Cohesive Societies: Faith and Belief
This report explores the different ways in which faith and belief interact with societal cohesion. (2020)
Paul Bickley responds to recent articles about Suella Braverman’s association with Buddhist sect, the Triratna order. 18/02/2020
My eldest son has recently taken to reading the Harry Potter novels. Being a late Gen X–er, I didn’t bother with them when they were first published. Reading them now, in order to understand his Potter obsession, I can see why they are so popular. One of my personal favourites of Rowling’s colourful characters is Rita Skeeter, an unscrupulous journalist who will spin stories out of the thinnest of pretexts. And if thin pretexts are in short supply, she will simply invent things.
Suella Braverman, now appointed Attorney General, was recently the subject of a strange article in the Observer. I would say she was Skeeter–ed, in this case for associating with a Buddhist sect called the Triratna order. The Observer calls it “one of Buddhism’s largest sects”, which is potentially misleading. Rather, it is an organisation that seeks to simplify and codify the bewildering complexity of Asian Buddhist schools, practices, and sects and teach it in a Western context.
The order’s founder, one Dennis Lingwood from Tooting in South London, had been credibly accused of sexually exploiting younger members, and creating a culture of the same within the group. He offered a ‘confession’ in 2016, and current representatives of the group have subsequently added their sincere regrets for what were clearly serious breaches of trust over decades. There was, however, no prosecution, seemingly on the grounds that none of the actions reported were illegal, and there continues to be internal struggle about how the group should deal with this legacy, documented in detail on their website.
Meanwhile, the group continues to do its thing – that is promoting and teaching Buddhism and building community. Strange, then, that Braverman’s membership of the group was top billing on the Guardian news website for a good portion of Sunday. Bringing to light allegations about historical abuse is clearly right and necessary, but here’s where it goes full–Skeeter:
‘Braverman’s position within the sect is likely to raise questions about her personal beliefs and whether this could affect her judgment as the government’s senior legal expert.’
It certainly raises question when you publish stories hinting vaguely that questions should be raised.
All of this reminds me of when Ruth Kelly was given a good going over for being a member of Opus Dei, an ‘ultra–conservative’ Catholic society. Labour MEP and secularist Mary Honeyball bemoaned the “vice like grip” of Catholicism across Europe and suggested that, “in the light of their predilection to favour the Pope’s word above the government’s” Catholic Labour MPs should not be allowed on the government front bench.
Not that far from prejudice 1760s style. In his Commentaries on the Laws of England, William Blackstone said: “while they [Catholics] acknowledge a foreign power [the Pope], superior to the sovereignty of the kingdom, they cannot complain if the laws of that kingdom will not treat them upon the footing of good subjects.”
I’m actually not saying that there is no public interest in the religious associations of leading politicians. To do so would be to assume that all religious beliefs and practices exist in a cordon sanitaire, separate from public life. They do not, and nor do ‘secular’ philosophical assumptions. But the least we should do, instead of casting vague aspersions, is give a little attention to what Braverman is committed to thinking and doing. Being a ‘mitra’ of the said organisation involves practicing the five precepts.
Reader, allow me to warn you in advance, these are deeply troubling.
1. Not harming other sentient beings, but actively practising kindness.
2. Not taking that which another is unwilling to give, but actively practising generosity.
3. Not indulging our sexual (or other) cravings in ways that harm others or ourselves, but actively cultivating stillness, simplicity, and contentment.
4. Not speaking falsely, but making a definite practice of honesty.
5. Not clouding our mind with drink or drugs, but actively cultivating mindfulness and awareness.
There may be more to it – I don’t know. Neither, apparently, does the journalist.
There may be any number of reasons why Suella Braverman shouldn’t have been offered the role of Attorney General. Where they exist, they should be put forward. In the meantime, I look forward to Skeeter–ings of the philosophical beliefs of non–religious politicians.
*The third and fourth paragraphs of this article were edited on 26/02/2020 to better reflect the credible nature of the accusations against the founder of the order.
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Theos researches and investigates the intersection of religion, politics and society in the contemporary world.