By Mike Bell
A couple of summers ago in Plum Village, I asked Sister Annabel about the process of joining the Order of Interbeing. Over several meetings, she dictated guidelines to me. My understanding from those meetings was that the emphasis was on self-assessment and we answer an aspirant "yes" in the absence of flagrant disregard of the precepts or clear inability to meet the guidelines. Thay has also made it clear that one joins the Order as a statement of intention to build Sangha, not simply as a personal statement of connection with the teachings and Plum Village.
I was among the first to join the Order using the training method, but it did not work well. I have spoken with other aspirants who share my sense of being judged by people who were not our spiritual teachers. I felt judged by people not in a position to judge. Some local Sangha members felt they were asked to judge when not in a position to do so. I have communicated with current aspirants who feel uneasy--not knowing what they are expected to do in order to be "approved." This is clearly not what the mentors intend, but may happen automatically unless prevented.
I feel uneasy about proposed mentoring programs, based on a similar process in another lay Buddhist Order. Fifteen years ago, people drawn to join this particular Order who were known by the teacher, simply expressed their desire to join and were generally welcomed. Since then, a program has developed, and only those who complete a training course and are "approved" may join. As a result, nearly all dissident voices and variety are excluded, and the later Order members seem to me grey and mechanical.
For these reasons I feel a sense of foreboding that we may be embarking on a path which will not lead to the goal we desire. I am concerned that we may create an organisation where only those who conform are judged suitable for membership and only those with the time to complete the course are ordained. Looking at those who inspired and helped me, I wonder how many would be there if they had had to pass through this training and assessment.
I do feel there should be training within the Order, but not as a precondition of ordination. Something along the lines of Sister Annabel's guidelines, perhaps phrased as questions to the aspirant plus a clear commitment to Sangha-building should, in my view, be sufficient. The role of the mentor should be limited to helping the aspirant with self-assessment.
Though not a bed of roses, my life is better as a practicing Order member. I want to share this experience with others and give them access.
Mike Bell, True Sword of Understanding, is a member of Cambridge Interbeing Sangha in the UK and is editor of the UK newsletter, Here & Now. This contribution is an edited version of two longer submissions.