Tag Archives: Buddhism

Middle Way Thinkers 2: Sangharakshita

Sangharakshita is the founder of the Triratna Buddhist Community, previously known as the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order or FWBO. Now well into his eighties, he still lives quietly at the new rural Triratna centre called Adhisthana in Herefordshire, in the west of England. As a former member of the Triratna Order, I was once officially one of Sangharakshita’s disciples (though I was always rather uncomfortable with this implication of Order membership). Both before and after leaving the Order, I have been critical both of aspects of Sangharakshita’s teachings and of his status in a personality cult in Triratna. When you have been part of a religious group that you need to distance yourself from, the stakes are high, and there is always a danger of polarisation – people only perceiving a rejection when one attempts a balanced approach. But Sangharakshita is also an important and often inspiring thinker and practitioner in relation to the Middle Way, and I would like to give full recognition to that. I would also like to encourage others to engage positively with his writings whilst maintaining a critical perspective, despite the fact that Triratna does not sufficiently encourage such a critical perspective. sangharakshita

Balanced appraisals of Sangharakshita’s thought are rare. Though you might get some of his disciples to admit to minor criticisms, their public utterances about him are usually characterised by gushy gratitude and uncritical intellectual idealisation. On the other hand, he is largely ignored both by the academic world and by other kinds of Buddhists, many of whom could learn from his ideas, but who are often put off by the cultishness that surrounds him. His writings are voluminous, unsystematic and varied in style (because many are compiled from oral transcriptions, and these are very different from the books he has composed directly), and probably the best overview available is by his disciple Subhuti, Sangharakshita: A new voice in the Buddhist Tradition (Windhorse). One day I hope to write a critical study of Sangharakshita’s ideas of a type that does not yet exist: one that tries to sort the wheat from the chaff.  In a blog post, for the moment, I will only be able to say a little about some of the most important of his ideas as they relate to the Middle Way.

First, it must be said that Sangharakshita is probably the Buddhist teacher who has taken the most notice of the Middle Way. It is clear that he has a sense of its importance, and he does often apply it in his judgements about ethical and other matters. For example, he writes:  At every stage of the spiritual life we are faced by the necessity of making a choice between either of two opposites, on the one hand, and the mean which reconciles the opposition by transcending it, on the other (A Survey of Buddhism, p.160). That’s probably the reason why, in practice, the Middle Way is often used as a basis of judgement in Triratna: even when the theory surrounding it is so inadequate, people still have a sense of the Middle Way as they encounter it directly in experience and spiritual practice.

However, I say that his theory of the Middle Way is inadequate, as his approach (in common with that of many other Buddhists, it must be said) is to regard the Middle Way as  description of a metaphysical truth rather as a method by which to make judgements in our experience. He sees the Middle Way as having metaphysical, ethical and psychological modes, but his account of the ethics and the psychology is deduced from the metaphysics he assumes. As a result he ends up caricaturing the extremes to be avoided in a way that is quite inadequate to our experience of the complexity of our beliefs and the way they relate to psychological states. He writes: “The belief that behind the bitter-sweet of human life yawn only the all-devouring jaws of a gigantic Nothingness will inevitably reduce man to his body and his body to his sensations; pleasure will be set up as the whole object of human endeavour, self-indulgence lauded to the skies, abstinence contemned, and the voluptuary honoured as the best and wisest of mankind.” If, on the other hand, one believes in an Absolute Being such as God, “the object of the spiritual life will be held to consist in effecting a complete dissociation between spirit and matter, the real and the unreal, God and the world, the temporal and the eternal; whence follows self-mortification in its extremest and most repulsive forms” (Survey pp.162-3).

If the Middle Way is to be of any use to us, it cannot merely consist in such a caricature of the materialist, the Marxist, the Christian etc, with the automatic assumption that, because of traditional statements about the Middle Way found in traditional Buddhist texts, these people must either be totally self-indulgent or self-mortifying. Experience suggests rather that the relationships between metaphysical beliefs and psychological states are far more complex than this. There are self-mortifying Marxists and self-indulgent Christians, for example. The Middle Way potentially offers far more insights than this caricature of it suggests, but it will only yield them with an approach that avoids metaphysical assumptions about the Middle Way itself, and takes experience rather than obscure dogma as the basis of judgement about how beliefs relate to psychological states.

