Transcribing the oral tradition...

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The Day That Changed My Life

by Lokamitra

... buses and
trains from and to towns we had not heard of before. Travelling like that in India involved
delays, frustrations, weariness, confusions and very varied interactions with people; but
despite all these life was being lived all around in the open, with great colour, and so such
travelling in India was always a very rich experience. The journey to Darjeeling (one could
not go directly to Kalimpong in those days but had to get special pass in Darjeeling) was
accomplished by three or more buses and two trains fairly efficiently in about two and a half
days, bearing in mind we had no reservations, no time tables, and no clear idea of the route.
Arriving at Siliguri station from Barouni, we were told that as foreigners we had to have a
pass for Darjeeling. After realising that the office to get the pass would not open for some
time (and assuming difficulties as I think we should have got the pass in Delhi or Calcutta
and would probably have to return to one of these places to get it) I suggested that we just
get on the departing bus whose conductor was at that moment beckoning us. I do not think
Surata was very happy about this, but he came along with me. The bus stopped at police
check points on the way and somehow we got through them. However I had quite
reconciled myself to getting off the bus and walking through the jungle to Darjeeling if the
need arose. As it was I had only a small and very light shoulder bag to carry. Looking back on
that with the experience I have now, it was na=EFve and foolhardy to say the very least and
The Day that Changed my Life - Lokamitra page 3 of 8
I dread to think what would have happened if things had come to that, although I am sure
we would have managed in the end.

We stayed in Kalimpong a week, being put up the small stupa-shaped temple at the back of
the Dharmodaya vihara, run by an old friend of Bhante's, Bhaichand Pradhan. We shared
the temple for spiritual practise with the 84 year old incumbent, a very small Nepali with the
name of Mahabir, who had been a samanera for 2 years. His family still live in Kalimpong
and he went to visit them every day, despite the fact that his wife remarried as soon as he
took the robes. For the first several days he insisted on prostrating before me whenever we
met. I have heard the Refuges, Precepts and Tiratana Vandana chanted in many different
ways out here and at various speeds, all faster than us in FWBO, but Mahabir shot through
them in record time.

The first person we visited in Kalimpong was Dhardo Rimpoche. He was clearly deeply
moved to meet disciples of Bhante's and hear news of him and the FWBO. With tears in his
eyes he talked of Bhante as his oldest friend in Kalimpong. We presented him with an image
of Vajrasattva made by Aloka, and some FWBO publications for the school library, as will as
a silk scarf from Bhante. I had been wondering how to greet him, but when it came to it I
found myself spontaneously prostrating in front of him. Bhante said that he chose Dhardo
Rimpoche to take the Bodhisattva vows from (when there were other Tibetan teachers in
Kalimpong) because he most exemplified the spirit of the Bodhisattva, or words to that

What Bhante had said came alive for me in that first meeting. After leaving Kalimpong, on
several occasions when I felt spiritually dry, I refreshed myself by just recalling Dhardo's
image to mind.

We made a pilgrimage to Bhante's vihara, the Triyana Vardhana Vihara which was empty
and in a poor state. Although all the trees that Bhante had planted had been cut down, it
was still an exceptionally beautiful location. Indeed it was easy to see why Bhante stayed in
Kalimpong for the best part of 14 years. Not only is it dramatically beautiful, and the mixture
of Tibetans, Nepalese, Chinese and Indians very refreshing, but the mountainous
environment and air seemed particularly good for meditation. I found it easier to visualise
the bodhisattvas than ever before, as if it was their natural abode.

