Buddhism goes home

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Sangharakshita, 1967Sangharakshita, an English Buddhist, lived for 20 years in the East before returning to Britain in the 1960s. Sangharakshita made a return visit to India in 1984, reconnecting with former-untouchables who had been led to Buddhism by Dr. Ambedkar, himself a former untouchable who had become the country’s law minister. Nagabodhi describes one evening of that tour.

Each night Sangharakshita introduces a fresh range of teachings, and explains aspects of Buddhist practice, basing his commentaries on a host of traditional formulations: the Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path, the Threefold Way, the Seven Limbs of Enlightenment, the Five Spiritual Faculties…. His discourses are peppered with stories, jokes, anecdotes, and examples from the life of the Buddha and Dr Ambedkar, or simply from Indian village life. His words are straightforward and clear, and leave no one behind.

Purna’s tape recorder hums and whirs, picking up his words. Before long they will be transcribed, edited, translated, and published in the Marathi, Gujerati, and English-medium magazines that circulate within the Buddhist community. During the course of this visit Sangharakshita is creating a legacy of teachings that will keep those publications stocked for years.

 Tonight we’ve got a man who wants to drive his bullock cart through the audience.  

Again and again, he returns to the theme of morality. Ambedkar once said, ‘Morality is Dhamma; Dhamma is Morality’. Sangharakshita distinguishes ‘conventional morality’ – the morality of the group or caste – from ‘natural morality’. In terms of natural morality, some actions – of body, speech, or mind – express lower, less human, even animal mental states. Others express truly human states, express our distinctively human capacity for wisdom, love, and unselfishness. Our first task, therefore, is to become truly human and to get beyond the animal realm of blind craving, blind instinct, and self-centeredness.

To be truly human is to recognize that actions have consequences, for ourselves, for others, and for our environment – and to take full responsibility for our actions. The five Precepts help because they offer a kind of blueprint for more truly human actions and states of mind. These precepts don’t take their sanction from a god, or from the group, but from our innate potential to develop, and from our deep yearning to do so. For this reason ‘natural’ morality is the foundation of human life itself, whether individual or collective. Naturally, if we live a truly ethical life we will be free from conflicts and confusion; we’ll get on well with others, and we’ll know how to help them. Our lives will be clear, free from worry, free from anxiety….

For some reason, almost every night, at around the half-way point, there is a major disturbance. Tonight we’ve got a man who wants to drive his bullock cart through the audience. He can’t be bothered to go the long way round, and thinks he can just trundle across our field. A argument has erupted at the gate.

 We think we are sheep when really we are lions. We think we are weak when really we are strong.  

Sometimes, a circle of ladies will arrive late, and come floating into the proceedings with their trays of lighted candles and incense, like spirits from a dream. But every night, no matter where we are, a moment comes when the young mothers realize it’s time to put their little ones to bed. As soon as they get up, they seem to disconnect from the event completely, and enter a new dimension. They talk at the tops of their voices, call across to each other, and berate their children, while other members of the audience shout at them, hiss, wave their arms, and try to calm them down. If things get really bad Sangharakshita will take a few discrete steps back and study his notes while Vimalakirti joins in from the microphone. It can take ten minutes for the ripples to subside.

Sangharakshita goes on to explain how mental and emotional freedom, the fruits of ethical conduct, provide the basis for meditation practice. Meditation, he says, opens the way to the higher development of the mind which Ambedkar upheld as the indispensable requirement for a decent life. Ambedkar repeatedly spoke of his faith in the ‘energy’, ‘enthusiasm’, and ‘inspiration’ that lie within us. These qualities can be contacted directly, through meditation. In a mind that is concentrated and focussed, distractions have no place, the various ‘aspects’ and ‘selves’ that make up a person are brought into harmony. The result is that we begin to feel quite different: we have more energy because none of it is being drained by confusion or vagueness; we can reach down into our depths and discover tremendous power, limitless enthusiasm, and a fundamental level of confidence.

He teaches the practice of anapana sati, or ‘mindfulness of breathing’, a meditation which brings about this kind of concentration. Anyone who practices it will begin to see their life more clearly and find out what they need to do to make it better. It is a practice that can carry us into realms of thought, feeling, and imagination far richer than those we experience most of the time. This is where the fresh vision will arise, helping us to take our lives and ambitions onto an ever higher level.

 Whenever Ambedkar is mentioned there is an explosion of applause.  

He also teaches the maitri bhavana – the ‘development of universal loving-kindness’. Emotions like love, fraternity, and compassion can be developed, he says. We tend to think that they arise solely as a matter of chance or passing mood, but our emotional states need not depend on outside circumstances at all. Someone who has worked to develop even a little maitri can stand firm in the face of difficulties. He won’t be discouraged by the knocks he receives, he will be able to think clearly and positively – remain in a good state to find a way of beating the obstacles that confront him. If all the members of a Buddhist locality were to practice maitri bhavana, they would not just get on well with each other, they would be able to work effectively together: they would be strong, and they would have an incalculable effect on the localities around them.

It surprises me to see Sangharakshita teaching meditation this way. In England I’ve never once heard him explain how to practice meditation at a public talk. But here, in this town, there is no public center for anyone to visit for a follow-up class, and Poona is a long way away. Even while he speaks, I can sense the urgency he feels. Even if just one person here manages to get somewhere with meditation as a result of this talk, he or she will make an impact on the others, another seed will have been sown.

