From an Indian Diary


Mumbai to Nagpur: shadows and light

Mumbai can be a tricky place, especially when you are tired.

The date was 8 December, 2001. It was about three o’clock in the morning, and I had just arrived from Heathrow (via Dubai). I was booked on a connecting flight to Nagpur, so I set out to find where the coaches departed for the domestic airport (which is about ten km away). I soon found myself talking to a man who had an official’s security pass dangling reassuringly around his neck. He told me he worked for the domestic airline I was booked on, and he escorted me to a minibus, and got in with me. As we sped off, he started talking about where I would stay until my flight left — a place offered by the airline. He then said that I should just pay whatever I wanted. It began to dawn on me that all was not as it appeared to be.

We drove up to a small house in a middle-class enclave. He took me inside and showed me a decent, clean room. He then asked for twenty pounds. I have to confess that, at this point, exhausted after the long overnight flight, and annoyed that I had not been as careful as I should have been, I blew my top. It was extremely effective: I paid only three hundred rupees — about five pounds.

I got a few hours sleep, and was then driven on to the domestic airport by the now rather surly pseudo-official. My moment off-guard at the airport had actually worked out quite conveniently: nevertheless, I urge you to beware when you arrive in Mumbai in the wee small hours!

In Nagpur, four or five Order members and Mitras met me at the airport. I was welcomed, garlanded and then taken to a hotel, where I encamped for the next day and a half.

For the past few years, Ive been visiting India for about three months per year (two in winter and one in summer) to help in the development of our Movement there, and I’ve come to the conclusion this is the best way to begin my visits — just parking myself in a hotel for a couple of nights. It allows me to catch up on my sleep and get my bearings, before plunging into the very full schedule of leading retreats, attending meetings, giving talks, and seeing numerous Order members and Mitras.

Even in my hotel hideaways, it’s amazing how quickly — in whatever place I begin my visit — I get inducted into the life of the local FWBO (or rather, TBMSG, as it is called in India). In my brief day and a half at ‘the Park Hotel’ in Nagpur, I had some five or six visitors.

These were just the first of the many personal meetings I was to have in the coming weeks. Being familiar with India now, I wasn’t surprised to find myself hearing, right from the start, distressing stories of illnesses, financial problems and family difficulties. Crisis and tragedy are constantly in the background of people’s lives here.

But although suffering and difficulty were constants, many of the stories I heard during this two-month visit were inspiring, too. One man, for instance, described to me how, since attending our retreats in previous years, the Dharma had been a constant and powerful presence in his thoughts. I suggested he wrote down his reflections. He then told me that he couldn’t read or write sufficiently. His family had been so poor that by the time he was seven he had had to do roadwork (probably smashing rocks with a hammer to make rubble for the foundation of the road). While working, he would occasionally find some piece of paper with writing on it. He would take it home and show it around until someone could tell him what the writing said. He learnt to read to some extent like that. But he had never advanced much beyond it. Nevertheless, here he was, telling me of the miracle that the Dharma had performed for him.

Another man told me he had very large financial problems because he had to support his brother’s family as well as his own, his brother being too sick to work. At the moment, the labour market is so tight that wages are being forced down relative to inflation. Nevertheless, he has felt so inspired by the Dharma in recent years that he doesn’t worry about his financial problems any more. He just deals with them as best he can. Even though the situation was very difficult, all his family were happy and inspired. They joined him in a puja every day. When he was on his way to work, he would mentally send metta to everyone he saw on the way. If on his bicycle, he would visualise himself as a large blue hum, radiating light to everyone. Once, while at work, hed dropped a heavy piece of metal on his knee. It had been intensely painful, but immediately the thought came to him, ‘the Buddha is teaching me mindfulnes.’ Looking at his radiant face, I knew he was telling the truth.

My first public engagement on this visit was opening a new branch of the Aryaloka Computer Institute. This is the creation of Chandu Maiske, a Mitra, and an Order member, Aryaketu. Chandu is a professor of computing in Nagpur, who decided to work with Aryaketu to set up facilities in which poor people can learn computer skills. There are plenty of training facilities in India but they are usually beyond the means of the poorer families. In time, the Institute could be a Right Livelihood business, supporting a few people to do socially useful work.

