Reports From Journeys to India

Working with India’s “Untouchables” ~ Roshi Eve Marko

We flew down to Tamil Nadu on Monday, landing in Chennai and taking a car some 4 hours west to Tiruvanmalai, where we stayed at a small ashram at the foot of Arunachala, the mountain overlooking Sri Ramana Maharshi’s ashram where he lived and died. We were at the foot of the mountain, next to groves of banana trees and a vegetable garden.  Here we met Ven. Panavatti, an African-American Theravadin nun who is studying with Bernie, along with her 3 Theravadin monastics, Ven. Panadippa, Dhammaratna, and Sukani.  We also met our host, an extraordinary Dalit leader, Gautama Prabhu, at 33 very handsome and already possessing a lot of skills, knowledge, and leadership capabilities. For the rest of our stay, it was Gautama who shared with us the horrifying picture of the life of the Dalits, or Untouchables, of India.  His own personal story is one of loving the Dharma and seeing it as an extraordinary vehicle for transforming the lives of his people.

Gautama, who leads the organization Foundation of His Sacred Majesty (alluding to the great Buddhist king, Ashoka), traced for us the vast remains of the Buddhist presence in India.  Like Dr. Ambedkar, the Dalit leader and contemporary of Gandhi, he too says that the Dalits were Buddhists many years ago and for this reason face the discrimination and persecution by Hindus. Gautama leads three organizations, two of which are dedicated to social and political action, and the third to bringing Buddhism to the Dalits as a vehicle of emancipating them from the Hindu caste system.

We participated in two sessions of teachings every day to groups numbering 20-30 of Gautama’s leaders-in-training.  The morning teaching was led by Ven. Panavatti and her associates, consisting of basic mindfulness meditation and loving kindness, while in the afternoon we came into a circle in which Bernie spoke and dialogued with the participants, to learn as much as possible about their lives.  Eve did a brief council training and facilitated council.

In the afternoons they asked questions: How will Buddhism change our lives?  How did it change yours?  What caused Americans to turn to Buddhism?  Is it bad to eat meat?  And on the last day, one woman asked: What do you tell your child when he goes to school and his classmates make fun of him for being a Dalit?

We also walked down alleyways to visit our neighbors, where Ven. Panavatti gave out games and toys to the children and bought bracelets and tiny combs from the mothers as a way of investing in their economy, then gave them to the children, while Bernie clowned with the kids.  The mothers sat on outside and held up the babies for us to admire, while behind them their windowless shanties, many made of coconut leaves, were dark. The monsoon rains began after the first 3 days, creating unbelievable mud and rivers of brown water running in trenches through the street.

By far the most touching hours were spent with the Tamils and Dalits in the villages as well as in the teaching sessions.  Their spirit, intelligence and beauty conflicted painfully with the poverty of the villages; the sight of their clean children carrying large backpacks filled with books went hand in hand with the absence of bathrooms in the schools; the women in beautiful saris that hid the thinness of arms and legs resulting from malnutrition and grinding work, the bright-eyed men ready and willing to give their lives to their movement, but not knowing how to support their own families.

The village meetings were held in the rec halls filled with women and children cleanly decked out, the kids wide-eyed with life and curiosity. Then the men came in and ordered the women to go to the back of the room. Panavatti refused, which caused some consternation, but she made it okay in the end and the women and children remained in front. The men immediately submitted a list of things they need (e.g., instead of school books, a bathroom).  We later discovered that, poor as they were, most were still not Untouchables; the latter weren’t even permitted to come into the rec hall.

After the session we went to see a large, 40-acre parcel of land they were given, beautiful, grassy acreage dotted with trees and large mounds of stone. Here they wish to begin some social projects and businesses, the first of which would be a dairy farm.

In our final day of council and discussion, Panavatti, who is a Theravadin nun, said she wishes to teach the Buddhadharma while Bernie said he’d like to help with social action projects.  The Dalits would like training in both areas, as well as some financial help (they’d like to get $100 per month for each of 20 volunteers over a 3-year period, so that this would support their families).

