Journey to the Center of India, 2006, Part 4, December 24, 2006
From Chikaldhara back to Kandy
MAP (You may click the word "MAP," wherever it occurs in this report to see the route we took from Nagpur.)
As we left the hill station of Chikaldhara we made a brief stop. Bhante wanted to offer his condolences to a devotee who had just lost her son. While cutting grass near that sheer cliff where legend said Bhima had thrown Kichaka's body, the young man slipped and fell to his death. The poor mother was consoled by Bhante's chanting and wise words. As unfortunate as that accident was, it was compounded when the young man's best friend, who had come up for the funeral, was killed in a traffic accident on his way back after the cremation ceremony.
The second young man was the brother of Vijaya, a devotee we met that evening in Amravati. Her husband was with the Forestry Department, and they used to live in Chikaldhara. The first time Bhante visited Chikaldhara, as he was alighting from the bus, strangers asked him if he was going to Vijaya's house. He wondered who this far-famed woman was. He soon learned that she was well-known for always taking care of monks and that her mother was also very pious. Since that time, Vijaya has been a devotee, insisting that Bhante visit her family whenever he is in the Amravati District.
We were very grateful for Vijaya's help with shopping. Before we left Kandy Lily had asked us for a set of gold-plated Indian jewelry, and Vijaya knew the best dealer. We also wanted to buy incense, which always seemed to come from Mysore. Vijaya directed us to a wholesale dealer from whom we could buy many packets for the same price we might have paid for a few small boxes elsewhere.
Our hotel was relatively plush, but, due to a power outage, the elevator was not working, so we sat in the dining room. While we had juice, Ken trapped some voracious mosquitos in overturned glasses, which the waiters graciously carried away, to carefully release outside (we hoped). That evening, we bade farewell to the young driver who had brought us from Nagpur. His car had no air conditioning , so it would not have been comfortable for the remainder of the trip back to Mumbai, which was threatening to be even hotter than Nagpur. Another devotee of Bhante's, the local manager of Airtel, arranged for a better van, and that driver was also quite skillful.
From Chikaldhara to Amravati
The next day, we went to Vijaya's apartment for lunch. Her husband happened to be at home with a cold. Because it was exam time, two of the children had only a half-day of classes. The daughter, Prachi, came home just as her brother, Anup, was leaving. The family served a lovely meal, including a delicious sweet dipped in cardamom milk. The children were interested in Dhamma and keen to speak English with us.
Later Vijaya came again to the hotel, accompanied by her nephew who is studying Buddhist art at University. He wanted to know why Americans were so interested in Buddhism and what impact it was having. We suggested he develop a questionnaire and offered to help him circulate it.
At lunch, we had briefly met Vijaya's father-in-law. Ken had noticed that he was wearing his dhoti in exactly the style he had wanted to learn in Chikaldhara. In response to Bhante's request, the gentleman came to the hotel later that afternoon to give Ken a proper lesson. Since they shared no common human language, it was all conducted in pantomime, which was quite entertaining for the rest of us. Ken's tutor was accompanied by his eight-year-old grandson, Piyush, who asked a million questions, provided detailed information about many things Indian, and served as our guide for the program that was to come.
After the lesson, we returned to the neighborhood of Vijaya's apartment. Alighting from the van, we walked along the narrow lanes, past sleeping cows. The houses were very neat, but all jammed close together. Fortunately, there was electricity and street lights so the walking was easy. Piyush, keeping up a steady chatter, was vigilant in chasing away dogs, who were not in the slightest bit threatening. At the end of the lane, we were welcomed with flowers as we entered the house, which we assumed belonged to the community leader. After we sat down, neighbors came in and sat on the floor. Bhante gave everyone the refuges and precepts. After a brief Dhamma talk, we all went to the nearby Vihara, where we were seated at the front and garlanded yet again. Bhante gave a rather stern lesson in which he questioned the progress that Buddhism had made in the 50 years (How many Indian Buddhists, he asked, really kept the precepts? How many really treated their spouses with proper respect and completely abstained from alcohol? Had everyone really thrown out all the Hindu idols as they had vowed? Could they all really attest that they no longer discriminated in terms of caste?) He included some humor, but it was clear that he gave them a lot to think about. As we listened, not really following the Marathi, but sure that it was a serious sermon, we were distracted by a very large gekko consuming a multitude of bugs above the altar.
The next morning, while waiting for breakfast, we prepared our fruit as usual. We did not realize that the electricity had gone off (lights and air conditioner automatically switched to generator) until Vijaya arrived a few minutes late with poha for the three of us. She had been in the elevator when it went off. Fortunately, a bellboy had been with her, forced open the door, and helped her climb out. Vijaya was only a bit flustered; mindfulness is useful everywhere. During our stay in Amravati, Vijaya and her family were so hospitable that we could not thank them enough. All we could do was to invite them to visit us in Sri Lanka so that we could return the kindness.