The new Aryaloka Institute branch is in a back street in the centre of town, in two rooms on the first floor of a ramshackle building. I cut the ribbon and spoke my ‘two words’. I reminded the audience that years ago, Dr Ambedkar, the instigator of the mass conversions to Buddhism among the scheduled castes, had encouraged people to learn English. He said that English was ‘tiger’s milk’, because it was the passport to international culture. I made the point that, nowadays, computers are ‘tigers milk’, because anyone who masters computer skills has access to the modern world and to the ‘new economy’.

I think this is especially significant because India is currently leaping over a number of phases of economic development, and going directly to the information technology age. It is, in fact, one of the leading countries in software development. Teaching people from ‘low caste’ backgrounds how to use computers is an excellent means to improve their lives.

I spoke also of the need for such an enterprise to be run on the principles of Right Livelihood, which means not just to help others but also to develop oneself spiritually. I urged the founders to put as much work and thought into this as they could.

Incidentally, they are looking for investors to help them capitalise the business...

The Aryaloka Computer Institute is one example of what seems to be a new wave of initiatives that individuals in TBMSG are taking. For a long time, our Indian charitable Trusts have been the main channel through which major projects have been set in motion. They have done a lot of very good work, but their existence has depended on money raised in the West and Taiwan. Perhaps it had to be that way at first, but it has tended to create an atmosphere in which people have assumed that everything depended on money and initiatives from outside. But there are signs that that era is coming to an end. Some people are just getting on with it.

For instance, I heard that two Order members had arranged a pilgrimage for eighty people. They had travelled around the holy places for six weeks. The whole thing had been more or less a retreat, and highly successful, not least in making money. The same Order members (from Wardha) have been travelling around villages to lead retreats. They’ve started organising retreats on the basis of a commitment to dana by various people, who agree to feed everybody for a day. Once they’ve got five or six such agreements, they have got a free retreat.

Bor Dharan: retreats and encounters

After the ceremonial opening of the branch of the Aryaloka Computer Institute, I had a very pleasant lunch with Vivekaratna. He showed me the new floor he has built onto his house, providing a sort of hermitage where he can meditate and study, away from the distractions of his family.

Later, Vivekaratna drove me out to Bor Dharan Retreat Centre, where I was to spend the next five weeks on various retreats. It was a long drive through teak forest and jungle, inhabited by many adivasis — tribal people not fully absorbed into Hindu culture (and, potentially, an important future source of interest in Buddhism).

The Retreat Centre is currently in good shape, especially since two Order members from Bhaja — Adityakumar and Anksulkumar — moved here with their families (who now live in the village nearby). They have already made a big difference to the place. It was noticeable that the hordes of tourists who come up from the nearby dam to look at the stupa were much more orderly and quiet, because the two ‘kumars’ have established a system for dealing with them.

At one point during my stay, Anksulkumar and Adityakumar took me to visit the house they had jointly rented in the village. It was a delightful old house, ramshackle but full of character. The first floor was reached by a ladder. Looking up at the worm-eaten rafters, I could see the tiles laid directly on to the battens. The two families had notionally divided the rooms between them, but in practice they were living as one joint family. They were all obviously happy, and the two wives had been good friends since before their respective weddings. It was fascinating to see this kind of arrangement working well.

The Retreat Centre itself is beautiful and — for me at least — comfortable. I usually stay in a room in a bungalow with its own toilet and washing facilities, and a little balcony at the front and the back. It doesn’t have an especially good outlook, but it is quiet and a little apart from the main areas of activity. Each day, I spent quite a lot of time on my own. I meditated in my room alone, and had breakfast sitting on the balcony, but joined in with collective activity in the morning. In the afternoon, when the others were doing meditation and puja, I read, reflected and began to record (on cassette) the journal from which this article is excerpted. We had no activities in the evenings — I would see people, and then spend time reading.

The first retreat was for a small group of senior Order members. Ten (from a possible fourteen) managed to assemble for it. Every morning, and on alternate afternoons, we studied together. Sitting on a balcony in the open air — a delightful way to meet — we would preface each morning’s study with reporting-in. Dreams became a theme, and some people were prolific dreamers. One morning, Amritdeep produced four dreams from the previous night — all of them intricate and fascinating. I myself got more in touch with my dream life, and I found that if I could keep hold of the dream until I started meditating, somehow — I can’t explain how — I could carry the mood of the dream into meditation and use it as fuel for concentration and integration.

The subject of our study was the bodhisattva precepts from Asanga’s chapter on ethics in his Bodhisattvabhumi. A lot came out of the text. For instance, we noticed that Asanga says that the bodhisattva should praise those who have done well. This led us to talk about the need most people have for encouragement. This seems to be especially true of many people in our Movement in India, because they are emerging from a culture in which they have been treated as unworthy and even ‘untouchable’. Poverty and deprivation narrow ones horizons and induce feelings of impotence.

