Contacting the Buddha Principle

An interview with Sudarshan

Subhamati: I’d be interested to know something of your early life.

Sudarshan: I am glad to talk about my early life. It was positive life, actually. I was born in 1944 in a village about thirty-five kilometres East of Nagpur in Maharashtra — born into a farming family, which was ‘untouchable’. In our village, there were a good many dalit families. [dalit: literally ‘oppressed’ — the term now usually applied to the former ‘untouchables’]. There were also upper caste families, but no brahmins, although a few brahmins owned land in the village, and sometimes they came there.

Was it unusual for a family like yours to own land?

In some regions of India, ‘untouchables’ were not having any land, but in our region, fortunately, some owned land. My family had more land than the usual person. My grandparents were good, ethical people, and they worked very hard. They bought the land. My grandfather was a moneylender. He used to lend money even to upper-caste Hindu people, even to Brahmins. He was a prosperous man, but very kind. He was called a saint of the village. He brought school to our village for first time. He constructed a house for the school. He dug a well for ‘untouchables’ also. There was no well for us before that time. My mother used to go about two kilometres for fetching drinking water and washing water.

My grandparents had two sons. My parents had five children and my uncle had four children. In my early childhood, we all lived together, farming about fifteen acres. We had quite a lot of cattle and goats. Our economic condition was not much different from middle class people. We even used to employ some servants.

At what stage of your life did the caste system impinge upon your awareness?

I became conscious of caste system when I was about six years old. We couldn’t take water from the wells of high-caste people. We couldn’t go inside their houses. We couldn’t eat with them. It was our ‘caste duty’ to behave in a certain way. I was hating this. I often asked myself: ‘Why am I not allowed to go into temples? Why am I not allowed to take part in religious activities?’ I was feeling a lot of pain from that experience; some anger also. That was the usual feeling for us. Actually, most ‘untouchable’ people felt anger more strongly than me against high-caste Hindus and the caste system.

And presumably that pain and anger fuelled the mass conversions to Buddhism in 1956?

Yes. My parents became Buddhists after Dr Ambedkar converted to Buddhism. They had their conversion ceremony in 1957. I had a conversion ceremony, along with my brothers and sisters, in October 1957. We went to Nagpur for the ceremony. I was thirteen years old.

What were the immediate effects of that conversion in your life?

Before conversion, we had a big shrine of Hindu gods in our house. We used to worship them. Not only my family, but also other people from our community used to come to our house for worship. We all used to pray to the gods and do puja together. But in 1956, we threw away all those gods, and after that we had nothing to do with gods.

How did that feel?

I think we were in angry mood. Actually, what we did was against caste-ism, not really against gods, because we no longer believed in gods. Dr Ambedkar told us not to believe in gods, so we felt there was no reality in these gods. We were thinking, ‘Belief in the gods has created this kind of society, and we don’t want to live in this kind of society.’ And we were thinking, ‘If god is there at all, then why this pain for us? Why this ‘untouchability’?’

But you had been brought up to believe in the gods. You used to worship them. To abandon belief in them so abruptly, your faith in Dr Ambedkar must have been strong.

Tremendous. We had — and have — all hopes in Dr Ambedkar.

Did some fear of the gods remain?

There might have been some fear in my mother’s mind, because later on, after the conversion, she still used to pray sometimes. But my father didn’t have any fear. If there was any kind of Hindu festival, he used not to allow us to perform any rite in that festival. And there was no fear in me. There was a hatred kind of thing. We used to do a lot of things against the gods. If some Hindu shrine was there in the village, we were throwing stones at them, or disfiguring them. (I don’t want to do that now!)

At the time your family converted, what did Buddhism mean to you all?

It meant having nothing to do with gods. It meant practising pancha sila [the five ethical precepts]. It meant performing all rites and ceremonies, such as marriage, in the Buddhist way, and having puja on full moon day. It meant breaking caste barrier, and not doing ‘caste duty’.

Did all the dalit people in your village convert to Buddhism?

