copyright Robert Ellis 2008

'The Trouble with Buddhism' Chapter 9 (Sangha trouble) part c 

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The Buddhist Society of Friends


If Buddhists were to dispense both with monasticism and with any other kind of ordination, however, what should they put in its place? How else might the Buddhist community be organised? If it were ever to be organised in a radically different way, this should, of course, be on the basis on consultation and consensus. What I offer below is only a vision of how it could be done differently, not a rigid prescription.


Sangharakshita talks about the sangha as ideally a community of individuals, in which all participate freely, without any of the usual power mechanisms of groups. This was obviously his ideal in setting up the Western Buddhist Order. Yet there is a contradiction involved in setting up free community of individuals with a rigid boundary that has to be policed using power. Instead, the community needs to have graduated and near-invisible boundaries, which let in the maximum amount from outside that is compatible with the community maintaining its values.


There is already an alternative social model for a religious group along these lines to be found in the Western world, apparently flourishing, and having many values in common with those of Western Buddhists: that is the Religious Society of Friends, or Quakers. Of Christian origin but not exclusively Christian, Quakers meet weekly (or more often) in silent meetings, and conduct their business by consensus. As individuals, their beliefs vary greatly, but they are united by their meetings in the open, reflective power of silence. Only occasionally in their meetings there is “ministry”, where one person feels inspired to make a contribution, offering their own insight for the moment.


Quakers have a membership, but they place very little emphasis on it, making most of their activities accessible to “attenders” (non-members who attend Quaker meetings) as much as to members of the society. In a Quaker meeting, it is not at all obvious who is a member and who isn’t. Some people speak in meetings who clearly have spiritual maturity and weight, yet there is no need for this to be formally marked by any special social status, ritual or clothes. In all things the starting point is simplicity.


What Quakers often seem to lack is spiritual techniques to give a bit more focus and dynamism to their calm, open gatherings, and these Buddhism offers in abundance. How wonderful if the richness of the Buddhist tradition could at some point be united with the simplicity, openness and unpretentiousness of the Quaker tradition! One could imagine silent meetings like those of the Quakers, but in which the “ministry” occasionally given was about the application of the Middle Way, or about personal insights recently reached. Such meetings could be supplemented by meditation instruction, but more formal ritual would be a private matter and a matter of taste, perhaps to be arranged between friends, not a public one. The Buddhist Society of Friends would have an understanding that ritual can be used as an instrument of social coercion, and its aim would be to get individuals to become freely involved at their own level without any such coercion. Anybody would be welcome, formally Buddhist or not, and attenders could engage in the society to a high level; but membership of the society would be based on clear commitment to the practice of the Middle Way as the most simple and overarching principle of Buddhism. Opinions on other aspects of Buddhist teaching might well vary, and might also be the object of lectures and discussions in the Society.


Like the Quakers, too, their openness of worship and accessibility need not preclude the Buddhist Society of Friends from involvement in social and political action. Meditation for them would not be an end in itself, but a way of working effectively with mental conditions. Action for charity and political campaigns might become just as much part of the total activities of the society.


Many Buddhists might respond to a proposal of this kind with concerns that without special ordained people to guard the central values of the community, they will be diluted and lost. This would tell us a lot about the conservatism behind much Buddhist thinking, and the tendency to think of the Dharma as the property of one tradition rather than something universally accessible. This conservative anxiety is misplaced, firstly because the Dharma will not be destroyed even if it is diluted by a particular organisation – it will always be there for people to discover; and secondly because the fortress mentality which accompanies orders, of “insiders” who can be trusted and “outsiders” who cannot, is antipathetic to the Dharma, and is far more likely to destroy it from within than any “invasion” or “dilution” of it from outside. It is time for Buddhists to open the doors of their hearts and of their organisations, and to count the risks of conservatism equally with those of the loss of the “Dharma” they hang onto so much.


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