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Learning the Harsh Way at the Croydon Buddhist Centre

by Vishvapani

First published in Dharma Life 7, Spring 1998

This is a personal reflection on my involvement with a Buddhist Centre that went wrong in the 1980s: a cautionary tale about the complexities of ‘spiritual communities’ and how good intentions produce harmful results.

In September 1997 The Guardian published a critical article about the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order (now called the Triratna Buddhist Community) – that included a long description of an FWBO centre that went wrong. It was ‘a cult’, I read, characterised by ‘collective neurosis’. There was an account by one person who alleged he had been sexually abused by the centre’s chairman, and there were quotes from the diary of another who killed himself some time after living there. Although the article did not specify where this had occurred, it was clearly a description of the Croydon Buddhist Centre (CBC) during the 1980s, where I had been involved for seven years. The alleged abuse victim was someone I consider a friend, and I had worked with the man who killed himself.

How strange and disturbing it was to see events that were an important part of my life presented with such horror and revulsion. How painful to see the difficulties and failures of something I had been deeply involved with paraded so publicly. Yet how oddly reassuring that the doubts and criticisms I had felt at the time were given a public legitimacy. And then the nagging doubt: was The Guardian right to suggest that what had happened at the CBC was somehow symptomatic of broader failings in the FWBO?

Since publication of The Guardian article many people have asked, ‘what did happen in Croydon?’, so I am pleased to have this opportunity to give my account. But I do so with trepidation. The truth as I perceive it is complex, elusive and the product of indefinable psychological forces. I am not sure whether I wholly understand it, even 10 years later, and what I do understand is painful to recall and difficult to communicate. So this is an account of my experience and reflections, not an ‘official’ FWBO version. It is subjective and fragmentary, and there could probably be as many accounts of the CBC as there were people there.

I first visited Aryatara, the Buddhist centre in the South London suburb of Croydon, in the summer of 1979, when I was just 14. It was a large house and the reception rooms were packed with people. They were mostly lively and young enough for me not to feel out of place. The building seemed to hum with energy; I was drawn by the Buddhists – by the ease of their body language and the sparkle in their communication. I went home exhilarated and I knew I wanted to be involved.
The values I encountered at Aryatara seemed to articulate and extend my own. There was the idea of ‘growth and development’, and meditation as a means of achieving this. Initially I struggled with meditation, but on my first weekend retreat I was overwhelmed by physical bliss, and a sense that my consciousness had become enlarged. I thought I had uncovered the secret of the Buddhists’ quiet happiness.

I was also struck by their confidence that the FWBO possessed an answer to the world’s problems. Buddhism, it seemed, was the way out of the West’s cultural wasteland. The FWBO possessed a key to this transformation, and here in Purley were people who were able to put that into effect. Beside the notion of personal growth was the idea of social transformation. Over in West Croydon they ran a co-operative, including a wholefood shop and a vegetarian café. This seemed both the fulfilment of my socialist upbringing, and a challenge. Changing the world, these Buddhists said, meant changing people, and here were idealists determined to do both.

Aryatara had become a residential Buddhist community in 1969, and for several years it was a quiet FWBO backwater. But in 1976 a group of dynamic, experienced Order members moved there to wake things up. Led by the new chairman, Nagabodhi, they ran classes that attracted more and more people – especially the disaffected suburban youth, who were drawn to their idealism and vitality. Nagabodhi also set up the businesses. He left in 1978 and was succeeded as chairman by Padmaraja.

The first time I spoke with Padmaraja I felt he was looking deep inside me. His manner was sensitive, gentle, steady, almost androgynous. He dressed in bright colours and his face radiated warmth. He seemed to possess a secret magic, and being with him I felt small. Padmaraja seemed aware of me in my wholeness: aware of my fears and anxieties, and of something else, something very precious and buried deep within me, of which I was barely aware myself. Many who encountered Padmaraja were similarly entranced by his aptitude for a certain kind of communication. It inspired gratitude, love, even devotion.

Over the following years activities developed apace. In 1981 the businesses were relocated to a large building in central Croydon that also housed the new Croydon Buddhist Centre. The café transmuted into a high-class vegetarian restaurant called Hockneys, and soon 30 to 40 people were working in the complex. The businesses made handsome profits, which allowed further growth. Rivendell Retreat Centre was opened in the Sussex countryside, and an arts centre (which became Independent Arts) was opened in 1984. It aimed to make links between Buddhist values and the arts through films and lectures. There was no comparable London venue for talks by writers and intellectuals, and Independent Arts programmes soon claimed proudly – and not wholly implausibly – that it was ‘one of the five best literary venues in the world’.