Nearly all. A few isolated people did not convert for political reasons, or for fear of gods. The political reason was that they were members of Congress Party, the major party there, and they were believing in Ghandi-ism. Mr Gandhi used to call ‘untouchable’ people Harijan [‘children of God’]. He did this to keep them in Hindu fold, while not doing anything to break caste system, except appealing to higher caste people to open temples for ‘untouchables’.

But ninety-five percent of dalit people in our village converted to Buddhism, and after that they were giving very bad treatment to the dalits who did not convert! They were outcast. Not to marry them! Not to eat with them!

So the new Buddhists could show their own kind of intolerance?

They were very intolerant in those days, especially to other scheduled-caste people who did not convert to Buddhism. Now they are not. They are softer now.

When you were a teenager, was your feeling about Buddhism any different from that of your parents?

My feeling was to take ethical practice more seriously, and to be more pure man, like Buddha. My intuition was telling me that I should become more like Buddha. Otherwise, I agreed with my parents. I never heard about meditation. I attended Sunday classes in Aurangabad that a Sri Lankan Buddhist monk used to teach. He taught us Buddhism, but he didn’t say anything about meditation — just the ethical thing, and perhaps some other things also — I don’t remember now. But I used to like him. He was a good Buddhist.

What was the first book that you read about Buddhism?

In about 1958, I read Buddha and his Dhamma by Dr Ambedkar. There is so much in this book about pure, ethical life, even about bodhisattva life. I felt that I should practise Buddhism deeply. I used to see dreams that my house was burning. And I dreamed that I became bhikshu [Buddhist monk].

Did you seriously consider being a bhikshu?

I felt some desire. But I thought, ‘Afterwards, I can become bhikshu, but not at early stage of my life’. I felt that, at early stage, getting educated and doing something for society would be better than becoming bhikshu. For me, bhikshu is some one who leaves society, and he is doing something only for himself.

You went to college?

When I was in high school, one of my teachers was a Jain. He had good opinion about Buddhists. He was talking very highly about Dr Ambedkar’s institution — Milind College at Aurangabad. He used to take school trip there, and stay there. I was a bright student. He said ‘If you are to take education, go to Milind College.’ So I went there in 1963, when I was nineteen years old. I continued there for six years, studying science and mathematics. There were good people there: they used to take care of students. The hostel wardens used to come and check whether we were keeping cleanliness, studying, and good ethical standard. This was Dr Ambedkar’s influence.

Some of us used to discuss Dr Ambedkar’s ideas. What is a good man? What is a good bhikshu? I read Dr Ambedkar much more. There was good library. I learned about how Dr Ambedkar used to read for many hours, and how he educated himself. I wanted to be like him. In my heart, I was feeling that I could do something for others. That was my life’s ambition — to complete my education, work for ten years, and then give up all career, and work for society — not in political way, but as a social reformer, maybe combining religion and social reformation. In 1969 I completed my education and got MSc degree.

And then you had to get a job?

I was offered lecturer jobs at three places, two in non-Buddhist colleges, but I opted for the job at a Buddhist College in Nagpur. I became a lecturer there and remained for five years. But this was a disappointment in some ways. Buddhist people were running the College, but they were not running it properly. They were not really for education. They were not much bothered about students and lecturers. It was not clear what their motive was for running the institute. When I finally left that College, I didn’t get salary owed to me for six months! I received it eventually. However, I am glad to say that that institute is now running well, and is among the good colleges in Nagpur. After five years at the College in Nagpur, I was selected as a lecturer for the National Defence Academy in Pune.

How did you come into contact with the teaching of Sangharakshita?

In 1976 I got married. My father in law had been a secretary for Dr Ambedkar’s conversion ceremony at Nagpur. He is well read man, and morally upright. And he knows Dhamma well. He was already running Buddhist Sunday classes in Nagpur. In 1978, he came to Pune to see our family. He was having friends in the religious field, and some of them were at Pune. His friend Dhammarakshita came to our place, and he said to me, ‘We run classes on Sunday here in Pune. It is a good thing: there is puja and meditation. Many people come. Would you like to come?’ I enquired, ‘Who runs this?’ And he said, ‘The founder is English bhikshu.’ I said, ‘You people are crazy! You are running after foreign people! I may not like it, but this Sunday, I’ll come!’ [laughs] Meditation was a new idea for me. The word ‘meditation’ didn’t mean anything to me.

