The Three Great Phases of the FWBO

The Three Great Phases of the FWBO / Triratna Buddhist Community

Or, ‘Around the Wheel’ with Reginald Ray.

In this article I explore how Reginald Ray’s Threefold Model applies to the FWBO / Triratna Buddhist Community.  One way of showing how it does apply is to demonstrate how the movement has gone through three great phases in its history: a phase of establishing principles; a phase of Sangha building; and a phase of lay expansion, which correspond respectively to Ray’s three categories of Buddhist practitioner: namely the ‘forest renunciant,’ the ‘settled monastic,’ and the ‘lay practitioner.’  And the fact that collectively Triratna has ‘circled’ through these three phases is I propose due to that fact that prior to stream entry individuals tend to cluster into groups, and generally speaking we are not stream entrants.

First, I outline my impression of the history of the Threefold model in the Triratna Buddhist Community.  I then explore stream entry in terms of the ‘Five Paths’ in particular how it results from a person addressing their weaknesses as well as their strengths.  After that I explore the three great phases in the movement, which I have named ‘Establishing Principles,’ ‘Sangha Building’ and ‘Lay Expansion.’  I then offer some predictions and conclude.

The Threefold Model
According to Vajragupta in ‘The Triratna Story,’ Sangharakshita recommended Reginald Ray’s Buddhist Saints in India back in 1994. I first came across Ray’s ideas as presented by Subhuti in a talk called ‘How to become an Order Member’ as presented on the ‘What is the Order?‘ retreat in 1995.  Subhuti outlined Ray’s categories as a way of talking about the breadth of Order lifestyles and he explained the category of the forest renunciant as corresponding not just to the lone meditator in their cave but also to the dedicated artist or scholar who worked intensively in isolation, but who fed ideas, inspiration and insight back into the wider community. Being temperamentally this kind of practitioner, I was attracted to Ray’s model mainly because it gave me a meaningful place in the Sangha. According to Subhuti the settled monastic corresponded to people in Triratna who ran Buddhist Centres, lived in communities and worked in Team-based Right Livelihood businesses. And the lay practitioner worked out in the world.

In the years since Subhuti’s talk I have been aware of little mention of Ray’s model in the Order, except for a faint ‘it doesn’t apply to us,’ with no explanation why.  But I have always believed that it does apply and I argued in favour of it a few years ago in the ‘Threads’ section of the Order journal Shabda.  This year Vajragupta gave a talk at the ‘New Society’ seminar at Dharmapala College entitled ‘Being Radical – Forty Years of the New Society’ (available on free buddhist audio.)   He suggested as a movement we may be becoming less radical and talked about being wary lest our outlook was being informed by the three fetters in Sangharakshita’s reading of them: becoming habitual, being hesitant or doubtful and ‘going through the motions.’ He made a plea that we don’t take for coherence what is just habit, and he implied that we need to take more risks and be more innovative and creative.  Vajragupta then went on to talk about Reginald Ray’s model which he restyled as the ‘Threefold Model of Radical Sangha.’ He ‘renamed’ Ray’s categories of ‘forest renunciant’ as ‘retreatant,’ the ‘settled monastic’ as ‘Sangha builder’ and the ‘lay practitioner’ as the ‘socially engaged Buddhist’ or the ‘social activist.’ He talked about the contribution each category made to the Sangha as a whole, and the dangers inherent in each category on isolation, but said that: ‘if all three strands are strong and present they balance each other out.’  Here in Manchester we have just completed a series of Sangha nights on ‘work as spiritual practice’ and we used Vajragupta’s revised categories as a structure.  In the first week I presented an overview of the Threefold model and I talked about my practice of working as the ‘retreatant’ writer.  In the following weeks Dayamala talked about her experience as the ‘Sangha builder’ in Team-based Right Livelihood businesses; and Chandana talked about his experience of working in the world as the ‘socially engaged Buddhist.’


I propose Ray’s model is valuable because:

* It acknowledges people’s temperaments, and how their temperaments can best contribute to

* It shows a relationship between practitioners of different temperaments and interests.

* It gives a path for the manifestation of strengths.

* Acknowledging others’ temperaments and strengths is a helpful reminder of our own weaknesses.


There is of course a creative tension between the different categories.  If they acknowledge that the model is applicable to them, the solitary writer will:

a) acknowledge themselves as a writer and see that as a valid path,

b) know that they need to bring inspiration to the Sangha,

c) pursue their writing as a strength, but also,

d) see that they also need to build up their weaker sides, by say spending some of their time in Buddhist communal situations and by being exposed to the demands of ‘the world.’

Ray’s model and the History of the Movement
I want to turn now to the history of the movement.  Over the years, for some reason, I have been very interested in historical cycles (I remember for instance seeing an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in London and being amazed by what seemed to be a sixty year cycle in hairstyles going back over hundreds of years.)  And I also became interested in the Kondratiev wave: a long wave cycle of economic history that goes back to the industrial revolution, which demonstrates how depressions, booms and wars appear at regular intervals in history.  So I have looked for such cycles in the history of the Triratna movement.

What I can see in the development of the movement are three great phases, roughly corresponding to Ray’s categories.  Each phase seems to last around fifteen years, give or take a few. In the following three diagrams I have shown the ‘peak’ of each phase as a ball with the date of the peak on it, and where the circles cross is a transition point between cycles, marking the beginning and end of a cycle.