Actually, I feel that even in the West encouragement must always be the keynote in communication. When one is struggling to establish something new — like the FWBO — it is always easy to get frustrated, and it is often tempting to be critical of those who can’t or won’t play the part one would like them to. But expressing frustration with their poor performance doesn’t work spiritually. People may be induced to activity by fear or guilt, but seldom if ever do such emotions really help them to grow. Instead, one needs to communicate with people to find out who they are, and what direction they need to grow in, and then just encourage them to do so.

Asanga says that the bodhisattva should ‘conform his thoughts to those of others’ — implying the capacity for empathy. We talked about the need to develop empathy, and I described the exercises we had done at Madhyamaloka during the recent workshop we’d held there on Non-Violent Communication, which certainly helped to develop empathy. Through the exercises, one tries to intuit what somebody’s attention is focussed on, what they are feeling, and what the ‘needs’ underlying those feelings are. Talking about this topic noticeably increased the sensitivity in the group.

Talk of ‘conforming to the minds of others’ led us into the whole question of conventional morality and social pressure. To what extent are you conforming to the minds of others when (for example) you give in to your wife’s desire for a new car or house? That can be a real pressure on many of our dharmacharis in India (most of whom are male and married). Do you struggle to keep up with the ‘Joneses’ (or in India, the Kambles) in order to keep your wife happy? In practice, most of them have to compromise, if only to get some peace: too much conflict in the home makes life very difficult.

Many compromise too much (although there are some who consider their family’s needs too little). They succumb too easily to social pressure. This is one of the biggest difficulties in India — maintaining spiritual discipline amid a life lived in dependence on other people, and constantly impinged on by other people in a thousand ways. What are you to do if you are meditating and a relative knocks on the door to talk to you? What are you to do if you are just about to go on retreat when a relative turns up to see you? If you just ignore the knock, or if you just go off on retreat regardless, the relative will be quite offended. That could have serious consequences for you in the future, because you depend on the extended family for social and economic security — and especially for help in getting your children married off.

Many people just give in to the pressures of family and society. Unfortunately, quite a few Order members have fallen into this position, keeping up the bare minimum of Order activity and classes. In a way, one can’t blame them, knowing the pressure they are under. By and large, people are driven by necessity, and the necessity that shouts loudest and nearest is what determines one’s actions. The tendency to passivity that is so strong here in India comes from this cause. It is difficult to keep the initiative, or make headway against the constant pressure of social expectations.

Knowing this, I noticed with admiration the persistent efforts that a young Mitra here — Milind Vaidya — had to make to get a replacement for the burnt-out transformer that should supply electricity to the retreat centre. He had to go into the electricity company’s headquarters every day for a couple of weeks, haggling, bullying, pushing, trying to find influence — such an expenditure of energy for something that should be automatic! He explained that what the people at the depot wanted was an ‘expenditure of money’ — a bribe; but we try to avoid that. He finally succeeded in getting them to do the job without any ‘expenditure’, but it would have been so easy to give up, and let them come in their own good time.

Often the easiest thing to do in India is just accept. People here are very good at accepting things — just putting up with what happens, in a relatively uncomplaining way. They have extraordinary endurance — for example, their tolerance of long, uncomfortable and inconvenient journeys. Indeed I think we in the West could learn from that ability to tolerate difficult circumstances: we are always adjusting things and expecting improvement — and moaning and complaining. But the bad side of Indian endurance is the tendency to fall into insensitivity and passivity — putting up with the dirt, ugliness and unnecessary inconvenience by blocking it out of their awareness.

So, in our study, I stressed that ‘conforming to the minds of others’ should not mean just passively giving in to them. It has to be balanced with keeping initiative and remembering what is most important.

Another theme that we explored was the need for a ‘stripped down’ version of the duties of a Buddhist. I’ve often been impressed by the simplicity and power of Islam — its five duties: the shahada or profession of faith, prayer five times a day, alms-giving, fasting during Ramadan, and the Hajj (the pilgrimage to Mecca to be undertaken at least once in the believer’s lifetime). It is very easy to know what you must do to be a Muslim. This gives it enormous power as a missionary religion, and allows it to remain astonishingly united in the face of opposition and competition, whereas Buddhism has given ground to Christianity and other religions all too easily. Of course, it is not only simplicity but also the fear of God’s punishment and the strong injunctions against apostasy that give Islam its power. But when one is talking to people with little education and a very limited perspective on the world, religion really does have to be boiled down to essentials.