In Kalimpong we also met Ven. Pragnaloka, a Tibetan who took the sramanera ordination
from Bhante. In fact he had heard of our arrival before we got to him and had several
people out looking for us. He was little old man, in poor health, living alone in a small one-
roomed vihara (which he called a Maha Vihara!) high above Kalimpong at 10th mile. The
small room was full of Buddhist images and thankas, although he did have a picture of Satya
Sai Baba of Karnataka. Some ash had mysteriously appeared in his shrine; this was said to be
one of Sai Baba's ways of communicating. He was clearly very happy to meet us and hear
news of Bhante. He had kept in contact through the FWBO Newsletter until 1970 but had
not received it since then. With his poor health and obvious isolation, and our hearts went
out to him, especially as he was a disciple of Bhante's.

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I soon realised that when Bhante left India Buddhist activities in Kalimpong came to a
standstill except for the internal functioning of the monasteries and school. Indeed from all
the conversations I had had with Buddhists since arriving in India, it soon became apparent
that Bhante must have been the most active Buddhist in India since Dharmapala. He ran a
spiritually active vihara which quickly became known as a place of practice, organised
Buddhist activities in Kalimpong and the wider area, edited the Maha Bodhi Journal, started
his own magazine Stepping Stones, helped local students, helped Dhardo Rimpoche, and, as
I was soon to find out, had been the most active and effective bhikshu among the newly
converted Buddhist followers of Dr. Ambedkar, to say nothing of his considerable
correspondence. At that time we in the West knew the bare bones of these facts, but little
more (by then he had not written about his life in Kalimpong and other Dharma work) but
they took on real meaning for me after arriving in India. Bhante had clearly touched the lives
of many, many people in India, and talking of him brought light to so many peoples' eyes.

Such was the joy that I experienced that I could almost feel devas dropping down flowers in

It was soon time to leave for Pune for the Yoga course. It took us 4 or 5 days with brief

In Calcutta we visited the head quarters of the Mahabodhi Society where we were able to
meet Ven. Dhammaratana, one of the last remaining disciples of Anagarika Dharmapala and
the editor of the Maha Bodhi Journal at the time. He seemed somewhat lonely and
disappointed although he was so pleased to see us that we had to make an effort to get
away in time for the train. He was keen to know my views on Dharma activities in the UK,
and regretted the fact that while there were many German monks few seemed willing to
return to Germany to work for the Dharma. As for the Mahabodhi Society headquarters its
main function seemed to be to serve lay Singalese pilgrims and travellers. It can't have been
easy for the young monks with so many beautiful young Singalese girls around!

We had not been intending to visit Nagpur, but rather put off by the length of the train
journey from Calcutta to Bombay and noticing that it lay roughly half way, we decided to
break the journey there for a few hours to meet two people on the list Bhante had given
me, of people to meet if we had time. We arrived at the station to find the town in a state of
great festivity. We went straight to Advocate Kulkarni's (who used to translate for Bhante in
Nagpur) who told us the reason. It was Ashok Vijaya Dashmi, the day that Dr. Ambedkar had
converted to Buddhism 21 years ago, and of course the day that the great king Ashoka is
supposed to have converted to Buddhism so many years earlier! In the early evening
Kulkarni took us to the Diksha Bhumi, the place where Dr. Ambedkar had converted to

After being led through milling crowds, the like of which I had never seen in my life, we
found ourselves in a huge open area, many times larger than a football pitch, and just filled
with seated people. There was supposedly a crowd of between five and six hundred

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Everything then seemed to pass out of our hands and take on a surreal dimension. Unknown
escorts just appeared and as they took us towards the bhikshus' platform the crowds just
seemed to part spontaneously to let us through. This was next to the main platform on
which the politicians who were clearly the focus of the evening were seated. And, I noted,
the bhikshus' platform was lower!

Space was immediately made for me at the front of the platform by two monks. One was
Raj Bhoj of Pune, a political leader of the Chambhar community in Maharashtra, who had
taken the robes as a sramanera for a month. He was head of the Indian Buddhist Society.
Although sounding very impressive it was obviously very limited in terms of outreach. I met
him the next day and a couple of times in Pune. Although my first impressions were
somewhat sceptical, my respect for him increased as I began to understand ...

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