Overall, I am astonished and humbled by this chance to witness Buddhism returning to India, perhaps with the help of a feisty, in-your-face African-American nun.   But one thing is sure. It’s coming back through the poorest of the poor, something which the historical Gautama would surely approve of, and it’s coming back as a form of emancipation from the slavery of caste, which I also think he’d approve of.  And isn’t it wonderful that it’s coming back through the West?

You get a sense of a historic movement.  If Buddhism is of any value, it must prove that value to people who live in squalor and misery, yet are so bright-eyed and full of wonder and intelligence. And the challenge is, how?

Comment on Working with India’s “Untouchables” ~ Venerable Pannavati

Thank you Eve, for your comments and great compassion. We witnessed so much after you all left and interacted with literally hundreds of people. Our host just kept allowing the layers to be peeled back and I am still in the game! We are talking with several groups to structure something workable for wells, water, schools, and heart-training, not eliminating anyone because their love is not perfected, but using whatever talents they bring where it can count. That’s part of the job!Information on how Zen Peacemakers can be involved should they choose to will be posed on our website soon! But, as Bernie-la (and I agree totally) in his Opinion says, “it’s complicated” to say the least! So much pain, hurt, confusion….Yet, in the midst of this, the determination that one will not breathe his last breath without having put every ounce of his flesh into the “try”, forsaking even his own family for the sake of many is what makes me able to see beyond the momentary defiance to help bring about long term peace.Just as Bernie understands deeply the suffering of the genocide of his people and can in profound ways bring comfort and healing through physically (not just mentally) taking sons and daughters to the chambers to really sit with, accept and ultimately overcome the grief, I also understand plight of the Dalit leaders, deeply, being a recipient and witness, myself, of mass hatred condoned by the protective societal institutions (church, school,financial, government) of a nation against Blacks from the time they brought us here until now. And, while Dr. King is heralded with being the voice of our freedom, (and indeed, it goes better for everybody that way), I can tell you also that some groups “just said NO!” and their presence was also a catalyst for change. There was a slogan back them in the ‘hood: “the (true) revolution will not be televised.” But, the healers ultimately do come–and rightly from within the movement. Facilitating this phase is where I see my role. Helping Dalits move on, not as one coming to help — but AS one. Seeing the issues from their side. How do you teach one who has been treated as an Untouchable (and then there’s the Unmentionables as well) to love those who have treated him or her and their descendants this way for a couple of thousand years? (And, we won’t even discuss sheer magnitude of numbers.) You can’t just walk in and say “you have to love your enemies”. No, you have to work along side them teaching love for the enemy and self, by example. Some things are just better caught than taught. It takes wisdom and patience to guide a cornered stallion who can see the gate to freedom but is not quite sure how to get to it–and it takes fearless bodhichitta (which I also call mother-wit) to call wild sons to their true home (the heart). I was never one to take the smooth road. My inner torture having been cooled, I stretch out my hand to the one still screaming in pain. Ghandi was not an Untouchable, he eliminated the oppression of his group. Ambedkar was an Untouchable. Maybe what he did in his time was what was needed. I think so, even if it is not what is needed now. But, what he started is not finished, and that’s why I’m a Zen Peacemaker. So, Bernie-la–dearest–as I approach my 30 day reflection period, the verdict is in: I grock with this group. So, please save a little for us,ok (smile)? I met the author of Water to Wine. He goes where peacekeepers in Darfur will not go and works with the ones peacekeepers will not work with. Isn’t it great that Bernie doesn’t expect us to all be vanilla wafers and line up in a row as Zen Peacemakers, either?