This is more or less what Honen and Shinran did in Japanese ‘Pure Land’ Buddhism. They told people just to focus on the recitation of the name of Amitabha. They saw that everybody could do that, and it is a spiritual practice. That probably takes simplification too far. But I’ve been playing around for some time with lists of basic practices that are really indispensable for a Buddhist, and at some point I’d like to see if we could come to some agreement on what they might be — and then stress them constantly.

During my whole time at Bor Dharan, I was very aware of the natural world around us. The Retreat Centre is built right on the edge of a large forest, which is a nature reserve, and genuinely wild.

An eagle owl flew overhead at dusk every evening, and settled on a neighbouring aerial — a very large bird, about two and a half feet high, with a deep cry. There were lots of green and rose-coloured parakeets fluttering in the jungle. A lovely gold-backed woodpecker with a bright red cockade came at evening to a tree near my balcony. Mynah birds and babblers bustled sociably all around as the evening fell. One evening, a forktail delicately picked at the ground near where I sat, cocking up its tail and spreading it in a fan.

We often heard the whoop of monkeys swinging through the jungle around the Centre. One day I saw a family of mongooses rush across the road, and on another day, a wildcat scooted down the hill. A couple of miles away, at the forest rangers’ station, it was reported that two tigers had been seen. Some of our friends were warned from walking too near the lake at dusk, as tigers and leopards came down to drink at that time. On previous occasions I’ve seen many deer, and there are nilgar — blue cows — wandering here and there, as well as porcupines and bears.

On alternate afternoons of the senior Order members’ retreat, we would all spend an hour in confession ‘duets’. We paired up and usually went for walks down to the dam to speak about our meditation experience and ethical conduct. The pairings were made randomly, but we kept them up for almost three weeks. My partner was Kumarajiv, with whom I already have a close friendship. Each day there was a different mood to our time together — sometimes analytical, looking closely at our experience, sometimes reflecting more on plans and aspirations, sometimes just chatting about this and that.

One day we went for a long walk around the edge of the lake to an open, grassy plane, stretching down to the water’s edge. There we sat down, and watched the myriads of birds playing in the water — ducks, cormorants and shags, bee-eaters and kingfishers, all darting, flapping and crowing. We both felt uplifted and vitalised, and came back in great good spirits.

The next day, as the sun was setting, we again went for a walk, and this time found ourselves on a small hill looking out over the open plane beyond the retreat centre. Although cultivated, the plane still had a primeval look — green and tranquil with just a few drifts of smoke indicating human habitation. We watched the glowing ball of the sun sink under the horizon, and then the clouds turning through all the shades of sunset — one of the most glorious I’ve ever seen. We were both transported.

We walked back in the dying colours and in complete silence. As I’d watched the sunset I’d had a deep sense of my inability to capture it, an awareness of it being utterly beyond my grasp — impossible to describe the shapes, or name the colours that changed so subtly and faded so rapidly. The thought then struck me hard: ‘everything is like this’. Kumarajiv seemed to have been precipitated into the same state of mind. We walked back in silence together, united in a single vision.

Other things went on ‘around the edges’ of our meeting. On 17 December, the team and community celebrated my birthday. A Mitra — Kamlesh — sang very beautifully. Chandrabodhi made a speech in my honour and a sweet, sticky cake was shared among us. In traditional Indian fashion, cake was put into my mouth (by Chandrabodhi).

While at Bor Dharan, I unexpectedly found myself renewing an old friendship. It began when a Mitra visited the Japanese stupa near Gandhi’s ashram (in Wardha, a few miles away). There he had met a Japanese monk, who asked him whether there were any European Buddhists in the neighbourhood, and in particular whether Subhuti or Lokamitra were present! This monk turned out to be Terasawa, who had stayed with us in the FWBO Centre at Archway for a year or so, way back in 1974 or ’75. He belongs to the Japan Buddha Sangha, founded by Fuji Guruji, who had been associated with Gandhi and was devoted to world peace. The Sangha has built a number of beautiful Peace Pagodas all over the world, including one on the Thames embankment in London.

