When a Liberation Theologian Travels with a Socially Engaged Buddhist to a Buddhist Conference in India – Part II

Categories: Union News

Cláudio Carvalhaes
Nagpur, India, October 14, 2016

During Fall Break, Cláudio Carvalhaes, Associate Professor of Worship, and Greg Snyder, Senior Director of Buddhist Studies traveled to Nagpur, India for The Social Engagement and Liberation conference, hosted by the International Network of Engaged Buddhists. Both Cláudio and Greg will be reflecting on their experience on the Union website. To read Cláudio first post, please click here.

To read Greg’s post, please click here. 

The sun in India is beautiful and strong. The days are hot and the evenings cool. The sun and the moon show us the pulse of the country at every corner you turn.

This conference is grounded around three themes: Dharma as empowerment, Breaking down barriers between people and Dharma as governance. These themes relate to Dr. Ambedkar’s main words for the constitution of India, very much influenced by the French Revolution: liberty, equality, and fraternity.

IMG_1995Today the theme was the Dharma as empowerment, and it was very moving. Dharma, the teachings of Buddhism, is often called the Buddha Dharma. It is the source of wisdom from Buddhism to humankind. Different streams of Buddhism have interpreted this in different ways, with the two major streams being:  Theravada and Mahayana. Dharma as empowerment means to make one freer or to help one become free. Throughout the day I thought I was in a base community in Latin America, hearing Dalits interpreting the Dharma from their social location and how it had changed their lives as the poor Christians in Latin American would interpret the Bible from their locations and see their lives transformed as well. The genius of this conference has been to have not only scholars speaking, but monks, lay people and Dalits without any formal title, all talking about socially engaged Buddhism.

Banthe Sugato, a Dalit who is now a Buddhist monk, told us all about the horrors he went through as a Dalit in India. It was so difficult to hear and see it all. But, then he told us how Buddhism, the Dharma and the Buddhist sangha (community) have completely changed his life. For him, Dharma as empowerment meant finding the strength to walk away from the caste system, to see in the Dharma that his worth came before his birth and is not attached to his religious Hindu birth, to now be in charge of the view of his own self! Through Buddhism, he saw his own caste suffering going away and empowered him to fight for the freedom of his own people!

This college, Nagaloka College, where he first studied is a place where his identity as an untouchable was never an issue. In the afternoon I heard people explaining how the Dharma created empowerment in social, political, educational, economic and psychological realms of their lives. In fact, conversion to Buddhism offers the possibility of shattering identity as it is related to Hinduism and its notion of worth in birth, offering them a new identity, a different place to find worth, life itself and how this all creates new possibilities. Conversion offers the possibility to build a different sense of identity and of self in society until one can get to Buddha’s sense of no identity, of no self.

Liberation theology starts where Buddhism starts: in suffering. This is what Professor James Cone says. Buddhist nun Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo, also teaches that our lives in the world are filled with suffering, dukkha, caused by our unattained mind. It is hard to engage in meta, compassion, and forbearance. We need the practices to help us deal with the issues that arise during the day. When things go smoothly, it is easier to be complacent. To me, this sounds similar to Jesus teaching us to love our enemies. The power of Buddhism is that it demands us to work with our feelings and our sufferings. That would make us inwardly empowered to face any circumstances in life that might threaten us.

Along with Latina liberation theology methodologies, it is the cotidiano, the everyday life, as our place of practice of full humanity, and dealing with our experiences as the manifestations of the sacred. In the cotidiano lies God’s promise of transformation and salvation.

This thought made my Zen priest, Greg Snyder, tell me that Zen Buddhism sees the transformation of the self in washing dishes. Tibetan Buddhist nun Palmo explains that if we attain a form of living in this world that is calmer, we gain tools and a clearer mind to tackle the inequality of our matter. A clear mind and an engaged subjectivity empower one to live a moral life that sustains actions of justice and freedom. Thus, when we work with ourselves deeply, we shift the place of our work. I learned with Prof. Snyder that meditation helps us shift our loyalty from the mind to the body. When we are deeply connected with our own bodies, we are able to stand up for our rights from a place of compassion and strength and not from a place of anger and fear.

It is so interesting that for Buddhists, the search is not for a brilliant intellectual mind, but for the clearness of the spirit when there is nothing between the person and the world. A fascinating element that I need to learn better.

The Dharma says that so much depends on ourselves and that knowledge helps us deal with the troubles of the world. The grasping onto things, and the things that we grasp, are not real things but illusions of a thing that in fact does not exist, but are only in a dream. In a very distinctive way, I could not help but think of how listening to the Holy Spirit can be this clearing of the mind, to detach ourselves from the things of the world and find a pure heart.

Christie Chang–Sakyadhita from Taiwan also spoke about the methodology of the Dharma. “I am here to speak for those who feel they are in the background, those who cannot speak, those who don’t trust themselves. Empowerment is transformation.”

She says Marxism criticizes the social situation but does not know how to deal with the individual and his/her feelings. Empowerment must come from both sides of the individual. We must transform ourselves to be open to feeling the suffering of others. This compassionate feeling is only possible if we do deep listening, allowing ourselves to surface. Dharma is the way things are and is the instruction to empowerment. Throughout the day I could not help but hear the Prophet Amos speaking in Buddha’s words. Or Buddha speaking in Amos’ words: Loving kindness and compassion.

To finish, the Christian notion “love oneself” is also deeply in Buddhism. As nun Palmo said, making friends with ourselves is to search for compassion, and believe in our own strength to do things. And she finished with two admonitions to us: she criticized the patriarchal ways that the Dharma has been taught, saying that books are mostly written by men, and so there is an unbalance that needs to be addressed. The second admonition was to the nuns and monks: there is a need for the monastic sangha (community) to reach out to society and hear what people are saying. That is the only way we can become better human beings and realize our Buddha potential. And I would say the same to Christian pastors and priests: it is only by getting together with the people that we can discover Jesus potential too! Preach it, sister!