It’s nearly six years since Sangharakshita was presented, on his ninetieth birthday, with the funds so generously given for the creation of the Complete Works. This would set in motion his cherished wish to have his writings published in a uniform edition. In fact, the planning of the Complete Works project had already begun, and now it’s well on the way towards completion. Happily, Sangharakshita was able to see the publication of the first few volumes before his death in 2018.
But what is the point of republishing, at such expense and trouble, books almost all of which have been published before? After all, those of us who have been involved with Triratna for some time, myself included, already have a good two shelves’ worth, so you may have asked that question, and of course I’ve asked it myself. Having worked on the project since the beginning, I’m now in a good position to answer the question. The Complete Works give us something we’ve never had before: a full and coordinated collection of Sangharakshita’s writings and teachings, organised in an accessible way. It will come into its own when it’s finished, with the final volume being a kind of index that will tie the whole collection together.
As I work on each volume, I’m struck by how it takes on a life of its own. Take, for example, the two volumes I’ve been editing most recently. Volume 10, which is about the Buddhist movement in India catalysed by Dr Ambedkar’s conversion, from being intended as a simple collection of talks, has drawn to itself all kinds of material. This includes notes from the archives of the talks Sangharakshita gave among the new Buddhists in the late 1950s, and his illuminating commentary on the Udāna, which takes the theme of caste right back to what the Buddha had to say about it. The Udāna commentary, which I was able to discuss with Bhante just before he died, our last working collaboration, has the great advantage of Dhivan’s illuminating new translations of the verses. The volume tells the history of our movement in India, and I found myself wanting to talk about it with those who have lived and are living that history. This is why the volume is introduced by a compilation of their voices, as well as memories taken from the archives of people who were there at the very beginning.
Volume 12, my current project, is proving to be just as surprising. It’s a collection of talks that haven’t been published elsewhere, from 1965 to 2011. To be honest, I wondered how it would turn out – perhaps just a ragbag of bits and pieces that haven’t found homes elsewhere? To organise it, I decided to put the talks into chronological order, and this has proved a revelation. It contains all kinds of fascinating material, but as well, taken as a whole, it shows in a way I think no other work has how Bhante’s thinking unfolded during all his years as a Dharma teacher in the West. One sees the gradual evolution of his ideas and ways of putting things, and as far as I can (it’s proving to be a very full volume), I’m retaining enough of the context of the talks to give a sense of what Bhante was responding to when he chose the subjects he tackled.
A long time ago, when The Essential Sangharakshita (which I compiled) came out, Lokabandhu pointed out to me that the book contains almost nothing about the FWBO (as it was then), and we concluded that it is a compilation of teachings for the FWBO, not about it. If we were right in that assessment, volume 12 is going to be the perfect companion to The Essential Sangharakshita, because I’m more and more coming to see that it isn’t just a rag-bag; it has a theme, and its theme is the emergence and development of the FWBO/Triratna. It tells that story from the days before it even began, when Bhante was urging his audiences at the Hampstead Buddhist Vihara to keep beginner’s mind, to add to their intellectual interest in Buddhism with a heart-response, to consider how to make the spiritual community come alive, all the way through to his final public talks, in which he talked intimately about his loss of sight, his dreams, his thoughts about old age, death and rebirth. Along the way we find him urging the growing Buddhist movement, and especially the Order, to practise, with inspiration, advice and exhortations on everything from how to give a Dharma talk to the need to tackle our demons, personal and societal. In a talk given in 1978, he described for the first time what came to be called the levels of Going for Refuge, appraising as he went along the satisfactoriness or otherwise of the terms he was using to describe them. In a talk in the 1980s he expressed his concerns about the need to tackle racist attitudes in society, and to take action to save the environment. From the movement’s first days in that basement in Monmouth Street, which assumes increasingly mythic proportions as the volume goes along, we see its gradual growth, along with the emergence of its character, and somehow the organic nature of how it emerged becomes tangible – not just a list of ‘distinctive emphases’, but the way they came to be distinctive.
The two volumes I’ve described are each full of material that has never been published before, so even if, like me, you’re someone who already has a couple of shelves of books, you won’t have these, and there’s a lot that’s of great interest. And each volume is full of new things, even those whose contents have been published before. Each is introduced by someone with deep understanding of Sangharakshita’s work, putting it in context and appraising it, as well as giving his or her own perspective on it. We’re going to a lot of trouble to provide endnotes, in a style which we hope is not scholarly or stuffy, but friendly and informative, simply adding extra value to the text. In particular, it’s clearly very important to give sources, especially of references to the Pāli canon and other aspects of the Buddhist tradition, so that Bhante’s sources and inspirations are clear. We have been very lucky to acquire (after the first few volumes) Satyalila as our indexer. She has a deep love and understanding of what she calls the architecture of Bhante’s thinking, and creates very full and informative indexes. We’re similarly fortunate to have Shantavira as our copy editor and Kalyanasri as our proofreader, both having decades of experience of working on Bhante’s writings. Kalyanasri and I worked together on Mitrata in the 1980s, and Shantavira and I have been working on Bhante’s books ever since then, so there’s definitely an element of getting the band back together. And although we have grievously lost Kalyanaprabha as an editor (her eyesight no longer allowed her to do so much computer work), we are lucky to have the help of Pabodhana, who has already edited several of Bhante’s books and is bringing his own creative approach to the volumes he has taken on.
But the whole thing would be impossible without the support and incredible work of Windhorse Publications: Dhammamegha, Michelle Bernard and Helen Lewis. This is such a massive project for a small publishing company to handle, on top of all their commitments as well, and they are managing it with great grace and skill, especially given all the challenges the pandemic has presented them with. To finish the Complete Works project – and the end is in sight now – they are going to need more help and support. There are two ways to do this. One is to give donations, to top up the amount so generously given at the start of the project. And the other is to buy the books, either individual volumes or, in particular, to invest in a subscription. I know that lots of people very much appreciate having their own copies of the books, and I’d urge you to think about getting your own. But, in particular, every Triratna centre and group needs its own set of copies. Although we’ve needed for practical reasons to bring out the volumes a few at a time, and we would have gone crazy if we’d tried to work on all of them at once!, the series will come into its own when it’s complete. Whether your approach to Bhante’s work is appreciative, critical, pragmatic, imaginative or a mixture of all of those, your centre or group needs these reference works as a starting point for further investigation, inspiration or critique. I know these are tough times financially, and I’m sure some centres are struggling. If your centre would be in a position to do it, why not take out a second subscription, to twin with a centre or group that can’t afford one? Please let me know if you would be willing to do that. Or, if your centre or group would like a set of volumes, write to me and I’ll see if I can set up a twinning arrangement.