blog post

Coddington Court

A few days ago I was able to take advantage of an open day to look around Coddington Court – the large property recently acquired by the Triratna Buddhist Community (formerly FWBO). This place lies in Herefordshire, England, only a few miles away from where I live. It is certainly impressive, when thought of as a Buddhist retreat centre rather than as the school it was before, and even has its moments architecturally – as in the frontage of the old Manor House pictured. There are six large buildings, all featuring in grand plans for men’s and women’s communities, extensive retreat accomodation, and a library and exhibition space dedicated to Sangharakshita.

As a former member of the Order, who resigned four years ago, you can imagine that my feelings were somewhat mixed as I was guided around by Mokshapriya, the visionary order member with the grand plans for the place. Immediately, I was quite glad of this opportunity to combine the fulfilment of idle curiosity and the renewal of some old acquaintances. In the longer term, I think it is likely to have a positive impact on the area if a large number of practising Buddhists come and live there. On the other hand, it means that I am likely to encounter even more Triratna Buddhists in the near future, and be socially associated with them without being part of the group: a situation which I rarely find very easy. The greater the successes and the bigger the resources of the group, of course, the stronger the pull, and the more energy has to be put into politely treading water rather than yielding to the groupward current.

So why don’t I want to be involved, despite my distanced admiration for the Coddington Court Project? The main reason is identical to my reason for not being involved in that movement in general, which is its reliance on metaphysical beliefs, coupled with a failure to acknowledge these. I have written more about this in my page on the FWBO on the main Middle Way Philosophy site. The Triratna Buddhist Order is very diverse, but nevertheless involves some core commitments to Buddhist tradition and the acceptance of Sangharakshita as one’s teacher. I am conscious of having made a choice to definitely not accept these things, rather than fudge them in the way that many of the more open-minded order members continue to do.

It is the role of Sangharakshita that makes me most uncomfortable about Coddington Court. The Triratna Buddhist Community has fostered a personality cult, in which Sangharakshita’s scholarly elevation and his theoretical disavowal of being a guru act as spoilers to prevent the honest recognition that a personality cult exists. Sangharakshita’s photo appears on every shrine in virtually every Buddhist Centre, whether all the audience want it there or not; Sangharakshita has his own special mantra that is chanted in ritual; and his image is visualised and prostrated to in the Refuge Tree and Guru Yoga practices by many aspiring and actual order members. Coddington Court will doubtless soon be renamed as Sangharakshitaloka, or something else Sanskritic along those lines, and become a focus of pilgrimage and veneration for Sangharakshita, as this is where Sangharakshita will probably be buried and his library and other relics preserved.

I would have no objection to the voluntary archetypal use of Sangharakshita’s image, if this was not so much a non-negotiable condition of being part of the group: his image and mantra being used in public rituals, not just in private by those who wish to use it. The use of his archetype in this way is also closely associated with an uncritical devotion to his teachings as the final word in the correct interpretation of Buddhism. In theory, there is of course free discussion in the movement – but in practice there is little interest in exploring challenges to Sangharakshita’s views, or in allowing the movement to develop beyond them. Constant veneration of the man and his image seems to reinforce this uncritical attitude, and that attitude in its turn still leads to an insular approach in the TBC. Teachers from outside the movement are not usually allowed to speak at TBC centres, because of fear of ‘confusion’ – as though insularity will not lead to greater confusion in the long run when external conditions finally impact.

I wish I could be a constructively critical friend to such near neighbours, for whom I still have in many ways so much respect. However, I think it very unlikely that they really want constructively critical friends. That is not how the TBC works. I will have to reluctantly maintain a friendly distance, and seek associations instead in the nascent Secular Buddhist movement. The Secular Buddhist movement gives grounds for hope, because it is still discussing what it is about: whereas the TBC is all too certain about such things. However, it will be a long time indeed before Secular Buddhists can even dream about such facilities.


About Robert M Ellis

I am an independent philosopher, with a Ph.D. in Philosophy, and a distance tutor in Critical Thinking, Philosophy and Politics. I also have experience of Buddhist practice. I developed Middle Way Philosophy to apply what I see as the central insights of Buddhism in an entirely Western context.


21 thoughts on “Coddington Court

  1. hi. yes i too find secular buddhism a more enticing prospect. the cultural baggage attached to ethnic buddhism is not relevant to me.

