Thursday, July 26, 2007

Dharmaduta Outreach

In March I started, together with others, a weekly Dhamma class on Monday evenings at Vaishali Centre in Hockley, Birmingham. Vaishali Buddhist Centre is part of Dr Ambedkar Buddhist Organisation in the UK. They are converting a large derelict chemical factory into a Buddhist Community Centre. I have been teaching meditation and leading study on Tiratana Vandana in so-called in Hinglish, which is a blend of Hindi and English. The highlight so far was a day retreat I led on 13 May, to mark the Buddha day and Vesakh Celebrations.

In June I visited Hungary to spend some time with our Gypsy friends there. Hungarian Gypsies (or Roma, as they call themselves) are inspired by their connections with followers of Dr Ambedkar. I led a retreat in Uszo which was attended by 30 young women and men from various parts of Hungary. Uszo is the centre in northern Hungary where we did our first retreat with the Roma last year. Indian vegetarian food, chanting of refuges and precepts, and discussions about precepts were very much enjoyed by participants. I visited The Little Tiger Grammar School in South Hungary and gave a talk on Dr Ambedkar’s message of self help, and his threefold injunction to his followers to Educate, Agitate and Organise. I also travelled around visiting friends in Budapest and other Hungarian towns. During my visits I distributed gifts, such as Dr Ambedkar’s photos, books, CDs, Indian cloths, Buddhist images, head-bands, necklaces, lockets, rosaries, spices and sweets. The response was very warm. An important occasion during my visit was the formation of The Jaibhim Community. The Jaibhim Community is an initiative of Tibor and Janos, our main contacts among the Hungarian Roma, and is linked with TBMSG/FWBO. It will provide an organisational framework for our Buddhist activities.

I participated in a postgraduate research workshop of Manchester University in the School of Arts, Histories and Cultures on 27 June. There I gave a talk on Conversion and Liberation: A Dalit Buddhist Perspective.

Will, Matt, Jnanaketu, and I were at the Buddhafield festival from 11-15 July, where we helped to host the Dharma Parlour. Jnanaketu was there as much to witness the progress we have made in giving talks thanks to the input of his Clear Thinking class as getting familiar with Bangra dancing! We gave three introductory talks on Buddhism and a presentation on the significance of Dr Ambedkar to India and the world. All the talks were very interesting and eventually will be available on internet for wider audience. As other Buddhafield visitors, we benefited from various workshops, seminars and small discussion groups at the festival, and had to put up with the mud which was around everywhere. On the whole we had a very good time.

I hope that I will meet some of you readers of this newsletter in the Dharmaduta activities to come in the next half of 2007.


Dharmaduta Team on Karuna Appeal

The Karuna Trust is a Buddhist charity which finances a variety of projects, mainly in India. Inspired by the legacy of Dr Ambedkar, it focuses on helping the oppressed classes, largely ex-untouchables, regain their dignity, and lead sustainable lives. They run fundraising appeals in which volunteers go alone from door to door asking people for regular financial support. Many fundraisers become aware that, apart from the altruistic dimension, the door-knocking appeals also have a strong impact on them personally, and can be an intense and valuable spiritual experience. In this article I want to tell you about the six weeks of fundraising we Dharmaduta students did in London in May/June this year. I also want to share some of my personal experiences and reflections as a Buddhist fundraiser during this time.

For the duration of the appeal, Manidhamma, Matt, Thea, Will, and I stayed in a rented house close to Seven Sisters underground and train station in north-east London. We soon settled in and during the first week we were given an introduction to door knocking. We each made ourselves familiar with our assigned patch - the area where we would each fundraise during the weeks ahead.

The training by the experienced Karuna team took place most mornings and continued throughout the appeal. It consisted of a colourful mix of reportings-in, reflections and exercises, including role play, to support us in becoming more effective fundraisers. We had lots of fun, although for most of us the process was sometimes quite challenging and difficult. It was very fruitful for my personal growth. I had to work through a series of attitudes and habits that have not only been obstacles to effective door-knocking, but also seem to have hindered me in living my life more fully. For example, I had to deal with my tendency to see suffering in the world abstractly, anonymously, and distantly. I discovered how little I was prepared to take the suffering of others (e.g. people in India) on board, let alone being emotionally engaged with it. But being on the appeal, how could I possibly convince people to give generously while I harboured this attitude? I had to face up to my lack of compassion, and a process of engaging more deeply with the suffering of others began. At the same time I became more aware of my own inner pain and sadness.

