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.