Suella Braverman is one of the bright new stars in the Conservative firmament.
This talented woman from a modest background has enjoyed an unprecedented rise since her election as an MP in 2015. As Attorney General, she is the most senior government law officer, responsible for providing ministers with legal advice and supervising the Crown Prosecution Service.
Indeed, Mrs Braverman, who was raised in North London by parents of Indian origin who emigrated to Britain from Kenya and Mauritius, has made waves by claiming that judges are encroaching on parliamentary sovereignty, with decisions like that of the Supreme Court last year which declared Boris Johnson’s prorogation of Parliament unlawful.
And she may yet rise higher. For this week in the Commons, the Prime Minister acknowledged there were too few women in his Cabinet, and he is poised to remedy the situation.
Mrs Braverman — capable, on the Right of the Tory spectrum and a champion of Brexit — would be an obvious candidate for promotion. But there is a fly in her ointment.
The position of Attorney General is quintessentially about judgment — the ability to weigh evidence soberly and dispassionately. So, it is concerning to find that, in one aspect of her life, she exhibits — according to critics — a worrying lack of sound judgment.
Attorney General Suella Braverman, pictured in February 13 2020
The problem centres on her membership of a Buddhist sect called Triratna. For years, she has attended meetings and retreats organised by the group, and at one point was considering ‘ordination’: joining its inner core.
No problem there, one might think. A fresh perspective on public life is always healthy, and Mrs Braverman, 40, a Cambridge and Sorbonne-educated QC, is the first Buddhist Attorney General, an office created in 1243. A prime example of modern, inclusive Britain.
Except that Triratna has been the subject of very serious allegations of historic sexual abuse. Indeed, an internal survey of congregants only two years ago confirmed it continues to cause disquiet among members. And the hurt felt is still not resolved, despite the appointment of a safeguarding officer and apparent attempts to address it.
This sect is the creation of Dennis Lingwood, a British-born guru known to his thousands of adherents around the world as Sangharakshita. It is immensely wealthy, owning properties around Britain worth tens of millions of pounds, and has proved a magnet for young, educated people in search of enlightenment.
But there is a darker side: Triratna has admitted it has a long history of systematic sexual abuse of members.
For decades this group had tolerated a history of sexual exploitation, chiefly vulnerable young men used as playthings by Lingwood and other senior members. The result has been long-lasting mental trauma and ruined lives. And it is thought to have contributed to one young man’s suicide.
The horrors of Lingwood’s perverted reign have seeped out steadily over the years. Yet this toxic abuser, who marketed himself as a bringer of Buddhist enlightenment to the West, is still venerated by followers.
When he died in 2018 aged 93, more than 1,000 members gathered for his funeral at Triratna’s headquarters, a country house in Herefordshire formerly known as Coddington Court.
Triratna’s headquarters, a country house in Herefordshire formerly known as Coddington Court
Casual bystanders would have imagined they were witnessing the passing of a saint, so elaborate and solemn was the ceremony.
In fact, this display of religious reverence was, critics argue, one gigantic exercise in denial. And in continuing to attend Triratna events — at the innocuously named London Buddhist Centre in the capital’s East End and other locations — Mrs Braverman shows herself as being prepared to look the other way when it comes to the stories of those who suffered.
‘Sangharakshita’s behaviour was consistent with a narcissist or a psychopath,’ says victim Mark Dunlop. ‘He didn’t see people as people, but things. If he didn’t get what he wanted, he stopped caring about the person.’ What Lingwood wanted from Mr Dunlop was sex.
After deserting from the British Army in India shortly after the end of World War II, Lingwood, son of a French polisher from Tooting, South London, took off in search of enlightenment, communing with teachers and picking up Buddhist philosophy.
He returned to Britain in the 1960s and established a sect, capitalising on the ‘free love’ hippy culture of the time. His was a mish-mash philosophy, mostly Buddhist but infused with ideas borrowed from psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud and philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche.
At its centre was a belief that men were more open to spiritual enlightenment than women. Mothers, argued Lingwood, held their sons back, turning them into neurotics. Lingwood, a homosexual, championed ‘Greek love’ — that of an older man for a boy.
