Thursday, January 07, 2010

Finding A Name For the FWBO

I'm posting this now, following Bhante's announcement about the name change, out of historical interest.

Finding A Name For the FWBO

September 1995

I am writing this proposal for a review of the FWBO's name at Kulananda's suggestion and because my work has led me to feel that such a change is necessary. A name-change is costly, disruptive and potentially confusing to outsiders: one loses recognition. On the other hand, there is nothing like a re-launch to generate publicity and give a sense of renewal. In addition, if we conclude that we need a new name than we should find one as soon as possible. The longer we wait the more disruptive it will be. And finally, it seems to me that any name for the movement must have the imprimatur of Bhante. Who will have the courage or the authority to change the name he gave us when he is no longer here to approve? I see three reasons for wanting to change the name.

1. It sounds bad.

Any set of initials is cumbersome. FWBO is four letters, six syllables. To my ear they are not very euphonic and my experience suggests they are not very memorable.

At one time the FWBO was popularly referred to as 'the Friends'. No more. Now we use those ugly initials or the monolithic term 'the Movement'.

If we do use the full phrase 'the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order' it is not much better. It is quite a mouthful and it is not clear what it means. In what sense 'Friends' and so on. It simply does not sound like a serious body in itself - especially, Saramati tells us, in the US.

I find in my dealings with the press they tend not to remember the words, or they get them wrong, or at the very least they require explaining. I tend to say I am from the Western Buddhist Order.

2. It is not accurate.

- The 'Friends' makes it sound like a single entity, which it is not.

- It is not 'Western', either in practice or, indeed in principle. It is universal and traditional. 'Western' makes it sound - well - Western, as opposed to just Buddhist and finding its expression in a variety of cultures. I imagine there might be a certain amount of resistance to dispensing with 'Western' as it has served to define us in the Buddhist world and to ourselves. I wonder if it is such an issue now. We are Western; we have proved that Buddhism is not to be identified with Eastern culture. Perhaps the point has come when its use is counter-productive.

3. It sows the seeds of Disunity.

Being inaccurate, FWBO creates various problems. This seems to me the most compelling reason for a change, much more important than how it sounds.

(i) Nationally

FWBO is not, in fact, the name of the movement, it is just its name in the English-speaking world. Therefore, what we are concerned with is not so much changing the old name as finding a new one. We do not at present have one name, we have several: FWBO, TBMSG, and the various sets of initials we use in German, Spanish, French, Swedish, Finnish and so on. The names in other European languages are translations of FWBO but they contain no key words in common. As we become better known in Europe it will be increasingly confusing that we have a different name in each country

In India this variation of names seems to me to be quite serious. On my last trip people often said to me things like 'in the FWBO you do things like this, but in TBMSG we do things like this.' Even worse than the situation in Europe, TBMSG indicates an entirely different set of words, presumably because 'Western' is plainly inapplicable. In fact it gives the impression that we are defining ourselves as other than the Indians.

In due course activities will start in other Asian countries where neither the FWBO nor TBMSG will be appropriate and we will have to come up with an entirely new name each time. There will, of course be borderline cases - what will we be called in the Middle East? And what of the countries where Western will appeal to some, but to others will denote cultural imperialism or else, the dubious virtues of industrialisation.

Having a variety of names in different countries seems to me at best to weaken the sense of belonging to the same Order and movement, and at worst to set up the basis for future splits along national lines. This is already apparent in India, but as other non-English speaking countries gain greater identity in their own right, these lines of difference are liable to proliferate.

(ii) Centres

A parallel issue is emerging in London as a result of the proliferation of centres and the start of joint publicity.

Firstly, there is no explicit connection between the centres indicated by their names, and secondly no connection with the FWBO. People do not necessarily realise that there is a connection between the North London Buddhist Centre and the Covent Garden Meditation Centre, for example, or even between the LBC and the FWBO. Why should they? It is already an anomaly that the LBC is the London Buddhist Centre.

In any case, as the number of Buddhist Centres of all kinds also proliferates, I wonder if it is not confusing (maybe even a little unfair) for us to simply use the word 'Buddhist'. It begs the question: what kind of Buddhist?

What Name?

