Heirs To Ambedkar: The Rebirth of Engaged Buddhism in India
While many people know of Buddhism as part of India’s past, it may well be India’s future. The Buddhist movement inspired by Dr. B.R. Ambedkar in the 1950s has taken root as an “engaged Buddhist” uprising among millions in the 21st century. Heirs To Ambedkar draws from Alan Senauke’s experience with and commitment to this movement. Since young people are the future of our world, the focus here is on the students of Nagaloka/Nagarjuna Training Institute, creating a generation of gifted Buddhist activists.
Dr. Ambedkar's Buddhist revolution, which Alan Senauke so perceptively describes as "hidden in plain sight", is now transforming the lives of millions of Dalits, and at the same time strengthening the ethical foundations of Indian democracy. It also has implications for all Buddhists and social activists throughout the world.
— Dh. Lokamitra
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Hatred is never appeased by hatred in this world; by non-hatred only is hatred appeased. This is an unending truth.
— Dhammapada, 5
On February 27, Doctors Without Borders (MSF) was ordered to close all its long-established clinics in Myanmar/Burma. They were accused of giving preferential treatment to Muslin Rohingya people. This was in response to statements by MSF about what they saw as ongoing and systematic attacks on Rohingyas in vulnerable communities of Burma’s western Rakhine state. According to U.N. documents the latest of these attacks — in Du Chee Yar Tan village this January — left forty-eight Rohingya dead, mostly women and children, at the hands of Buddhist-based rioters and state security forces. MSF, with numerous clinics in the area, publicly reported that they had treated at least twenty-two victims. The government of Myanmar has denied claims of these abuses, asserting that the U.N. and MSF’s facts and figures were “totally wrong.”
After negotiations the government stepped back a little, allowing MSF to continue its HIV/AIDS work and other activities in Kachin and Shan states, as well as in the Yangon region. Rakhine state remains off limits to MSF, despite the pressing needs of thousands from all religions and ethnicities who depend on their clinics.
Before going much further I should say that nothing I write can convey the complexity of issues or the passion and fear that fires both sides. From my distant vantage point in the U.S., I know that I can’t see the whole picture, which includes colonial history, geopolitics, along with regional and ethnic tensions within modern Myanmar.
Seven years ago the junta’s harsh economic measures brought a daring movement into the streets of Burma’s towns and cities. That movement came to be called the “Saffron Revolution.” Many thousands of Burmese joined the tide of protest, led by monks and nuns who stood up to the armed troops of an entrenched military dictatorship. The vision of a river of robed monastics and stark images of courageous confrontations of activists and soldiers are still clear in my mind. It was inspiring to see Buddhist monks and nuns take the lead and bear great risk for the sake of their nation.
Inspiring as it was, the Saffron Revolution was crushed by the junta’s armed forces in the late days of September 2007. Monasteries were emptied, with police cordons set up at their gates. Thousands of monks, nuns, and supporters were thrown into prisons or disappeared. An unknown number were killed. According to some reports, crematoriums on the outskirts of Yangon were operating night and day. When I visited Yangon with a small witness delegation in December of that year, we saw for ourselves the silent streets, empty monasteries, and the look of fear on people’s faces.
The Buddhist-led Saffron Revolution opened the world’s eyes to the plight of Burma. Images of brutality, violence, and murder — smuggled out at great risk — raised the stakes between the junta and citizenry. The whole nation — citizens and junta alike — was shamed by these images. That shame deepened the following year when Cyclone Nargis tore across southern Burma, leaving more than 150,000 dead, and large areas of population and agricultural devastated. The junta’s sluggish response and resistance to outside humanitarian relief drove the death toll higher. Once again, Burma was shamed before itself and the world.
In the spring of 2011 a flawed but nonetheless significant election seemed to set the course for a period of liberalization after fifty years of direct oppression. Many of us were heartened by this change and by the return of Nobel-laureate Daw Aung San Suu Kyi to active political life. In time almost all of the thousands of known political prisoners, many of them monks and nuns, were released, rededicating themselves to the building of a free society.
These changes, tentative as they seemed, were hopeful signs, acknowledged by the wide community of nations and by international non-governmental organizations ready to help with resources and training. On my visits to Burma I could feel a burden of fear lifting and the sense that a future was possible. Although there was still active fighting between government troops and rebel forces in Shan and Kachin states, it was possible to imagine an end to internal violence after so many years.
But in May of 2012 the rape and murder of a woman in Rakhine State, which borders Bangladesh, touched off violence between groups of ethnically Buddhist Rakhine people and local communities of Muslim Rohingyas. Hundreds were killed, dozens of villages looted and burned, many Rohingyas fled to hastily-constructed camps. The population of these camps is now approaching 200,000, out of an estimated population of 750,000 Muslims in Rakhine State.
Over the last two years voices and acts of intolerance in Burma have been regularly in the news. As have the government’s denials of discrimination or responsibility. Burma’s minister of religious affairs Sann Sint, a lieutenant general in the former junta, justified a boycott of Muslim businesses led by monks. "We are now practicing market economics," he said. "Nobody can stop that. It is up to the consumers."
In May of 2013 authorities in Rakhine state announced a policy imposing a two-child limit on Muslim Rohingya families in two western townships, reinforcing the perception of ethnic cleansing in Burma. This alarming policy is the only known legal restriction of its kind today against a specific religious group.
According to the June 14, 2013 edition of The Irrawaddy, “About 200 senior Buddhist monks convening in Rangoon on Thursday have begun drafting a religious law that would put restrictions on marriages between Buddhist women and Muslim men.”
In July the international edition of Time magazine added fuel to the fire with a cover photo of the fundamentalist Burmese monk Wirathu, calling him “The Face of Buddhist Terror.” President Thein Sein’s office released a statement about Wirathu and his fundamentalist 969 movement, saying 969 "is just a symbol of peace" and Wirathu is "a son of Lord Buddha."
Anti-Islamic violence has spread to other areas of the country. March 2013 riots in Meikitla, in central Burma south of Mandalay, left forty-four people dead and thousands of homes consumed by flames. Later, two days of violence between Buddhists and Muslims in Lashio — the largest town in Burma’s Shan State, near the Chinese border — left a mosque, an orphanage, and many shops destroyed by Buddhist-identified mobs roaming the streets on motorcycles.
Undoubtedly there has been violence on both sides. But in each of these instances the preponderance of organized reaction seems to be Buddhist-identified, often with leadership from monks, and with minimal response from the government and the Burmese army only after damage has been done. Local people describe the military as standing by and watching as the destruction unfolds.
This conflict has tangled roots going back decades to the British colonial occupation and years before. But the current tensions also speak to contention over scarce agricultural land and economic resources that manifests as communal hostility. Rakhine State, an independent kingdom for several thousand years, was only absorbed into a greater Burma at the end of the 18th Century, then ceded to the British only forty years later. Under the military dictatorship, the Rakhine State was exploited by the generals for its rich natural resources and labor. In the north it was pressed by an ever-expanding “Bengali” population of Muslim-majority Bangladesh. It is no surprise that Rakhine fear of “Bengalis” and suspicion of outsiders is evident.
