Ambedkar’s Children: Indian Buddhism Reborn Among the Untouchables
With justice on our side, I do not see how we can lose our battle. The battle to me is a matter of joy…For ours is a battle not for wealth or for power. It is a battle for freedom. It is a battle for the reclamation of the human personality.
— Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, All-India Depressed Classes Conference, 1942
In the land of Shakyamuni a modern Buddhist revolution is taking place, hidden in plain sight. These Indian Buddhists, among the poorest of the poor, the untouchable castes, go by various names: neo-Buddhists, Dalit Buddhists, Navayanists, Ambedkarites. But like so much in their lives, the names carry a subtle odor of condescension — that their kind of Buddhism is something less than real. This is a mistaken view. To my mind, the opposite is true. The Buddhism that Dr. B.R. Ambedkar brought to his own untouchable communities is precisely the practice of Buddha, Dharma, Sangha and, as he put it, of Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity — the expression of liberated beings, and the kernel of a liberated and casteless society. Today it is alive among millions in India. Tomorrow this may well become the largest community of practitioners on the planet.
In the Mumbai’s Bandra East slums, Pune’s impoverished Dapodi neighborhood, in the children’s hostels and schools of Nagpur one finds modest viharas — with a Buddha image and a photo or print of Dr. Ambedker adorned with garlands of fresh flowers — where people sing the basic Pali chants, sit in meditation, and hear the dharma. Even in the narrowest of circumstances, I felt their joy in the dharma and hunger for deeper practice and understanding. Untouchables have taken to Buddhism because they can and must. The Buddha was clear. He said: I teach about suffering and the end of suffering. For those who live in suffering day by day, year by year, this message is hope itself.
Jai Bhim! — Ambedkar, the Untouchables, and Conversion. It was midnight by the time my endless flight arrived in Mumbai. I cleared Indian customs and immigration, and retrieved my bag. Walking out of the terminal I felt the warm coastal breeze and caught the mingled scents of sea air, the ripeness of a huge city, and fumes of jet fuel. Outside a rectangular barrier hundreds of shouting, gesturing drivers, friends, and family members scanned the departing passengers. Twenty-four hours awake, I was glad to see a sign with my name on it and made my way past two military officers guarding a gap in the barrier.
Two smiling young men took me to a quiet place and said: “Jai Bhim! Sir, welcome to India.” One placed a garland over my head, the other offered a bright bouquet of flowers, and they led me off to car and hotel.
“Jai Bhim!” is how Indian Buddhists greet each other. It means “Victory to Bhim” or to Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar, the founder of their movement. Buddhism in modern India flows directly from the dedication and mission of Ambdekar. The 2001 census puts India’s Buddhist population at 8,000,000, more than 90% from the Dalit or untouchable communities. (Scholars suggest the numbers of uncounted or undeclared Buddhists are in the range of 30,000,000.) These communities are distributed across the nation, with the largest concentration of Buddhists in the Indian state of Maharastra. This Buddhist identity is rooted in Indian history, but it had to be reclaimed with a political and social assertion of freedom led by a remarkable figure — Dr. B.R. Ambedkar — less than sixty years ago.
Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar (or Babasaheb as his devotees call him) was born in 1891 to a poor but educated Mahar family. Traditionally the Mahars — the largest untouchable caste in Maharastra — lived outside the boundaries of a village and worked as servants, watchmen, street-sweepers, and haulers of animal carcasses. Dr. Ambedkar’s father served in the colonial Indian Army. By virtue of his brilliance and good fortune the young Ambedkar was among the first untouchables to attend an Indian university, and by his early 30s he had earned doctorates from Columbia University, the London School of Economics, and a place at the bar at London’s Gray’s Inn. He came back as one of the best-educated men in India. Yet returning from England to work in Baroda he was unable to find housing, barred from dining with his colleagues, and suffered the indignity of clerks tossing files on his desk for fear of his “polluting” touch.