The potential for confusion and disunity strikes me as an overwhelming argument in favour of finding a new name, and it suggests what we most need from it. I would put these considerations in the following order of priority.

1. We need a common tag.

2. It needs to be accurate and informative

3. It needs to sound good.

The last of these we simply need to bear in mind in considering any actual suggestions. As for the first two:

1. We need to find a word which can be kept constant in every language. We can do this by looking outside vernacular languages to Pali or Sanskrit. We could then consider using a vernacular translation of that word. I understand that Pali tends to be associated exclusively with the Theravada, so this means we will be looking for something Sanskrit which is more of a Buddhist lingua franca.

There are clearly disadvantages in having a non-English name, but do these outweigh the disadvantages of having an English one? In the end, from a PR perspective I think it is better to have a memorable foreign name than an unmemorable English one. It doesn't seem too much of a problem for RIGPA or Shambhala and so on.

2. The word has to be something central. It needs to define what we are about to ourselves and to the world. There will not be many to chose from.

Finally we have to consider the name not just of the FWBO, but of the WBO.

What word?

Three years ago I discussed this subject with Subhuti and he told me that when he and Bhante had considered it they had thought along these very lines and both, independently come up with 'Triratna'. My suggestion then was 'Dharmachara' (if that turns out to be grammatical) ie. path of the Dharma.

I think I now incline to Triratna - the only real objection to using this name in particular seems to me to be aesthetic. But it grows on me.

What about the rest of the name? Here are my thoughts about how the name might pan out with Triratna as the key element. Any other Pali or Sanskrit word could pan out in a similar way.

It has to say what we are, so what are we? Well we are a Buddhist movement, so how about Triratna Buddhist Movement? More colloquially we could call ourselves (the) 'Triratna' viz.:

'In Rigpa you do it like that, in Triratna, we do it like this'.


Q: 'I am a Tibetan Buddhist, what kind are you?'

A: 'I am a Triratna Buddhist'

Or even:

'I am a follower of the Triratnayana.

But perhaps I am getting carried away.

We could of course use the initials (the) TBM.

A variation on this would be to use Three Jewels Buddhist Movement (the TJBM?); each country could use its own vernacular version if appropriate (something tells me the Japanese would have difficulties with Triratna).

What about the Order? How about Triratna Buddhist Order or, if we prefer, Triratna Mahasangha? We could, in fact have this as a single name and still refer to ourselves as Triratna Buddhist Order for functional purposes (ie, one is ordained into the Triratna Mahasangha, but we introduce ourselves at classes as a member of the Triratna Buddhist Order, continue talking about the Order, Order members and so on. I don't imagine we would want to refer to the Order as 'the TM').

In India, the movement would be known - I guess - as Triratna Mahasangha Sahayak Gana: TMSG, which would at least minimise disruption.

Centres could then be called the Manchester Triratna Buddhist Centre and so on. Joint advertising could be for 'the London Triratna Buddhist Centres' and so on. This doesn't really solve the problem London Centres using points of the compass, but perhaps that is a separate issue.


There are two parts to this paper. Firstly an argument for changing the name, and secondly an proposal for how to do it. Even if you do not like my suggestion, I think we should still take very seriously the analysis of the need.

I think we should act at the earliest good opportunity, leaving some time for the idea to sink in. How about the 30th anniversary two years hence? In India the new name could coincide with the opening of the Nagarjuna Institute which should be around the same time. Lets not wait too long.


Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Thought for the Day

It’s hard to imagine a cutting edge news programme being launched in 2007 that would allow two minutes forty-five seconds to religious figures to talk unchallenged from a religious perspective on a current news item. But such is Thought for the Day, on which I have been the solitary Buddhist for the last year.

TFTD has admirers who love the cuddly Lionel Blue, and detractors who splutter into their cornflakes at the latest talk by Anne Atkins. One splutterer, Peter Hearty, has been moved by his indignation to start an anti-TFTD website called Platitude of the Day. Each morning Hearty rises in fury to post a précis of the latest Thought, that aims to reveal its essential banality. To add injury to insult, he gives a mark out of five on his platitude scale—‘0’ being ‘not platitudinous’; ‘5’ being ‘extraordinarily platitudinous’. He also gives the contributors tags, so I am ‘Vishvapani, much nicer name than Simon Blomfield’ (That’s my non-Buddhist name and for the record I think it’s quite nice as well). Actually, I seem to be in what approximates to Hearty’s good books, but you get the picture.