One wonders, too, whether we are seeing garden-variety religio-or ethno-centrism, a disease of group identity and privilege that is sadly endemic among humans? Is there also a perverse political motivation, in which the former military junta is “allowing” the violence so they can intervene and reassert their position as the preservers of social order in Burma?
Rohingyas have lived in Burma in Rakhine state for generations, and very likely for several hundred years, although the facts are hotly contested. The former military regime’s 1982 law excluded them from among the nation’s 135 recognized ethnicities, denying the Rohingyas citizenship and basic rights on the basis that they were in fact “Bengali,” having infiltrated Burma from the eastern region of the Indian Empire. Yet present day neighbor Bangladesh denies citizenship to Rohingyas living within its own borders. In the background, of course, is a fear rooted in the historical sweep of Islam across Buddhist and Hindu India, and on across large portions of Southeast Asia.
The Rakhine State region, with natural gas reserves and a long shoreline on the Indian Ocean, is also at play in geopolitical tensions between China and India, each with its eye on Burma’s wealth and strategic location. It is not surprising that the United Nations views the Rohingyas as “one of the world’s most persecuted minorities.”
Myanmar/Burma is still in a delicate transition to democracy after fifty years of military dictatorship. The 2008 constitution reserves one quarter of the seats in both legislative bodies to delegates from the tatmadaw/military. It is hard to imagine Burma going back to its dark ages, yet within recent memory we can recall the dissolution Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia into oppositional ethnic and religious enclaves when Soviet-style dictatorship ended. One hopes against hope for better in Burma. We look to the government of Burma, including President Thien Sein and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi to play an active and nonviolent role in resolving conflicts between Buddhists, Muslims, and all ethnic groups. Central to this resolution is a guarantee of citizenship, human, and religious rights to all Burma’s diverse inhabitants. So far their response has been evasive.
At a press conference with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi in early March of this year, Jim Brooke, editor of The Cambodia Daily asked her to address the plight of Burma’s Rohingya People. Suu Kyi’s response was indirect to say the least. She said:
In any society, when there are tensions between different communities, you have to first of all ensure security. People who are insecure will not be ready to sit down to talk to one another to sort out their problems. So if you ask me what the solution is to the problem in the Rakhine, I would say simply ‘I don’t know what the solution is completely, but one essential part of it is the establishment of the rule of law.’
It seems to me that when the house is burning down, it’s not the time to discuss the fire department’s management policy. At the same time, one can understand Daw Suu’s vulnerable political position as parliamentary elections approach in 2015. Fundamentalist Buddhists have already begun to form alliances with the former junta generals to block Aung San Suu Kyi’s eligibility to stand for the Myanmar’s presidency.
The views of many "progressive" Buddhists are defensive and locked down with regard to Muslims. This can also be seen as an artifact of a military dictatorship that dismantled an excellent education system in a successful effort to replace knowledge with fear, mistrust, and superstition. A friend recently returned from Myanmar, where she was evaluating a residential program in peacebuilding for Buddhist activists, reports that even voices of moderation, reflection, and dialogue are now being effectively silenced.
A monk in Sittwe, capital of Myanmar’s Rakhine State, told my friend:
… Rakhine (people) do not like the talk of foreigners on human rights, and their suggestions to accept Muslims. The Rakhine have too much fear and lack trust…. They fear Muslims will take over their land, and feel betrayed by foreigners who come to help Muslims and not them.
I don’t assume that the concerns of Rakhine Buddhist have no factual basis. Violence by individual Muslims is also part of the picture. But it might be that the fears and acts of Buddhists, the demonization of Rohingyas and of Muslims throughout Burma, are creating the very conditions they fear most, with an increasing internationalization of an organized and potentially violent Islamic pushback.
Burma seems headed into a maelstrom of inter-communal conflict. And this may very well fit the purposes of still-powerful generals and politicians whose vision is to create a strong nationalist entity with a Burmese Buddhist identity. Ethnic confrontation in Burma challenges many of our cherished ideas of a “peaceful” Buddhism and religious fellowship. We know that the Buddha’s teaching and example are profoundly nonviolent, but for those of us inside and outside Burma who may have idealized a Buddhist-based nonviolent movement for democracy and human rights there, violence in Rakhine State and elsewhere is a discouraging reality.
And this is not confined to Burma. A decade of conflict between Buddhists and Muslims in southern Thailand has left more than 6000 dead and 10,000 injured. In Sri Lanka, after the murderous suppression of a Hindu Tamil minority in the north by Singhalese Buddhist nationalist military, tensions between Buddhists and Muslims have taken a center stage. In the modern era we see again and again: where a national state and religious identity merge, nothing wholesome will emerge.
I know there are countless open-minded citizens, monks, and nuns in Burma who desire peace and harmony among all religions and ethnicities. May they have the courage to speak out. And may they remember that what happens in the name of Buddhism affects how people around the world view this precious path that we strive to follow. Shakyamuni Buddha lived in a place and age of great diversity and change. He never taught fear. He never advocated violence. He did not hesitate to speak out for what was right and just. I would hope that Buddhists of today, whether they are in Burma or the West, would hold themselves to the same high standard. May all beings live in safety and happiness.
— Hozan Alan Senauke
Clear View Project
Postscript: What Can I Do?
Many Buddhists and concerned people in the West want to know what we can do to be of help in this painful situation. Over the last two years I have organized and taken part in letter-writing campaigns to Myanmar’s government, the United Nations, and the U.S. State Department by citizens and Buddhist teachers from Asia and the West. So far, to no avail. By long habit the government of Myanmar is relatively heedless of outside criticism, and they know that money from developed nations will continue to flow in their direction so long as Burma has resources to sell.
Nonetheless, we have to try. Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield just returned from Burma and he suggests the following:
…write or contact your congresspeople and the State Department, pressing the U.S. not to support major aid, business deals, and especially military collaboration with Burma unless the Burmese government stands up for human rights for all groups. Western Buddhist can write to Myanmar’s Ministry of Religious Affairs www.mora.gov.mm/ expressing your concerns.
I would also urge you to stay informed and be watchful. Online publications like www.irrawaddy.org/ as well as conventional sources like the New York Times, and the BBC do a good job following this issue.
I am encouraged by discussions that took place at last November’s conference of the International Network of Engaged Buddhists www.inebnetwork.org/ in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Throughout the conference, Burmese Buddhists and Muslims held a daily dialogue behind closed doors, where they could begin to map out both differences and possible solutions. Growing from these discussions, a commission of inquiry has been organized by a recently-formed International Forum on Buddhist-Muslim Relations. This fact-finding commission plans to meet and collaborate with local civil-society bodies inside Myanmar. It will have three primary objectives:
1. to bring forth the facts of Buddhist-Muslim conflict in Myanmar;
2. to ascertain the causes of this conflict;
3. to develop resources and proposals for the establishment of inter-religious peace and harmony in Myanmar.
