Chairs' Letter – November 2022On Thu, 1 December, 2022 - 12:28
Dear Order members and friends,
When I last wrote, a month ago, we had just marked the fourth anniversary of Bhante Sangharakshita’s death at Adhisthana. A meeting of the International Council was underway, and by the end of a very harmonious and enjoyable meeting we had clarified the purpose of the IC and agreed on strategic priorities.
A couple of days later, the annual international ‘in person’ gathering of the College of Public Preceptors began. I was one of the people who caught a bad cold, but fortunately much of the teaching and presentations was being done by other people, and again it was a very harmonious and enjoyable meeting. Adhisthana very generously supports the IC and College meetings by waiving charges for both events – which is a big help given the cost of international travel.
We were especially glad to welcome five new Indian Public Preceptors (Abhayadana, Abhayavati, Nagaketu, Shubhajaya, and Vijaya) as well as one from North America (Amala) and one from The Netherlands (Akasasuri). It was also the first ‘in person’ international meeting for several others, and with 42 of us present it was our largest meeting to date. (Two people were on sabbatical, and unfortunately circumstances meant that only Ratnavyuha and Siladasa were able to join us from New Zealand and Australia.) We aim to hear lifestories from each new Public Preceptor, and this time spent three evenings hearing from each of Vajrashura, Shubhajaya, and Amala.
Towards the beginning of the College meeting Vajratara led the Guru Yoga practice, and on the last evening Sanghadevi led the Kalyana Mitra Yoga practice; both practices evoking our place in the Triratna lineage. We ended each evening by chanting one of the mantras we’ve received from Bhante, while circumambulating his burial mound; fortunately each evening was dry, and it was a strong reminder of the time of his funeral four years ago.
Throughout the meeting we met in various combinations of our College kulas, which was an opportunity to catch up with each other in person, as well as to discuss topics such as ordination recommendations and new preceptor proposals. And after breakfast each morning there was an opportunity to take part in a Japanese tea ceremony, kindly offered by Siladasa.
The meeting began with two mornings of study on ‘views’, led by Subhuti. The first morning used the framework of ‘Manu / Buddha / Guru / Terton’ from Bhante’s Padmasambhava Day talk in 1979. The second morning drew especially on an extract from Bhante’s 1988 talk ’The Next Twenty Years’:
‘Something else about which I’ve felt quite concerned and pained recently is the question of racial prejudice and discrimination. If you had asked me a few years ago whether racial prejudice and discrimination was on the decline in Britain I would have said, ‘Yes, it certainly is, and it won’t be many years before it disappears altogether’, but I don’t think I could say that today. In the last few months I’ve read in the newspapers so many reports of cases of harassment that I’ve come to the conclusion that as a movement, and especially as an Order, we need to take a much more active part in combatting prejudice and discrimination of the sort. I’m quite sure that within the Order, and perhaps within the movement as a whole, there is no racial prejudice or discrimination of any kind, but there’s certainly a lot of it in Britain and I think we have to try not just to ensure that it doesn’t exist in our midst, but to do whatever we can to remove such prejudice from the society in which our movement functions. We can’t just look the other way and content ourselves with the fact that we ourselves don’t personally practise that discrimination or indulge in that prejudice. I’m not suggesting we take a militant attitude – that is often counter-productive – but in a gentle and kindly and non-violent way we must do everything in our power to counteract this menace, which is obviously quite opposed to the whole spirit of the Dharma.’
Subhuti made the point that every society contains elements of what Dr. Ambedkar calls ‘systems of graded inequality’, with Caste being the most obvious (Isabelle Wilkerson’s book of that name is also worth reading). Some people consider it enough to rely on the Dharma; but there is clearly strong and widespread racial prejudice in the UK, as experienced by most People of Colour, and Bhante raises the question of what we can do ‘to counteract this menace’.
