02 July 2010

Triratna Buddhist Order & Community

Triratna Buddhist Order KesaSeveral times recently I've come across people who seem a bit confused about the nomenclature and structure of the order and community I practice with. So I thought a brief overview might be useful.

At the heart of our spiritual movement is the Order. We recently changed our name to the Triratna Buddhist Order. I've written about the name change and what the new name means to me in a previous post. I've also written, in response to some polemic, to clarify our use of the terms order, ordination, and ordained.

There are almost 1700 order members around the world now, about half live in the UK, and a quarter in India. The remaining quarter are spread over the world with concentrations in the Antipodes, the Americas, and Europe; and a handful in Asia. Membership of the order is obtained via ordination, and this is contingent on being aligned with the values of the order, and what we call "effective going for refuge". Effective going for refuge means that our practice as Buddhists is seen to be effective by our peers in the order: we do our formal practices regularly, have a degree of self-awareness (i.e. know what we are working with/on), and are perceptibly changing for the better. Ordination is therefore entirely individual and everyone takes their own path and time to join the order. (4 or 5 years from asking for ordination is about average; I took 10 years; others have been in the process for 20+ years). The ordination has two aspects: 'private' and 'public'. In the private ceremony one makes a personal commitment in the presence of a preceptor, who bestows a new name to symbolise the spiritual rebirth of the order member. The 'public' ceremony is making one's commitment to the order and being accepted into the order - one's name is announced, and one receives a kesa, the symbolic robe (the accompanying image is a close up of my kesa), and one is then 'an order member' (or Dharmacārī/Dharmacāriṇī). The 'public' ceremony may or may not be open to members of the public (mine wasn't), the important thing is the presence of other order members. It's common to have two different people perform the two ceremonies - but it is the public preceptor who makes the decision to ordain someone.

Surrounding the order is the Triratna Buddhist Community. I've started referring to this as our auxiliary to try to make the relationship clear. The make-up of the Triratna Buddhist Community is quite varied. It ranges from people with a definite desire to join the order and working towards ordination, through people who just enjoy the way we do things, to those who occasionally come along to a class. Casual associations are fine and there is no requirement other than willingness to join in. However note that the Triratna Community also includes all members of the Triratna Order. Those who wish to express their commitment can become a mitra (Sanskrit: friend) which they do in a simple ceremony involving making offerings to the shrine at a public event. Having made a provisional expression of commitment, order members take these people more seriously and offer a course of study for them as well as more individual attention if they wish. Asking for ordination is also seen as a willingness to become more committed, and opens up opportunities for study in more depth and retreats focused on helping one to prepare for ordination.

Structurally the order is unified. There are no formal distinctions of status, or ecclesiastical titles. Men and women are ordained equally. However some people clearly have more capacity to take on responsibilities, and generally they are the ones that carry responsibilities on behalf of the order. Though we don't have a formal hierarchy, we acknowledge that some people are more spiritually adept and more spiritually attained. Ideally the order operates by consensus although as we continue to grow larger this is proving challenging, since we often don't know each other or have easy ways to make contact or stay in touch. The order is certainly not a democracy, and most of us believe that democracy (otherwise known as divide and rule) may be fine in running governments, but it has no place in the spiritual community.

I say structurally unified. Doctrinally and practically we are far less unified. We hold the 10 precepts and our four ordination vows in common, but beyond that there is much diversity. Sangharakshita's System of Meditation has come to be seen as an important unifying framework and more efforts are being made to relate doctrinal teachings to the System. Though Sangharakshita's teachings form the basis for our understanding of the Dharma, many of our number do not stop there, but actively study either directly or indirectly with other teachers (Reggie Ray and Shenpen Hookham in particular; Lama Lhundrup, Joko Beck, Pema Chodron, and Joanna Macy are also popular). Recently Sangharakshita has been emphasising that we do not follow a random or infinitely varied path. He has been very deliberate about what is included in his core teachings and what is not, and has been trying to clarify this in communications to the order. One other unifying framework is the course of study for mitras and people who've asked for ordination. This has yet to settle down into a definitive form, and there are variations across regions, but the latest iteration is looking promising.

When it comes to the politics of the order we are far from unified. Discussions on how we organise ourselves, make decisions, and communicate as a organisation rumble on behind the scenes, occasionally erupting into more vigorous debates, and even arguments. Our institutions are still young and evolving (though some argue that they are already sclerotic and out-of-date).