Like other critics of TFTD, notably the British Humanist Association, Hearty resents the privileged treatment religious people receive in this slot. And who can deny that it is a privilege. While politicians get barely a few seconds before Humphries interrupts their flow, TFTD contributors get fully 165 of them. The cost of having an ‘unopposed’ slot is that you can’t make partisan points. Perhaps that’s one condition that pushes speakers towards platitude. Another is that the talk should include a good chunk of theology, and this is where things go wrong for Hearty who seems to believe that religious comments are inherently platitudinous because their moral perspective depends on the faith’s authority claims.

I don’t claim to have escaped platitude in my ten talks over the last year, but the issue looks different from contributor’s perspective. It may just be that I am a rookie, but my experience is that writing TFTD scripts is hard. You have under three minutes to go from news story to moral, keeping it all engaging and clear. The difficulty is combining a story from the secular world of news with a comment from the world of religion without imposing an artificial moral. You easily end up saying, “Things are bad. It would be so much better if things were better.”

But consider the conditions under which the poor contributor writes their Thought. It’s a topical comment, so it has to be written the previous day and the subject depends on what is in the news. So you look at the papers and squint, hoping to catch a glint of your religion, hoping to find something to say is substantial and isn’t a platitude. Maybe there’s something that grabs you—and the scripts that work best draw a straightforward and forceful moral point from the news item. But want if nothing does? The producers (who are good but very busy) help refine your thinking, but you have to have something to say in the first place.

Hearty’s criticism of TFTD seems to be that that dogma gets in the way ethics. That’s a fair point if contributors speak solely from the standpoint of doctrine rather than that of experience. But in the case of the TFTD contributors I admire, I feel I am encountering a warm and thoughtful individual who brings moral depth to their response to the day’s events. Such a response isn’t the exclusive preserve of the religious—artists, psychologists and philosophers might make good contributors as well. But finding something meaningful to say under TFTD conditions requires that you have a broadly-based and well-articulated moral stance that has moulded your thinking.

People whose lives are rooted in their faith are well equipped to make a distinctive contribution that expresses the moral integrity of their lives and the wisdom and clarity of their tradition. Perhaps it’s too much to expect that each day of the week, but when it does happen TFTD is a welcome relief from the noise of aggressive journalists and squabbling politicians—and not the least bit platitudinous.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Tribal Conversions in Mumbai

The mass conversion to Buddhism of around 50,000 people in Mumbai—an event that was witnessed by another 100,000—has been widely reported. However, the coverage leaves out the background, which shows what makes this a truly remarkable occasion.

The converts are from castes of nomads and 'dacoits'—whose hereditary caste identity is to be criminals. These are the people who live in tents on the edge of Indian towns, but because of their lifestyles they are unregistered with the government—hence they fall outside the affirmative action programmes that have helped dalits. I really don't think it is an exaggeration to say that they fall below the dalits in Indian society.

An estimated 50 million Indian belong to these communities, but they have been virtually invisible in Indian society. For 50,000 of members of this community to do anything together is quite unprecedented and is their attempt to register their presence for the first time.

The leader of this movement is Lakshman Mane. I interviewed Mane last Autumn for Tricycle, and a fuller version of my interview is on my own Ambedkar 2006 blog.

Gathering so many people is a truly remarkable achievement and I sincerely hope that the diksa helps the community meet its goals: no one needs help more than they do.

An excellent resource to follow this and many other developments in the Indian dalit Buddhist community is Atrocity News.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

NKT Succession & Questions of Authority

21 Feb 2012. I've posted another article on this subject here: bringing the discussion up to date in 2012

A little noticed recent development in Britain’s fragmented Buddhist world is the resignation in February of Gen Samden Gyatso—the thirty-something heir designate to the leadership of the New Kadampa Tradition (NKT)—as the movement’s Deputy Spiritual Director. If you follow links to Samden on the NKT’s webpage they will take you, in a somewhat Orwellian manner, to his replacement, Kelsang Khenrab, with no word of explanation of how or why the change took place.

