Breaking down the barriers

Nothing Stands Between Us—Breaking Down Barriers Between People (Hozan Alan Senauke)

Nagaloka — 13 October 2016

The Indian constitution, a visionary document of justice and equality, was confirmed by India’s new parliament on January 26 of 1950. Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, who led the drafting of this complex document, played a central role in establishing a government of liberty, equality, fraternity, and justice by which India to this day stands proudly as the world’s most populous democracy. In the remaining years of his life, Dr. Ambedkar turned to writing The Buddha and His Dhamma, and moved towards conversion to Buddhism as his chosen religious patb. On October 14,1956 hereceived the Three Refuges and Five Precepts then, in a radical act, he turned and offered them—along with Twenty-Two Vows renouncing Hinduism, superstition, and other oppressive beliefs — to 400,000 Dalit followers at Napur’s diksha ground. This conversion movement, by which one takes on the Dhamma and sheds an old caste identity, continues. On December 6, 1956, Dr. Ambedkar passed away, just three days after completing his legacy,The Buddha and His Dhamma.

The messages of the Indian constitution and The Buddha and His Dhamma run on parallel tracks: secular governance and spiritual liberation. They may appear separate, but Babasaheb Ambedkar understood the Buddha’s teachings to embody the exactly same principles of liberty, equality, fraternity, and justice as the constitution he wrote.

The barriers we feel to exist between people don’t just seem to exist. They begin, of course with mind from which flows all thoughts, fears, and self-centeredness. From delusive thinking we turn our fears into oppressive systems and institutions. From delusive words and deeds we continuously create societies, communities, and institutions. As they are built on delusion, these communities and institutions often divide us from each other, privileging one group and giving them the power to exploit and oppress others. Dr. Ambedkar described this as a “system of graded (or degraded) inequality.” As animals we have a hard-wired instinct to protect our existence. As mammals we instinctively form various kinds of communities, tribes, and societies for the same. We readily band together as family, clan, caste, or race, “us” against “them.”  20th century philosopher Martin Buber spoke of “I and Thou.”  Buber’s “I” — much like the Buddha’s “I” — is the separate self that views other people and beings as objects, as things to be used and discarded.

But as human beings and as potential Buddhas we also have the ability to see ourselves connected to all beings. This is Buber’s “Thou,” a relationship of subtle and infinite interdependence, complete subjectivity, the essence of Dhamma, as expressed in the Mahayana image of Indra’s Net, in which each of the countless jewel mirrors reflects each other jewel. Our potential is clearly expressed in the Bodhisattava’s vow: Beings are numberless; I vow to save them.

In the United States we see barriers between a shrinking majority of so-called white people (like myself) and what we awkwardly call “people of color” —those of Black, Hispanic, and Asian background. If you follow the U.S. news, more than two-hundred twenty African American men have been killed by police this year, an average of almost one shooting daily. Even a hundred and fifty years after the end of slavery, despite all legal and constitutional protections, barriers of race hatred and fear in the U.S. persist and are constructed of deadly violence. Across India the barriers of caste are likewise dangerous despite constitutional protections, with accounts of terrible caste and gender-based atrocities reported daily.

The roots and branches from which we create social and personal barriers have always been with us. They are the Three Poisons of Greed, Hatred, and Delusion. The good news is that Buddha’s teachings offer an antidote, away to restore the harmony and balance of all beings.

In Book 3 of The Buddha and His Dhamma, Babasaheb Ambedkar speaks of saddhamma, which serves to purify the mind and transform society.These twodimensions of saddamama are inseparable and mutually creative in our lives. Saddhamma means “the good law” or “ones own dhamma.” Here, Dr. Ambedkar offers an integrated vision of spiritual practice and social liberation. Internal and external barriers fall away. He is very clear that:

  1. Dhamma to be Saddhamma must break down barriers between Man and Man” (or Person and Person, Man or Woman).
  2. Dhamma to be Saddhamma must Teach that Worth and not Birth is the Measure of Man.”
  3. Dhamma to be Saddhamma must Promote Equality between Man and Man.”