The “hell of caste” that Ambedkar experienced in his youth is hard for many of us in the west to imagine, despite our own history of racism. Caste means hereditary bondage passed from generation to generation under a dominant Brahmanic or Hindu social reality. Contrary to the Buddhist meaning of these same words, in this system karma means fate or the caste one is born into, and dharma means the duty to live out one’s life within the confines of caste responsibilities. This duty includes strict endogamy, or marriage only within one’s caste.
The many untouchable or Dalit communities, differentiated by region, ethnicity and (sub)caste have been identified with butchering, removal of rubbish, sweeping, removal of human waste and dead animals, leatherwork, and so on. Such occupations are still seen as impure activities, polluting to higher castes. And that pollution is somehow contagious. As impure, untouchables were excluded from aspects of ordinary Hindu life. They were not allowed to enter temples, go to schools, or even to live within the boundaries of rural villages. Though untouchability was legally abolished by India’s secular constitution of 1950, the reality is not much improved today.
Hillary Maxwell, in a June 2003 edition of “National Geographic News,” wrote:
Human rights abuses against these people, known as Dalits, are legion. A random sampling of headlines in mainstream Indian newspapers tells their story: "Dalit boy beaten to death for plucking flowers;" "Dalit tortured by cops for three days;" "Dalit 'witch' paraded naked in Bihar:" "Dalit killed in lock-up at Kurnool;" "7 Dalits burnt alive in caste clash;" "5 Dalits lynched in Haryana;" "Dalit woman gang-raped, paraded naked;" "Police egged on mob to lynch Dalits."
India's Untouchables are relegated to the lowest jobs, and live in constant fear of being publicly humiliated, paraded naked, beaten, and raped with impunity by upper-caste Hindus seeking to keep them in their place. Merely walking through an upper-caste neighborhood is a life-threatening offense.
Dr. Ambedkar came up with this name for untouchables, “Dalit,” meaning people who are “broken to pieces.” or suppressed. Other names have been suggested, each problematic, seen as demeaning by one group or another: Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (roughly 300,000,000 or 25% of India’s population) are the sanitized terms used in the Indian constitution; untouchable is a legally proscribed status; ex-untouchable is euphemism. Gandhi’s term harijan, which means “children of god,” is patronizing to adults who hardly feel themselves blessed by any divine presence.
These are the harsh realities Dr. Ambedkar faced in the 1920s and 30s. While Gandhi was forging a nonviolent anti-colonial movement, Ambedkar — who often clashed with Gandhi — worked for human rights and the annihilation of caste as essential to what many saw as an otherwise elite-driven nationalism. After years of attempted collaboration with reformist Hindus, including Gandhi, Ambedkar, a member of the Bombay legislature and a leader of the Mahar conference, organized a 1927 satyagraha (meaning, roughly, “truth-force”) of thousands to draw water and drink from the Chowdar Tank, a reservoir closed to untouchables despite a 1923 resolution of the Bombay Council. That same year, Ambedkar took a radical symbolic step of publicly burning the Manusmrti, the Brahmanic code of caste duty, which he and other Dalit leaders saw as key to the social, economic, religious and political oppression of the untouchables.
By 1935 Dr. Ambedkar concluded that the dominant Brahmin/Hindu caste system could not be reformed even by the most liberal-minded Hindus. Caste oppression was not an artifact of Brahmanism but its essence. Ambedkar urged the untouchables to give up the idea of attaining religious rights. He prepared to leave Hinduism and adopt another religion. He saw caste as a “system of graded inequality,” in which each sub-caste measures itself above some castes and below others, creating an almost infinite factionalism, dividing each exploited community against another, making unity of social or political purpose almost impossible. Ambedkar said: “I was born a Hindu, but I solemnly assure you that I will not die as a Hindu." For years he investigated Islam, Christianity, and Sikhism — and was courted by each of these groups, who were well aware that Ambedkar’s conversion would bring along millions of untouchables and the promise of wide political power.