Samden has been groomed for a decade as the successor to Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, the NKT’s founder and teacher. A participant on the e-sangha newsgroup received the following reply to her enquiry about the change from the NKT’s headquarters at Manjushri Centre in Cumbria, UK: “Gen-la Samden recently resigned as the NKT's Deputy Spiritual Director, and with Venerable Geshe-la's blessing has embarked upon a retreat. We understand that Gen-la found the prospect of eventually becoming the NKT's General Spiritual Director too heavy.” As well as this explanation, perhaps rather predictably, rumours regarding Samden’s ‘conformity with his vows’ were circulating on the web prior to his resignation.

I hope my mentioning this change does not seem like either prurience of schadenfreude. Although my own approach to the Dharma is very different from that of the NKT, I have been interested to watch the movement’s progress. Even more than the FWBO, the NKT is stigmatized by many other Buddhists, and ties between Geshe Kelsang and the rest of the Tibetan Buddhist community have long been severed. Conversely, NKT members tend to idealise its approach as ‘pure’ and ‘uncontaminated’. While I find this conflict sad, I don’t subscribe to either viewpoint, which means that—for all the disputes and stigmatisation—I regard NKT members as fellow Buddhists, just like their critics, and would like to feel a connection with them as such.

Perhaps fired by the purists’s sense of conviction, the NKT has ballooned dramatically from eight centres and twenty groups at its foundation in 1991, to over two hundred centres and around eight hundred groups in 2007. That’s a truly astonishing rate of growth, which shows no signs of abating, and one consequence must surely be that it places great strain on the relatively small number of experienced practitioners.

Reading the comment on Samden I felt sympathy for him. As I understand it, Geshe Kelsang in his role as the NKT’s Spiritual Director, remains the only person who can ordain new NKT monks and nuns, and I assume (though I don’t know) that he also retains the sole ability to impart certain tantric initiations and to authorise others to pass them on. And he is the author of the only books that are studied in the NKT training programmes and sold in its centres. The NKT is Geshe Kelsang’s creation, and while he avoids making grand status claims for himself, his movement’s faith-orientation means that a good deal of adulation surrounds him. This is reinforced by its complete separation from other Tibetan teachers.

In other words, filling Geshe Kelsang’s shoes is bound to be a daunting prospect for anyone. One interviewee in David Kay’s excellent book Tibetan and Zen Buddhism in Britain, which includes eighty very well researched pages on the NKT, writes “The NKT hierarchy is Geshe Kelsang; then there’s a successor, someone who will be Spiritual Director of the NKT after Geshe Kelsang passes away; and then there’s everyone else, all on the same level really.” (p.84) I have never met Samden, but by the account of the NKT statement it seems that, whatever qualities he may have, he found this elevated and isolated position too great a load. If the strain resulted in some infractions of monastic code before he put the burden down (and I am not saying that there were any), perhaps that is forgivable.

Ten years ago, the NKT’s previous Deputy Spiritual Director, the charismatic Thubten Gyatso, was forced by Geshe Kelsang to disrobe, causing great consternation among NKT followers, because he had broken his monastic vows. Thubten Gyatso had been praised in the same idealizing terms as those applied to Geshe Kelsang: I recall seeing him referred to as his heart-son, Dharma heir and as a second ‘fully authorised teacher’. I haven’t seen the quite same rhetoric around Samden, and Khenrab seems less likely again to attract it. I’ve met him a few times and he found him a likeable, down-to-earth man and a very steady presence, but hardly in the mould of the powerhouse that Thubten Gyatso is reported to have been. He seems such a modest man that I don’t think he would mind my saying this.

I wish Khenrab luck, but it does strike me that the NKT’s succession difficulties are a product of the position the movement has got itself into. The emphasis on the guru in Tibetan Buddhism, which becomes idealization through the practice of regarding them as a Buddha (or perhaps, in Geshe Kelsang’s case, the mouthpiece of the Buddha), inevitably elevates him or her above most other Sangha members, meaning that you can’t easily choose or legitimise a successor by electing them, even if the election is restricted to a small number of senior people. In certain cases, senior lamas may be appointed, by a small conclave of their peers, but the NKT has excluded such figures. The tulku system offers an alternative whereby the teacher is succeeded by the child in whom they are considered to have been reborn. A current, and surely rather bizarre variant is the Shambhala movement, where Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche has been replaced by his biological son, Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche.