It is this metaphysical reading (of a principle that needs to start with avoidance of metaphysics) that I assume leads Sangharakshita to his view that the most basic principal of Buddhism is conditioned co-production (or dependent origination) – a claim about how things are rather than a method of investigation. So despite his emphasis on the Middle Way in some respects, Sangharakshita’s approach merely promotes confusion about it in other respects, because the Middle Way as an experiential method gets constantly confused with a ‘truth’ that conflicts with that method. This confusion can only have a negative practical effect when people try to put the Middle Way into operation.

However, there are many other useful ideas and attitudes that I owe to Sangharakshita. One is his universalism – not in the shallow sense that all views are equally good, but in his conviction that all kinds of traditions can be mined for insights that support and inspire the practice of the Middle Way. For example, he is a lover of Renaissance art and of William Blake, as well as attempting to find common insights in all the schools of Buddhism and even in some aspects of other religions.

Sangharakshita has also made considerable use of Jung’s thought and related it to the insights of Buddhism. He makes use of the concept of integration and a psychological explanation of what is involved in spiritual development. He also makes excellent and stimulating use of Jungian archetypes in his discussion of the deeper significance of Buddhist scripture and symbol and its significance. As a result, Triratna Buddhists tend to make widespread use of archetypal interpretations of religious forms.

Sangharakshita also points out the dogmatic nature of group thinking, and recognises a Middle Way between groupishness and individualism. This is what has led me into the conclusion that the function of metaphysical belief is the maintenance of group loyalty. Sangharakshita instead extols what he calls ‘the true individual’. In effect this seems to mean a person who follows the Middle Way in developing an autonomous judgement, neither prematurely accepting nor rejecting the group and the beliefs that give it identity.

Sangharakshita is also undoubtedly inspiring as a practitioner, who has tried to combine an intellectual articulation of Buddhist insights together with huge commitment to its practice. Though it is often rather difficult to separate genuine experience from hagiography in the accounts leading disciples give of his practical acuity, it is obvious that he has engaged deeply and seriously with both meditative and ethical practice. His ethical writings and guidance have given a particular emphasis to the practice of friendship that seems to have been particularly helpful in the development of Triratna, and marked it out from other Buddhist groups.

This commitment to the unity of theory and practice just by itself is both inspiring and rare, particularly when one considers that the theory Sangharakshita has developed is what he has thought out for himself rather than merely adopted uncritically from tradition. I only wish that Sangharakshita’s disciples would emulate their teacher more in this respect, by treating Sangharakshita’s own thinking with the critical attention that a full respect for it merits, rather than treating his words and writings as a new basis of uncritical authority. To follow Sangharakshita, surely, one should try to do what he did, which was to critically appraise the traditions that he found in his context, and, where necessary, start afresh to develop new approaches that better capture the insights one finds in past work. To turn Sangharakshita into a guru, as even he at times has suggested is not appropriate, seems to me like a betrayal of the best that can be found in his legacy.

Related pages

The Buddha and the Middle Way

The Buddha and the Middle Way Audio

The Middle Way in Buddhism Books



Meditation 10: Mahasi Vipassana (or The Art of Noting) – Part 1

And when my mind is wandering,


there I will go.
And it really doesn’t matter
if I’m wrong, 
I’m right where I belong.
(from ‘Fixing a Hole’ by John Lennon and Paul McCartney)

I like my meditation practice to be simple and yet usually, I also like to have some kind of structure.  The hope being that this structure might just help to reduce the wanderings of my restless mind into those places that lie just beyond my field of conscious observation.  Developed by the influential Burmese Buddhist monk Mahasi Sayadaw (1904 – 1982), this particular method of Insight meditation provides the structure needed to aid concentration and awareness with each passing moment.

