Suhṛllekha: Letter to friends

January 30, 2000

Dear friends,

Please forgive me for writing so many of you in a single letter; it seemed preferable to saying pretty much the same thing repeatedly to each of you severally. As time permits, I'll probably fill each of you in with as much more detail as you crave to hear, but for now here are the bare bones of my ordination retreat.

The retreat was held near the small village of Bor on the Bor river. The closest town to it that appears on any of my maps is Wardha, to the southwest of Nagpur. There is a dam (dharan) on the River Bor, behind which is a large lake around which is a jungle filled with tigers, cobras, monkeys, tree rats and all manner of other fauna who live among the teak trees. Aside from the farmers and dam maintenance workers, there are very few people in the area, so it is remarkably quiet and peaceful and unpolluted. In the rolling hills on the edge of the jungle there is a Buddhist retreat centre built with the help of an infusion of money from a Taiwanese Buddhist organisation that is trying to promote the revival of Buddhism in India. The retreat centre is named Hsuan Tsang Dharma Kendra and is maintained by a small team of members of the Trailokya Bauddha Mahasangha (TBM).

B. R.
Ambedkar The vast majority of members of the TBM are from former untouchable families that converted to Buddhism when Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar converted to Buddhism in Nagpur in October 1956. On every altar of a TBM centre, one finds just below the Buddha image a photograph of Ambedkar. It takes very little time to discover that these Buddhists regard Ambedkar as the most significant Buddhist of modern times, since it was he who liberated the untouchable from castism and brought Buddhism back to its homeland. On the altar next to Ambedkar, one finds a photograph of Sangharakshita, the British Buddhist monk who spent seven years after the mass conversions helping the converts to Buddhism learn something about the doctrines and practices of the religion to which they had so suddenly converted. Sangharakshita also founded the Western Buddhist Order (WBO), the Western wing of the TBM.

On the retreat I was on there were about fifty men, all of them either ordained into the TBM/WBO or seeking ordination into it. Of those fifty men, twelve of us were slated for ordination on this retreat. Of those twelve, four of us were from the west: a Scot living in England, an Englishman living in Spain, an Englishman who grew up in South America and has spent much of his life living in Africa, and me. Of the Indians, the vast majority had never been more than a few hours away from their small villages. Some were obviously very poor and barely literate; others were highly educated and relatively well-paid professionals. At 54 I was the oldest being ordained; the youngest was a man exactly half my age. Most of them were around the age of 40.

The men on this retreat ranged in age from 27 to about 65; the majority were mature men well over the age of forty. Every one of them that I talked to had a fascinating life story and a blazing determination to help their people improve their lot in life. The Indian Buddhists, like Ambedkar himself, tend to fall strongly on the rationalistic end of the spectrum and have a deep suspicion of any Buddhist practices that remind them too much of Hinduism or seem in any way superstitious. They place a fierce emphasis on the precepts and on clean and honest living and hard work. None of them drink alcohol or use tobacco or drugs. They meditate regularly. They pride themselves on making sure their wives and daughters also get away to retreats a few times a year, for they take very seriously Ambedkar's warning that the oppressed people of India will never be liberated until their women are fully liberated and educated and independent. They are also very proud of the fact that they do things on what they call “Buddhist time” (clock time) and not on “Indian time.” Every event starts punctually on the minute; the only people who were ever late to anything on this retreat were the Westerners, and we were quickly scolded for failing to be precisely on time. All things considered, I couldn't help noticing a certain resemblance to Mormons and to some fundamentalist Christians I have known, especially in poor parts of the rural American Southwest. (This particular part of India reminded me so much of my native New Mexico as it was fifty years ago, and in many ways still is, that I felt immediately at home.)

Although all the Indians on this retreat were from Maharashtra and spoke Marathi as their native language, all the pujas and guided meditations were done in Hindi. I found this puzzling but was told that the TBM uses Hindi because it is a language that most Indians can at least understand and so facilitates the movement's growth into Gujarat and Panjab as well as into the Hindi-speaking parts of India. (To my surprise, I found that I had no trouble understanding the Hindi used in religious ceremonies and meditations and found myself more emotionally involved in the ceremonies done in Hindi than I usually am doing the same ceremonies in English; although it's irrational on my part, somehow it just feels “right” to me when Buddhism is done in Indian languages.)

