Establishing monastic Buddhism in the UK: an uphill struggle

Posted on May 10, 2010


Ajahn Chah and English monks, late 1970s

Ajahn Chah and English monks, late 1970s

No attempt to implant a monastic form of Buddhism into a western, non-Buddhist culture would be an easy task. Nonetheless, in 20th Century Britain it was attempted several times. Technically no individual can set up a branch of the monastic Sangha, and only a minimum of five fully ordained monks can ordain a new candidate. Even five dedicated westerners would still encounter enormous challenges trying to adhere to the Vinaya rules of monastic discipline in a non-Buddhist environment where the idea of supporting a class of “religious professionals” has no widespread support. Additionally, the psychological difficulty of trying to adapt western mindsets, attitudes and habits into a totally alien tradition are considerable. One needs to adopt a strange appearance, eat at unaccustomed times, live a life of celibacy unknown to one’s contemporaries, and look on women in a totally unnatural way, as a “perambulating menace to chastity” in the words of Christmas Humphreys. It is hardly surprising that many western Buddhists take the view that the monastic Sangha will never have more than a limited appeal in western countries. On top of the natural difficulties of founding a monastic Buddhism here, further obstacles have arisen in its transmission. Particularly in the form of certain western organisations which have tried to establish diluted or deviant models of the monastic order that the Buddha envisioned.

Ananda Metteyya brought Buddhism as a “living force” to England and it slowly grew, but mainly as an intellectual movement (backed by the attempts of some to integrate Buddhist teachings into their daily lives). However despite his work to introduce Buddhism to England, Ananda Metteyya never tried to found a branch of the monastic Sangha, and until the 1970s, nobody else came close to success.

Anagarika Dhammapala

Anagarika Dhammapala

In 1925, with the support of Christmas Humphreys, Anagarika Dhammapala founded the British Maha Bodhi Society with its headquarters at 41 Gloucester Avenue, to the north-east of Regent’s Park. In 1928 three Sinhalese (Sri Lankan) monks arrived. This Theravada group survived, with occasional visits from other monks, until the outbreak of WWII in 1939, when the society was closed down. Their number never increased by English ordinations or otherwise, and their difficulties in keeping the rules of monastic discipline were nearly as great as those of Ananda Metteyya twenty years earlier.

In the 1950s, a slow trickle of Englishmen travelled to Asia to became monks in the Theravada tradition, but with the exception of Bhikkhu Kapilavaddho, none settled down in England.

In 1954 a Sinhalese Vihara was opened in Knightsbridge, but it was run from Ceylon. When its lease ran out it moved to Chiswick, and from the centre to the periphery of Buddhist activity. It played little part in the further development of Buddhism in England. Likewise, in 1966 the Buddhapadipa Temple was opened at Christchurch Road, East Sheen, as a royal Thai foundation, and though some Englishmen were ordained as monks, the organisation remained solidly Thai, even until today.

The Hampstead Buddhist Vihara

1956 saw the first real attempt at an English monastic institution. A charitable organisation, the English Sangha Trust, was founded in 1956 by the English monk Bhikkhu Kapilavaddho (William Purfurst) for the purpose of establishing a Buddhist monastic order in Britain by providing and maintaining residences for monks. Kapilavaddho opened the “Hampstead Vihara”, which moved to 131 Haverstock Hill in 1962. Although at one time there were five resident monks, this did not last. Christmas Humphreys, writing in The Middle Way in November 1972, stated:

“Its history in the last ten years has not been happy, and although at one time there was actually a quorum of five Bhikkhus, these soon disappeared, and as a Vihara it has ceased to exist.”

If what was later alleged in the FWBO Files is true, Humphreys’ comments can be understood in context. So what happened during the 1960s that made these years “unhappy” and caused its existence as a vihara to cease?

Sangharakshita’s fateful incumbency 1964-66

Sangharakshita, late 1960s

Sangharakshita, late 1960s

The FWBO Files were published in 1997 and the revelations they contained rocked British Buddhism to its foundations. The document concerned the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order (FWBO) and its founder, Venerable Sangharakshita (Dennis Lingwood), who as a result would become arguably the most controversial figure in British Buddhism. The FWBO Files includes amongst its sources a dialogue between its anonymous author and Maurice O’Connell Walshe (1911-1998) who served as both a Vice President of the Buddhist Society and the Chairman of the English Sangha Trust. The Files recount that in 1964 Sangharakshita, ostensibly a Theravada monk at the time, was invited from India to Britain by the English Sangha Trust to take up the post of incumbent monk at the Hampstead Vihara. This was on the basis of recommendations to its Chair from Bhikkhu Anandabodhi (Leslie Dawson), and Christmas Humphreys, who allowed the English Sangha Trust to believe that Sangharakshita was suitably qualified to become the resident teacher.