In the late 1940s Ambedkar decided that Buddhism was the logical home for his people, as indigenous to India, where it had been the defining religious tradition for nearly 1500 years. He wrote: The teachings of Buddha are eternal, but even then Buddha did not proclaim them to be infallible. The religion of Buddha has the capacity to change according to times, a quality which no other religion can claim to have...Now what is the basis of Buddhism? If you study carefully, you will see that Buddhism is based on reason. There is an element of flexibility inherent in it, which is not found in any other religion.
But plans for conversion were postponed while Dr. Ambedkar served as India’s first law minister and leader of the constitutional drafting committee. In the early 1950s, setting aside his political career, he plunged into the study of Buddhism and its application to the shaping of a new Dalit identity. After long consideration and consultation, and in ill health, feeling the shadow of mortality, Dr. Ambedkar converted on October 14, 1956 at the Deekshabhoomi (Conversion Ground) in Nagpur, taking the Three Refuges in Buddha, Dharma, Sangha, and receiving the pancasila or five ethical precepts from the senor Buddhist monk in India, U Chandramani. Then he did an unprecedented thing (particularly unprecedented for a layperson), turning to 400,000 followers who were present, giving them the three refuges and his own twenty-two vows, which included the five precepts and the renunciation of specific articles of Hindu practice and belief. This signaled a momentous renewal of Buddhism in India. A number of mass conversions followed within weeks. But by early December, less than two months later, Dr. Ambedkar died from complications of diabetes and heart disease.
The New Buddhist Movement and TBMSG Despite the conversion of millions of Dalits, Dr. Ambedkar’s death left the spiritual and political movement of untouchables without unified leadership. Politically it was not surprising to see the rapid rise of factionalism among the Dalits, given what Ambedkar described as a “system of graded inequality.” No one else on the scene had his intellect and strength of character with which to unify the many outcast communities.
In Ambedkar’s day there were no Buddhist teachers in India, and few anywhere in south Asia who were called to serve the Dalit movement. Even today, the painful fact is that Buddhists in Asian and Western dharma circles have paid scant attention to the Ambedkarite Buddhists. Like the oppression of caste, the needs and realities are almost invisible to those outside the circle of oppression. So from 1956 until the early 1980s there was no continuing education or practice available to millions who converted. The process Dr. Ambedkar set in motion was incomplete.
A young English monk, Ven. Sangharakshita, was drawn to Dr. Ambedkar and his work with the Dalits. Before Ambedkar’s death they had an opportunity to meet several times, and by chance Sangharakshita was in Nagpur the evening Ambedkar passed away in Delhi, and was asked to speak at a meeting of condolence. He writes:
By the time I rose to speak — standing on the seat of a rickshaw, and with someone holding a microphone in front of me — about 100,000 people had gathered. By rights I should have been the last speaker but as things turned out I was the first. In fact I was the only speaker. Not that there were not others who wanted to pay tribute to the memory of the departed leader. One by one, some five or six of Ambedkar’s most prominent local supporters attempted to speak, and one by one they were forced to sit down again as, overcome by emotion, they burst into tears after uttering only a few words.
From this moment Sangharakshita’s sense of personal responsibility was clear.
During the decade that followed I spent much of my time with the ex-untouchable Buddhists of Nagpur, Bombay, Poona, Jabalpur, and Ahmedabad, as well as with those who lived in the small towns and villages of central and western India. I learned to admire their cheerfulness, their friendliness, their intelligence, and their loyalty to the memory of their great emancipator.
Returning to Great Britain, where he founded the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order (FWBO), Sangharakshita kept thinking about the Dalit Buddhists and his friends in India. He encouraged a young disciple, Lokamitra, to visit India and think about working with the Ambedkarite Buddhists.
