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.