SANGHARAKSHITA'S SEXUAL ACTIVITY
A central element in controversies around Triratna has been criticism of Sangharakshita’s sexual behaviour. We set out to address this fully and honestly by:
- Ascertaining what happened by investigating the past and encouraging people to come forward with their testimonies;
- Making an unambiguous statement of apology and regret where it was needed;
- Doing whatever is possible to address any suffering that has resulted from these events;
- Establishing systems for safeguarding people engaging with Triratna in the present and future.
THROUGH OUR INVESTIGATION WE IDENTIFIED TWO PRINCIPAL AREAS OF CONCERN REGARDING SANGHARAKSHITA’S SEXUAL BEHAVIOUR:
- Not recognising the power imbalance between a spiritual teacher (or kalyana mitra) and a disciple or student, and not understanding the emotional impact that sexual relations between a teacher and a student can have on the student.
- At times being unwilling or unable to have meaningful dialogue after the sexual involvement ended.
1/ Investigating What Happened
There are many rumours and claims in this area, especially on the internet, and we recognised that it was important to start by establishing the facts.
Encouraging a Culture of Openness
To support this investigation and start a process of addressing the effect of what had happened, in 2017 we set out to encourage a change in our internal culture, which we described as ‘not being afraid of the difficult conversations’. This blog post explains our thinking more fully: How do we have the difficult conversations? (Lokeshvara).
We established an Order blog called Stories of the Past and Present (Looking to the Future) where Order members could share accounts of their experiences. To ensure that people felt able to write frankly, this blog was confidential to Order members, but some of their accounts have also been made publicly available by their authors.
What We Learned
Sangharakshita had sexual relations with a number of men in the FWBO/Triratna over a period of 17 years, from 1968 to 1985. A further allegation was made about an incident said to have taken place in 2003, which we also investigated.
Consulting with a number of those early Order members who remain in the Order today we were able to identify 24 men who it was believed might have had sexual relations with Sangharakshita. Of these men 16 are still Order members, 6 have left and 2 have died. (We should note that there was no connection between these deaths and any of the issues we were investigating.)
We tried to contact all of these men, using an intermediary to approach those who have left our community, asking them if there was anything they wished to say, something they wanted to have understood, or something they wished to hear from anyone in our community, including Sangharakshita. We offered the services of an external Restorative facilitator if they wished. There’s a full account of our use of the Restorative approach in Section 6 of this report.
Not everyone responded, but we heard back from three of the men who had left the Order and twelve who are still in it. Although most of these men said they had no issues that needed resolving, and several were keen to say it had been unambiguously positive, others recognised the same issue highlighted by those who left the order: that it hadn’t been at all easy to talk about it with Sangharakshita afterwards. The men who had left all mentioned the difficulty of having meaningful dialogue after their sexual connection had ended and some of the current Order members mentioned this as well.
Three restorative conversations emerged from this process, and we can’t pass on any details of these because they remain confidential to the participants.
We also reviewed other testimonies by some of these people – some of these appeared in Shabda (the Order’s newsletter), and some have been posted online. Some of these accounts describe the sexual encounters, and the emotions the men involved describe (both at the time and subsequently) include confusion, distress and in one case a sense of being mentally and emotionally frozen.
Another account referring to alleged events in 2003 was investigated in 2012 and a full report was published. We reviewed this episode and were satisfied that it had been addressed already. Mahamati commented on this in 2016 and 2017.
We investigated other rumours, allegations and controversies concerning Sangharakshita and reported our findings in the Triratna Controversy FAQs:
- Did Sangharakshita have sex with men under the then legal age of consent?
- Some of the allegations relate to sex with Sangharakshita or others in the 1980s, well after the 1960s and 1970s. Why did nobody report to the police? Was there a cover-up?
- What is the idea of ‘Greek Love’ I sometimes read about in connection with the FWBO in the past?
- Why did Sangharakshita leave India in 1964? Was there a scandal?
There have also been concerns that when Sangharakshita lived at Padmaloka Retreat Centre in the early 1980s men were allocated to share his bed. Read about the Safeguarding team’s work on this and other concerns about Sangharakshita and sex.
A further accusation against Sangharakshita is that he presented a version of Buddhism that was distorted in ways that enabled his unethical behaviour. We address these concerns in the Unhelpful Attitudes and Ideas section.
Controversy Surrounding Sangharakshita
There was nothing secret about Sangharakshita’s sexual activity and it appears that many in Triratna saw no reason to be critical at the time. The Order as a whole is not celibate (though some Order members choose to be) and Sangharakshita went from being a celibate monk to a non-celibate Head of the Order. Having said this, there was a transition period during which his status was unclear – when he sometimes still wore robes in ceremonial settings and his sexual behaviour was the subject of discussion and some criticism within the FWBO/Triratna as well as widespread controversy in Buddhist quarters outside it, particularly given that those with whom he had sex were men.