Dhammachari Lokamitra is a tall, solid, and youthful-looking Englishman with an easy laugh and a quick mind. His energy at 62 hints at a kind of wildness tempered by years of dharma practice. Lokamitra lives with his family in a modest house in the Ambedkar Colony settlement of Pune. Since 1978, he has helped to build a movement, Trailokya Bauddha Mahasangha Sahayaka Gana (TBMSG), the Indian wing of FWBO, and other related social organizations, developing a new Indian or Ambedkarite Buddhism, fusing dharma practice and social action.
Lokamitra came to India in 1977 to study yoga in Pune with B.S. Iyengar. Breaking the long train trip from Calcutta in Nagpur, by chance he arrived on the 21st anniversary of Dr. Ambedkar’s conversion. As an FWBO angarika, wearing robes, he found himself on a large stage at the Deekshabhoomi, facing thousands of Ambedkar’s devotees.
In the 36 hours we spent in Nagpur I entered a new world, a world of millions of the most oppressed people, all desperate to transform their lives and their society through Buddhism, but with little living teaching to guide them. I had stumbled blindly into a situation in which the two-fold transformation seemed a real possibility, and on the most auspicious of days. I did not consciously decide to live and work in India then but I have no doubt that my future was decided on that day.
Lokamitra moved to India the following year, and with help of local Buddhists organized retreats and meditation groups. he says, “Our friends organized these where they could, a disused railway carriage, the veranda of an unfinished police station, a small garage when its car went to church on Sundays.”
More than thirty years have passed since those rough and ready days. TBMSG now includes five hundred Indian order members and many thousands of practitioners. With the support of Karuna Trust and other donors in Asia and the west, two related organizations — Bahujan Hitay (meaning “for the welfare of many”) and Jambudvipa Trust have evolved to do outreach and social work among the Dalits. More recently they have created the Manuski Project — which is where I roomed in Pune — with leadership from my friends Maitreyanath Dhammakirti, Mangesh Dahiwale, and Priyadarshi Telang (among others). Manuski is the Marathi word Dr. Ambedkar used for “humanity” or “humanness.” The center’s mission is:
1. Transcending caste barriers through Social Development Program 2. Fighting social discrimination through legal and constitutional ways 3. Developing Dalit Women leadership 4. Sustainability of the social projects and building solidarity amongst the individuals and organizations
The network of related organizations, like Indra’s net, comprises retreat centers, hostels, adult education, atrocity and civil rights work, earthquake and tsunami relief, school programs and more in Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh, Gujurat, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh.
Glimpses of Liberation I apologize here for some sweeping generalizations. Two weeks in India, my first time there, goes by quickly. I saw just a little of the astonishing richness, diversity, and contradictions of this country. But my experience was wonderful and very powerful — the sweetness, sincerity, intelligence, and generosity of those I met stay with me. A piece of my heart remains with these friends in Maharastra.
Walking out of the Mumbai airport, just looking out the car window at busy night streets, I formed first impressions of India that lasted to the journey’s end. Having spent time elsewhere in south Asia — Burma, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka — where war and civil strife prevail — I sensed a freedom and intimacy among people in India, even in the midst of jarring discrepancies of wealth and standing. It felt strangely familiar to me, and familial in the best (and maybe in the worst) sense of the word. There is something to the fact that India is the world’s largest democracy. Democracy there is every bit as flawed as it is in the U.S., but the energy of people in the streets and fields is limitless.
Kaleidoscopic impressions could fill many pages; instead I would like to convey a sense of the heartfelt Buddhist practice I encountered. The point of this trip was simply to be with people, to teach and to learn from them. My friend Mangesh and his comrades kept me busy from the moment I arrived in Pune until my last talk in Mumbai and the late night flight home.