To this last point, Babasaheb Ambedkar writes:

Men are born unequal. Some are robust, others are weaklings. Some have more intelligence, others have less or none. Some have more capacity,others have less…All have to enter into the struggle for existence. In the struggle for existence, if inequality be recognized as the rule of the game, the weakest will always go to the wall.

He asks:

Should this rule of inequality be allowed to be the rule of life?…What society wants is the best, and not the fittest. This was the viewpoint of the Buddha, and it was because of this that he argued that a religion which does not preach equality is not worth having. Is not that a better religion which promotes the happiness of others simultaneously with the happiness of oneself, and tolerates no oppression? The religion of the Buddha is perfect justice, springing from a man’s own meritorious disposition.

These points are the spiritual basis of our social practice. The question, of course, is what is the practice itself?

Dr. Ambedkar explains that Metta/Lovingkindness, Karuna/Compsssion, Sila/Ethics, and Prajna/Wisdom are all necessary. The principles are straightforward, but the practices are difficult. In this world where someone might insult us, or beat us, steal, and even kill those we love, how shall we respond in order not to build the barriers between us higher and wider? Vietnamese Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh writes that we must “love the unlovable.”

When we come into contact with the other person, our thoughts and actions should express our mind of compassion, even if that person says and does things that are not easy to accept.  We practice in this way until we see clearly that our love is not contingent upon the other person being lovable.

  • from Peace Is Every Step

How can we accomplish this? We rely on meditation as our foundation. It is true that Babasaheb Ambedkar was critical of some Buddhist monks he saw as exemplifying passive meditationignoring the suffering realities of injustice and inequality. But meditation we undertake as engaged Buddhists is a practice of deep and wide awareness, not passive acceptance. It is the acupuncture needle of Dhamma, bringingforth sila, samadhi, and prajna. In concrete terms meditation is something that fully engages each person’s mind and body, even as we sit in the middle of personal, interpersonal, and transpersonal manifestations of pain, grief, and loss.

As we sit cross-legged (or in a chair, or as we walk upright), we become aware of each thought, feeling, and physical sensation as it arises and as it falls away. Moment by moment we can see the nature of impermanence and of interdependence. When we understand the impermanent nature of our own mind and how quickly suffering and clinging can arise, we have a compassionate sense how the minds of others work. It helps us to see how each person builds barriers between self and other out of our own fears and self-centered concerns. As our meditation practice deepens, we find ourselves little by little letting go of our deepest fears.


Meditation is a beginning, but it is not the whole of the dhamma as Babasaheb Ambedkar understood it. As I quoted above, “Dhamma to be Saddhamma must break down barriers between” each person and between each community. As early as 1936, speaking of conversion to the Bombay Mahar Conference, Dr. Ambedkar said:

I tell you all very specifically, religion is for man and not man for religion. For getting human treatment, convert yourselves. Convert for getting organized. Convert for becoming strong. Convert for securing equality. Convert for getting liberty. Convert so that your domestic life should be happy.

Dr. Ambedkar was not yet pointing directly to Buddhist conversion, but to deep human values. Conversion means dropping violence, privilege, and destructive self-hating, turning towards basic goodness. Babasaheb Ambedkar found that basic goodness is abundantly present in Buddha’s way. That is why he chose to convert.

The Buddha’s social teachings are completely clear about the equality of all beings, and each person’s capacity for awakening. Throughout the Pali Suttas and, of course, in all the Mahayana Sutras, he enumerated teachings for liberation not just in our meditation, but in our lives. The Eightfold Path guides our daily life. Each of the Five Precepts instructs us in our relationships with each other. There are the Four Brahmaviharas, Six Paramitas, Seven Factors of Enlightenment, Thirty-Seven Wings to Awakening. Fro many years I have tried to follow one short teaching, derived fromearly Buddhism’s “Sangaha Sutta” (AN 4:32), the “Four Means of Embracing Others”:

Monks, there are these four means of embracing others. What four? Giving or generosity/dana, kind speech/piyavaca, beneficial effort/atthacariya, and cooperation or equality/samanattata. These are the four means of embracing others.


