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The Three Great Phases of the FWBO / Triratna Buddhist Community

Or, ‘Around the Wheel’ with Reginald Ray

In this article I am going to explore the applicability of Reginald Ray’s Threefold Model to the FWBO / Triratna Buddhist Community.  As a way of showing how I think it does apply, I explore how the movement has gone through three great phases in its history, corresponding respectively to Ray’s categories of ‘forest renunciant,’ ‘settled monastic,’ and ‘lay practitioner.’  The fact that collectively we have ‘circled’ through these different phases I propose is due to that fact that we are generally not stream entrants, and prior to stream entry, individuals tend to cluster into groups.

First, I outline my impression of the history of the Threefold model in the movement.  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,’ Bhante (Sangharakshita) recommended Reginald Ray’s Buddhist Saints in India back in 1994. I first came across Ray’s ideas when presented by Subhuti on a ‘What is the Order?‘ retreat in 1995.  Subhuti outlined Ray’s categories as a way of talking about a breadth of Order lifestyles.   He said the category of the forest renunciant could be applied to the dedicated artist, scholar, and meditator, who worked away on their own, and fed ideas, inspirations and insights back into the broader community. Being temperamentally like this, I was attracted to Ray’s model mainly because it gave me a meaningful place in the Sangha as a whole. 

In the years since there has been little mention of Ray’s model in the Order, if sometimes a faint ‘it doesn’t apply to us,’ with no explanation as to why it didn’t apply.  I have always believed it does apply so I argued for it a few years ago in Threads.  This year Vajragupta delivered a talk (New Society seminar, Dharmapala College) called ‘Being Radical – Forty Years of the New Society’ (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: becoming habitual, hesitant (doubtful) and ‘going through the motions.’ That we don’t take for coherence what is just habit, and we need to take more risks, and be more innovative and creative.  Vajragupta then goes on to talk about Ray’s model which he restyles the ‘Threefold Model of Radical Sangha.’ He ‘renames’ Ray’s category of ‘forest renunciant’ as ‘retreatant,’ his ‘settled monastic’ as ‘Sangha builder’ and his ‘lay practitioner’ as the ‘socially engaged Buddhist’ or the ‘social activist.’ He talks about the contribution each category makes to the Sangha as a whole, and the dangers inherent in each category on its own, and that ‘if all three strands are strong and present they balance each other out.’  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 the Threefold model and I talked about the practice of ‘working’ as the ‘retreatant’ writer.    In subsequent weeks Dayamala talked about her experiences as a ‘Sangha builder’ in TBRL and Chandana talked about his experiences of working in the world as the ‘socially engaged Buddhist.’  I think 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 a creative tension between the different categories.  If they acknowledge the model, the solitary writer will a) acknowledge they are a writer and see it as a valid path, b) know they need to bring that contribution practically to the Sangha, c) pursue their writing as their strength, but, d) see they also need to develop their weaker sides (by say spending time in Buddhist team situations or 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 then there are the Kondratiev waves in economic history that go back to the industrial revolution, with wars, depressions and booms appearing at regular intervals.  Here I have turned my interest in cycles in the direction of the history of the movement.

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

The first phase, of ‘Establishing Principles,’ begins around 1972-73, peaks in 1980 and ends in 1988.  It corresponds with the category of ‘retreatant.’  The second phase, of ‘Sangha Building,’ begins around 1988, peaks in 1995 and ends in 2003.  It corresponds with the category of ‘Sangha builder.’  The third phase, of ‘Lay Expansion,’ begins in 2003, peaks around 2010 (?) and ends around 2018.  It corresponds with the category of ‘socially engaged Buddhist.’  The phases correspond with the categories in the sense that a person of that disposition would be most comfortable in that phase. Each phase has a development phase, when it seems new, innovative, reasonable, and exciting to those into it (and perhaps shocking to those uncomfortable with it,) a peak, and a domination / excess phase where it appears to everyone to represent ‘the norm’ (where it is perhaps resented by those who don’t identify so much with that particular category, even when its dominance might in reality be declining.) For instance in 2000, centralisation and insitutionalism was seen to be ‘the norm’ even though it was then in decline, just as today a loose worldliness appears to be ‘the norm.’ Here is a sketch of the three phases:-

If we choose to accept these ‘phases,’ they give some evidence for the applicability of Ray’s model to the FWBO / TBC.  What seems to have happened in our history is we have ‘circled’ around the wheel of the Threefold Model.  If we have stream entrants they are likely to have remained more in the centre of the Wheel, but the rest of us have moved together 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 identify with what we are good at.  The main danger withy this is over-identifying with ones temperament, and then not seeking to address ones weaknesses.  By fixing ourselves as a ‘retreatant,’ we don’t go on to develop our ‘sangha builder’ or ‘socially engaged Buddhist.’    sides.  This can happen with any model that is about identifying disposition, such as Myers-Briggs.  We settle into ‘who we are,’ and don’t develop ‘who we might be.’  But if we think in terms of stream entry we go beyond personality view.  Ray’s categories outline how we can best use our strengths to benefit the Sangha - and allow others to do so as well - but attending to stream entry - and trying to go beyond a limiting self view that we are only a ‘retreatant’ etc. -  encourages us to work on our weaknesses.