Manuski is action-central for Dalit social work. The center itself is quiet and cool, with a good library, meeting rooms, offices, a number of basic but comfortable guest rooms, and a large meditation hall. After a visit to the Dapodi slum projects and a long briefing on TBMSG and its network, in the evening I was scheduled to give a dharma talk. There were about forty people for meditation and lecture, most of them neatly dressed men in their thirties, and about six or eight women. Speaking after meditation, mindful that everything had to be translated into Marathi, I tried to keep my words were simple. I spoke about the Soto Zen principle of “practice realization,” that we don’t sit to attain enlightenment, but because we are already enlightened. I folded in teachings from Suzuki Roshi — “you yourself are Buddha.” My hope was to be fully encouraging from the start, addressing an audience that was still wrestling daily with the wounds of caste.
From the start, in talks and meetings, I wanted to support free inquiry and gender equality. These are points which Dr. Ambedkar identified as the essence of Buddhism. I left time for question and answer at each meeting, which was something of a novelty. Students and practitioners were more used to receiving teachings, hesitant to question. Second, I openly invited equal participation from women in all discussions. It was not always possible to be completely evenhanded. Some women need encouragement to step outside a circle of silence, to speak out and question. Women now lead many of the social projects, and there are more than ninety women teachers or dhammacharinis in TBMSG. But the movement still needs to have more women in visible leadership, which means participating equally in public events and internal organizational structures. In order to arrive at equality, men, and, particularly men in leadership have to step back and be allies for the women.
Over the next two weeks, I gave workshops on engaged Buddhism, met with students at Nagaloka, took part in a study retreat in Kondhanpur, and offered dharma talks in Nagpur and Mumbai. Each activity included melodic Pali chanting and meditation. The strong feeling in a meditation hall cannot be faked. One can sense a quality of concentration and settledness in people’s bodies and expressions, from the subtle (or un-subtle) adjustments of posture. It is clear, too, from the respectful way people dress. In California people tend to be pretty casual, but for meditation or a dharma talk in India it is customary to wear attractive and functional clothes. Men come in slacks and loose or business shirts. Women wear bright saris, which suggest shared origins with the robes of monks and nuns. The meditation practices of TBMSG are straightforward and familiar to me: anapanasati or mindfulness of breathing and metta bhavana/cultivation of lovingkindness.
We made a day-trip to two of India’s oldest rock-cut Buddhist caves. Bhaja is a 200 BCE hillside cave complex across a green Deccan valley from TBMSG’s Sadhamma Pradeep retreat center. The caves were quiet and still, with the shadows of morning falling across its ancient monks’ quarters and simple carvings. Close by, the Karla caves have been co-opted by local Hindus who have set up a temple at the cave entrance, where priests sacrifice the goats and chickens devotees bring as offerings. Since we happened to go on Holi, the Hindu festival of colors, sacrifices were in full swing. When our car died of vapor lock, I got a ride up the narrow hillside was with four young men on their way to the temple, one of whom cradled a chicken for sacrifice. Unlike the serenity of the Bhaja, the steep winding stairs at Karla were lined with snack and souvenir vendors hawking their wares and with beggars of every age and infirmity. The hillside itself was strewn with trash — papers, plastic bags and bottles, food scraps — in stark contrast to the fine clothes and happy mood of the Hindu families coming for the holiday.
Nagaloka Nagaloka or the Nagarjuna Training Institute (NTI) is TBMSG’s flagship educational project, the largest of its centers NTI has a 15-acre campus on the outskirts of Nagpur, at the geographical center of India, where Dr. Ambedkar converted to Buddhism. At night, from a distance, one can see the tall golden image of a walking Buddha that smiles down on the students of Nagaloka.
NTI offers a ten-month leadership training in basic Buddhism and social action. This program, working with Dalit and young people from all religious communities, has graduated almost five hundred young people from twenty states over the last eight years. Most of these students have returned to their home villages to offer dharma, work on issues of social oppression, and support others to live and train in Nagpur. For many students leaving home for the first time is unsettling and difficult. Each young woman and man comes from a particular region and village with a common yearning to see the world and to be of use, But growing up within oppressive tradition cultures leaves them unprepared for the culture shock of a new life at Nagaloka. Some of these young people are overwhelmed, but most find their way into student life, buoyed up by new friends and teachers, and by the practice of dhamma.