Geshe Kelsang has renounced this system—there seems to be no talk of looking for his tulku when the day comes. And such is his isolation that there is no chance of finding another Tibetan to lead the NKT. But Geshe Kelsang also insists on the importance of lineage and transmission—indeed he legitimises his own position through his claims to be the lineal successor to Tsongkhapa and his Kadampa heirs. Geshe Kelsang is clearly comfortable with this role, but I wonder if it is realistic to expect a westerner to adopt it. Western culture stresses individuality rather than lineage, and any westerner who is strong enough to offer effective leadership to a movement as large as the NKT will surely have his or her own ideas and approaches, which are liable to stray from the orthodoxy that Geshe Kelsang has laid down. If traditional mode produces a fiction of unalloyed transmission, a modern mode produces the anxiety of influence, and Geshe Kelsang’s influence must surely be very strong. It is his steely determination that has led the NKT to separate itself from other Tibetan Buddhists. Would a successor be willing or indeed able to sustain this stance?

The issue of succession affects all Buddhist traditions in both Asia and the West that place a strong emphasis on teachers. I have been involved in the FWBO’s struggles in this regard (as recounted in my article Growing Pains) where our emerging response seems to be not replacing Sangharakshita, and alongside that moving away from an emphasis on the teacher. Each tradition has own version of what to do when a key teacher passes away. The NKT’s attempt—appointing a successor in advance—seems to be failing before it is put to the test. I think they need look at other models, such as collegiate leadership, and I expect they will. But I also wonder if the problem goes deeper and connects with their emphasis on a single, dominant figure, the importance of faith in him, their dependence on a simplified version of traditional Buddhist modes of thought to the exclusion of western ones, and their isolation from any other Buddhist teachers. It seems unlikely that Geshe Kelsang would countenance a change to that, but perhaps it will be forced upon his successors.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006


In the last few weeks I have been teaching Portugal and several FWBO centres in the UK, notably the North London Buddhist centre, where I am President. The contrast was very striking between activities in Portugal and the rest.

Sagarapriya has been teaching for two years and has established a flourishing group that operates out of the Portugese Buddhist Union in Lisbon. He is well-respected as part of the city's small Buddhist scene, and has strong links with Tibetan Buddhists (he translates for visiting lamas) and Theravadins as well. When I visited he was in the process of buying a large building close to central Lisbon to be a Buddhist and natural health centre. However, Sagarapriya doesn't label his activities 'FWBO' and he is happy to invite teachers from various traditions to teach his group. Also, he sometimes refers to Sangharakshita's teachings, but he doesn't set out to teach them himself. He wants to address Buddhism in a more generic way, and he is not intending to designate his new building an FWBO Centre.

This is interesting, and it raises lots of questions. What does it mean for an Order member to teach Buddhism but for this not to be part of the FWBO. What is the FWBO? Is it an organisation, to which people affiliate, or is it a wider network that includes all 'altruistic and creative activities of Order members?' If Sagarapriya is not teaching FWBO Buddhism, what kind of Buddhism is he teaching? The same question applies to the FWBO as a whole, but the usual answer in that case refers back to Sangharakshita. The FWBO rests on his authority and qualifications to teach; can Sagarapriya say the same thing?

To be fair to Sagarapriya, he is a very straightforward person, not proud and not on an ego trip, just wanting to make the Dharma available to people. I like working with him and am happy to support his group. I think that in the FWBO we are suffering the consequences of an over-emphasis on affiliation, and Sagarapriya is exploring another model of engagement with the Dharma. The questions I posed will arise more acutely when the people in his group become experienced practitioners. Where will he point them to develop their engagement with the Dharma? And what would happen if others in Portugal did want to have something more like a typical FWBO group?

