Sexual Abuse in Sangharakshita’s Order (Triratna, a.k.a. FWBO)
A Primary-Source Document.
“On the one hand Sangharakshita was held up as the embodiment of the Ideal, as the Buddha in our midst. And on the other he was known to be ‘screwing’ his way through the male half of the Movement.”
[Below is an account (written in the first person) by Yashomitra, dated to March of 2003. I do not know the real name of the author (stated as Yashomitra), and in searching to see if he had a current website, I was amused to discover a short article on this scandal by Andrew Skilton (click here). I am archiving this (and a few other articles here) after discussions with Jürgen Schnake, concerning the closure of his own website.]
[Note that “F.W.B.O.” was the name formerly used by Triratna; they are the same organization, with the same leader (Sangharakshita), and the same scandal.]
[Obviously, I am not the author of this document, below.]
Last year I wrote in and said that I was contemplating whether or not to stay in the order and that I wanted to write about the issues that have raised the question in my mind. What I have to say here is a combination of my own experience and reflections upon it. It is one amongst a number of things that I have written about over the past couple of years. Some of you may think it is time we all let these issues go, that they are long past, out of date, that the order has moved on. I disagree. I do not believe that the order has moved on greatly, I know many order members personally have not been simply able to put it all behind them, and I think that there is too great a tendency to herd these elephants under the order’s collection of carpets. Some of what I write may contradict what I wrote in shabda a few years ago in the wake of the guardian article. I was aware then that I was not giving the whole story, as regards my relationship with Sangharakshita, but at the time I wanted to say what was on my mind and did not want to write anything about Sangharakshita without having spoken to him about it. Since then I have spoken to him and had some correspondence. As to why I have decided to write about all this now — I no longer feel that I need to or should protect him or the Order.
I moved into the Aryatara community a few days after my seventeenth birthday in May 1980, and continued at school until the end of term. After a few weeks of community life someone suggested I wrote and introduced myself to Sangharakshita so I did. I was flattered to receive a postcard in return suggesting I come to padmaloka some time to meet him. In June that year I went to padmaloka for the weekend, excited at the prospect of a personal meeting with the founder of the Movement. The evening I arrived I ate dinner with the padmaloka community. Someone mentioned that there would be a puja later in the evening and as I was keen to attend I asked where the shrine room was. One of the order members who lived there was being very friendly and kindly offered to show me and so we walked through the house together. On reaching the then shrine room — a room at the front of the house — the order member told me that this was where it was. Then he kissed me. I was stunned, it was entirely unexpected as I knew nothing of the homosexual culture thriving in the fwbo at the time. I simply froze. He led me up to his room, locked the door behind us and proceed to have sex with me. I was horrified. It wasn’t rape, I didn’t resist, but the reasons for that were not entirely straightforward. It just so happened that only the day before I had, on the strong recommendation of order members at Aryatara, read Chintamani’s article ‘Leaving Mother and Initiation into Manhood’. In it he had suggested it could be helpful for men to have sex with other men — younger men with older men especially as I remember — along the lines of the (subsequently in my experience) oft quoted ‘Greek Love’. Helpful in terms of breaking one’s dependency on women and becoming a man. An order member, a Buddhist teacher, had recommended it and here now another order member was helping me breakthrough by doing it to me. After some time he let me go, unlocked the door and I went to my room in a daze. It would be true to say I felt traumatised. I felt confused and dirty. I was convinced that if I said anything people would simply think it was my own fault and they would think I was disgusting.
The next day I went for a walk with Sangharakshita. I said nothing about the experience of the previous night, and probably very little about anything at all. He didn’t seem to notice. At the end of our walk he patted me on the bum and said he would see me again soon. My immediate thought was that the fwbo was a front to procure young men, boys for this old man — I had no idea before then of Sangharakshita’s homosexual tastes.
My room mate back at Aryatara (now Satyaraja) eventually managed to get me to tell him about what had happened to cause me to exist in a daze unable to talk very much about anything for two weeks. Padmaraja, to his credit though his motives may well have been mixed, complained to Sangharakshita. The upshot was a planned apology from the order member at padmaloka on my next visit — a men’s event. Sangharakshita seemed disbelieving of there being a problem, saying that he thought I wouldn’t have sex with anyone I didn’t regard as a friend. The order member concerned invited me into a room, possibly his though different from the previous one, and smilingly apologised. He then immediately propositioned me and made to kiss me. This time I didn’t respond and instead walked out.
