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The Ex Untouchable Indian Buddhists

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by Sangharakshita

Lecture 160: The Ex-Untouchable Indian Buddhists

(Lecture delivered to the Wrekin Trust) Sir George and friends, A year ago I was in India. I was in India on a sort of lecture tour among the ex- untouchable Buddhists of Maharastra and in the course of that tour which lasted very nearly three months I visited about two dozen towns and villages, mostly in the state of Maharastra and mostly in an area called Marak Wada and in the course of that tour I delivered some forty-five lectures. And in the course of that tour I delivered some forty- five lectures, and I was thinking only yesterday that the conditions under which I gave those lectures, the conditions under which we all met in those various towns and villages, were very different from the conditions under which we've been meeting and are still meeting this weekend.

Of course, to begin with the weather was very different - no rain, no drizzle, no cold, no damp, no chill! There was nothing but blazing hot sunshine, very, very blue skies and very, very dry air. There was lots of dust, there was lots of sand and I very, very quickly got a sore throat.

And of course the people were very different. To begin with there were lots more of them.

India's a very big country, it's a sub-continent, but it seems absolutely full of people.

Wherever you go in India, especially in a great city like Bombay where I also spent a few days, you're literally tripping over people all the time. There are 200,000 people every night sleeping on the sidewalks, they live on the sidewalks, they live under little scraps of sacking stretched out over the pavement and under the scrap of sacking one finds all their worldly goods and there's a family living there quite happily, mother, father, grandmother, grandfather, seven or eight children, babies, dogs, all living there on the sidewalk under this little scrap of sacking. How they live one can only speculate, but there they are.

So there are people, lots of people, and at all the meetings I attended, all the meetings I addressed, there weren't just a few hundred people as we have here this weekend, there were thousands of them, there were tens of thousands of them, sometimes crammed together in very, very small areas indeed, and of course all sitting on the floor, sitting on the ground, and with all sorts of brilliant lights everywhere. Indians are very fond of doing things in a very colourful sort of fashion - there were lots of fairly lights, coloured fairy lights all over the place, and there were lights made out of revolving wheels, Dharmachakras, to symbolize the Buddha's turning of the Wheel of the Dharma, and of course when you arrive at one of these meetings and when you are going to give a lecture, you are greeted in a very special fashion.

First of all, up on the stage there's a sort of throne where you have to sit because very often one speaks sitting down, sitting cross-legged, and before your speech, before your lecture, they insist upon garlanding you. They garland you, different groups, different people, they come forward and they put a garland of flowers around your neck. In most of these places since I hadn't been for quite a few years and they were very glad to see me, I sometimes got twenty-five, or thirty-five or forty-five garlands, you know there were people coming up every few seconds to give you a garland, they put it over your neck, you take it off and you hand it to an attendant and then the next one, and this takes sometimes half an hour or forty-five minutes and you have to sit there, smiling, through it all.

And after that when you've been properly introduced and maybe served with light refreshments on the platform itself, well, you stand up and you give your talk. And of course in India they are great lovers of lectures. Many people don't forget are illiterate, so sometimes they say to you before you begin that you should on no account speak for less than two hours. If you speak for less than two hours they're a bit disappointed. In England it's very different! They ask you not to exceed - well I'm afraid this morning it's, I won't say a miserable hour and a quarter, because an hour and a quarter's really quite a lot of time - but this morning at least for me here it's an hour and a quarter.

So conditions, there, circumstances, are very different. And of course my audiences were made up, not of English people, not of comparatively well-to-do people, not of highly educated people, not of people who have been to university, but of these ex-untouchable Buddhists, most of whom are very, very poor and who occupy the very bottom of the social ladder in India. And it's about them that I want to say something this morning.

As you know, I'm speaking this morning at least at quite short notice. And I'm supposedly taking the place of Miss Monica Furlong. Of course I don't presume literally to take the place of Miss Monica Furlong, I'm sure that she would have said, I'm sure that she would have told you something which I'm not able to say, something which I'm not able to tell you. I'm sure she would have made her own very distinctive contribution to this conference, which nobody else could make. Nonetheless, if I'm not taking her place, I'm at least taking up her time, and I'm going to speak about these ex-untouchable Buddhists, because if one ever has to speak on any occasion at very short notice, without much in the way of preparation, there are only two sorts of topics about which one can speak. One can either speak about those things on which one has a lot of information, or one can speak about those things with regard to which one has strong feelings, strong emotions, even powerful emotions, and I think I can say that having been associated with them now for upwards of thirty years on and off I do have very strong feelings for these ex-untouchable Buddhists in India, in fact for the ex-untouchables generally, whether they are Buddhists, or whether they are still followers of any other faith. When it was first suggested to me that I should fill in for Miss Furlong this morning of course the first thing that occurred to me was, what on earth am I going to talk about. She was going to talk about angels, like Jacob, wrestling with the angel - I didn't feel quite equal to that, not on a Sunday morning. But then it occurred to me that yes, I should speak about something which I had very strong feelings for, and the next thought which occurred to me was that perhaps among my strongest feelings are the feelings that I have for these ex- untouchables. So that in a way made me realize something about myself.

So I'm going to speak about them. And this I think will have the advantage anyway of helping to bring us right down to earth, back to something as it were very, very practical, even something earthy and I understand that this in any case was what Miss Furlong was going to do in her own way. She was going to have something to say about the redemption of the body. I'm not quite sure how she would have approached the topic because as a Buddhist I tend to think that the body is not in need of redemption. It's the mind that is in need of redemption. It's the mind, it's in the mind, that everything tends to go wrong. The body is quite innocent! We tend to blame the body very often, but it's not the body that is to blame at all, it's the mind, it's the consciousness.

But anyway, let me not linger on on that topic, let me come on to the subject of these ex- untouchables, these ex-untouchable Buddhists. Well, first of all, who are these ex- untouchables? What do we mean by un-touchable? And how did they become Buddhists? And also perhaps - this might be of some interest - how did I come to be involved with them? I'm afraid it's all quite a long story, and I'm going to be hard put to it to get it all into the sixty minutes that now remain to me, so I'd better start at once, I'd better go right back to the beginning.

I'd better go back to the Buddha himself, back to the Buddha's own teaching, because that is really where it all begins. The Buddha as I'm sure you all know gained enlightenment, became Buddha, under the Bodhi Tree at Bodha Gaya two thousand and five hundred years ago. And after initial hesitation he decided to communicate his great vision, to communicate the content of his enlightenment experience to the rest of humanity, so he started teaching, he started wandering. He wandered from place to place.

He met people, he talked with them, he communicated with them and he tried to impart to them that great vision, his vision of human enlightenment, his vision of the potentiality of each and every individual human being. He tried to get them to plant their feet too on the path that led to enlightenment. So in this way he spent five and forty years. He didn't write any book, like Socrates he just talked with the people that he met. The books were written later, his teachings, after several hundred years of oral transmission, were written down and became what were eventually regarded as the Buddhist scriptures, the Buddhist canonical texts. I'm not going to try to give you a resume of the Buddha's teaching at this point - that would be too much. And in any case I imagine the majority of you are in any case familiar with the general outlines of his teaching.

But after the Buddha's death, what after Buddhists call the parinirvana of the Buddha, these teachings spread more and more widely in India itself, spread from the north down to the south, and a number of different spiritual and doctrinal and organisational developments took place. If we look carefully at the whole period of the development of Buddhism in India, we can see that it can be roughly divided into three great periods, better to say three great periods succeeding say the first hundred year period covered by the life of the Buddha himself and his immediate ...

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