The first public criticism in the Order by someone who had been involved sexually with Sangharakshita was made in 1988 and several more testimonies emerged in 2003 and subsequent years. The first media criticism appeared in 1992; a major article appeared in The Guardian in 1997; other material appeared online, starting in 1998 with a long document entitled The FWBO Files; and more material, including articles in The Observer and The Daily Mail, has appeared since 2016. Links to this material are on the Documents and Resources page. This also includes comments and statements by Sangharakshita and bodies within Triratna; reflections by senior Order members; testimonies and comments by critics; and recent media coverage.
2/ DRAWING CONCLUSIONS
Drawing conclusions about a person’s behaviour is a challenging process, especially when the person involved is one’s Buddhist teacher. Nonetheless, our primary responsibility is the welfare and safety of those who engage with Triratna, not the reputation of the organisation itself.
We discuss the wider issues about Sangharakshita’s continuing place in Triratna here. However, we now present the Adhisthana Kula’s shared conclusions about aspects of his sexual behaviour that would fall short of the standards we would expect of a Triratna teacher:
i. Not recognising the power imbalance between a spiritual teacher (or a kalyana mitra) and a student, and not understanding the emotional impact that sexual relations between a teacher and student can have on the student
For some of the individuals who looked up to Sangharakshita as a spiritual teacher, and who were also sexually involved with him, the emotional impact was painful and long-lasting.
It is important to be aware that this was not the case for everyone with whom Sangharakshita had a sexual encounter and that attitudes towards sexual relations have changed greatly since the 1970s and ‘80s. Important generational differences have also emerged; and some older Order members who were involved in these events told us that they feared that past events were being misrepresented because they were unfairly judged according to today’s very different expectations.
Nonetheless, the role of spiritual teacher involves a responsibility to the people he or she teaches, and this includes awareness of the potential for the teacher’s conduct to have an emotional impact on his or her students. Making sense of sex and sexual relationships is often complex and difficult for people, especially when they are young, and sexual involvement with an influential person can easily complicate the process, whether that person is senior in years or spiritually senior.
An imbalance of status can also compromise the junior party’s ability to refuse a sexual advance and, even if they accept this at the time, their feelings and their assessment of what happened may change over time. This can confuse their relationship with the Dharma (i.e. the teachings and practices through which they are trying to find meaning and value in life) and complicate relationships with other members of the Sangha.
For this reason a spiritual teacher has a responsibility to maintain clear boundaries with the people they teach and guide. The Triratna Model Ethical Guidelines express how we understand this in Triratna today.
Having heard accounts of what happened, it is clear to us that Sangharakshita did not adequately recognise the power imbalance between teacher and student, did not see how this might compromise the junior party’s ability to refuse a sexual advance, and did not sufficiently understand the emotional impact that sexual relations were liable to have on the student.
ii. Sangharakshita was sometimes unwilling or unable to have meaningful dialogue after the sexual involvement ended
In some circumstances the lack of dialogue with Sangharakshita has had a negative emotional impact on the individuals concerned. We found this to be significant, even though it isn’t always mentioned in discussions of such issues. Separately from their feelings about the sexual encounters themselves, several of the respondents mentioned the impact of feeling ignored by Sangharakshita after a period of receiving his attention. Some said that, at a later period, when they were no longer sexually involved with Sangharakshita, they had found it unsatisfactory that he was either unwilling or unable to discuss with them their feelings about what had happened.
This goes against the widely shared recognition in Triratna that where difficulties occur open communication, which may lead to confession, apology and perhaps resolution, is a key to addressing them adequately. We think that Sangharakshita’s unwillingness or inability to engage in this way with these men, even many years after the event, contributed significantly to the difficulties they experienced, and was therefore a failing in its own right.
A connected issue is that Sangharakshita did not communicate an apology or acknowledge the impact of his behaviour to the wider Triratna community until very nearly the end of his life. This was also a source of confusion and disappointment to many within Triratna and we discuss this topic more fully in the section on Sangharakshita’s place in Triratna.
Further issues are discussed in the Triratna Controversy FAQ including:
3/ RESPONDING TO THE DIFFICULTIES
Expressing Apology and Regret
In December 2016 Sangharakshita himself issued a confessional statement about these matters.
We recognised the need for a clear statement of our own representing Triratna’s current position about these issues, and in August 2019 we issued our own Message of Apology and Regret.
Addressing the harm done to individuals
Restorative Processes describes the work we have done to support individuals who experienced their sexual involvement with Sangharakshita to have had a negative emotional impact, and also to resolve other concerns from Triratna’s past.
Addressing Ethical Concerns Today describes what we have done to develop Safeguarding Policies and Ethical Guidelines to protect adults and children involved in Triratna activities from harm – now and in the future.
