The UK Network of Buddhist
The Gentle, Persuasive Art of Flying
Flags of Convenience
|If the roots are poisonous, the fruit will be poisonous|
The Network of Buddhist Organisations took shape as a result of meetings convened by the Jamyang Buddhist Centre in London in 1993 for the purpose of inviting the Dalai Lama to the UK. After the visit, the interest of many members diminished. Many, that is, apart from Soka Gakkai UK and the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order (Latterly, the 'Triratna Buddhist Community')
Realising the significant value of the NBO corporate label, representatives of these two highly controversial groups quickly manoeuvred themselves into dominant positions on the NBO's governing body. For them, the NBO label was a very convenient way of maintaining and enhancing status in the UK Buddhist arena, despite mounting criticism of their own, individual organizations nationally and internationally, among Buddhists and in the media. The remaining founding members' intent was, they claimed, the promotion of "greater openness to dialogue and increased co-operation between the many different Buddhist organisations", a somewhat surprising one since both groups had long been widely seen as exhibiting strong isolationist tendencies.
The Network's movers and shakers quickly turned their attention to building credibility via dialogue with other faiths and consultations with Government and other public bodies, including the UK Charity Commission and the Equality and Human Rights Commission. Nationally, the NBO involved itself in the work of the Inter Faith Network UK and internationally in the European Buddhist Union.
|"Honest, I just wanna be your friend"|
NBO membership is scattered over a number of different bodies varying from the traditional to the popular: some of its most influential groups are considered New Religious Movements, with some commentators even going so far as to refer to these as 'cults'. Such a mixture is not surprising in light of the fact that membership is open to any organization which calls itself 'Buddhist' as did, for example, Shoko Asahara's Aum Shinrikyo.
In mid 2006, an internet campaign alleged that the NBO was a 'self appointed' organization which, despite how it presented itself, held no official representative status, and that it was furthermore dominated by three controversial New Religious Movements, Soka Gakkai International, the FWBO and latterly, the New Kadampa Tradition, each of which was employing the NBO as a 'flag of of convenience' after significant criticism of their methods. The long standing chair of the NBO for example, was the leading figure in Soka Gakkai UK. Its educational advisory group was run by a senior member of the FWBO ( an organization with a history of widespread sexual abuse spanning three decades); NKT representatives had become increasingly active in guiding the NBO's chaplaincy work.
The campaign further alleged that, while the NBO portrayed "itself as the representative voice of Buddhism in the UK", it had "almost no ethnic Asian Buddhist members", the NBO Development worker's blog speaking for instance of, " ...the many (UK) Buddhist groups of Asian origin...not...well represented on...forums such as the NBO".
This campaign led to more than a dozen Parliamentary Questions being raised, firstly about the NBO itself and whether the UK Government had done anything to assess its representative status and further, over the appropriateness of Government granting public funds to the three, already extremely wealthy New Religious Movements listed, particularly in light of allegations of 'cultic behaviour' against them, funding which in part, somewhat astoundingly, was given to support their work with children in schools.
|Parliament in the dark, again.|
It emerged in response to these questions that not one government departments had made any attempt whatsoever to assess the NBO's representative status. The Government further indicated that, despite the allegations of cultic behaviour, the three organizations 'fulfilled their funding criteria' and the grants would therefore stand.
Moreover, one government minister claimed that the responsibility for vetting such organizations before allowing them access to minors lay with Schools and Local Authorities, despite the fact that no such explicit government directive exists, vetting schemes only applying to individuals rather than organizations. As the law stands, a member of any illegal or disreputable organization can lecture to children in schools, as long as he has no criminal record.
The NBO issued a response vehemently denying the allegations, both those concerning its representative status and those which alleged cultic behaviour against its three prominent members, claiming the allegations were 'potentially libelous'. Tellingly, it disingenuously asserted that previous condemnations of the FWBO for, amongst other things, systematic sexual abuse had all been 'thoroughly discredited'. In the public domain, on the other hand, the same allegations went unchallenged and indeed have repeatedly been confirmed as accurate. The NBO response also listed some, but not all, of the Parliamentary Questions raised concerning the organization itself and its members; most notably, several questions concerning cultic behaviour which mentioned the names of specific member groups were seemingly deliberately omitted.
|"I swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but........|
except where the truth might incriminate me'.
Out of the Frying Pan
In the Spring of 1998, the NBO received a request for membership from the British Buddhist New Religious Movement, the New Kadampa Tradition, a group which had only recently been involved in political protests against the Dalai Lama. Several NBO members considered the NKTs activities incompatible with the NBOs stated aim of promoting dialogue and harmony. Nevertheless, the NBO board saw significant benefits to having such a major player on side; as Lyndon Johnson observed, it was perhaps “Better to have them inside the tent pissing out than outside pissing in". Moreover, the membership of Britain's largest and fastest growing Buddhist organization would certainly contribute to the NBOs perceived credibility and finances.