Sagarapriya exemplifies the freedom that a Dharma teacher can have if they are on their own. He can do what he wants, how he wants, without having to negotiate with a group of others who share the running of a centre. How different things are in the UK where many of the FWBO situations I know are large and demanding, and have to negotiate between the demands of inclusion and plurality and those of clarity and purpose. I arrived straight back from Lisbon to an NLBC weekend which had somehow expanded from a planning weekend for the charity's Council, to include the whole sangha in a participatory process of co-creating the centre's future vision.

It wouldn't be appropriate for me to comment on this process here, but a striking feature is that many of those keenest to be involved have opted not to involve themselves in the FWBO's established structures. That is, some experienced members of the sangha have dropped out of the ordination process and some don't want to become mitras. However, they do love their centre very much and rather than wishing to leave they want a greater say in how it is run. Clearly, this makes things rather complicated, raising the another question in regard to the same themes I noted in Portugal about what it means for a centre to be part of the FWBO. Who says?

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

What's New

Below this post are three accounts written in the course of my last month's travels in India, covering the new wave of conversions to Buddhism among followers of Dr Ambedkar.

These were written as part of a blog dedicated specifically to that trip at Now I've left India I've decided to use this site as my personal blog, and I've copied the posts that fit in best with what I am intending here. I travel a fair bit, usually encountering sights and sounds of Buddhism in the modern world. I'm intending to offer accounts of that here as well as reflections 'views and, hopefully the occasional 'insight'. Hence 'Dharma Sights'.

Right now I am in Portugal to do a week's teaching. I'll write soon about that.

Tamil Nadu Sightings

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

I arrived in Tamil Nadu on Monday, and I now in Pondicherry, which in fact is a unitary territory independent of TN state. It's a former French enclave and the town has a colonial seafront and treelined avenues seemigly at war with the unruly Indianness that encoroaches from all sides.

My guests are Lalida and Perimar who I met at the conference in Nagpur that I attended at the start of my trip here. They are a dynamic, impressive couple who run a networking a organisation called ADECOM devoted top improving the lot of dalits by developing things at the grassroots. They offer training and support for a cooperatives and projects in dalit villages and communities across the state. They broker shared funding requests to western ngos such as the Karuna Trust and offer monitoring in return. At first sight it seems as impressive a set-upo as I have seen in this area. They are dedicated to staying small, devolving responisbility to the village groups wherever possible and training local people to take it on.

Top of Lalida's shopping list of issues are women's rights and land rights. The British passed statuesd promising land dredistribuition to the dalits, and 59 years after Independence the dalits here are waiting to see the benefits. Perumal is an actor and singer, and his focus is developing cultural activities. In Nagpur he and his troupe shocked the audience with drumming that was performed explosive, passionate and raw, followed a superbly staged piece of agitprop street-theatre. They use their performances to campaign on issues from AIDS awareness to demands for economic justice, and increasingly, the importance of DR Ambedkar and his Budhist message

This afternoon I attended a meeting in a dalit village in Pondicherry. Most of the dwellings are thatched wooden huts - dark interiors, rough floors, and often overflowing with children. The tracks between the houses are shared by buffaloes, goats and stray dogs and children dressed in scraps of clothing. Vill;agers gather to met us in a building that in most places would be considered a derelict wreck, but here is the community centre. It is hurriedly swept clean of the piles of litter including discarded cigarrette butts and playing cards - because the men gather here to gamble. They haven't come to the meeting: it is filled by women, their arms filled with children - the older ones of whom stare at me with unabashed curiousity. Their parents join them when Perumal tells that that I am a BBC reporter who will tell the world about their difficulties. I start to think, 'How did this happen... ?'

We have been travelling today with several of the girls from Peruma's company, and Vijaya starts the meeting with a soulful, vibrant song. I hear the word 'Ambedkar' repeated in it, though Perumal tells me that in fact Dr Ambedkar is little known here. 'They know he is the Dalit leader who did much to help dalits. That's all.'They have probably never heard of Buddhism, let alone considered adopting it. He whispers that Vijaya's song si about the need to be united in the struggle for justice.