People of Burma and of the whole Southeast Asian region will need to solve these problems by their own agency. I believe they can do this and they will need us to bear witness and lend support. In time we will be able to offer help.As the situation evolves, I will do my best to keep you informed in these pages and on the Clear View Project website and blog www.clearviewproject.org.
This is the text of a talk given on 1 November 2013 at the Institut Kefahaman Islam Malaysia (IKIM) in Kuala Lumpur, at the start of the 2013 conference of the International Network of Engaged Buddhists. At IKIM there were presentations on interfaith relations by Dr. Azizan Baharuddin, Ajahn Sulak Sivaraksa, Dr. Chandra Muzaffar, and myself. I began, briefly, by acknowledging my appreciation for the other presenters, then leading a practice of breathing together for a few moments. Key parts of this talk were developed from an essay I wrote in 2002, “Through a Glass Darkly: A Buddhist View of Israel & Palestine.”
Lets begin by taking a few minutes to breathe silently together. Please close your eyes and sit upright. Take a long breath in and let it out slowly. Take a few breaths like this. When you are ready, just settle into a natural rhythm of breath. In your mind you may reflect on my words, offer a simple prayer, or simply enjoy a feeling of peace, of being alive together.
The air we breathe is a fabric that weaves together all life on the planet. Everywhere, every moment every sentient being is breathing. The air – clean or smoggy, steamy or cool – connects us and allows us to be together in a common physical activity, the motion of breath. We breathe and we are breathed by forces that are beyond our understanding. Please just enjoy this common act of life.
Thank you for taking these few minutes to reflect and act together. It is common, human activity that we need.
The essence of my talk today is a simple and challenging principle: All people are chosen; all lands are holy. Let me say that again: All people are chosen; all lands are holy.
I should say that I was born into a secular Jewish family in the United States. My grandparents and great grandparents fled religious repression, violence, and military conscription in eastern Europe one hundred years ago. Over more than five thousand years going back to the earliest Hebrew scriptures, Jews carry with us the myth of the chosen people. And then there is the myth of the holy land, a story that continues to bring great suffering to peoples of the Middle East.
I have never been able to accept these myths. Visions of chosen people and holy lands seduce us. The obsessive nature of religious, ethnic, and national identity is not sustainable, nor does it lead to peace.
At an early age I set aside my religion of birth and began a search for spiritual teachings that fit with how I saw the world. By the time I reached college, I had come to admire Buddhism. In the simplest terms the Buddha explained: “I teach about suffering and the end of suffering.” This teaching continues to inspire me.
Still, I carry two powerful models in mind. In Judaism, Christianity, and Islam we hear the voice of the prophets, preaching justice and righteousness in society, speaking truth to power. In Buddhism we admire the Bodhisattva, who selflessly places the wellbeing of others before him or herself. Two streams of faith from two sides of the world — Jewish elders and Buddha ancestors — converge in my heart. They speak to each other and I try to listen.
When I consider that all lands are holy, two Zen Buddhist sayings come to mind. The first is: “There is no place in the world to spit.” Every place is precious to those who live there. Every place is the center of the world. So, of course, there is no room for thoughtless actions that defile the land and poison the air and waters. The path of peace is to take equal care of every place.
The second Zen saying that comes to mind is this: “If you create an understanding of holiness, you will succumb to all errors.” Just as all lands are holy, we can see that elevating one people splits the world in two. An exclusive holiness — my people, my religion, my nation — plants poisonous seeds of “us and them.” From such seeds war and hatred grow. In the name of what is holy, the soil of countless nations has absorbed the blood of crusaders, soldiers, defenders, martyrs, and other innocent people.
From a Buddhist perspective, our limited view, our self-centered attachment to these views is the source of suffering. Self-centeredness causes us to live at the expense of others. From this root we readily grow a kind of cultural or national self-centeredness, with individual suffering manifesting as policies of religious and ethnic intolerance, generation to generation, forging chains of suffering out of fear and anger. And we use violence to enforce this identity.
Verses 3-5 of the Dhammapada speak to this.
He insulted me, hit me, beat me, robbed me
— for those who brood on this, violence isn’t stilled.
Violence is never stilled through violence, regardless.
Violence only ceases are stilled through love.
This is an unending truth.
With Buddhism and Islam prevalent in Southeast Asia, we have seen the rise of inter-communal tensions between Buddhists and Muslims in Thailand, Indonesia, the Maldives, Myanmar, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka over the last decade. Our effort in this forum, at this conference, and in the mission of the International Network of Engaged Buddhists is to recognize our common humanity and our common right to life. The United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights begins with recognition that “…the inherent dignity and the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world…”
The enlightened center of Buddhism and the peaceful heart of Islam, along with the essence of many other religious traditions, are often lost in a world that is governed by global politics and multinational corporations. Where religion, the state, and economics join forces narrowness and prejudice readily arise. This unholy alliance is more about power than faith. In a religious state the religious community in power has the preponderance of power, resources, and weapons. At this forum we begin with words, but peace and sustainability in Southeast Asia or anywhere across the globe depend on much more than words. We can talk about equality, generosity, and all kind of high-minded principles. But until we recognize that all people are chosen, that we are our brother’s brother and our sister’s sister, nothing fundamental will change.
Article 1of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights says:
All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.
Article 25 puts this in concrete terms:
Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services…”
We also recognize that sustainability is a global issue. Southeast Asia suffers from overpopulation and from global warming. Agricultural output is threatened and fresh water is at a premium even as oceans rise and overrun low-lying coastal areas. The exponential rise of co2 from factories, energy production, and fossil-fuel-powered vehicles has destabilized weather patterns; unseasonable and cyclones, hurricanes, tornados, and floods rake across our continents.
These man-made crises will not just go away. Nor will they be resolved by the actions or technology of any one nation. If all beings are chosen in the sense that our deepest nature is enlightened being, we are also chosen together to face all the self-created
In one of his last books, my late teacher Robert Aitken Roshi wrote a Zen fable with talking animals. The wise Owl and Brown Bear discuss the Buddha’s Eightfold Path Owl asks, “…where does Right Realization come in?”
Brown Bear said, “Right Views! Right Views!”
Owl said, “What are Right Views?”
Brown Bear said, “We’re in it together, and we don’t have much time.”
— from Zen Master Raven: Sayings and Doings of a Wise Bird
We are all in this world together and we don’t have much time. Even in the United States — a nation whose lands were stolen from indigenous people and tribes, and whose wealth was built on the backs of slaves shipped like cattle from Africa and worked to death on farms and in the fields — there are many of us from all religious and political traditions who know that our privilege and empire are not sustainable.
Today, we have begun with words, but words are not enough. I hope that our efforts at this forum and in our meetings over the next few days will lead to dedicated and cooperative action. Buddhist and Muslims, living in the same cities, farming the same lands, fishing the same rivers and seas, must work hand in hand. As all people on this planet must.
If there are differences between us we must learn to respect and even treasure those differences, even those that seem to contradict our beliefs. This is the true variety of human creativity. We have to do this carefully and kindly. That will not be easy, but it is necessary if the world itself is to survive. Let us dedicate the next few days and the work that flows from these days to this common purpose. Warm hand to warm hand.
