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Thirty Years in India

by Lokamitra

30 Years in India
Lokamitra

Transcribed from a talk given to the
Western Buddhist Order Convention 2007




Bhante, brothers and sisters,

In the mid 1970s Bhante talked increasingly about the wider, social implications of
Buddhism. In the Brighton series he talked of the Sangha as the nucleus of a New Society,
and of the FWBO providing a blueprint for a new world. It was the 1976 lecture series on
"The Transformation of Self and World in the Sutra of Golden Light" that was for me one of
those transcending moments in life when apparent conflicts are resolved by rising to a
higher level of consciousness. In these lectures I understood as if for the first time that one
could only work on self by working on the world, and that one could only work on the world
by working on self. The two were not separate. This series opened my eyes to the vision I
felt I had been looking for, for a very long time.

A year later Surata and I were on a train from Calcutta to Bombay. We were travelling to
Pune where we were to study yoga under Shri B.K.S. Iyengar. The journey was very long, and
we noticed it passed through Nagpur where some of people Bhante had put on his list of
meet-if-you-get-a-chance lived. We decided to break our journey there for a day. To our
surprise Nagpur station and the town, as well as the rickshaws, were decked in Buddhist
flags. Clearly the town was in the midst of a very special celebration. We had arrived
without knowing it on the 21st anniversary of Dr Ambedkar's momentous conversion to
Buddhism.

We went straight to the house of Bhante's old friend and translator, A. R. Kulkarni, who in
the evening took us to the Diksha Bhumi - the conversion ground. Being an anagarika in
yellow robes, I was taken to the stage for the bhikshus, which was slightly lower than, and to
the side of the stage for the politicians - one of my first lessons about the situation. Later
that night, after the politicians had departed, I was expected to speak to the crowd of
hundreds of thousands, the most I had spoken to until then being not more than 150. The
next day I wondered round the diksha bhumi meeting many people. Everyone seemed to
know of Bhante; they remembered him with enormous gratitude and were desperate for
him to return.

In the 36 hours we spent in Nagpur I entered a new world, a world of millions of the most
oppressed people, all desperate to transform their lives and their society through Buddhism,
but with little living teaching to guide them. I had stumbled blindly into a situation in which
the two fold transformation seemed a real possibility, and on the most auspicious of days. I
did not consciously decide to live and work in India then but I have no doubt that my future
was decided on that day.

Our FWBO yoga group spent two months in Pune practicing yoga, but every evening and at
weekends we took Dhamma classes and gave lectures to local Buddhists. Bhante had spent
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30 Years in India - Lokamitra

page 1 of 11 more time in Pune than anywhere else among newly converted Buddhists. Since he had left
thirteen years earlier, no one had brought the Dhamma to life as he had. Although we were
so far apart culturally we had something in common; we were all new Buddhists. Neither of
us wanted the cultural baggage of the Dhamma that Buddhists from traditional cultures
often brought with them. We wanted just the Dhamma, and we wanted it in order to
change our lives. We did not want the arrogance that Buddhists from traditional
backgrounds sometimes showed, "we are born Buddhists and so real Buddhists, whereas
you were not born Buddhists and so are only 2nd class Buddhists!" Later on in talks I
delighted in showing that from the Buddha onwards many of greatest names in Buddhism
were in fact new Buddhists.

Bhante wrote to me asking if we should start a centre in Pune. I had to think deeply before
replying as I knew that if said yes, he would suggest that I started it. I had no choice, I could
only say yes. People were starving for the Dhamma and we could do something about it. I
returned to the UK for a few months to tidy up my affairs. At a farewell dinner before
returning to India, Bhante raised his glass of apple juice in a toast to my 25 years in India. I
almost fell off my chair. I had very naively thought we could do everything necessary in five
years. In 25 years I would be 55 years old. That was almost 30 years ago, but strangely,
never for a moment have I wanted to return to Britain.

I returned to India in August 1978. The immediate task before us was to prepare for
Bhante's first return visit 6 months later. At one point Padmavajra and I were managing 14 classes and lectures every week between us. Our friends organised these where they could,
a disused railway carriage, the veranda of an unfinished police station, a small garage when
its car went to church on Sundays. We ran retreats. We went to Ahmedabad where Bhante
would also be going. We started a Marathi magazine, Buddhayan (named to make the point
that we transcended sectarianism), printing 1, 000 of the first issue, but it rose to 25, 000 in
a few years.

Bhante came and it was as if gods sent down their blessings on us. People were in states of
joy and delight listening to his Dhamma teaching. They were so grateful that he had not
forgotten them and at last had returned. But it was as much an intensive learning time for
us, and we gained much confidence. He left us with 12 new Order Members, 10 in Pune, and
2 in Ahmedabad. We were now on our own. The difference was that we now had a spiritual
community we could work with. Together we got down to developing the Indian wing of the
movement named by Bhante, Trailokya Bauddha Mahasangha, Sahayaka Gana, or TBMSG.

So often since I have been in India, I have had the experience that as soon as I take step
forward Mara seems to intervene and the path in front seems to disintegrate. I experienced
my first major difficulty soon after Bhante left us. He was sent a letter by 7 Order Members
complaining of another Order Member, and at the same time asking him to guide me
properly, so that I would understand. The strains in these relationships had existed for many
years, well before we came on scene, but now they were threatening to stifle our new born
Sangha. As was so often the case, Bhante gave me no guidance whatsoever. He just left me
to it. I felt I had failed the Order, failed Buddhism. And yet I could not go back to Britain. I
was quite stuck. Sometime later, sitting in a rickshaw in Pune, a golden vajra seemed to
appear in my heart, and from then on the difficulties began to lessen.

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30 Years in India - Lokamitra

page 2 of 11 First of all we had to turn our attention to creating facilities for our work. We needed a
vihara and a retreat centre. We were offered land for vihara in 1980 by a large but poor
Buddhist family in Dapodi. It took us three years to get the land transferred in our name.
Bodhidhamma and I must have made hundreds of visits to the various offices concerned. I
experienced for myself for the first time corruption and caste discrimination. There were 35 owners of the land, many from out of Pune. We had to get them all together on the final
day of transfer. One was recovering from illness and had been forbidden to go out of the
house until he had had a bath which involved the five products of the cow, including urine
and dung. I remember us all sitting in the room on the other side of the passage way, almost
praying that he would complete his special bath on time as it would have been impossible to
get so many people together again at one time. As soon as we got the land in our name,
another problem arose; the government had decided to reserve it for a fire station and
bazaar in the new town plan. It was only in 1988 that we could we start building our vihara.

We also had to find a retreat centre. Retreats were even more imp in India than elsewhere.

People lived in such crowded conditions that it was not easy to meditate and study. Without
this sort of practice it would be difficult to develop real faith. On retreat the Dhamma comes
alive; cultivating skilful mental states gives people a direct experience of the efficacy of the
Dhamma. As a result they could understand, often for first time, how Dr Ambedkar could
say at his conversion, "Now I have taken a new life". Retreats enabled people to develop a
real confidence in Buddhism. They may not meditate regularly afterwards, but they would
leave behind practices which pulled the other way such as drinking and the worshipping of
the old gods.

It was very difficult to find retreat places. Government rest houses, which we used at the
beginning, could be cancelled at the last minute. We found we had to deal with the caste
factor. People sometimes did not like to let us use their facilities or if we did, they did not
treat us well. The caretaker of the scout camp we used for a couple of years put every
possible obstacle in our way. Purna and I found a Jain ...

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