Caste-based village life is often tainted by discrimination and violence. Even as I write, CNN reports the murder of an Indian politician in Uttar Pradesh, shot down as he attended a ceremony marking B.R. Ambedkar’s birth. Students at Nagaloka have grown up with such violence. I tried to bring out their stories, so I could learn and so they could learn from each other. One young man recounted:
In my childhood I observed this caste system all the time. My grandmother had to take water from the village well. But when she put her bucket in, other community people saw that and would not take water until the well was purified by rituals. If someone asked you to their home for food, if you were Dalit, you had to wash your own plate. My father often used to do that. Once I was invited for dinner, but I refused to wash my plate. They asked why I wouldn’t wash it. I said, if you invite me to eat with you, it is not right to force me to wash my own plate. In that case, I can give up your food and go. So I just left.
A woman of twenty said: I am from Orissa. Where I live there is still a very strong caste system. They don’t allow Dalit children to get any kind of education. If a girl tries to get an education, their parents become afraid and get them married quickly. Neighborhood people will not allow the girls to learn as they wish to. We are here at Nagaloka now, but my family doesn’t know we are learning Buddhism. When we go back to the village we will share them what we have learned about the dharma. We came with the help of former students, and when we go back we will help find other students. I really believe that our training at Nagloka will benefit our community.
The school explains its mission this way:
The different Scheduled caste communities in India do not usually cooperate with each other, even after they have become Buddhists. At the Nagarjuna Institute they relate to each other just as Buddhists and not in terms of the caste they have come from. This in itself is an enormous contribution to a truly democratic society. The intensive practice for a year with other Buddhists from all over India means they cease to identify with the old untouchable caste but just as Buddhists.
I was inspired by the students at Nagaloka. Meeting them over several days, hours a day, their stories touched me. Their way-seeking minds glow with the spirit of inquiry. Having been in the fields of engaged Buddhism for twenty years, nowhere else have I met young people with their kind of intuitive grasp of Buddhism and social action arising together. Nowhere else have I had deeper discussion that never slipped into abstraction, but focused on the conditions of oppression these students know too well. Nowhere have I encountered anything like their determination to remake the world in peace. My heart is with them.
Liberty, Equality, Fraternity In an All-India Radio broadcast two years before his conversion, Dr. Ambedkar said:
Positively, my social philosophy may be said to be enshrined in three words: liberty, equality and fraternity. Let no one however say that I have borrowed my philosophy from the French Revolution. I have not. My philosophy has its roots in religion and not in political science. I have derived them from the teachings of my master, the Buddha.
After the 1956 conversion he raised up another ideal — Buddha, Dharma, Sangha. One morning in my bed on our retreat at Kondhanpur, I realized that these two ideals are in fact one. At the moment it seemed like an original insight. But when I mentioned it to Lokamitra he laughed, saying this had been a central point of discussions about Ambedkarite Buddhism in the early 80s.
Liberty is the quality of actualized liberation as embodied by the Buddha. But as in the realization of enlightened life, liberty is a practice, something that must be aspired to and worked at. It is not a static quality.
Equality is dharma in the sense that we see all beings as equal. Hakuin Zenji’s “Song of Buddhism” begins: “ From the beginning all beings are Buddha.” Each sentient being is precious. All people are chosen — not just those of a particular religion, caste or nation. At the same time, Dr. Ambedkar understood that each person has strengths and weaknesses, skills and shortcomings. In this respect we are unequal and individual, unique. But, taken together, liberty and equality, encourage us to be completely ourselves, as large and open as possible, respecting and valuing each other as precious.