In our Buddhist traditions we end our meditation, prayers, and devotional services with what is called a dedication of merit. The particular form of this dedication varies, but it calls on us to offer our efforts and our abundance to all beings, not to hold these benefits for ourselves. I’d like to close by sharing a dedication that we use at Berkeley Zen Center for our weekly peace service. I hope this will find a resonance in your hearts here today.
Peace Dedication (revised 10.2013)
With a deep desire for peace we have offered light, flowers, and incense, our words and prayers. May the merit of these offerings reach everywhere — to save all sentient beings in worlds of suffering and confusion; to encourage us to nourish compassion and selflessness; to end all wars; to avert the calamities of epidemic and famine, and the destructive forces of fire, water, wind, and earth; to rejoice in our different ways and faiths while recognizing the intimate connection of all life on this fragile planet. May we together with all beings realize the path of peace and harmony.
In the first half of the 20th Century Japan waged wars in which it committed atrocities rivaling those of the Nazis during World War II. Brian Victoria’s book “Zen At War” was published in 1998, detailing how Japanese Buddhist monks and their religious organizations actively encouraged and participated in Japan’s expansionist wars. They donated money and materials, preached a doctrine of “Imperial Way Buddhism,” and even marched and fought alongside the military.
“Zen and War” features Shodo Harada Roshi and other contemporary Zen Buddhist teachers speaking of their wartime predecessors’ collaboration for the first time on film. The impetus for this film came from Ina Buitendijk, a Dutch woman whose husband suffered severely under Japanese internment in Asia during the war. As a Zen Buddhist practitioner she wrote letters to Zen monastic centers, asking how Buddhist monks could have been involved in warfare. Leading Zen masters wrote back to her sympathetically, acknowledging the suffering at the heart of her question.
I was asked by my friend, Zen teacher Mitra Bishop and Ina Buitendijk to produce a U.S. dvd of the Dutch version from The Buddhist Broadcasting Foundation (BOS). With their permission this video is now available from Clear View Project. It is very well done by BOS, an excellent educational tool for study and discussion of how Buddhism can go astray and how we might prevent that from happening. Proceeds support Clear View’s work in Burma and India.
It can be ordered, along with other books and cds, from Clear View's new e-commerce page. Thanks for your support.
Right now I can’t read too good Don’t send me no more letters, no Not unless you mail them from Desolation Row —from “Desolation Row” by Bob Dylan
It starts with dread. In a distant city, on top of the covers in a two-star hotel, ceiling fan humming and circling slowly, mosquito net shrouding the bed. Or driving alone on the late night interstate, rolling by strip malls and chain stores. Or walking down an everyday street, feeling empty inside. Dread has a physical quality — a dead weight on my chest and shoulders, a gnawing sensation in my stomach. Nausea. A wish to jump out of my skin.
Within these sensation there is loneliness, despair, and the certainty of ceaseless separation. The dread is that my life will be like this from now on, and that it always has been like this and I have been so disconnected that I didn’t even notice. If I am far from home, I fear I might die there, alone. I imagine myself home in bed, watching television, as if that would provide the absent intimacy. I think through the necessary steps that would have me on a homebound flight within hours. I have a plan, and that provides me with the illusion of a way out. The dread can last for three or four days, or months. And even though there is nothing objectively “wrong” with the circumstances of my life — things can actually be going well — I feel as if a curtain had been pulled back on the ugly workings of my life, and it is not worth living another day. It feels like the end of the line, and the line continues.
Millions of us suffer in this way. We yearn for wholeness and accomplishment. I have had plenty of that in my life: two wonderful children, a happy marriage, many old friends, respect in the Buddhist world, writing published, music recorded, and so on. Despite repeated admonitions about “gaining mind,” the suffering of depression simultaneously suggests the dream of self-fulfillment and the impossibility of that dream.
I don’t usually talk about depression. Nor do most people who suffer this way, whether or not they are Buddhists. For Buddhist practitioners all those hours and weeks and years of meditation are supposed to lead to happiness and equanimity. Depression feels like a kind of failure. To admit depression is to suggest that Buddhist practice doesn’t always “work.” Recently someone in my community said: “You’re the last person I’d think of as depressed.” I have become skilled at keeping it hidden.
Consider a bright young man in his late twenties, well-educated and physically healthy. His mother died when he was an infant. For most of his life he had not left his family’s house. He had all the advantages of a privileged background — good clothes, delicious food, doting servants. He married a beautiful young woman from a similar background, and became the father of a son. But all of this seemed empty to him. He found no happiness. So he left his comfortable home, his wife and son and friends, without any particular goal beyond relieving himself of the fatalistic gloom that settled over him like a cloud. For six years he tried every meditation technology and trendy diet available. At last he sat down under a tree, determined to wake. There he encountered great sensual temptations. But he gave up, let go, and everything turned out right.
This is the early life of Shakyamuni Buddha. It is an inspiring story, but one can hear it as the description of someone suffering from chronic depression. I am not a prince, there are some parallels with my own life, growing up with privilege in a prosperous suburb. By all accounts, the Buddha’s suffering fell away when he awakened under the bodhi tree. Did he really arrive at a place where he was always happy, never anxious? That is what we are asked to believe, but I wonder?
As for me, after nearly thirty years of meditation, I haven’t seen cosmic light shows or transcendental visions of reality. I don’t claim enlightenment. This is not to say I do not feel changed or even free at times. Freedom is momentary. I appreciate it for what it is. I just don’t stay there, and that is okay with me. That’s a loaded word — “stay.” In terms of the law of anicca or impermanence, one does not stay anywhere. But I digress.
What I mean to say is that given my propensity towards depression — biochemical, hereditary, or karmic — the settledness of meditation, the sense of relief in simply sitting down, may be as good as it gets for me. There is a phrase I love from the 13th century Zen Master Dogen: “When Dharma fills your body and mind, you realize that something is missing.” The very incompleteness of our being, actions, aspirations is a manifestation of Buddha-nature itself. Everything is broken. No regrets.
Over the years I have tried various ways to “deal with” (that means get rid of) depression. I have done talk therapy and acupuncture. I’ve sampled organic remedies like St. John’s Wort, SAM-e, homeopathy, and Vitamin D. I have been on and off a modest dose of Prozac. Actually Prozac seemed to work for a while. When I began to take it, twenty years ago — on the advice of my therapist — it was as if a dark cloud that had always circled my head just disappeared. It was a great relief. But the relief seemed to be only temporary.
So, I return to what I trust, meditation — and to that other reliable remedy: friendship. Actually, the two are not unrelated. Meditation is not a cure, but if I can sit down in a quiet space and follow my breath, the weight of depression lifts while I am sitting. If sitting is not possible, I take a long walk. Either way I have bridged the internal disconnect; I am, for this time, friendly towards myself.
The power of friendship multiplies when extended beyond oneself. I recall E. M. Forster’s famous epigraph to Howard’s End: “Only connect…” In the darkest moments, when I feel least able to do so, I know this is necessary and true. So I leave my room and seek a friend. In depression, friendship is an alkahest, the alchemist’s universal solvent that brings forth light and energy. It’s the best remedy.