At a major intersection on the way out of town, we passed a demonstration protesting the abortion of female foetuses. It was led by young girls riding on two beautiful pinto horses. According to a recent UN study, as many as 50 million girls are missing in India. In other countries, there are approximately 105 female births for every 100 males; in India there are fewer than 93 women for every 100 men. A great deal of this discrepancy is certainly due to ultrasound testing, even though informing the prospective parents of the baby's sex is illegal.
Ven. Pannasila told us of a tribe that sells its daughters as its major source of income. We later found a story about this in The Hindu.
Before leaving Amravati, we stopped to visit another devout Buddhist family. We were greeted by a middle-aged couple and seated near their altar. Then a beautiful young lady, their daughter-in-law, served us tea. It was a pleasant visit: they were pleased to see Bhante and grateful that we had taken the time to stop. After we left, Bhante explained that the young woman was the only child of the richest high-caste family in Amravati. She had fallen in love with the only son of these Dalit activists. Her mother threatened her with disinheritance, but she was unmoved, married for love, and became Buddhist. When the girl's mother sent goondas (thugs) with swords, the mother-in-law, who had long been a staunch Ambedkarite, brought out a sword of her own and threatened to carve up anyone who harmed her children! The young couple had a child, and the three-generation family lived together in obvious harmony and mutual respect.
We spent so much time on the road that it should not be surprising that we have so often mentioned (complained about) the traffic. The enormous lorries were at least colorful, with bright artwork on the sides, and, across the back, the message: "Awazdo", "Awazkaro," "Pukkaro," or the English equivalent, "Blow Horn" with various configurations of "Please" and "OK." At one point, we passed an accident where two lorries had played chicken and everybody lost. One had been hauling a load of cement bags, and the other, sacks of flour. The goods were strewn along the ditch, and one cab was completely crushed. It was awful to think about how long it must have taken an ambulance to reach that remote place.
In Akola, we revisited the elegant house where we had had lunch two years earlier and renewed acquaintances. The living room and the staircase were again packed with devotees from the entire colony. All were eager to pay their respects to Bhante and to hear his lessons, which were followed, of course, by a lavish meal. Later, Bhante explained that several of the men in attendance, coming from impoverished families, had been gangsters and hit men and had spent terms in prison. When they converted to Buddhism, they had renounced their violent pasts. He added that there were many such cases throughout Maharashtra.
Before going on, we visited another devotee, Mr. Wankhede, nearby who hadn't been able to join lunch because he had recently suffered a stroke. Bhante was pleased to see that he was making a good recovery, and it was touching to see his gratitude that Ven. Pannasila had come especially to see him.
Continuing on the same road, we drove to Bhusawal, where there was to be a monks' conference. After we checked out the hotel room and decided that it was acceptable, we learned that we would be guests of the manager and that many monks, including Sasai-Sensei, were staying on the floor above. The next morning, the staff apologized that, since there was no electricity, breakfast would be a little late, which gave us enough time to prepare extra fruit for Sasai-Sensei. On the way to the conference site, we stopped at the dining hall where lunch would be served and donated the succulent pomegranates we had bought the day before--enough for all 200 monks.
We arrived at a large park where a spacious tent had been erected. The walls were printed cloth, and the canopied ceiling was decorated with concentric circles of yellow, blue, and red. A red mat led to the dais, and, on each side, cloths had been laid for the audience to sit on. Colored sand formed a large and beautiful design on the ground directly in front of the dais, which was full of monks and nuns, mainly Indian, but also some Tibetans, Sri Lankans, and Thai. We were seated in chairs on the ground at one side, completely by ourselves. Later, two men nailed a cardboard sign nearby, but we had no idea what it said--"Visitors"? "Observers"? "Press"? "Aliens"?
During the opening remarks, lay people continued streaming in. Generally, men sat on one side, and women on the other, with kids running back and forth. We took the precepts, but none of the speeches were in English, so we were not sure what they were about. When the monks descended to go for lunch, we also left and got in the van. We could have joined the monks for lunch, but, knowing that the food would be too hot for us and that our presence was not needed for the afternoon program, which included closed meetings and a procession through the town, we suggested that Bhante go to lunch and that we return to the hotel. He agreed.
