Nagaloka News

Conference at Nagaloka Nagpur

Posted in: Nagaloka News on Monday, November 14th, 2016

The Deliberations of the Conference

The 60th anniversary of Dr. Ambedkar’s momentous conversion took place on October 11th this year. 60 years ago his conversion was dismissed by most Indians and the Buddhist world, and was hardly noticed in the international arena. The picture is very different today. Now it is said that Dr. Ambedkar is the only truly national leader, being acclaimed by all political parties and most leading social activists. Buddhists throughout the world, especially socially engaged Buddhists are beginning to appreciate the social revolution he initiated through converting to Buddhism. And more and more people throughout the world are grateful for the example he gave of non-violent social change despite coming from one of the most structurally oppressed communities the world has known.

In 1956, 500,000 so-called untouchables converted to Buddhism along with him. Now that figure could be 40 or 50 million and is growing all the time. The continual and numerous atrocities on Dalits all over India, remarkably result in Dalits looking much more at Dr. Ambedkar’s peaceful solution in Buddhism than violent revenge. There are over 220,000,000 Dalits in India. Given the enormous gratitude and respect most of them feel for Dr. Ambedkar, and the seeming inability of many Hindus to give up attachment to caste, it is likely that most of them will one day convert to Buddhism. Besides that many from the so-called Scheduled Tribes and Other Backward Classes (erstwhile Shudras) are becoming interested in Dr. Ambedkar’s solution to the inequality of Hinduism through Buddhism.

To celebrate this great event, the full implications and greatness of which will take many more years to be fully realised, Nagaloka and INEB organised a four day conference on the theme of “Social Engagement and Liberation”, which was attended by many interested in engaged Buddhism from India and abroad.  During these few days we looked at aspects of Dr. Ambedkar’s approach to Buddhism, and saw how not only Indian followers of his, but Buddhist from different  traditions in east and west relate to them through their own understanding of the Dhamma.

Dr. Ambedkar had no living Buddhist teachers or guides. He came to Buddhism entirely through reading (although there was little literature available in the first half of the last century), his deep reflection, and his overriding social concerns. He had been deeply influenced by the time he spent studying in USA, especially under John Dewey. There he came into contact with the values of liberty, equality and fraternity; they had such an impact on his that they became his final criteria for selecting a religion for him and his followers.   Buddhism, he concluded, was the only religion that was in accord with them.  These and other ingredients make his conversion quite unique, and bring a welcome freshness to Buddhism in the world today. In the conference we explored three central aspects of his approach to Buddhism, which correspond roughly to the values of liberty, equality and fraternity, and illustrate the freshness of his approach.

If anything my strongest experience in the 38 years of working  with Dr.Ambedkar’s Buddhist followers is the empowerment that the Dhamma brings on many different levels, from the enormous psychological freedom experienced through no longer having to see oneself as a lesser human being, through to the deep psycho-spiritual changes that take place though serious and committed practice. On every introductory retreat I have led here, after a few days of Dhamma practice, people understand from their own experience that they can change their mental states, they understand how Dhamma practice can empower them, and they are filled with joy an gratitude. At Nagaloka we conduct an 8 month introductory residential course in basic Buddhist teachings and practices. The students come from  some of the most deprived  and oppressed backgrounds in India, often with little hope whatsoever. After a few months of Dhamma practice most feel transformed, with a new vision of life. They no longer have to be passive in the face of the terrible situation into which they were born, but they have confidence they can do something with their lives, not just for themselves, but for the wider society. One of my most dramatic experiences was in 1981 when I spent some time in Ahmedabad during the anti Dalit riots there. Every evening I would give talks on Dr. Ambedkar and Buddhism in the different Dalit slums. These talks were some of the most well-attended I have ever given there, and many came in blood stained-stained bandages. The remarkable thing was that they did not want revenge, they wanted basic human respect and dignity, they wanted to raise themselves out of this cruel, symbiotic relationship. They wanted liberation and the empowerment and for this they were looking to the Dhamma.

There is a discussion today of different approaches to liberation in Buddhism. In the west, it seems some people approach Buddhist practice to enhance a subjective and individualistic approach to life.  This was not the empowerment that Dr. Ambedkar implied. While he emphasised the basic practices of Going For Refuge, Sila and the Noble Eight fold Path, he also emphasised the Paramitas, that enable us to overcome our the weaknesses that limit us from effectively contributing to creating a better society. He saw the Dhamma not in an overly personal way, but as  self transcending with immeasurable social implications. The Dhamma shows how to make the best of our human  lives though going beyond our own personal needs and relating to the welfare of others and society at large.

This is brought out by the next aspect of his approach. In his book, The Buddha and His Dhamma, he says the practice of Saddhamma  has two functions, the purification of mind and the creation of a better society. Each is implicit in the other.  Dr. Ambedkar suggests that our practice of Prajna, Sila, Karuna and Metta, have to be evaluated to the extent they lead us to break down barriers between people and establish equality. One can appreciate how crucial this was to Dr. Ambedkar from his experience of untouchability, but he is making a point that is intrinsic to all Dhamma practice, whether it is meditating on sunyata, or satkayaditthi (the fetter of self view), or cultivating the four Brahma Viharas. If they are really Dhamma practices, he implies, they have to manifest in our behaviour, in the way we engage with others and the world.