So it was that, with the help and support of the FWBO (whose PR team acted as consultants to the NKT in its efforts to rebuild its image after the Dalai Lama demos), the controversial group was accepted into the NBO. Consequently, a number of other groups severed their relations with the body: 30% of those groups defining themselves as of Tibetan origin left at this time. Indeed, the NKTs ill fated membership was to have a siginificant, long-term, and irreparably damaging effect on the NBO.
Safety Nets, Codes of Conduct and the Great Gagging Order Revolt
Subsequent to the NKTs admission, the NBO launched two important initiatives. The first of these was their 'Safety Net', for those who had 'bumped into Buddhism and come away badly bruised' or, more plainly put, 'those who had encountered controversial Buddhist leaders and groups and come away physically, sexually and psychologically abused'.
(mentioning no names)
The Home Office funded academic body 'Inform' (Information Network Focus on Religious Movements) confirmed that concerns were expressed to them that the service offered by the NBO could be a way of certain groups (again, mentioning no names) concealing abuse from the public and keeping controversies out of the spotlight of public scrutiny.
The NBO's development worker appeared to confirm this when he blogged:
'We do not want placards on the streets and public displays of Buddhists abusing Buddhists. Neither do we want damaging media exposées of abusive or coercive activity within Buddhist organisations, or anonymous and scurrilous letters denouncing Buddhist groups to prominent national organisations. "
To some, this seemed somewhat akin to the Catholic Church's approach to abuse: hush it up, deal with it 'in-house' and, no matter what, dont let the Press get hold of it. On the other hand, the Dalai Lama's advice on the same issue of abuse was to "Name names in newspapers!"
Of course, everyone is free to choose between these two different approaches: that advocated by the development worker of an organization with a number of members accused of sexual, psychological and physical abuse, an approach which has decimated the Catholic Church and cost it millions in legal costs and compensation payments, OR that prescribed by one seen by many as a living Buddha. Whether one chooses to listen to the Pope or the Dalai Lama is entirely a matter of personal choice, after all.
Who ya gonna call?
The other significant initiative launched by the NBO during this period was its 'Code of Conduct' The proposed code came in the wake of demonstrations against the Dalai Lama by members of the Western Shugden Society, the political face of the New Kadampa Tradition. These demonstrations were organized by Kelsang Gyatso, directed by NKT leaders internationally, and demonstrators were nearly all NKT devotees, accompanied in some instances by Chinese students, holding the same placards and chanting the same slogans.
Chinese protesters and NKT monks demonstratng in Nottingham 2008. Kelsang Gyatso denies any involvement of the NKT or any Chinese connection
The Code of Conduct, which echoed the censorial sentiments above, stated: “In order to maintain harmony and promote Buddhist teachings in the UK, as a Buddhist organisation and member of the NBO we undertake the following: a) To observe the ethical standards as exemplified by the Five Precepts in all our activities. b) To undertake that our members will not defame or attack each other’s organisations or teachers in public or through the media. c) If disagreements arise between NBO organizations or with other organizations or groups, every attempt will be made to resolve them through internal processes or through private discussion and mediation.''
Clauses b) and c) were clear attempts to stifle further political posturing in the media by the NKT/WSS. Furthermore, they would have the effect of stifling all public criticism of any of the NBOs controversial member organizations from anywhere within the NBOs Buddhist membership. In effect, the NBO was issuing a gagging order directly to its own members.
In response, the NKT threatened legal action if the NBO continued to pursue their intent to impose the Code, as they considered it (quite correctly for once!) an attempt to stifle freedom of speech, a somewhat ironic accusation considering the repeated threats of legal action against all critics issued by the NKT, along with the online antics of NKT supporters on such sites as Wikipedia, where all critical information is instantly removed by a team of dedicated editors on an hourly basis (Try it; see how long it lasts!).
|Are we in China?|
Notably, this was a telling move by the NKT: the NBO was clearly attempting to restrict the activities of the WSS with its new clauses and, as we have seen, the NKT denied any connection whatsoever with the WSS. So, why the NKT leaderahip should feel the need to assert themselves on the part of a group with which they purportedly had nothing whatsoever to do was something of a mystery.
Nevertheless, in March 2009 the NKT stated that any attempt to impose the Code of Conduct was a restriction of freedom of speech and that, if necessary, they would engage in legal action against the NBO and wrote to them to that effect.
The problem with legal action for the NKT however, was that the NBO had few assets, (despite the significant funds, amounting to tens of thousands of pounds it and its wealthy members had received from the taxpayer). To sue the NBO then, would be a fruitless exercise: the costs would outweigh significantly any amount of compensation the NKT might ultimately receive. In effect, the NBO's lack of capital protected it from being sued.
The threat terrified NBO exec members however, wealthy and impoverished alike, when they realised they and their own, individual organizations could each be held financially liable should the NKT sue.
