Dr Ambedkar, Gypsies and Buddhism in Hungary

May 11, 2006

Half way through Term One, in the middle of February and our four weeks with Subhuti, he came into class one morning, saying “I have an idea, a proposal to put to you”. He then proceeded to tell us a little about the history of his contact with Buddhist scholars and gypsy people in Hungary and invited us to think about the idea of accompanying him on his next visit there, possibly in April. The overwhelming response was one of great excitement and we waited to see if it really would happen, since it was by no means a definite at that time.

Two months later, in the first week of Term Two, Subhuti and six students, one lecturer and one Dharmacarini flew to Budapest and there began another ‘experiment’, reflecting the distinctive nature of what is currently Dharmapala and Dharmaduta in the FWBO. It is not possible to describe the many and varied experiences each person had in Hungary. For those of us privileged enough to go there, however, I think it is fair to say each one of us has been touched deeply by what we witnessed, shared in and contributed to in very diverse ways over the two weeks.

Our first introductions took place at the Dharma Gate Buddhist College in Budapest, where we met Tamas Agocs, Tibor Derdak and Janos Orsos and several young gypsy men and two young women. This was in the evening after a day’s travel and no food or sleep in sight, no Hungarian language amongst our group and complete dependence on others to set the scene and give direction to the order of events, which was distinctly absent from the proceedings. Here was our first learning and challenge to our practice, to be in the moment, whilst experiencing what felt like chaotic disarray.

The days unfolded from there in a similar fashion, at least on the surface, since we did follow Tibor’s timetable more or less as planned. There was a meeting the next morning with the Director of the College, Gabor Karsai, discussing the range of teaching currently offered there and their recent MA accreditation, the first in the country since Hungary’s recent changes to these processes. A partnership approach with Dharmapala College (‘the babe in nappies’ as it was described by one of us, in comparison with fifteen year old Dharma Gate College) could see our staff as visiting lecturers contributing to their English courses once they are developed, and our students gaining accreditation through their existing status. We here in England have already benefited from a teaching visit from Tamas Agocs, working with us on the Diamond Sutra. The vision of a European Buddhist university was further discussed and next steps with the existing network of the European Buddhist Union, to possibly adopt this focus as its theme for their next conference. In amongst the vision and the practicalities, there was other inspirational talk of philosophy, academic minds at work and at play.

Meanwhile some of our group were exploring the city of Budapest and delighting in the culture on offer there, a sharp contrast to our surroundings the next day when we travelled south to Gilvanfa and Alsoszentmarton, (two kilometres from the Croatian border), where the Tiger Cub Grammar and Vocational Secondary School is located. Kistigris (as it is known locally) serves the people from five gypsy villages in this southern region. The educational level is extremely low – in gypsy communities around the country only 1% of young people take the GCE exam at high school, in comparison with 70% of the general Hungarian population. In addition to GCE subjects, this school offers teaching in Roma language and a range of religions, including Buddhist studies. Here we met some of the teachers at the school and some of us experienced a taste of home and family life over the Easter weekend, finding ourselves in sharply contrasting circumstances from one moment to the next. One evening ‘hanging out’ at the school, making music around the warming log fire under the night sky, the next afternoon sitting in a comfortable family lounge room immersed in intense conversation about the political history of Hungary, the impact of the communist regime on the nation’s and individuals’ psyche, the effects of the European Union on the country’s economy and national identity and a few hours later, observing an all night Easter vigil of the Catholic community in Alsoszentmarton. Threaded through these experiences were ongoing discussions about the work of the school and the challenges faced by gypsy people in Hungary today, as well as talk of the Dharma, what do Buddhists believe and what does it mean to be a Buddhist?

On our travels south we were accompanied by some of the young men we had met on our first evening in Hungary and later we travelled north with them to the Dharma Gate College retreat centre in Uszo (20 kilometres from the Slovakian border). Here we spent six days in retreat mode, with an ever changing combination of people, coming and going from this very beautiful part of the country, surrounded by beech and oak forests, hills and valleys and a range of mountain peaks in the distance. We fetched and carried water from a natural source, cooked with bottled gas, lit candles for light in the evenings and washed infrequently! People slept on floors, six to ten in a room and those sleeping in the shrine room had to be woken, so others could do their morning meditation. Young gypsy men, ranging in age from fifteen to twenty four years, found themselves in amongst this group of practising Buddhists from far away places. They learnt how to meditate themselves and participated in some strange activities called communication exercises and circle meetings, talking about ethics and something called precepts. Through this kind of sharing and lots of playing table tennis, football, singing and music making, we got to know one another, connections began to sprout (just as the acorns were doing in the forest in the glorious spring time) and the seeds of friendship were sown.

There were many special moments on this trip, but certainly unforgettable were the two FWBO mitra ceremonies conducted during this retreat. The first ever to be held in Hungary was for nineteen year old Istvan, who had met Subhuti last year when he first visited Hungary. Istvan subsequently had some email contact with Subhuti and pursued his interest in Buddhist practice through Janos and Tibor, who themselves became mitras when they travelled to India in January this year. The other mitra ceremony was for Janos’ sister, Anikos, whose son had been on the retreat earlier in the week. This was also a first, the first gypsy woman to become a mitra and the first ceremony to be conducted in Hungarian! Anikos wore the sari Janos had bought for her on his trip to India, particularly meaningful, because of their very strong sense of connection with their roots in India, dating back to the tenth and eleventh centuries CE.

I remember Subhuti saying to us that February day in the classroom, “this could be learning in terms of seeing something in the making, what could be an historical event as far as Ambedkarite Buddhism coming to Central Europe”. He also said it might not quite work, but at least we could contribute our presence and our interest in other people’s coming into contact with the Dharma. This we certainly did.

Anne Barrey
Dharmaduta student
(from Adelaide, South Australia)

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Dharmapala College, Birmingham

May 6, 2006

I came to UK four months ago and joined the Dharmaduta Course at Dharmapala College in Birmingham. I am glad that I was able to come for this course. The course is very intensive with high academic vigour and spiritual depth. Moreover it is vibrant and altruistic as we are trying to practice what we learn in our course. So, as a part of course we visited Hungary in April for two weeks to visit Hungarian Gypsies who find strong connection with Dr Ambedkar and the Buddhist College in Budapest. I feel deeply grateful for the opportunity and conditions. My only regret is that there are not more people on the course, particularly Indians.

While living in Birmingham I am also keeping in regular contact with Bodhisagar and Vivekamitra for the development of Dhammaloka International Centre for Buddhist Learning, Sarnath. We are publishing more books in Hindi and other Indian languages and also teaching the Dhamma at various places in India and Nepal. My main focus is to enhance Dhamma study within the order in India and facilitate others to lead retreats for various sections of society. We would like to see more Indian Order members teaching the Dhamma with confidence and clarity. We would like lands at Sarnath and Bodhagaya developed to provide facilities to spread the Dhamma. I will be in India from September 25 to January 2007 travelling with Dharmaduta students and staff, leading retreats, pilgrimages. I am looking forward for the 50th anniversary celebration of the mass conversion on 2nd October at Nagpur. If you are thinking of visiting India and would like to consider teaching in India or Nepal then please contact me or Vivekamitra.