Friends of the Western Buddhist Order (FWBO) is a Buddhist movement that was founded by Sangharakshita in 1967, along with the Western Buddhist Order (in 1968). Sangharakshita was ordained as a Theravadin bhikkhu and spent many years living in India. He returned to the UK at the request of the English Sangha Trust. Having seen that, despite considerable interest in the Dharma, British Buddhism was formalistic, sectarian, and riven by discord, Sangharakshita set out to start a new Buddhist movement.

Table of contents
1 The Western Buddhist Order
2 Distinctive Emphases of the FWBO
3 Activities
4 Practice
5 Diversity
6 The FWBO post Sangharakshita
7 Chronology
8 Criticism of the FWBO
9 External links

The Western Buddhist Order

Despite the name, the WBO is now a world-wide Buddhist movement with activities in every continent except Antarctica. Membership of the order is limited by one main criterion, the ability to Go for Refuge to the Three Jewels; that is the Buddha, Buddhadharma, and the Sangha. Since, as Sangharakshita has emphasized, it is the act of Going For Refuge that makes one a Buddhist, it makes sense for this to be the fundamental principle of the order. That said, the order is on one level simply a network of friendships - friendships based on a shared vision of human potential.

Order members are known as Dhamrmacaris (masculine) or Dharmacarinis (feminine) and are ordained on the same basis, and take the same precepts at ordination. There are no higher ordinations. Although many order members take vows of celibacy, this is seen as secondary to Going for Refuge.

Having rejected traditional Buddhist organizations, both lay and monastic, Sangharakshita has attempted to create a new type of order, where lifestyle is secondary to commitment to the Three Jewels. This is something of a radical departure in many eyes, but is in keeping with the spirit of the Buddhist teachings. Recent histories of Buddhism, such as Reginald Ray's Buddhist Saints in India, point out that monasticism as we now know it was a later development, and that the lay/monastic split was not so crucial in the past. That said, few traditional monastics would be prepared to grant a member of the WBO equal status - they tend to consider them lay people.

Order members undertake to observe a set of ten precepts. These are different from monastic vows, but the set is mentioned in the oldest Buddhist scriptures, the Pali Canon. Beyond this, and a commitment to remain in good communication with other order members, there are no requirements on order members. Ordination confers no special status, nor any responsibilities, although many order members do choose to take on responsibilities for such things as teaching meditation, and the Buddhadharma.

There are now more than 1,000 members of the order, in over 20 countries in Europe, India, Africa, Australasia, and elsewhere in Asia.

Distinctive Emphases of the FWBO

There are six characteristics of the FWBO that help to define the movement.

  1. The movement is ecumenical. The FWBO is not identified with any particular strand of Buddhism or Buddhist school, but draws inspiration from whatever seems appropriate to here and now.
  2. The movement is unified. The WBO ordains men and women on an equal footing - unlike most traditional Buddhist schools. The movement does regard single-sex activities as vital to spiritual growth, but men and women are, in principle, considered equally able to practise and develop spiritually.
  3. The act of Going for Refuge is central. Going for Refuge to the Three Jewels (i.e., the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha), is what makes someone a Buddhist. As such everyone in the FWBO is encouraged to place the Three Jewels at the center of their lives.
  4. Spiritual friendship. Spiritual friendship is friendship based on our highest values - especially the Three Jewels. Spending as much time as possible with friends who share our highest ideals supports ethical living.
  5. Team based right-livelihood. Working together in teams, in the spirit of generosity, and with a focus on ethics, is a transformative practice. The FWBO has been a pioneer in the area of right-livelihood, operating a number of successful businesses.
  6. Art. The arts help us to broaden our sympathies and to extend our experience; they enlarge our imaginations, they refine and direct our emotions. At their best and greatest they may be bearers of spiritual values, values which in principle are identical with those of the Dharma, values which can help us to transform our lives.


Right from the beginning there has been an emphasis on teaching meditation in urban centers. Retreats in the countryside soon followed, as did lecture series on aspects of Buddhist thought and practice. Residential communities developed out of retreats, when people decided they wanted to live together, and team-based right-livelihood projects were started to fund activities. Eventually, permanent retreat centers were established.

Centers were quickly established in other countries including New Zealand and Australia. The FWBO is now actively teaching Buddhism and meditation in France, Germany, Poland, Estonia, Sweden, Finland, South Africa, Mexico, USA, Venezuela, New Zealand, India, Malaysia, and elsewhere.

More recently FWBO activities have diversified to include outdoor festivals, online meditation teaching, arts festivals, poetry and writing workshops, yoga, karate, and pilgrimages to Buddhist holy sites in India.

For many years the FWBO charity Karuna Trust has raised money for aid projects in India, including supporting the small school for Tibetan refugees established by Dhardo Rimpoche, and a range of projects to assist the Dalit or ex-Untouchable community.


Because it draws on the whole of the Buddhist tradition there are a wide variety of practices current in the FWBO.


Many meditation practices are current within the FWBO. Sangharakshita has described the way he teaches meditation as having four phases, and the practices fall roughly into these four phases. The first two are, broadly speaking, calming or samatha practices, and the last two are insight or vipassana practices.