The FWBO Files allege that simultaneously Humphreys was colluding with a senior Indian politician in a plan to get Sangharakshita out of India before a scandal erupted. Apparently a wealthy Indian family was pressing for charges against Sangharakshita for seducing their underage son into homosexual acts while he was residing in Kalimpong. Recognising the potential disaster for Anglo-Indian relations if the case reached the courts, the official struck a deal with Humphreys to remove Sangharakshita from India. In Kalimpong even today, it is well known why Sangharakshita left.

The English Sangha Trust, believing Sangharakshita’s credentials were impeccable, offered him the job. However even before he arrived at Hampstead, rumours had filtered back about Sangharakshita’s behaviour in India, and Anandabodhi withdrew his support. However, the Chairman, Maurice Walshe, gave Sangharakshita the benefit of the doubt and Sangharakshita remained there as the incumbent for over two years.

Maurice O'Connell Walshe

Maurice O'Connell Walshe

The Files recount that Sangharakshita began bringing what Walshe described as “a string of young men of ill repute” (i.e. “rent boys”) back to the Vihara for the night and would sometimes disappear with them (after exchanging his robes for western lay attire) until the following morning. It also alleges that he attempted to seduce heterosexual Buddhist aspirants, on more than one occasion causing them to abandon involvement with Buddhism.

Finally, the Files state, the Trust dismissed Sangharakshita in a letter for “grave indiscretion and conduct wholly unbecoming in a bhikkhu” and he returned to India. Shortly after news of the expulsion, the Files allege, a young man Sangharakshita had been counselling through a drug problem and with whom he had struck up a ‘friendship’ disappeared from the Vihara and was found dead, floating in the Thames. This would not be the last time that someone suffered personal tragedy through their relationship with Sangharakshita.

According to ‘The Western Buddhist” (Winter 1967 p.17), after his dismissal by the English Sangha Trust:

“Ven. Sangharakshita got in touch with friends who had supported his work at the Vihara, including Mr Christmas Humphreys, President of the Buddhist Society… Mr Humphreys, however, backed the Trust in their summary dismissal, and declined to assist.”

Allegedly “furious” at having his trust betrayed after risking his reputation in rescuing Sangharakshita from the Indian courts, it was years before Humphreys spoke to Sangharakshita again.

Desperate to maintain the good reputation of Buddhism in its new home, it is said that Walshe was forced by circumstance to make a face-saving public statement that Sangharakshita’s behaviour was not in question, and that Sangharakshita had left of his own volition. This was presumably designed to mask whatever was going on which might have had serious repercussions for the future of Buddhism in Britain. In his 1968 editorial in “The Buddhist Path – Journal of the Hampstead Buddhist Vihara”, Walshe wrote:

“There are far too many spurious ‘Buddhists’ about, whose self-invented teachings at best spread confusion and at worst, when combined with drug-taking and other practices, lead to moral degradation and personal tragedy. It is not only the right but the duty of true Buddhists to proclaim the genuine teaching and denounce imposters and spiritual demagogues… This as we have frequently repeated lately is a Theravada Vihara. There are respectable and responsible Oriental representatives of other Buddhist schools in Britain and of these we make no criticism: indeed we hold them in the highest esteem. But such tolerance implies no indiscriminate permissiveness, as some in ‘robes’ or otherwise, having misread the signs, have found to their cost.”

In an attempt to manage the PR nightmare brought about by the the Files’ claims, Vishvapani, employed at the time in the FWBO’s Liaison Office dealing with ‘external relations’, wrote a lengthy response denying or obfuscating many of the allegations. Significantly however, to this date Sangharakshita himself has never replied directly to the allegations, or publicly commented on his sexuality or past behaviour. Those who publicised the Files have never been taken to court, despite the considerable financial resource at the FWBO’s disposal. As such, it seems reasonable to conclude that they contain truth.