Fundraising is about connecting with human beings. Only when a positive and open connection is established does the fundraiser have the chance to address the householder's caring and generous sides. It is about being really open to the person in front of you. But I found myself being anxious, and consequently closed, rather than open and able to engage fully. Again, I could see that this has been a recurring pattern in my life. Very often my shyness and anxiety has made me close the doors of opportunity. How sad I felt in those moments! Going from door to door I became more aware how superficially I live many moments of my life.

I started reflecting on conditioned arising and imagined the flow of conditioned phenomena. I thought, when there is no past or future, and life happens only in the present moment, I can - no, I have to - use the moments at the door, standing in front of an unknown human being, to train myself in remaining aware of my tension and anxiety, while still being open to the situation. In that way, I discovered door-knocking to be a tremendously powerful practise. In short conversations with householders I got immediate feedback on whether I was able to establish good contact. In addition, I could start the being-open exercise again and again afresh – at each new door.

Being on the appeal with the support of the Karuna team, we did not have to deal with our personal stuff on our own; we could share and work with our feelings and reflections in a sensitive and helpful atmosphere. Manjudeva led a workshop on focusing, and Jayachitta did a weekend on clowning with us. We had lots of fun! Many thanks to all of you for the opportunity to be on the Karuna Appeal!

In particular I feel grateful to the many people who opened their doors and hearts to us. In the evening, after coming home from our patch, we reported back to each other some of the interesting people we had encountered, and where we had been invited to share a bit of life with them. I have been left greatly inspired, thoughtful and overwhelmed by so much spontaneous generosity and wonderful good-will in the streets of London.


Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Hammering My Thoughts Into A Unity

It seems that the tendency to hold views (drstis) is deeply embedded in the human mind; indeed, attachment to views is a defining characteristic of the unawakened state. Drstis are more than merely theories; they are emotional attachments to distorted interpretations of the world. Out of these our articulated views arise. Once formulated into concepts and arguments, they are subject to critique from reason in accordance with the laws of logic. It is the tools whereby this is done that we have been studying with Jnanaketu on his 'Critical Thinking' course. By examining the laws, and art, of argument, and common tricks whereby fallacious arguments are passed off as genuine, we are arming ourselves against the plethora of views, many of them deluded and harmful, which fill the world.

Buddhism contains its fair share of argument. I have undertaken a study of Nargarjuna, under the direction of Subhuti and Saramati. Nagarjuna, the founder of the Madhyamaka school of Mahayana Buddhism, uses reasoning to show that any positive assertion leads to absurdity and contradiction. For instance: there cannot be any existing things which undergo movement, since one would either have to say that the thing that moves has the property of movement, in which case, if the movement were to cease, it would be a non-moving mover; or it would have to have the property of non-movement, in which case one is left with a moving non-mover. Both of these options are clearly ridiculous.

So once all reifications have been cleared away, what are we left with? Is it nothing? Not exactly. We must be careful of missing the middle way by falling into annihilationism. Once all mental constructs have been exposed, there remains the spiritually positive residue of a direct, non-conceptual experience of reality. The problem Buddhism has had through the ages is how to express that which is beyond concepts by means of concepts. Some formulations, like arguably Nargarjuna’s, have erred on the side of negation; others, like the doctrine of Tathagatagarbha (about which Sagaramati is notoriously suspicious!), may have erred on the essentialist side. But could it be possible to find the conceptual formulation which avoids these two extremes?

It seems not. Insights from Western philosophy can help to illuminate this. The German philosopher Immanuel Kant has given us new insights into the nature of the apparatus which a percipient being must necessarily have in order to have intelligible experience. This apparatus includes the percept conditions of time and space, out of which arises the differentiation necessary for concepts to be created. But time and space, and therefore differentiation, obtain only in our mental interpretation of the world, and thus the limit of what may be asserted about how things actually are is circumscribed. What this means for us is that reality is ineffable. Concepts may assert, or they may deny, but reality, being infinitely subtle, remains aloofly beyond their reach.