    Posted by morebento | November 9, 2012, 12:02 pm
  2. “Sangharakshita’s scholarly elevation and his theoretical disavowal of being a guru act as spoilers to prevent the honest recognition that a personality cult exists.” Well said.

    Posted by DR | November 10, 2012, 11:51 pm
  3. Just heard, through the grapevine, that the women involved with the project had to fight to have a women’s community on the property and they’ve been relegated to an annexe. I predicted this a year ago; that this project will become, effectively, a retirement community for a small,select group of men.

    Posted by FeministOM | November 15, 2012, 9:49 pm
  4. @FeministOM. I’ve seen the building destined to be turned into the women’s community, and it’s not just an “annexe”. It’s a substantial building. The women’s community seems to be an integral part of the project, and there also seems to be a change of approach here from other rural retreat centres in the UK in that men’s and women’s communities will be included in the same site and share many of the same facilities.

    Posted by Robert M Ellis | November 16, 2012, 12:00 pm
    • Efforts and trends which, I believe, will mean ‘the movement’ has hopes of surviving and maturing; of being relevant people in the years to come. Women are integral to the operation and maintenance of the FWBO/TBC and have been since its inception. My concerns about the current project do have reasonable grounding in occurrences, directly witnessed, in the past. It is best to think, of course, we can learn from the past.

      Posted by FeministOM | November 17, 2012, 11:35 am
  5. Those, who,continue to venerate Sangharagshita have closed minds. They are not open to the possibility that the sexual abuse victims are telling the truth. The processes detailed here were part of the sexual culture in FWBO / Triratna. http://www.buddhistpeacefellowship.org/rising-up-to-end-sexual-abuse-in-buddhist-communities/

    Posted by Dharmapeace | September 25, 2015, 10:25 am
  6. Those targeted were vulnerable young men, lots of them, and Dennis Lingwood / Sanghakshita clearly had an appetite for any pretty young male students, but also for getting sexual control over and unlimited access to heterosexual young men, his students, by pretending he was a heterosexual man giving up heterosexuality for the sake of the Dharma. I call this ‘spiritual rape”. the hierarchical order is somehow blind to this, continues to blame the victims and continues to bow down to and worship the perpetrator and those who emulated him. He has even been offered his own ‘court’ now! As you are someone, who has been on the inside of this organisation, how has this total lack of compassion for the victims come about?

    Posted by Dharmapeace | September 25, 2015, 10:50 am
    • Hi Dharmapeace, I can understand your anger, but I think some of your language is excessive. In my experience a lot of the Order were very much affected by the revelations around Sangharakshita’s sexual activities, and also dismayed by his failure to admit wrongdoing. I think undiscriminating ‘veneration’ (as opposed to discriminating appreciation) for Sangharakshita is misplaced for the broader reason that his teachings are of limited consistency and mixed value, and this episode is symptomatic of that wider problem. However, I think it’s inaccurate to say there’s a ‘total lack of compassion’ for the victims or that the victims are blamed. I have neither seen nor heard any indication of this.

      Posted by Robert M Ellis | September 25, 2015, 11:05 am
  7. The face of the perpetrator Sangharakshita still sits prominently on the FWBO / Triratna shrines I have seen. Order members chant a special puja for Sangharakshita / Dennis Lingwood. What he and other order members did with young vulnerable men was more than excessive and the impact is still being felt by them and their families. Reading Yoshamitra’s resignation letter indicates very clearly that he was groomed with FWBO literature / ideology and raped on his first day / night at Padmaloka as a vulnerable and impressionable school boy in awe of the older members of the order. Locking someone in a room and ‘doing it to them’ is rape. Not resisting is not the same as giving consent, especially as he recalls that as a young boy, aged 17, he was in shock. It’s not excessive to call it ‘spiritual rape’.Sangharakshita then went on to use the school boy for his own sexual gratification, using the power differential between them to hold him in an organisation where such behaviour became normalised, somehow included as a part of the Dharma, for some, not all, order members. If women and girls were involved, we would see that it is sexual abuse and rape. It is even harder for men to come forward and discuss sexual abuse / rape. Some of those abused have been to Survivors UK, a sexual abuse support for men. How could the order move beyond being ‘very much affected by the revelations’ and ‘dismayed by Sangharakshita’s failure to admit wrongdoing’ to actually supporting those who were seriously harmed by the order?