Shantum Seth Interview by Ari Pliskin: 10 things that complicate the story of India’s “Untouchables”

Preparing for the Socially Engaged Pilgrimage in India, I asked Shantum to review the newsletter we were preparing.  Though he is a devout Buddhist who lived with and was introduced to Buddhism by downtrodden Indian Buddhists in Uttar Pradesh, he warned us against overly simplifying the situation. Though there is definitely a revolutionary role played by Ambedkarite Buddhism in liberating “untouchables”, Shantum explained, it stems primarily from a social and political base rather a Dharmic one. In fact, there is more of an emphasis on ‘equality’ than ‘liberation’. Dalits form the bottom rung of the oppressive Hindu caste system.  There are many nuances that complicate this story: <ol> <li>Buddhism isn’t totally free of social distinctions.  While proclaiming castelessness, some Buddhists still marry according to caste expectations, just like Hindus.</li> <li>There are many stratifications based on sub-castes amongst the Dalits.</li> <li>There are reformist Hindus who reject the caste system.</li> <li>Dalit is just one self-identification by people who are considered “untouchable”.</li> <li>Dalits or “untouchables” are actually considered to be outside of the caste system altogether.  They are “outcastes”.</li> <li>In terms of socio-economic status, Dalits aren’t  the worst treated group in India.  Muslims are treated worse than Dalits and “tribal” peoples, even worse than Muslims.</li> <li>Because of benefits of affirmative action policy, some people seek fake identification as Dalits in order to illegitimately reap the benefits.</li> <li>Though many Dalits venerate Ambedkar (a Buddhist) and loathe Gandhi (a Hindu), Ambedkar and Gandhi respected each other and sometimes praised the other. They both worked to eradicate the curse of untouchability, but had different means, to achieve this end.</li> <li>Ambekar’s second wife (after the first died) was a Brahmin (the ‘highest’ caste) woman who converted to Buddhism at the same time as Ambedkar.</li> <li>There are many prominent Dalits, including a former president, former Chief Justice of the Supreme court, and the Chief Ministers of important states such as Uttar Pradesh.</li> </ol> All this is not to say that Dalits haven’t faced discrimination and that Ambedkarite Buddhism hasn’t helped them.  It’s just that the more you know, the more complicated things get.  As Charlie says “go figure”.

Dalit Monks at the site of Buddha’s Enlightenment~Ari Pliskin

This post continues the Bearing Witness Blog’s ongoing coverage of the Socially Engaged Pilgrimage in India with Bernie Glassman and Shantum Seth.  We continue to explore the group that was considered in India to be an “untouchable” caste.  Calling themselves Dalits, many of this group have converted to Buddhism in order to escape the caste system. <div id=”:2×1″> <div>“Who are they?” Bernie asked Shantum, pointing to a group of orange-clad monks sitting on the periphery of the lane where pilgrims circumambulate around the Mahabodhi Mahavihara.  They were older and had darker skin than the other monks at the temple.</div> <div>“let’s go talk to them,” Shantum said.</div> <div>As shantum approached, one monk asked another “How much did u get?” the second monk saw Shantum approaching “Shhhh.”</div> <div>Shantum introduced himself and asked a few questions.   The monks explained that they are Indian Dalits ordained  by Dharmapala.  They came to Bodh Gaya from Sankasya, Uttar Pradesh for the Kalacakra teachings given by the Dalai Lama. They don’t understand Tibetan, they said, but they are learning Pali.  They see Ambekar as a preacher and not a Bodhisattva.</div> <div>While we were speaking with them, a well-dressed pilgrim who may have been East Asian brusquely walked by handing each monk a note of local currency.</div> </div>

Buddhism affords greater equality to women says Dalit practitioner/scholar in Bodh Gaya India ~Ari Pliskin


Thursday, January 12, 2012

Bodh Gaya, India

On a 2-week Pilgrimage in the Buddha’s footsteps co-led by Shantum Seth and Bernie Glassman, we met with locals and explored social issues connected to the lands through which we traveled.  During our stop in present-day Bodh Gaya, Bihar, where the Buddha is believed to have attained Nirvana, we took bicycle-powered rickshaws outside the main part of town to a Thai Buddhist Monastery.  There, we heard from Rajesh Kumar and his wife Usha who are leaders of a community of outcaste “Dalits” who have converted to Buddhism to free themselves from the oppressive Hindu caste system.