18 months or so later I was ordained and had left Aryatara. The previous year had been difficult, I came in for a lot of criticism at Aryatara, in particular from one order member who, possibly acting on behalf of Padmaraja, made it his duty to try to undermine me. I was accused of many things — being power hungry, manipulative, deceitful. At one point he threatened to hit me — quite seriously, it was clearly not a joke. Eventually, three months after returning from my ordination retreat at Tuscany I got to the point where I simply didn’t feel able to carry on. Odd as it may seem I did not feel critical of the way I was treated. The ethos at the time was that the Dharma was the best and only true path; Sangharakshita was the best Buddhist teacher around; the fwbo was probably the only buddhist tradition in which people were really practising; at Aryatara everyone was convinced that theirs was the best situation in the fwbo. If you left — and this was made clear every time anyone had left Aryatara in the time that I was there — it was your problem, you had not been able to take the pace, you weren’t up to it. The day I walked out the door at Aryatara, leaving the community to move to Brighton, I was accompanied by a stream of abuse from the aforementioned Order member, the last words I remember being ‘Fucking coward’. Unfortunately I believed him.
I left Croydon and moved to Brighton where I felt welcomed and accepted by genuine friends. Soon after the move I went to Padmaloka for an order weekend. On arriving, as usual we checked the notice-board to see where we were to sleep. My name was listed for ‘Bhante’s room’. I had noticed on previous visits that there might be a name or names listed to sleep in his room. I had never thought anything of it. I went upstairs with my sleeping bag, knocked and walked into the small attic room. Sangharakshita was already in his double bed. I looked around for the mattress I would sleep on and seeing none asked him where I was to sleep. He didn’t speak but simply patted the bed next to him.
I was billeted in his room the next few times I went to Padmaloka for retreats or Order weekends over a period of about six months. Nothing was ever said by him or anyone else. It was nothing out of the ordinary. I don’t know how many of us were set up in this kind of way, but it was a fair number not just two or three. No doubt some had the presence of mind to spurn his advances, but it was not as simple as that for me. I was in a state of considerable turmoil having left Aryatara under a very dark cloud just three months after returning from my ordination retreat full of enthusiasm and inspiration. I was 18 and already felt that I had failed as an Order member. So to be the object of such special attention from my Teacher and Preceptor, the founder of the Movement was a great boost. I imagined that perhaps he would want me to become his companion. I guess there was quite a lot that I would do for that kind of attention. And he was kind and encouraging.
Six months or so after the first time, I once again went to Padmaloka but this time found that I was not to stay in his room. As at the beginning nothing was said. No explanation, nothing. I was devastated, felt rejected and confused. I experienced many of the feelings that one would expect after being dumped at the end of a ‘relationship’. What I understand now is that the hurt I experienced was much more as a result of the betrayal of the idea or hope that what I was being offered was a spiritual relationship. The sex was something I went along with because I was being offered something that I treasured very much — the friendship of someone I valued and admired greatly. But the end of the so called ‘relationship’ signified the end of any kind of close relationship with Sangharakshita. I was obviously no longer flavour of the month. There was and is a lot of talk about kalyana mitrata in the Order. In my first few years in the Movement more or less all the ‘friendship’ that I received or was offered from more experienced men in the Order had a sexual interest. In some cases I was told quite explicitly that they wanted to have sex with me to help me and to be my kalyana mitra.
A couple of years ago I spoke to Sangharakshita about my experiences with him. I wanted to talk it through with him and ask what he thought of it now. The first thing that made this problematic was that he said he had no memory of anything like this taking place between us. That is certainly strange and is hard to understand except either as an indication of old age creeping on or as a result of the insignificance of one more sexual encounter amongst the many at the time. However there is no point in speculating as to the reasons for his memory loss. Having explained in a certain amount of detail what I had experienced I asked him how he saw his sexual encounters with his disciples now. He said that he had related to me and others like me as a ‘friend being with another friend’. Then and now I find this hard to accept. It is hard to believe that someone in his position, who in his teachings displays such an apparent awareness of the dynamics of teacher pupil relationships, could be so obtuse when it comes to relationships with his own disciples. He is quoted in the Response to the ‘FWBO files’ as saying ‘When one comes into close physical or emotional contact with another person in the context of a sexual relationship, usually all sorts of psychological projections take place.’
How much more so a sexual ‘relationship’ with ones Teacher? As I put it to him at the time (a couple of years ago), would you not think that it would be unlikely that a teenager could relate to his spiritual teacher, the man who ordained him and had founded the order into which he ordained him, who was 40 years his senior, as simply ‘a friend being with another friend’? The fact that any closeness in our connection ended with the ending of the sexual ‘relationship’ compounds my belief that this was at best wishful thinking on his part. Not only did I not experience myself as simply being a ‘friend being with another friend’ with him, the way in which he consequently related to me suggested that, despite always being friendly towards me, neither did he in any meaningful way consider me to be a friend.
This is the man who is my Preceptor! I am by no means alone in feeling misused and disillusioned in the way I have described. I think it is impossible to calculate the effect this could have on someone’s relationship to the Order and to the Dharma.
Perhaps I should say amongst all this that I do not deny my own part in what I chose to do and therefore in the consequences of my actions. I have never sought to find someone else to blame. I live with the choices I made. However I think it is impossible to deny the objective harm done both by the actions of my Teacher and the culture of the FWBO at the time. Although it was not something that I made anything of for a long time I was always conscious of that part of our relationship that I had been unhappy about — but felt that I should not, was not ‘allowed’ to question. There was the general attitude which discouraged anyone from questioning him and his behaviour. People were intellectually intimidated by him and in awe of him. Very few if any would have the courage to question him. So his actions went unquestioned and in part were emulated. I did not have the tools then to talk in a way that could be genuinely helpful and objective about my experience. And no one was able or willing to help me do that. There was too much invested for all of us. Perhaps for many there still is.
In my experience we in the order maintained a conspiracy of silence. On the one hand Sangharakshita was held up as the embodiment of the Ideal, as the Buddha in our midst. And on the other he was known to be ‘screwing’ his way through the male half of the Movement. In the absence of there being anywhere else to turn to glimpse the Ideal, Sangharakshita being the sole Teacher to the whole Order, in order to hold onto the Ideal it was necessary repress the awareness of what he (and others) was doing. This was a massive psychic split which continues to have its repercussions.
Begin to deny and repress what you see, hear and understand to be true and inevitably this leads to confusion, an inability to deal with reality in many other respects. We all know the story of the Emperor’s new clothes but few of us have been prepared to acknowledge its truth when applied to our own situation.
The fwbo files response says this: “Some will undoubtedly be scandalised by his behaviour. However, it is surely in the nature of experimentation that it defies norms, and at this time Sangharakshita was prepared to experiment in all areas of his life, including sex.” In an interview published in Golden Drum in 1988 Sangharakshita is quoting as saying — in relation to homosexual sex — that ‘I therefore thought I should perhaps experiment a little in this field’, and that although there was ‘some appetite — I was guided more by intuition than appetite.’
Reading this again I am struck by two thoughts. Firstly I find it hard to accept that 10 — 15 years of sexual relationships and the likely reality that such an experiment involved not just 4 or 5 or 10, but dozens of young men, could ever seriously be considered as an experiment. That fact allied with my own experience suggests also that the implication of inconsiderable appetite was simply not true. If it had just been a handful of relationships then one could perhaps have been prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt and believe what he said. But the numbers involved and the time-scale make what he had to say blatantly untrue. No one challenged him at the time and now, largely since the furore caused by the Guardian article died down, still no one challenges him. The silence is deafening. More than that there are many, notably those at Madhyamaloka who leap to his defence.
Secondly I can’t help wondering at the nature of a person who relates to sexual involvement with people who regard themselves as his disciple as an experiment. It seems a cold, and clinical way of talking and thinking about it, at odds with how one tends to think of any kind of personal, human relationship, let alone a Teacher — disciple relationship.
People have talked in terms of a blind spot. That seems to have been the case, though the term itself is not weighty enough to communicate the seriousness of the matter.
Sometimes in defence of him and the actions of others, people have talked about how the culture of the time was different to the present. That there was a ferment of experimentation going on and people did not view these things in the same way. I disagree. I don’t think many people would think of the 80's in the same light as the 60's and 70's, as a time of exploration. Most of my friends at the time, those who were not significantly involved with the FWBO, when told about my experience would immediately respond by saying they thought I had been abused. The idea of sexual ‘abuse’ and its reality is not a more recent invention.