Fraternity is the cutting edge of Ambedkar’s Buddhism and the new Buddhist movement. Fraternity is sangha, the community of practitioners, and the wider community of all beings (hence, linked to equality). In the Buddha’s time there was a “fourfold sangha,” monks, nuns, laymen, laywomen. Somehow Asian Buddhism has reduced this to the onefold sangha — monks. This is not idea of Buddhism promoted by Dr. Ambedkar, or by the modern movement I saw.
Fraternity is a challenge for the Dalit community. It challenges them in ways that race, class, and diversity challenge western Buddhists. The social realities of India draw clear lines between all the religions — Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Christian, and Buddhist; between caste and non-caste peoples; and, most critically, among the many Dalit groups themselves within the system of “graded inequality,” each group scrambling for the tiniest privileges of social position, economic opportunity, and political power. Fraternity is what connects us. And we know this is hard work.
There is much in this new Indian Buddhism that we share in the west. On both sides we have turned to the dharma in response to the Buddha’s central message about suffering and its end. Knowingly or not, many of us in the west come to Buddhism to deal with suffering, often alienated from religious traditions we were born to. For Dalits, whose material circumstances may be so different from ours, the motivation is the same: to learn about suffering and to reach its end, in each person’s life and in society.
What I call the “three marks” of Western Buddhism are shared by Ambedkarites. Theirs is a “lay” Buddhist movement, comprising family members, workers, and lay teachers, much like our own centers here in America. Dr. Ambedkar was highly critical of Asia’s monastic orders, which he saw as elitist and uninterested in establishing Buddhist practice for laypeople. So it is not surprising that the new Buddhists have created a lay or lay-ordained movement. The model of TBMSG/FWBO is an order of dhammacharis/dhammacharinis — meaning followers of the dharma. Order members are meditation teachers, study leaders, and ministers. As Suzuki Roshi said about his own students: You are not quite priest, not quite lay.
The second mark is feminization. Dr. Ambedkar said: “I measure the progress of a community by the degree of progress which women have achieved.” Women’s progress is evident in urban India. In rural areas, though, patriarchal culture is tenacious, closely linked to caste and Hindu dharma. But among the Ambedkarites, in slums and poor villages, Buddhist women are leading schools, hostels, social work, and dharma communities as teachers or dharmacharinis in their own right.
The third mark is social action, or the unity of dharma practice and social work — compassion in action. When I came to work at Buddhist Peace Fellowship in 1991, engaged Buddhism was outside the mainstream. Twenty years later, countless centers and groups are involved in prison work, chaplaincy, feeding the poor, and organizing against war. We have come to see this as a responsibility that flows from the Bodhisattva vow to save all beings. But from the start, Dr. Ambedkar’s vision of Buddhism incorporated a vision of society and social liberation, far beyond the introspective caricature that some have of Buddhism. So it is natural that an Indian Buddhism movement, rooted in the most oppressed would see the oneness of personal development and social transformation.
With all this in common, it is painful that Indian Buddhism is almost invisible to Buddhists around the world. I could speculate on why this is so, but simply said, the time has come for us to see that a vast engaged movement in India promises to change the way Buddhism is seen by all the world’s religions.
Ambedkarite Buddhists hunger for dharma and for contact with the wider world. Very few from outside FWBO go to India to practice with TBMSG and other Buddhists. It is not that the Dalits need Buddhist “missionaries.” Native Indian teachers are well-trained in the Buddha’s teachings. But they need our help, resources, and they need to be seen and valued in the world. And as the dharma rises in the slums and in the poorest villages across India, we can learn, be inspired, and rededicate ourselves to liberation for all beings, irrespective of class, caste, gender, and tribe.
