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?