Following talks I gave to the German Buddhist Union in April 2018 and the European Buddhist Union in September, both organisations asked me to write something for their members.
While I fully acknowledge that there has been controversy and harm in Triratna’s past, I am not going to address that in this article, because you can read about it in great detail here: https://thebuddhistcentre.com/node/14140
This article explains the measures we have put in Triratna place to lessen the risk of harm in future. I’ll begin by explaining who we are.
What is the Triratna Buddhist Order and Community?
We were founded as the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order in Britain in 1967 by the Venerable Urgyen Sangharakshita (1925-2018), later becoming known as the Triratna Buddhist Order and Triratna Buddhist Community.
Triratna today is an international Buddhist movement, crossing many cultures and legal systems. Our members are not lay or monastic and we are not defined as “teachers” or “students”; we are spiritual friends at different stages of commitment to and experience of Buddhism and Triratna. Today over 2,200 of us are ordained as members of the Triratna Buddhist Order – women and men, all over the world.
Half the Order still lives in Britain, with the other half spread across the rest of the world. Several more thousand people worldwide practise Buddhism with us, many of whom are training to enter the Order. A great many of us live in India, mostly in Dalit communities formerly known as “Untouchable”.
However, we began in London in the 1960s as a very small, informal group of young British hippies with ‘experimental’ ideas about a number of things including sexual relationships. Over the decades since we have periodically had to revisit some sad consequences of the behaviour of our founder and some others from the 1960s to the early 1980s.
What is ‘Safeguarding’?
Safeguarding is a British English term for the duty of legally established bodies in Britain to protect from harm children (under 18s) but also adults – especially adults who may be particularly “vulnerable” or “at risk” under certain conditions; for example those with addictions or mental instability, who would be particularly vulnerable to influence or lack mental capacity to make sound judgments for themselves.
The risk to children
It’s interesting that although our sanghas are rightly concerned with past misconduct by Buddhist teachers with adult students, child protection is a far greater concern in other religious organisations, and in society in general. We Buddhists must not think that Buddhists will never commit serious child sexual abuse. I am certain it is by far the greater danger facing us now and indeed It has already happened: this article reports the case of a German Zen priest jailed in 2017 for sexual offences with seven boys aged 4-13.
How does Safeguarding look in Triratna?
Since 2015, Triratna has been developing two kinds of written policy:
1) Safeguarding policies for children and adults and
2) Ethical guidelines.
Safeguarding policies meet external requirements: they set out the law on matters such as criminal abuse and discrimination, and demonstrate an organisation’s commitment to abide by the law and good pratice. They include definitions of abuse, how to recognise it and what to do when a complaint is made or abuse is suspected. Buddhist Safeguarding policies make it clear that these external requirements are expressions of Buddhist ethical teachings and values.
Triratna’s Ethical Guidelines are internal statements of our own values as Triratna Buddhists, based on the Five Precepts. For example, they state that Order members should be extremely careful if they start sexual relations with adult newcomers.
These two sets of documents overlap, of course, and both are public. They are updated every year as our experience and understanding develop and you can see the 2018 versions here:
Half our ordained sangha (‘the Order’) lives in countries where the requirement for Safeguarding is different or does not exist at all. But since half of us live in the UK, it makes sense to use British requirements as the model for all our centres worldwide.
All Triratna centres in Britain are separately registered charities, all therefore regulated by the Charity Commission (England and Wales) or Scottish Charity Regulator, which hold the trustees of each charity legally responsible for Safeguarding in the course of its activities.
Our Safeguarding polices and Ethical guidelines are ‘model’ documents. A model policy is a suggested form of words. It is recommended that each centre has such a policy but the exact form of words is up to them and it may be that local requirements in a particular country are different from the British requirements. In Sweden, where I live, Safeguarding does not exist but we have adopted the British documents with slight amendments taking account of Swedish law. In Germany our centres have adopted rather different documents, which you can see here: http://www.buddhistisches-zentrum-essen.de/ueber-uns/ethische-leitlinien.html
Sexual relations in the Triratna sangha
Triratna is not a celibate sangha, and we do not wish to regulate people’s sex lives, but we make clear that preceptors must not have sexual relationships with people they have ordained, or ordain people with whom they have had sexual relations in the past.