Giving, endearing speech,

beneficent conduct, and impartiality

under diverse worldly conditions,

as is suitable to fit each case:

these means of embracing others

are like the linchpin of a rolling chariot.


If there were no such means of embracing others,

neither mother nor father

would be able to obtain esteem

and veneration from their child.


But these means of embracing exist,

and therefore the wise respect them;

thus they attain to greatness

and are highly praised.

In the Mahayana tradition, this teaching appears in the Mahaprajnaparamita Sutra, the Lotus Sutra, the Vimalakirti Sutra and other well-known texts. In my own Soto Zen tradition, these four practices are presentecd by our 13th Century ancestor Eihei Dogen in his fascicle “Bodaisatta Shishobo” or “the Bodhisattvas’s Four Embracing Dharmas.” Giving, Kind Speech, Beneficial Sction and Cooperation aremethods for connecting with each other, even with those who treat us badly.Because we are truly not separate from each other, such teachings allow us to become free from the three poisons. of greed, hatred, and delusion. When we use the word “embrace,” barriers between people disappear. As I have written elsewhere:to embrace is to encircle. I  wrap my arms around you; you put your arms around me. To embrace is to unify, to make one of two. Seen from the perspective of the Buddhas, two beings are one.

The barriers we live behind will not simply disappear. They exist in our minds and in all aspects of society. Each of us must do the work as if the whole world’s suffering is our responsibility. Because it is. The Dhamma provides the tools by which we chip away at barriers—those within our selves and those between us. But remember: we must rely on each other. We are never alone. Nothing stands between us.


— END —

Breaking down the barriers between people- Talk by Ven. Namgyel Lhamo

Good morning/afternoon – My dharma sisters and brothers.

Today, in this memorable occasion of celebrating the 60th anniversary of Dr. Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar’s momentous conversion to Buddhism, I am very honored to speak on  “Breaking down the barriers between people“.

In the multicultural and multiracial country like India, barriers exist in many aspects. Some of the factual major barriers between people are race, caste, religion, language, social classes, and attitude and so on. These so called barriers are definitely not biological realities but are the creations of false assumption of cultural and social traits rooted deeply in lacking of compassion and wisdom. The accumulation of racial divisions and in-equalities that plague relations between the caste systems has created great barriers and disadvantages for low caste people forcing them to live in isolation and snatching them of their freedom. Such notion of caste system, which was a matter of vital importance to the Brahmins was strongly condemned and negated by the Lord Buddha who spoke of the equal recognition of all castes and unite, as do the rivers in the sea.

The Buddha says “Just as, O monks, the great rivers Ganga, Yamuna, Aciravati, Sarabhu, and Mahi, on reaching the ocean, lose their earlier name and identity and come to be reckoned as the great ocean. Similarly, O monks, people of the four castes (vannas)…who leave the household and become homeless recluses under the Doctrine and Discipline declared by the Tathagata, lose their previous names and identities and are reckoned as recluses who are sons of Shakya.”

And in one occasion a caste-ridden brahmin insulted the Buddha saying, “Stop, thou shavelling! Stop, thou outcaste!” The Buddha, without any feeling of indignation, gently replied:

Birth makes not a man an outcaste,

Birth makes not a man a brahmin;

Action makes a man an outcaste,

Action makes a man a brahmin.

Then, Buddha delivered the Vasala Sutta explaining about the characteristics of one who is really an outcaste, convinced the haughty brahmin and took refuge in the Buddha. Thus the Buddha broke down the barrier.

Likewise Dr. Ambedkar who was against social caste wrote in the section of the Abolition of Caste,

“You cannot build anything on the foundation of the caste. You cannot build up a nation. You cannot build up a morality. Anything that you will build on the foundation of caste will crack and never be whole”. And

“Caste is another name for control. Caste does not allow a person to transgress, caste limits in pursuit of his enjoyment”.

Thus, Dr. Ambedkar has earned great credit in coming out with excellent idea of breaking down the barriers and successfully followed the footsteps of the lord Buddha. I pray sincerely and fervently that his noble action of conversion continue successfully and prevail the whole world.