In turn the women introduce themselves to me: each represents a co-operative, a self-help group, or a savings group. Although they earn just 30-50 rupees a day in the fields, and often can find no work at all, they manage to sav 100 rupees a month, which they put by to start a business. Perumal and his team have been training some of them to make cards and small sculptures constructed from coconuts,a s well as embroidery work. But they don't know how they will sell the work. Perumal says his friends will help with taking it to the market as well as continuing their training.

He tells them they have a good chance to learn tailoring at the government training centre. 'But it's too far away, it costs 10 rupees to get there. Can't you build a centre here?' they ask. 'If you get training and make a start you will get help, otherwise you won't he replies.

Then a litany of complaints and problems pours out, and Perumal mutters explanations beteeen taking on the vehement protestations. This woman's husband has a good education, but he couldn't get a government job and lost his job in the rpivate sector. They don't have the confidence to send their children to school. This woman works on the land, but it is not the season for work now, and anyway there is less land since the large school was built.

My respect grows for Perumal and hjis team. The needss are huge, but they are insist that what they can do is to help the women to help themselves. They have no money to hand out, but they can help them to organise, to improve their own l;ives and to campaign for help from the government. I sit back watching the growing intensity of the discussion in Tamil, and before I leave I offer some encouraging and, I hope, appropriate words about the need for unity and collective effort. I feel like an old-time socialist - and here the need for collective action is so plain.

In the jeep driving away I ask Perumal what they were saying in the heated conversation towards the end. 'They were asking what I would do to bring relief and help them with their problems. They were saying that they need help right now. I told them you are a jopurnalist, but they said, he is a forieigner, how will he help us?' He paused. ' Maybe I shouldn't take foreigners to villages.' I am subdued on the drive back, and we stop for chai on the outskirts of Pondycherry. We drink from plastic cups. 'See the others,' says Perumal, pointing to the metal cups served at a separate counter. 'Two tumbler system. We have to use separate cups.'

Caste practice is alive and well in Tamil Nadu. Staying with Lalida and Perumal I think of civil rights movements in the US and liberation struggles in Latinn America. This is the experience from which the Ambedkarite Buddhist liberation movement is growing.

Dharma Tour in Chhattisgarh

Friday, October 13, 2006

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Impressions of Diksabhumi

Saturday, October 07, 2006
Impressions of Diksabhumi
I have already described the scene at Diksabhumi on Monday 2nd October, when a million or more people thronged to the site of Dr Ambedkar’s own conversion. I want to add here to what I wrote in my blog that day.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, September 30, 2006

I have decided to start a new blog - one aimed more directly at journalists etc, giving news of what is happening around the conversions. That's at

I'll be continuing to post here as well every few days.

Friday, September 29, 2006

I'm writing this from Nagarjuna Institute in Nagpur - an amazingly serene setting after a day in Bombay. Its a series of welsolidly constructed buildings on the outskirts of town with gardens and statues of Dr Ambedkar, and currently buzzing with activity as teams of local men and women prepare the site for a huge influx.

A conference starts tonight on Dr Ambedkar and the modern Buddhist world, with 150 people from around the world - monks and nuns, Buddhist activists, western engaged Buddhists, scholars and people from the FWBO. I'm giving a paper tomorrow on engaged buddhism in America. The Thais are very concerned about the recent military coup and want to get back as soon as they can because they see this as a crucial time for the country. Then 300 more arrive for a workshop for Ambedkarite activists from around India, and then there's a retreat.

The main event will be the huge ralley at diksa bhumi - the conversion ground in the centre of Nagpur where each year 1 million people gather to mark the lunar anniversaty of Dr Ambedkar's conversion in 1956. In 2006 it's the 50th anniversary and on Monday maybe twice that number are expected. There will be some mass conversions as well- and the big development is that they are members of communities previously untouched Buddhism, especially the tribals.

There are all sorts of contradictory reports of what is happening and who is involved, and I will post more details as things get clearer. After 2nd the next date to watch is 14th, the solar anniversary (India uses two parrallel calendars), when many more conversions and celebrateions are scheduled to take place all around India. I haven't decided yet where I'll go then, but Hydrabad sounds promising.

Well, the jet lag still has me a little and the conference is about to start, so I'll leave it there. But I'm intending to keep this blog through this whole period, so stay tuned.