We could only speculate on what was said at the afternoon meeting and in their all-night discussions, but we were well aware of many of the issues. Although there were a few Tibetan Buddhist lamas sitting on the dais, and the program included some chanting in their tradition, there had been some criticism of the Tibetans. Indian monks sometimes faulted the Dalai Lama for not supporting their campaign for Buddhist control of the MahaBodhi Temple. (Discussed below.) As refugees in India, the Tibetans might have felt they had to be careful about disagreements with caste Hindus, but this was a source of contention with Indian Buddhists. Nor had the Dalai Lama endeared himself by declaring that Hinduism and Buddhism were the same or, at least, "twin brothers." This issue of the distinction between Hinduism and Buddhism was also raised by the Goenka Vipassana Meditation Centers. Although these are the most accessible centers for meditation, located throughout India (as well as the world), S.N. Goenka had frequently declared,"The Buddha never founded a religion," and "The Dhamma is neither Hindu nor Buddhist."
For Dalits, who, in converting to Buddhism, rejected the degradation and discrimination they experienced in Hinduism, the distinction was crucial. Furthermore, it seemed that they felt most comfortable with Theravada Buddhism. Most of Mahayana Buddhism, and particularly Tibetan Buddhism, with its elaborate rituals, bore too close a resemblance to Hinduism.
Proper reverence for the Sangha was another important topic. There was frequent mention of the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order, which had no place for the traditional Sangha. Members of that group, founded by Sangharakshita, who had originally ordained as a Theravada monk, instead respected their own teachers, called "Dharmacharis."
In the evening, when we returned to the site, we found an awesome number of people already gathered on the grounds. While speeches continued, we took a break to browse the stalls which had been set up around the entrance, selling Buddhist books, posters, tapes, CDs, images, key chains, and the like. We were happy to find an early essay in English by Dr. Ambedkar on castes in India and several graded readers about Dr. Ambedkar, his wife, and Mahatma Phoule.
Many more monks arrived, so we returned to our accustomed places. After Sasai-Sensei gave the refuges and precepts, there were Dhamma talks in Marathi and Hindi. One Sri Lankan monk, Ven. Sugatavamsa Mahathera, who had spent about fifteen years in India, spoke about Buddhist morality, and we were able to follow along because he used a lot of Pali. Bhante later explained that some of the Indian monks had reproved certain politicians for taking advantage of the Buddhists. Because Dalits were a huge population, they were also a crucial voting bloc, and politicians often promised the moon, but delivered nothing. Monks were sought after to sit on the dais at rallies and political meetings, but, at other times, they taken for granted, ignored, or even disrespected. Monks had to be careful not to be exploited by these unscrupulous politicians. Politics and monasticism didn't mix smoothly. A monk had to uphold vinaya, with his first obligation, the Buddha Sasana.
In his speech, Bhante presented an update on the situation of the campaign which had been one of his most important concerns for some years--Buddhist control of MahaBodhi Temple in BuddhaGaya. For all Buddhists, the MahaBodhi Temple, which marks the place where Gotama attained enlightenment and became the Buddha more than two thousand five hundred ninety years ago, must be the most important place in India. This site has been revered since the time of the Buddha. We know that, in the third century B.C.E., King Ashoka built a shrine there to commemorate Buddha's enlightenment. The Great Temple as we know it today probably dates from between the fifth and seventh centuries C.E. During the reign of the Pala Kings of Bengal and Bihar (eighth to twelfth centuries), the Mahabodhi Temple was lavishly supported and most of the images and smaller stupas in the compound date from this period.
There are records of frequent visits to the temple by foreign delegations. It is clear that the monastic center was under Buddhist control until the Muslim invasions of the early thirteenth century. This was a time of great chaos in India; temples were destroyed and sacred statues defaced. After that, the Mahabodhi Temple, neglected and infrequently visited, fell into ruin.
|The Mahabodhi Temple|
In the late sixteenth century a wandering sadhu, called the Mahant, set himself up in the village of BuddhaGaya and built a temple to Siva near the remains of the Mahabodhi Temple, taking what he wanted of images and artifacts into his compound. In the early nineteenth century, the Burmese king sent a mission to repair the temple and later himself paid a visit. After the Mahabodhi Temple was officially identified as the site of the Buddha's enlightenment by the British, the colonial administration, in particularly Alexander Cunningham of the Archeological Department, became interested in fully excavating the site. The Mahant, who had until this time not paid much attention to the temple itself, claimed it as part of his family's property.
