As part of the first year of the Dharmaduta Training Course, we students – that is Anne, Yvonne, Manidhamma, Matt, Thea, Will, and myself – spent the months of October and November in India. Our stay on the huge sub-continent, with its bubbling life and striking contradictions, included a pilgrimage to the Buddhist holy sites, led by Ratnaketu and his team. Our thanks to Ratnaketu for explaining so well the historical and spiritual significance of each site. For the rest of our stay we engaged in Dharmaduta activities. We joined the international Network Conference of Buddhist Activists. The symposium was held at Nagaloka, Nagpur, to celebrate the conversion to Buddhism of Dr Ambedkar and half a million of his followers in this Indian city fifty years ago. In talks and discussion groups, we learned more about the ‘Dhamma Revolution’, which was started in 1956 by Ambedkar’s conversion, and what has been achieved since then. There are now between one to two million Buddhists in India, ex-Dalits who have a significant improved quality of life compared to their non-Buddhist peers.
The other purpose of the symposium was to discuss how to combine the forces of the sangha in India and abroad to accelerate the spread of the Dharma in India. There are an estimated ten to twenty million non-Buddhist followers of Ambedkar (Ambedkarites), who might take the chance to escape caste oppression and lead a more confident life by converting to Buddhism – if there only would be somebody to teach them about the Dharma and their leader’s thoughts. In view of the decline in Buddhism in most parts of the world, whether the worldwide Buddhist community is awake enough to respond to the opportunities in India and the task of the ‘Dhamma Revolution’ in the coming years will be of great significance.
After the symposium, we participated in two ‘Dhamma Journeys’, organised by Dharmacharis Kumarajiv and Subhuti. The first was a six-day tour through Chattisgarh, a state in the east of India. A team of around thirty people travelled in jeeps and lorries on rough roads through endless rice fields to visit poor farmers’ villages and to connect with the local people. Our program in the nicely-decorated centres of these villages consisted of chanting the precepts and other devotional texts, garlanding statues of the Buddha and Ambedkar, and giving short talks about Ambedkar’s conversion and what it means to be a Buddhist.
The farmers were very welcoming and open. Our main message was that in Buddhism, unlike Hinduism, there is no oppressive division of society into castes, and that it is our own responsibility to take the initiative to improve our lives. We stressed that all people are equal in that we can develop, and reach enlightenment. We developed a “mantra” together with them – ‘monke, monke, eka barobar’, ‘all people are equal’ – which is based on the verse of a poet from Chattisgargh. This expressed a shared human dignity to counteract the harmful effect of the hereditary caste system.
The ‘rath’, or chariot, carrying the Buddha rupa, the Dharmachakra, and Dr Ambedkar’s ashes.
Our second opportunity to put Dharmaduta into practice was a ten-day tour through the state of Maharastra, from Nagpur to Kolhapur. Approximately fifty people, in up to ten flag-decorated jeeps and two lorries, travelled from town to town to celebrate Ambedkar’s conversion, to remind the people why he took that big step, and to inspire the Ambedkarite Buddhists to continue his work by reaching out to other communities. One of the lorries, decorated with a big Buddha rupa and a huge golden Dharma wheel, also carried an urn containing Dr Ambedkar’s ashes. While driving through the villages and on the country roads, we had to stop again and again to give crowds of people the opportunity to climb onto the lorry to pay due honour to the relic. It was very moving to witness the depth of reverence and gratitude towards Ambedkar. Each day we celebrated the anniversary, giving talks and inviting the villagers to the main evening event at whatever local town, where after a devotional program Subhuti would give a talk, sometimes to as many as 1500 people.
For all of us, Indians and Westerners, it was an overwhelming experience. The team spirit was extraordinary, and we all were carried by the importance of our endeavour, even more so by the inspiration and love of the many hundreds of people waiting for us alongside the road each day, some of them coming from far and waiting for hours.
I would like to close this little report with a quote from Dr Ambedkar, which summarises an important aspect of spiritual practice that became much more clear and alive to me on our journey through India: ‘…the duty of a Buddhist is not merely to be a good Buddhist. His duty is to spread Buddhism. They must believe that to spread Buddhism is to serve mankind.’