Depression has its own gift: the ability to identify with people in pain. Their suffering is something I understand. In my life as a Zen priest I talk to people all the time. I can’t count the number of people who have told me about depression and the pain of isolation and loneliness. I am moved by their honesty and their predicament. They suffer as I have suffered; I am like them.
I was about thirteen when I became aware of depression. Fifty years ago. My parents were in the midst of a difficult divorce. I had just completed my bar mitzvah, a ritual that had been drained of all meaning by five dreadful years of compulsory Hebrew school. Then my mother kept the all the cash from my bar mitzvah gifts to pay for the reception. Times could be hard even in the suburbs.
I was finishing eight grade at a WASPish private day school where I had no friends. For nearly a year I got out of school early every Friday to attend Hebrew school. After the bar mitzvah I didn’t tell the private school, and kept leaving early each week. For some months I didn’t mention this to my mother either. The school bus dropped me in the center of town, by myself. I would go to the movies alone, eat well-done French fries, and walk home. Now it sounds like a teenage adventure, but with each passing week I felt more desolate. I couldn’t stand the private school, I couldn’t go home, and I dreaded being alone. So finally I confessed. In a rare moment of mother-son intimacy (at least rare in my experience), my mother calmly explained that I was depressed, and that this was only natural after all the anxiety of divorce, the buildup and letdown of my bar mitzvah, and new vistas of puberty. She spoke to me gently, conveying a sense that she knew what she was talking about from her own experience. I am sure she did.
Now I had a name for what I was feeling, even though I had no idea what to do about it. It would be another thirteen years before I saw my first psychotherapist, and even then depression was framed as a psychological matter — a symptom of unconscious issues, mostly centering on my parents — rather than a condition as much physical or biochemical as psychological.
All these years later I continue to live with this condition and its close companion — anxiety. One of the Buddha’s unique discoveries is the Wheel of Life, or Dependent Origination. The wheel rolls, from birth through death and on to successive lives. Anxiety is its fuel. But we can also consider rebirth from moment to moment, and do our best to end the ceaseless spinning. Anxiety is linked to the fear (and certainty) of future non-existence, real doubt about my present existence/non-existence, fear of pain, sickness, debility. Such anxiety leads to a kind of self-fulfilling depression. How can I break the chain?
I have to live with depression as a condition of my particular being. Current medical research suggests that depression is hardwired in our brains. In evolutionary terms the sleeplessness and hyper-vigilance of depression may have some survival benefit. So maybe depression is a good thing. I might consider myself genetically selected to be a survivor…at least if I lived in the jungle.
But Buddhist practice is not directed toward a particular goal, not even survival. It is simply about being awake. The path of practice leads right through our immediate life circumstances. The pangs of depression, or any pains — physical or mental — are vividly part of that life. I’m not able to avoid unpleasant circumstances, but the question is: can I turn depression, or will I allow it to turn me? Long ago the Buddha showed us how to do this. Each event of his awakened life — including illness, injury, temptation, betrayal, loss — was occasion for him to learn, then to share his understanding. He didn’t try to change or avoid external conditions, and he wasn’t pushed around by circumstances. He lived in community with his friends and he turned towards suffering.
There is a message in depression. Things in life are roiling. Change is afoot. After years of practice I know this is true even in the hard times. If I can bear it and see through it, depression becomes the harbinger of transformation. Things are always in a state of change. Only connect. With that kind of understanding all of life seems to be a fortunate accident. I am alive, so change is always possible, however unlikely it seems… What am I doing here on the planet? Oh, I remember. I’m setting up shop in the saha realm, the world that must be endured, the land of samsara, which literally means wandering on.
The heart of Buddhist practice may be a matter of faith, in a dark night when faith is hard to find. My friends help me through the night. Night and day, depression and joy — there is really one whole, true life. Practice gets me to what is true. That’s where I want to live.
Early in 2013 I flew to India to visit and teach among Dalit Buddhist friends there. Since our children have left home for work and college, my wife Laurie and I were able to travel together for the first time in more than twenty years.
As I wrote above, when traveling I usually have to endure several days of depression at the start of a journey. This seems to be an unavoidable pathway to the present time and place. I have wondered if this phenomenon was simply a matter of loneliness, since I almost always arrive alone. But on this trip I was not alone. Laurie was with me. And the first five days were as hard as ever. I was not lonely, but in some way I was still alone to wrestle with the darkness.
I was grateful to be able to talk things over with Laurie. Far from home, among the teeming streets, she was having trouble of her own adjusting to India, quite unlike mine. The opportunity to talk about my difficulties was valuable perspective, but it did not make them go away. I felt distant from my body and mind, alienated and uncomfortable — what I take to be the meaning of the Buddha’s dukkha. In the morning it was hard to get out of bed. In the day, even the sunlight seemed to hurt. Then after about five days I woke up “normal.” The weight had lifted and I was relieved to find myself home in body and mind.
So it was not really a matter of loneliness. Depression seems to arise from a deeper displacement. This is simply what I have to live with.
Everything Is Broken: Songs About Things As They Are
is Alan Senauke's brand new CD of "buddhistic songs." The songs here include pieces by Bob Dylan, Bernice Reagon, Bruce Springsteen, Tom Waits, as well as traditional numbers rewritten by Alan and a song or two of his own. You can get your copy here right now by clicking on the Paypal button. In coming days there will be other ways to purchase or download this compelling and unique music.
Don't miss it if you can.
By the way, details about each song are found at Music Notes...below on this site.
You can download the album or individual tracks via CD Baby
— A Statement from the International Network of Engaged Buddhists
The statement below was written and ratified by the International Network of Engaged Buddhist at its annual Advisory and Executive Board meeting this month. We hope that it expresses the concerns of Buddhists around the world who are witness to the communal conflict and violence in Myanmar’s western Rakhine state. Clearly this conflict must be resolved by the Burmese people’s themselves, but this statement affirms that INEB and Buddhists everywhere care about the well-being of Burma’s emerging democracy and of all its peoples. We send our encouragement and faith in the Buddha’s great way.
— Hozan Alan Senauke, Clear View Project, Berkeley, CA
Since June 2012, violence between communities of Rohingyas and Rakhines in Rakhine State has resulted in hundreds of dead and wounded, thousands of homes and shops razed, and more than 75,000 displaced and impoverished.
The roots of this conflict are hard to untangle. They go back at least decades to the period of British colonial occupation. But current hostility also speaks to a scarcity of land and economic resources that manifests as communal hostility. Undoubtedly there has been violence and provocation on both sides. We commit ourselves to open-minded investigation of the past and present sources of this violence.
Although some Rohingyas have lived in Myanmar for generations, if not for several hundred years, the former military regime’s 1982 law excluded them from among the nation’s many recognized ethnicities, denying the Rohingyas citizenship and basic rights. As they are driven from their homes, neighboring Bangladesh prohibits the entry of them as refugees, and also denies citizenship to Rohingyas presently living within its own borders. It is not surprising that the United Nations views the Rohingyas as “one of the world’s most persecuted minorities.”