The first phase: ‘Establishing Principles,’ begins around 1972-73, peaks in 1980 and ends in 1988 and corresponds to Vajragupta’s category of ‘retreatant.’  The second phase: ‘Sangha Building,’ begins around 1988, peaks in 1995 and ends in 2003 and corresponds to the category of ‘Sangha builder.’  The third phase: ‘Lay Expansion,’ begins in 2003, peaks around 2010 (?) and ends around 2018 and corresponds to the category of ‘socially engaged Buddhist.’  Each phase corresponds with a category in the sense that a person of that particular disposition is comfortable in that phase and it has a development phase – when the whole thing seems new, innovative, reasonable, and exciting to those of that temperament (and maybe shocking to those not of that temperament,) a peak, and a domination / excess phase – where it appears to everyone to represent ‘the norm,’ although its dominance may in fact be declining. For instance in 2000, centralisation and institutionalism was seen as ‘the norm’ even though it was by then in decline, just as today a greater worldliness appears to be ‘the norm’ but may soon begin to decline.

Here is a sketch of the three phases:-

If we choose to accept these ‘phases,’ they give us some evidence for the applicability of Ray’s model to the FWBO / Triratna community.  What seems to have happened in our history is we have ‘circled’ around the wheel of the Threefold Model.  If we have stream entrants in Triratna they are likely to have remained more in the centre of the Wheel, but the rest of us have moved around the centre like a herd.

The Qualities of Stream Entry

I get the sense that if we had more stream entrants we’d move off the wheel of the Threefold model.  I wonder what we would look like if we had more stream entrants? Ray’s categories are very much tied up with identity.  If we see ourselves as a creative / original individual, good organiser / team player / brilliant leader, responsible / dedicated citizen, these translate into our being a ‘retreatant,’ ‘Sangha builder’ or ‘socially engaged Buddhist.’   We basically identify with what we are good at.  The main danger with the model is over-identifying with ones temperament and not seeking to address ones weaknesses.  By fixing ourselves as a ‘retreatant,’ we neglect to develop our ‘Sangha building’ or ‘socially engaged Buddhist’ sides.  This fault can happen with any model which is about identifying dispositions, such as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator.  The danger is we settle into ‘who we are,’ and don’t develop ‘who we might be.’  But if we think in terms of aiming towards Stream Entry we go beyond seeing things in terms of personality.  Ray’s categories outline how to best use our strengths to benefit the Sangha – and allow others to do so as well – but  if we think in terms of aiming towards Stream Entry and trying to get beyond the limiting view of ourselves as a ‘retreatant’ etc. we will then work also on our weaknesses. We can connect the ‘run up’ to Stream Entry with the development of the five Spiritual Faculties, as these involve a shift of emphasis from ourselves to the Three Jewels: sraddha is faith in the accomplishment of the Buddha; prajna is wisdom directed to examining conditionality and to the destruction of suffering; viriya is energy directed to the robust maintenance of skilful mental states; and samadhi is one-pointed concentration on the goal of liberation. Any person developing the five Spiritual Faculties becomes less concerned with themselves and their own identity, and more concerned with the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha.  They gradually becomes less concerned with how they might be perceived by other people (they have less pride or manas), and they gradually become more interested in what they need to do or develop in order to take reality on fully. The Stream Entrant therefore develops all of Ray’s categories: when need be and at different times they are able to be the ‘retreatant,’ the ‘Sangha builder’ or the ‘socially engaged Buddhist,’ because they see all of these skills as necessary to the Path.  They see very little point in either going through the motions, clinging to a fixed view of themselves, or in being hesitant, because they clearly know that none of this will help them in the bid to take reality on. But if someone has no interest in taking reality on, there are benefits terms of image in going through the motions. We appear better than we are.

It is is a positive sign for the movement that – as they go through these great phases – individuals haven’t in general ‘bailed out’ when the prevailing zeitgeist hasn’t suited them. It shows that they aren’t just identifying with their preferences, but are to some degree putting themselves in a position of working on their weaknesses, even if this can be quite painful, as I found out when I moved from the ‘retreatant’-like West London Buddhist Centre to the ‘Sangha builder’-like Manchester Buddhist Centre building project in the early 1990s. So I think there is hope for us yet in terms of developing Stream Entry.

I am aware that this has been a very speculative exercise about the movement’s history. Some of the dates may turn out to be wrong. I hope though that you agree that the overall argument is sound.  According to Buddhaghosa in the Visuddhimagga there is no problem with speculation per se. While it leads towards delusion if it turns out to be wrong, it leads towards wisdom if it turns out to be right.  So let’s hope that these speculations turn out to be right.


Adapted version of original published in November 2010 issue of Triratna Buddhist Order journal, Shabda.
On 6th September 2010 I gave a talk at the Manchester Buddhist Centre, upon which this article is based, entitled ‘Work As Spiritual Practice: Introducing Reginald Ray’s Threefold Model.’ Since then it has been available on the Manchester Buddhist Centre website and also on Free Buddhist Audio and has been downloaded 1249 times, as of 8 January 2014 (duration 39 minutes.)





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