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Buddhism - Seeds of Social Transformation by Lokamitra
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The application of the Buddha's teachings in the social realm is spawning a social revolution among the Dalit communities of India. Buddhism represents not only an alternative to oppressive caste hierarchy, but is also providing practical ways to inner change so that they become empowered socially as well as spiritually. In recent times, the social implications of Buddhist practice have become well known as 'socially engaged Buddhism'. Far from being a new development in Buddhism, it goes right back to the Buddha himself, who exhorted his first 60 disciples to go out and work for the welfare and happiness of all beings, "Bahujana hitaya, bahujana sukhaya." The rest of his life exemplified this spirit. He spent 35 years walking the pathways of north India, going to people and helping them in whatever way he could. He was a critic of social ills, the caste system, unjust government, wrong forms of livelihood, and all kinds of violence and exploitation, including the neglect of the girl child. Buddhist practice will express itself in, and affect the world, in one way or another. For the last 27 years, I have been working amongst Buddhist followers of Dr B. R. Ambedkar, most of who come from socially deprived backgrounds. Buddhist spiritual practice has empowered them, bringing about more confidence, a greater sense of responsibility, and enhanced capabilities such that they feel empowered to make a positive social impact. The process of spiritual development is described in Buddhism as consisting of the path of vision and the path of transformation. Without a vision of the higher life or a feeling for it that draws us on, there is no possibility of inner transformation. Vision can arise in different ways, such as through deep aesthetic or mystical experience, grief, friendship or social work resulting in selflessness, disillusionment, inner emptiness, a yearning for deeper meaning in life, and so on. The Buddha exemplifies what a human being can do with his or her life if they make the effort. He is shown meditating, teaching, giving courage and strength, walking mindfully, but however he is shown, he always communicates peace, confidence, compassion and energy. In some Buddhist traditions this vision includes other archetypal Buddha figures that represent various aspects of enlightenment, thus making this great vision of Buddhahood accessible to us. There is also the vision of a pure land where all beings are shown sitting on lotuses, listening blissfully to the Buddha teaching. This vision encompasses the whole of humanity; it envisages a world in which life conditions support all humans in practicing the dhamma.
Inner to Outer In the early 1960s, as a teenager in London, I began to become socially aware. Racial discrimination, the dangers of nuclear weapons, and social inequality were some of the questions that engaged me. Like so many others, I wanted a better world, a safer and more equitable place to live in, but I soon became disillusioned with politics as a means to bring about that change. In the early 1970s, desperate to know how I could channel my unruly emotions and make better use of my mind, I took up Buddhist meditation under the guidance of Sangharakshita, an English Buddhist who, before founding the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order (FWBO) in the late 1960s, had spent 20 years in India where he had become known as a meditator, Buddhist scholar, poet, and for his work teaching those followers of Dr Ambedkar who had converted to Buddhism. Although Sangharakshita presented Buddhism at first in the language of individual spiritual development, he soon introduced the glorious vision of the Bodhisattva, the being who is devoted as much to the welfare and enlightenment of others as to his or her own - indeed the Bodhisattva sees no ultimate difference between the two. He showed how the transformation of the individual and the world are inextricably interrelated; such that we cannot work on ourselves without affecting society. And we cannot help society unless we are working on ourselves. This teaching drew together in a higher harmony the two seemingly conflicting and disparate areas of my life - personal growth and social emancipation. Vision is not enough. To realize it we need to work on ourselves and follow the path of transformation. Sangharakshita started by teaching meditation, the most direct way of working on the mind. As we tried to practice we soon realized that meditation was not just about peace, love and bliss, it was not a miracle cure for the emotionally disturbed. Rather, by taking us inward, it opened up the real state of our minds and emotions, and showed us the task before us. Sangharakshita made it clear what transformation meant in practice. Sometimes he would speak in terms of the Noble Eight-Fold Path in which transformation consists of working on many fronts, our emotions (so they support and not undermine our vision), speech, actions, relationships, livelihood, awareness, energy, and mental states. Sometimes he would speak of the three-fold way of ethics, meditation and wisdom, each supporting and augmenting the others. We soon