western Buddhist Order (FWBO)
(now renamed the 'Triratna Buddhist Community')
The FWBO is certainly the foremost Buddhist organisation to have made serious attempts to find the basic principles of Buddhism and apply them anew to Western conditions. It consists in a non-monastic order (the Western Buddhist Order or WBO) plus the FWBO proper, which is a loose affiliation (without formal membership) of people sympathetic to the work of the Order. It was founded by Sangharakshita, previously an English Buddhist monk, in 1968, and has since spread around the world. For more information on the FWBO itself, see the central FWBO website.
I was involved with the FWBO for about twenty years, and was a member of the WBO for three and a half years. I have now chosen to resign from the Order and no longer have much involvement with the FWBO's activities, though I still have personal links with some Order members who are good friends. This website is not intended to be primarily about the FWBO or even about Buddhism; however, my links with it will be obvious if you read some of the papers on this site which were originally written with an FWBO audience in mind. The purpose of this page is just to make clear, though only in outline, what my position is now in relation to it, and how far, in my view, it is compatible with the practice of the Middle Way.
If you are reading this without any prior knowledge or experience of the FWBO, I do recommend that you try it out. It is certainly not essential for the practise of the Middle Way, but it could be one helpful way of advancing with that practice. Though it does have limitations (which I will discuss below), I do not know of any better context in which to learn meditation, learn about the practice of Buddhism, and probably meet some impressive people who may well inspire you in important ways. There are now FWBO centres or groups in many major cities around the world, so you may well find one near you. The FWBO does have some baggage, but in my experience every other Buddhist group has a lot more baggage. As an alternative to the FWBO there are Tibetan, Theravada, Zen and Nichiren groups, but these all seem very much concerned with passing on their traditions, and it is harder in these contexts to get a genuinely Western application of basic Buddhist insights because they are so mixed up with cultural or traditional accretions. The FWBO does also have something of a real critical culture, which again I have not come across in other Buddhist movements (the new FWBO discussion website gives some evidence of this). It is possible for anyone to learn a great deal from the FWBO without worrying too much about its baggage, and it is not a cult that will put any pressure on you to go further than you wish. You can be involved as casually as you wish and extricate yourself easily.
Nevertheless, there are also some major weaknesses in the FWBO which undermine it as a source of understanding of the Middle Way. Some of these are weaknesses shared with the whole of the Buddhist tradition, which the FWBO has failed to free itself from. These arise from the belief in the Buddha's enlightenment (or the enlightenment of other great Buddhist figures) as a source of revelation, and the idea that Buddhism tells us positively some truth about how the universe really is, rather than merely helping us to be aware of our own ignorance. In founding the FWBO Sangharakshita attempted to identify central Buddhist principles, and allowed the abandonment of beliefs and practices which he did not consider important. However, his approach was far from systematic, and the job is half-finished. Many of his books are stimulating and worth reading, but they are also often inconsistent. They can rouse you to an awareness of the importance of adapting the riches of the Buddhist tradition so that they can be used in the West, but the strong element of conservatism in his character also means that he is very reluctant to let go of the many aspects of traditional Buddhism which are merely likely to confuse its practice and delay its adaptation.
I am not inclined to blame Sangharakshita himself for his limitations, and he is nevertheless in many ways a courageous visionary. The biggest weaknesses in the FWBO today lie in the hands of Sangharakshita's followers, who have too often turned Sangharakshita himself into the object of a sub-cult within the movement. Instead of following Sangharakshita's own example in critically examining their legacy from the bottom up, they have a tendency to accept his views and interpretations as the founding basis of the FWBO. Instead of seeing the FWBO as an evolving Western Buddhist movement, for whom Sangharakshita will soon become just an interesting bit of history, many order members continue to insist that the WBO and FWBO is given its basic values by allegiance to Sangharakshita himself and his teachings. It is the recognition that most order members maintained this insistence, and that I definitely did not, that had a major role in leading me to resign from the WBO.
The FWBO can also be a confusing and contradictory place, in which conservative values can be given a liberal gloss, and metaphysics given a veneer of critical awareness. It took me a very long time to reach a clear conclusion that the FWBO was not in fact focused primarily on the practice of the Middle Way, but that its centre of gravity lies more with allegiance to Sangharakshita and the Buddhist tradition. There is still basic debate and tension between these priorities in the movement. However, I will only be able to commit myself to it personally when its allegiance is clearly towards the Middle Way and this takes priority over all other loyalties. I have one piece of advice for anyone getting involved in the FWBO: beware the hypocrisy of simultaneously accepting incompatible views, which can be made all the more acceptable by positive experiences and a supportive group, but will have a long-term undermining effect both on you and on the organisation as a whole.
The FWBO has come in for a lot of criticism in recent years, for example from the FWBO Files. The FWBO Files are extremely unbalanced and full of narrow point-scoring and questionable accuracy, but they would not have been able to gain any credence at all if the FWBO had not had some major structural weaknesses as an organisation. If the FWBO was not so unnecessarily dependent on Sangharakshita and his reputation, it would not be so vulnerable to attacks on Sangharakshita's character. If its relationship to Buddhist tradition was not so ambiguous, it would also not be vulnerable to (quite reasonable) attacks on its claims to "lineage" in the traditional Buddhist sense. The official response of the movement to the FWBO files has been admirably balanced and has avoided meeting hatred with hatred, but, in my experience of the Order, the underlying questions that arise from the very possibility of such attacks have yet to be seriously asked.
Links to further discussion
The Way of Trust (talk given to members of Western Buddhist Order - external link to FWBO discussion site)
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