Inside the pavillion is a plaque describing the restoration by the Burmese king
Inside the Mahant's Palace
Buddha images in the Mahant's Palace
Toward the end of the nineteenth century, the great Sri Lankan Buddhist activist, Anagarika Dharmapala, began a campaign to restore the Mahabodhi Temple to Buddhists, with law suits and legal battles over the temple ownership. It pained him to see Hindus desecrating and abusing the sacred site and stealing relics and images with impunity. Dharmapala devoted himself to the struggle, getting beaten up several times for his trouble and spending a fortune in legal fees. In 1906, the lawsuits ended in his defeat, but he did not give up. He campaigned and struggled to the end of his life. The British Colonial Government might have tended to side with a (local) Hindu, rather than cede control to a group of foreign Buddhists, especially considering that one of the most significant foreign Buddhist groups was Japanese, and war with Japan appeared immanent. In 1949, the Indian Government passed the Bodhgaya Temple Act, establishing a committee of four Buddhists and four Hindus to handle temple affairs, but this has not proved satisfactory.
Complete control over the great MahaBodhi Temple and the removal of the Shivaite shrine located directly in front of it have been of deep and abiding concern for all Indian Buddhists. As Ven. Ananda, National General Secretary
of the Akhil Bharatiya Bhikkhu Mahasangh put it, "If the management of no Hindu temple, Christian church, Muslim mosque, or Sikh gurdwara is under the control of any other religion, why is this the case for the Mahabodhi Temple, which is recognized by the entire world, including UNESCO, as a Buddhist temple?"
|The red building, inside the gate, is the Shivaite temple|
There were many more speeches, of which we could understand little. Some young boys who wanted to practice their English came and sat next to us. "Are you Buddhist?" one of them asked. As soon as we had answered, more questions quickly followed: "What is your favorite animal?" "Are you happy?" "Do you like India?" "What is your name?" They also offered basic information about themselves: "My name is Rajiv," and "This is my best friend Kishan" One of them handed us his notebook and asked, "Would you write your name please?" After a few minutes, a man (an official?) approached and told them to stop bothering us. We weren't at all bothered. They were really nice kids.
Back at the hotel we downloaded photos, showered and went to sleep. Toward morning, when Ken pulled his blanket up, he felt something, perhaps a staple or a pin, prick his lip. "Strange," he thought, only half-awake. Then he felt something in the bed and brushed with his arm. He heard something hit the nightstand and vaguely saw a moving shape. He woke Visakha and flicked on the light. Visakha saw a large rat scurrying up an exposed pipe at the head of the bed. Ken immediately washed his mouth with soap and bottled water. Inside his lip was a scratch, which didn't look like a bite. Of course, we thought of rabies. Just the day before, we had seen a big sign on a brick building: "If bitten by a dog, get your rabies shots!" A rat scratch? With the critter long gone, there was no way to tie it up for ten days for observation. There was no pain, but the inside of his lip swelled, and he could feel something there. He just noted "feeling, feeling," and we hoped for the best. Our bodies are shared with many others, and so are our hotel rooms!
The morning program at the conference site started late and was cut short by a power failure (Surprise! Surprise!), so we left. We had been invited for lunch by a family in the railway colony. Bhusawal is a major junction and a center for carriage repair. Bhante was eager for us to meet this family because the daughter had completed her Masters in English and had already done several translations for him, including some of Ledi Sayadaw's Manuals. She was, indeed, very articulate, and it was a treat to talk with her. She explained that her father was a poet, and she presented us with a book of his poetry in Marathi. The delicious meal included roti made from jawar (millet). We had seen this growing all over Maharashtra, but had not tasted it. Most people considered it ordinary fare, but Bhante had informed this family that we were eager to try it and they were happy to oblige. Actually, Bhante also liked it very much himself, but almost never got it because donors didn't think it was good enough to serve monks. Farmers, Bhante explained, grew jawar on poor, arid land, and rice on richer, well-irrigated land.
We were not allowed to leave the colony without stopping in a number of other compact, neat homes. Each family presented a bag of fruit for Bhante's breakfast, certainly enough for the rest of the trip. As they accompanied us back to our car, our hosts commented, "These Buddhist friends are as close as, or even closer than, our own family!"
It was a long way from Bhusawal to Nashik. Bhante estimated that we would be there by eight o'clock. Looking at the map, Ken predicted nine. Ever the pessimist, Visakha put her money on ten. Around dusk, we noticed that we were passing an inordinate number of trucks loaded with tomatoes. Soon we passed the central tomato market for all of India. Huge storehouses stretched for miles, all filled with boxes, baskets, and piles of the red fruit. (Vegetable?) A little later, the scene was repeated, but, this time, it involved onions. The trucks and tractors were normal enough, but trailers pulled by oxen had a feeling of "The Twilight Zone"!
Further along the highway there was so much construction, with very few signs when traffic switched lanes or took a detour through a ravine that we feared that all estimates of arrival time would be wrong. At one point, we were passed by a loping camel and rider. The road was so dark we wondered how they could manage without headlights!