At the Sunday class, I met positive people. And for the first time, I saw a good shrine — a huge rupa, with lots of flowers. There was good chanting — more harmonious than I had heard before. Then a man said, ‘We are going to teach you anapana sati [Mindfulness of Breathing],’ and he taught it very nicely. My first experience was so good! Really, I went from one to ten, one to ten. Later on it was very difficult for me. But the first time, I experienced some kind of priti [rapture]. And I felt, yes, this is what I should do — meditation. I had had no thought of meditation beforehand, although I had seen pictures of Buddha sitting in meditation posture. After that, I started meditating every day at home, more than half an hour.

Also, at that first class, Dhammarakshita gave me a booklet written by Bhante. It had big influence on me. He was talking about Buddha. I continued going to this class every Sunday. Later, we used to run it in a Christian lady’s garage. She took her car out, and we conducted the class in there. A big crowd: fifty people. Sometimes, cricket ball of children used to come flying into the garage during the class!

Within a month, I met Lokamitra and Kularatna there, and later others. I thought, ‘This is the movement through which I can do something for society.’

And now I felt that there should be some positive change in me. Up to that point, I was thinking, ‘I am ethical, upright person, so there is no need to change.’ I was not thinking there were any kleshas, any negativity, in me. I thought I was perfect man! But now I saw many weaknesses in me, and that much more improvement was required. And I saw that meditation and friends could guide me. If we change ourselves for better, we can have a greater impact on the society we live in.

And I saw that we should teach people what Buddhism really means — why Dr Ambedkar asked his people to convert to Buddhism. I started re-reading Dr Ambedkar’s books in that light. I asked myself, ‘Where can I find in Dr Ambedkar’s book the message that Sangharakshita is giving?’ And yes, I could find many things there: bodhisattva principle, and some things on meditation, ethical life and so on.

Tell me about your ordination.

I was ordained by Bhante on 1 June 1979 at Sinhagarh Fort. It was about seven months after I came in contact. Actually, I had not properly asked for ordination. I wanted to be ordained, but my thinking was, ‘Some one will give me ordination. Why ask? Some one will recognise.’ And they did! I was ordained with eight other people. Chandrabodhi was one of them. And I got Manjusri sadhana [meditation practice taken at ordination]. I can’t describe that experience. It was so overwhelming, some touch of another world. I felt that Bhante had brought me in contact with something profound, which I could not imagine before. Buddha principle, greater dimension actually. When I got my name, I could not sleep: so much happiness was there. Chandrabodhi was asking me, ‘What is your name?’ But we couldn’t tell anybody our names. But he was saying, ‘My name is good!’ and I was saying, ‘My name is good!’ [laughs]

Wasn’t it rather unusual, at that time, for an Indian Order member to choose Manjusri as a yidam [meditation deity]? I’ve heard that, in those days, most Indian Order members used to choose Shakyamuni, because the appearance of Mahayana Buddhas and bodhisattvas reminded them too strongly of Hindu gods.

Yes, rather unusual. But I felt at that time that I had to develop sharper mind, more clarity, like Dr Ambedkar. So I was thinking Manjusri [the bodhisattva of wisdom] was a good choice for me. But actually, in that group of nine new Dhammacharis, three of us chose Manjusri, and each of us was not knowing that the others were also taking same sadhana.

Later on, my sadhana became difficult. When I tried to visualise Manjusri, lots of Hindu gods used to appear, like Sarasvati and Ganapati [Ganesha, the elephant-headed god]. At times, I used to see more of Ganapati than Manjusri! It was very painful experience. And sometimes hatred used to come against those gods. But I talked to some friends, and they said, ‘It is all right. They will come, because they were there in your experience. It is nothing to be worried about.’ It is not a problem now.

How did you make the transition to working for TBMSG [FWBO in India]?

For a long time, I was giving afternoon time to TBMSG. I worked as a lecturer from nine in the morning to one in afternoon. After that I was free, so for three or four hours in the afternoon, I used to come to vihara and do correspondence work for Lokamitra, and attend meetings. And I used to take one or two classes in the evening. In 1994, I resigned from my lecturer’s job and worked full-time for TBMSG.

