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Wednesday, July 5, 2006

Notes from a Small Isle

 In which I receive communications from two deep thinkers in Britain

In the past couple of days I have had some interesting correspondence with two "heavyweights" in England.

Borrowed from
Anne Baring

The first is Anne Baring whom I mentioned a few days ago. Her home page is a magnificent exposition of the things I love best about Jungian thinking. She also has articles and excerpts of several of her published books on her pages.

I wrote to her to inquire into purchasing one of her books, and received an extremely kind and thoughtful response. Here is part of what she wrote:

I would love you to read the essay I wrote on Taoism because I know it captures the essence of the Taoist vision. It is under the book The Divine Feminine.... I did not reach China in my travels because it was out of bounds at the time and I got a terrible rocket from my diplomat uncle, then ambassador in Bangkok, when he opened the envelope containing my visa for China I had obtained from an Indian friend.

I will comment on the essay she suggests in a later post.

I had originally found Anne's pages when I was looking for info for my post on The King and the Corpse. She replied: "The King and the Corpse is one of my oldest and most precious books, given to me years ago by Cyril Connolly...."

Ah! I only found the book last summer, but I have reread it so much that I must say it has become one of my favorites, too. I will be spending days reading Anne's online materials this summer, and I plan to have some books by autumn to carry with me to school.

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Borrowed from

Despite the fact that Anne Baring is listed at, my second contact with deep thinkers in the UK is somewhat more famous--or infamous, depending on who's talking. Sangharakshita is the founder of the Western Buddhist Order (WBO), as well as the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order (FWBO). These groups have been involved in a few problems in the past few years. The Guardian seems to have published a highly critical article back in 1997; yet, in the past seven years, The Guardian has made seven mainly-positive mentions of the WBO/FWBO [2023: link unavailable]. Most of the attacks, including scurrilous things about Sangharakshita himself, seem to have come from one opponent. Given that his is the only source of the Guardian article online, and that the Guardian has published either neutral or, more often, positive things about Sangharakshita's orders since then, I wonder how deep the problem could really be.

(If you're really interested in this issue, here are three more articles on the controversy: a reasonably balanced view by an insider, the FWBO's response to the allegations, and a refutation of that response.) [2023: All links gone!]

Sangharakshita also (perhaps with clearer evidence) has been criticized for Westernizing and amalgamating the various authentic Buddhist traditions, much of this censure coming from monastics within those traditions. This is not surprising given that, in the words of Wikipedia, "The FWBO and the WBO are an attempt to translate Buddhism into a western context without the sectarianism that seems to characterise Buddhism in the East." [2023: Link gone, but here's the current Wiki article on the movement]

Born Dennis Lingwood in South London in 1925, his biography tells of his studies in India after the Second World War, and his subsequent return 20 years later to teach Buddhism in the UK. The opponent cited above disputes this story; nevertheless, a survey of his writings shows lucid, practical thinking on a wide spectrum of Buddhist issues.

One book in particular, Peace is a Fire, is an easily-accessible collection of "aphorisms, teachings, and poems" which first appeared in the late 70s. In it, I found this gem:

"Universalism does not mean comparing the letters of different traditions, but trying to get through to the spirit."

As I am deeply interested in universalist/perennialist thinking, and as Sangharakshita invites questions and comments on his homepage, I wrote a note asking him this question:

Do you reckon that universalism or Perennialism underlies much of your thinking? Is the WBO based on Perennialist principles? (This would certainly explain the antagonism from some "institutional Buddhists.")

I have recently become aware of your work, and I am fascinated....I would enjoy hearing your thoughts on Buddhism and Perennialism, if you have time.

To my surprised delight, he responded within a day:

Thank you for your email dated 03 July 2006... You ask whether universalism or perennialism underlies much of my thinking. I much admit that I had not come across the term 'perennialism' before but I assume that it goes back, in modern times, to Aldous Huxley's well-known book The Perennial Philosophy and that the term corresponds approximately to universalism. Universalism or perennialism does underlie much of my thinking in the sense that, as a Buddhist, I seek to draw inspiration and guidance from all the different Buddhist scriptures and all the different schools of Buddhist thought and practice. I am also influenced, in this respect, by the Tibetan Rimé or 'Non-Sectarian' tradition, of which one of my Tibetan teachers was a leading representative. More broadly speaking, it has long been my conviction that in some of the greatest works of Western art and literature echoes and glimpses of the Dharma are to be found.

I am sorry I cannot reply at greater length, and hope that the little I have written will go at least some way towards answering your question.

With best wishes,

I'm fascinated by the implications of this statement. It seems that there are two ways to look at the relationship between Perennialism and a specific tradition. One could be called the "Platonic," the view that I take: There are general truths which come down and manifest themselves in various ways in different cultures. In this way, all traditions are embodiments of the one transcendent Truth. The other is (with, perhaps, some violence done to the term) "Aristotelian," and this I think is Sangharakshita's way when he says " in some of the greatest works of Western art and literature echoes and glimpses of the Dharma are to be found." You have derived the Truth (a la Aristotle) from the particulars of your tradition; and this is the truth that you see reflected in the beliefs of others. Still, you have the "real" truth; they have only pale imitations. Anything good, or true, or beautiful in their tradition owes its existence to yours; anything that deviates from yours is error. I have some more thinking to do on this; your thoughts are welcomed, too.

Two themes have emerged already in this young Journal: (1) the relationship between ethnic Buddhism and its Western developments, and (2) the relationship between specific traditions and Perennialism. Both of these thinkers, Anne Baring and Sangharakshita, have contributed to my thoughts on these matters, and I am looking forward to more serious reading in their pages and books in days to come.

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