We reached the city limit of Nashik at eight, but it was nine by the time we got to the train station where we were meeting our contact on a motorcycle. He took us to an almost completed vihara, built on the site of a library which had often been used by Dr. Ambedkar. On the roof, we met Ven. Nyanissara, the abbot of the Burmese temple in Kushinagar. He was overseeing the preparations for the dedication ceremony, scheduled for the next day, which would include crowning the new pagoda with a golden htee, or umbrella. What we could see of the vihara was elegant, with ornamental pillars painted red and gold. Workmen would labor all night on the marble altar to be ready in time.
Our guide led us on motorcycle to the guest house, where, it seemed, Ven Nyanissara was staying. It was spartan, little more than a dormitory, so we declined and headed for the Nataraj Hotel, which we had passed on the way in. (We checked in at ten, so Visakha was right, too!) It was clean, the rooms were well-fitted, and the price was reasonable. The biggest surprise was that there was a pool. We scheduled breakfast a bit early to allow for a short swim.
We were the only guests in the restaurant for breakfast. The upma (made from semolina; <http://www.thokalath.com/cuisine/breakfast.php#upma>) was tasty. The waiters were all Dalits, and, happy to see a monk, they gave us special service. Afterwards, we put on our suits and wraps and checked out the pool, but one whiff, and we realized that swimming was not such a good idea. No expectations, no disappointments.
Nashik was the natural stopping place because we could not make it all the way to Mumbai in one day. Our schedule did not permit us to explore the many ancient Buddhist caves there, or to visit the Hindu temple where Dr. Ambedkar had been refused entrance long years before. There was only time to stop at the monumental stupa at the foot of the hill, with the complex of caves just visible half way up.
The impressive structure had been built by the municipal government to attract tourists. There were people milling about outside, but Bhante led us through the gate (No guards tried to stop the monk.), and into the ground floor gallery. We were virtually alone as we viewed impressive collages of photographs of Buddhist sites throughout in India. When we went upstairs, we found that there were a few people on the veranda, but the doors were locked. No one minded that we stepped though an open window into the circular worship hall directly below the white dome. The front of the hall was dominated by a superb golden Buddha image, done by a famous artist. Workmen were testing sound equipment and laying mats for an official function; the opening and dedication of the stupa was to be that very day. As we started to leave, a group of monks and lay people streamed in. We were almost back at our vehicle when one of the organizing monks, recognizing Bhante's seniority, requested him to return and to lead the chanting. We were certainly glad he agreed, for it was a lovely ceremony. It gave us an opportunity to further admire the sensitive features of the golden Buddha, and the acoustics were perfect for the Paritta.
Between Nashik and Mumbai lay Igatpuri, where Goenka had built DhammaGiri, the headquarters of his Vipassana International Academy. (We did not visit his new Golden Pagoda, recently opened just off the coast of Mumbai.) We entered the compound through the beautiful "Myanmar Gate," which, as its name implies, looked just like Burma. The meditation center was located up the hill in the forest. A ten-day course was just finishing, so meditators were lounging around the grounds, shopping for books and enjoying their release from silence. Bhante and Ken wandered around to see the facilities, which reminded Ken of the Mahasi center in Rangoon, but with all buildings and entrances labeled: "Men's Hall," "Laundry," "Infirmary," etc. Ken got the impression that the rules and organization at Dhamma Giri were probably quite strict. It certainly was a quiet place, conducive to meditation. At the bookshop, Ken picked up the complete ten-day course on DVD, feeling it likely he would never actually attend a Goenka course.
During our many hours in the van, Bhante continued relating the story of his past.
Rajiv graduated from Dr. Ambedkar College of Arts and Commerce with very good marks. He immediately approached Ven. Gurudhamma, a senior monk in Aurangabad and requested ordination as a Samanera, but the monk asked him about his parents' permission. Both parents, but especially his mother, were unwilling to grant permission. His mother insisted that he complete his education and find a job. She agreed, however, to allow him to ordain after five years. He asked many times, but the answer was always no. In 1991, his parents did gave his special permission to ordain for ten days at a "novice camp, which was a worthwhile experience and only reinforced his desire to become a monk.
He returned to Aurangabad to study and competed both his Bachelor's and Master's degrees in five years. Pali and Buddhism were his favorite subjects. He received his M.A. with First Merit Honors.