Thus it was that, at an Extraordinary General Meeting of the NBO executive in March 2010, the NBO declared its intention to dissolve and reinvent itself as a limited company. Its final act before dissolution was to vote on the signing of the Code of Conduct as a membership prerequisite. The motion was passed. The NKT's representative stated that the NKT could not accept the Code of Conduct; consequently, it did not renew its membership.
And so, a body which seemingly represents UK Buddhists nationally, no longer counts among its members Britain's largest New Buddhist Religious Movement. Moreover, because of the Draconian code, which clearly restricts the basic human right to freedom of speech, the membership of several other important groups such as the Buddhist Society remains in question, though for some reason, names remain on the NBO members list on its website, which now qualifies its members list as 'a List of NBO Supporting Organisations, (including full members)' In other words, the short, ever-dwindling list of the NBO's 18 'members' includes some groups who arent even members! Robert Bluck's research on Buddhism in Britain. which estimated that there were 635 Buddhist groups in the UK (a number which, unlike the NBOs decreasing membership, has significantly increased since the research emerged in 2001) certainly puts the illusion of the NBO's representative status in perspective. Here's the graphic:
|Actually,its not even 5%! Nuff said?|
More Information Control!
|'Once you get started, oh it's hard to stop|
When you get down, ain't no turnin' back'
At the end of April 2010, much of the above critical information appeared on the Network of Buddhist Organisation's Wikipedia page.
Within days, a group of editors, including one calling himself 'NBO secretary' (whose name soon disappeared from the edit history for reasons not stated), set about removing any hint of this critical information. Censors were then joined by the infamous 'Empty Mountains', chief web spin doctor for the NKT and principal contributor to their own 'totally neutral' Wikipedia page.
Thus it was that, within a matter of hours, any hint of controversy disappeared in the mists of deception. Gone was any reference to Parliamentary Questions concerning allegations of cultish behaviour against the FWBO and Soka Gakkai; the only reference to the NKT which remained implied that those Tibetan groups who left the NBO when they demonstrated against the Dalai Lama in 1996 were 'sectarian'. The references were summarily removed because, according to Empty Mountains, they were 'not relevant'.
Gone was all reference to the struggle with the NKT over the "voluntary" Code of Conduct (which MUST be signed as a prerequisite to full membership) and which led to the the group renouncing its NBO membership. The information could not be included, according to these editors, because it was 'not in the public domain'.
Similarly, references to the Buddhist Society's renunciation of its membership, along with the concerns of a number of other prominent UK Buddhist groups, due to "representational issues, accountability and democratic process" were eradicated. The names of ex NBO members remain on the NBO website however, at a time when NBO seniors are attempting to rebuild the group after the difficulties caused by the NKT. Finally, all links to webpages critical of the NBO were removed, the only remaining 'external link' on the page leading to the NBO's own homepage.
Epilogue: The Thin End of the Wedge?
These days, in part as a result of the NKT debacle, NBO Ltd seems to be in a state of confusion and disarray; like rabbits frozen in a car's headlamps, they dont seem able to work out quite what to do next.
Again, with what appears to be an increasingly disenchanted and dwindling membership, any claims to representative status have become transparent and meaningless. With the ship sinking, some of the crew must be wondering what was the point of setting sail on this Titanic effort in the first place.
However, being an officer on the bridge of the NBO's now sinking ship has not been without its benefits, as is apparent if one peruses the crew list of those navigating the good ship, the SS European Buddhist Union. For there, at the helm, and captaining the ship is Admiral (sorry, newly elected EBU President) Jamie Cresswell, founding member and Chair of the NBO for a decade and, entirely coincidentally, Director of the SGI UKs Institute of Oriental Philosophy and Centre for Applied Buddhism at Soka Gakkai headquarters in Kent.
Why, for instance, has the decision been made to place someone from an organization with a decades-long history of leaders sexually abusing newcomers, a group identified as having employed insider doctrines which resulted in young men's suicides and dozens of cases of mental illness, facts it still disingenuously denies and conceals, in charge of Buddhist community relations? Why has the EBU chosen to offer its leadership to the seniormost figure in SGI UK, when SGI itself is officially recognized as a cult by the French Government and is considered highly controversial in Japan and only nominally Buddhist by the Japan Buddhist Federation, the body which represents 90% of Japan's bona fide Buddhist organizations?
An anti SGI demonstration in Japan
Finally, why is it that these two senior figures from highly controversial Buddhist groups, both of which have been repeatedly referred to as 'cults', organizations with a combined age which can be measured in decades, are standing at the helm of a 2, 500 year old religious tradition? Is this really the direction the EBU thinks European Buddhism should take? If a minor deviation at the beginning of a journey results in missing one's desired goal by many miles in the future, where might such appointments lead Buddhism in the years ahead?
|Fasten your safety belts: we may be in for a bumpy ride!|