Vajragupta

The Triratna Story is a history of the Triratna Buddhist movement. You are a trained sociologist and an ordained member of the Triratna community. Did these two roles ever come into tension while you were writing the book?

No, I don’t think there was ever any conflict. There might have been if I’d been trying to write a neutral, objective, outsider’s account of Triratna, but I think I made it clear that this wasn’t what I was doing – I was trying to be honest and open, but I was writing the book as a member of the community, telling its story. In a way, I think my background in sociology actually meant I had certain skills that helped me write the book – I’d been trained in gathering information and pulling it all together from different sources.

So were you writing the book as an individual or representing the views of a group of people?

I wanted to write something which was representative of the broad opinion in Triratna rather than just my own personal views. Of course there is a whole range of opinions in Triratna, so I was aware that I was doing something potentially difficult, but my aim was to be fair-minded and do justice to the different sides of the story.

I think that definitely comes across, the book feels very balanced when you’re reading it. And it’s such a good read! There were parts where I was getting so drawn into the story.

It really pleases me to hear you say that because when I was preparing to write the book, I had the same feeling – I thought, ‘This is such an extraordinary story; I want to write a page turner!’ I didn’t want the book to be full of facts and figures; I wanted it to be readable and engaging.

So why is the Triratna story an important story to be told?

Well the book was mainly motivated by a concern that people coming into Triratna would eventually find controversial things from Triratna’s past on the Internet, and we wanted to put our own side of the story across. But there was also a positive motivation behind the book – as we have already mentioned, the story of the Triratna community is such an amazing story! So much was achieved by the pioneers of the movement and I think that it is really important and inspiring for people getting involved in Triratna to hear that.

Yes, I’d recommend it to people who are thinking about becoming a mitra in the sense that it can help people to deepen their understanding of Triratna and what becoming a member of the community might mean. Of course so much of the life of a community is about telling and re-telling its story, and it is the re-telling of the story which becomes the future of the community in a sense.

Yes, which is why it is so important to keep telling the story – it won’t always be the same story, but that’s the nature of stories. In that context, I think it would be great if every centre could tell its own story by doing interviews and creating an archive. I was really happy to see that when The Triratna Story was translated into Spanish they wrote another chapter on the history of Triratna in the Spanish-speaking world. I think there’s a real need for us to record Triratna stories more locally because behind every Buddhist centre there will be some incredibly generous, dedicated and hard-working people, and I think it would be inspiring for people in the future to be able to touch that material and see where their centre came from.

Yes, and one reason I think The Triratna Story is so inspiring is that is shows what Buddhism looks like in real life. So many Buddhist books are about theory or ideals, but the Buddhist community that you describe in your book – yes it’s flawed but it’s so alive. Speaking of these flaws, you engage openly with the mistakes that the Triratna community has made in the past. With these mistakes in mind, why do you still choose to commit to the movement?

The main reason is that I’ve just gained so much personally from being involved. It’s totally changed my life for the better, there’s absolutely no question about that. So although I can see that there have been mistakes and problems in the past, they are completely outweighed by the good things that have happened. I also feel and trust that there is a basic integrity to the Order – when everything flared up in the 90s and the early 2000s, I think that people within the community responded with a real integrity – they weren’t just trying to cover something up or get annoyed with people for being disloyal; the issues were discussed openly and we tried so hard to learn from our mistakes. I’ve been ordained for 20 years this year and my experience is that the Order is just maturing all the time.

Buddhism is sometimes presented as passive and inward-looking. Do you think that the Buddhist teachings have the potential to inspire social action? Do you think that the Triratna movement in particular has achieved real social change?

Well I think you’re right about Buddhism sometimes being portrayed as a bit passive and inward-looking, and I think there is a real danger that as Buddhism comes into the West, rather than providing an alternative way of living, it just accommodates itself to the society we’ve got and subtly supports the status quo. But of course I don’t think that’s what Buddhism should be doing – if we look to the example of the Buddha, he left society to go off into the forest and meditate, but then he came back to found an order which upheld certain values and practices at the same time as interacting with the wider society. And I think this is what Triratna is trying to do in its own way – we’re trying to create spiritual communities which are not separate from the wider society but places where people can contact different ways of living and different values. Our aim is not to convert everyone to Buddhism but for Buddhism to be part of the mix of things, a voice in society as it were. My dream is that one day there’ll be a Buddhist centre in every town in the UK and that anyone, wherever they live, can contact the Buddhist teachings. Triratna has been so instrumental in starting off this process and I’m sure that this will carry on being an important part of our vision.

In your book you also talk about the social change that was achieved for Dalits in India as a result of Ambedkar’s vision of Buddhism and the growing influence that Triratna is having there.

Yes, and I think that’s one of the great things about Triratna – we have the movements in the East and the West and we can learn from each other. In the West we do tend to approach Buddhism quite psychologically as an individual phenomenon, but our movement in the East is very community-centred and focuses on Buddhism as a means to social change. So the two of us can really remind each other to keep a balance and be inspired by what the other is doing.

To what extent is Triratna the same movement as it was 40 years ago?

I think the answer to that is that it is and it isn’t – it is the same movement in that it is the same Dharma and I think it has the same vision to try and take the Dharma out in the world in a way that’s appropriate for people living modern lives, but because there has been development and learning within the Order, certain things have changed. The way we teach meditation has changed and evolved over time, for example, and there has also been a broadening of the kind of people who get involved. In the 70s and 80s, the majority of people in the Triratna movement were young people from the counter-culture who lived in a community and worked in a team-based right livelihood business. Gradually that has broadened out and now there are more older people, more people with families and more people with jobs in the non-Buddhist world.

Where do you see the future of Triratna? What do you think it will look like in 40 years from now?

In a way what the movement will look like in 40 years’ time depends on what we do now. I think that as long as we are able to inspire a younger generation of Buddhists to get involved and be part of the project of taking the Dharma out into the world, we’ll be healthy and well in 40 years’ time.

Find out more about Vajragupta’s The Triratna Story