This aspect of the centre’s work attracted me greatly. In my late teens I read voraciously – literature, philosophy and Eastern religions – and Independent Arts fed this interest. I found spiritual nourishment on meditation retreats, and the Buddhist perspective on life gave me a sense of what I could potentially be, if I applied myself to practising it.

But my experience was different in Dharma study groups. When I first read the writings of Sangharakshita, founder of the FWBO, I found them hugely stimulating. I loved his rigour, intelligence and ability to make bold connections between Buddhism and western ideas. But if I raised questions about his teachings, or Buddhism in general, to Croydon Order members, I was met with perplexity or disapproval. I was expected quietly to take in what I was being taught and faithfully apply it.

When I was particularly troublesome, the leading Order members, including Padmaraja, would criticise me. I was ‘arrogant’ and ’emotionally blocked’. Sometimes the criticism extended from telling me what I was like to telling me why I was like that. I was psychologically bound to my mother and needed to break free; this meant entering into robust contact with men (which was to say with them, and on their terms).

There may, of course, have been something in those criticisms, but that is not the point. I respected these people – they were experienced Buddhists, with personalities far stronger than mine. The confidence with which they made their criticisms suggested a special insight that perhaps, I wondered, came from their meditation practices. I argued my case but I felt shaken, sometimes devastated.

The approval and encouragement I had first encountered at the centre now seemed to be highly conditional, and sometimes seemed like outright disapproval. I might be accepted if I was docile and obedient, otherwise – well, I was quite free to go off and ‘disappear up my bum’, as it was charmingly put. In particular, Padmaraja’s affection, which could be so overwhelming, could also be suddenly withdrawn and replaced by withering sarcasm.

Even in 1982/3, aged 17, I was aware that something was very wrong at the CBC. How could Order members talk like this while claiming to follow the ethical precept on abstaining from harsh speech and practising kindly speech? I found that when people came to work around the CBC they grew less interesting, and more like the others. The centre seemed a self-enclosed world governed by group dynamics, and I considered breaking off contact. But I was also bound to it emotionally and I could not leave Buddhism without betraying something deeply important to me. So when I finished school, at the start of 1984, I let myself be talked into moving into Aryatara, and working in Hockneys restaurant.

I stayed there for almost two years before going to university. The work was physically hard and I was busy most nights of the week, supporting Buddhist classes or helping at the Arts Centre. I enjoyed this intensity, and the camaraderie it generated. I learnt to be disciplined and to apply myself. But my experience was also cramped. I found the routine of restaurant work numbingly tedious (though this doubtless says as much about me as the work). There was little time for rest and relaxation; at Aryatara I shared a room with three, sometimes four, others, and no one had much space to themselves.

The intensity of life in the businesses came at a price. Padmaraja was in control. He would quietly dominate meetings with effortless charisma. People hung on his words: ‘Is he a Stream Entrant?’ I heard them ask. ‘A Bodhisattva?’ But his authority was not simply the consequence of his spiritual stature. The psychological double-bind that left me wanting approval and fearing rejection was reflected throughout the community.

Before starting work at Hockneys, I had felt an outsider, now I discovered there were spheres within spheres. An inner circle clustered around Padmaraja, and then there was a pecking order, in which the more senior parties ensured the conformity of the junior. This was enforced through teasing, sarcasm and undignified nicknames (‘Roy the boy’, ‘Baz’, ‘Plonker’ – it really was like school) as well as appeals to loyalty and idealism. We were, after all, ‘building the New Society’ – what undertaking could be more worthy? The sometimes vicious bullying was masked for perpetrators and victims alike by the idea that criticism or ‘fierce friendship’ was a form of spiritual practice.

This power structure was based on the subtleties of personal relationships and group dynamics, and so is hard to describe. For me, the most painful aspect was that one was assigned a role, and ridiculed if one stepped outside it. And to the extent one accepted this view of oneself, one’s ability to think for oneself was effectively curtailed. This is the kind of process described in The Guardian by Matthew, the man who later killed himself (though I should add that I have no idea why he did so, and to what extent it was the result of his time at the CBC).

