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Fifty years ago this April, Sangharakshita founded a new Buddhist movement that was to change the lives of thousands of people. What fostered such unlikely success? Singhamanas on a unique point in history
We already know the story of the Swinging Sixties: LSD, the CND, Beats, Beatles and baby-boomers. Maybe we’re even familiar with the story of Sangharakshita, the founder of the community that the London Buddhist Centre is a part of: the young British signalman going AWOL after the war, donning saffron robes and walking the dusty roads of India for two decades before returning to Britain, being rejected by the Buddhist establishment here and moved by circumstance to found a radical new movement. Sangharakshita remembers the early years of the movement as being ‘in tune with the mood of the times’, and has even mused recently that it might not have been possible today. He considers the arising of the Triratna Buddhist Order and Community as ‘little short of a miracle’, adding that ‘Not only did the lotus bloom from the mud … Perhaps it had to bloom just then or not at all.’
What was so special, then, about that time, and that pivotal year, 1967? How had the soil become so fertile that a new Buddhist movement like this could grow up out of it? Looking back, three currents of change stand out: religious crisis, economic confidence and a new strain of idealism.
The upheavals of the sixties were as much a crisis of religion as of anything else. As Christianity lost a large part of its privileged position in Britain, the possibilities in matters of belief, life-path or ‘spirituality’ were suddenly wide open. The Second World War and Cold War had boosted the sense that a British identity was also a Christian one, and the two conflicts were accompanied by a relative boom in church-going. Allied propaganda during those conflicts contained a clear streak of Christian nationalism – initially used against Nazi paganism then against the atheist Soviets. By the late sixties, critics of the western establishment and the Vietnam War were attacking the idea that you can go into battle with ‘God on your side’. As church-going plummeted and traditional institutions such as marriage and the authority of the Church were questioned, an opportunity arose to reimagine the world and how we live.
The resurgence of Christian national identity in the mid-20th century had also supported the rise of the ‘nuclear family’ – that promised idyll of security whose name echoed the chief fear of its era. But by the late 1960s, the revolution in sexual morality and, in particular, female identity was shaking the whole complex web of legally and socially accepted rules which governed family structures in post-war Britain. 1967 – the very same year that Sangharakshita founded his new Buddhist movement – saw a shake-up in the laws restricting divorce, the decriminalisation of homosexuality and the availability of contraceptives on the NHS for unmarried couples for the first time. Free from fears of divine wrath, public humiliation and unwanted pregnancy, young people in particular were suddenly able to experiment with different relationships. Old moulds were breaking. Speaking to new western Buddhists soon after the establishment of the movement, Sangharakshita made the shift explicit: ‘We go for refuge to the Buddha amidst broken images … we become Buddhists amidst the ruins of Christian civilisation and culture.’
1967 was also the zenith of what historians call les trente glorieuses: the thirty years from the end of the Second World War that saw the fastest economic growth in the European history. Young people in particular were able to go into revolt, because they now had the security to do so. Living costs were relatively low and many could afford to work part-time. Students were fully supported by the state and welfare was easier to come by. For many ‘dropping out’ was becoming, perhaps ironically, a perfectly safe option. Getting by on a mixture of grants, benefits, low rents and casual work, founder Order members had time and energy to explore their ideals and pour their energies into expressing them. The transformation of an old Victorian fire station in Bethnal Green into the Buddhist Centre we enjoy today, for instance, would never have been possible without a considerable workforce of young Western Buddhists who not only felt little pressure to build conventional careers for themselves, but were highly inspired by their new ideals. The Triratna Buddhist Community was certainly founded on youth: by the time the LBC finally opened in 1978, fully 92% of all Order members were still under the age of forty.
This newly confident generation of baby boomers had grown up with wholly different ideals from those of their wartime parents. All forty-nine songs copyrighted by the Beatles in 1964 were about traditional boy-girl romance. But by 1967 the subject accounted for a meagre 5% of their lyrical output. Romance had been supplanted by freer, more mysterious explorations: the anti-war movement, psychedelic utopianism, existentialism and eastern mysticism.
The Beatles had inherited a lot of their new subject-matter from the early poster-boys of the counter-culture, the Beats – Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs et al. As Paul McCartney said, ‘We were all reading Ginsberg and that stuff… Everybody was’. Beat culture was heavily influenced by eastern philosophy and rejected social conformity. As rationing ended and churchgoing spiked, Beatniks were black-and-white-clad, existential sceptics. Yet as the sixties closed the counter-culture was flowering into the unabashedly spiritual world of tie-dyed, doped-up hippies. The new Buddhist movement was so characterised by hippie counter-culture that it even become something of a mixed blessing, as Subhuti (now President of the LBC) remembers: ‘We were quite stuck in the alternative society … If you didn’t have long hair or smoke dope, this wasn’t the place for you’.
The dope-smoke has now cleared of course, and the long hair is definitely optional; but the youthful idealism in the movement is still very much alive. As I look around me here at the LBC I see residential communities still thriving, centre workers living on ‘support’ instead of wages, classes once again packed with young people. In most ways we’ve grown out of the naive enthusiasm for free love and drug-fuelled spiritual awakening that was in the air when the movement began.
Cultural shifts in that era certainly smoothed the way for the founding of such a movement. Superficial connections in the counter-culture may even have attracted some of the early Buddhist pioneers who might otherwise never have discovered the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order, as the nascent movement was then known. But ultimately, a deeper force was at work both in those early years and in sustaining the vast labour of love needed to grow the community.
1967 was a moment of crisis, but more importantly it was also one of opportunity. Sangharakshita sensed this and was somehow able to channel something wholly new into existence. Asked recently about his particular role in the emergence of the movement he said this: ‘I could be paradoxical and say I personally haven’t “achieved” anything. However I feel that something – the work of the Dharma – has been achieved through me. I’ve often had this sense of being an instrument of some force. In the past I’ve remarked that I wasn’t the best person to start a new Buddhist movement in the West. But one was needed and I was the only western Dharma teacher available in Britain. I suppose mine has been a life of communication, of translation – allowing myself to be a channel for something beyond me.’