realized that developing skillful mental states through meditation made us more aware of our behaviour, speech and attitudes towards others - we became more ethically sensitive. We also realized that we could not go from a gross or unethical state into meditation, which made us aware of the need for an ethical base for meditation. Meditation prepared the mind to cultivate wisdom or insight into the nature of reality, while deeper reflections supported the practice of meditation and ethics. Ethics are inevitably bound up with how we relate to others. Meditation is concerned with cultivating awareness and highly positive mental states such as loving kindness and compassion. Wisdom involves understanding in a direct way that there is no ultimate difference between oneself and others. All three are intimately connected with how we relate to others. Sangharakshita would also talk of the path in more obvious Mahayana terms, as the 'Paramitas'. These involved the cultivation of generosity, ethics, patience, energy, meditation and wisdom, so that one would be able to help others more effectively, minimizing one's weaknesses and maximizing one's strengths. There was no doubt that the path involved thorough transformation of body, speech and mind, necessarily involving one's behaviour, speech, and attitudes towards others. The radical, integrated nature of spiritual life slowly became apparent and led us into the unknown. We would go on retreat for long periods of time, immersing ourselves in dhamma practice and spiritual fellowship, experiencing a new and higher kind of existence. We began to wonder how this experience could be continued back in the everyday world. Some of us experimented with living in residential spiritual communities, creating an environment that stimulated and encouraged our practice, even though we had little or no money. There was the question of livelihood. Could we work in a way that allowed us more contact with others practicing the spiritual life and gave more time for dhamma practice or helping dhamma activities? What we do and how we do it, especially when it occupies such a large proportion of our lives, affects not only our own mental states, but also others whom our work affects. If we are producing anything that is directly or indirectly harmful to others, we are partially responsible for their suffering. The same goes for consuming things that involve exploitation of beings in their production. What we did had to be of benefit to other beings, and certainly not harmful.
Journey to India I visited India in 1977 and met Sangharakshita's Ambedkarite disciples. I caught a glimpse of Dr Ambedkar's great vision of a society in which everyone was free to develop themselves to the fullest, and all related to each other on the basis of equality and friendship, not by political means but through Buddhist practice. Devoting his life to the eradication of untouchability, he had, after a long and arduous journey, realized that effective social change will only come about through change within the individuals, deep attitudinal and ethical changes. In a talk in Kathmandu in November 1956, he said, "The greatest thing that the Buddha has done is to tell the world that the world cannot be reformed except by the reformation of the mind of man, and the mind of the world." So inspired was I by this vision that I wanted to be part of it, and encouraged by my teacher, Sangharakshita and his Indian disciples, decided to live in India. In the West most people come to Buddhism for psychological reasons. In India it is different. Dr Ambedkar's followers were moved by his vision of a new society brought about by the practice of Buddha dhamma. However, he died just six weeks or so after the great conversion in October 1956, which had sadly been ignored by the Buddhist world. Being amongst the most socially deprived in India, they had little chance to develop without guidance. I met people everywhere, and still do, who are desperate for spiritual nourishment, who want to know in practice how they can contribute to this social revolution. Based on the premise that one cannot help the world unless one is working on one's own mind, we started with meditation classes and Buddhist study. Despite living in poor and often overcrowded conditions, people tried to practice regularly, even though it meant doing so after everyone had gone to bed or before everyone awoke. I knew that once people had begun to editate regularly and study the dhamma, as well as meet with others likewise committed, their inner lives would gradually open out, lotus-like. Their inner explorations would begin to affect their behaviour, speech and deepest attitudes. They would begin to be less dissatisfied with material matters and have more energy available for spiritual endeavors. One of the first things I noticed was the effect those practicing meditation began to have on their old friends. Their attempts to cultivate skillful speech and mental states overflowed into their social interactions. They began to emerge more truly as individuals, and their friends and relatives found that they would no longer just go along with the old 'group' attitudes, but began to think and act for themselves. Their positivity became stronger and they were more able to give support in difficulties.