If we want to accomplish something in the world we have to organise ourselves and the third aspect of the Dhamma I want to touch on concerns governance.  The Buddha talked of the Dhammarajya, governance according to the principles of the Dhamma. Bringing about a society in which all could live the best of human lives was essential to the approach of Dr. Ambedkar; he used the term Prabuddha Bharat, Enlightened India, to signify this. The Sangha is the means by which we begin to bridge the gap between the transforming individual and the wider society we want to see transformed. By the way Dr. Ambedkar talked of Sangha as including dedicated lay people as well as monks and nuns. He talked of them being empowered through the Dhamma so that they could better work for the welfare of the world. But he also talked of the Sangha as setting an example to the wider society of how to live skilfully; he saw it as constituting a microcosm of the better world to which it is committed to bringing into being. When he introduced the new constitution to the Indian Parliament, he emphasised that democracy was not new to India but had been the basis of relations in the Sangha in the time of the Buddha. This was not mere political democracy; the essence of democracy to him was  fraternity, and this, he said, was the same ethics and metta. This is the sort of example we can expect from the Sangha. To the extent that we consider ourselves Buddhists, to the extent that we want to see a better world, to that extent we should be trying to imbue our work together with the spirit of fraternity or metta.

While these aspects of Dr. Ambedkar’s approach to the Dhamma are not couched in traditional Buddhist terms, they represent questions that all Buddhists can usefully reflect on; to what extent does the Dhamma empower us not in a selfish sense but in a self transcending, other-regarding sense; how does  our practice express itself in the way we relate to others, and overcome the samsaric tendencies of divisiveness; and to what extent does our practice of ethics and metta permeate the way we work together with other? It is these questions that we explored in some depth, at Nagaloka between 11th until 14th October this year, with the help of experienced and engaged practitioners from all parts of the world and from various traditions.

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Conference on Social Engagement and Liberation 11-14th October 2016