    Posted by Dharmapeace | September 25, 2015, 11:49 am
    • Since I don’t know Yashomitra or any of the others involved personally, I’m not sure how much support they were given or not given. I’ve no desire to argue with you about the definition of rape, but, whatever the ambiguities around the situation and the use of the term, I agree with you that Sangharakshita’s actions were totally unacceptable. At the same time Sangharakshita also did and said many admirable things, and one of the things I learnt from him (and will continue to practise despite pressure to the contrary from all directions), is the need for the Middle Way, to try to get a balanced perspective and see the big picture. I don’t think Sangharakshita was always distinguished for his practice of this, or even for the consistency with which it informed his theory, but nevertheless I learnt that in the context of the body he founded, and have since found it of inestimable value. That doesn’t justify worship, photos on shrines etc, which most people would interpret as implying an uncritical and unbalanced perspective on the man, but it does justify an attempt to maintain a balanced appreciation.

      Posted by Robert M Ellis | September 25, 2015, 12:28 pm
  8. Many people do admirable things and generate joy for others, Jimmy Saville and Rolf Harris, for example. How does one balance their good deeds with their abuse of power and prestige to gain sexual gratification with young people? Their victims were not taken seriously/ believed for years either. There was no middle way for the young men drawn – spiritually seduced – into providing sexual gratification to their so-called spiritual mentors in the FWBO/ Triratna as it was and still is a self-referential group with hierarchical protections built in. Maybe, as you have physical links to the heart of the organisation, you could find out if and how the abused were / are supported and build a bigger picture and even sow some seeds of compassion? The support currently all seems to be in the direction of supporting the faithful and protecting Bhante /Sangharakshita/ Dennis Lingwood.

    Posted by Dharmapeace | September 25, 2015, 1:10 pm
  9. Some OMs refer to Sangharakshitta’s methods – long term – of getting sexual gratification from many young men as ‘minor faults’ or ‘peccadilloes’. How many others also copied him? How might those remaining in the order gain a balanced understanding of how sexual abuse actually affects – long term – those targeted and used? Metta.

    Posted by Dharmapeace | September 29, 2015, 10:21 pm
  10. Actually, thank you Robert, I have now seen on Dialogue Ireland (Cultwatch) in pages with several excerpts from Shabda that some OMs were distressed by what Sangharakshita got up to in the name of spiritually enlightening his disciples / students via homosexual encounters with older order members, including himself, of course, who were according to him adn Subhiti (Alex Kennedy) more spiritually advanced. I can now see that several did feel compassion for those experiencing the aftermath of sex with their teacher, Bhante, The Teacher, with a capital T. With or without a capital T, it is fundamentally wrong for a teacher to cross the boundaries especially when the material being ‘taught’ has been invented by the teacher and is parading as something that will deepen one’s spiritual practice. No student should have to try and work out whether their teacher is gay or straight. Was anyone in a senior position able to see this ‘spiritual curriculum’ for what it was – a women free zone for Sangharakshita to ‘explore’ ie. have his students as partners for his own sexual gratification. Who is looking OUT to support the victims now? ‘Under the cloak of spiritualty’ was a recent headline in a sexual abuse trial.

    Posted by Dharmapeace | October 12, 2015, 11:10 am
  11. Any man who comes forward to the police with concerns about abuses of trust and sexual abuse occurring as part of supposed spiritual enlightenment from a religious leader / mentor, would now be taken very seriously, as this three year police investigation shows: This case also demonstrates that the fact that it happened in the past does not diminish its abusive nature. There are very many similarities here to the situation young men found themselves in at Padmaloka in the 70s and 80s. Maybe longer. http://www.sussex.police.uk/whats-happening/latest/news-stories/2015/09/08/retired-bishop-admits-indecency-offences

    Posted by Dharmapeace | October 12, 2015, 2:23 pm
  12. Here are Vishvapani’s views on sexual abuse, but can he persuade Sangharakshita and others in the order to do what he says is necessary? http://www.wiseattention.org/blog/2014/07/11/sexual-abuse-is-societys-shadow/

    Posted by Dharmapeace | October 16, 2015, 11:46 am
  13. There is communication about Sangharakshita, Subhuti, the order and the party line response to this very serious matter on the Dialogue Ireland BBC FWBO pages. You will also find an article written by an ex-mItra “Inside the Cult of Sangharakshita”. It was posted in September 2015.