There is a vihara in this locality: a small, rectangular, one-roomed building. It has a Buddha-shrine, and is used as a lodging by visiting monks. Most of the time, though, it serves as a sort of social club. Sangharakshita asks his listeners to keep their vihara beautiful and clean, and use it only for Buddhist activities:

‘A Vihara should be a peaceful place, a place where you can make a special effort to practice the Precepts, a place where you can meditate. If you treat your vihara well, and use it properly, you will have no need to make the costly pilgrimage to Bodh Gaya. You will have the Buddha right here in your own neighborhood, reminding you of the real purpose of life, inspiring you to make further efforts.’

 The Dhamma is whatever helps people to grow. They may choose to work on themselves first, or they may choose to work in society. Either way they will be growing…  

Meditation, practiced successfully and deeply, he continues, provides the foundation for wisdom. In this context wisdom is not something we get from books. Of course it is important to study the Dhamma; that is how we find out what the Buddha actually did and said, and what he advised us to do. But even that kind of book learning is not wisdom; Wisdom is the way we see things when we are living on a higher level. And this kind of wisdom can express itself in a number of ways: as fearlessness, as generosity, as patience, and, of course, as ‘insight’ – seeing things as they really are. He offers an illustration:

‘Once upon a time there was a lion cub who had lost his parents. In fact, he became completely separated from the other lions, and strayed into a flock of sheep. He lived with the sheep for years, and grew up among them – thinking, after a while, that he was himself just another sheep.

‘One day while out grazing, the sheep/lion came across a big, wild lion. At first he was terrified, and tried to run away, but because he only knew how to run like a sheep, the lion soon caught up with him, and asked him why he was so frightened.

‘ “Baa!” said the sheep/lion, “I am afraid because I have been told that lions are dangerous to us sheep. You will want to eat me up.”

‘ “Us sheep?” stammered the lion, “But you are not a sheep at all! You are a lion like me.”

‘ “Baa! Oh no. I am not a lion. I am a sheep. Why are you trying to confuse me?”

‘The lion had never encountered anything like this before. There was no doubting it, though: here was a lion who thought he was a sheep! Then he had an idea, and led the sheep/lion by the scruff of the neck to a pool of clear water and forced him to look at his reflection. There, the sheep/lion didn’t see a sheep at all — but a lion! He immediately “woke up”, and realized that for all those years he’d been living under an illusion.

 In the West, people are more individualistic and psychologically oriented. I therefore have to talk in “psychological” terms.  

‘We are like that lion cub. We think we are sheep when really we are lions. We think we are weak when really we are strong. We need to see for ourselves what we really are.

‘Of course, like that lion cub, we may need a friend to come along and remind us about our true selves. But in this respect we are very lucky. We have had two friends, two lions, in the not too distant past. First there was Gautama the Buddha. And then — even more recently — there was Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar!’

Repeatedly, Sangharakshita embroiders his stories with references to Ambedkar, and recapitulates the man’s qualities and significance. Whenever Ambedkar is mentioned in this way there is an explosion of applause. The official cheerleader — one of the village elders — sets up a few chants; the atmosphere is jubilant.

One night, after a talk, I asked Sangharakshita about these continual references. It was all so different to the Buddhism I was used to. Were all these references, and the general preoccupation with the social dimension of things, anything more than a ‘skillful means’?

‘What do you mean?’ Sangharakshita was perplexed.

‘Well, in the West, you explain Buddhism far more in terms of individual, even psychological, development. Isn’t that where all this must lead in the end, to individual Buddhists working on themselves to develop Enlightened qualities?’

He laughed. ‘Well, in the West, people are far more individualistic and psychologically oriented. I therefore have to talk in those more “psychological” terms. Here, people are more community oriented; they experience themselves more as members of a community or family. So here I talk in more, as it were, social terms. But, actually, I’m using a skillful means in both situations. You must not assume that either approach is any closer to the fundamental Dhamma than the other. The Dhamma is whatever helps people to grow. They may choose to work on themselves first, or they may choose to work in society. Either way they will be growing, and setting up the conditions for their own further development – and that of their society.

‘If anything, you could say that the language of social uplift is more effective – though both approaches have their advantages and limitations, of course. If Enlightenment consists in overcoming the “self-other dichotomy”, we can progress towards it by working on the “other” end of things just as effectively as we can by working simply on ourselves.’

Night after night, he instructs, uplifts, and befriends. If there is any one element that I will recollect above all others, it will be the bond of warmth and intimacy that grows between him and his audience as each talk progresses. No wonder there are people here who remember his last visit, twenty years ago. And no wonder he has never forgotten them.

NagabodhiNagabodhi is a senior member of the Western Buddhist Order. Since 1974, when he was ordained, he has devoted his life to the development of the Triratna Buddhist Community as a Dharma teacher, publisher, center director, and fundraiser. He now lives in London with his wife, Vimalacitta. This passage is excerpted, with permission, from his book, Jai Bhim: Dispatches From a Peaceful Revolution (Free PDF download).

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1 Comment. Leave new

  • Amber Badyari
    May 8, 2023 3:26 pm

    I absolutely loved this blog and found it at a time when I was looking for an explanation of conventional morality and natural morality for an evening at the Hertford Sangha on Ethics. This blog really helped me profoundly to make the connections between the 5 precepts, meditation, and wisdom that I was longing for. The article also gave me a real feel for Sangharakshita in India and his humour, vision and gift as a Dharma teacher. I can’t thank you enough: thank you!


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