There are many ways in overcoming the samsaric tendencies towards barriers according to the practice of the Dhamma and different relevant dharmic practices which are applicable corresponding to the level of practices such as the four Brahma Viharas, Bodhicitta or the altruistic intention, vajrayana practice and the realization of Sunyata or the Satkayaditthi.

The four Brahma Viharas or appamanna are love (metta), compassion (karuna), joy (mudita) and equanimity (upekkha). Though it starts with love but when putting in practical meditation, it is wise to begin with equanimity (upekkha) first as it helps the remaining three; metta, karuna and mudita meditations to flow smoothly to immeasurable beings equally.

So, here I begin with Immeasurable Equanimity (upekkha), which is the wish that all sentient beings may be free from the attitude of attachment to some and aversion to others. When we put into actual practice, there are four steps:

Firstly, we begin by making a wish as, “How wonderful it would be if all sentient beings were to abide in equanimity, free of bias, attachment, and anger.”

That is, may we have an unbiased but caring attitude towards all. Secondly, we aspire, “May they abide in that way.” Thirdly, we resolve to act, “I shall cause them to abide in that way.” Then, Fourthly, we request one’s guru’s inspiration so that we will have the strength of mind and the courage to continuously work to help sentient beings be free of bias, attachment, and anger and to abide in equanimity.

The Second immeasurable love (metta) is the wish that living beings may have happiness and its causes. The Third is immeasurable compassion (karuna), which is the wish that living beings may be free from suffering and its causes. The Fourth immeasurable joy (mudita) is the wish that living beings may remain happy and their happiness may increase further.

In the actual meditation that we do, the same steps are applied with the following prayers;

May all sentient beings have happiness and the cause of happiness.

May all sentient beings be free of suffering and the causes of suffering.

May all sentient beings be never parted from the supreme happiness, which is free of suffering.

May all sentient beings remain in the boundless equanimity, free from both attachment to close ones and rejection of others.

The meditations are oriented towards breaking down the barriers between people as the practice focuses on freeing from misery/sufferings. These meditations on the four Brahma Viharas helps an individual develops Bodhicitta, an altruistic mind, which is the mind that strives towards the Buddhahood for the sake of all sentient beings. There are many types of Bodhicitta but here I chose three aspects of training of Bodhicitta, which are relevant to breaking down the barriers.

First training of Bodhicitta, considering others as equal to oneself: We should meditate firstly by considering others as equal to oneself in a following way; whatever good or useful things you want for yourself, others want them just as much. Just as you work hard at bringing about your own happiness and comfort, always work hard for others’ happiness and comfort, too. Just as you would try to avoid even the slightest suffering for yourself, strive to prevent others having to suffer even the slightest harm. In short, seeing no distinction between yourself and others, so, make it your sole effort in finding happiness for others for now and forever. The Master Shantideva says; A Buddha’s qualities are gained from the sentient beings and the Buddhas alike, So, why do I not respect them in the same way as I respect the Buddhas.

The Second, exchanging oneself and others: This is meditated by looking at a person actually suffering from sickness, hunger, thirst or some other affliction or by imagining that such a person is in front of you. As you breathe out, imagine that you are giving that person all your happiness and the best of everything you have, your body, your wealth and your merit. Then, as you breathe in, imagine that you are taking into yourself all the other person’s sufferings and that, as a result, he or she becomes happy and free from every affliction. Start this meditation on giving happiness and taking suffering with one individual, and then gradually extend it to include all living creatures.

The Third, considering others more important than oneself:

This is practiced by meditating, “I may be in Samsara, I may be reborn in hell, I may be ill, or suffering from any other misfortune, but I will bear it all. May the sufferings of others ripen in me! May other beings have all my happiness and all the effects of my good actions!” Arouse this thought in the depth of your being and actually put it into practice. So, when everything is given to others without concerning about one’s needs, how can it dare to create barrier.

