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Pre - Ordination Course for Women - Questions and Answers September 1988

by Sangharakshita

Women's Pre-Ordination Course, September 1988


Sangharakshita: There is quite a pile of questions. I am not sure if I am going to be able to get
through all of them this evening, but, anyway, I'll do my best. I haven't had a chance to look at all
of them, actually. They range from the simple to the sublime! First of all comes a question about
Ambedkar and Buddhism.
In your book, Ambedkar and Buddhism, you recount how Ambedkar traced the roots
of the Untouchables back to the early Buddhists. As far as I remember, you don't
indicate what your opinion is of his hypothesis. What is your opinion, Bhante?

The questioner makes use of this expression "early Buddhists" - Ambedkar traced the roots of
Untouchables back to the early Buddhists.' But it wasn't the early Buddhists in the sense of the
Buddhists of the Buddha's own day, or the centuries immediately following. Ambedkar believed
that the Untouchables, especially, perhaps, those of Maharashtra, were descended from Buddhists
of the late - no, perhaps we should say early - medieval period, that is to say third, fourth, fifth
century, or even later, who refused to be reconverted to Brahminism. I think the opinion of most
scholars is that this hypothesis is not established. It is certainly a possibility that some of the ex-
Untouchables are descended from people who were, once upon a time, Buddhists, because we
know that Buddhism was very widespread in India and many Hindus might be able to trace their
descent from people who, during the Buddhist period, were Buddhists. This wouldn't be peculiar to
the ex-Untouchables. So we can't rule out the possibility that some of those who have in recent
years become Buddhists are in fact descended from original Indian Buddhists, but I don't think
there is any evidence for the fact that this is the case to any large extent, though the possibility, in
the case of certain communities or groups of people, can't be ruled out altogether.

So I think one has to say that it remains an interesting hypothesis, and Ambedkar certainly argued
the case very well, but I think it is quite doubtful whether the majority of scholars would agree that
the case was proven. This is a specialist field; I can't say that I have an opinion of my own, really.
I find Ambedkar's hypothesis very interesting, and up to a point plausible, but I can't help also
taking note of the fact that it has not won general acceptance among scholars. Some of Ambedkar's
followers might say that Indian authorities in this field are prejudiced, but one couldn't say that, of
course, as regards the Western authorities - or, at least they wouldn't be prejudiced in the same way.
So I think the whole hypothesis requires further exploration, which I don't think anybody actually
has given it.

But, nonetheless, it remains very important in terms of myth, because it greatly encourages the ex-
Untouchable Buddhists to think that they are reconverting back to a religion which their ancestors
originally followed. It is rather like us discovering that there was a Buddhist mission to Britain in
the days of King Arthur and that actually we are descended from ancient British Buddhists!
[Laughter] That would be quite encouraging, in a way, even though its significance would be
cultural and ethnic rather than purely spiritual.
If time and money were available, is there anywhere in the world you would like to
visit that you haven't been before, and why? [Laughter] Is there any one, either past
or present, whom you would like to have the opportunity to meet in the flesh?

"If' - it's a very big if - "time and money were available, is there anywhere in the world you would

like to visit that you haven't been before, and why?' There are two or three places - I have
mentioned them, I think, from time to time. I would very much like to visit New Mexico, I think
mainly because of the descriptions of New Mexico that I have read in the writings of D.H.
Lawrence; and perhaps adjoining areas, too; perhaps Mexico itself and, say, Arizona, but certainly
New Mexico. In fact, I have an invitation to New Mexico from Philip Kapleau, who has retired
there to Santa Fé and has invited me to go and stay with him, so I hope some day I will be able to
do that, at least for a few days.

Then I would also like to visit Istanbul, because I am very interested in that part of the world, that
particular culture. Istanbul is the ancient Constantinople, ancient Byzantium; it has a very long
history, occupies an important place in Western culture, and I would very much like to see some of
the ancient buildings there, especially Santa Sophia.

And a different kind of place I'd like to visit: I'd like to visit some part of Africa where there are
lots and lots of wild animals - not buildings, or people even, but just wild animals. I'd like to visit
some part of Africa - you couldn't do this in Europe, or even in India - where you can see thousands
of deer or thousands of zebras, thousands of giraffes or thousands of ostriches, all together, so that
you get a strong impression of animal life and can see human life in a better perspective, as it were;
because the animals we see most frequently and in largest numbers are human beings - don't we? It
would make rather a change to see lots and lots of animals. I think I have had this idea ever since I
was a boy and was taken to see a film called 'Africa Speaks' - a black and white film; this was way
back in the early '30s, if not late '20s. This film, I remember, did show huge herds and flocks of
animals and birds; I was most impressed. So I would like to go to a part of Africa where I could
see that sort of thing - herds of elephants, for instance. But I believe that, even in Africa, such
sights are becoming less and less common.

"Is there anyone, either past or present, whom you would like to have had the opportunity to meet
in the flesh?" I'll leave aside Buddhist personalities, because that is rather a special field, with the
possible exception of Milarepa; I think I would like to be able to see for myself whether he did
actually turn green [Laughter] when he was out there living on nettles! - whether all that
chlorophyll does actually get into the bloodstream, and if so what it looks like. I think I would
have liked to have - I'm not sure about meeting, but certainly seen and heard - Dr. Johnson. I think
I would have liked to have listened to one of his conversations from a safe distance. I can't think,
really, of anybody else. A lot of the poets don't seem to have been very admirable people in the
flesh: Wordsworth, apparently, could be a dreadful bore; Shelley could get hysterical; Byron was
rather conceited and self-dramatising; Milton was rather stern. Shakespeare might have been a
good companion, over a pot of ale at the Mermaid tavern! Yes, I think Shakespeare might have
been a good person to meet in the flesh! - when he wasn't busy indicting a tragedy or comedy.

Perhaps I would like to have heard a great orator of the past; I can't think of who particularly,
perhaps - Burke or someone like that; someone who has a reputation of having been a really
extraordinarily good public speaker. Anyway.

Here's a question about young women! We don't meet many of them around the FWBO, do we!
Do you think that, however sincere and enthusiastic a young woman is about
practising the Dharma and Going for Refuge, it is wiser that she gains some worldly
experience - maturity - first, before being seriously considered for ordination, i.e.
holding down a job, dealing with the adult world, etc? I realised recently that this
was the way I was viewing someone, and that was partly based on things I have

heard you say in the past.

What is a young woman? Could we define a young woman? 15 to 50, or?[Laughter] "A young

Sanghadevi: 18, 19, 20 - 21.

S: 18, 19, 20. Some people would say that was a girl. "...however sincere and enthusiastic a
young woman is about practising the Dharma and Going for Refuge, that it is wiser that she gains
some worldly experience, maturity, first...?' What does one mean by 'worldly experience'? -
"holding down a job, dealing with the adult world"; but what would be the significance or value of
that? I suppose the fact that one has held down a job and dealt with the adult world - whatever that
might mean - shows that one does possess certain qualities of character. But perhaps it would be
evident that one had those qualities anyway without having held down a job and so on. It would
also depend what ...

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