  • Integration - The main practice at this stage is the Mindfulness of Breathing, which has the effect of "integrating the psyche" (improving mindfulness and concentration).
  • Positive Emotion - The second aspect of calm is developing positivity. The Brahmavihara meditations, especially the 'metta bhavana' or cultivation of loving kindness meditations, are the key practices for developing positive emotion.
  • Spiritual Death - The beginning of insight is to examine aspects of reality and to see how all things are impermanent, lacking an essential nature, and lead to dissatisfaction. A key Buddhist technique for developing this insight has always been the breaking of things into parts. In the Six Element practice one looks at one's whole psychophysical organism in terms of earth, water, air, fire, space, and consciousness. Other techniques are contemplating impermance, especially of the body; contemplating suffering; and contemplating Shunyata. This leads to a spritual death, as through insight into the nature of things, one's sense of onself as a separate, isolated being is broken down. It is important to approach these meditation practices from a strong base of integration and positivity.
  • Spiritual Rebirth - With the development of insight, and the death of the limited ego-self a person is spiritually reborn. In the ultimate sense this is Bodhi or enlightenment. Practices which involve the visualization of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas are the main practices used in the FWBO in this phase, though typically it is only members of the order that do them.

Other common practices include just sitting, a formless meditation with no focus where one just sits and nothing else. Just sitting can be a good practice to help assimilate experience from other meditation practices. A similar practice that has recently become popular is Pure Awareness where the focus of the meditation is whatever happens to be in one's mind at the time - one allows sensations and thoughts to arise, observes them, and lets them go. Walking meditation is popular on retreats. The focus in this case is the physical movements of the body, or the soles of the feet. This is an integrative practice.


Worship or Puja can be thought of as a kind of theatre, in which one recites verse, performs physical acts such as mudra and prostrations, and uses imaginative imagery to evoke a particular experience. The experience is one which includes comapssion for all living beings, and a desire to liberate them from suffering. The FWBO has a range of pujas but the most common one is composed of verses from the Bodhicaryavatara of Shantideva. It consists of seven stages: worship, salutation, going for refuge, confession of faults, rejoicing in merit, entreaty and supplication, and transference of merit & self-surrender.

These verses can be thought of evoking an image of the Buddha as being like a far-off mountain. First one glimpses the mountain-top peeking through some clouds; then the clouds clear and one has a stunning vision of the mountain; in that moment one knows that one must go to the mountain; but one realizes that one has many unnecessary burdens; having unburdened oneself one stocks up on energy; then one asks for directions; and finally one expresses gratitude and devotes any good that accrues to the benefit of all beings.


Retreats provide an opportunity for practitioners to focus on their practice with little or no interruption. Even just a few days of intensive practice can make quite a difference. Beginners' retreats are usually 2 or 3 days, whilst a regular program of two-week retreats is avilable to more experienced and committed members. The typical retreat program would include several sessions of meditation, some Dharma study, and a puja or devotional ritual in the evenings. Afternoons are usually free for people to rest or meet together. More intensive retreats might have less study and more meditation.


Unlike in the Christian tradition, Buddhists do not confess in order to be forgiven. Buddhists believe that actions have consequences, and that regret after the fact is only useful if it prevents a repetition of the deed. Hence true confession can only be made when it is accompanied by remorse and resolution not to repeat the deed. Confession is seen as an act of purification.

Right Livelihood

Early on in the history of the FWBO it became apparent that it needed to raise funds for various projects. This became especially apparent with the decision to purchase and renovate a disused fire station in Bethnal Green. At this time several small businesses were set up including a wholefood shop and a building team. These were run by collectives of people who almost immediately discovered that working together as a team seemed like a very good spiritual practice in itself. Right livelihood is one of the limbs of the Buddha's Noble Eightfold Path and consists essentially in applying Buddhist ethics to work. Right livelihood businesses now contribute substantial funds for the movement as well as providing very positive environments for spiritual growth.


Another practice that emerged from the early milieu of the FWBO is residential spiritual communities. The first community was formed after a rereat when several of the participants decided they wanted to try to continue the retreat-style living. The most stable communities tended to be single sex, and most FWBO communities these days are single sex affairs. Some of the most intensive situations are where people live and work together as a spiritual practice - the constant reminders about ethics, and the support from fellow practitioners, is seen to be particularly effective in helping people to grow.


As an international movement diversity is a distinguishing feature. While England remains the main stronghold, the movement in India is growing rapidly. Most Indian members come from the lowest strata of Indian society, from the castes that were formerly known as untouchables (Untouchability was outlawed by the first Independent Indian government).

There are a wide range of people involved, from academics to working-class people, artists, accountants, and doctors. About 1 in 6 are celibate, and another 1 in 6 are married in traditional families. Many live in single-sex communities and work in right-livelihood businesses - a lifestyle which has come to be called semi-monastic.

A recent innovation has come from a group of people who are involved in the festival scene in the UK. Buddhafield both attends festivals such as Glastonbury, and runs its own outdoor events which regularly attract several hundred people.