Saramati teaches that Sangharakshita has given us a perspective on this which is unique to the history of Buddhism. Through understanding that language inevitably lays itself open to misinterpretation, by falling one side or other of the middle way, we can take an appreciative attitude to the whole Buddhist tradition, recognising that all authentic conceptualizations of the Dharma are attempts to express that which is beyond expression. They may contradict one another on the level of logic, but that only matters to the extent that we are attached to an interpretation of reality in which logic obtains.

Back to drstis. 'God is dead', Nietzsche declared, and thereby laid down a challenge to man, to look no more beyond the world for his spiritual values. Perhaps the Indian politician and social reformer Dr Ambedkar meant something similar by his assertion that 'sila is Dhamma and Dhamma is sila '. Subhuti, developing the thought of Dr Ambedkar, teaches that sila (ethics) cannot be based on drstis but must rather come from the reality of the interconnectedness of beings. The dangers of basing values on drstis are plainly seen in the terrifying ideological conflicts threatening our world. Buddhism is perhaps unique as a spiritual tradition in its refusal to assert that contact with a higher being, or entrance into a higher realm, is the goal of spiritual practice. Awakening consists in understanding this world fully, understanding it free from all tendencies to cling to the belief that anything at all is ultimately real.

Though many years, perhaps lifetimes, of dedicated practice still lie between me and this lofty experience, I hope, and believe, that my studies at Dharmapala College have pointed me more clearly in the right direction.

Matt Burgess

An Encounter with Tibetan Buddhism

In March Dharmapala College had a visit from two Western Lamas, Lhundrup and Djangchub from the Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism. They are from a centre in France, called the Dagpo Kagyu Mandala, where they have a monastery, and also conduct three year intensive retreats. Their visit followed on from contact with Dhammarati at a meeting of the European Buddhist Union. A seminar was held studying Gampopa’s Jewel Ornament of Liberation, a key text for all Tibetan traditions. This was a particularly exciting event because as well as formal teaching sessions the Lamas also met with some senior Order Members to look at what can be shared and exchanged between our two traditions. Promoting cross-tradition dialogue is an aspect of Dharmapala College’s vision; to experience it actually happening was invigorating and inspiring.

The study itself was interesting, but the most powerful aspect of the seminar was coming into contact with open and progressive members of a very traditional form of Buddhism and the interface with the FWBO, which is an ecumenical tradition. For me it revealed the benefits of a traditional Tibetan approach, but also the elements which I find less appealing. A long established tradition brings clarity and confidence, which is very attractive. Yet at the end of their visit I find myself more confident in my commitment to the FWBO. Our tradition also has form and structure, but what I value most is our sense of autonomy and collective exploration. The most inspiring aspect of Djangchub and Lhundrup’s visit was the injunction to meditate more deeply and really engage with one's ideals. That is a message worth hearing whatever tradition one practices in.

Will Sullivan

Monday, January 15, 2007

Dharmaduta in India

As part of the first year of the Dharmaduta Training Course, we students – that is Anne, Yvonne, Manidhamma, Matt, Thea, Will, and myself – spent the months of October and November in India. Our stay on the huge sub-continent, with its bubbling life and striking contradictions, included a pilgrimage to the Buddhist holy sites, led by Ratnaketu and his team. Our thanks to Ratnaketu for explaining so well the historical and spiritual significance of each site. For the rest of our stay we engaged in Dharmaduta activities. We joined the international Network Conference of Buddhist Activists. The symposium was held at Nagaloka, Nagpur, to celebrate the conversion to Buddhism of Dr Ambedkar and half a million of his followers in this Indian city fifty years ago. In talks and discussion groups, we learned more about the ‘Dhamma Revolution’, which was started in 1956 by Ambedkar’s conversion, and what has been achieved since then. There are now between one to two million Buddhists in India, ex-Dalits who have a significant improved quality of life compared to their non-Buddhist peers.

The other purpose of the symposium was to discuss how to combine the forces of the sangha in India and abroad to accelerate the spread of the Dharma in India. There are an estimated ten to twenty million non-Buddhist followers of Ambedkar (Ambedkarites), who might take the chance to escape caste oppression and lead a more confident life by converting to Buddhism – if there only would be somebody to teach them about the Dharma and their leader’s thoughts. In view of the decline in Buddhism in most parts of the world, whether the worldwide Buddhist community is awake enough to respond to the opportunities in India and the task of the ‘Dhamma Revolution’ in the coming years will be of great significance.