Ven. Gurudhamma encouraged Rajiv to pursue a doctorate in Buddhist studies at Benares Hindu University. Excited at the opportunity to study at this prestigious institution, he presented his introduction and recommendation letters to the Chairman of the Buddhist Studies Department. After looking over the transcripts and referrals, the Chairman informed Rajiv that he was not eligible to study at BHU. "You low-caste people," he declared, using vulgar language we will not repeat here, "are always fighting. You don't believe in reincarnation, and you don't accept that Buddha was the ninth incarnation of Vishnu!" Rajiv was furious. He rebuked the professor for his filthy mouth and his ignoble attitude, and left Benares in disgust. He thought of studying at Delhi University, but the date for filing an application had just past. There was one connection, however, which offered a ray of hope. Dr.Sanghasena Singh had been the department head at Milinda College, and Rajiv had attended a two-day lecture he gave on the Four Brahma Viharas. Rajiv still had his card with his signature, so he visited the professor in Delhi. Dr. Singh invited him to study for a Master's Degree in Philosophy in Delhi, but, having already completed one Master's in Aurangabad, Rajiv was not willing to do that.
Frustrated at not being able to continue his studies, Rajiv joined a two-month course in Nagpur to prepare for the Maharashtra Public Service Commission Examination. Again, he asked his mother about becoming a novice, but she wasn't quite ready to agree. For Buddha Jayanti Day, he went on pilgrimage to BuddhaGaya with several upasikas from Chandramani Buddha Vihar in Nagpur. Rajiv hoped to sell copies of a book written by one of his teachers, Dr. Vimalkirti. In BuddhaGaya he met Ven. Sasai again and became interested in the campaign for Buddhist control of the MahaBodhi Temple, in which Ven. Sasai was actively involved. After Rajiv returned home, he approached his mother again, reviewing with her the options open to him. Since he was not able to study for his doctorate, at least for the time being, he asked if he might ordain, leaving open the possibility of finishing his studies and finding employment at a later date. His mother finally agreed, and, on May 29, 1993, Rajiv entered the Sangha as Samanera Pannasila. This is Sanskritized as Prajnasheel, but Ven. Sasai always called him "Pragyasila." Although he had told his mother that it was only temporary, he never disrobed. In 1995 he had his upasampada higher ordination in BuddhaGaya, and neither he nor his parents have regretted his decision.
|Igatpuri - Mumbai|
As we entered Mumbai, we passed a huge highway construction project which Bhante told us was sponsored by the World Bank. The hillside had been cut to make way for the roadway. Sitting on top of the cliff, with no protection whatsoever, were shacks with little kids running around in front of them and peering off the edge. We couldn't help but wonder how people could survive like that. In Mumbai, slums had sprung up everywhere--in open fields, under bridges, and on wide sidewalks. Life in the rural villages was so hard that poor people flocked to the city where they could manage to find some sort of work and sufficient food to support life.
Our phones buzzed whenever we got text messages. Usually, it was useless advertising, but, one day, we were informed that a new law had come into effect, banning child labor. We had read about this in the newspaper and seen announcements on TV. This was a very big step for India. It was estimated that the country had up to 115 million working children, some as young as four years old--the largest number of any country in the world. Children often worked sixteen hours a day, sweating in the sun in stone quarries, working in fields, picking rags, or collecting bottles. Many served tea in restaurants or toiled as virtual slaves in someone else's house. Most never learned to read and write. All of this was supposed to stop on that day. The penalty for violation of the law was said to be very stiff. Good luck to the kids!
The newspapers continued to be full of stories of diseases spreading everywhere. In Mumbai and throughout Maharashtra, there were outbreaks cholera as well as the mosquito-borne dengue, malaria, and chikunguniya, which we had never before heard of. Chikunguniya was said to be seldom fatal, but still painful and debilitating. It began with a brief fever and rash, but fatigue, as well as pain and swelling in the joints could continue for months.
All these resurgent diseases pointed to India's public health and sanitation failures. Hygiene was not taught in most schools. Students complained that their teachers spat in the classroom. Open defecation was commonly practiced everywhere. Slums were criss-crossed by open sewers. Cities throughout the world offer contrasts--we remembered seeing sprawling slums around the five-star hotels in Jakarta--but in Mumbai they were extreme. Passing in front of hovels of the poor and forging through beggars in the street was a bus with a bright-colored slogan painted on the side: "Is your gratuity working as hard as your employees?"
The next morning, we headed northwest to attend the closing ceremony of a Buddhist women's conference at Nala Sopara Stupa. We were pleased to be able to return to this site, which had been a highlight of our visit to Mumbai in 2004. Sopara, an ancient port, was the Sophir mentioned in Greek history. Buddhists were present there in the third century B.C., and the remains of the Ashokan stupa were discovered in 1882. When we'd visited there two years before, the stupa, which had been badly excavated, appeared quite neglected, marked only by a sign in Marathi. This year, the broken stupa was covered with plastic sheeting, which, though not at all attractive, offered some protection. A canvas pavilion had been set up nearby, and many people (mostly women) were already there. Bhante was ushered onto the dais to sit with several nuns and other monks in front of the altar, while we were seated in chairs at the side, just in front of the dais. After a few introductory remarks, we gathered at an altar at one side of the stupa and performed a puja, lighting candles and incense, then taking refuge and precepts. Next we moved to a smaller pavilion where lunch was served to the Sangha who sat in rows on the tarpaulins. We were served at a small table to the side. We had stopped on the way to buy bananas. More by accident than by design, there were exactly enough for the monks and nuns. Finishing before noon, we returned to the large pavilion, while lunch was served cafeteria-style to all the upasakas and upasikas. Interesting that at this conference, which was trying to declare gender equality, the men and women lined up to be served at separate tables.