Not long after I heard the news of his presence in the area, Terasawa came in person to visit me at the Retreat Centre, together with some of his followers — two Ukrainians, two Russians, two Chinese (all monks or nuns) and a Siberian laywoman with a beautiful smile. They arrived in a long line, banging their drums and chanting, followed by a rather surly Indian guide. Since I had last seen him all those years ago, Terasawa had continued his wandering, especially in war zones. During the Gulf War, for instance, he set up a peace camp on the Saudi-Iraq border. He had spent a lot of time in the former Soviet Union (where he went as soon as the Soviet system started to collapse, feeling that peace was very much needed there). He had been in Chechnya, among other places.

It was wonderful to see him. He seemed as bright, charming and young as ever, intensely inspired, exuding a very appealing fervour, entirely innocent and un-dogmatic. Kumarajiv and Sudarshan were with me when he visited, and they commented on his extraordinary refinement of manner. He was obviously delighted to see me, and remembered his time with the FWBO with great warmth. In our conversation, he spoke favourably of the FWBO’s multicultural nature, and seemed regretful that his own Order was almost entirely Japanese. I looked around at the Ukrainians, Russians, Chinese and the Siberian woman, and said, ‘Well, not in this case!’ He replied sadly that he was one of only a very few who were interested in expanding outside Japan. I remembered he had always had that sort of flexibility and lack of cultural narrowness, and it clearly had not left him. He said he was determined to go on leading the wandering life, and wanted to get into Afghanistan — where the military conflict was still blazing at the time we spoke.

I asked after one of his friends — Morishta, who had lived with us for a while at Sukhavati, the men’s community at the LBC in Bethnal Green. We had found Morishta delightful and helpful, but we felt that having a Japanese monk with us would give a confusing cultural message to the local community; at that time, we were very anxious to relate effectively, and in ‘western’ terms, to people in the East end of London around us. Consequently, we had asked Morishta to leave. In retrospect, I think we made a big mistake: we could easily have let him stay with us. He might have been more appealing to the local east-enders than a load of middle-class Englishmen!

It was wonderful to meet Terasawa, and we both expressed our determination to meet again. Since he has no fixed abode, I don’t know where that will happen, but I feel sure it will.

The Convention: the Order viewed as a bodhisattva

After the Senior Order Members’ Retreat, there was a retreat for Indian Chapter Convenors, at which I gave a sequence of talks, and saw many people individually. No sooner had that ended than the Order Convention began.

Only about eighty Order members turned up for the Convention out of a possible two hundred and twenty. This was not through any reluctance to gather but because I’d also arranged a meditation retreat for Dharmacharis, which was to take place at Bhaja, at the end of my visit. Most people had to choose between the two, and many — perhaps rightly — had chosen the meditation retreat. However, the Convention was excellent.

As it began, I was feeling tired and rather daunted by the prospect of another six days of intensive engagement. Trying to keep myself below the exhaustion threshold, I decided to restrict myself to giving a series of talks, and seeing people.

I’d been invited to talk on the theme of ‘What is the Order?’ I’d felt a reluctance to give another series on this topic (which I have addressed very fully, more than once before), but at the same time, I realised that Order members here in India do need to hear again the basic conception and principles of the Order. Thinking it over, I hit upon a new approach, probably inspired by Asanga’s chapter on ethics. One can approach the Order from various points of view. Usually one discusses it in terms of its practical structure etc. But the Order is above all an aspiration to an ideal. So I decided to talk about it from the viewpoint of that ideal.

I began by saying that my answer to the question, ‘What is the Order?’ is that the Order is a bodhisattva. It is a bodhisattva, firstly, in the sense defined by Bhante. He speaks of the thousand-armed Avalokitesvara not as representing the Order, but as actually being it. The Order — when it truly is the Order — is a spirit in which we all participate. Secondly, the Order is a bodhisavatta because in our tradition we see the bodhisattva ideal as the altruistic dimension of going for Refuge to the Three Jewels. This is represented in our ordination ceremony: in one of the verses of acceptance, we say, ‘For the benefit of all beings, I accept this ordination.’ So, in joining the Order, we take on the altruistic dimension of going for Refuge: we are aspiring bodhisattvas.

Thirdly and finally, the Order is the expression of Bhante’s own bodhisattva vows. (Of course, he now considers the ceremonial taking of such vows unnecessary, as the bodhisattva ideal is implicit in the basic act of going for Refuge.) The vows mentioned in Asanga’s text include one to perform an act of gathering — that is, gathering a spiritual community and then providing for it materially, ethically and spiritually. That is precisely what Bhante has done in establishing the Order and Movement. In joining that Order, weve committed ourselves to carrying on the act of gathering that Bhante has begun.

