A talk by Subhuti at the Conference on Dr Ambedkar and the Modern World, Nagaloka
For the few days before the big event in Nagpur, I have been attending a conference for Buddhists from around the world at Nagaloka, a large and well-equipped centre on the outskirts of Nagpur. 150 monks, activists, Ambedkarites and other Buddhists have gathered in advance of the diksa (conversion) on Monday. It is a little incongruous to be in such secluded surroundings while there is such ferment around us, but the event is a powerful convergence of ideas on the relevance of Buddhism to society in India, East Asia and the West. Attendees included Christopher Queen of Harvard University - the leading western scholar of the Ambedkarite movement.
The keynote talk was by Subhuti, a leading member of the Western Buddhist Order who argued that Dr Ambedkar, the great dalit politician activist and thinker who started the conversion movement 50 years ago, is an important figure for all Buddhists who has made a unique contribution to the tradition. He declared: ‘I now consider myself a follower of Dr Ambedkar.’
Dr Ambedkar’s unique contribution was to bring together a Buddhist perspective with his deep understanding of Indian society and his passionate opposition to oppression. Subhuti commented that Dr Ambedkar realized that ‘caste is a state of mind, and what the mind can create the mind can undo.’ Caste is still very much alive, especially in the Indian villages and those at the bottom of the caste system still suffer violence and persecution every day.
Dr Ambedkar decided at the end of his life to adopt Buddhism and to encourage his followers to do so as well for three reasons, Subhuti said. Firstly, conversion could help ‘uplift the oppressed’. Although Dr Ambedkar had drafted the Indian constitution, which made India a secular democracy, its implementation was dependent on people. ‘The constitution is a palace that is built for gods but occupied by devils.’ He believed that society rests on notions of human identity. The Dalits needed to step outside the system that defined their identity in oppressive terms, and Buddhism was the best alternative because it supports a view of the purpose of society is as the cultivation of the minds of individuals.
In Maharashtra, the central Indian state that was the main center of conversions in 1956. The Buddhists of the Mahar sub-caste have advanced socially much faster than those ‘ex-Untouchable’ communities who have not adopted Buddhism.
Secondly, Dr Ambedkar saw Buddhism as offering a basis for a just society. He believed that democracy requires an attitude of respect for one’s fellow citizens, and this requires that they have a moral sense. Theistic religion, he believed, subordinates man to God, while he saw Buddhism as training people in ethical responsibility and changes underlying attitudes. Buddhist ethics is based in an understanding of he mind and the teaching that actions have consequences.
Thirdly, Dr Ambedkar chose Buddhism for ‘reasons spiritual.’ He felt a lifelong spiritual yearning, realized that this was commonly shared, and discovered that Buddhism addressed his desire to find deeper fulfillment in his inner life.
Subhuti concluded his talk with a call for a response from the wider Buddhist world to Dr Ambedkar’s appeal for help in enabling the new converts to practice Buddhism effectively. ‘Buddhism is in decline around the world, but in India it is being embraced with a sense of passionate urgency.’ However, this requires that Asian Buddhists overcome exclusive identification with their own tradition and see themselves first and foremost as ‘just Buddhists’.