The FWBO post Sangharakshita

In the 1990s Sangharakshita began handing over spiritual and administrative responsibility for the FWBO and WBO to a group of senior men and women disciples. This transfer was completed by 2000. Since then Sangharakshita's health has declined, but thanks to his foresight the movement continues to thrive.

Leadership is vested in the College of Public Preceptors, a group of 12 men and women who take overall responsibility for ordaining new members, and for ensuring harmony in the order and spiritual vitality in the movement. With over 1,000 members, and a continuing commitment to consensus decision-making, the order is now having to explore new ways of communicating on issues of concern to all. One such issue, which has highlighted the need for change, is the name of the order, which is now considered to be inappropriate since the movement is no longer, if it ever really was, a purely Western one. However, getting consensus from 1,000+ people is a difficult business and progress in making the change has been slow.



1925 Sangharakshita born
1943Sangharakshita conscripted
1944Sangharakshita takes refuges and precepts from U Thittila, thereby officially becoming a Buddhist
       Sangharakshita posted to India, and later transferred to Ceylon
1949 12 May: Dennis Lingwood ordained by U Chandramani, and given the name Sangharakshita.
1957 A Survey of Buddhism is first published
1964 Sangharakshita returns to England after 20 years in India
1967 Founding of the FWBO
       Aspects of Buddhist Psychology Lecture series
1968 Founding of the Western Buddhist Order 7 April, 12 men and women ordained
       Noble Eightfold Path Lecture series (later published as Vision & Transformation)
1969Aspects of the Bodhisattva Ideal Lecture series
1971 Sangharakshita takes a year off, leaving order members to run things on their own.
1972First single-sex retreats
1975 First ordinations in New Zealand.
Sukhavati project started - a derelict fire station is transformed into the London Buddhist Center and a residential community. Out of this project would also come the first team-based right-livelihood businesses.
1976Padmaloka Retreat Centre purchased, Sangharakshita makes it his base
1978 Indian wing of the FWBO founded. Known as the Trailokya Bauddha Mahasangha Sahayaka Gana (TBMSG)
1980 Formation of Aid for India, now known as the Karuna Trust, to raise funds for aid projects in India, particularly amongst the so called "ex-untouchable" Buddhists.
1990 Death of Dhardo Rimpoche, one of Sangharakshita's main teachers
1992 Sangharakshita addresses the European Buddhist Union.
1997 The Guardian publishes an article which is critical of the FWBO; the FWBO response is largely ignored even though it is clear that the reporter has misrepresented the movement.
2000 Sangharakshita hands on the headship of the order to the College of Public Preceptors.
2002 The order reaches 1,000 members. Major changes announced in the "mitra system"

Criticism of the FWBO

In recent times there has been quite a lot of controversy about the FWBO. There was a highly critical article in The Guardian in 1997, and there has been an internet-based campaign to discredit the movement, and its founder, by a former member of the Order and a handful of disgruntled people who were more superficially involved.

The issues are more complex than most people seem to admit, but it is clear that there have been problems in the movement. In the 1980s a small number of people created a cult-like culture at the Croydon Buddhist Centre. Suggestions that this was an isolated incident have tended to be met with a "where there's smoke, there's fire" attitude. The fact is that some of the attitudes and behaviour of members of the movement have been questionable, even misguided. FWBO centers are largely autonomous, and to a large extent set their own agendas and standards, although since the difficulties in Croydon there is more oversight.

Claims that the movement is a hotbed of sex, especially between men, and that the founder is a "sexual predator" are grossly overstated. However, Sangharakshita was sexually active for a long period, and his partners were most frequently from within the ranks of the FWBO. This has led to doubts about the appropriateness of his behaviour. Like other spiritual groups where sex has been an issue (and that is most of them) there have been some difficulties, although the members of the order seem to be willing to address these now.

Another criticism of the FWBO is that, in stepping outside the traditional structure of Buddhism, it does not have the checks and balances that exist in traditional schools. The argument is that in traditional organisations cells of cultish behaviour would be detected and taken care of earlier, and that there is an appeal to a higher authority. It is said, in Usenet discussion groups for instance, that Sangharakshita is a law unto himself, and that this is a fundamental flaw in the structure of the FWBO.

External links

FWBO Sites

Outside Views of the FWBO

  • Martine Batchelor analyses responses to Steven Batchelor's book, including Sangharakshita's review.
  • Journal of Global Buddhism Research summary by Sally A. McAra, (2000). Investigates Order members' narratives about their transformative relationship with the land, focusing on the retreat center Sudarshanaloka in New Zealand.
  • A Review of Extending the Hand of Fellowship by Sandra Bell, University of Durham. Journal of Buddhist Ethics
  • Working in the Right Spirit by Martin Baumann, University of Hannover. Journal of Buddhist Ethics. The application of Buddhist Right Livelihood in the FWBO.
  • Perceptions of the FWBO in British Buddhism By Dharmachari Vishvapani. Although written by a member of the WBO it attempts to summarise views of the FWBO from the outside, including many criticisms.