Over the following two days the College members liaising with the BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of colour) strategy group, had invited Eugene Ellis (the Director and Founder of the Black, African and Asian Therapy Network, BAATN, author of ‘The Race Conversation’, and a Mitra at the London Buddhist Centre) to lead a racial awareness workshop. He was supported by Maitrisara who stepped in at the last moment when Saraka was unable to join him as planned. There is quite a range of conditioning and experience among College members, particularly taking into account the cultural differences involved across our international membership, and I appreciated Eugene’s openness and sensitivity to that, as well as everyone being willing to engage in the process.
It has become a bit of a ritual for Maitreyabandhu to compere an evening of more personal reflections from some of us, and this time Parami, Dayanandi, Nagaketu, and Paramabandhu shared their experience of having received initiation or blessings.
On 10th November, Parami led an open evening marking Bhante’s funeral, which many people joined – either in the shrineroom at Adhisthana, or online. This included extracts from Nagabodhi’s forthcoming book and Maitreyabandhu’s long-form poem, The Commonplace Book, dedicated to Bhante, as well as evocative readings and mantras – many read or lead by the same people as at the funeral itself. I vividly remember Padmavajra reading Bhante’s poem ‘The Elements Speak’ immediately after Bhante’s burial; the copy he had been given was missing the last verse, but fortunately he has a phenomenal memory!
Halfway through the meeting we were again able to devote a day to hearing from our Indian brothers and sisters. This has been a highlight in the past and was so again, and they treated us to chai and pakora. It was significant to hear from the four new Indian women Public Preceptors, whose appointments mean so much for the many women wishing to join the Order, and there have been many other developments to rejoice in; however it was also salutary to hear of the difficulties and obstacles our Order and Movement have been facing in India over the past year.
We then moved into two mornings of study on the Bodhicitta practice, led by Padmavajra, which drew out a difference in emphasis between the practice as a Mula Yoga, and how it is approached in the Lojong or Mind Training, beginning by drawing out the advantage of concentrating on the cultivation of metta, as foundation for compassionate activity.
Our last two days were spent in discussion of various topics:
The first morning we heard from Aryajaya and Saraha, as International Order Convenors. Punyamala, Jnanavaca, and Amrutdeep, as College Deputies most involved overseeing matters of Order ethics, rejoiced in the work of Subhadassi as Order Convenor for Ethics, and gave the meeting an update on instances of probation / suspension / ‘expulsion’ (recognition that someone has put themselves outside the Order) / reinstatement / and reviews of processes followed. Concerns were voiced regarding limited resources for this work.
Jnanavaca updated everyone on the likely necessity and implications of making it clear that the College is a separate entity to the Adhisthana Trust. Ratnavyuha presented the current financial situation of the College, our main outgoings being the cost of travel involved in maintaining an effective international membership; we benefitted from a generous legacy a couple of years ago, but need to begin actively fundraising again.
Ratnavyuha shared a five year review of the Kula Reps meeting (which liaises between all College Kulas). One outcome has been the reorganisation of the Guidelines for Ordination, from six to eight; another the workshop that took place during this College meeting.
Having heard a couple of requests for more female representation on the Refuge Tree, we clarified that the Refuge Tree represents the lineage of Bhante’s own understanding and practice of the Dharma, and is a unifying symbol throughout the Order; and is therefore not likely to be changed retrospectively. We heard from Vajratara and Saddhaloka about their conversations with Bhante before his death, regarding his decision to include Anagarika Dharmapala and Dr Ambedkar, and that he then considered the Tree to be complete.
Nagapriya (who with Ratnadharini and Abhayadana is on the steering group) gave an update on the International Council; Subhadramati and Paramabandhu (as trustees) gave an update on the FutureDharma Fund; Vajratara on the India Dharma Trust; and Vajrashura on the Sikkha Meditation Kula.
Subhadramati, Santavajri, and Vajratara filled us in on the progress of fundraising and property searching for Tiratanaloka Unlimited, in order to respond to the numbers of women asking for ordination; and we heard of proposals for future Public Preceptors.