Leaving Mumbai Without seeing, listening to, and smelling them, India’s slums are beyond imagination. The sprawling shantytowns of Slumdog Millionaire (or the South African shacks of Neill Blomkamp’s District 9) are not fantasy. They are real and pervasive, growing like weeds just behind the main roads and shops of every Indian city. They surround and threaten wealthy high-rises. Obscene affluence and obscene poverty battle for a future in which each is creating the other
Speaking of Pune, India’s eighth largest city, 40% Dalit slum-dwellers, my friend Maitreyanath said:
In Pune, for example there are around 850 slums, nearly 600 of them are “authorized slums.” These slums are “holding banks” for local political leaders. They try to persuade the government to give services to the slums, so people will get benefit, and political leaders can say we brought you water, roads, and so on. Then they get the votes from these authorized slums. That is the way the system works.
Mumbai is like Pune on steroids. Nearly fifteen million people, 55% of them in the slums. (There is an excellent book about it: Maximum City by Suketu Mehta.) The slums of Mumbai and other cities are cobbled together of corrugated metal, sheets of plastic, and scraps of wood. They rise at the most unlikely angles, leaning together over alleyways no more than three or four feet wide, where one finds children playing, young men huddled over cards, women washing clothes, scrawny dogs, chicken and goats picking through trash, piles and puddles of excrement. At the center of the city, shacks rise two or three stories, with the same makeshift construction and scavenged materials. It is amazing to see these structures at night, leaning against each other, with candles or oil lamps or bare electric bulbs shining through windowless portals.
Running water is often a spigot down the block. Toilets are a quiet corner behind a building, an abandoned lot, or a reeking communal structure with three or four stalls and no plumbing. Electricity stolen with a makeshift cable spliced into a mainline.
But it is not all grim. Life is everywhere tenacious. Joy and even self-respect spring up in unlikely places. Slum children see me coming blocks away. They laugh and tease the bald, big-nose stranger. Though their houses may be falling around them, women and men take care to go out in clean clothes.
Maharastra is the population center of Dalit Buddhists. In the poorest neighborhoods, along with storefront temples and mosques, it is common to find a Buddhist vihara. A plastic tarp or corrugated roof covers an open square encircled by shanties. A white or golden Buddha, encircled by fresh flowers, with a garlanded image of Babasaheb Ambedkar sits within a small wooden enclosure. Worn carpets are rolled out so men can sit on one side, women on the other. City sounds rise within the silence of meditation — children’s shouts, panting rickshaws, barking dogs, the crack of a cricket bat, a street vendor’s cry. The peace of meditation at once includes all of this and goes beyond it.
Life is unfolding. Here and everywhere, enlightenment is unfolding in the simple, common human activity of sitting down. Half a world away from home, I feel completely at home. The ordinariness is amazing: sitting with friends in the middle of this urban jungle.
After thirty minutes a bell rings. I take a drink from my water bottle and begin to speak. My words are unplanned, but magically they take shape, just as this wonderful community has taken shape, arriving one by one in the dust and bustle of their lives. My message is that practice is not some special activity, separate from the ordinary things of life. Dharma pervades all that we do. The Buddhas are here with us in the cool glow of evening. Dr. Ambedkar is here, too. In just this moment — which cannot be captured or defiled — freedom is at hand.
Thanks to Mangesh Dahiwale, Dh. Lokamitra, Dh. Maitreyanath, Priyadarshi Telang, Bharat Wankhede, Dh. Vivikamitra, Dh. Viradhamma, and many others who made this journey possible and helped me along the way. I hope to see you all again soon.
Select Bibliography: • The Buddha and His Dharma, B.R. Ambedkar: Re-published for free distribution by The Corporate Body of the Buddha Educational Foundation, Taiwan <www.budaedu.org/en/book/II-02main.php3> • The Essential Writings of B.R. Ambedkar, V Rodrigues (ed), Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2002. • Ambedkar and Buddhism, Sangharakshita, Glasgow: Windhorse, 1986. • Jai Bhim — Dispatches from a Peaceful Revolution, Terry Pilchik (Nagabodhi), Glasgow: Windhorse, 2004. • Dr. Ambedkar and Untouchability, Christophe Jaffrelot; Delhi: Paul’s Press, 2005.