“The Essential Sangharakshita” by Urgyen Sangharakshita, edited by Karen Stout

The Essential SangharakshitaBuddhism 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.
ISBN: 0-86171-585-3
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.

The Writings

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 HarrymanWilliam 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.

William blogs at Integral Options Café, and you can follow him on Twitter.

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  • Good idea to get someone outside the FWBO to review the book :-)
    I have only one small comment to make regarding William’s apparent surprise: “There is not a single reference (that I noticed) by Sangharakshita to his worldly projects within the text”.

    I think people underestimate the extent to which the FWBO is a ground up movement. Many of the features such as right-livelihood coops, single sex communities, Buddhafield, or indeed online meditation instruction(!) were instituted by enthusiastic members. Sangharakshita encouraged and supported these developments, certainly, but did not create them. Sangharakshita seems to keep an overview, and spell out principles and allow the movement to manifest as it will. Sangharakshita has said that he sees his role as translator (in the cultural sense) and spiritual friend, rather than as a creator of institutions or a teacher – so perhaps the emphasis of the book is more natural than it seems to William. JR

  • William Harryman
    April 16, 2009 10:46 pm

    Hi jayarava,

    My surprise is less about the nature of the FWBO’s activities and who generates them than it was about some of the less than flattering information floating around the web. Not that the book needs to address that stuff, but that having a basic concept of what Sangharakshita had in mind in founding his own order might have been helpful to novice readers of his work, such as me.

  • Hi William,

    I don’t know of course, but perhaps the idea was to present Dharma teachings in their own right rather than seeing them as anchored in any particular institution – including the order. I might get a chance to ask him about it when he’s in town next month.


    • Perhaps it’s as much a question for Vidyadevi as anyone. I have to say I can’t imagine how she kept her sanity while trying to distill Sangharakshita’s teachings down to a manageable amount, and also to have to decide what’s most essential.

      I don’t think Sangharakshita has written anything in response to the critical information about him and the FWBO, although there is a video in which he discusses his sexual activities. I don’t think he’d dignify his fiercest critics with a response. There are three principle actors. There’s Mark Dunlop, who was formerly an Order member and who had a sexual relationship with Sangharakshita. Some time after the relationship ended he became increasingly bitter, and then he started his campaign. The second (the author of the FWBO Files) is Gary Beesley, who is a religious education teacher and Tibetan Buddhist. He’s never had any direct experience of the FWBO. His campaign isn’t just against the FWBO, but also against SGI and the NKT, and is a kind of personal crusade. The third is Jurgen Schnake, who runs fwbo-files.com. He also has no experience of the FWBO. Schnake has nakedly asked for money in return for ceasing his activities. I don’t think that was his initial motivation, which seems mainly to be mischievous. He’s quite happy to make stuff up, like claims that the FWBO is a branch of scientology. Unfortunately none of these people has any great regard for honesty or accuracy, and they’ll say anything if they think it helps damage the FWBO (Dunlop has accused the FWBO of murdering children, and I’ve mentioned Schanke’s alleged Scientology takeover). I’d be astonished if Sangharakshita was to address their often outlandish accusations. We’re dealing with “fake moon landing” psychology here.

      But for the record, I think this is all Sangharakshita’s karma playing out (in conjunction with the karma of his critics). There were sloppy ideas in the 1970s (not just in the FWBO, but in the western Buddhist world and indeed in the world) that sexuality could be reinvented, and my take is that Sangharakshita was very unwise to buy into that and to get sexually involved with his students. If there was no Mark Dunlop there would quite probably be no Gary Beesley and no Jurgen Schnake.

  • I lived in Birmingham England during the 1990’s and at that time there was a small, cheaply run Scientology Centre less than a mile away from the FWBO Centre in the Birmingham district of Mosley. I would guess the Scientologists may have been trying to take the FWBO over but weren’t prepared to invest much of their vast resources in this speculative venture. I have no idea if the Scientologists are still in Mosley or not.

    • Jewel,

      For most people it takes about 8 to 10 years between their first involvement and being ordained into the WBO. Since the only way to “take over the FWBO” would be for people to successfully pretend to be Buddhists for that period of time, and then to become members of the governing councils of FWBO centers, it would be pretty much impossible for such a takeover to happen. Plus, every FWBO center is run independently, so this would have to be carried out at many centers. Plus decision-making at centers is done by consensus and not by majority vote, and so basically it would be a multi-generational project involving thousands of people. I would think the Scientologists would have better things to do with their time, especially since Scientology makes a lot of money and the FWBO doesn’t.

      I understand that you’re unlikely to know all of the above, but your comment is a good illustration of how critics of the FWBO score successes, though. Some people are prone to give credence to anything they read on the internet, no matter how outlandish.


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