By Greg Snyder
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.
Over the last two days, part of my role here has been to facilitate a discussion group exploring a daily theme. When considering the topics of empowerment and breaking down barriers, a contrast to similar conversations in the United States was striking, though not particularly surprising. As participants spoke about what was empowering for them in the Buddhadharma – the teaching of the Buddha – most everyone in the group from a Dalit background opened with a story about giving up a social identity rooted in self-hatred or a sense of no value. One might say that to greater or lesser degrees each exchanged a Dalit identity for that of a Buddhist. Some even celebrated that they do not use the word Dalit at all, but only refer to themselves as Buddhist.
Why this is not particularly surprising is because Ambedkar set up the conversion ceremony to do just this. In addition to taking refuge in Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha as well as the five moral precepts foundational to Buddhism – no killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying or consuming intoxicants – Ambedkar added 22 more vows. Of the first 18, 7 add up to a full-scale denunciation of Hinduism, 2 are a commitment to the equality of all people, and 8 are Buddhist vows. The capping 4 include an explicitly stated renunciation of Hinduism because it is “harmful for humanity,” an affirmation of Buddhism as the only true religion, a declaration that one has had a new birth and a vow to commit to Buddhism for the whole of one’s life. In effect, one has traded in one’s Hindu Dalit identity for that of a Buddhist.
This does not seem to be a superficial exchange at all, at least for the small sample size with whom I’ve enjoyed learning from here. What is reported in groups and by presenters are common experiences of increased confidence generally, the growing ability to speak on equal terms with those in higher castes, a decrease in self-loathing, a decreasing sense that one deserved punishing treatment, etc. At breakfast this morning I sat with two men, one age 25 and the other age 70. The former came from an illiterate family and was recruited by Naglaloka with no ability to speak English or read any language. He received his education at Nagaloka and has now gone on to ordain as a Theravada monk with hopes of going on to graduate school in New York City. Six years later he reads his native language, reads and speaks perfect English and teaches Pali. The latter gentleman, clearly regarded as a respected elder and also from an illiterate family, first heard Ambedkar’s message as a teen along with a heavy stress on education. He converted to Buddhism, learned to read and went to college, now joyfully boasting of a personal library of 6,000 books. Working in a bank for 25 years, he has worked his way up to his current position manager of multiple branches. For decades he would go home after work and eat something quickly before going back out to lead a midnight school where he would teach Buddhism to the Dalit community. At times, a single class would be over 900 women and men. Stories like this just go on and on.
The fact that this all seems to have been accomplished by fully abandoning an identity forged in a structure of domination led me to think about Buddhists working with race in the United States. Now this is not to say the Ambedkar conversion movement has entirely freed new Buddhists from the psychological violence of the caste system. These same participants are quite conscious that they have internalized caste and sub-caste and still struggle with these identities. However, they center as Buddhist practice the work of divesting from these identities. This is what is different from the more common experience of Buddhist practice in the US.
Of course, the US Buddhist conversion movement unfolded quite differently. It was not a liberation movement of oppressed peoples, but entered through an educated, white, middle-class community with ample leisure time to create monastic or semi-monastic centers where they focused on long meditation retreats. I am familiar with the arguments against seeing the categories of white, middle-class Buddhists and converts as synonymous. I am writing only of the first generation of educated, white, middle-class Buddhists; the majority of them, if not entirely, are converts. This is not to say that this social location describes all US converts to Buddhism. It does not.
In the U.S., while feminism certainly influenced this particular convert culture relatively quickly; race was scarcely a discussion until recently. The situation here in India compares most directly with U.S. hierarchical racialization. Recently, a relatively small number of American Buddhist teachers – mostly teachers of color with a handful of white allies – have begun to point to racial inequity across the Buddhism world. The breadth and intricacies of these discussions are far too robust to be handled in this blog post. However, what is interesting in relationship to what is happening with the Dalit Buddhists is how the Buddhist practice of releasing one’s subjective experience from a self-grasping sense of a separate self can be utilized to divest from oppressive identities.
Though academic feminists like Rita Gross and others have certainly been taking this on, such discussions in actual Buddhist practice circles were framed in terms of personal psychology, not social identity. Consequently, practitioners could have powerful insights around the nature of mind and habitual behavior that freed them from the suffering caused by a sense of separation, while at the same time having no insight at all into internalized patriarchy, white supremacy, heteronormative assumptions and scores of other social aspects of self-clinging that might have been illuminated by lenses that included one’s social location in hierarchies of domination.
Because of Ambedkar’s social interpretation of Buddhism and the experience of Dalits here, this framing of practicing with self is the entry gate to Buddhism, thereby creating a much different conversation than one would find in most Buddhist circles in the U.S. Much of the work that is being done by American Buddhist teachers focusing on using Buddhist practices for healing racism, undoing white supremacy and patriarchy, etc., are focused on this same intersection of historical violence internalized as social identity and the Buddha’s practices of divesting from a separate self. However, the difference is that this work in the US is still mostly being disseminated through Buddhist teachers to students as opposed to being the common spiritual currency of a broad movement. This begs for a more intimate dialogue between these two movements.
We watched footage of four Dalit men being beaten in the streets a few months ago, bringing to mind the murderous violence against black women and men in our American streets. As painful as witnessing the barbarism of the act was the seeming acceptance of it by the four victims. The presenter, Ven. Sugato, made this point when he said, “Notice how they seem to believe they deserve it.” Maybe the most important thing Ambedkar has done for his community is the use of conversion to seed the deepening realization that these young women and men do not, in fact, deserve it. In effect, he enacted the four noble truths beautifully by pointing out the cause and conditions of their suffering in the form of an internalized oppressive social identity while providing a means for ending that suffering by divesting from that social identity and following a spiritual path that ultimately strengthened a subjectivity not defined by their oppressor. I look forward to more Buddhists reading Ambedkar and learning from what is happening here.