Apr 16, 2009
“The Essential Sangharakshita” by Urgyen Sangharakshita, edited by Karen Stout
Buddhism has always adapted its presentation as it has taken root in new cultures, finding new idioms and new forms that resonate with the host culture.
For the last fifty years, Sangharakshita has been one of the teachers most involved in helping Buddhist to find expression in the west. William Harryman takes a look at Wisdom’s new survey of 50 years of teaching.
Discussing the movement of Buddhism to the West seems to be a hot topic in the Buddhist magazines, blogs, and online communities. There seems to be a lot of concern as to how Buddhism will survive the translation from Eastern culture to Western culture. Many traditional Eastern teachers, especially Theravadin, and even some Tibetan, do not want to see Buddhism adapted in any way for its Western audience. From their perspective, Buddhism has survived just fine for more than 2,500 years.
However, there are many more who believe that in order for Buddhism to take root in the West, it must adapt itself to the Western mind. Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche was among the first teachers to really embody this perspective. Many Americans and Europeans went to India, Nepal, Japan, and other Buddhist nations during the sixties and seventies and returned as teachers. Lama Surya Das, Joseph Goldstein, Jack Kornfield, and Sharon Salzberg are among the best known teachers in America. (My comments here are generalizations, so interested readers are invited to check out Western Buddhist Teachers by Andrew Rawlinson for a more in-depth look at Buddhist teachers in the West.) Stephen Batchelor (in Buddhism Without Beliefs) has gone so far as to suggest a Buddhism without karma and rebirth, two seemingly “pre-modern” ideas closely associated with Buddhism.
Title: The Essential Sangharakshita: A Half-Century of Writings from the Founder of the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order
Author: Urgyen Sangharakshita (Edited by Karen Stout).
Publisher: Wisdom Publications, 2009.
Available from: Wisdom and Amazon.com.
Dennis Lingwood went to India (posted there in the British military following WWII) and stayed when his enlistment ended. Having read The Diamond Sutra and the Sutra of Wei Lang as a teenager, he realized he was and had always been a Buddhist. Following his discharge from service, he set off with a friend to find a teacher and was eventually ordained in the Theravada tradition, where he was given the name Sangharakshita (“protected by the spiritual community”). Over the following years he continued to seek the dharma from a variety of Buddhist teachers, including Tibetan refugees, among them Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche. It was one of his other Tibetan teachers, Kachu Rimpoche, who gave Sangharakshita the name “Urgyen,” when Rimpoche was conferring the Padmasambhava initiation. Sangharakshita also read widely in the various Buddhist traditions, seeking an understanding of the universal truths that unite the diverse Buddhist community.
This broad education in Buddhist traditions eventually led Sangharakshita to return to England and found in 1967 the first Western ecumenical Buddhist sangha, The Friends of the Western Buddhist Order (Triratna Buddhist Community). Its goal was to make Buddhism accessible to the West in ways compatible with the modern world. In doing so, Sangharakshita references Western philosophy, psychology, and art, in addition to the central Buddhist teachings. Over the years, Sangharakshita has written extensively on Buddhist practices from the perspective of the Triratna Buddhist Community, and those writings are finally collected in The Essential Sangharakshita (Wisdom Publications), edited by Karen Stout (known in the Triratna Buddhist Community community as Vidyadevi).
The book is a substantial 792 pages, including material from 38 of Sangharakshita’s books, his poetry, early writings, sutra commentaries, spoken word, and autobiography. The book is organized into sections that help give some coherence to the massive amount of text (Stout has done an amazing job organizing the material). The five broad sections include The Essentials (introductory Buddhist teachings), Buddhism and the Mind (teachings on Buddhist psychology, death, karma, rebirth and other deeper topics), Art, Beauty, and Myth in the Buddhist Tradition (several great sections combining Western psychology, dream study, art, and myth), Buddhism and the Heart (dealing with emotions, meditation, ritual, gurus, and nature), and Buddhism and the World (Bodhisattvas, compassion, ethics, discipline, right livelihood). Within each main section are several smaller sections containing individual articles, poems, excerpts, and assorted writings.