Present and future generations rely on the ethics of those who tell us what has happened for a truthful account. For many who were not involved with the FWBO or in the Order in the 70's and 80's, the Response to the ‘FWBO files’ will be seen as the reference for answers to what did really happen, what really went on in the early years.
Unfortunately the section on issues relating to sex in the ‘Response’ is repeatedly disingenuous. By talking in terms of the present it conveniently avoids the issue of confronting the reality of the past. Hence [they say in their own defence]:
“Sangharakshita and the FWBO do not seek to undermine heterosexual relationships or family life.”
“The Files makes two serious charges in relation to sex and the FWBO: firstly that it teaches that homosexuality is superior to heterosexuality, and second that members are ‘converted’ to homosexuality through coercive psychological means. Both of these charges are untrue. Coercion of any sort is anathema within the FWBO.”
All of these statements may be largely true in relation to the FWBO as it is now. As I have been mostly inactive within the FWBO and WBO for the past five years it is hard for me to comment. I have reason to believe that it is still by no means the whole story. However they are certainly not true in the case of the FWBO as it was for many years throughout the 70's and 80's. The fact that something is not written down does not mean that it did not happen. In my experience one was constantly confronted by the gaping chasm between the real and the Ideal in the FWBO but told that in the case of the FWBO the Ideal was for the most part the real.
The FWBO did seek to undermine heterosexual relationships and family life. It did teach that homosexuality was superior to heterosexuality. Members were ‘converted’ to homosexuality through coercive psychological means. Coercion of any sort was not anathema within the FWBO. I seem to remember the FWBO being defined as the ‘activity of Order members’, or something along those lines. There is no doubt in my mind that many Order members were responsible for all of the above. There was a culture at the time of these kind of things being in some respects the norm.
Many people were damaged as a result of the way things were. This is not simply an unfortunate consequence of the immaturity of the Order and the individuals within it. It is a disaster for those affected in that kind of way. The place that you believe offers you a safe refuge, in which the Ideals of Wisdom and Compassion, of spiritual friendship, are repeatedly upheld and proclaimed, becomes a place in which you are manipulated, undermined and used. That is a disaster. The world turned upside down. The Orders inability to deal with and look at its shadow is as dangerous as the same kind of blindness in an individual.
The unfortunate consequence of the kind of dis-information and half truths we have all been given as a defence of Sangharakshita and the earlier FWBO/WBO is that it becomes harder and harder to believe what is being said. When can you be sure that you are simply being told the truth of what has happened? There was an attempt to discuss the issues of what went on in the past only as a result of having been forced into a situation where there was no longer any way of hiding the truth. And then it seems there was a considerable attempt to scapegoat the situation in Croydon to deflect criticism from Sangharakshita and the rest of the Order. It also, I believe, makes it inevitable that there will be attempts to communicate what some see as being withheld in ways that may in the end will be more harmful than simply coming out with it. Most if not all of us will have seen the pamphlet ‘The World Turned Upside Down’ and other of the ‘FWBO Satires’. Much of what has been written in these pieces is true or points to the truth in an exaggerated fashion. Perhaps they paint the Order as worse than it is or has been. But sometimes it seems that you have to shout loudly to get anyone to listen.
Newer people may feel that all this is the past and that it does not affect them. Not so. It may be the past but it is our past, part of our collective history and affects us all either directly or indirectly, whether through our having been involved in some way or simply being part of an organisation that has all of this as a significant part of its history. There is no escaping the fact that what you experience as the present WBO is significantly conditioned by the acts of the past WBO.
I had many good experiences through the times I have written about, I have not erased them from my conscious memory. It is not that I do not value all the people who were genuinely my friends, with no strings attached. All the good things, all the kind and loving friends made life bearable when I would often feel that I’d had enough. I am conscious that what I have written has been my experience and my reflections upon it, and that the way I have responded to my experience is my own responsibility. Others may have not had the same experience. Some may have had an largely helpful experience of being in the WBO/FWBO through the 70's and 80's. Others may have responded quite differently to very similar experiences. None of this denies the truth of what I have written.
I have felt that it is important to write about what my experience has been, though it has taken me years to get to the point where I felt ready to do so. I anticipate that I may be asked not to submit it to Shabda, however I tend to feel that in the end the truth will come out and there is no point in hiding it. In my experience hiding the truth tends to lead to distrust and suspicion, whereas truthfulness eventually leads to greater trust and understanding.