The Triratna Buddhist Community was founded by an Englishman, who was born in 1925 in Tooting, south-east London and called Dennis Lingwood. He was already a Buddhist by conviction when he was drafted into the British Army Signals Corps in the Second World War and sent to India. After the war ended in 1946 he stayed in India to became a Theravadin monk or bhikkhu, receiving the name Sangharakshita. He came into contact with Tibetan Buddhism and Zen in the 1950s in Kalimpong, during the early years of the exodus of Buddhist leaders from Tibet. He was ordained into the Mahayana tradition, receiving initiations from Tibetan lamas and instruction from a Ch’an master.
In 1956 Sangharakshita became involved in the mass-conversion of the Dalits (Previously referred to as Untouchables) to Buddhism, initiated by Dr Ambedkar, the Indian Martin Luther King. Born an Untouchable. Ambedkar overcame the extraordinary levels of prejudice and contempt of Hindus towards people whose very presence was deemed spiritually polluting, to become India’s first Law Minister. A few years after drawing up India’s constitution, he led hundreds of thousands of his people to convert to Buddhism, but just six weeks later he died. Sangharakshita immediately threw himself into helping the new Buddhists discover what Buddhism could mean for their uplift, as Ambedkar called it.
In 1964 Sangharakshita was invited to return to England in order to help develop the small British Buddhist community. However, he was soon at loggerheads with a few of the senior members of that community, and he decided to found a new movement, the FWBO, now the Triratna Buddhist Community.
Sangharakshita’s strength is his formidable organisational skills and his ability to inspire people. This is evident in his writings, which are notable for their clarity of thought and energy of expression. It is also clear from the way he set up his new movement, with its clear structures and principles, and the talks he has given to direct the energies of his new disciples.
Sangharakshita is also known, however, for his uncompromising views, some of which are politically incorrect, others of which puncture venerable Buddhist pieties, and all of which he is happy to express without fear of the consequences. For example, when he reviews the publications of others, he gives his absolutely honest opinion of the contents, however influential the author may be.
Sangharakshita has set alight particular controversy by questioning the presumption of special spiritual status amongst Theravadin monks, the ‘bhikkhu Sangha’, based on technically valid ordination. He points out that it is simply not possible to verify this technical validity. This might seem a petty point to make but the traditional insistence on technical validity has for example prevented women being fully ordained as nuns in most Buddhist countries, including Tibet. Sangharakshita’s point is that the validity of ordination should be based on spiritual criteria not rigid procedures (and certainly not one’s sex).
In these and in other ways Sangharakshita has set the cat among the pigeons. But Sangharakshita has also been criticised within the Buddhist world for his sexual relations with some disciples. It should be said that many Buddhist teachers operating in the sixties and seventies have been found to have had sexual relations with their disciples, but Sangharakshita suffered more than most from the moral backlash during the 1990s. Triratna in its early years was regarded by some Buddhists, especially the many influential individuals who have taken offence from Sangharakshita’s pronouncements, as a cultish and arrogant organisation, closed to the rest of the Buddhist world.
However, Sangharakshita is still venerated in the Dalit community in India, and Triratna is now spreading in India faster than in the West. Meanwhile, despite its early reputation, Triratna has emerged as one of the most liberal and open and inventive Buddhist organisations in the West. It seems that Sangharakshita was always creating a model of Buddhism that would be about change and growth rather than simply passing on fixed certainties.