Creating this collection was no small task. Sangharakshita still has more than fifty books in print, so making the selections and organizing them needed an approach that could serve to structure the book. In Stout’s own words:
All my attempts to organize them seemed just to shift the heap into another heap; and the words, taken from their contexts, kept losing their luster. I decided to try organizing the collection according to a symbolic pattern to which Sangharakshita has returned many times in the course of his teaching: the mandala of the five Buddhas, from the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. (Editor’s Preface)
The center Buddha is Vairocana, also known as the Illuminator (The Essentials). To the east is Aksobhya, the Imperturbable (Buddhism and the Mind). To the south, is the realm of Ratnasambhava, the golden Buddha of beauty (Art, Beauty, and Myth in the Buddhist Tradition). In the west, Amitabha is the Buddha of infinite light (Buddhism and the Heart). And in the north, is Amoghasiddhi, whose name means “unobstructed success” (Buddhism and the World). The use of this symbolic structure is quite useful to the reader and adds layers of meaning to the readings.
One thing to note at the outset of this section is that those looking to this book for information about the Western Buddhist Order (WBO) or Friends of the Western Buddhist Order (Triratna Buddhist Community) will be disappointed. There is not a single reference (that I noticed) by Sangharakshita to his worldly projects within the text, and only the briefest of mentions in the introduction and in an end matter blurb. As a Buddhist who is not familiar with the Triratna Buddhist Community, I would have liked a chapter or so of explanation about the sangha, especially considering some of the information about controversies (true or otherwise) available on the web. But I can also see not including anything about the Order in order to focus on the material itself.
One thing that, for this reader, highly recommends this text is Sangharakshita’s reliance on the Pali texts when he refers to the Sutras. He is not advocating a purely Theravadin approach either, so the ecumenical nature of the writings with a reliance on the oldest available texts makes a great deal of sense. I also appreciated that he emphasizes mindfulness of breathing and work with developing loving-kindness as the two recommended forms of meditation. This may seem “old school” to some Buddhists, but the reliance on these simple practices for Westerners makes a great deal of sense.
Further, as a Westerner who has sampled from many different traditions, I also appreciate Sangharakshita’s acknowledgment of the Path of Irregular Steps:
We are in the transcendental sweet shop of Buddhism, with all these spiritual goodies around us, and so we grab this and that: Zen, Tantra, Theravada, ethics, meditation of one sort or another. But nonetheless, we do make some progress. The Path of Irregular Steps is a path, and it does give us some experience of Buddhism. (p. 169)
But this only works as a path for a short time. Sooner or later our practice will stagnate or stop altogether. So while he acknowledges that many of us, especially in the West, will attempt this buffet style of Buddhism (a little of this, a little of that), he also knows that a consistent approach is needed, the Path of Regular Steps:
This is the basic principle. If we want to experience the higher stage, or higher level, with any intensity of any permanence, we must first perfect the lower stage, on the basis of which, alone, the higher stage is to be established. This is why, sooner or later, we have to make the transition from the Path of Irregular Steps to the Path of Regular Steps. (p. 174)
Sometimes, in order to make this transition, we need to go backwards–back to the basics we may have skipped over in order to try the more exciting or esoteric practices. Point taken.
This book may be a great introduction to a distinctly Western Buddhist practice for some people, and for others already familiar with Sangharakshita’s work or already a part of the Triratna Buddhist Community, the book is a nice collection of the primary teachings. With a book of this size, there is way more content that a brief review can cover, so pick up a copy and spend a few hours with this uniquely Western approach to Buddhist practice.
William Harryman is a freelance writer, a personal trainer, nutritional coach, and integral life coach living in Tucson, Arizona. He has been a practicing Buddhist since 1998, at first sampling among many traditions before settling into the Shambhala tradition of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche.