Dharmaduta’s in India

January 15, 2007

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.’



An Overview of India’s Buddhist Movement

October 13, 2006

According to the 2001 census there are 7.95 million Buddhists in India out of a population of 1 billion, making it the country’s fifth-largest religion. The true figure is far higher – between 20-30 million, but many do not register as Buddhists for fear of losing government concessions that are due to low-status Hindus.

“We have 405 New-Buddhists in our village, 69 from the Matang community, they say there were only 105 of us in 1991 and in 2001 census, we are not there. This means we don’t get any relief or benefit from government. We are supposed to get 20 per cent of the Panchayat budget of Rs. 3 lakh per year”.
— Census wipes out dalits in Maharashtra , Mandar Phanse , CNN-IBN

These Buddhists include a number of groups. There are scattered survivors of the period when Buddhism flourished in India such as the Baruas of Assam, Chakmas of Bengal, the Saraks of Orissa and the Himalayan Buddhists of North-East India; there are also ethnic overlaps from Nepal, Thailand and Burma, such as Tamangs and Sherpas there are converts who have been influenced by theMaha Bodhi Society, the Dalai Lama and so on; and there are refugee Tibetan Buddhists in different settlements.

Finally there are the followers of Dr. Ambedkar, who constitute over 90% India’s Buddhists. Dr Ambedkar was the unquestioned leader of the dalits: people considered ‘untouchable’ under the Hindu caste system. He converted to Buddhism in 1956 with many of his followers, and the events of Autumn 2006 represent a development of his movement on the 50th anniversary of its inception.

One reason for the current interest in Buddhism is the success of those who became Buddhists in the past. 72.7% have a basic education compared with the national average of 52.21% and the community is increasingly confident, self reliant and free from negative social norms. The new Buddhists refuse to work within the ritually polluting and ritually duties traditionally associated with their caste, such as handling dead bodies: a strategy that works when people are able to find alternative employment outside the village. However, even if new Buddhists are successful in joining ritually more or less neutral professions, they are looked down.

It is hard to overstate the continuing importance of Dr Ambedkar – Babasaheb to his followers ­– within this community. He is seen as a ‘bodhisattva’ – a compassionate being on the path to Enlightenment and revered second only to the Buddha. Statues and pictures of Dr Ambedkar are seen everywhere in New Buddhist communities, where people greet one another with “Jai Bhim”, meaning, ‘Victory to Bhimrao Ambedkar’. Invocations of Dr Ambedkar are even added to traditional Buddhist chants and rituals.

Dr Ambedkar died only six weeks after his conversion in Nagpur and the Buddhist movement lost momentum at a crucial point in its history. Conversion ceremonies in other major Indian cities that were planned to follow the Nagpur event failed to take place. Following his death, the Ambedkarite movement was divisided and lacked direction, and there were few Buddhist teahcers to educate the millions of followers in the new faith.

Nonetheless, a substantial Buddhist movement has grown up. Its focus is the central Indian state of Maharashtra, and Nagpur is its heart. This is where Dr. Ambedkar took initiation on October 14 1956 along with his 380,000 followers. Other significant New Buddhist communities are found in Madya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Andra Pradesh. For details of the conversion ceremony in Hydrabad, AP, on 14th October see the previous post. Further large ceremonies are planned in Karnataka, Bihar, Kerala, Punjab, Madhya Pradesh, Chattisgarh, Gujarat, Orissa, and Rajasthan.

In Maharashtra, the conversion movement has been largely confined to the Mahar sub-caste, to which Dr Ambedkar himself belonged. Now it is spreading to other Maharashtrian communities. A confederation of 40 tribal communities, numbering at least hal-a-million are embracing Buddhism (see http://ambedkar2006.blogspot.com/2006_10_04_ambedkar2006_archive.html), and many members of the Matung sub-caste are doing the same.

Conversion ceremonies are regular occurrences, prompting anti-Buddhist measures by some state governments (see http://www.buddhistchannel.tv/index.php?id=42,3191,0,0,1,0 for details of such measures in Gujarat). But Dr Ambedkar’s movement is at last coming of age, as Saddhananda Fulzele, who organised the 1956 Nagpur ceremony and for many years has been the Chairman of Nagpur’s Dr Ambedkar College, told me this week, ‘Fifty years is not a long time in the history of a religious movement.’ Dr Ambedkar’s prestige continues to grow 50 years after his death, his works are being translated into regional languages, many young people are discovering his work for the first time, and there is increasing interaction with Buddhists from outside India. ‘Dr Ambedkar is more powerful dead than alive,’ Fulzele commented.
At a time of deep disillusionment with political solutions to India’s problems, the true contribution of Dr Ambedkar, who framed the country’s constitution, is becoming clearer. Through his political achievements and the foundation of the Buddhist conversion movement he offered a path for India’s lower classes that contains great depth that is deeply in sympathy with the teachings of Buddhism. Large sections of India’s 200 million ‘scheduled castes’ (i.e. those considered untouchable under Hinduism), and many members of the 500 million lower (or ‘depressed’ castes, are now looking seriously at Dr Ambedkar and considering following his example by adopting the Buddhist faith.

Information from Jambudvipa Trust

Dharma Tour in Chattisgarh

October 13, 2006

I’m writing this in a jeep, literally bumping down mud roads in rural Chhattisgarh. I have joined a Dharma teaching tour by Indian and western Buddhists in a rural area, far from the main cities, where forty percent of the population is from dalit and other depressed communities and a movement of conversion to Buddhism is well under way. The people here are passionately devoted to Dr Ambedkar, many of the leaders are becoming Buddhists, and the villages are holding meetings to discuss conversion en masse. The Maharashtrians in our party are excited to be here, so far from the Ambedkarite heartlands, where their movement is just catching fire.

We’ve just pulled up in a large field and water hole with buffalo lying neck-deep in the water with a statue of Dr Ambedkar in a lush, green field. Then we drive a kilometer to the village – roughly built huts, the walls mostly made of mud, the more solid buildings of brick, beside a tranquil lake, and the sun shining down a sweltering heat. The entire village is there to meet us: two hundred people clustered in a gathering pace by the lake.

The men are dressed in simple shirts and slacks, many of the faces deeply weathered; the women are dressed in dramatic green and red saris, many with dramatic pink and red nose studs in both nostrils; the children are here as well, from the smallest to teens in smart blue and white school uniforms. You see the incredulity is in the faces: amazement that people should come from so far away to their village – in fact, that anyone at all would come here. They warm to the speakers as each in turn expresses their admiration for Dr Ambedkar and the warmth of the reception. It’s true: their faces shine as with joy – though mixed with surprise and perplexity. One man towards the back stares at me as if to say ‘What’s that?’

Most of these people are Satnamis – followers of ‘the true name’: a sect founded by a local teacher called Garsidas in the late 18th century. It is an anti-caste bhakti movement (i.e. devotionally based – because social differences disappear in the face of Truth) numbering three or four million people in this region. They are nominally Hindu, but they have rejected so many Hindu beliefs and practices that they see themselves more as an independent tradition. Followers these days think that Garsidas’ teaching has much in common with Buddhism: indeed, some scholars trace a line from the last of the Buddhist siddhas to the first of the Hindu bhaktas, culminating in figures like Garsidas.

The great link is Dr Ambedkar, and the fact that he advocated conversion to Buddhism is now impacting on these people. They knew nothing of him in his lifetime: illiterate and far from external communications they knew of little beyond their own community. That changed in the 1980s when Kanshi Ram, the founder of the BSP, a political party representing the poorest people, visited the area, bringing news of Dr Ambedkar’s achievements and legacy. A dalit who became the country’s first law minister and framed laws against caste discrimination (though of course you can’t outlaw the attitudes that go along with it). Several people here tell me that for them Dr Ambedkar is a Messiah, a saviour who embodies all their aspirations and showed them a way forward.

Kanshi Ram was largely responsible for spreading awareness of Dr Ambedkar beyond Maharashtra, to many groups like the Chhatishgari Satnami’s, and for taking his work forward in the political sphere. In a country whose rulers are still overwhelmingly Brahmins, the BSP actually joined the government. But we have just heard that he died – the day before we arrived on 8th October. It is a shock to these people, but not a surprise, as he had been ill for two years, and at every meeting we hold a two minute silence.

Only five percent of the Satnami community have actually become Buddhists so far, but this includes some very active and determined people, including a singer who has accompanied us on two of our programmes. He recites the words first in a rolling, emphatic, strongly rhymed poetry, sounding like Jamaican dub. I can pick out a few key words: ‘Bhagawan Buddha’, ‘Babasaheb Ambedkar’. Then he sings the same words, in a vibrant, modulated harmony, adding to them improvised lines and repetitions. He sways and the audience nod with pleasure.

There’s a rich culture here, for all the absence of education and the community’s isolation, but it is being transformed as these people move towards Buddhism. Traditionally religious teachers would sing verses from the Ramayan followed by commentaries on the meaning. But in recent years many people have turned against the ancient text because of its caste connotations, and new epics have been composed: the Bhimayana, which tells the life of Bhimrao Ambedkar (‘Bhim’ for short) and the Buddhayana, recounting the life of the Buddha.

I ask a schoolteacher if they see conflict between the Satnami tradition and Buddhism. ‘Both teach equality and both were against caste,’ he replies. ‘We love our teacher, Guruji, but the Satnami way has done nothing to help our people out of their suffering. Babasaheb Ambedkar has helped, so we have great faith in him. Buddhism shows how to live a good life and it has always opposed caste, so now we have faith in the Buddha.’

Another man joins the conversation, who is dressed in flowing yellow and red robes and has mantras tattooed across his forehead. He tells me that he is a former Ramnami, a breakaway from the Satnami movement devoted to reciting the name of Ram. ‘I still bear the marks of a Ramnami, but I am a follower of Bhagawan Buddha, and I have traveled to every state in India to see how the followers of Dr Ambedkar’s movement are working to spread Dhamma.’ I compliment him on his magnificent white beard and he tells me, ‘When I travel in the train I tell them I am a Buddhist holy man and point to my beard. They say ‘Buddhists shouldn’t steal – buy a ticket!’ But I say, I am not stealing, I am just traveling, and usually they let me stay on the train.’

I worry several times during the tour if that this seems too much like a missionary tour, but there is little sense here that something is being imposed from outside. I have used the word ‘conversion’ throughout this blog, but in fact they tell me they are not Hindus. Some say they have no religion; others follow teachers who they now consider to be in sympathy with Dr Ambedkar and the Buddha.

There is much more I could write about my three-day trip to Chattisgarh, but communications have been so difficult that I will only be able to manage this single report. But I am pleased to have gone. Not far south is a heartland of the Naxalite insurgency: a Maoist guerrilla insurgency that spreads across India and uses bandit tactics to oppose caste and social inequality. Whole districts not far away are in Naxalite hands, and the scale of the revolt is gradually being appreciated by Indians and outsiders. The poverty is to intense and the injustice of caste so palpable, that this is no surprise. It throws Dr Ambedkar’s importance and his espousal of non-violence into sharper relief still. The villages and towns that are turning to Buddhism are the heart of India, and a change is taking place there: a teaching of equality, dignity, and helping the community, all embodied in the bespectacled figure of the most unlikely-looking messiah: Dr Ambedkar.

Impressions of Dikshabhumi

October 7, 2006

I have already described the scene at Diksabhumi on Monday 2nd October, when a million or more people thronged to the site of Dr Ambedkar’s own conversion. I want to add here to what I wrote in my blog that day.

I traveled into the center of Nagpur with an American writer called Leona, Milind– who was there to take photographs – and Christopher Queen, who is a lecturer on religion at Harvard University and the leading writer on both engaged Buddhism and Dr Ambedkar’s movement. We were rooming together at Nagaloka, a Buddhist center on the outskirts of town where were both attending a conference that brought Buddhists from around the world together with Indian followers of Dr Ambedkar.

Chris is a large, ebullient man brimming with ideas and anecdotes who seems to know everyone in the Ambedkarite world. ‘What do they mean: “All India will become Buddhist”?’ he said in the taxi – as we discussed the conversion ceremony that had taken place at Nagaloka that morning. ‘These people need to live in a world with Moslems and Hindus and all the rest. Dr Ambedkar was a wanted to reconstruct the Buddhist tradition so it met the needs of his time. But can the Ambedkarites do the same with Ambedkar’s own ideas? Nagaloka should be teaching comparative religion and they really need to drop the 22 vows.’ There are additional commitments made by Ambedkarites when they convert that enjoin renunciation of Hindu practices. ‘They need to say what they are for, and leave aside what they are against.’

On the route into town I was more alert than before to the signs of Buddhism and Dr Ambedkar all around me. His face stared down from hoardings alongside a changing selection of religious figures and smiling politicians: articulating political semiotics far beyond my comprehension. Some of three-wheelers that belched fumes and criss-crossed the traffic also flew above them the multi-coloured Buddhist flag. It’s unknown in most Buddhist countries, but Dr Ambedkar sympathized with the approach of Col. Olcott, the American Theosophist who a century ago tried to convince Asia’s disparate Buddhists that they were indeed members of the same faith and should agree on common symbols – like the flag – and shared basic tenets.

Dr Ambedkar shared Olcott’s modernizing agenda. He was a rationalist who looked to the European Enlightenment for an alternative to the traditional thinking that underpins caste. Having studied and discarded Marxism he also realized that a purely rational philosophy could not touch the depths of the issues facing his followers. That’s where the Buddha came in. They needed a new identity that was free from the stigma of untouchability, and which offered dignity and self-confidence to a community that had imbibed the view that they were less than human. He found that teaching in the Buddha, but he sought a modern Buddhism stripped of notions of karma, rebirth and the emphasis on suffering expressed in traditional formulations of the Four Noble Truths, which he thought reaffirmed social hierarchies and caste-thinking.

Central Nagpur was surprisingly quiet – no sign of the vast throng we were anticipating. Then we passed a police barrier as we approached Diksabhumi and and it was clear that we were part of a stream of people who were heading the same way. But even here, the hotel where we were to meet Chris’ friend, Rahul Deepankar, an American-based dalit who was a successful doctor and the President of one of the main US dalit organisations, seemed untouched by the event. A sign in the lobby read: ‘Congratulations on Mahatma Gandhi’s birthday.’ For the caste Hindus who made up the majority of the hotel’s residents Ambedkar was invisible to them, his memory still eclipsed – as he is in the West – by his great, traditionalist, Brahmin rival.

We set off on foot for the conversion ground with Rahul and another man – a stocky dark-skinned fellow dressed in white, who I had initially assumed was part of the hotel staff. Turning a corner we were into Ambedkarite territory: a two-way street in which a solid crowd of people thronged towards Diksabhumi in one direction and another crowd, including those who had completed their visit, flooded the other way. Along the road were stalls promoting the many political interests that cluster around the Ambedkarite movement, while for others – selling rosettes and food and trinkets – this was another chance to make a few rupees.