One friend of mine (now a writer) was told his problem was that he lived in a fantasy world in which he was a poet. This delusion was a sign that he was out of touch with reality and, unless he overcame it, he would go mad. What he needed to do was, well, to put himself into working in the restaurant. Conveniently, this was a cure for almost everyone’s ills.

The tendency for Order members to give advice and point out people’s psychological limitations was a most effective way of maintaining control. One of the FWBO’s strengths is the emphasis on friendship, and sharing one’s spiritual life; and it is surely true that some people have greater experience and insight than others. Certain Croydon Order members concluded that they were in a position to tell people what to do, and even what their experience was. Yet they were only in their twenties and early thirties. They forced their views on others, and lacked the humility to see their perceptions might exclude important aspects of life, or that their advice was a way of exerting power.

I do not think people were consciously manipulative, but they were blind to the ways their perceptions were compromised by self-interest. Independent Arts, Padmaraja’s personal project, was overtly an attempt to make connections between Buddhism and western culture, but there was also personal ambition. Desire for prestige meant that Independent Arts was inexorably tainted by the commercially driven values of the arts world. Moreover arts activities were the pinnacle of a mini ’empire’, including the businesses and Buddhist activities, which marked a huge increase in the professionalism and financial resources of the FWBO. Yet this could be sustained only with many people’s help. The temptation to coerce people into remaining loyal must have been huge.

Then there was sex. In The Guardian, Tim claims he was coerced into sex with the centre’s chairman, and this kind of predatory homosexuality was depicted as a key characteristic of life at the centre. I know there was homosexual activity in the single-sex communities, but the curious thing is that I never once heard a discussion of it. It is hard to know how significant sex was in the psychology underpinning the CBC, though for Tim it was clearly traumatic. But I believe the secrecy surrounding it established a pattern of duplicity and confusion that corroded people’s integrity.

In 1985 I took up a place at Cambridge University. I continued to meditate, and on one retreat I contemplated what was holding me back. I realised the effect of my time in Croydon was that I felt I had little potential to progress in the spiritual life. I saw how absurd and tragic this was. Whatever their intentions, the CBC Order members had surely gone terribly wrong if this basic human faith had been undermined.

I recalled one Order member responding to a criticism of mine by asking: ‘Is it likely that you are right and everyone else is wrong?’ And I realised they had been wrong, however unlikely it may have seemed. I recalled Padmaraja listening patiently to other criticisms and then, looking straight into me, asking: ‘But what is really going on, mate?’ I now realised my doubts had just been dismissed, and how manipulative this had been. The spell was broken.

In 1988 Manjunatha became men’s ‘Mitra Convenor’ (responsible for the spiritual welfare of men at a novitiate level) at the CBC. In meetings with Mitra Convenors from other centres, who included some senior Order members, he encountered strong criticisms of the CBC. Many people had been concerned by the way the CBC was run and had tried to influence it. But FWBO centres are legally and organisationally autonomous, and the FWBO has no authoritarian structure in which a central body exerts power. It had proved impossible to influence the CBC from outside until Manjunatha, encouraged by the Mitra Convenors, started to voice his own criticisms. He demanded answers and urged others in Croydon to express their doubts. There was now movement from within for change.

This was the turning point. After great pressure, Padmaraja resigned as chairman, but his supporters were still refusing to acknowledge the criticisms. At this point Sangharakshita – who had refrained from comment, intending to let the Order sort out its problems for itself – threatened to close the CBC unless matters changed dramatically.

In the end commitment to Buddhism and the FWBO proved stronger than loyalty to one individual. Padmaraja resigned from the Order, and two people left with him. The great majority continued their involvement in the FWBO, and most have had to work through deep feelings of confusion, guilt and betrayal. Some are still doing so. For many of those Order members there has been much open discussion, soul-searching and shame. Often these reflections have dominated their spiritual lives.

Some people left the FWBO feeling understandably disillusioned. I’ve personally found it helpful to address the issues raised by my time in Croydon with others in the FWBO, and I am concerned that some people lack a context in which to address such emotions. For a long time after Padmaraja’s departure the centre and businesses were in disarray, and have never fully regained their financial strength. But for many years activities have been on a sound ethical footing.