Better, he taught, that male and female members of his sect, originally called Friends of the Western Buddhist Order (FWBO), lived largely apart.
So, it became a mostly segregated organisation, with men and women living separately and working for low wages in different branches of the charitable businesses — such as oriental trinket and wholefood shops — created to finance its activities.
This suited Lingwood, who now enjoyed unrestricted access to young men, some of them teenagers and many of whom (if not most) were heterosexual. Some were vulnerable, having had difficult childhoods. On their arrival at retreats, Lingwood persuaded his victims to engage in gay sex to free themselves from unhealthy inhibitions. Fresh recruits attending retreats would find they had been chosen to sleep in Lingwood’s room — where they found him waiting in bed. Triratna admits Lingwood slept with at least 25 men over a 20-year period, but the true figure is unknown.
Mr Dunlop, from Rochester, Kent, was 22 when he joined the FWBO in 1972. He was spotted by Lingwood soon after starting meditation classes at a centre in North London and was subjected to intense grooming.
‘I told him I hated having sex with him, but he said I must persevere,’ says Mr Dunlop.
‘Sangharakshita got people to think he was on their side. But there was also bullying. If you objected to what was happening, senior members accused you of being superficial and spiritually insincere. I was naive rather than terribly vulnerable. I thought a Buddhist monk would not do such things and that his followers wouldn’t let him get away with it. But they did.’
Mr Dunlop, who is heterosexual, paid a heavy price. Expelled from the order in 1989 after objecting to his treatment, he was unable to settle in a relationship or job. Now 70, he is still suffering post-traumatic stress. ‘It ruined my life,’ says Mr Dunlop.
What would he say to Mrs Braverman? ‘I would ask her why she is a member,’ he says. ‘I would like to know how she feels about it — the controversy.’
For her part, Mrs Braverman declined to answer any of the questions put to her by the Mail.
What we do know, however, is that in 2018 a group of Triratna members worried about its history asked followers about sexual abuse.
Of the 423 anonymous respondents, 55 said they, or someone they knew, had experienced sexual misconduct by Lingwood or other order members, not only in the past but also recently. Victims were not solely male, but included vulnerable women, too.
‘I know of several cases and the details are awful,’ wrote one of those questioned. ‘I was sexually abused by older order members,’ wrote another member of more than 15 years’ standing.
Hampstead Buddhist temple, shows the venerable Sthavira Sangharakshita, in 1966
The report shows that as recently as 2018, the sect’s handling of sex abuse allegations was a source of concern for members
Summing up responses from the 423 people involved with Triratna, it concludes: ‘The majority feel more needs to be done to adequately respond to allegations and prevent future misconduct.’
So how does Mrs Braverman — a tough-talking, pro-Brexit politician on the Right of the Tory Party — fit in with Triratna, a substantially Left-leaning group? To put it simply, she is a mitra, a ‘friend’ of the order. To qualify as a mitra, applicants must undergo years of teaching, based substantially on Lingwood’s beliefs, which still dominate the sect.
Sources in the group say the Attorney General even considered being ‘ordained’ as a full order member, which involves committing a substantial part of one’s life to its work.
She appears to have dropped the idea as her political career blossomed, culminating in her election as the MP for the safe Tory seat of Fareham in Hampshire in 2015.
But her political success appears to have been cause for celebration for Triratna. After she was appointed Attorney General, the order’s one-time communications officer, Vishvapani Blomfield, posted on his Facebook page: ‘This is the first time there has been a Buddhist incumbent. In fact, it is the first time there has been a Buddhist cabinet minister.’
He then removed the entry, later explaining: ‘I deleted the post because I reflected that her [Mrs Braverman’s] appointment raises many issues and I neither wanted to discuss them fully nor leave the impression I was endorsing her.’ He went on: ‘I met Suella once and found her very pleasant, but I do not endorse her politics and cannot comment on her Buddhism.’
Meanwhile, Triratna continues to flourish, with branches in more than 30 countries. Besides income from meditation and other courses, it benefits from bequests from members.
