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Thirty Years in India

by Lokamitra

... pilgrims' rest house in the pilgrimage
town of Alandi, just outside Pune. Everything was agreed but when the person looking after
bookings realised we were Buddhist and not Hindu, and working with people considered
untouchable, he suddenly realised he had another booking during that period.

In 1982 we found a stunning location opposite the ancient Buddhist caves of Bhaja, near
Pune. Over the years we have been able to develop it into a beautiful retreat centre which
has introduced thousands of people to the magic of the Dhamma, and helped those who
wanted to take their practice more deeply, and work towards ordination. Even at own
retreat centre we could not escape from caste. In the 80s and early 1990s every May we
held a one month intensive retreat to help people prepare for ordination. Not only was it
the holiday season but it was the marriage season, and we thought that if people had the
strength to withstand the pressure of attending family marriages (and everyone has such
marriages at that time) they were pretty committed to the Dhamma. But May was also the
height of the summer, and the end of the dry season when water was very scarce. At that
time our centre had the only functioning bore well for miles around. Very often there would
be 200 people queuing at our pump both morning and evening, having walked for twenty
minutes or more across the fields.

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30 Years in India - Lokamitra

page 3 of 11 One day we noticed that the local Buddhists had been in the queue longer than others (we
knew many of them). The caste Hindus, considering them untouchable, made them stay at
the back of the queue. They had the audacity to do this at our Buddhist retreat centre, run
by people they considered untouchable!

Retreats were extremely valuable but not enough. Very early on we also put our minds to
communities and right livelihood work so that some, at least, could get a more thorough
experience of the Dhamma life. The community in Jai Bhim Nagar in the Dapodi slums
consisted of two small very small rooms, and accommodated up to thirteen or fourteen
people at times. Members had little concern for personal space, and although it was not
easy for them at times, they were always full of energy and always a delight to visit. Anand
Kausalyayana, the most senior and generally respected bhikshu working with followers of Dr
Ambedkar was very impressed. When I asked him where the future of Buddhism lay he told
me categorically that it was not in the Bhikshu Sangha but in our approach.

The main Right Livelihood we developed was social work. We could not teach the metta
bhavana and close eyes to appalling conditions in which so many lived. Bhante had been
keen on this from beginning. In 1982 Virabhadra and Padmasuri, the doctor and the nurse,
started health and education community work in the slums of Dapodi. Now there are many
such centres in a number of towns. In 1983 our first hostel was started. Now there are well
over twenty. These are for children who could not easily get a school education in the
village, due to poverty, discrimination, or lack of schools. Over the last 23 years thousands
of people have benefited from this social work. It has been very inspiring for Ambedkarite
Buddhist community, who had not seen anything like it - practicing Buddhists working
together to help the socially deprived. It showed Buddhism had a practical and social side to
it which most felt there should be from Dr Ambedkar's teaching but had not yet seen in
practice.

In the 1980s Bhante visited us three times, the first and longest visit being at the end of
1981 and the beginning of 1982, which was brought alive for others by Nagabodhi in Jai
Bhim.

During this visit Bhante gave 40 lectures, often daily but each in a different town, and each
time on a different subject. He provided us with material for Buddhayana and study for
years.

Although he spoke in simple English for obvious reasons, his teachings were just as
spiritually direct as his lectures in west, perhaps more so at times. He emphasised what Dr
Ambedkar had said on the need for a new kind of Sangha made up of dedicated Dhamma
workers. This, he said, was what our Sangha was about. This theme galvanised our
movement for years.

Despite the success of the tour, I ended up somewhat resentful, which I expressed in a letter
to him. I received, as I knew I would, a reply that spiritually flattened me. I was overcome by
doubt about Bhante, and although I knew I was suffering from a spiritual fetter, I felt quite
stuck, and struggled as never before. I was forced to take a long deep look at my life. What
was most important to me? Three areas of life came to mind. I could not imagine life
without my daily sadhana practice. Bhante had given me that. My deepest friendships were
in the Order. Bhante had founded the Order. Where else could I find such meaningful and
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30 Years in India - Lokamitra

page 4 of 11 inspiring work, bringing together Buddhism and social change? Bhante's strong connection
with people in India and the feelings they had for him, to say nothing of his teachings, had
made it possible for me to do this work. He had given me what was most valuable in my life.
Once I realised this I stopped arguing with him in my head and accepted responsibility for
my resentment.

Otherwise the outcome of Bhante's great tour was very helpful. Most people had not heard
the Dhamma presented in such a spiritually meaningful and accessible way. The tour had
made us and what we had to offer visible all over Maharashtra, and had raised our profile
where we were already known. I had been to each town and village before Bhante's
programme to give a talk myself and assess the local situation; it was as clear to me as ever
that there were Buddhists in every village in Maharashtra who desperately wanted to listen
to the Dhamma and we organised many tours throughout Maharashtra in the 1980s, usually
with a European Order Member. Seeing Dhamma brothers and sisters from abroad was a
great inspiration to local people. We travelled by train, by bus, and sometimes by bullock
cart. We would give 2-3 talks a day, for about a week, especially around festival days. If the
talk was in a village, it was usually held in the poorest part, transformed by fairy lights and
flags. If the talk was in a town the local people would sometimes try and organise it in a
prominent place, if possible in the central square, blocking the main roads and
communicating to all, "We are Buddhist and we are proud of it. You can't regard us as
untouchables any more". We would sell lots of publications, which made a strong link with
people, and also paying the costs of the tour.

Often we would finish with a retreat, collecting people on the tour, so that by the time we
came to our last lectures, we had quite a following.

For me these tours sum up flavour of 1980s. They were always demanding, but always
inspiring. The people we met were invariably full of joy and gratitude. I personally travelled
all over Maharashtra, made many friends and came to understand much about life among
Buddhists, as well as their regional differences. Seeing our local Order Members delight in
bringing the Dhamma to their people inspired me as much as anything else. Sanghasen,
Shakyanand and Bodhisen were especially inspiring. They seemed to spend much of their
lives touring, everywhere they went communicating what they understood of the Dhamma,
their pride in the Order and their gratitude to Bhante. Sangahsen's tours provided the
jumping off board for starting centres in Vidarbha, the area around Nagpur, Bodhisen's for
Bombay and the Konkan, the area between Bombay and Goa, and Shakyanand's for south
Maharashtra. But starting centres at that time was never easy, the extreme example being
Vajraketu's who at times slept on the streets of Bombay with Bodhisen.

This intensive work with Dr Ambedkar's followers meant we had to examine closely the
Dhammic vision of the great man. Although he wrote little on Buddhism there were many
similarities between his and Bhante's approach to the Dhamma. Both emphasised a non-
sectarian approach, the centrality of going for refuge (Bhante refers to this the inspiration
he received from Dr Ambedkar's conversion in The History of My Going For Refuge), the
necessity of leaving the old before one can go for refuge, the Bodhisattva ideal, the need for
a new kind of non-monastic Sangha, and the Sangha as a model society. It was these
connections with Bhante's approach which enabled us to work in India. I was both thrown
and fascinated by Dr Ambedkar's statement that he had learnt the principles of liberty,
equality, and fraternity from his master the Buddha and not from the French Revolution,
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30 Years in India - Lokamitra

page 5 of 11 and soon realised its spiritual significance. When seen as spiritual values they illustrate very
well the connection between the transformation of self and world.

For me perhaps ...

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