For the FWBO as a whole this was a crucial learning experience. We lost some of our innocence. But did problems at the CBC reflect broader failings? Firstly, the CBC is part of the FWBO, and its failings are therefore part of the FWBO’s record. Beyond this, I see the CBC’s flaws as an exaggeration of trends within the wider movement. The FWBO was born out of the social and spiritual idealism of the 1960s and ’70s, and developed an assertive sense of the value of its own approach to Buddhist practice.But idealism is dangerous. It can bring pride and narrowness, and leads people to reject ideas, emotions, and even relationships that do not fit in. This is precisely what happened at the CBC, where simple ethical considerations were ignored because activities were defined in terms of the ideals they were seeking to live up to. The ends being so desirable, we were oblivious to the manipulation and exploitation in the means.

The idea that we were building a New Society blinded some of us to the ways our spiritual values were being sacrificed. A chief problem at the CBC was that to achieve financial and institutional success we were all working far, far too hard; and cruel behaviour was often the product of pressure and fatigue. In part the pressure to succeed came from the FWBO’s imperative to show that its ideas of alternative lifestyles and new economic forms could be translated from theory into practice.The CBC was very insular – the outside world, including other FWBO centres – was looked down on, and this made people blind to internal failings. It was as if the FWBO’s philosophy was complete and there was no need to learn from others. Criticism was dismissed by maligning the critic’s motives; people even denied themselves the possibility of thinking critically. This was an insidious form of totalitarianism and, when people could no longer contain their criticisms, they had to leave – often suddenly, sometimes in the middle of the night.

This was a distortion of Sangharakshita’s ideas; it was the product of the naivety and literalism of young men and women who rigidly applied their limited understanding in translating Buddhist ideals into practice. Yet it seems that those ideas are open to such an interpretation. The only remedy is maturity. I stayed involved in the FWBO because I could see it becoming steadily more mature, individually and collectively. I saw a growing awareness of the sometimes painful gulf between our aspirations of what the FWBO might be and the reality – as well as a growing ability to work with these issues with patience, humanity and humility.For example, activities in the FWBO are mostly on a single-sex basis. When this approach was introduced in the 1970s, it caused some friction between the sexes. At the CBC it was applied with astonishing rigidity: men and women working just a few feet apart would avoid eye-contact, and sometimes go for months barely exchanging a word. Over the years, in my experience, understanding of single-sex practice has become humanised, emphasising the opportunities it offers for developing friendships, rather than aversion to the opposite sex.

The FWBO/Triratna has since instituted safeguards against a centre becoming so isolated. Every centre now has a president, a senior Order member from outside the situation, who has the respect of all involved and can intervene if necessary. Could it happen again? Of course it could, because a spiritual movement is only as good as its practitioners, and people are flawed. But at least there is now an awareness of the dangers, and a determination to prevent a recurrence.Hindsight shows the extent of the CBC’s flaws, but I don’t regret my time there. I had the opportunity to practise Buddhism, however veiled it may have been. And I’ve learnt a great deal through reflecting on that experience. Indeed it has been the decisive experience in shaping my approach to Buddhism and the FWBO/Triratna.

In particular I have often wondered about Padmaraja’s psychology. It is wrong to blame one individual for what happened, though individuals must take responsibility. Many people acted unskilfully at the CBC. But when I think of Padmaraja’s deep gaze, his gentleness and sensitivity, it seems that he exemplified the danger of believing too much in one’s own intuition. I think he was convinced he was acting for the best, putting his ideals and Sangharakshita’s teachings into practice; but he had no idea of how mixed were his motivations.

At university I often pondered my time at the CBC. Sometimes I felt angry; sometimes I wanted to give up Buddhism; sometimes I thought I was over-reacting. I wanted to understand what had gone wrong, but I came to believe the greatest danger lay in a simplistic interpretation. I found myself drawn to the sceptical thinkers of the 18th century who were so alive to the dangers of credulity. As Edward Gibbon observed: ‘As a wise man may deceive himself and a good man may deceive others, so the conscience may slumber in a mixed and middle state between self-illusion and voluntary fraud.’

Things at the CBC had been very good; they had also been very bad. People had been well-intentioned, yet they were unethical. Only by pondering such paradoxes can the lessons of maturity be learnt.


First published in Dharma Life 7, Spring 1998

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