A light at the end of the tunnel: Ajahn Chah and the Forest Tradition

Ajahn Sumedho

Ajahn Sumedho

Following Sangharakshita’s departure under a dark cloud, the Hampstead Vihara spent several years in limbo. The Forest Sangha Newsletter of July 2007 mentions that George Sharp (English Sangha Trust Chairman from 1972-1995) closed the Hampstead Vihara until the right opportunity arose to bring good monks and start a proper Sangha presence in England. Finally, in 1977 the Trust invited the famous Thai monk Ajahn Chah of the Forest Tradition, to visit Britain. He brought Ajahn Sumedho (Robert Jackman) and Ajahn Khemadhammo (see below) along with him, two senior western students he had trained in Thailand. Seeing there was interest in England, he left them in London at the Hampstead Vihara with two other western disciples who were visiting Europe at the time. They lived and meditated there, wearing traditional robes and going on alms-rounds through North London, which attracted attention and some support. In 1978, the Trust was donated an area of forest land in West Sussex. Fortuitously, Chithurst House, a nearby derelict mansion and its estate, was purchased in 1979. This became Cittaviveka Monastery. Today the resident community comprises some 20-25 monks, nuns and novices, as well as lay guests. In 1984 a community was also established at Amaravati Monastery in north London. Today the English Sangha Trust is responsible for the upkeep of both monasteries. The charismatic American monk Ajahn Sumedho is the abbot at Amaravati. Ajahn Sucitto, an English monk, is the abbott of Cittaviveka. Finally, after half a century of obstacles and unfulfilled dreams, and despite the still modest number of western monastic practitioners, an authentically British Theravada Sangha was finally established with success.

Ajahn Khemadhammo OBE

Ajahn Khemadhammo

Ajahn Khemadhammo

Ajahn Khemadhammo OBE is a prominent figure in British Buddhism. He is an English Buddhist monk who has done much to uphold the Theravada tradition in the UK. He was born in 1944 and trained and practised as a professional actor, working for several years at the Royal National Theatre in London with Sir Lawrence Olivier. In 1971 he travelled to Thailand via the Buddhist holy places in India. In December of that year in Bangkok he became a novice monk and later moved to stay with Ajahn Chah. In 1972, he received full monastic ordination.

In 1977 he returned to the UK accompanying Ajahn Chah on his first visit to the West. Later, after Ajahn Chah had told him to remain the UK, he set up a small monastery on the Isle of Wight. In 1984, at the invitation of a group of Buddhists that he had been visiting monthly for some years, he moved to Banner Hill near Kenilworth and formed the Buddha-Dhamma Fellowship, and organisation of lay people which looks after the material needs of monks and nuns. In 1987, with support from devotees in Thailand, land was purchased in Fulbrook, Warwickshire, by the Buddha-Dhamma Fellowship and the Forest Hermitage was established.

Ajahn Khemadhammo, OBE investiture

Ajahn Khemadhammo, OBE investiture

Apart from its function as a Buddhist monastery and a focus for Buddhist teaching, practice and traditional observances, The Forest Hermitage is the headquarters of Angulimala, the Buddhist Prison Chaplaincy Organisation. It is named after a ruthless killer depicted in the Buddhist sutras who is redeemed by his conversion to Buddhism. Ajahn Khemadhammo began Buddhist prison chaplaincy work in 1977 and in 1985, with the help of others, launched Angulimala, of which he is Spiritual Director. Lord Avebury, a prominent Buddhist politician, is the patron. Ajahn Khemadhammo was appointed an OBE (Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire) in the Queen’s Birthday Honours, June 2003 for services to prisoners. In December 2004, on the birthday of the King of Thailand, he was made a Chao Khun with the ecclesiastical title of Phra Bhavanavitayt; he was only the second foreign-born monk to receive such an honour.

In 2006 Ajahn Khemadhammo was instrumental in establishing TBSUK, a contact point and network linking the Theravada Sangha in the UK and a voice through which the opinion and expertise of the Theravada Sangha here can be heard. Ajahn Khemadhammo’s blog can be read here.

New religious movements emulating monasticism?

In recent decades different new religious movements in the UK have tried to formulate Buddhist offers with monastic “elements”, while not adhering to the Vinaya rules as laid down by the Buddha.

Single-sex communities in the FWBO/Triratna Buddhist Community

No discussion about the obstacles in establishing British Buddhism would be complete without a reference to the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order (FWBO), recently re-branded as the “Triratna Buddhist Community”. The FWBO has applied a principle which superficially seems to resemble an element of monasticism: the “single sex communities”. While actual monks and nuns of eastern traditions live in single-sex communities (for the obvious purpose of protecting their vows of chastity), the FWBO’s policy of sexual segregation between its adherents has little to do with such abstinence. Quotations of the FWBO’s founder Sangharakshita published in the 1997 Guardian article “The Dark Side of Enlightenment” and expanded on at the Ex-Cult website demonstrate the purpose and nature of the FWBO’s single-sex communities:

‘‘If you set up a community, you abolish the family at a stroke… ‘the single sex community is probably our most powerful means of frontal assault on the existing social set up. Because it changes so many things… it changes the whole rhythm of your day-to-day existence. It changes your psychological attitude, changes your emotional attitude; corrects your emotional dependence on the opposite sex…’ – Sangharakshita