The meditation program on TBM ordination retreats is carefully structured. The day begins with an elaborate visualisation of the TBM refuge tree, which has elements on it from many of the major schools of Buddhism. Theravadin teachers are situated next to Mahayana teachers, and there is a mixture of Indian, Tibetan, Chinese and Japanese lineages. Sangharakshita Among modern teachers prominence is given to Ambedkar and Sangharakshita and to several Tibetan ris-med (non-sectarian) lamas and to Anagarika Dhammapala and to a Theravadin monk from Sri Lanka. Every aspect of the refuge tree is meant to underline the principle that all Buddhists are to be honoured and that no one tradition or lineage can claim superiority over the others. The refuge-tree visualisation and prostration practice takes an hour. That is followed by a forty-five minute period of meditation on a topic of one's own choice. The second meditation session of the day is a fifty-minute session of metta-bhāvanā (cultivation of friendship towards self, loved ones, and enemies), followed by fifty minutes of analysing the person into impersonal elements and contemplating the emptiness of self and of dharmas. The third meditation period of the day is a one-hour session on a topic of one's own choice. Then in the evening there is a long puja and various devotional practices. Those of us who were being ordained spent at least one hour a day meeting in private with our preceptor, from whom we got instructions concerning our particular visualisation practices and various other preparations for ordination.

The last four days of the retreat were spent in total silence (except for the pujas and our private interviews). On the day of our private ordinations, we were ritually bathed and anointed with the oils that are used to prepare a corpse for cremation. This ceremony of last rites symbolised our death from the world. We were not to be spoken to again until the day of the public ordinations, when our new names were revealed to the world.

The private ordination represents our personal commitment to the dharma; the idea is that even if no one else in the world were going for refuge, we would still do it alone. The private ordination ceremony involves only the ordinand and his preceptor. On this retreat the private ordinations took place at night under a bodhi tree during the full moon. One by one, we had to walk into the jungle away from the retreat centre to find our preceptor. And there we were formally initiated into our personal meditation practice by the preceptor and given a new name. Subhuti, my preceptor, said he had been especially struck by two things in me: kindness (dayā) and intelligence (mati). And so I walked out of the jungle bearing the name Dayāmati. The private ordination ceremony is simple but very powerful (especially under a full moon in the jungle under a bodhi tree). After the private ordinations were finished, one of the Indian ordinands was so overcome with emotion that he stood in front of the Buddha statue and sobbed uncontrollably as one of his brothers after another silently stepped forward to offer him a flower and a hug. Before long, there wasn't a dry eye to be found among the fifty men on the retreat.

The public ordination ceremony in the TBM represents the ordinand's commitment to a life of public service. This took place under a large pandal, a brightly multi-coloured canopy, at noon (sharp!) on January 26, India's Republic Day. This Republic Day was the fiftieth anniversary of the day when Dr. Ambedkar delivered the Indian constitution into the hands of Jawarhalal Nehru. Public ordinations are an important event to the Indian Buddhist community, so an estimated 5000 people turned up from the villages of Bor, Amaravti, Wardha and the city of Nagpur, to see the new crop of Dhammacārīs. Proud fathers and mothers and siblings and sons and daughters and friends of the new dhammcārīs burst into tears and applause as their own favourite man received his kesa. Gasps of delight and approval moved through the crowd as the new names were revealed. And when the ceremonies were finally over, everyone tucked into the elaborate tiffins they had spent the evening preparing. The new dhammacharis were fed to the bursting point, saluted, prostrated to, hugged and generally admired. Parents pushed shy children forward to offer a flower petal and say “Jai Bhim!” (Long live Bhim[rao Ambedkar]) to anyone wearing a blue shirt and a white kesa (the offical uniform of TBM order members).

It obviously meant a lot to the Indians to have four Western men be ordained among them. And it meant a lot to us Western men to be doing all this in India. It was hard to believe as the retreat came to an end that we had been strangers just ten days before. There was much animated talk of having a reunion within three years, and promises were made to write letters and send postcards across the ocean and to remember each other at least once a month in a special friendship meditation. And there were tears as we said goodbye. Buddhists are especially encouraged to be aware of impermanence; but nobody ever said we have to like it or that we are obliged to become numb to the pain of being separated from people we have come to love.

The drive back to Nagpur was not entirely an anticlimax. It's ninety kilometres of bad road that, as one gets closer to Nagpur, gets increasingly congested with cars, behemoth goods carriers, scooters, bicycles, rikshas, ox carts, goat herds, cows, pigs, dogs and pedestrians. Our driver hurtled through the dark night, repeatedly blaring his horn and missing obstacles by centimetres, economising by not turning on the headlights so that we saw what we almost hit only seconds before we just missed it. After a while it began to feel to me as if I were watching a screen saver written by a particularly demented hacker. When we finally got to Nagpur, rubbery in the knees and pale in the face, one of the Englishmen said “Those mantras they gave us at the private ordinations really work. They saved us from at least thirty fatal head-on collisions tonight.”

And now, after a thirty-six hour journey, I am in Montreal, and after a good night's sleep am remarkably energetic and free of travel fatigue. It will take quite a while to sort out all the images and impressions and to figure out what, if anything, it all means.

For those of you who can't get used to my new name, I'll still answer to the old one, but already the old name sounds strange to my ears, like a sobriquet used by someone whom I knew pretty well long ago, perhaps in another lifetime, perhaps even in a different galaxy, perhaps only in a work of badly written fiction.

I shall look forward to meeting all of you and becoming acquainted.

With mettā

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On 6 Nov 2005, 20:10.