One of the topics of the Organisation Interest Group has been to look at Amida Trust as a test case. What sort of organisation is it? What can our knowledge of organisations tell us about it? What can the principles of Dharma tells us when applied to the case of an organisation-cum-sangha-cum-network-cum-community like Amida?
Formally, AT is a charitable trust with a board or trustees and officers. In fact, the formal structure does not tell us that much. AT has been evolving in a rather organic fashion for nearly ten years. Initially there was a loosely constituted membership of people interested in one or more of the following: some form of Buddhism, some form of psychology, some form of social engagement. There were also members with interests in the arts, writing, and people who were simply friends of other members. Out of this disparate population, something rather impressive has gradually crystalised. This process has not always been plain sailing. Probably there are many lessons to be learnt in retrospect.
One theme that has run through this history has been the need for there to be at least a core of committed people if serious socially engaged work was going to happen. If people are going to do work that is taxing and sometimes dangerous then they need to feel that there is a back up team behind them. Sometimes the generic values of Buddhism have not helped in this respect. Non-attachment, living for this moment alone, belief in impermanence, and so on are not the stuff that loyalty, commitment and reliability are easily fashioned from. Sometimes it has felt like building with sand without cement. The cement that we have gradually found is called faith - but sometimes it seems a rare commodity in the Buddhist world.
In 1998, four people took bodhisattva vows and in effect created thereby something that has since become the Amida Order. There are now 12 order members and this does feel like a "critical mass" in some sense. Now there is discussion of (a) the terms upon which further members might be admitted and (b) whether there is a need for an intermediate category to be created between "Trust member" and "Order member".
In parallel with these developments, the Amida sangha has evolved a broad doctrinal position and alignment in relation to the schools of Buddhism. Originally we thought that it would bring harmony to accommodate a wide range of practice. We were wrong. The phenomenon of everybody thinking that AT would be what they wanted it to be, created many tensions. As AT became more clearly Pureland, a lot of problems have disappeared. People have much clearer expectations of us and we fulfil them and the conflicts that there used to be have evaporated.
Now AT is developing on several fronts: volunteering, Dharma practice, India, new academic initiatives and so on. The demands that this places on the organisational infrastructure are considerable. We have learnt to be very flexible and to integrate things with each other so as to get synergisms whenever possible. Fundamentally, however, we are not an engaged organisation that happens to be a Buddhist group, we are a Buddhist community that does engaged work. The organisation therefore has to support the faith commitment first and develop the activities around it. This does not, however, mean that there is not a place within the organisation for people who are less committed, so the organisation is quite complex, bringing together many overlapping groups.
My sense is that we have to both broaden and deepen. These two sometimes seem to be pointing in opposite directions, but we need to keep working to make them complementary. One identifiable process is that people do want to be acknowledged and this leads to the creation of categories that are then recognised as stuctures that are then considered to be players in the activity of the Amida community. Although in one sense, this is just conceptual, it has many real world consequences. The question that we face at the moment about whether to create an "intermediate category" between Trust member and Order Member is like that. Whatever we decide will be consequential for the organisation as a whole, giving it identity and purpose.