College working arrangements are reviewed and updated regularly, and the afternoon session was devoted to a proposal, presented by Punyamala and Jnanavaca, for changes to the College working arrangements relating to probation / suspension / ‘expulsion’, to keep them in line with our experience of carrying out our responsibilities and having listened to comments from Order members about how that can be improved. There was broad consensus among those present, so we will now be giving those College members who were unable to attend the meeting, a month to respond, and will then share our thinking with the Order more generally.
The second morning was spent continuing a discussion that has been taking place over a couple of years, concerning the possibility of ordaining former serious offenders. Saddhaloka has been involved in conversations on this topic over the last couple of years, with individual Order members and also small groups, and it is not surprising that strong views have been expressed on both sides of the debate. Broadly speaking, on one side is the wish to recognise the potential for any individual to transform their life, and to support that; on the other side is the concern not to underestimate the resources needed, nor the potential effect on individual Order members or the Order in general. This is an important discussion for our Order, especially given the work some Order members are doing with people currently in prison.
We are working to see if we can reach consensus among College members on points of principle, which would give us an agreed framework within which there would be the flexibility to take into account different cultures and circumstances. We also need to be more explicit in defining what constitutes a ‘serious offence’, and to consider whether some offences are so serious as to rule out the possibility of ordination. Again, this is a continuing discussion and one that we will share more widely with the Order.
The final afternoon of the meeting was spent considering the purpose of College gatherings and how we might best conduct them. There was a general sense that this had been a good meeting and it was delightful to meet ‘in person’ with College members from Australia, New Zealand, Mexico, North America, India, the Netherlands, Germany, Ireland. I am especially grateful to have the support of my stalwart team of Deputies – Amrutdeep, Jnanavaca, Punyamala, Ratnavyuha – and a great working relationship and friendship with Akasajoti as assistant to the College.
Three Public Preceptors ‘retired’ from the College at this meeting (although they remain Public Preceptor to those they have ordained) and we took the opportunity to rejoice fulsomely in Varadevi, Saddhaloka, and Sanghadevi; sadhu! sadhu! sadhu!
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Was good to read this, the Chairs Letter from November 2022.
I would just like to point out on the subject regarding ‘racism’.
I too, remember clearly thinking on many occasions, gosh, we are lucky, in this country there is very little racism.
I do, it seems, however, have a slightly different take from that point onwards.
I wonder if people remember. I certainly remember on first coming into contact with the Order around 2015 that the ‘4 C’s’ were mentioned. They were put forward as an ‘outline’, we might say, or a set of ‘pointers’ as to what are large scale ‘threats’ to the practice and flourishing of the Dharma. The ‘4 C’s’ stand for - Capitalism, Communism, Consumerism and, I believe, Catholicism.
Anyway. As mentioned, I see a rather different set of events unfolding currently, indeed from almost exactly Jan 2020.
‘Communism’ is often stereo-typed, perhaps, by the idea of people wearing Lenin glasses or Cheguevara caps/berets, perhaps sitting in cafes chatting as intellectuals in Paris. However, this would not be a threat to the practice of the Dharma or any spiritual path. What we are seeing currently, it seems, what we are experiencing currently might be better understood as communism. many seem not to have recognised this.
Communism, if we are talking about it as a danger, as a pernicious force, is one wherein a number of things might happen. Some of them we must perhaps have a look to see if they are happening now.
What are these ‘markers’ of communism, of a totalitarian system?
Well, one, is media.
Media has been used in any totalitarian system in order, largely to try and manipulate peoples behaviours. It generally tries to create fear among people. It often used the theme of ‘death’ or ‘danger’ to do this.
We surely, must be aware that very large companies which are involved with ‘tech’, certainly ‘social media’ are, it might be said, extremely materialist in mode of operation. We have seen, over the last three years, strong evidence of propaganda and of suppression of freedom of speech.
We have also seen, we must add, events which make us question whether companies have been ‘profiting from illness’, equally we must ask the question, has there been a form of ‘planned economy’ around the integrity of certain aspects of ‘public life’. We can see billions and billions have been made by certain pharmaceutical interests.
What would the Buddha say about this? He would say, perhaps, that there are forms of Wrong Livelihood which we must avoid. The pharmaceutical industry, at least the part which seems to be oriented towards profit often, it seems, without ethical accountability, are problematic, perhaps should be avoided.