Posted in: Nagaloka News on Monday, November 14th, 2016
The mass conversions to Buddhism, led by Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar on14th October 1956 were the most significant event for the so-called Untouchable communities in India in the 20th Century, in their quest for liberation from extreme structural oppression. This year, 2016, marked the 60th anniversary of that historic event.
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To celebrate the occasion Nagaloka together with International Network of Socially Engaged Buddhists(INEB)
organised an International Conference on “Social Engagement and Liberation”.
The conference was inaugurated on the morning of the 60th anniversary according to the lunar calendar, 11th
October. Dr. Ambedkar chose this day because it supposed to be the day when Ashok converted to Buddhism
after the Kalinga War, and is known today as Ashoka Vijaya Dashmi (the day of the victory of Ashoka).
Before the inauguration a conversion ceremony for about 120 Dalits mostly from Gujarat, but also from Orissa,
Rajasthan, and Bihar, took place. The last year has witnessed many horrific atrocities on Dalits all over India.
Instead of seeking revenge many Dalits follow Dr. Ambedkar’s advice and convert to Buddhism. The conversion
ceremony was led by local Dhammacharis and Dhammacharinis and witnessed by Buddhists from many different
countries.
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Converting to Buddhism
The chief guest of the inauguration was Professor Sukhdev Thorat, one of the most distinguished
academic/activists in the Ambedkarite community (for information on all the speakers and chairpersons of the
conference see http://liberation60.squarespace.com/speakers/). He recounted his experience of coming in contact
with Buddhism early in his life and the inspiration he received from his parents as a child following the footsteps
of Dr.Ambedkar. His talk was followed by talks from Harsh Navaratne, the Chairman of INEB, Dhammachari
Subhuti (UK), Venerable Chao-hwei (Taiwan), Hozen Alan Senauke, (USA), Dr. Hsien-Chou Yo (Taiwan), and
Manjulaben, a leading Ambedkarite activist from Gujarat, who led the group of convertees from Gujarat. As part
of the programme a book published by the Jambudvipa Trust, “Babasaheb Dr. Ambedkar on Buddhism” was
released. This brings together some of his most important articles on Buddhism. It was inaugurated by Ven Tenzin
Palmo (a British bhikshuni in the Tibetan tradition), Ven Khemacaro (Korea), and Ven Maio Hai (China).
The programme was presided over by Dhammachari Lokamitra, the chairman of Nagaloka and the coordinator
of the conference organising committee. Between 4,000 and 5,000 people attended the opening ceremony. They
seemed to very much appreciate the rare opportunity of being able to listen to leading Buddhist and activists not
only from India but from different parts of the Buddhist world, and representing many different Buddhist schools
such as Theravada, Tibetan, Chinese and Zen traditions; they all, in their different ways, expressed their deep
appreciation of Dr. Ambedkar and his conversion to Buddhism. We were joined by Radhika Vermula, the mother
of Rohit, an exceptionally bright post graduate student who tragically committed suicide due to caste
discrimination at his university in Hyderabad earlier in the year. His mother, Radhika, converted to Buddhism
after that. Although she did not speak, she was a strong presence on the stage.
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Professor Sukhdev Thorat, Harsha Navaratne, Hozen Alan Senauke, Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo, Dhammachari Subhuti, Manjulaben, Radhika Vermula, Dr. Hsien Chou Yo, Ven Chou-Hwei, the audience.
In the afternoon we were treated to an introduction about Chinese Buddhist art and culture by the Senior Master
Ven Ren Da and Ven Miao Hai. Master Ren Da is known for his grand Chinese Tea Ceremony Opera which we
hope he will perform in Nagpur very soon.
nagaloka_image12The Stupa at Diksha Bhumi
In the evening all the participants visited Diksha Bhumi where Dr. Ambedkar had converted to Buddhism 60years earlier, to pay their respects at the stupa in which his ashes are interred.
The conference itself took place on following three days, 12th, 13th and 14th October, and was attended by about
250 people from India and many other parts of the Buddhist world. The aim of the conference was to bring Dr.
Ambedkar’s compelling approach to Buddhism to the attention of the wider Buddhist world, and provide
opportunities for his Indian followers to interact with Buddhists from outside India. As such engaged Buddhists
with a strong practice, from traditional and western backgrounds, were asked to look at aspects of Buddhism
central to Dr. Ambedkar’s vision from the point of view of their own understanding of Buddhism – Dhamma as
empowerment, breaking down barriers between people through the Dhamma, and the implications of Dhamma
for governance. The talks are being put on the Nagaloka website, as well as links to the videos.
The lectures on 12th October, looking at Dhamma as Empowerment, were chaired by Dr. Hsien Chou Yo, who
has been part of the vision and growth of Nagaloka since its inception. The speakers were Ven Sugata-vamsa
(India), Vidyabushan Rawat (India), Kurt Krammer, (Austria), Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo, of Dongyu Gatsal Ling
Nunnery, Himachal Pradesh, Dhammacharini Amitamati (India), Anchalee Kurutach (USA). In the afternoons
the participants divided into groups. These were the most important part of the conference as that is when
everyone had a chance to engage with the themes on the basis of their own experience. Group work was followed
by a panel discussion, in which questions arising out of the groups were put to the morning speakers. This was
chaired by Professor Mahesh Deokar (Pune University). In the evening an exhibition of work by the famous
Ambedkarite Buddhist artist Savi Sawarkar, was inaugurated, the theme being exhibition the same as the
conference. Savi’s paintings vividly express the oppression of caste and the suffering it gives rise to, and liberation through Buddhism.
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The theme of the second day was Breaking Down Barriers Between People through the Dhamma. The morning
lectures were chaired by Professor Devidas Maiske, who is at present the Principle of Nagarjuna Training Institute
(which is recognised as a college of Nagpur University for a BA degree in Buddhism and Dr. Ambedkar Studies)
at Nagaloka. The speakers were Ven Chao-hwei, Hozan Alan Senauke, Dhammachari Maitriveer Nagarjuna
(India), Prashant Varma (India), Ven. Namgyel Lhamo (Bhutan). The evening panel discussion was chaired by
Professor Vimal Thorat. In the evening conference participants were entranced by a concert given by violinist,
Pandit Prabhakar Dhakde Guruji, perhaps the most famous classical musician from the Dalit and Buddhist
community .
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The artist, Savi Savarkar, one of his paintings, and Pandit Prabhakar Dhakte Guruji
The theme of the last day was Dhamma and Governance. The speakers were Dhammachari Subhuti (UK),
Mangesh Dahiwale (India), Sai Sam Kham (Burma), Ven Manjushri (Sri Lanka), Data Ang Choo Hong
(Malaysia), and Ven Pomnyun Sunim (Korea), and the session was chaired by Jill Jameson. The evening panel
discussion was chaired by Prof Chris Queen (USA).
The concluding ceremony of the conference took place on the evening of 14th October in front of the magnificent
Walking Buddha. After a puja, three participants talked about their experiences of the conference, Naphawan
Sittisak (Thailand), Shu Yin (Singapore) and Dhammachari Amoghasiddhi (Nagpur). Ajahn Sulak Sivaraksa, the
founder of INEB, was the chief speaker, and Dhammachari Lokamitra concluded the four days thanking all those
who had contributed, along with some reflections of his own. Afterwards all participants circumambulated the
Walking Buddha in silent devotion, and then climbed the steps to make offerings. This concluded a thoroughly
engaging and deeply satisfying conference, that opened up a new dimension in relations between Buddhists from
the east and west, and Indian Buddhists inspired by Dr. Ambedkar, and a deeper appreciation by foreign Buddhists
not only of the significance of Dr. Ambedkar’s conversion to Buddhism, but also his approach to it.
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nagaloka_image21Closing Ceremony Ajahn Sulak Sivaraksa and Dhammacahri Lokamitra after worshipping the Buddha.
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