We feel for the families of all sides of this conflict, and have compassion for the people of Myanmar who are suffering and trying their best to resolve this issue.
We call for the government of Myanmar, and the leaders of the Buddhist Sangha and other religious leaders to play an active and nonviolent role in resolving the conflict in Rakhine state. Central to this is to grant humanitarian assistance and work towards tolerance and respect for all of Myanmar’s diverse inhabitants. We also call on Buddhist monks across Myanmar to set aside fear and the delusive religious discrimination; to honor the Buddha’s robe and example by being peacemakers for all people. May all beings — Buddhist, Muslim, Eastern, Western — and all peoples of Myanmar recall the Buddha’s vital message:
Hatred is never appeased by hatred in this world; by non-hatred only is hatred appeased. This is an unending truth.
Adopted and ratified at the annual INEB Executive and Advisory Board Meeting, November 8-9, 2012 at the Kodo Kyodan Buddhist Fellowship in Yokohama, Japan.
Ashin Eindaka, abbot of Maggin Monastery, Yangon
Change Is Coming...But Slowly
Maggin monastery, in Yangon’s eastern Thingangyun Township, was a refuge for hundreds of dissident Burmese monks during 2007’s “Saffron Revolution.” The Saffron Revolution began with local demonstrations against arbitrary and immediate price increases, which quickly became a national movement for democracy led by many thousands of monks.
On September 26 of 2007 the Burmese junta struck back. The military attacked many monasteries, ransacking Maggin, beating and arresting abbot U Eindaka and the other monks who had come for sanctuary. A refuge as well for local people with AIDS and HIV, these patients were simply driven from the premises, left to fend for themselves in the midst of the violent military crackdown. The monastery was trashed, wood doors and walls shattered, blood-stained robes tossed into corners, the gates padlocked and guarded by the junta’s watchmen. And that is how things remained for more than four years.
On January 13 three hundred political prisoners, including nearly forty incarcerated and disrobed monks, were released from prisons around Burma. The following day a group of monks, struck the locks from Maggin’s doors and moved in.
The prisoner release is one aspect of change taking place in Burma/Myanmar in recent months. How reliable or thoroughgoing a change we are seeing is still uncertain. The 2008 Constitutional referendum — conducted just days after Cyclone Nargis left 150,000 dead in southern Burma — reserves 25% of the assembly seats to the military, virtually guaranteeing their control of the political process. The 2010 election gave 129 of 168 elected seats to the junta’s proxy Union Solidarity and Development Party. Another 56 seats, as mandated, went to the military, leaving only 34 seats to be divided among a dozen other regional and ethnic parties. On the military front, there is active combat in Kachin state, Shan state, and elsewhere, with more than 60,000 Internally Displaced People (IDP) living with war and deprivation in these areas
Nonetheless, some prominent reformers are being released from prison and limited political reforms are going forward. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy is presently campaigning for seats in an April 1 by-election. Western nations, looking for signs of progress, are starting to consider diplomatic relations and a softening of long-standing economic sanctions against the regime. The real question is how to view the process of change inside Burma. And how to urge this process along.
I met with three monks at Maggin (abbot U Eindaka, senior monk U Issariya, and Saffron Revolution leader Ashin Gambira) and Ashin Sandar Thiri at another monastery in mid-February. a week earlier Gambira had been arrested and taken for questioning by authorities investigating allegations of “squatting” at Maggin without registering with the Ministry of Religious Affairs, and breaking into two other monasteries in nearby in Bahan Township.
The same day we met, February 17, U Gambira dropped out of sight. As far as I know, he has not been seen since. The following day the state-run newspaper New Light of Myanmar wrote that: “The authorities concerned are taking legal steps to bring U Gambira to trial.” The New Light explained that Gambira, “…under complete political spell, has repeatedly broken Buddhist monks’ code of conduct and laws that every citizen need to abide by, in consideration of religion, Sasana (i.e. Buddhist teachings) and purity of Sasana.” Maggin’s abbot, Ashin Eindaka, said, “I do not know where he is now. But I have seen today’s newspapers reports. When he left my monastery, it was still as a monk.”
A friend was kind enough to set up a meeting with the four recently-released monks. At Maggin monastery three of the monks were sitting with a handful of younger monastics and lay friends on the temple’s open veranda. The monastery comprises two buildings — an older wood frame temple dating back a hundred years, and a blue two-storey structure of cast concrete that already looks old beyond its years. As we talked workmen cleared rubble and ran blue plastic piping for water and electricity.
We took some time to get acquainted, to speak of mutual friends, and to create an atmosphere of safety given that I was a westerner and a new face. When I had been in Burma last November, with a lessening of restrictions and the first release of political prisoners, there was in the cities a kind of dizzying euphoria about the possibility of change. And an understandable attitude of wait and see. Three or four months later I felt that people in all sectors of an expanding civil society were getting down to hard and particular work, settling in for the long haul. Speaking with these monks, we quickly sketched out their collective sense of present circumstances in Burma.
Speaking with the Monks
For the sake of confidentiality, comments below are not ascribed to individual monks.
Alan Senauke: What do you think about what’s going on in Myanmar now? Are there changes happening? Do you believe that they are real?
Monks: Laughter No, no real change. The government is talking about changes, but the changes are very small. There is so much left to do. There are still political prisoners. Many are left inside — forty-three monks in Mandalay, Insein, and other prisons. We know of others on the border who have gone to the U.N. refugee camps.
AS: Why do you think the government is releasing some prisoners?
Monks: They are afraid of the political changes. That’s why they had to release some of us. This government wants to make friends with Western countries and have the economic sanctions removed.
AS: So, does that give the monks and civil society a little power?
Monks: Outside countries may feel that this government is very polite. The new government and the old government are just taking off their uniforms and putting on civilian clothes. After a few years, they may change.
AS: What do you think would help the process of change?
Monks: As you have said, we need peace in all of Burma. No war, no deaths. That would be the path to real democracy.
AS: What about the by-elections that are happening now? Are they important?
Monks: I don’t think it very important, because the military has already taken a big piece of the assemblies for themselves. They only allow small things. They are holding onto the economy and the army. Last time there was cheating on the election results. But maybe this time there will not be cheating. Everybody is watching.
AS: Do you think a little choice and democracy is better than no choice?
Monks: Right now have only a small influence…We will all have to do politics. Longing for change is not enough.
AS: What do you mean by “do politics,” what are the politics?
Monks: As monks, we don’t work for power, like other political parties. We are standing in front of the people, protecting the people.
Our time was limited, and this was my last day in the country. The conversation was just beginning, but simply to meet and talk is a radical act. As I was paying my respects to the monks, preparing to leave, one said quietly: “In the last twenty years we didn’t have such opportunities. We couldn’t speak with foreigners.” The opportunity for dialogue — all kinds of dialogue — is an encouraging sign. But it is not enough. Real change in Burma, or anywhere is a matter of access to resources, mutual accountability, and the power for people to determine the course of their own lives. When war has ended in Burma, when all the prisoners are free, when there are reasonable laws that apply to everyone — then we can start to celebrate. Not yet.