After the symposium, we participated in two ‘Dhamma Journeys’, organised by Dharmacharis Kumarajiv and Subhuti. The first was a six-day tour through Chattisgarh, a state in the east of India. A team of around thirty people travelled in jeeps and lorries on rough roads through endless rice fields to visit poor farmers’ villages and to connect with the local people. Our program in the nicely-decorated centres of these villages consisted of chanting the precepts and other devotional texts, garlanding statues of the Buddha and Ambedkar, and giving short talks about Ambedkar’s conversion and what it means to be a Buddhist.

The farmers were very welcoming and open. Our main message was that in Buddhism, unlike Hinduism, there is no oppressive division of society into castes, and that it is our own responsibility to take the initiative to improve our lives. We stressed that all people are equal in that we can develop, and reach enlightenment. We developed a “mantra” together with them – ‘monke, monke, eka barobar’, ‘all people are equal’ – which is based on the verse of a poet from Chattisgargh. This expressed a shared human dignity to counteract the harmful effect of the hereditary caste system.

The ‘rath’, or chariot, carrying the Buddha rupa, the Dharmachakra, and Dr Ambedkar’s ashes.

Our second opportunity to put Dharmaduta into practice was a ten-day tour through the state of Maharastra, from Nagpur to Kolhapur. Approximately fifty people, in up to ten flag-decorated jeeps and two lorries, travelled from town to town to celebrate Ambedkar’s conversion, to remind the people why he took that big step, and to inspire the Ambedkarite Buddhists to continue his work by reaching out to other communities. One of the lorries, decorated with a big Buddha rupa and a huge golden Dharma wheel, also carried an urn containing Dr Ambedkar’s ashes. While driving through the villages and on the country roads, we had to stop again and again to give crowds of people the opportunity to climb onto the lorry to pay due honour to the relic. It was very moving to witness the depth of reverence and gratitude towards Ambedkar. Each day we celebrated the anniversary, giving talks and inviting the villagers to the main evening event at whatever local town, where after a devotional program Subhuti would give a talk, sometimes to as many as 1500 people.

For all of us, Indians and Westerners, it was an overwhelming experience. The team spirit was extraordinary, and we all were carried by the importance of our endeavour, even more so by the inspiration and love of the many hundreds of people waiting for us alongside the road each day, some of them coming from far and waiting for hours.

I would like to close this little report with a quote from Dr Ambedkar, which summarises an important aspect of spiritual practice that became much more clear and alive to me on our journey through India: ‘…the duty of a Buddhist is not merely to be a good Buddhist. His duty is to spread Buddhism. They must believe that to spread Buddhism is to serve mankind.’


Sunday, October 15, 2006

Dharmapala College Update

Term three of the Dharmaduta Course has seen most of my fellow students away again for a week in Hungary, for a second retreat with the gypsies. Some of us remained in Birmingham - to stay still, practice, catch up with study, and in my case, to prepare for the arrival of family from Australia. In addition to the Dharmaduta course, so far this term Dharmapala College has organised two extra seminars - one on Asanga's ethics and one on 'Pratitya Samutpada, Tathagatagarbha, And All That'. Fees for these extras help fund the College, and we Dharmaduta students sometimes participate in those seminars that include new material for us. In this case, we attended the Tathagatagarbha sessions. Between Saramati, Sagaramati and Subhuti, we were presented with an analysis of Tathagatagarbha in its figurative aspects, its misappropriation, and its positive application. In addition we enjoyed studying with the ten or so Order Members that had come to study at Dharmapala College for the week.We are also studying The Enquiry of Ugra, a sutra we've been looking at with Sagaramati, who says that it gives us the earliest glimpses we're likely to get of the origins of the Mahayana. And we have just seen Dhammaloka again, for the next stage in deepening our understanding of our 'type' - according to the Myers Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI to the initiated!). In the final two weeks of term Locana will be here for a 'Non-Violent Communication' (NVC) retreat.Subhuti was the main voice behind introducing these last two modules to our course of study, because of his concern about the amount of conflict in the sangha, which he felt 'could undermine the whole notion of the Order'. He feels that MBTI and NVC could blend with spiritual practice to some purpose, in that MBTI helps us understand our own 'type' and acknowledge the differences between ourselves and other 'types', while with NVC we learn to communicate those differences skilfully.
Inevitably, responses to the study modules on offer - both academic and 'consciousness-raising' - vary. Some students prefer the one to the other, others like both. Although most of us are still doing everything that's offered, a new element has come to the fore this term in that some students are choosing not to 'do' certain modules or projects. In our feedback at the end of term two, some of us requested less classroom-lecture time and more free time to pursue our own individual research projects, for the purposes of later presenting our results to the group as a whole. The discussion continues, as Dharmapala College continues to grow in diversity and breadth.