The question is, how is it to be performed? My answer was: through the four samgrahavastus or ‘means of unification’. These are: generosity, kindly speech, beneficial activity and exemplification. Together, these are the means of creating a sangha — drawing people together in the first place, and then bringing them into closer and deeper harmony with each other.

In the sequence of talks that followed, I dealt with each of the samgrahavastus in depth. Since returning to the UK, I have repeated this material in talks given to a retreat for men chapter convenors at Padmaloka. The talks were recorded, and I think they may prove useful as study material. There is no space here to summarise the whole series, but I will say something about the last one on samanarthata, or ‘exemplification’.

This talk was the one I was most pleased with. In preparation for the series, I had looked through what Bhante said on the samgrahavastus in The Inconceivable Emancipation his lectures on Vimalakirti Nirdesa Sutra, and I found it very helpful. However, when it came to samanarthata, I felt I still had not fully grasped the essence of the matter. The night before the talk, it came to me: yes, one needs to practise what one preaches, and exemplify what one stands for; but what is it that one stands for, and what exactly does one need to exemplify? The answer is not perfection (not Buddhahood) but going for Refuge — spiritual commitment and practice. This is a very important distinction.

In some ways, I think Bhante’s concept of the ‘exemplar of the ideal’ needs to be taken further. Exemplification is a matter of embodying spiritual commitment (perhaps that is what the ‘ideal’ means in this case). In my talk, I pointed out that an eloquent speaker is not necessarily an exemplar, nor vice versa. I mentioned, as an example, the late Vajracitta, who had not been the most articulate of people, but who had really exemplified the spirit of meditation, and had therefore been a very effective teacher. In the end, it is what one is that communicates the Dharma, more than what one says (although it is important that one tries to say it well, too). Religion is caught, not taught.

The Convention closed with a cultural programme, featuring singing, drama and a reading from Yeats by Jyotika (who was with me as my secretary). Everyone seemed to enjoy the latter greatly, although probably few could understand a word of it! The next morning I was driven into Nagpur and deposited at a hotel in the Centre of town, where I had some meetings. By the late afternoon I was feeling really exhausted, so I had to cut short the meeting I was engaged in, and rest in my hotel room. I briefly succumbed to the temptation of the television, but could find nothing sufficiently interesting to distract me!

Bhaja: Know Your Mind

From Nagpur I flew to Pune. Here, while staying in the flat of the ordination team, I visited our Mahavihar for several days, gave a talk there, and met workers in the local social projects. At this meeting, there were a number of difficult issues to discuss. One emerging problem, for example, is that the Trustees have been trying to get some of the staff of the Trusts to move out of Pune to the places where the hostels and other projects that we run are actually based. But this can be very inconvenient for them: their houses and families are in Pune, their children are at school there, and so on. For them, going off to a remote corner of Maharashtra or Uttar Pradesh is not an attractive proposition. However, it has to happen: that is the nature of the work.

We discussed the ways in which the Trustees could talk over such issues with the staff concerned — trying to get them to see the needs of the Trust, while listening carefully to what they had to say about their own needs, and looking for ways in which those needs could be accommodated.

From Pune, I was driven out to Bhaja, where I began a ten-day retreat for the group of senior Order members. For the first four days we had a meditation retreat, albeit a fairly gentle one. The fact that there were only nine people meant the occasion was quite intimate, and a very easy, positive atmosphere developed among us. I was especially pleased with this: it was a vindication of all the work we’ve done over the years. The meditation got deeper and deeper.

In the mornings we studied Vasubandhu’s Thirty Verses on Mind Only. I’ve studied this often before, but now we studied it over a longer period of time. I found my understanding of the text had deepened considerably. For the study meetings, we sat together on the balcony overlooking the Bhaja valley — sitting Indian style on mattresses, in a circle. It was a magnificent setting, which supported our sense of the profundity of what we were studying. To begin with, I could see that most people felt their heads were aching with the difficulty of the text. The fact that I had to work hard to explain it made me understand it more fully myself. In the end I was impressed by the extent to which everyone grasped the difficult concepts, and the even more difficult realities to which they point. In the afternoons, I guided everyone through the six-element practice, going fairly briefly through the four physical elements and space, but spending a long time on consciousness — reflecting, even experiencing, the absence of anything fixed or unchanging within the mind. I found this had a very powerful effect on me.