My intention here is only to provide a brief overview, based on my own experience and interpretation, of the practical elements of this technique and as such I will not be discussing it within the original Theravada Buddhist context.  If what follows is of interest to you then I must recommend that you seek further, and more expert, advice – ideally in person (such as on a retreat) or via a website or book.  It is highly likely that this advice will come in the form of Buddhist teaching, however there is no need to be Buddhist or subscribe to Buddhist doctrine to partake and enjoy the benefits.  A couple of recommendations that I offer are this article, which is a translated transcript of an instructional talk by Mahasi Sayadaw and the retreat centre where I was taught to ‘note’, Satipanya – on the Shropshire/ Welsh border, run by Bante Bodhidhamma (who also leads regular retreats at Gaia House in Devon).

Okay, so with the passing of that all too brief introduction – owing as it does to the referencing of more detailed sources – I will get right on to my semi-instructional account of Mahasi Vippassana, or as I prefer to call it – Noting Meditation.

Noting – well what is it anyway?

The most popular form of meditation in the UK at the moment seems to be that of concentrating on the breath, which I believe (in the Buddhist tradition) is a form of Samatha.  The idea seems to be that this develops ones powers of concentration between each passing moment, with additional benefits arising out of this.  While Noting Meditation does incorporate a significant amount of breath focus, it also allows the mind to roam by switching the meditator’s attention to the object of the minds wandering.

Most other forms of meditation teach that it is best to avoid language, or any intentional mental formations, and to instead just experience each moment as it is.  There are good reasons for this but it can be difficult to maintain – I for one need an anchor.  Noting breaks from this convention by allowing the use of words to identify (note) and maintain concentration on experience, although one must be careful to select words that are least likely to lead off into unhelpful mental ruminations.


When meditating I tend to sit cross legged in the formal, and perhaps poncy looking Burmese style – but I do not feel that this is an imperative, as I will discuss in the part 2, noting can be employed in pretty much any situation.   Although the predominant school of thought teaches that sitting cross legged enables the greatest level of concentration and alertness, there have already been several discussions here arguing the merits, or lack thereof, of such a view.  I would personally say that if you already sit cross legged for meditation then continue to do so, but if you prefer to sit in a chair, stand or even lie down then these techniques will still be easy to follow.  The important thing is that you can be safe, comfortable and able to maintain a good level of focus – it’s not easy to do this when you are asleep.

How do I note?

Once you are in your preferred posture it is a good idea to try and settle the mind – again if you already have a routine for this, such as a body scan, then stick with that.  If not then you can begin noting right away.  Perhaps begin with a couple of deep breaths and then start noting the word ‘sitting’ or ‘standing’ or whatever word best describes your chosen position.

By ‘noting’ what I mean is to repeat your chosen word over and over again – this should be internal, there is no need to audibly vocalize.  The word, however, is only a tool by which to frame your experience, so at this point just feel what it is like to sit or stand.  As you are repeating the word (sitting, sitting, sitting… standing, standing, standing) also experience the physical sensation of sitting (or standing) as a whole activity  – at this point we are only settling and focusing the mind.

After a few minutes transfer your focus to the breath, where it will remain for a while before allowing your mind a little more freedom.  As you breathe hold your attention at the abdomen, feeling how it rises with the in-breath and falls with the out-breath.  As the abdomen rises note ‘rising… rising… rising’, and as the abdomen falls note ‘falling… falling… falling’.  As with many other forms of meditation the idea here is not to take control but to experience each breath as it comes.  I would recommend trying to maintain this intentional, Samatha style concentration for around 5 – 10 minutes, the purpose being to nurture a basic level of focus and provide a platform from which the attention can start from and return to as necessary.  So, for this first period just gently bring your attention back to the abdomen each time that it wanders.

After 5 -10 minutes you should be ready to gently release some of the slack from those mental reigns.  Continue to focus on the breath, but now if the mind is stimulated by a distraction change your noting word appropriately.  The word that I would choose depends on the nature of the distraction and I will discuss some possibilities below.

Before I continue, it is worth saying a little about how often one should keep the focus on any given experience.  Some sources say that one should keep the focus where it is, until the distraction has passed.  For example if it is a sound – a dog barking for instance – then one might repeat the word; ‘sound… sound… sound…’ until either the noise has ceased or it has no longer become the main focus of attention.  If the noise has ceased and there is nothing else to grab your attention then return to the breath.  If there is something that muscles in on your focus then make this the object of the noting.