Since Lingwood’s death, the sect claims to have confronted its past, establishing internal safeguarding officers in its branches and has promised full cooperation with the police should someone make a criminal complaint.
After a lifetime wrestling with the psychological fallout of his Triratna membership, Glenn Stevens wanted to do just that.
Born in South London in 1969, Mr Stevens experienced a deeply troubled childhood, with a mother suffering from mental illness and an alcoholic father. Aged 16, in search of help, he started attending the Croydon Buddhist Centre and was immediately targeted by a senior order member who, he says, sexually abused him. ‘He hooked me in. I was vulnerable, ripe for it, easy pickings,’ says Mr Stevens. ‘He was regarded as a great spirit who had stayed on this earth to help others rather than going off into the cosmos.
‘I have no problem with different kinds of sexuality, but I was heterosexual and was paralysed when this man [Lingwood] slept with me. At first, he showered me with love. But he could also be a bully.’
After quitting the order, Mr Stevens descended into drug and alcohol abuse, leading an aimless and unhappy life. ‘I couldn’t process it,’ he says. ‘I didn’t realise how deep it went.’
Mr Stevens is now drug and alcohol-free and leading a happier life with his wife in Portugal. But he is still traumatised and wants Triratna to pay for psychotherapy — something he says the order has refused. He complained to police but was told his allegations are time-barred. This, he says, allows the ‘cover-up’ to continue.
There were other casualties at the Croydon centre.
One was Matthew, a talented Oxford graduate who joined the FWBO in 1984 and stayed for three years. So traumatised was Matthew by his experience that he needed psychotherapy and eventually committed suicide.
Dennis Lingwood, the British-born guru known to his thousands of adherents around the world as Sangharakshita
Nina Davies is a former Triratna member who has set up a Facebook site for order members who have been affected by their involvement in the sect.
‘There was big denial,’ she says. ‘There was a big division between men and women. And thought control on a massive scale.’
And what of Mrs Braverman?
‘I heard about her a few years ago. She is a Tory and it was remarkable that she was there, as most people were Left-wing. She asked for ordination. She had been on ordination retreats. I am concerned about her judgment, given her position.’
Here, we should note Lingwood once made a grudging apology — of sorts. He stressed that his victims appeared to be willing at the time, but he regretted any hurt caused.
A former member of the order tells the Mail: ‘Triratna deflect and deny, and they are still doing it. The implications of admitting it all would be enormous. If Sangharakshita is condemned for his abuse, the whole thing falls apart. He is the centre of it all, even in death.’
Michelle Haslam, a clinical psychologist, was involved with Triratna on and off between 2015 and 2019. She explains: ‘A newcomer is considered ignorant and spiritually “asleep”, which sets up the longer‑term member to be in a position of power.
‘I was told by order members that only the Croydon centre was affected by “problems” a long time ago and that Triratna is now heavily safeguarded.
‘I noticed sexual advances being made by male order members in training towards young women attending meditation classes, and I myself experienced this. At the same time, it also appeared that the male order members believed that heterosexual relationships were neurotic and a hindrance to the spiritual path.
Munisha, formerly known as Catherine Hopper, is Triratna’s new internal safeguarding officer. When asked about Mrs Braverman’s membership of an organisation with such a dark history, she replies: ‘A great many politicians are members of the Catholic church and the Anglican church, which have also had massive scandals.’
But what of her spiritual mentor’s appalling acts? Were they not criminal in some cases?
‘Certainly, we would say they were unethical.’
Why, then, is Sangharakshita still venerated?
‘I’m sorry, I’m not going to get into that,’ says Munisha.
When asked if sexual abuse was a persistent theme of the group, she admits: ‘It is, unfortunately.’
‘I’m going to hang up now because I don’t have more time.’
When asked about Lingwood’s behaviour previously, a spokesperson said: ‘Sangharakshita has never been accused, charged or convicted of any crime.’
Meanwhile, at the London Buddhist Centre, where Suella Braverman practises her faith, there is a shop and library where you can pick up a free postcard, depicting Lingwood, as a keepsake.
He may be dead. But in the minds of those who deceive themselves about this once dangerous predator, he’s still very much alive.