Other Ethical Issues in Triratna
Allegations of ethical breaches by Order members, whether in the past or the present, are addressed through several bodies and a considerable part of the Adhisthana Kula’s work involved establishing or supporting them as they developed.
The section on Addressing Ethical Concerns Today describes what happens in the case of allegations of more serious ethical breaches by Order members. Other matters can be addressed at a local level by the trustees of the responsible charity, perhaps with the involvement of a President (a senior member of the Order who is not directly involved in the situation) or others who are able to help. We oversaw a new network of trainers in Restorative Processes, and found this an effective way to address painful or unresolved issues from the past and supplement other approaches.
Triratna’s Past Responses to these Issues
You may ask why Triratna has not considered these challenging issues before now? We explored this question with some of those within the Triratna community who held positions of responsibility in previous years, and the following is a description of what we learned.
Sangharakshita did not conceal his sexual relationships at the time they were happening. They were known to many people, both within and without Triratna. Most of those who were aware of these sexual relationships did not consider them to be morally questionable. Here we think it is important to take into account the difference between the perspectives of young people in the 1970s and 1980s and a contemporary perspective, which is informed by, among other things, a greater awareness of the potential power dynamics present within certain relationships.
As awareness grew in Triratna of the difficulties some people had experienced the principal response within the community was a change in behaviour both individually and collectively. Sex in the context of spiritual friendship was generally discouraged; discussion resulted in guidelines being drawn up, but in a culture that avoided rules and disciplinary sanctions these were not always followed. Sangharakshita himself had returned to celibacy after 1985, and the 1990s saw more experimentation with celibacy among Order members, with some becoming celibate anagarakas / anagarikas. Safeguarding policies, and the idea of revisiting the past with a Safeguarding perspective, were still in the future.
We also note that testimonies by former sexual partners expressing emotional hurt and distress emerged only slowly. One person made such criticisms in 1988, and at the time of the first public criticisms and Triratna’s responses to them he was the only one to have done so. Other testimonies emerged gradually from 2003 onwards, although we note that these were not actively solicited.
In a 1987 interview and a Letter To A Friend (1992) Sangharakshita commented on his period of sexual activity and said that he intended to write about this in greater depth in his memoirs – something he only did many years later and not in the detail he had indicated. He did not make an apology at this stage.
In 1997 The Guardian published an article about the FWBO entitled ‘The Dark Side of Enlightenment’, and in 1998 an external critic published a long document called ‘The FWBO Files’. The official Triratna responses did not attempt to justify the problematic aspects of Sangharakshita’s sexual encounters, but neither did they criticise it; they focussed mainly on the many other criticisms of Sangharakshita and Triratna in these documents which fundamentally challenged its legitimacy as a Buddhist movement.
After 1997 there was widespread debate of these issues within the Order and significant criticism of the behaviour of Sangharakshita and other Order members, as well as the culture that had supported it. On the whole, leaders in Triratna did not engage in this debate at this time, however, when a second round of criticisms came in 2003 Subhuti and others in leadership positions strongly encouraged open debate and sharing of experience. In 2004 Subhuti, then the Chair of the College of Public Preceptors, publicly criticised elements of Sangharakshita’s behaviour, but there was no systematic investigation of what had happened and the College of Public Preceptors has never taken a shared position on this matter.
Following this period of emerging information, Order members individually have had to consider what they think of Sangharakshita’s behaviour, and whether – or how – this affects their relationship to him. This has been a long process, and has affected different people in different ways.
Between 2005, when the controversy largely died down, and 2016, when it re-emerged, these issues were largely treated by official Triratna bodies and publications such as The Triratna Story (2009) as serious matters but aspects of Triratna’s past. They were just one element in a larger picture of Sangharakshita and his legacy, and material for reflection and shared learning rather than active investigation. In private, some senior Order members did speak frankly with Sangharakshita in the hope that he would respond to the criticism, and especially to the individuals who had found their sexual involvement with him to have had a negative emotional impact on them.
In 2009, following a number of years of ill health, Sangharakshita re-emerged to take a more active role in Triratna, and discussion with some senior Order members resulted in a paper entitled ‘What is the Western Buddhist Order’. In the ‘Conversations with Bhante’, which was also published in 2009 Sangharakshita does discuss his sexual activity to some extent. However, over the next seven years he collaborated with Subhuti on a series of papers on doctrinal and sangha matters, which made no reference to problematic elements of Sangharakshita’s ideas or behaviour.
In more recent years we have entered a new phase. The European Chairs’ Assembly (ECA) appointed its first Safeguarding Officer in 2016. The Adhisthana Kula was formed early in 2017 in the context of renewed criticism in the national media and worked closely with the Safeguarding officer.