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.

The FWBO in Hungary

July 16, 2006

Sinhagupta is Director of the Centre of Communication and Ethics in International Business (Anglia Ruskin University). Several years ago in Hungary she met Mireisz Laszlo, the head of the foundation that runs the Gate of Dharma College in Budapest. She has been in regular communication with him now for about 7 years, and was present at the opening of the Gate of Dharma stupa and new shrine room, which took place 4 years ago.Founded in 1991, the Gate of Dharma College includes the following in its mission statement:

…convinced that Buddhist principles are not foreign to Hungarian and European spirituality, we aim at enriching Hungary’s culture.Subhuti with Roma/Gypsy young men and Dharmaduta students

Gate of Dharma presently has 260 regular students in four grades, with the opportunity to study the various Buddhist schools, and Sanskrit, Pali, Chinese, Tibetan and Japanese, related religious philosophy, western philosophy, and the oriental martial arts. So far more than 100 students have graduated. They may take up a monastic vocation, but the Buddhist Teacher Degree issued by the College also enables the graduates to work as primary school teachers, social workers and teachers of religion.The College is accredited by the Hungarian Committee of Accreditation and, interestingly, i
s state-funded, as are all Hungarian institutes for religious education. As such, it is housed in an extensive building, has a library of 10,000 volumes, an up-to-date computer system, a 40-bed dormitory for students from the country, and is able to grant its students a stipend.
On the staff at Gate of Dharma College is Dr Tamas Agocs, who agreed to accompany Sinhagupta to
UK to meet Subhuti and Bhante. Subhuti, then instituting the FWBO’s own Dharmapala College in
Birmingham, was clearly interested. When Tamas showed him a list of the various Hungarian Buddhist groups associated with the Gate of Dharma, Subhuti noticed a Romany (gypsy) group listed. Tamas told him they were ‘into Dr Ambedkar.’ How so? Apparently Tibor Derdak , a white Hungarian Buddhist working with the gypsies, had ‘found a book about Ambedkar in Paris and been inspired by it.’

In June last year Subhuti visited the Gate of Dharma College and the southern village of
Alsoszentmarton, where the Tiger Cub Grammar and Vocational Secondary School (for gypsies) is located. The school serves the people from five gypsy villages in this region. Only 1% of gypsies take the final exam at high school, in comparison with 70% of the general population. This school offers classes in Roma language and Buddhist studies, as well as the national curriculum. Here Subhuti connected with Tibor, and with gypsy leader Janos Orsos, and invited them to India last December. Both became FWBO mitras in India, and since then there have been 5 more gypsy mitra ceremonies.

Subhuti and five of Dharmapala College’s Dharmaduta students are sharing in their second retreat with the gypsies as I write this, as the interest in Ambedkarite Buddhism grows, along with the academic connections between the Birmingham and Budapest Colleges.

– story by Catherine Baker

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)

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.