Other sources that I have come across suggest a slightly different approach, where by one notes the distraction in between breaths.  With the example of the barking dog that might go a little like this; ‘rising… rising… rising… falling… falling… falling… sound… rising… rising… rising… falling… falling…’ and so on.

I tend to use a combination of both depending on how pervasive the distraction is and how high my levels of concentration are at the time.  If they are high I might stay with the sound but if they are low and I am regularly wandering without any particular point of focus then I will incorporate the breath as a helpful foothold.

Which Words Should I Use?

As mentioned above it is important that any words used are as neutral and free from judgement as possible, they should be single words and not preceded or followed by any intentional embellishment.  If your face is itching then the word should just be ‘itching’, not ‘face itching’ and certainly not ‘my face is itching’.  You should not be attempting to imagine a face itching or an abdomen rising or a dog barking – although that will happen – rather one is only trying to experience these things as they occur.  The purpose of noting words are not to describe or add to what is happening but rather to assist us in our mindful observations.

The amount of possible distractions is practically infinite and it is not possible to suggest words for each and every eventuality.  Instead I will briefly discuss what I think are the three main categories of distraction Physical, Cognitive and Emotional.


For me it is the physical events that are easiest to identify and it is here that I spend most of my time.  I also think that it is the physical occurrences that are easiest to note.  Here are the most common (or perhaps obvious) sensations with examples of words that I use in my practice:

  1. Itching.  I use the word ‘itching’, as discussed above.
  2. Pins and needles.  Usually it’s ‘tingling’ although this might alter with varying intensities.
  3. Pain.  I tend not to refer to it as ‘pain’, which I think has negative connotations. Instead I will note the type of pain – so it might be ‘sharp’, ‘tight’ or some such identification.
  4. Temperature.  Again this depends on what the temperature is, so it could be ‘cool’, ‘warm’, ‘hot’ or ‘cold’.

There are many other, more subtle physical sensations that will arise, such as the sensation of the hands touching each other or the feet touching the floor.  The key word here is touching – as the attention if focused on the hands resting against each other the noting word ‘touching’ can be used.


Cognitive distractions are very common in my practice and are the ones that lead inevitably away from the mindfulness that I am trying to nurture.  My method of noting thoughts is very simple but it can be more complicated if you wish.  For a more detailed account of how to note various cognitive thoughts you can probably not go too far wrong than referring here, to Mahasi Sayadaw himself.

Rather than analyse the type of thought too deeply I only note the very basic characteristics.  This might just be a word such as ‘thinking’, ‘planning’, or ‘remembering’.  I think that it’s here where it may be easiest to fall into the trap of feeding – rather than being mindful of – an over-active imagination, which is why I like to keep the words very simple and nondescript.  If done effectively the very act of noting will stop the train of thought in its tracks and one can return their focus to the breath, or whatever object happens to tickle our restless fancy.


I find emotion very difficult to identify while I am meditating, unless it happens to be quite strong.  More often than not, however, my emotions are very subtle and do not grab my attention.  When they do it is usually a response to some kind of cognitive activity like anticipating an exam or remembering doing something well, the former might make me anxious and the latter happy – both of which would also be my noting words.

There are of course, a huge array of emotions, some highly intrusive and many understated.   I imagine that with experience one can become able to note many emotions with ease but until this happens automatically I do not think that it is a good idea to spend time searching  – only note what comes to the surface, of it’s own accord.

I like this technique a lot – it is the one that I use most often.  I like the relative freedom that it affords but I also like the structure it enables – with this method, what might be considered distractions can be transformed into phenomena on which we can meditate.  However there is a slight paradox here:  in order to develop mindfulness, which supposedly exists before our brains create their mental formations, we are using a kind of mental formation.  It is helpful then, to consider this technique as a stepping stone from which the active process of ‘noting’ can gradually be dropped.  I would also suggest that this technique is used in conjunction with other styles (not necessarily at the same time), although this is only my personal view.

Noting is not only for use in formal meditation and Part 2 will discuss how this technique can be useful and rewarding in almost any situation – from opening a door to cleaning a toilet.