Donations for the rebuilding of Maggin Monastery are much needed. If you would like to make a donation please go to www.clearviewproject.org or send a tax-deductable check to Clear View Project, 1933 Russell Street, Berkeley, CA 94703. I will make sure your gift gets to the right people. If you have questions, write me at
Ashin Gambira at Maggin
Think Sangha in India, March 2011
By Hozan Alan Senauke
As long as I can remember I have yearned for community. Most living beings, human or otherwise, have the same yearning.The Buddha recognized this, creating the fourfold sangha as a ground for liberation. Over the last twenty or twenty-five years I have been living in the Berkeley Zen Center community, and finding home, work, and close friendship at International Network of Engaged Buddhists and Buddhist Peace Fellowship.
After the 2009 Chiang Mai INEB meeting some old friends spent two days at Ouyporn Khuankaew’s Mae Rim center, talking informally about the nature of sustainable community and socially engaged Buddhism.We began to plan an INEB “Think Sangha” study tour of India, where we might investigate the particularities of Indian Buddhist communities, taking time, as well, to reflect on our inner experience and our own lives in community.
Think Sangha evolved in the mid-90s as a Buddhist social analysis group emerging from INEB. Over the years we have met physically a number of times in Thailand, Japan, and Hawaii, maintained friendships and community with visits and internet banter, and published a number of periodicals and two books. Membership is informal and diverse, with women and men from across Asia and the West.
The challenge was to look at sustainable Buddhist community, externally and internally. That is: community we are involved in, and diverse communities in India including Dalit Buddhists, other expressions of a new Buddhist “revival” in the land of Buddha’s birth, and Tibetan communities in exile. We hoped, also, to create a kind of community among ourselves as we worked and traveled together, embodying harmonious qualities of sangha that live at the heart of our vision.
In March we came together for a two week study tour in India — as we had planned at our Mae Rim meeting — with Somboon Cungprampree (Moo — INEB’s executive secretary), Jill Jameson, Ven. Kalupahana Piyaratna Thera, Ouyporn Khuankaew, Anchalee Kurutach, David Loy, PaPa Phyo, Poolchawee Ruangwichatorn (Nong), Rev. Alan Senauke, Wintomo Tjandra, Ven. Paisan Visalo, Jon Watts, with Mangesh Dahwale in Nagpur and Prashant Varma at Deer Park — representing India, Thailand, Australia, Japan, Burma, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, and the U.S.
We met up in Mumbai, a dizzying maximum city of impossible contrasts: sprawling slums and garish wealth. On our first evening we divided into two groups, each going to a different Biuddhist slum settlement in the city. After driving north and a little east in nerve-wracking traffic towards the edge of the city, we arrived at a streetside vihara in the poor community of Bhandup.The “temple” is a cement box, about 8ft by 10ft, with a small Buddha and a larger bust of Dr. Ambedkar, the Buddhist liberator of India’s untouchables. It seemed to be an unlikely place for a gathering, but within minutes people streamed in.
Ven. Kalupahana and I made offerings in the vihara. The children chanted passionately and full-voiced.It brought me to tears.We moved outside to offer brief dharma words and meet with the larger community. Several hundred people had gathered, three or four generations in their fine clothes: women in sari or salwar kameez, men in slacks and dress shirts.
After puja and talks we went around a corner, down a four-foot wide alleyway into a warren of houses and intersecting alleys.Each narrow doorway opened into a family residence. The rooms were no more than 10ft by 10 or 12ft. Some homes had a second storey as a sleeping loft. Four to six or seven people might live in this space.The homes were immaculately clean and supremely organized with mats for sitting, space for cooking on a single gas burner, neatly stacked metal plates, bowls, cups, and cooking utensils. We were welcomed from house to house for an hour. People were proud to show off their children — all avidly pursuing education. The walls were painted bright colors with Buddhist posters, and each home had an altar with Buddha images and family photographs.
Many of these families came to Mumbai and Buddhism over the last 40 years to change their social identity — hence their lives — by escaping the rigid caste oppression and violence that still marks rural life. Buddhism means social and spiritual liberation for them.You can see this in the joy and generosity we encountered despite circumstances of poverty.Poverty is one thing.Dignity and self-respect are something else.They do not have to contradict each other.
From Mumbai we flew to Nagpur — India’s geographical center — staying five days at Nagaloka, the Nagarjuna Training Institute on the city’s outskirts. Students and staff met us at the gate with garlands and showers of blossoms. Nagaloka is a school for sixty or seventy youth from oppressed communities around India learning the essential teachings of Buddhism, training in meditation and puja, studying social work and the basics of community organizing.The school’s atmosphere is quiet, cool in the evenings, with a sixty-foot golden striding Buddha as the focal point of the campus.
The students are young and bright, — averaging 20 or 21, full of fun, eager to learn and simply to connect with us.Our sessions were punctuated by songs and play. Nagaloka emphasizes a strong sitting practice with very good posture.Meditation is usually anapansati/mindfulness of breathing or metta bhavana/cultivating lovingkindness.The daily liturgy is chanted in pali — refuges, five precepts, and several other recitations, sung or recited in strong voices. Men and women each have separate dharma halls, coming together on special occasions.
Over four days we led workshops, practiced, and hung out with the Nagaloka students. On the first day we heard a presentation on the history and condition of India’s Dalit/untouchables, as well as the development of Ambedkarite Buddhism since the 50s and the formation of Nagaloka.Then we heard from the students themselves.
Story after story echoed each other.The students are mostly from rural areas all over India.Few of them have had any previous experience of Buddhism, coming from nominally Hindu families — although local temples back home were off limits to them.Many of the students from Tamil Nadu and other areas with strong local culture and language came to Nagaloka with no fluency in Hindi, the school’s operating language.On arrival they had to get up and running in a new language, new religious practices, new food, and new companions. Those who find their way to Nagaloka aspire to education and another kind of life, one of service to society. They are clearly in the flow of personal transformation
On another day each of us from Think Sangha had a chance to talk about our lives and our respective work.We included Lama Rangdral — a visiting Tibetan teacher from the West to join the presentations.As an African-American, he spoke from the heart about the destructive and still-present realities of racism in the west, and what we can learn from the groundbreaking work of Dr. Ambedkar on caste and discrimination.That afternoon we organized topical small groups on gender justice, Buddhist economics, transforming anger, living an engaged Buddhist life, and social mobilization — as much learning from the students’ experiences as “teaching” them.
For support and hospitality we thank Mangesh Dahiwale, Dh. Lokamitra, the Nagaloka staff, and the bright students of Nagaloka.Their generosity is so great and natural .
We flew from Nagpur to Delhi; in the evening we boarded the overnight Jammu Mail Express At Pathankot, close to the border with Pakistan, four cars carried us to Deer Park in the small North Indian town of Bir.Bir is in Himachal Pradesh, Kangra district, about two hours south and east of Dharamsala, right up against the first towering wall of the Himalayas.