Problems and Solutions Problems of the world did not disappear. At the beginning of our work in 1978, terrible atrocities took place in Marathwada on Dalits just because the government of Maharashtra had announced a university to be named after Dr Ambedkar. People were killed, women raped, and hundreds of homes burnt in casteist violence. People would ask me how they should respond. I found it hard to find a suitable answer, having just come from such a different environment. By the time of the reservation troubles in Ahmedabad in 1981, we had a few people who had been practicing for several years. Every night we went around Dalit localities encouraging people not to respond to violence with violence, not to seek revenge, but to find a peaceful and creative way forward, as would have been the Buddha's and Dr Ambedkar's advice. Many people attended our meetings, some of them with grave injuries, but they all listened attentively. I have traveled extensively, especially amongst followers of Dr Ambedkar and Dalits. I have found invariably that those who are following a spiritual practice through Buddhism avoid the two common extreme reactions to caste discrimination and violence. Not only are they less likely to be inflamed, but they are also unlikely to go to the other extreme of being cowed and intimidated. They are able to take a more individual and creative approach to their centuries-old oppression. Within a few years we had a flourishing wing of the FWBO (Trailokya Bauddha Mahasangha in India) with about 20 Buddhist teaching centers, as well as a retreat center and publications wing. We held frequent meditation retreats, some very large. These were important because at home, often in crowded and noisy localities with entire families living in one room, it was difficult to get down to regular practice. With no distractions, and just practicing the dhamma, most would experience a joy they had never experienced before. They understood from their own experience that they could change their mental states through dhamma practice. Although many did not meditate regularly, they would go away changed. They would carry with them confidence, born out of personal experience, that the dhamma worked, that it did bring about changes in the mind. They would give up old unhelpful practices such as alcohol abuse, and would become more sensitive to the way they treated others, especially women, and to social practices such as dowry. We have held many lecture tours in the towns and villages of Maharashtra. I personally traveled extensively throughout Marathwada, Konkan and Vidharba throughout the 1980s. Everywhere people wanted to hear the dhamma presented in practical terms. What whetted their interest was the presence in our teams of Buddhists like them (apart from me all originally so-called Dalits) speaking to them about the dhamma, confident, inspired, from understanding born of practice and not just books. Deprived of spiritual nourishment, they were infected by our confidence and inspiration. It is not that we played any tricks, or beguiled them. We just presented the dhamma in as rational but meaningful manner as we were able to. We found we could not practice meditation on loving kindness and compassion and close our eyes to the appalling conditions in which so many people amongst and around us lived. As a response we developed social work projects that consisted of hostels for school children from socially deprived backgrounds of which there are about 25 at present, as well as health and education community centers in slums, of which there are over 70 today. While most of these projects are in Maharashtra, there are some in five other states. We have also been able to conduct relief and rehabilitation work in the aftermath of the Maharashtra (1993) and Gujarat (2001) earthquakes and the December 2004 tsunami, and at the time of writing, of the Mumbai floods. These have been spontaneous responses born out of spiritual practice to the difficulties of those around us, and have developed a greater sense of responsibility in those organizing them. With a confidence born out of their dhamma practice, they do not feel overwhelmed by, and passive to, difficult situations, but on the contrary feel empowered. This is proof that spiritual practice does bring about not only individual change, but can also lead to social change.
Sangha Matters Social activities provide those engaged in them right livelihood in the sense that the work is not harmful to them or others, and is ethically and socially positive. The opportunity to work with other practitioners is crucial. It is hard to progress in one's spiritual life if most of the people we are in contact with are cynical about spirituality, and emotionally gross, reactive, and negative. The importance of close contact with co-practitioners is the principle of sangha, which along with the Buddha, the ideal of human enlightenment to which we aspire, and the dhamma, the path of teaching that we follow, form the Three Jewels of Buddhism. The essence of sangha is spiritual friendship, spiritual friends being those with whom we share our highest values, are totally open, and who want the best for us without consideration for personal gain. Dr Ambedkar talked of the sangha (lay people as well as monks) as consisting of individuals devoted to transforming themselves in body, speech and mind. Dedicated to cultivating skillful mental states, they would be able to help others effectively, and work with awareness, clarity, energy, and genuine concern, without attachment, and in harmony. Helping others would be a spontaneous and organic part of their practice. Clearly, the sangha constituted for him a model society. He said, "Positively my social philosophy may be said to be enshrined in three words: liberty, equality, and fraternity. Let no one however say that I have borrowed my philosophy from the French Revolution. I have not. …I have derived them (sic) from the teachings of my master, the Buddha."Many questions remain that have largely to do with identity and old conditioned attitudes, amongst both new Buddhists and caste Hindus, that perpetuate old polarizations as well as terrible social deprivation. Though our dhamma and social projects have benefited many, especially children, our most valuable contribution is the example we give to others of working as a spiritual community. Not only do those who are involved in this work find their spiritual practice strengthened so that their work and example is even more effective, but as a spiritual community in action, they exemplify that it is possible to live a higher and more meaningful social life. From their experience, and their communication with each other, they have discovered the seeds of social transformation that may ultimately lead to a new, caste-free society. Dharmachari Lokamitra (born Jeremy Goody) has guided Buddhist activities under the Trailokya Bauddha Mahasangha, Sahayaka Gana (TBMSG) and Bahujan Hitay since 1978. He is helping develop the Nagarjuna Institute in Nagpur, a residential center for training in Buddhist practice and application of Buddhist principles to social situations. Recently, he has been involved in rehabilitation work among the tsunami-affected in Tamil Nadu and poorer victims of Mumbai floods. He continues to lecture on Buddhism and teach Buddhist meditation.