Arriving at Diksabhumi itself we were confronted suddenly by a great, white, gleaming stupa adorned, at least for this day, with flickering lamps. Its familiar shape – a cube topped by a dome topped by a spire – rose hundreds of feet above us. ‘Keep together!’ Rahul called, as we looked, baffled, at the great sea of people before us. But then whistles started to blow around us and several figures wearing crisp shirts, military-style fatigues and little blue caps bustled around us crying, ‘You come, you come.’ We turned right, into a compound at the side of the main field and suddenly there were more whistles and a flurry of blue-capped bodies. As we westerners stood uneasily, camera-laden and sweating, the several dozen men and women in the formed ranks, saluted and cried out in unison, ‘Babasaheb Ambedkar, kai jai!’ I fumbled in my bags for the BBC recording equipment I was carrying for a contact in the World Service who is making a documentary about the conversions but couldn’t make it in time for the 2nd and had asked me to make some recordings of key events before she got there. I have quite shamelessly used this connection to make contacts and open doors: the letters BBC still carry weight in India.

Looking up, I saw our white-shirted companion now clasping a microphone and shouting passionately into it, his face puffed with intensity. After every few words he paused and the sergeant major marshalling the ranked blue-caps bellowed a cry that was echoed by the ranks. Rahul murmered. ‘This is the Ambedkarite youth movement, “Samata Sanak Daal”, who marshal the activities, and he is the all-India General Secretary.’ Far from being swamped in the crowd it seemed we were celebrity visitors, and far from being in danger of getting lost, we had our own cadre of security. Teaming up with Chris was the best thing I had done – he is very well connected in the Ambedkarite community.

We each said a few words, and pretty soon the microphone was passed to me. In a rush of adrenaline I was saying, ‘In my country I have heard a phrase, which is close to my heart and I have heard again today: ‘Jai Bhim!,’ I cried. ‘Jai Bhim!’ they shouted back. ‘I know you are very proud of Dr Ambedkar, because he was one of your people and he is a very great man. You think he is your teacher, but I have to tell you that is not true.’ Silence. ‘He is also my teacher! And Buddhists from every country can learn from the words of Dr Ambedkar, and you are not alone in your faith!’ More cries from the ranks. Finally I held up the great, phallic, red-tipped BBC microphone. ‘People around the world will know about your celebrations, so please let me hear you cry again, ‘Jai Bhim!’ I doubt that cry will ever be broadcast, but at least I can write about it here.

Where had this sudden onset of oratory come from? Was I intoxicated by the excitement of the day and the exhilaration of finding myself a centre of attention? I was moved, and happy to have said what I had. The more I had learnt about Dr Ambedkar, the more impressed I had grown. But most of all I was moved by the intensity of the devotion still on display. That power of that chubby, bespectacled figure, who was born an ‘untouchable’ in village India, but had somehow won a PhD from Columbia and framed the Indian constitution, was all around me. For these people, and their two hundred million companions across India, he represented the hope that they might be able to take their place in society as human beings, having been regarded for millennia as animals or slaves. And beckoning within that aspiration to dignity and equality was the mysterious promise of the boundlessness of that humanity. The Ambedkarites and the rest of India’s banished classes are forgotten people in the wider world. My moment of melodrama expressed, at the very least, sympathy for their position and a wish to do what I could to help share their voice.

Buddhist meet to mark Dhamma Revolution

September 25, 2006

“Bringing together so many Buddhists from radically different traditions is an earth shattering feat in itself. In the past the Network of Buddhist Organisations has brought different Buddhists together to look at their differences. This event is remarkable in that it brought them together to look at and address the issues in the real world – issues facing the Dalit communities of India”. This was the comment of Dharmarati from FWBO about the conference “Dharma Revolution: 50 years on” organised by the NBO and Karuna Trust.

The conference was held in anticipation of the 50th anniversary of the mass conversions to Buddhism initiated by the famous Dalit leader Dr Ambedkar. Speakers who arrived from India spoke about the wave of fresh conversions anticipated on the occasion of this golden jubilee. Indian Buddhism had been almost wiped out up until 1956. There are now more than 10 million Buddhists in India. However this new Buddhist community still faces deprivation and exclusion as a result of the caste system.

