We have many legacies that come from Sangharakshita’s years in India. This is where he practised, beginning as a young Englishman in the Signals Corps whose wartime placement took him to the land of the Buddha, staying there as a Buddhist monk until his return to England in 1964. This is where he met his many teachers, one of whom – Dhardo Rimpoche – we remember this month. This is also where Sangharakshita taught the Dharma, and his students are now the people who make up the Triratna Buddhist Order and the movement in India.
It’s a rich heritage, and one which challenges our euro-centric approach – my sense that I know how the Dharma is practised, without awareness that I practice in a very British way with all my cultural assumptions and habits intact. It is amazing to look out from our own small Centre and see the Triratna Buddhist Community thriving around the world, taking different shapes in different countries and interacting in different ways with the society around it.
It is estimated that there may be as many as 25-40 million Buddhists in India today – people who take this identity following the mass conversions from Hinduism to Buddhism, following the example of their hero and leader Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar. Many people chose this path to free themselves from the injustice of the Indian caste system that keeps the so-called ‘Untouchables’ in a state of poverty and deprivation.
Ambedkar, himself from the untouchable castes, was the Law Minister following Indian Independence; he worked with Gandhi but parted company with him over the issue of untouchability. When he converted to Buddhism in 1956 Ambedkar took many hundreds of thousands of the untouchable community with him; he died 6 weeks later leaving the new Buddhist community without a guide.
Sangharakshita’s connection with Dr. Ambedkar led him to begin teaching amongst the new Buddhists in Maharashtra. Today there are over 400 men and women in the Triratna Buddhist Order in India, and around 1000 ‘dharma mitras’ actively working towards ordination. This year for the second time the Order held its International Convention at Bodh Gaya, bringing people from all over the world to meet with Order members in India and to learn first-hand about the Dharma revolution there.
It is hard for us to have a sense of how the Dharma has changed lives for people in the former untouchable community. To become a Buddhist means stepping away from tradition, from superstition, old religious practices, from worshipping the household gods. It means taking responsibility for one’s own life, going beyond caste conditioning, being open to the possibility of change – and also working to improve the lives of the community around you.
At Nagaloka Training Institute at Nagpur, students come from states throughout India to learn about the Dharma and the work of Dr Ambedkar, and to gain tools for social change – learning about the Indian Constitution, fundamental human rights, the Indian legal system, some basic principles of social work. They share Ambedkar’s goal of creating a New India based on the ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity.
When I spoke to my friend Dayavajri recently who has just returned from the Order Convention at Bodh Gaya she said “It’s only when you see us – the Triratna Buddhist Order – practising together under the Bodhi tree, and you see other peoples’ responses that you realise what a radical thing we are doing”. People from different countries, castes, backgrounds, men and women – learning from each other, a truly international gathering united in a common purpose. A true Dharma Revolution.