Which part of your work for the Movement in India have you found most difficult?

I found administrative and organisational work difficult. I was a Trustee of TBMSG Trust for ten years, and for three years I was Chairman of Bahujan Hitay Trust, which does social work — running hostels, health projects, kindergarten schools and other community development work. With reluctance I accepted that work. It was most difficult time. I found it difficult to get the co-operation of others and to do teamwork. There were different opinions, and I had not worked in that kind of way before. I had been a teacher, not a manager. I had no experience. I did my best, but I confess that I did make some serious mistakes in my time as an administrator. I handed on this responsibility in 1999. Now I am free from all organizational responsibilities.

And what has been the most rewarding aspect of your work?

Forming kalyana mitrata relationships with Mitras and Order members, leading classes and retreats, giving lectures, seeing the effects of the retreats on people. I really enjoyed this part of my work. I still enjoy it. Human relationships: just spend time with people, see how they practise in their life; being a friend with them; helping them, where it is required; encouraging them to grow and gain confidence in themselves. People require encouragement. This is what I focus on now. This is what I want to do. I get a lot of happiness and inspiration from such kind of work.

When did you become a Private Preceptor?

In 2000. I was not expecting this. People were saying that Indian Order members will become Preceptors, but I was not expecting that I will become one. But when it came to me, that was good. I have to honour it. Now I am private Preceptor to sixteen people, and Public Preceptor to about the same number.

In the next ten years. What developments would you like to see in the Order in India?

Firstly, I want to see the senior people — having experience of fifteen years or more — withdraw from their organisational responsibility and take more Dhammic responsibility, as I have done. Of course, some people can go on doing organisational work, if they are good at it. But the Order requires more spiritual depth. The problem is, it is very difficult in Indian life to go on retreats, because people have got family responsibility and job responsibility and very little holiday. People are very sincere in their practice, but they need more time on retreat. For the last four or five years, Subhuti has been helping the Order in India to get this depth. For example, he has been leading Know Your Mind retreats. But we must continue to develop more depth in spiritual practice. At same time, of course, we also must develop more altruistic activities in all parts of India.

Also, I hope to see the Order in India double in size, if not triple, in the next ten years. I think this is possible. There are about two hundred and fifty Indian Order members at the moment. So there should be at least five hundred in ten years time. We have a good ordination team. We have Indian Preceptors, and we get help from our western brothers and sisters. We have good retreat centres, also. There is a lot of liking for the Dhamma. So it will be possible.

On other occasions when you and I have spoken, you have told me that India is changing ’ getting a little bit more like the West. Do you think younger people will continue to be as interested in the Dhamma as your generation? I ask this because, in the West, there are plenty of people who come along to beginners’ classes to learn about meditation and Buddhism, but the number of people who are willing to make a wholehearted commitment isn’t very big. Has this problem appeared in India yet?

I think some problem of this sort is there in India, but not much yet. But there is a bigger problem — the financial problem. There are many people who would like to commit, but what they seek first is job and security.

One aspect of solution is to provide Dhamma training for people in one place: taking twenty or thirty people together and looking after their ordination training for two years. At the moment, people going through the ordination process have to travel around a lot, and this is difficult for them. Of course, for those who cannot come for this two-year training, other facilities and other retreats will be available. But we want some kind of organised training for those who, because of difficulties with job or finances, cannot travel around. We can train them for two years. What they do after two years is for them to decide. But the training will change their life in a good way. If this training facility is available, I think people who have genuine desire to commit can do so.

As for young people, perhaps we have to change our approach towards them. It is true that attendance of young people at our classes is less now than it was. We have to look at people’s needs and address their needs. I have started thinking on these lines. But, you know, Dr Ambedkar is still an inspiration for many people. Dr Ambedkar’s message was that all of India should be converted to Buddhism. Buddhism can solve caste problem and many other problems in India. His message still has a great impact. Many people want this to happen. They feel responsible for it, and ask themselves, ‘How can we do this?’ And many people are starting to think ‘TBMSG is the way to do this.’ Also, they respect the people in TBMSG as good people doing good social work. They are attracted to that.

