Buddhist Centre Features

Letter From India by Viradhamma (No.1)

On Tue, 25 February, 2014 - 14:10
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The first in an occasional series of letters from India by Viradhamma from San Francisco in the U.S., on his travels through India working for DharmaJiva as part of their Buddhist Renaissance project. DharmaJiva is a non-sectarian Buddhist network that works against caste oppression and includes both Western and Asian Buddhist traditions.

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Dear Friends,

I am here in India on three-week trip, and I spent the first ten days in central India with a DharmaJiva tour group that includes a Shin priest from Japan, a PhD student in Buddhist Studies at Harvard, an English Mitra, several people who practice with Thich Nhat Hahn, and a Vipassana practitioner from Canada.

We traveled to Mumbai, Pune and Nagpur and visited a number of social projects and Buddhist neighborhoods. Everywhere we went we were warmly welcomed and were able to talk to people and listen to their stories. Even in the poorest slums people were delighted to meet foreign Buddhists and show us their shrines of the Buddha and Dr. Ambedkar.

Manidhamma, who manages the DharmaJiva tours in India, arranged a series of seminars at our different stops. Several speakers told about the hardships they endured as young people living in poverty in Dalit (ex-Untouchable) neighborhoods. One person spent years making incense sticks, and another had to sort through garbage dumps looking for plastic bags to recycle. My friend Anurag Meshram gave us an inside look at the challenges facing Dalit doctors and professionals, and the staff at Manuski Institute in Pune provided an overview of Indian politics, economics and culture. All of the speakers talked about the pervasive oppression of the caste system and how they were inspired by Dr. Ambedkar to work for equality through the practice of Dhamma.

It is always fun to visit hostels and this trip was no exception. In Pune we went to the Vishrantwadi Hostel and were treated to an excellent dance performance by girls aged about 12 to 16. Their ability to memorize seven minutes of non-stop coordinated movements was quite impressive, and they loved having a chance to perform for guests.

Another memorable event was our visit to the Bhaja caves between Mumbai and Pune. The meditation hall and the rooms for monks were chiseled out of the solid rock of a cliff face around 200 BCE, and later additions feature some of the first relief carvings in the Buddhist tradition. One shows an elephant carrying a Bodhi Tree to the south of India, and another panel has the first known image of the “Wheel of the Dharma”. Being in places like Bhaja brings home an awareness of the ancient beginnings of the Buddhist tradition, and I always feel a sense of gratitude for the unbroken lineage of practice and teachings that we benefit from.

For me one of the high points of this trip was speaking at the Buddha Festival organized by the North Nagpur Triratna Centre at the Dhiksha Bhumi grounds. The team puts on a great program that is attended by thousands of people, and this year I was impressed by the self-confidence of the young Buddhists who were enjoying the talks and entertainment. I was preceded on stage by several groups playing very loud music complete with smoke machines, pulsing colored lights and a laser light display. This was not a typical “Buddhist” event for me, so I had to scramble a bit to make my Dharma talk appropriate to the situation and the youthful audience.

On February 14th the delegation left for Sarnath with Manidhamma and I remained here at Nagaloka for a week of meetings. Nagaloka has two new dormitories planned (one is under construction now) and the staff is struggling to keep up with the demands of teaching and caring for over a hundred students. Nagaloka will eventually have capacity for over two hundred students, and there are plans to host more seminars, retreats and programs, so we are involved in a lot of strategic planning.

Nagaloka already hosts several high-visibility events each year. This past January the Dalai Lama came for a public talk and two days of meetings with Lokamitra and the staff, and a few days before that there was a large public program for the Chinese sculptor who created the iconic Walking Buddha at the center of the campus. I’m always impressed by the fact that the people who work here can manage these large public events while keeping up with the day-to-day work.

While in Nagpur I have had opportunities to meet up with old friends. Last night I spent a couple of hours with my good friend Tejadhamma. He runs a charity in Nagpur that supports women’s empowerment, addiction counseling and micro credit programs, and he is also a key person at the Mahendrenagar Buddhist Centre in Nagpur.

Tejadhamma and I talked about a lot of things, but I was especially interested to hear about his on-going work with a group of tribal people. His centre building is in a poor part of the city and for several years there was an extended family of Adivasi (tribal) people living in some unused sewer pipes in a field nearby. The Adivasi are desperately poor, speak a tribal dialect and make their living through begging and stealing. Alcoholism, violence, child marriage and poor health are endemic. Four years ago Tejadhamma started building a relationship with the family, gradually working to gain their trust and convince the adults to allow the children to skip some of their begging rounds and get an education. At one point the family disappeared and he had to find them again on the outskirts of Nagpur, but eventually he got three children to sit under a large tree and begin basic literacy classes. Gradually more kids came, and Tejadhamma had to provide food to the family to make up for the lost income since the kids weren’t begging. Unfortunately the caste Hindus in the neighborhood became upset about the presence of so many Adivasi kids and cut the beautiful tree down to stop the class, but Tejadhamma got some funding to build a shack and re-started the schooling. I am very happy to report that several of the children are now living in a Triratna hostel and are getting a regular education at a government school – perhaps the first-ever people in their community to become literate.

When I come to India I am fortunate to hear success stories like Tejadhamma’s. There are many sad and disturbing stories too, but my overall experience is one of inspiration and optimism.

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Read Ambedkar and Buddhism by Sangharakshita

Listen to an interview with Jnanasuri, who was present at the Dhiksha Bhumi grounds for the original mass conversion with Dr. Ambedkar.




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