“Many Bodies, One Mind”: Movements in British Buddhism – Ken Jones

Posted on June 19, 2010


This is the first of two blog entries concerning the controversies in British Buddhism that came to the fore in the 1990s, I reproduce here an essay from July 1997 about three of the largest Buddhist organisations in the UK. It is by Ken Jones, a founder and the present secretary of the UK Network of Engaged Buddhists. It appeared on the website of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship (link to web archive here) following a series of articles and comments in the New Chan Forum, the journal of the Western Chan Fellowship, in 1996.

Ken Jones

Ken Jones

“Many Bodies, One Mind”: Movements in British Buddhism – Ken Jones

One of the most striking contemporary features of British Buddhism is the dominance of three large “movements”: the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order (FWBO) with an estimated 2,500 members; the New Kadampa Tradition (NKT), involving some 4,000 people, and Soka Gakkai International UK (SGI-UK) which claiming 6,000 members (all 1995 figures)1. In many respects these three have little in common. The FWBO has its own unique version of Buddhism stamped with the personality of its founder and leader, Ven. Sangharakshita. NKT is manifestly in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition though it has been struck off the official list of Tibetan Buddhist Centres and claims (much like the FWBO) to teach an uncorrupted Buddhism uniquely adapted to Western needs. SGI-UK represents a deviant Japanese Buddhist tradition which for many mainstream Buddhists has as much in common with their religion as has, say, the Mormon faith with Christianity. However, in terms of organisational cultures all three display common characteristics which mark them off from other UK Buddhist organisations. The purpose of this paper is to characterise these organisational cultures and to discuss their significance for the UK Buddhist community.

I shall use the term “movement” to represent not a clear-cut organisational type but a continuum along which specific organisations might be located. At one end are relatively “open” organisations which display at most only mild manifestations of the characteristics identified below. Further along the continuum are more typical movements, merging at the extreme end into “cults”. The latter are tightly controlled and manipulative organisations with highly controversial leaders who induce extreme dependency in their followers. It is not suggested that any of the movements discussed here are cults in this sense. However, the FWBO could be located at the more open end of this continuum and NKT at the more cultic end.

In the first place, each of the three movements has its own mind set to which all its members subscribe and which provides a self- and collective identity. For Soka Gakkai it is a case of “Itai doshen: many bodies, one mind”. Each organisation does have its own Buddhist ideology, but it is a rather a constellation of attitudes and assumptions which glue each together. These range from a well-worn stock-in-trade of ideas to the shades and subtleties of organisational climate. Thus, the typical FWBO organisational personality is that of the Angry (or, rather, vehement) Young Man (of all ages), reflecting a certain dramatic and romantic European cultural tradition, appropriating heroes as diverse as Nietzsche and Shelley. According to Subhuti, a prominent member of the Order, “the Dharma…seeks to help the individual to become free. The group is usually the enemy of the individual… [It] is a human version of the animal herd.”2 Here the family, Christianity and the State are among the institutional obstacles to be overcome. Women are relegated to a lowly place in this muscular spirituality, disadvantaged as they are by their “lower evolution, their biological nature”

Their very distinctive mind sets make for a telltale predictability in the publications of these three movements. For the most part this uniformity is socialised into the membership and does not require any formal imposition. As the latest arrival, however, the NKT has to make a more explicit effort. Thus the manual for the NKT teacher training programme insists that “…every NKT teacher must give exactly the same explanation [of the works of Geshe Kelsang, the founder], otherwise the NKT will disintegrate… Therefore this generation of Teachers must try very hard to come to complete consensus as to what is the correct interpretation of every single section of every one of Geshe-la’s books”.3

Of course all Buddhist organisations have a distinctive mind set (which includes shared doctrine). In the three movements, however, what is noteworthy is the degree of uniformity with which this is manifested throughout the organisation, whereas elsewhere we would expect to find organisation members with more varied degrees of commitment, loyalty, and accord. This relative homogeneity arises mainly from an evangelising concern to make all newcomers fully fledged members (or, in the case of the FWBO, to keep them in an external grade — “Friends” — until ready to enter the hierarchy proper). In the NKT and FWBO newcomers receive a grounding in basic Buddhism which is arguably superior than what they might expect from less systematically organised centres. The negative features of the movement will not readily be apparent, and new members grow into its ethos. Each of the movements has its own impressive array of books, magazines and other media, and knowledge of other varieties of Buddhism (e.g in book reviews) is typically filtered out. Thus most of the material inherited in the great library of the NKT headquarters at Conishead Priory was transferred to other, orthodox centres of Tibetan Buddhism, leaving only that which would reinforce the prolific publishing output of the founder, Geshe Kelsang.

However, what particularly distinguishes these movements is the claim of each to be the exclusive representative of authentic Buddhism. For the NKT the Chinese occupation has destroyed traditional Tibetan Buddhism; the future of the religion now lies in the West, and the NKT has adapted it to Western needs with unique authenticity. Sangharakshita, founder and leader of the FWBO, has defended his unorthodox blending of different Buddhist traditions and practices as more orthodox than the orthodox.4 And for Soka Gakkai “Buddhahood can only be revealed by chanting the Nam-myoho-renge-kyo”.5 All this contrasts with the ecumenical Buddhist tradition of many paths, one goal, found in most Buddhist organisations outside the movements. This ultimate sense of superiority inevitably sets limits on the value of dialogue between the movements and more “open” Buddhists.

The comparative uniformity of viewpoint in the movements is maintained more by a thorough process of socialisation than by the overt exercise of the hierarchical authority which undoubtedly exists. Indeed, both FWBO and NKT pride themselves on the formal autonomy of their different centres, and SGI-UK is moving in the same direction. Even in quite authoritarian movements it is in fact the rank-and-file who invest the leadership with authority. It is the beginning of the end when a leadership can only maintain its authority by extensive coercion. In return, members of relatively closed movements receive a number of attractive pay-offs. Movements satisfy belongingness and identity needs and offer an assured belief system, free of ambivalence, choice, uncertainty and other disturbing challenges encountered on more exposed spiritual paths. In particular, SGI-UK’s “permissive ethic, its endorsement of the search for personal happiness and its emphasis on personal fulfillment are a virtual espousal of the secular ethos of post Christian Britain … it offers legitimisation for many of the dispositions of today’s young people”.6 The members of these movements are grateful to belong. Those of assured reliability can be promoted through successive grades of the hierarchy, ensuring stability and uniformity. Debate and controversy is conducted within well understood parameters. A researcher of SGI-UK typically concludes that “what Soka Gakkai International has succeeded in doing has been to maximise lay participation whilst retaining a firm system of central control “.7 For anyone with experience in a political or similar ideologically driven movement these organisational phenomena are all too familiar.

The traditional UK Buddhist organisation tends to be a rather introverted body of practitioners for whom recruitment of new members and proliferation of new branches is not a primary concern. In the ancient tradition they are available to make the Dharma known to those who take the trouble to inquire (thanks to some modest publicity); it is then up to the newcomer to take his or her interest further. Help is available but quite a lot of persistent personal effort is required, and there is commonly a high fallout rate. By contrast, all three movements are forceful and extrovert organisations where recruitment of new members is a major activity. They have a mission. However, even in SGI-UK (with a tradition of forceful recruiting) proselytisation is quite circumspect. Newcomers are simply made very welcome, and the seductive lure of a new identity of the kind offered by all movements, secular or religious, does the rest. Thus the NKT manual quoted earlier warns to “Be very careful not to give the impression it is a recruitment drive… to start with we need to agree with people, to show that we understand where they are at, not to resist them or argue with them. If we have a wild horse the best way to tame it is to mount it, to go with it.”3 Nevertheless when the NKT reached my own little town in West Wales they promised in the local press an “explosion of Buddhism”. Using dozens of young quickly trained teachers the NKT has in the last two or three years achieved a phenomenal increase in membership and centres. At the present rate soon every town in England and Wales will have an NKT presence — something quite unprecedented in Buddhist terms, and well ahead of the two other movements.

Typical guru charisma is absent, in one sense or another, from all three movements. SGI-UK was headed during its most formative years by a low profile manager, Richard Causton. His successor was selected by agreement with President Ikeda, of Soka Gakkai International, without consulting the UK membership. Ikeda is the real power, a hugely magisterial figure whose word is law. The FWBO and NKT are headed by two modest, elderly scholars and popularisers without whom they would probably never have come into existence, and without whom they will in a few years face a very uncertain future. Geshe Kelsang (NKT) is regarded by his followers as the Third Buddha (following the founder of Buddhism and the founder of Gelugpa Buddhism). The Ven. Sangharakshita’s self-created Western Buddhist Order bears his very personal stamp, with much unconscious mimicry down the line. It is, of course, normal for religious leaders to be subject to adulation and offered total obedience, but it can be argued that this is accorded as much to the ancient office as to the present holder. In the case of these two self-made men that mitigation is not available.

So much for a characterisation of these three movements which are certainly by far the largest organisations in the UK Buddhist community, and, depending on how one chooses to define “Buddhists” (always a tricky matter), probably amount to one out of every seven or eight members of that community. Their influence, however, is much more than that might suggest. Their proactive high profile character means that one way or another (for they have very different brands of Buddhism to sell) it is they who most define to the public what Buddhism amounts to… whether “chanting for a BMW” with SGI-UK, the cheerful visionary pugnacity of the FWBO, or NKT’s very young burgundy-robed missionaries popping up everywhere.