Catherine Baker

NVC Retreat

There had been three modules of NVC with Locana during our first year of Dharmaduta, and various combinations of people had joined us for these. Then a 10-day retreat followed in August. We had around twenty people for the retreat, and we were also joined by Shantigarbha and Jayaraja as facilitators. This proved to be very valuable, as we had lots of expert guidance in the small group exercises.
It was rather scary to sit down together on the first day with no agenda and no 'leader'. Locana simply suggested we spent time discussing how we wanted to form the retreat, practising NVC in the process. We would not do anything without full consent from everybody. This proved to be a fascinating, if not gruelling and sometimes extremely frustrating process, which went on for a whole day! However, we managed to 'sit tight' and eventually came to a form which everybody felt comfortable with. We then posted our own requests for themes and the three facilitators also posted up workshop themes that they wanted to offer.
Each morning anybody could offer a poem or thought and lead a short discussion. Then we would decide on the program for that day, choosing from the requests and offers on the board. We then each chose our workshops and had a review at the end of the day. IT WORKED! The hard grind on the first day really allowed for a space of freedom to open up between us, which led to a deep, honest sense of connection with ourselves and one another because we were totally engaged and co-responsible.
There was much discussion around NVC and the Dharma, especially in respect to so-called feelings and needs. I can only say that NVC helps me to really experience my feelings in a very alive way. The practice of self-empathy brings greater clarity and allows going beyond ego centricity. Simply acknowledging something in oneself non-judgementally is healing, and often enough to let it go. I experience NVC as a potent tool of the Dharma, making me more aware of when I fall into strategies that are not working because I haven't connected to the real needs of the other. That's what we managed to do at the beginning of the retreat, and it opened up a truly magical space.

Yvonne Greenaway

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Dharmapala College and Dharmaduta students go to Hungary!

Half way through Term One, in the middle of February and our four weeks with Subhuti, he came into class one morning, saying “I have an idea, a proposal to put to you”. He then proceeded to tell us a little about the history of his contact with Buddhist scholars and gypsy people in Hungary and invited us to think about the idea of accompanying him on his next visit there, possibly in April. The overwhelming response was one of great excitement and we waited to see if it really would happen, since it was by no means a definite at that time.

Two months later, in the first week of Term Two, Subhuti and six students, one lecturer and one Dharmacarini flew to Budapest and there began another ‘experiment’, reflecting the distinctive nature of what is currently Dharmapala and Dharmaduta in the FWBO. It is not possible to describe the many and varied experiences each person had in Hungary. For those of us privileged enough to go there, however, I think it is fair to say each one of us has been touched deeply by what we witnessed, shared in and contributed to in very diverse ways over the two weeks.

Our first introductions took place at the Dharma Gate Buddhist College in Budapest, where we met Tamas Agocs, Tibor Derdak and Janos Orsos and several young gypsy men and two young women. This was in the evening after a day’s travel and no food or sleep in sight, no Hungarian language amongst our group and complete dependence on others to set the scene and give direction to the order of events, which was distinctly absent from the proceedings. Here was our first learning and challenge to our practice, to be in the moment, whilst experiencing what felt like chaotic disarray.

The days unfolded from there in a similar fashion, at least on the surface, since we did follow Tibor’s timetable more or less as planned. There was a meeting the next morning with the Director of the College, Gabor Karsai, discussing the range of teaching currently offered there and their recent MA accreditation, the first in the country since Hungary’s recent changes to these processes. A partnership approach with Dharmapala College (‘the babe in nappies’ as it was described by one of us, in comparison with fifteen year old Dharma Gate College) could see our staff as visiting lecturers contributing to their English courses once they are developed, and our students gaining accreditation through their existing status. We here in England have already benefited from a teaching visit from Tamas Agocs, working with us on the Diamond Sutra. The vision of a European Buddhist university was further discussed and next steps with the existing network of the European Buddhist Union, to possibly adopt this focus as its theme for their next conference. In amongst the vision and the practicalities, there was other inspirational talk of philosophy, academic minds at work and at play.