Triratna’s Safeguarding has been developing since 2013
Introducing Safeguarding is a matter of slow culture change. I began to talk about the need for Safeguarding policies and training in 2013 but it took until 2015 for us to publish our first model policies, and I became overall Safeguarding officer in 2016. (This is a full-time job for which I am paid a very modest living allowance by the leaders of all Triratna’s centres in Europe.)
In 2017 I started a Safeguarding team, working with another member of our Order who is very senior in the criminal justice system in Britain. And we are part of an Ethics Kula with more senior members of the Order – who can take action at a higher level, for example where a person’s conduct has implications for their continued membership of the Order.
Triratna Safeguarding today
You can always see the latest Safeguarding news on Triratna’s main website here: https://thebuddhistcentre.com/search/node/safeguarding
But in short, every one of our 30 or so UK Triratna centres now has written Safeguarding policies and Ethical guidelines and at least one Safeguarding officer.
Problems, concerns and rumours must be reported first (and only) to the Safeguarding officer, who is responsible for deciding what to do next. This is because everybody doing something can be as harmful as nobody doing anything, and gossip and discussion can cause great harm. Confidentiality and good record-keeping are very important: information may be shared only with those who need to know in order to address the matter effectively without causing further harm, and if necessary the charity must be able to explain its actions to the Charity Commission or police.
If the matter may be criminal, the Safeguarding officer must report to the police, no matter how senior the person against whom the complaint is being made.
It takes time to change a culture
Some people ask why we need Safeguarding policies and Ethical guidelines when we have the precepts. My answer: how useful are the precepts if your Buddhist centre or temple is on fire? In such an emergency you will not want a discussion about the best way to leave the building!
It’s the same thing with Safeguarding. The precepts are wonderful but they are not practical guides to behaviour in an emergency. Anyway, it’s clear people have been hurt in Triratna so it’s obvious our precepts were not enough.
In addition to the policies mentioned already, we are gradually developing a number of other policies including:
Safeguarding teenagers policy
Bullying and harassment policy
Trans and non-binary policy
Managing ex-prisoners joining the sangha after having been in jail for sexual/violent crimes
We have also created a paralegal process for addressing serious allegations against members of Triratna (no matter how senior) where for any reason the police cannot pursue the matter.
What if such policies are not normal in your country?
You may be interested in what I have described here, but may be thinking it would be impossible to introduce such things in your tradition because they are too foreign to your culture.
I would suggest that you use these ideas – and even our documents if you wish – as a starting point for awareness-raising and discussion amongst your leadership. You may be surprised at what emerges. Experience has shown us that such discussion be very valuable, providing people with an opportunity to raise matters they have not thought to raise before, things they have forgotten because they were uncomfortable. You can then decide with your board/council/trustees what kinds of documents are appropriate for your organisation, in your country.
Is your group too small to need such policies?
If your Buddhist group is small you may also be thinking that these things are necessary for a large international organisation like Triratna, but not for yours. Please learn from our experience: the things which went wrong in Triratna happened when we were still very small, and we are still dealing with the consequences over 30 years later.
One last thing needs to be mentioned, which is not formally part of Safeguarding but which is another important way of enabling people in Triratna to speak out, be heard and resolve difficulties.
A key complaint arising from Triratna’s past is that from the 1960s to the 1980s our founder Sangharakshita had sexual relationships with (as far as we know) 25 of his early followers, aged 17 to 30, a few of whom later said they felt very unhappy about this. In 2018 Triratna engaged an external expert in ‘Restorative process’ to contact as many of those former partners as possible. As a result she was able to facilitate Restorative dialogues between Sangharakshita and one or two of them in the year before he died.
Restorative process is not the same as mediation.
Read about Restorative process and why we chose it: https://thebuddhistcentre.com/adhisthana-kula/why-restorative-approach
Read about the trainer: www.restorativenow.com
To enable systemic learning, we paid the trainer to train our leaders and many other Order members in Restorative process, and we set up an internal Restorative team of Order members who are available to work with people in Triratna as the need arises.
Recommendations for effective Safeguarding
I’ll finish with four points
Safeguarding should be led by your senior leaders and teachers
have written policies
have named Safeguarding officers
Get training from external experts in Safeguarding