The conference was sponsored by a nun who resided in Nala Sopara, but it had been organized by a young human rights lawyer who had only recently donned robes. When called upon, we spoke briefly about our own Buddhist conversion, about Hinduism as the greatest enemy of Buddhism, and about the importance of vinaya, the rules which govern Buddhist monasticism. As we understand it, one of the main reasons that the institution of the Sangha has survived more than two thousand five hundred fifty years is its democratic constitution. In our remarks, we avoided all controversy. Of course, we strongly support Dalit women's liberation, but we could not help but feel that the organizer was insufficiently familiar with the Buddha's teaching, especially the vinaya. We admired her goals, but found the rhetoric confusing. The definition of Sangha being espoused at the conference appeared more like the Mahayana (Zen) concept we'd found in the US, which was quite different from the interpretation and observance of vinaya within the Theravada tradition. There was also a blurring of the distinction between samameri and bhikkhuni, which we found serious. We concluded that this samaneri might have been more effective waging her campaign for women's rights as a laywoman, rather than in robes.
We left the conference with the distinct impression that many Indian Buddhists were not careful enough when they used the terms "bhikkhu" (monk), "bhikkhuni" (nun), and "samanera" and "samaneri" (male and female novices). One should not to refer to a man who observes only ten precepts as monk or bhikkhu! Apparently, some novices did try to pass as monks who had received higher ordination. Without asking directly, there was no way to know. On the other hand, all women in robes were called "nuns," and this was sometimes inappropriately translated as "bhikkhuni." Again, this confusion was exacerbated by the lack of proper training centers in India, with few members of the Sangha having any knowledge of vinaya. In other Theravada countries, it was generally understood that samaneras had to stay with their teachers until higher ordination, and that a bhikkhu should remain with his teacher for a further five years. This was not practical in India yet, but the need for proper bhikkhu training was obvious. There was also a clear need for a proper registration of Sangha, so that a person who put on robes could not immediately go about collecting alms and teaching on his own, pretending to have been ordained.
As regards bhikkhuni ordination, which is an important issue to be addressed in all Theravada traditions, please visit:
The material on this web site was written from the perspective of a Tibetan nun, but the history and issues have been quite clearly presented.
When we have related our experiences in India, many people have responded with the question, "Are these followers of Dr. Ambedkar real Buddhists?" All of the above discussion notwithstanding, the answer must be an unequivocal "Yes!" How presumptuous, we often felt, for Buddhists from either a Mahayana or a Theravada tradition, who know that many of their co-religionists (perhaps even they themselves) are not firm in their faith and practice, to ask such a question! How many in Sri Lanka, Thailand, or Japan can say that they never indulge in superstition, refrain from wearing gold when they take the eight precepts, never drink alcohol, or do not ask favors from deities? The Ambedkarites have taken refuge in the same Triple Gem. They understand and strive to observe the five precepts. Many have widely read the Dhamma and hunger to know more. It behooves all Buddhists to be tolerant and accepting. We are reminded of the official in the Department of Fine Arts in Thailand who declared to our faces, "You are American; you can't be Buddhist!" One can, indeed, be Buddhist by choice, and not just by birth.
Our last excursion was south of Mumbai. At first, we had heard that we were going to Ratnagiri, but later it was pinpointed as the town of Khed, where there was to be a ceremony. Bhante had originally suggested we leave at six in the morning, which meant getting up at about four. We groaned, and he agreed to have breakfast at the hotel and to leave at nine. We were ready to go, but the car did not come until ten-thirty, just in time to wait for us while we offered lunch to Bhante at an outstanding restaurant just past Khar Station, recommended by the receptionist, a Buddhist from Darjeeling. After anumodana, we proceeded to Sanghamitra Buddha Vihara, Bhante's temple in Mumbai, which was built next to a resettled slum for people who had encroached on railway land.
Several other devotees who were also going to Khed joined us at the Vihara. One of them was the director of a new TV station, JayaBhim News, the first station to offer Dalit and Buddhist programming. It was going on the air in a few days, but, at first, only in Maharashtra. It sounded like an exciting innovation which we hoped would succeed and prosper.