Meanwhile some of our group were exploring the city of Budapest and delighting in the culture on offer there, a sharp contrast to our surroundings the next day when we travelled south to Gilvanfa and Alsoszentmarton, (two kilometres from the Croatian border), where the Tiger Cub Grammar and Vocational Secondary School is located. Kistigris (as it is known locally) serves the people from five gypsy villages in this southern region. The educational level is extremely low – in gypsy communities around the country only 1% of young people take the GCE exam at high school, in comparison with 70% of the general Hungarian population. In addition to GCE subjects, this school offers teaching in Roma language and a range of religions, including Buddhist studies. Here we met some of the teachers at the school and some of us experienced a taste of home and family life over the Easter weekend, finding ourselves in sharply contrasting circumstances from one moment to the next. One evening ‘hanging out’ at the school, making music around the warming log fire under the night sky, the next afternoon sitting in a comfortable family lounge room immersed in intense conversation about the political history of Hungary, the impact of the communist regime on the nation’s and individuals’ psyche, the effects of the European Union on the country’s economy and national identity and a few hours later, observing an all night Easter vigil of the Catholic community in Alsoszentmarton. Threaded through these experiences were ongoing discussions about the work of the school and the challenges faced by gypsy people in Hungary today, as well as talk of the Dharma, what do Buddhists believe and what does it mean to be a Buddhist?

On our travels south we were accompanied by some of the young men we had met on our first evening in Hungary and later we travelled north with them to the Dharma Gate College retreat centre in Uszo (20 kilometres from the Slovakian border). Here we spent six days in retreat mode, with an ever changing combination of people, coming and going from this very beautiful part of the country, surrounded by beech and oak forests, hills and valleys and a range of mountain peaks in the distance. We fetched and carried water from a natural source, cooked with bottled gas, lit candles for light in the evenings and washed infrequently! People slept on floors, six to ten in a room and those sleeping in the shrine room had to be woken, so others could do their morning meditation. Young gypsy men, ranging in age from fifteen to twenty four years, found themselves in amongst this group of practising Buddhists from far away places. They learnt how to meditate themselves and participated in some strange activities called communication exercises and circle meetings, talking about ethics and something called precepts. Through this kind of sharing and lots of playing table tennis, football, singing and music making, we got to know one another, connections began to sprout (just as the acorns were doing in the forest in the glorious spring time) and the seeds of friendship were sown.

There were many special moments on this trip, but certainly unforgettable were the two FWBO mitra ceremonies conducted during this retreat. The first ever to be held in Hungary was for nineteen year old Istvan, who had met Subhuti last year when he first visited Hungary. Istvan subsequently had some email contact with Subhuti and pursued his interest in Buddhist practice through Janos and Tibor, who themselves became mitras when they travelled to India in January this year. The other mitra ceremony was for Janos’ sister, Anikos, whose son had been on the retreat earlier in the week. This was also a first, the first gypsy woman to become a mitra and the first ceremony to be conducted in Hungarian! Anikos wore the sari Janos had bought for her on his trip to India, particularly meaningful, because of their very strong sense of connection with their roots in India, dating back to the tenth and eleventh centuries CE.

I remember Subhuti saying to us that February day in the classroom, “this could be learning in terms of seeing something in the making, what could be an historical event as far as Ambedkarite Buddhism coming to Central Europe”. He also said it might not quite work, but at least we could contribute our presence and our interest in other people’s coming into contact with the Dharma. This we certainly did.

Anne Barrey
Dharmaduta student
(from Adelaide, South Australia)

Welcome to the Dharmaduta Blog!

Dear friends in the Dhamma,

Welcome to the Dharmaduta blogspot. Here you will be able to explore the activities of the Dharmaduta students of Dharmapala College, Birmingham.

If you have news, photos and comments then please email me!

I look forward to seeing your postings.

Happy blogging!

Yours in the Dhamma,