    The order definitely know that young men below the age of consent were manipulated into providing sexual gratification for Sangharakshita under the cloak of spirituality. (Reread the Sussex Police article above about Bishop Peter Ball and the similarities are obvious)
    Here is what Vishvapani wrote in a letter to Norman Fischer. His letter to Norman Fisher is posted in full, with the answer, on Free Buddhist audio, another Triratna site. Please be aware that many FWBO and Triratna links are now taking the reader to the pages of The Buddhist Centre – another attempt to block out the abuses of the past.

    Vishvapani wrote:

    “Some of the men were very young, even under the age of consent, which had been 21, and they hadn’t always felt free to say no. And when he moved on some of them felt dumped. Perhaps that was the worst thing, because it suggested that it hadn’t been about friendship at all in the first place”.
    He also tells Norman Fisher that in response to Yashomitra’s letter: “Some felt that what they had received from Sangharakshita was so important that anything else didn’t matter. But others were stirred up. Even though they had known all long what had happened, now their mixed feelings were disturbed”.
    The letter reads like a fairytale about a poor, misunderstood mystical figure
    “What could they say that wouldn’t involve criticising their teacher?” he asks.

    “Some of the men were very young, even under the age of consent, which had been 21, and they hadn’t always felt free to say no ….”
    Even if they were above the age of consent, the second part of that statement hits the manipulation on the head …. They hadn’t always felt free to say no.
    Sangharakshita deemed himself above the law and manipulated young men into sex for him. Or have I missed something?

    Posted by Dharmapeace | December 1, 2015, 11:55 am
  14. Dear Robert, thank you for allowing the comments above. These have been blocked by all FWBO / Triratna sites that I have tried to communicate with.
    You and those reading this thread may well be interested in seeing the Dialogue Ireland BBC FWBO pages and in reading this “fairytale” below written by Vishvapani. In it, Vishvapani gives Mark Dunlop a huge verbal thump for speaking out about “potentially damaging material” about the order (i.e. telling the truth) but Vishvapani clearly knew and still knows that many young men were under the age of consent and that they did not always feel they could say no. Reread the Bishop Ball piece written by Sussex Police above to see the similarities. Like Bishop Ball, Sangharakshita used the cloak of spirituality to get aspiring priests and those seeking to explore their spirituality into his bed to serve his own sexual needs. Teenagers and young men in their early twenties were spiritually manipulated into giving the advanced religious men the sex they craved.

    How much longer would the sexual abuse of young men have gone on if The Guardian had not been alerted to the abuses? How much longer would the abuses have continued if Mark Dunlop had not seen the abuse for what it was?

    Posted by Dharmapeace | December 1, 2015, 12:17 pm
  15. I agree with previous comments…I am an ex order member and resigned because I could no longer bear the fact tha the spiritual leader of the group sexually abused many young men in the past. There are so many similarities to the abuse cases that have been in the press lately especially the creation of a culture of acceptance or covering up of what was really happening. This has set a precedent for similar situations to arise which are equally condoned or hushed up. It’s very disturbing.

    Posted by Gabriel Bright | March 5, 2016, 7:47 pm
  16. Jo Taylor examines allegations of historic abuse at a religious centre. We ask whether the mistakes of the past have been addressed properly.
    BBC Inside Out Eastern Region on Monday 26th September 2016 at 7.30pm / TV / Radio / iplayer

    Posted by Jo | September 20, 2016, 11:17 pm
  17. When I wrote this blog, it was not my intention to make this page a web nexus of campaigning against Triratna or about past sexual abuse allegations. I am not involved in any such campaigning myself, it seems to me of mixed value, and it often seems to be pursued in an absolutist way by people who do not take much account of the wider context. A few comments were fair enough, as they were at least of tangential relevance to the subject of the blog post. However, there seem to be an increasing number of contributions of this kind. Rather than continuing to offer a platform for this kind of post, I give notice here that I am not going to approve any more comments on this thread. My own objections to aspects of Sangharakshita’s teaching and Triratna are carefully balanced and contextualised, and I don’t want to offer more publicity to people who do not take this kind of care.

    Posted by Robert M Ellis | September 21, 2016, 2:15 pm

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