Twenty Years in India and What Next?


In August in 1978 Bhante raised his glass of apple juice at my farewell dinner at Padmaloka. ‘Here’s to your first 25 years’, he said. This came as a shock. I had realised that leaving for India was a long-term commitment but I had never been able to think of more than 5 years ahead at that time. Then only did it begin to sink in. 25 years was basically a life-time. Fortunately since leaving the UK I have never wanted to return on a permanent basis. 20 years were completed last August, and at that time I resigned as President of all the different centres here. Altogether I have spent just over 80% of my Order life here. This time has never been smooth, never easy, almost always difficult, faced with problems I never imagined, or ever thought I would deserve. And yet I could never have imagined such a full and rewarding life, involved as I have been, directly or indirectly, and together with many friends, in the initiation of most of the areas of the work of TBMSG until now.

This has included:

In the course of all this work I got to know most Order Members (except those ordained recently) and some very well indeed. Without Dhammalochana’s support I am not sure that I would have come back to India. Dharmarakshita and Vimalakirti not only translated in classes, lectures, tours and for our publications, but were at the forefront of the Movement in many ways. It was with Bodhisen that we explored the slums of Bombay, and the villages of Konkan. Shakyanand and Sanghasen were both great figures of inspiration, opening up wide new vistas for the movement and who, for the last years of their lives, were moving constantly from village to village; touring with them was one of the richest experiences of my life in India. Bakul and Ratnakar were the two pillars on whom we were able to establish our work in Ahmedabad. Bodhidhamma and Maitreynath played key roles in developing the social work. Chandrasil was my constant companion for the May one-month retreats, and with Adityabodhi and Sudarshan played such an important part in developing the Mitra System and the Chapters. Buddhapriya made possible the Bhaja retreat centre project and was always ready to support me, whatever the difficulty. The list could go on and on to include many more Order Members, but these are some of the earlier friends I worked with. There were also a number of western Order members without whom much of this would have been much more difficult, including Padmavajra, Purna, Vajraketu, Padmasuri, Virabhadra, Asvajit and Jyotipala.

From the mid 1980’s I began to withdraw from some of the growing administrative demands of TBMSG and Bahujan Hitay, the social wing. But whenever I drew back, we seemed to expand in other ways, making more demands on my attention. Gradually very capable Order Members were taking on more responsibility and from 1993 Mahamati’s arrival in India meant I could leave more of my duties with regard to Karuna and Bahujan Hitay. Around the same time Suvajra took over the ordination process for men and Srimala for women, freeing me up in those areas. I was still president of all the centres of India, but after some time realised that I should work towards leaving this responsibility as well. As such I was seen as the head of the Movement in India with unfortunate consequences. Although as such I had no administrative responsibilities, people saw me as the administrative head, and brought all sorts of difficulties to me which should have been solved by others. Eventually there had to be Indian presidents, but while I was there, this was unlikely to happen. It was my twentieth year in India, I was feeling constricted by my position, that it was not helping me or the Movement. I felt I had to make a break. After consulting with Bhante and other friends, I decided to resign as president of all the Indian Centres, and am now without any position.

What am I going to do? At present I am not quite sure, and am in no hurry to make up my mind. I do however intend to stay in India. Not only do I have my family here but as I said above I have no desire to return to UK to live again. There are several strong themes in my life at present which may will play an important part in what I finally decide to do.

The first of these is to do with working from a position. I came to the conclusion over nine or ten years ago that I could help the Movement here best not from within any of our institutions. It is not that I disagree with our institutions — I have spent all my Order life establishing them and working within them. With the part I played in starting activities here and my long experience I felt that there was a danger that I would strengthen the negative aspects of institutionalism. One can never be sure how much the position affects one’s relationships with others. I had found this especially in the ordination process. So for some time I want to work outside or perhaps alongside the formal institutions of TBMSG.