It was a joyful and profound retreat. However, by the time it ended I was beginning to pay the price for my very tight and full schedule. My mind had got so much undigested experience within it, so many issues to follow up and plans to fulfil, that it was difficult to keep on taking in one new thing after another. I know that these moments of ‘glut’ occur every now and again. I just have to keep going, try to relax a bit more and clear my mind.

Next on the schedule was a retreat on the theme of ‘Know Your Mind’. Some seventy or eighty Order members arrived to participate, including five westerners. It is always fascinating to see westerners again after a long time spent with Indians. In India, western individualism and self-assertion — the need to define oneself against others — stand out sharply. In the past it has sometimes become a problem when westerners have taken part in events in India: occasionally, they have been ostentatiously individualistic, to the point of rudeness. Nothing like that happened on this occasion: the western Order members who arrived at this point were all good chaps, and the phenomenon didn’t manifest in a disruptive way: it was just that, in contrast with the Indians — whose instinct is to ‘fit in’ — it was noticeable, and sometimes comical.

The retreat came together remarkably quickly. I think there were several reasons for this: five or six of us had been together for much of the time over the last month and a half, and felt a strong bond with each other; also, most of those who had newly arrived had been on Know Your Mind retreats before (and perhaps a third had been on two or three of them). There was a high seriousness of intention, and a determination to get on with the work.

This ‘Know Your Mind’ retreat was more narrowly focussed than those I have led in previous years. It concentrated on the mental event of chanda — ‘desire’ or ‘interest’. Chanda is always present: as Asanga says, ‘the mind is always hungry’. It can be a hunger for sensuous experience, ideas, and things that merely reinforce our ego-identity, or it can be a hunger for the Dharma. Chanda may therefore be either kamachanda or dhammachanda. At every moment, we have a choice between the two. The secret of spiritual life is to be aware ofkamachanda, while working to loosen its hold, and to cultivate dhammachanda. I went through various ways in which that choice presents itself to us, giving a series of talks on the eleven positive mental events.

At Bhaja, I stayed in the teacher’s hut, together with Jayamati. It consists of two rooms with a pleasant, shady veranda. Although we were in silence much of the time, I appreciated Jayamati’s company. We sat around together quite a bit. We found that at certain times each day, two mongooses came out looking for food, so we started leaving our papaya skins and other food out for them. They are delightful creatures, keenly alert, with bushy tails as long as their bodies, and fierce, bright red eyes. We would both watch them intently as they shyly investigated what we had left out for them. As always, I spent some time watching the birds, too. My favourite is the purple sunbird — a tiny bird with a metallic sheen and a long, thin, curved beak.

We devoted each evening to a puja, rather than trying to squeeze in a meditation as well. On this occasion, Chandrabodhi led the pujas, and did so extremely well, combining depth of feeling with a clarity of diction that allowed everyone to join in easily. We did most of the puja in Hindi, but as a concession to the westerners, we would always do some part in English.

Of course, every evening we made offerings. A tradition has grown up on these retreats of people making flower-offerings to others, especially to me and to those playing leading parts, but also to other members of their group, or anybody they have communicated with, or even people they have just noticed. On the final puja of the retreat, more or less everybody was giving offerings to everybody else! In fact, as Chandrabodhi and I went up last to make our offerings, we realised that we were the only people chanting: the others were all going around, offering flowers and hugging each other. There was an atmosphere of joyous chaos that was utterly delightful. Chandrabodhi and I kept on chanting, made our offerings and sat down; gradually everybody joined us. Everything settled down again into the calm seriousness of the puja.

Thane: Buddhism and democracy

The Know Your Mind retreat at Bhaja ended on 7 February, amid rejoicing and a flurry of packing, last-minute consultations and farewells. I was due to fly back to the UK that night. But before travelling, I had one more engagement — a public talk. A jeep appeared. I was whisked into it, and carried down the motorway towards Thane, where I was to speak.

Thane is in the suburbs of Bombay (which means it is about fifty miles from its centre!) and has a TBMSG Centre, of which Anomadassi is Chairman. He had skilfully captured me, pointing out that Thane is on the way to the airport, and that I could easily give a talk before I left. It is very difficult to resist Anomadassi.