One of the principal responsibilities that an order member can carry out is that of ordaining new order members, and participating in the preparation of people for ordination. At first Sangharakshita carried out all the ordinations, but around 1990 he began to share that responsibility with his senior disciples. We often speak of ordination in terms of the preceptor baring witness to a person's "effect going for refuge". The decision to ordain someone is a personal one, reached in consultation with other preceptors. However since a preceptor must have the confidence of the order there is a process of consultation before appointing a preceptor. Likewise the college of Public Preceptors is one of our principle institutions. There are now 30 or 40 public preceptors spread around the globe, and more than a 100 private preceptors).

The functional unit of the order is the chapter. A chapter is a group of order members who meet together regularly. Chapters decide for themselves what form the meetings will take, though it has been suggested that they should provide a 'spiritual workshop' for the members. Each chapter has a convenor whose job description it is at present a bit fluid. There are also regional, national, and international convenors. At varying intervals there are local, regional and national order weekends. Once every two years we have an international order convention. Usually this is in the UK, but in 2009 it was in India.

Each centre of the Triratna Buddhist Community is legally and functionally autonomous. Centres are run by a council which is typically, though not exclusively, made up of local order members. The council has a Chair (man or woman) whose role is something like spiritual director, though in practice people do this job in very different ways. Often a centre will have an administrative manager as well to help organise the program, look after the buildings and staff and/or volunteers. Centres run classes in meditation and Buddhism, as well is allied subjects such as yoga and taichi, and more recently non-violent communication and mindfulness based stress reduction. They may also organise retreats and festivals marking the Buddhist calendar. Arts events are popular, and the inclusion of the arts is one of the distinctive emphases of our movement. After a very rapid period of expansion the number of new centres has slowed in the last ten years, perhaps as energy has gone into wrestling with internal issues (such as what to call ourselves!). Centres which own or rent property typically charge for classes to meet expenses - and it is definitely this way around, we do not run classes to raise money! People who can't pay are welcome to attend for free. In an interesting development some centres offer events and classes on a donation or 'dana' basis. In some places the whole place runs sucessfully on a dana economy.

Although there is no global body of centre chairs, the European chairs meet twice a year and are beginning to be seen as an important administrative institution. The idea is that the Public Preceptor will have responsibility for the order (and especially for ordinations) and the Chairs will have responsibility for the community and centres.

Many centres have a president who is a senior order member from outside the region who visits on a regular basis to help provide a connection with the wider movement, and get involved in any difficulties (the traditional roles of an elder). The presidential system was initiated after the Croydon debacle, to help ensure that that sort of thing never happens again.

The notion of what constitutes a 'centre' is broadening as time goes on. One of the most significant developments has been Buddhafield which was originally entirely itinerant. The Buddhafield team hold events on a 'festival' model - accommodation in tents, lots of outdoor activities, a strong pagan element, and a much looser arrangement than our urban centres. Buddhafield now have their own land, and have spawned several spin-offs. Each year they hold a festival which attracts thousands, as well as a month-long meditation intensive, and other shorter retreats. They also have a presence at summer music festivals in the UK and New Zealand.

Beyond the order we have always been participants in pan-Buddhist organisations such as the European Buddhist Union, the Network of Engaged Buddhists, the Network of Buddhist Organisations, though usually via a selected representative. Our Indian wing has close connections to Buddhist organisations in Taiwan (who have funded many developments in India). We have previously been wary of allowing the wide world of Buddhism to swamp our fledging movement, but with increasing confidence our connections are growing. There has been a fair amount of polemic going in both directions at times, though I believe this is less of an issue now.

It's often been said that the Triratna Community is a network of friendships. At it's heart it is about people responding to the Buddha's teaching, and to each other in the process. As we grow in size the organisation becomes more complex, and as we out-strip the possibility of everyone being in personal communication with everyone else through sheer numbers and geographical spread new institutions will no doubt have to emerge to facilitate communication. We are probably a bit behind in developing effective institutions for the size we are, but they are evolving. Operating a consensus on this scale is already unwieldy!

For more in-depth information on the Triratna Buddhist Order & Community try these sources.
At present, and for the last several years, our main website has been caught in a time warp (it's a long story) and at present I can not give it a blanket recommendation, though parts of it are excellent. It may be some time before it reflects the new name, and catches up with several years of development. I think we should have a wiki like the Rigpa Wiki, but my suggestion has yet to be taken up.
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