Sangharakshita has taken a rather dim view of heterosexual relationships and has stated that the heterosexual couple is “…neurotically dependent on each other and [the] relationship, therefore, is one of mutual exploitation and mutual addiction”. Given Sangharakshita’s own manifest demonstration of preference for homosexual relationships (even while wearing the robes of a Theravada Bhikku), and what Ken Jones describes as the FWBO’s “locker-room” culture of aggressive male bonding, how close the nature of their single-sex communities is to that of the spiritual community the Buddha envisaged is a matter of debate. Controversial statements made by Subhuti (Alex Kennedy, a senior disciple of Sangharakshita) in his 1992 book “Women, Men, and Angels, An Inquiry Concerning the Relative Spiritual Aptitudes of Men and Women” provide a particular insight into the ethic underpinning the FWBO’s single-sex communities:

“Sexual interest on the part of the male Order member for a male mitra (novice) can create a connection which may allow kalyana mitrata (spiritual friendship) to develop” – Subhuti

“Some, of course, are predisposed to this attraction, others have deliberately chosen to change their sexual preferences in order to in order to use sex as a medium of kalyana mitrata – and to stay clear of the dangers of male-female relationships without giving up sex” – Subhuti

Ordination in the New Kadampa Tradition

NKT monastics protest against the Dalai Lama in 2008

NKT monastics protest against the Dalai Lama in 2008

Another large western organisation which has attempted to emulate elements of traditional Buddhist monasticism, but to a greater extent, is the New Kadampa Tradition (NKT). The NKT, established in the early 1990s, has come to dominate the UK’s Buddhist scene and has been the source of considerable controversy. Due to their worship of the deity Dorje Shugden and their vocal public protests against the Dalai Lama, the NKT has been ostracised by the majority of the Tibetan Buddhist Tradition. The NKT has instituted a system in which around 700 western aspirants (2007 figures) have been ordained into a monastic lifestyle and wear the robes of Buddhist monks and nuns. However, the nature of that ordination is a source of dispute and the organisation has been dogged by allegations of conduct at odds with a monastic lifestyle.

Buddha established several levels of ordination vows in the Vinaya. These levels are distinguished by the number of vows taken, and by the ceremony in which they were received. The ordination system in the NKT was developed by its founder, Geshe Kelsang Gyatso. Kelsang established a simplified method of ordination with “ten commitments” that he claims summarize the entire Vinaya and a single ordination ceremony. In his “Ordination Handbook of the New Kadampa Tradition” (1999) Kelsang states:

“I cannot pretend with you. We cannot be like a fully ordained monk who has taken 253 vows, but who is not even keeping one. We should never do like this; we need to do everything correctly and purely. The Kadampa ordination solves all these problems. Practically speaking, all the 253 vows explained in the Vinaya Sutra are included within the ten commitments.”

Monks and nuns in the NKT shave their heads and wear the robes of an ordained person. They are, in general, not financially provided for by the NKT. And, if they live in an NKT centre, they still have to pay rent for their accommodation and pay for meals and teaching programs. Allegations of benefit fraud appeared in a Guardian expose “Shadow Boxing on the Path to Nirvana” in 1996, and elsewhere (Bluck, 2006) it has been explained that to finance themselves, some have part-time or full time work. According to James Belither, former NKT secretary, “a few people are sponsored because of their NKT work but others are on ‘extended working visits’ or work locally, and some are legitimately on employment benefit.” When working, they may “wear ordinary clothes if this is more convenient.”

In conclusion, the establishment of a monastic form of Buddhism in the UK over the course of the last century has been an uphill struggle, beset with outer and inner obstacles. Today, at least as far at the Theravada Tradition is concerned, a successful outcome has been achieved, as much as one could probably expect given the limited appeal a truly monastic lifestyle would ever have to western practitioners of Buddhism. In the figures of Ajahn Sumedho and Ajahn Khemadhammo the UK has two highly qualified and widely respected monastic teachers who adhere to and transmit the authentic teachings of Theravada Buddhism. Monasteries such as Amaravati and Chittaviveka are places where the Forest Tradition of Southern Buddhism has taken a firm root in British soil. Regarding the larger organisations mentioned, while the impact of the FWBO/Triratna Buddhist Community and its controversial founder Sangharakshita upon British Buddhism and its reputation cannot be ignored, its relevance with regard to the monastic tradition today is negligible. The NKT’s idiosyncratic experiment in western Buddhist monasticism however presents a case which warrants scrutiny. In particular, given the organisation’s near-complete ostracism from the Tibetan Buddhist tradition and the current difficulties surrounding the succession of authority after Geshe Kelsang passes away, whether or not the NKT will remain a force to be reckoned with in British Buddhism in future generations is an open question.