Rajesh has been practicing vipassana meditation for 10 years and wants to share with others the benefits he has experienced.  He invites residents of Bihar to a monthly1-day meditation retreat in Bodh Gaya. The gathering includes a Dharma talk from a teacher in town if one is available or reading of some Buddhist texts.   His group also distributes Dharma books, helps students study for exams and runs a clinic for locals.

20-50 people come to the retreats. The gatherings are open to everyone.  Most people who come are Dalit followers of Ambekar, though not all. Some have embraced Buddhism and converted and others are simply interested in Vipassana meditation.  Starting with mass conversions in 1956, Ambedkar continues to inspire the vast majority of the rapidly growing group of Dalits converting to Buddhism.  In addition to the 5 precepts and 3 refuges usually associated with converting to Buddhism, Ambedkar instructed his followers to take 22 additional vows, intended in part to replace belief in Hindu “superstition,” deities and caste distinctions with a Buddhist belief in equality and social improvement.


Rejesh did not take Ambedkar’s vows, though he did take refuge in the 3 treasures and 5 precepts. Ambedkar is a bodhisattva, he explained, who leads people to Buddha, even though the decision to take Ambedkar’s additional vows is a personal question, depending on each person. “Many don’t see me as Buddhist. Hindus still see us as a particular caste”, he explained “but as I do my practice, I don’t worry about what others say.  My mind is liberated from old beliefs.”  Rajesh explained that his group learns from Buddhist traditions from all over world, including the west.


“I take the good of all religions and have nothing against any particular religion,” says Usha, Rajesh’s wife.  “However, while I was born as a Hindu, my development happened as a Buddhist.  I’ll die as a Buddhist,” She used to be a Communist and became a Buddhist 16 years ago.  Usha wrote her PhD thesis on the greater equality afforded to women by Pali Buddhist scripture, compared to Hinduism.  She says this is still true today.  For example, Hinduism prohibits a wife from being more educated than her husband.  However, having completed a PhD, a Masters and a bachelors degree, Usha has more degrees than Rajesh (who only has a Master’s degree). Rajesh supported her through her education and he concurred that because of his understanding of the Dharma, he not only tolerates her superiority, but is very proud of it. She hopes other women benefit from Buddhism as she has.   She’s tries to introduce Buddhist philosophy and precepts and meditation to the 16 and 17 year old girls that she teaches.

Visiting the homes of villagers at “Sujata”~Ari Pliskin


Wed, Jan 11, 2011

While in Bodh Gaya, we journeyed to a village across the river to meet a Hindu family who Shantum has known for many years.  They met when TNH instructed Shantum to find a child in the village in which a young girl is believed to have saved Gautama from the brink of death after he nearly starved to death practicing austerities.  This led Gautama to find the Middle Way between material indulgence and harsh aceticism.

Since learning Shantum’s story, Rajesh (the boy) grew into a man with a wife names Sabina and kids.  Shantum has maintained a relationship, supporting the family and bringing pilgrims to meet them.  With Shantum’s help, Rajesh built 2 additional stories onto his house.  When we asked him what we did today,  he said that he helped a friend build a house.  He also works growing food and selling it wholesale to vegetable vendors.

The boy said that there isn’t discrimination in schools.  Muslims learn Urdu and Hindus learn Sanskrit, but the otherwise learn and eat together.  When he grows up, he wants to make his parents proud and become a doctor.  The girsl would like to become a teacher.

We were also joined by a man who sells lasi in town and who joined one of the pilgrims on our trip on a previous pilgrimage in which he walked in the footsteps of the Buddha.  He said that Dalits who convert to Ambedkarite Buddhism are confused because they still practice lots of Hindu culture.  They follow 50% Hinduism and 50% Buddhism.  He said that in town, nobody knows who is what caste, but in the village, everyone knows.   Dalits aren’t allowed in temples.  More than 70% descended from Dalit.