There are four classifications of tantras according to vajrayana vehicle; kriya tantra, charya tantra, yoga and anuttara yoga tantra, which were taught according to the four varying propensities and abilities of the four students.

The first level of Tantra was taught to the priestly Brahmin, as they concentrate their attention on outer practices through ritual cleansing to purify their body and on recitation of mantras to purify their speech, which correspond to practising the Kriya tantra.

The second level of Tantra was taught to the warrior or royal Ksatrya, as they concentrate their attention on spreading the Dharma by speaking about it to others with their speech and concentrate on attaining inner tranquility in order to be able to roughly experience emptiness, which correspond to practising the Charya Tantra.

The third level of Tantra was taught to vaisya or tradesman, although lower in status according to the caste system, they are more advanced students who engage in yoga tantra practice focusing their attention single-pointedly on emptiness.

The fourth, the highest level of Tantra was taught to the sudra or the low caste, the lowest category in the caste system, as they are very advanced meditators of Anuttara yoga focusing their attention on merging Bodhicitta and primordial wisdom awareness until they become indivisibly united in their mind-stream.

Thus, Buddha has never created barriers in whatsoever between people rather selected the low caste people as the best vessel for the highest vajrayana teachings.

Even in highest Sadhana practice of Vajrayana, commonly known as four extraordinary foundations for purification such as accumulation of 100,000 times Refuge Prayer, Bodhicitta Prayer, Recitation of 100 syllables, Mandala Offering and Guru Yoga, indifferent sentient beings are visualized and meditated by sitting right in front and around the practitioner in the sole purpose of liberating them together.

We should practice that all appearances are the mere projection of one’s mind and that we shouldn’t consider separate entities from the practitioner in highest Mahamudra and Mahasandhi practice. In some practices, male or female figures are considered as figures of male and female deities. Therefore, there is no space or not even a fraction of gap possible for the barrier between beings.

The realization of emptiness “Sunyata”, or “Satkayaditthi” is like a burning fire that consumed the ignorance, which mistakenly creates barriers between people. And when someone is able to realize emptiness directly and non-conceptually, there is no appearance at all of subject and an object.

There are two kinds of emptiness, “Sunyata”; the emptiness of self, the lack of any self that is separate from the aggregates, and the emptiness of phenomena, the lack of intrinsic existence of the aggregates themselves Or the Selflessness of person, the absence of inherent existence of “self” or “I” and the selflessness of phenomena (dharmanairatmya) the absence of any intrinsic identity in Dharma i.e. things and events.

The subject, which is the mind that thinks “I am”, is therefore self-clinging towards its object what we call the “self”. Rather like mistaking a length of coloured rope for a snake, we simply project the idea of a self onto the aggregates, while the self in fact has no real existence. Understanding this is the view of selflessness. All conditioned and unconditioned things other than the “I” or the self are “phenomena” (Dharma). Through examining them using logical reasoning, we come to understand that no entity, whether coarse or subtle, can be said to be real. And that understanding of how things lack any basis or origin is what we call the realization of the ‘selflessness of phenomena’.

It is said in the Prajna Paramita Heart Sutra that “no eye, no ear, no tongue, no body and no mind and so on”.  Here it doesn’t mean that there is no eye, no ear and so on but it means that there is no inherently existed eye, inherently existed ear and so on which are labelled actively by the misconception of ignorance just like mistaking a length of coloured rope for a snake. Likewise, ignorance holds persons and phenomena to exist from their own side and with their own essence and due to beginning less latencies of ignorance, persons and phenomena appear inherently existent to us and actively grasps what appears as truly and inherently existent. Similarly, ignorance creates barriers between people through misapprehending of how things exist in reality.

I would proudly conclude that all these barriers between people occurred as a result of misconception of fundamental ignorance for things that in reality do not exist because when we generate the wisdom that understands reality, the ignorance that sees the opposite of reality ceases automatically.


Dr. Ambedkar understood this fundamental…..

Tashi Delek and Thank you Nagaloka for what you do towards realizing Dr. Ambedkar’s vision of a caste-free and discrimination-free society! May Buddha Dharma flourish around the world bringing peace!