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Buddhadharma : Spring 2011
Pali chants, studying dharma, and meditating—with an image of the Buddha and a photo of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar adorned with garlands of fresh flow- ers. During a two-week visit to India, even in the grimmest of circumstances I could feel their joy in the dharma and their hunger for deeper practice and understanding. The Buddha was clear: “I teach about suffering and the end of suffering.” For those who suffer day after day, year after year, this mes- sage is hope itself. The 2001 census puts India’s Buddhist population at eight million, more than 90 percent from the untouchable commu- nities; some scholars suggest that the number of uncounted or undeclared Buddhists is around thirty million. Buddhist communities are scattered across the nation, with the largest concentration in the state of Maharashtra. “Jai Bhim!” is how Indian Buddhists greet each other. It means “Victory to Bhim”—the founder of their movement, Dr. Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar. Ambedkar was born in 1891 to a poor but educated fam- ily of Mahars, the largest untouchable caste in Maharashtra. Untouchables were excluded from many aspects of ordinary Hindu life, usually barred from entering temples, going to school, or even living within the boundaries of rural villages. Today, the numerous Dalit communities—differentiated by region, ethnicity, and subcaste—remain largely confined to occupations such as butchering, leatherwork, sweeping, and the removal of rubbish, human waste or dead animals. These jobs are seen as impure activities that are “polluting” to higher castes, and that pol- lution is viewed as somehow contagious. Fortunately for the young Ambedkar, his father served in the colonial Indian Army, and he became one of the first untouchables to attend an Indian university. By his early thirties he had earned doctorates from Columbia University and the London School of Economics, and a place at the bar in Gray’s Inn, a cornerstone of the British legal estab- lishment. The extreme prejudice that Ambedkar experienced not only as boy, but later, despite his academic achievements, is hard for many of us in the West to imagine, even in light of our own history of racism. When he returned to India to practice law in Baroda, he was one of the best-educated men in the country, but, as an untouchable, he was unable to find housing and prohibited from dining with his colleagues. Clerks tossed files onto his desk for fear of his “polluting” touch. Caste means hereditary bondage passed from generation to generation under a dominant Brahmanic society. Contrary to the Buddhist meaning of these same words, in this Hindu system “karma” means fate or the caste one is born into, and “dharma” means the duty to live out one’s life within When Ambedkar returned to India to practice law, he was one of the best-educated men in the country, but, as an untouchable, he was unable to find housing and prohibited from dining with his colleagues. Clerks tossed files onto his desk for fear of his “polluting” touch. Hozan alan Senauke is vice-abbot of the Berkeley zen Center and former executive director of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship. He is the author of The Bodhisattva’s Embrace: Dispatches from Engaged Buddhism’s Front Lines. PhotoRoshiJoanhalifax Dalit children at a nursery school run by the Indian wing of Friends of the Western Buddhist Order (now called Triratna Buddhist Community) buddhadharma: the practitioner’s quarterly spRing 2 0 11