The themes of ‘race and gender’ are a traditional part of Marxist debate. If the reader doesn’t have an in-depth understanding of Marxism it might be useful to hear that it is essentially regarded as a ‘materialistic’ version of Hegel’s philosophy. As Buddhists, perhaps we should, therefore be somewhere in the middle of these.
A problem with Marxism though which is perhaps why it has been regarded a real danger to the practice of any spiritual path is that it is totalitarian. Another, is, as mentioned, that it is materialistic. Another, is that its view on ‘race and gender’ is not based on ethics, or a genuine regard for people’s wellbeing, rather it is based on the desires of very large economic interests which want to ‘reduce all to parity’ (not ‘raise them to equality’) in order to create subservience. We know this, surely from regimes around the world where it has happened.
There is an area of real confusion here. ‘Equality’ can, in one sense, mean ‘subservience’, can mean, even ‘danger’.
One likely result of the propaganda machine of a totalitarian system is that it endlessly promulgates this narrative - all are racist, all are unequal in their views on gender equality. Anyone who has studied Marxism will likely tell you - it has no inherent joy. It is reductionist and wholly materialistic. It talks of ‘equality’ endlessly. Yet as we know, all animals are equal yet some are more equal than others.
If we look at the massive corporations pushing an economic-based narrative it is easy to see that ‘greed’ may be part of it. It is also concerning, is it not, to see that much of the ‘anti-racism’ campaigns are being pushed by the very largest corporations?
This is challenging for many. We all want to do good and work towards a better society.
The point which we should perhaps look at though is - how do we, as Buddhists work with this? Is there a need to become more aware of some dangers that might be present?
What is the Triratna response? Is there a need to look at things or does the Triratna way of doing things incorporate this already? I mean, Buddhism is, I think, a more lasting and honest set of views and practices on and in the world than communist totalitarianism. However, how do we navigate the ‘culture wars’? Is it best to not get involved? Is it most likely best to stay simply with the Dharma at all times? After all, the Dharma explains all aspects of reality, that is our great good fortune, it is oriented completely to explanations of self or rather, non-self, as well as cosmological and metaphysical analysis.
Another issue to be raised is - what of ‘tech’ in its ‘application’, particularly that which has become known as ‘social media’.
The problem might be expressed thusly - ‘Social media companies’ are huge and may or may not be using their influence in ways which are beneficial to others. If it is indeed the case we can see a high level of materialism currently, to the level where, for example, some of these channels have restricted freedom of speech over the last three years, this may well be classed as Wrong Livelihood. To be involved with it would thus be unskillful.
I get it that many young members of Triratna must be ‘pushing tech’ to some degree for FBA to recently have changed. I really think it is problematic that sites like facebook, linkedin, twitter, youtube are used. The purpose, it seems sure, is to ‘reach a larger audience’ but as Prajnaketu’s recent book shows - there are real problems with tech - it doesn’t seem to have ethics built into it. It seems to be oriented toward greed. It has ‘data laws’ which are breaking the second precept - they are, indeed, theft. They take what belongs to one person, and, often without regard for it, sell it, quite literally, to make money on that person. Tech thus, sees people as ‘objects’ - we cannot, surely, be blind about this any longer.
‘Tech’ is a double-edged sword.
Does no-one else, currently have alarm bells being rung?
As we know, Brahma Sahampatti spoke to the Buddha to say that there are ‘a few with only little sand in their eyes’. Is it necessary to try and reach ‘so many’? Is ‘tech’ running counter to Dharmic practice? Would it be better to show restraint, to emphasise traditional teachings? There have been already, many examples of ‘watering the Dharma down or attempting to change it directly by some groups which seem to be, essentially, to be strictly materialist, self-confessedly stating their aims to alter ‘religions’, to make them more ‘secular’, to ‘modernise them’. However, if you look at these groups, you will see they focus mostly on profit. Is it not the case, there is little spiritual content offered from such groups?