There is a Tibetan colony in Bir, one of the largest in north India.Monasteries are visible near and far, brilliantly painted gold or red, adorned with rainbow ornamentation.In late afternoon, monks of all ages fill the streets and shops.Tibetan merchants run small groceries, western clothing stalls,internet cafes, and tea shops. With its the dramatic landscape and prevailing winds, Bir has become a famous spot for paragliding. Huge nylon contraptions — hybrid of kite and parachute— prowl the skies each afternoon.
Deer Park Institute was founded in the mid 2000s by Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche, the multi-talented teacher, writer, and filmmaker. It is a self-described center for the study of India’s wisdom traditions.Deer Park’s orientation is inclusive and eclectic, representing Dzongsar’s wide mind and interests.There are programs on meditation, photography, writing, textual study, the environment, and engaged Buddhism.
Our INEB friend Prashant Varma is director.He is a student of Dzongsar and a man of great energy and capacity.At Deer Park while we were there, Prashant seemed to be everywhere at once as host, administrator, internet fixer, and travel agent.Prashant is 33, from a well-to-do Bombay family, married to Jennifer Yo from Taiwan, one of those fortunate relationships that flowered at an INEB conference.
We stayed at Deer Park for nearly a week, which included three days of program with fifteen or twenty people from various Indian Buddhist communities.Our dual task was to learn about their practice and situation, and to share our understanding of socially engaged Buddhism, considering its actual and potential place in modern India.This all went very well, and strong links were forged, particularly with young Indians.We strongly encouraged people to join us at this October’s INEB conference in Bodhgaya.
We also had a chance to visit nearby Tibetan monasteries.The sprawling monastery in Chauntra, a few miles from Bir, was completed in 2004, replacing the older monastery which then became Deer Park.More than 400 monks here study and debate Tibetan Buddhist philosophy.We went to Dongyu Gatsal Ling, an inspiring nunnery run by the charismatic Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo.Originally from Great Britain, Tenzin spent thirteen years living and practicing alone in a mountain cave, summer and winter, emerging to become a powerful teacher and a voice for Himalayan women and nuns.
Leaving Bir we stopped for lunch and conversation with Lama Karma Dechen at Jangchub Samten Ling, a small training center for nuns in the Kagyu tradition.Her monastery is now in its seventh cycle of traditional three-year retreats. Karma Dechen and I met at a 1999 INEB conference in Sri Lanka. I clearly recall her physical presence, her joy and blunt speaking.Twelve years later, she is much the same… and more.
Our group began to dwindle as people left for home. But seven or eight of us had a last night and day in Dharmasala, a fascinating place.Narrow streets are lined with shops selling all manner of Tibetan goods. Monks and nuns are everywhere.The nearly vertical town has a makeshift and temporary feeling, appropriate to the Tibetans’ guest status in India.Western trekkers and dharma bums are much in evidence.It was easy to leave Dharmasala; not so easy to say goodbye to our Think Sangha friends.
In the course of investigating Indian Buddhism we found there are really many Indian Buddhisms: various Dalit/Ambedkarite Buddhists (which includes our TBMSG friends in Maharastra), exiled Tibetans in the north and south, other Himalayan groups practicing in the Tibetan tradition, Goenka-based vipassana practitioners, the Young Buddhist Society in Uttar Pradesh, the Mahabodhi Society, middle class Buddhists in Mumbai, Delhi, and Chennai, and on and on.Such diversity, which is the nature of Indian society, is invigorating.But the challenge is that the Buddhist revival in the land of Buddha’s birth is factionalized and often mutually suspicious.Of course factionalism is not endemic to India. Still, given the marginal status of Indian Buddhists here, greater cooperation would serve people better.
Difference here is not so much in dharma practice itself but in beliefs and social factors: caste, gender, culture, poverty and wealth (hence access to resources), lay/monastic, etc.In each place, one or more of these factors is foremost.Different groups have opinions and judgments about each other. This is not what the Buddha had in mind.His early sangha was open and egalitarian.But there is an unfortunate human proclivity to form circles and institutions which inevitably have an inside and an outside. India’s ancient profusion of cultures and its jarring disparities of rich and poor are hard to bridge.
I know that what we saw are still first impressions. I don’t expect to get my mind around “India” in this lifetime.It feels like India is wrapping itself around my mind.So the Think Sangha did not come to conclusions.We do, however, wish to be allies to our Indian friends.To listen to them, advocate for them, find practice resources they can make use of, and skillfully offer what we understand from our own lives and practice.
But there was more to this journey than just talk.Most days we had time to take walks, drink milk tea, hang out, laugh, and simply be friends — letting new friendships take roots and old ones ripen.We also mourned for the people of Japan, as earthquake and tsunami led to a nuclear crisis that remains unresolved.All of us were deeply affected by the crisis.
This is the basis of Think Sangha — kalyanamitta.Real friendship grounded in shared dharma, unhindered by nationality, Buddhist tradition, or chronological age.Although I am not always at ease with circumstances or with myself, these two weeks of travel together have been remarkably harmonious.No visible squabbles among our group, even in the turmoil of Old Delhi station, or the dry dust of a four-hour drive on winding mountain roads.Practice is revealed in how each of us takes responsibility for our own irritability and pain.If there is a way one of us can help, help is offered.If someone needs to step back for space and recollection, we all understand that.Each of us has moments like this.
Dr. Ambedkar, Mumbai
The Clear View Project provides Buddhist-based resources for relief and social change, promotes dialogue on issues of socially engaged Buddhism, and supports communities in need, internationally and within the United States.
Our vision reflects the Buddha's view of dependent origination, that life on this planet is contingent on the collective action and understanding of each of us. The Buddha's moral teachings can be expressed in a single great vow: not to live ones life at the expense of other life.
In line with what the Buddha called the “four requisites” — food, shelter, clothing, and medicine — we support the dispossessed — children, the poor, prisoners, and other oppressed peoples — in their quest for survival with dignity.
We will feed those who are hungry, heal those who are ill, and provide spiritual tools of transformation for self and society.
Clear View's work comes out of founder Hozan
Alan Senauke's long experience in the world of socially engaged
Buddhism in Asia and the U.S. At home and abroad there are numerous
communities that cry out for spiritual tools of transformation.
work with teachers and leaders from every spiritual tradition takes the
form of a vast web of resources for liberation. With a clear view, a
view that is tested and shared widely, we can follow the path of
freedom and keep our eyes on the prize.
Hozan Alan Senauke is vice-abbot of Berkeley Zen Center, where he lives with his family. Alan is founder of the Clear View Project, developing Buddhist-based resources for relief and social change. He is Senior Advisor to Buddhist Peace Fellowship. In another realm, Alan has been a student and performer of American traditional music for forty-six years.(See the "Alan's Music" link on this site.)
Clear View Project is affiliated with and fiscally sponsored by Buddhist Peace Fellowship, a tax-exempt 501(c)(3) organization. Your donations to Clear View Project are tax deductible to the full extent of the law.