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The Day That Changed My Life

by Lokamitra

... more about
caste politics in India. As a leader of the Chambhar community in Maharashtra, he was very
heroic in converting to Buddhism and risking losing the support of the majority of his caste
fellows who did not follow him into Buddhism and in fact have ever since consistently
discouraged their fellows from doing so by using the grossest of caste practices against
them.

The other bhikshu I found myself seated next to was Sumedha, an old acquaintance of
Bhante's, whose name Bhante had given to me before leaving UK. On the stage itself he
took out an album full of photos of himself with various political leaders. This practice of
maintaining such a photo album was not uncommon amongst bhikshus I was to meet over
the next few years. Sumedha clearly wanted to talk to me, so much that I decided to leave
the next day, instead of later on that night.

At about 10.45 p.m. after the politicians had finished monks were led onto the main
platform.

Raj Bhoj managed to seize the microphone first and tried get a response from the crowd.

After that someone leapt up from the crowd and seized the microphone, I think probably
criticising Raj Bhoj, who was a controversial figure in that at one point he had parted ways
with Dr. Ambedkar, only later coming back to the fold after the latter's death. The word
"Sangharakshita" was like magic and I was soon asked to speak. I knew little or nothing
about the conversion movement, and Bhante had given me no clues as to what to talk about
in lectures. But now I understood the twinkle in his eye as we parted at Padmaloka. Tired
after three days' travelling, not having the slightest idea what I ought to say, not knowing
what anybody else had said, with no knowledge of Dr. Ambedkar and the Indian Buddhist
movement at all, and hungry, I was somewhat bewildered. Added to which I had probably
not talked to more people than could fit into the Pundarika shrine room before then. I was
not helped by a rather slimy bhikshu in silk robes who kept suggesting I should talk on the
chapter of the flowers from the Dhammapada. In the end I did manage to speak coherently
for about ten minutes to a massive and very rapt audience. Clearly Bhante was remembered
with great feeling and appreciation

I arrived back at Kulkarni's after midnight to find the best meal of my stay in India so far,
awaiting me, as well as long discussions with Kulkarni. Bhante has described him in his
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The Day that Changed my Life - Lokamitra page 6 of 8
memoirs, although at that time these were not published. A Brahmin, he had left home at
the age of 49, in 1944, to spread the Buddha Dharma, taking his wife with him. He still called
himself a Hindu, not because he believes that the Buddha was an incarnation of Vishnu (a
view however which he did not seem particularly opposed to) but because he thought that
all the best elements of Hinduism have come from Buddhism, and by calling himself a Hindu
he hoped to persuade other Hindus that they are really, although they know it not,
Buddhists.

This rather suspect view of working on Hinduism from within was a view, I later understood,
shared by other Brahmins who were deeply influenced by the Buddha. Although he must
have been 80 years old by then he was clearly a very lively person and so it was very
frustrating that he was largely deaf, and communication only one way for much of the time.

The next day after listening to another hour's worth of his life, Sumedha collected us to take
us to his sister's where we had the next best meal so far. Surata had by now realised that he
was onto a good thing travelling around with someone in robes. The combination of the fact
that I was a monk (and a foreign one and a disciple of Bhante) and the hospitality of
Vidharba (which I am now well used to) meant that food was being continually piled on my
plate and I was clearly expected to keep on eating. Signs of disinclination would be met with
various whiles and grimaces and even a show of force. On some previous occasions I had
had to insist on no more food, but at Sumedha's sister's flat, more than ever. But this was
the first time I saw Surata insist on no more.

I spend some of the afternoon walking round the Diksha Bhumi, where I met Ven Anand
Kausalyayana, who lived in the vihara there. He knew Bhante well (see Bhante's memoirs)
and asked me about Bhante's land in Nagpur. Although he was the most respected monk in
the Ambedkarite movement, despite being born a Brahmin, it was quite clear that he was
also quite controversial. Most of the afternoon I spent speaking to some of the many people
still gathered there, although I did not know how to cope with the constant prostrating to
me and requests for blessings. Seeing so many Buddhists, with such obvious devotion, I
realised quickly the significance of what Dr Ambedkar had done, although in factual terms I
still knew next to nothing about him or the situation. As a result of his guidance, millions of
people were now receptive to the Buddha Dhamma, an incredible accomplishment. At the
same time it was very clear to me that there was little effective Dhamma teaching taking
place among the new converts, and many were frustrated with the monks for not teaching
the Dhamma in a meaningful manner and the politicians for trying to usurp the Buddhist
movement for political ends. Not only that, the newly converted Buddhists had been largely
ignored by the Buddhist world. The limitations and dangers inherent in the situation were
immediately apparent - the economic difficulties, educational backwardness, the politics,
the dangers of caste-based practice of Buddhism, and confusion with Hindu conditioning all
combined to pose a very serious threat to the new Buddhist movement. If Buddhism was
not practiced seriously at least by a strong core of people, for which there had to be
teachers who could communicate the Dhamma in a meaningful manner, it could just end up
the name of another Hindu caste in India, and it was clear how that would fit into the caste
hierarchy. The future of the Dr. Ambedkar's attempts to revive Buddhism in India was in a
precarious state.

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The Day that Changed my Life - Lokamitra page 7 of 8
Bhante's 1976 series of lectures on the Sutra of Golden Light showed how inextricably linked
the personal and the social dimensions of the Dhamma were. In doing so they had brought
together two hitherto seemingly opposed pulls in my relationship with life, and opened up a
more wonderful and meaningful vision of the Dhamma, a vision I realised I had been seeking
for years. But it was not just a question of vision. I had confidence in the actual two fold
transformation of self and world (the basic teaching of the Sutra of Golden Light) from the
very small beginnings we had made in UK at that time in communities and right livelihood
projects. However it would take years, possibly generations, for that to have a significant
affect on the wider society in the West. Here in India Buddhism could bring about a social
revolution. The lives of millions of some of the most oppressed people in the world could be
transformed by Buddhism, and the course of Indian history take a radical turn. Buddhism
would be re-established in the land of its birth, and in an age when social questions were
receiving increasing attention, oppressed people throughout the world would have before
them the example of a peaceful, Dhamma revolution.

Dr. Ambedkar's great vision and the potential of the Buddhist movement he had initiated
seemed to complete Bhante's lectures on the Sutra of Golden Light and affected me like
nothing in my life until then. Surely there could be no better situation for the practice of the
two-fold transformation of self and world? While I did not consciously decide to live and
work in India until a couple of months later, I have no doubt that the die was cast then, and I
look back on those thirty six hours as the hours that completely changed my life.


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The Day that Changed my Life - Lokamitra page 8 of 8

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