The conference was attended by over 60 including representatives of the FWBO, the Karuna Trust, Soka Gakkai International, Dhagpo Kagyu Mandala, the Amida trust and various Ambedkarite organisations from the UK and India as well as individuals from other Buddhist organisations in the UK. They heard presentations by Manidhamma (TBSMG), Subhuti (FWBO), Ian Finlay (Open Way Zen), Claire Bertschinger (the SGI nurse who inspired Live Aid). Speakers emphasised the urgent need for more Buddhist teachers and organisations to get involve with the Dalit Buddhist movement.

Workshops looked at the issues around the self empowerment of the Dalits and the need to take the Dharma to these communities. In addition there was a concert given by the sitar virtuoso Baluji Shrivastau who identified himself with the work for the Dalit cause. “I feel honoured to take part in this momentous event” he said to the packed shrine room of the North London Buddhist Centre.

Saul Deason and Suddhaka
North London FWBO

A Letter from Birmingham

September 18, 2006

I just arrived a couple of hours ago this morning from London attending a two day workshop on ‘The Dhamma Revolution in India: 50 years on’ organised by The Karuna Trust and the Network of Buddhist Organisations, UK. There were about 40 participants from many western Buddhist groups, including the FPMT, Soka Gakkai, FWBO, Amida Trust, Gaia House, TBMSG & Sakya Sangha from India. We explored significance of Dr Ambedkar and his conversion movement and its relevance to western world. We looked into successes of the past 50 years and difficulties that these Indian Buddhists still face because of change in caste behaviour. We also explored how western Buddhist can contribute to social change in India and help Indian Buddhists in their practice of the Dhamma and the ongoing transformation of their lives. I felt very happy and grateful to the organisers and particularly Saul Dyson and Amalavajra for putting their efforts for many months.

Last a couple of months had very challenging and spiritually rewarding. I have intensive experiences of loss and contribution, pain, learning, gratitude, joy and inspiration. One of my older brother Yashawant who was a mitra and was supposed to be ordained soon died suddenly on 23rd August in Wardha surviving his wife and two kids aged 1 and 2 years. This was shocking and painful experience for all the family and affected everybody’s life. So, I went to India to support and be with my family. I am very much moved by support from my friends in Sangha, especially Mahamati, Mahastham, Karunamati, Vivekamitra, Koteshwar Rao, Turanya, Vimalnath as well as my colleges from Dharmapala College, Dharmacharies and friends from Yavatmal and Wardha Sangha. This is second death in my family in a years time as my sister in law died last year same time. So, thanks to all those who were thinking of me and my family, sent cards and metta.

I also was enjoying and occupied with my studies at the Dharmapala College. We finished our third term with intensive MBTI and NVC training and retreat and before that we studied Mahayana and Yogacara texts. I also found our visit to Hungary very productive and significant to contribute to Gypsies, especially the retreat near Ukrainian border. We developed more contacts and deepened our friendships. Result of that was two Hungarian Mitras came and stayed with us in Birmingham.

Now, in a weeks time we are flying to India to participate in the 50th anniversary of Dr Ambedkars conversion at Nagpur and the going to Chattisgarh state to help depressed people and talk about Dr Ambedkar and Dharma. We will be also leading a Dhammayatra or Long March from Nagpur to Satara in western Maharashtra to support new conversions from other Dalit communities. There will be launching new translations of Bhantes books in Telugu and Hindi in Hyderabad, Nagpur and Sarnath in auspicious of Dhammaloka Trust and Dhammaloka International Centre for Buddhist Learning. We will also go on pilgrimage to the holy sites of the Buddha, to Delhi to develop connections with non-Ambedkarite Buddhists, and a solitary retreat before I come back for new year term of the Dharmaduta course. So, please visit http://www.dharmaduta.blogspot.com/ for more updates. I am looking forward to the forthcoming visit to India and celebrations at Nagpur and elsewhere.

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)