It is possible to connect the 'run up' to stream entry with the development of the five spiritual faculties, which involve a shift of emphasis from oneself to the Three Jewels.  Saddha is faith in the accomplishment of the Buddha; panna is directed to examining conditionality and to the destruction of suffering, viriya is directed to the robust maintenance of skilful states, and samadhi is one-pointedness on the goal (having release as its object.)   A person developing them becomes less concerned with themselves and their identity, and more concerned with the Dhamma.  They gradually becomes less concerned with how they are doing, in particular in relation to others (pride or manas), and become more interested in ‘what do I need to do?’ or ‘what do I need to develop?’ in order to take on reality, stream entry being possibly defined as being ready to take on reality. They therefore develop all of Ray’s categories.  They are able to be a ‘retreatant,’ a ‘sangha builder’ and a ‘socially engaged Buddhist,’ because they see all of that as necessary to the Path.  They see little point in going through the motions, clinging to a view of themselves or hesitancy, because they know that none of that will help them take on reality, whereas, for the person not concerned with taking on reality, but with their image or identity, there are benefits in going through the motions (you appear better than you are.)

The fact that in going through these great phases in the movement, individuals haven’t generally bailed out when the zeitgeist hasn’t suited them, is a positive sign.  We aren’t then just identifying with our strengths or preferences, but are putting ourselves in the position of learning to work on our weaknesses (even though at the time that can be quite painful, as I found when I moved from the West London Centre to the Manchester building project in the early 1990s.) So I think in terms of developing stream entry there is perhaps hope for us yet.

I don’t expect everybody to accept this speculative exercise about the movement’s history. I am aware that some of the dates may turn out to be wrong, but I do think the overall argument is sound.  And Buddhaghosa suggests in the Visuddhimagga that speculation can lead towards delusion, if it turns out to be wrong, but towards wisdom if it turns out to be right.  I hope then that this leads to wisdom. 


Phase 1 - Establishing the principles 1973-1988
Mid point 1980

1972-73 The Archway Centre is opened.  Bhante returns from Cornwall.  Young pioneers leaving jobs / comfort for challenging situations (living in squats together, building LBC.)  Emphasis on depth.  Meditation. Study. Bhante delivers many lectures / leads many study groups.  Sexual experimentation. Vajraloka established 1980.  Peaks around 1980, after which ‘the norm’ is perceived as individuals trying to gain insight in challenging situations.  Culminates in ‘shadow’ of ‘the norm’ in Croydon.

Phase 2 - Building the Institutions of Sangha 1988-2003
Mid point 1995

1988 Subhuti and others begin to establish institutions on firmer footing, esp. systematising ordination process.  Path of responsibility is promoted as an option to dominant path of meditation.  Larger centres. Expansion of Windhorse Trading. Oversees expansion.  Peaks around 1995 with formation of Madhyamaloka, after which ‘the norm’ is perceived as a sense of centralisation and institutionalism.  1997 Guardian article.  2001 Madhamaloka meeting - Subhuti talks about decentralisation.

Phase 3 - Expanding the Lay Base 2003-2018
Mid point 2010 (?)

2003 Yashomitra’s letter.  Serious doubts among OMs.  Ongoing debate around pure awareness.  OMs going to other teachers.  Growth of mindfulness-based therapy (Buddhist practices gain secular acceptance.)  Fewer dana economies in Centres.  2007 Order survey reveals Order’s actual practice.  2009 Bhante’s letter.  2010 possible peak, after which ‘the norm’ is perceived as ‘anything goes’ even though in reality that might not be the case for people.

Phase 4 - Re-establishing the principles 2018- 2033 (?)

Prediction - Perhaps there will be a period that is perceived as quite ‘worldly’ but during that time a number of ‘forest renunciants’ / ‘retreatants’ will have been seeing a personal need for  deepening their understanding of the dharma or becoming more substantial practitioners.  Around 2018 they emerge and begin to re-establish the principles or set up a new nucleus of more ‘radical’ practitioners. And so the cycles continue. There were possible cycles in Bhante’s life, prior to 1973.  The sixties were possibly more of a ‘lay expansion’ phase for Bhante, dealing with the Hampstead Buddhist Vihara, whereas the fifties very much involved Sangha building in Kalimpong.
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