So although the same sort of problem is there as in the West, many people have genuine desire to commit. And once they take to meditation and find that it works, people don’t leave.

You mentioned the aspiration for all of India to become Buddhist. That raises another question. In the long run, TBMSG — and Buddhism in India as a whole — has to go beyond its present base, which is mostly in one section of the dalit community. Do you have any thoughts about that?

In the initial days, we used to pay special attention towards this. We used to go out more to other scheduled-caste people and to non-Buddhists. But now we are not giving enough attention. We have to give more. Meditation is a catching point actually. Some people are not attracted to the typical classes that we offer, which include a strong social message, and encourage people to do social work. However, they are attracted by an approach that focuses more on meditation. So we need more meditation facilities — for example, quieter shrine rooms, and better meditation teaching.

Actually, many Hindu people have lost interest in religion. They don’t believe in Hinduism, but at the moment they don’t move towards Buddhism either. Once, they were interested in Buddhism, but what happened? Dr Ambedkar’s people converted to Buddhism, so now the higher-caste people don’t want to have anything to do with Buddhism.

You are saying that when the upper caste Hindus think of Buddhism, they think, ‘Oh, that’s for the dalits, not for us’

Yes, unfortunately. Many years ago, a lot of brahmins used to take interest in Buddhism. They read about Buddhism and some also wrote books on it. But after the mass conversions of dalits, brahmins’ interest in Buddhism declined a lot, until recently. But now, as the West is getting more and more attracted towards Buddhism, they are re-thinking. Some of them are reading about Buddhism again. If Buddhism is presented to them well — as individual human development, in terms of meditation and so on — I think they will get attracted. Lokamitra is doing some work in this area. He’s running meditation classes for non-Buddhist people. It is difficult, but slowly and surely it will gather momentum.

Also, our social workers have helped. We have many other-caste and Muslim children in our hostels, and we treat them with care. As a result, some non-Buddhist people are getting attracted.

Also, whenever people have some informal contact with us, they are influenced. For example, many Order members work with non-Buddhist people in their jobs. The Order members take their work seriously and they are ethically upright. People notice this. Sometimes, at work, Order members talk about meditation, they talk about going on retreat, and as a result, some of these non-Buddhist people have got interested and started coming to retreats. I think we make good impression. Earlier, we were shaky, but now we are more confident. People find us happy, relaxed and sincere. So they start asking us, ‘What is it that you do? Why is this happening?’ So our Order members talk to them about what they are doing — their Buddhist practice — and that has an effect.

But isn’t there a need for a more worked-out strategy to broaden the base of our movement in India? Maybe some senior Indian Order members should come together and ask, ‘What do we need to do to appeal to people from outside the dalit community?’ Do you think that would be a good idea — to develop a strategy, almost like a business that wants to expand?

Yes, we need a strategy to extend our Dhammic work into rural areas in all states of India, and to all communities: to other scheduled castes and to non-Buddhist communities. We can do this, I think. This would be a good thing for the other people and a good thing for the Indian Order members also. I think that if we do organise ourselves, in the long run we will have more effect than with just the current, informal contact. We should do this. It is time.

Do you see a younger generation of leaders emerging — Order members who will be able to preserve and pass on what you and others have built up? Are you happy about the development of the Order in India, in that sense?

Yes. There are more capable Order members, taking responsibility more seriously. I have more and more faith in them. They are more confident and have more clarity, and carry their responsibility fully. There are now many people who take responsibility, including some major responsibilities. Indian Order members are running Trusts now. They are taking the Preceptor responsibility also. I am very hopeful. They will not only preserve and build, but will bring dynamism to the religious and social work of our Movement. Our Order in India has committed and sincere people. They are facing many difficulties: for example, family, financial and job difficulties. Despite these difficulties, they practise and spread Dhamma effectively. We will create small but committed, strong society among a larger society. I think we will have transforming and lasting effect on India.

Find out more about TBMSG, the peaceful revolution and the work of the Karuna Trust

Originally published in Madhyamavani 10: July 2004 (Birmingham: Madhyamaloka, 2004).