The ride to Khed was supposed to be about three or four hours, but it took more than five hours to get there. The regular driver was off for some reason, and the replacement, who had been pressed into service, was not very skillful. He did not understand hills and curves. At every curve, he accelerated and then braked, which made for a very rough ride. Ken and the other two men sitting in the back were quite cramped, and at least one passenger was feeling ill. We sympathized with the young man, who was obviously not even a professional driver, but we realized how spoiled we had become over the past fifteen years with Khun Thong's driving through the mountains of Thailand.
We were put up in a fine hotel. As we were settling in, we had two surprise visitors--an elderly gentleman, claiming to be a local Muslim, accompanied by another who introduced himself as the village headman. They had lots of questions for us, which we answered sparingly. They seemed to be checking to see who the heck we were. Later, we learned that they most probably were not at all who they said they were. Bhante felt that they were probably Hindus impersonating Muslims, who had been sent to find out whether we were important enough to kidnap. Bhante was quite upset that we had let them into our room. He himself had been kidnaped once in BuddhaGaya, but had managed to escape in time to carry out the conversion program that the Hindus had aimed to prevent.
The next morning, we drove through the town to a nearby hill. After going up a narrow road, we left the car and climbed up, up, up to two simple caves with good drip ledges and monks' beds carved from the rock wall. These would have been the night quarters. Making our way around the hill (Visakha could only do such things with Ken's considerable help, of course.), we found a large cave which would have served as a worship hall. Around the sides of this hall was a ledge on which monks could have sat. There were several small chambers for meditation at the sides. At the back of the cave (the front of the hall) was another sizable chamber containing a beautiful stupa carved from the rock. This configuration dated the cave to the reign of King Ashoka in the third century B.C.E. Until recently, this cave had been used by a Muslim trader who had kept his donkeys inside, but it had been reclaimed by local Buddhists. A small image of the Buddha and an incense burner had been placed in front of the stupa, and ceremonies were regularly held there. Our guides spread mats so that we could all kneel in the hall while Bhante led us in worship. The sound of the chanting which filled the cave was wonderful. We heard that there were also a number of small Buddhist caves on the other side of the hill, but these were used by Hindus.
In the afternoon, we drove to a remote village for the ceremony. To our surprise, we were the guests of honor. We were even met by a band, who drummed us through the village to the center stage. A canopy had been erected, and hundreds of devotees had already gathered and were sitting quietly when we arrived. Although the village was entirely Buddhist, several Muslim dignitaries were there to greet us. The right-wing Hindu organization, Shiv Sena, was said to be active in Khed, but relations between Buddhists and Muslims were congenial. After paying respects in the vihara, we were called upon to cut the ribbon on a plaque installed at the entrance. The inscription was written in Devanagiri, but we were told that it included our names. Then we were seated on the dais. There were garlands, speeches, and gifts, but the ceremony didn't last as long as it might have, for Bhante had informed the organizers that we had to return early to Mumbai.
We had hoped to be back at the hotel by dusk, to have time to repack at our leisure for the early morning flight back to Colombo. Unfortunately, the driver's skill had not improved, and his night vision was terrible, so we didn't reach the edge of Mumbai until about eleven o'clock. Since the vihara where Bhante was going and the homes of all the other passengers were in the southern part of the city, and our hotel was in the northern part, we suggested that we switch to a taxi. This was much faster for us, and much more convenient for all the others. We managed a few hours sleep and made it to the airport right on time. In Mumbai, there is little traffic at six o'clock in the morning. All our flights were on schedule, and Chanda was waiting at the Colombo airport to drive us back to Kandy. (November 18)
Let us conclude "Journey to the Center of India" by sharing these verses from a small volume we found at Buddhist Publication Society Bookshop.
Stanzas of Victory by Sunita the Outcaste
Born in a low caste,
Then the Master,
|So I dwelled in the forest
And followed the Master's advice
In the first watch of the night
I became conscious of my past births;
In the middle watch
Clarified was my divine eye.
In the last watch of the night
Just as the day dawned
I broke asunder the gloom of ignorance.
Then came Indra and Brahma.
With folded hands,
They paid reverence to me;
"Hail unto thee, thou noblest of men!
Hail unto thee, thou highest of men!
Deserving of reverence are you
For all your desires have perished."
Seeing me revered by the gods,
Smiled and said:
"One becomes holy
By discipline, celibacy, virtue,
And wisdom. Here is holiness supreme!"
|From Thera-Theri Gatha, (Inspired Utterance of Buddhist Monks and Nuns), Sixth Century BC - Third Century BC, Translated by Edmund Jayasuriya, Buddhist Cultural Center, Dehiwala, Sri Lanka, 1999, No. 50, pp 40-42|