The second theme has to do with why I came to work here in India. I was deeply inspired by the coincidence of the visions of Sangharakshita and Dr. Ambedkar. I saw that Buddhism was not only coming back to India, but coming back in a way which had far reaching social implications for the society concerned and for Buddhism itself. The lectures of Sangharakshita’s that had most deeply moved me were those on the Sutra of Golden Light in which the mutuality of transformation of self and world were made clear. This seemed to be ideal situation for exploring this great principle. We have only just began this exploration, and I do not want to leave it here. I want to continue to be part of this process, clarifying basic principles and learning how to apply them to the situation we are in. I want to help develop a stronger sense of vision, values and commitment. I hope to do this through friendship, meditation, lectures and study with those most deeply involved in TBMSG, as well as writing.

The third factor has to do with the social barriers that exist in the world. My decision to come to work here as well as my marriage to someone from a very different culture were influenced by the feeling that I should make a stand in this area. The ideal of an international community transcending social, cultural, racial and national conditioning united by ethical and spiritual values was what I longed for and I found that in principle in the FWBO/TBMSG.

On my first visit to India in Nagpur and Pune I saw that the followers of Dr. Ambedkar had a chance through Buddhism to transcend some of the most rigid and oppressive social barriers in the world. But this would have to happen not only through their own practice but also through being part of a spiritual community that transcended caste and national boundaries. Caste barriers, especially at the lower end of the social scale, are so strong in India that if Buddhism does not go beyond the ex-Mahar [1] community they themselves will be seen only as the Buddhist ’ex-’ untouchable [2] caste.

If they are seen like that they will attract few from other castes and communities. If Buddhism remains in one caste, there will be a strong tendency for the old caste conditioning to dominate their attitudes. Buddhism will be in danger of strengthening their old caste identity rather than helping to transcend it. This will only serve to further discourage others from joining a sangha in which they dominate. The end result will be that they will not get a chance to experience a society that transcends caste conditioning, but will remain cut off from people of different social and cultural backgrounds in India. Transcending social barriers is therefore crucial for the success of the new society Dr. Ambedkar wanted to see as a result of his conversion to Buddhism.

Our work has made a significant contribution to the revival of Buddhism in India so far, however the future is still very uncertain partly because our work is by and large limited to one section of society. If we are to make the Order really strong we have to begin to integrate people from different social backgrounds in it. This is not going to be easy and to my mind constitutes the real challenge for TBMSG. This is an area I have been taking tentative steps in, along with other members of the Order in India, and I would like to continue this.

There are many other themes in my life here which will probably continue in one way or another. Over the last few years I have been organising seminars involving Buddhist and other social activists and academics. This is important not only to communicate what we are doing to others, but also to learn to listen and think about the questions they have. Since 1989 I have been visiting Taiwan regularly to raise funds for the work here. The people who help us there have become very dear Dhamma friends, and I have to fulfil my responsibilities to them. Most important, I know most members of the Order in India, some very well indeed, and I want to be able to give more time to keeping in contact with them.

Having said all this, for a couple of years I just want to be much quieter than I have since I became a Dhammachari. If I continue with some of the above activities, it will be on a very low key during this period. I want time to take stock of myself and to review my relationship with the Movement in India, and to see how I can best help. After this I may devote myself more fully to these activities, but I may not. I feel that my future is wide open at present and for some time want to keep it that way.

Originally published in Madhyamavani: Spring 1999 (Birmingham: Madhyamaloka, 1999).


[1] This was the caste to which Dr. Ambedkar belonged and who converted almost without exception to Buddhism under his inspiration. It is now therefore not correct to use the word Mahar, and I am doing so only to make a specific point. They were based mainly in the state of Maharashtra. [Return]

[2] The Mahars were known as untouchables in the Hindu caste system. The constitution has outlawed untouchability and therefore legally it is not correct to speak of untouchables, hence the word ex-untouchables is sometimes used instead. However quite understandably people do not like being referred to in this way at all as this was a cruel designation given to them according to the Hindu scriptures not accepted by them themselves, far removed as it was from basic humane principles. [Return]