Many Buddhist organisations do sustain quite ambitious projects (like Samye-Ling’s Holy Island initiative) but none can equal the ambitiousness of the three movements — busy making new members, servicing the existing membership with professionally managed programmes to suit each grade, training teachers and middle managers, maintaining impressive publishing programmes, handling PR and promotion, mounting cultural and charitable projects, and even running “Right Livelihood” businesses (in the case of the FWBO). All this busyness arguably implies an imbalance between the traditional Buddhist virtues of virya (energy, forcefulness) and ksanti (spiritually creative humility and acceptance) — and, in the case of the FWBO, between “True Individuality” and anatta (no-self). Contemporary society already suffers from too much unreflective virya, and Buddhists-with-attitude sell it short in moving too far from the religion’s contemplative tradition. Surely the Fast Lane and the Middle Way are ultimately incompatible?

A more tangible cause of unease is that even if they were not as exclusivist as they are, the dominance of three such movements would be unhealthy for UK Buddhism. In the spirit of the Kalama Sutta free, personal, experiential search lies at the heart of Buddhism. Teacher and sangha exist to provide support and guidance, but that is all, and the ultimate guidance of the best teachers is to throw searchers back upon themselves, undercutting every successive clinging attachment — even to Buddhism or the teacher — or the movement… This is inner path religion. There is always the danger that the supportive institutional framework of community, doctrine and teacher will seduce searchers and become the end rather than the means, in this case filling their existential sense of “lack” with all the exhilarating righteousness of a missionary movement. That is the outer path, so easily confused with the other path. To make ideological movements out of Buddhist organisations is thus ultimately adhammic.

There are some positive features to set against the above misgivings. The FWBO and NKT do provide sound and well advertised introductions to Buddhism for many who would not otherwise have such ready access. And although SGI-UK offers a much more controversial kind of Buddhism it does attract a social and ethnic clientele which the rest of (predominantly white middle class) British Buddhism has largely failed to reach. Furthermore, FWBO’s Right Livelihood enterprises prefiguring a New Society, SGI-UK’s concern for the environment, world peace and human rights, and the cultural interests of both organisations have enriched the UK Buddhist scene and also offer common causes and interests through which to undermine sectarianism.

The two older movements are, moreover, showing signs of mellowing. Both, for example, are active in the ecumenical Network of Buddhist Organisations. And Sangharakshita has made arrangements for a collegial succession, which is more likely to loosen up the FWBO than if he were to be succeeded by another father figure. In 1996 Ikeda initiated a shift in SGI-UK towards a more open, diverse and less hierarchical pattern of organisation. The report of an SGI-UK “Reassessment Group” made observations on the existing state of affairs which included the following: “The rigid structure within SGI-UK creates dependency rather than self- reliance; there are unnecessary restrictions on the way in which members and the general public can take part in our movement; there is an unnecessary tendency towards secrecy and closed decision making; the relationship between members, the organisation, and the general public is unclear and alienating; …the actions and behaviour of those within the organisation is often tinged with the sentiment of ‘we know best'”.

The NKT, however, displays numerous examples of intolerant paranoia. It does not deny, for example, that individuals have been expelled from NKT centres for “spreading disruptive information about NKT”. And least one critic has been threatened with legal action in the event of the criticism being published.3 The ultimate fate of this kind of movement is usually factional disintegration, but with a lot of unpleasantness first…

The Network of Buddhist Organisations is performing an invaluable role in opening up dialogue and bringing potential antagonists together in common concerns. Much useful communication takes place off the record, though the Network remains vulnerable to sectarianism. That these UK Buddhist movements constitute a problem at all arises in part from the weaknesses of the British mainstream. Particularly serious is the absence of a well-produced, robust, independent liberal magazine unafraid of controversy, like Tricycle and Inquiring Mind across the Atlantic. This could create a climate which would help to thaw out the movements, as well as serving several other valuable purposes.



1 Scott, David “Modern British Buddhism: Patterns and Directions” (Paper to the SOAS Buddhist Forum, 15th
November 1995).
2 Dharmachari Subhuti (Alex Kennedy) Buddhism for Today (Element, 1983).
3 Bunting, Madeleine “Shadow Boxing on the Path to Nirvana” Guardian newspaper, 6th July 1996.
4 Sangharakshita The Meaning of Orthodoxy in Buddhism (Windhorse, 1987).
5 UK Express newspaper 3:1994, p. 9.
6 Wilson, Brian, and Dobbelaere, Karel, A Time to Chant (Clarendon Press, 1994), 231.
7 As above, p230.
Ken Jones is a founder and the present secretary of the UK Network of Engaged Buddhists. A long-standing Zen and Ch’an practitioner, he has authored The Social Face of Buddhism and Beyond Optimism: A Buddhist Political Ecology.