We rested in the house of a Mitra, in a part of Thane that is evidently coming up in the world. His home had originally been a squatted slum, but gradually, through hard work, its owner had managed to build himself a decent two-storey house on the site. One could see the same process going on all around. Here we rested and chatted. At one point, Adityabodhi, Kumarajiv and I discussed the sports that we’d played when we were young, and the subject of kubadi came up. The nearest equivalent to kubadi in England is probably ‘British bulldogs’. Adityabodhi and I played a round of kubadi, which resulted in his victory (and all of us collapsing in helpless laughter). I vowed a return match.

We were then driven in a motorcade of jeeps and cars — flying Buddhist flags — through a maze of streets, bypassing the processions of several political parties (it was the eve of an election), and eventually arriving at a pleasant plot of open ground next to the railway station. The police hardly ever give permission for public gatherings on the eve of an election, but the reputation of TBMSG in Thane is so good that they had shown no hesitation in authorising our meeting. We drew up at the gates, to be greeted by lines of ladies scattering flower petals at our feet and waving lights. There was an extraordinary atmosphere of anticipation and excitement. A band, wearing Ruritanian uniforms, followed us to the stage, zestfully playing music of a highly eclectic provenance.

First, there were many preliminaries: talks about TBMSG, garlandings and explanations. Then I spoke. I took as my theme some of the researches I’d been doing into Dr Ambedkar’s thought, and the connection between Buddhism and his ideas about democracy. I pointed out that Dr Ambedkar was mainly known as the architect of the Indian constitution, and as the leader of the downtrodden masses in their fight for political rights, social dignity and welfare. But these weren’t really his greatest achievement, as he himself knew. The Indian constitution is a very fine achievement indeed, but Dr Ambedkar said of it ‘My friends tell me that I have made the constitution, but I am quite prepared to say that I should be the first person to burn it out. I do not want it. It does not suit anybody. We built a temple for a god to come and reside in, but before the god could be installed, the devil had taken possession of it. What else could we do, except destroy the temple?’

He said this in the Rajasabha — the Indian Senate — in 1953. The ‘devil’ he had in mind was undemocratic man, and the ‘god’, democratic man. To understand this properly, one has to understand Dr Ambedkar’s conception of democracy. He chose to see it not merely as a form of government but as an attitude of mind — an attitude of respect towards one’s fellows, a spirit of ‘liberty, equality and fraternity’. These are key terms for Dr Ambedkar, but he dissociates them from their French Revolutionary origins, and instead interprets them in the light of the Dhamma. With regard to ‘liberty’, for example, there can be no such thing unless the mind is trained to use personal freedom properly.

Thus, while reform is needed, it must include ‘a reform of the notions, sentiments and mental attitudes of people’. A democratic constitution is not enough: there needs to be a democratic state of mind. He pointed out that, in India, caste — itself essentially an attitude or state of mind — is one of the main barriers to liberty, equality and fraternity. Anti-democratic states of mind, like caste, need to be swept away.

In the last days of his life, Dr Ambedkar said ‘The greatest thing the Buddha has done is to tell the world that the world cannot be reformed except by the reformation of the mind of man, and the mind of the world.’ How then is that mental reform to be achieved? He also said, ‘Fraternity, liberty, equality: these can only co-exist if the individual follows the way of the Buddha.’ Thus, the constitution can only work if there is a democratic attitude among the citizens, and in the end that can only come through a reform of the mind brought about by practising the Buddha’s Dhamma.

I was very pleased with the talk, in which I pulled together many ideas I had been wishing to communicate for quite some time. I felt very relaxed and in tune with my audience, having just emerged from nearly two months of retreat. What is more, while speaking I was surrounded by good friends like Anomadassi and Adityabodhi, and was translated by my dear friend Kumarajiv — who had been performing that task constantly in the preceding period. The audience was clearly delighted.

At times, trains would come through the station, and I’d have to pause while they rattled past — so close were we to the track— but somehow I managed to incorporate these distractions into what I said. Sometimes one feels completely in the flow of things, and for me this was one of those occasions. A large factor in the success of the occasion was Anomadassi’s careful planning and wholehearted enthusiasm for what was happening. It was delightful to gratify his expectations.

Afterwards, I was taken to a nearby hotel, and met some of Anomadassi’s friends. By now it was getting on for midnight. I was driven the final half-hour’s journey to the airport. A Mitra called Adinath was there to have a chat and see me off. The airport security is tighter than ever, and no guests were allowed in, so we sat on the pavement outside and talked for half an hour, drinking coffee from a machine. Then I went inside alone — into the strange limbo of international air travel. My trip to India was over.

Originally published in Madhyamavani 7: Autumn 2002 (Birmingham: Madhyamaloka, 2002).