Jai Bhim!

Jai Bhim! Dispatches from a Peaceful Revolution by Terry Pilchick
Berkeley: Parallax Press, 1988. BQ336.P5

This is a wonderful little book about the human legacy of one of my favorite people from all history, Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar. Pilchick strikes me as a practical and compassionate (although sometimes insufferably British) person who wanted to find out how Ambedkar’s Buddhist community in India was faring. Rather than reading one of Professor Zelliot’s books about it, he went there himself and made friends with the Mahars!

I learned some interesting things along the way: for example, how Sangharakshita, so controversial in Britain, was to Dr. Ambedkar a light of philosophical purity in the chaos of Buddhism as practiced in Sri Lanka and Burma, (74) and how despite being British born and raised, Sangharakshita knew his audience of unimaginably poor Dalits so well when he gave a speech in Maharashtra, he brought knowing smiles and laughter from the crowd. (77) “Sangharakshita sees his listeners in a paradoxical, twofold aspect. On one hand, they are poor, uneducated, mainly illiterate. Even as they sit listening, their bodies express an air of physically ingrained humility … But they have also struggled out of a trap that ensnares most of the world … They know life holds greater purpose than placid obedience to some divine plan.” (128) Thus, his message:

Some people say that, because the Buddha taught ‘impermanence’, Buddhism must be gloomy and pessimistic. But it is wonderful that things are impermanent: it means they change. And if things have to change, then why should they not change for the better. People are changing all the time, so people can become better. Society is changing, so society can become better. … A bad man can become a good man; a good man can become a better man; a better man can become a Buddha. (130)

His talks stay simple and direct, and references to the great Dr. Ambedkar are peppered throughout. My opinion of this guy was certainly raised a little. The eagerness of the Dalits to learn Buddhism was also impressive: “Lokamitra told me that one woman came along to retreats quite regularly in the full knowledge that her husband would beat her when she returned home.” (96) There are so many wonderful stories here, I must quote another

A diminutive man squeezes his way through the throng, hammering open a path with the tiny baby he carries in his arms. He thrusts the dazed infant under Sangharakshita’s nose.
‘Name! Please, Bhanteji! Name!’
Sangharakshita looks at the well-wrapped child. ‘Is it a boy or girl?’
‘Girl, Bhanteji.’
He takes another look, smiles. ‘Bodhipushpa—Flower of Enlightenment.’
Overcome with rapture, the father spins on his heels and batters his way back through the crowd, his eyes wildly seeking out the rest of his group. The entire affair has lasted no more than fifteen seconds, but that name will go with the girl for the rest of her life … as a highly prized talisman. (136)

If you went to India to give a dhamma talk, would you be prepared for an encounter like this? Wow!

One last thing I’d like to talk about today is Pilchick’s observation that “even today many Hindus regard Buddhism as nothing more than just an archaic branch of Hinduism”. (23) Dismissive comments like this are an interesting theme I am seeing in many books about “religion” in India and Japan. Many Japanese people will say that Shinto is non-religious custom. For some reason, we laugh off this insider account as due to ignorance, rather than realizing that this is truly a gem of knowledge to understand the role that our imagined “Shinto” or “Buddhism” play in their home societies.

Pilchick states, correctly, that Buddhists were subject to persecution from Brahmins. But at the same time, Buddhism in India was constantly developing throughout the time it was there. Consider this: the oldest form of Buddhism, Sthaviravada, is strictly materialistic and preaches cessation of suffering in the here and now. (I’m ignoring the developments in Theravada in Southeast Asia.) The next form, Mahayana, holds that the forms in which Sthaviravada were taught were empty of independent meaning, and that true insight can be awakened within oneself without the need to follow a rigid path. The next form, Vajrayana, says further that you can come to identify yourself with these perfections in the forms of bodhisattvas, if you have a competent guru to instruct you. Now, all this is moving away from materialist description of life, and towards yogas. Couldn’t we just tack on modern, guru-based “Hinduism” to this list? The gap between Theravada and Hare Krishnas is huge, but the gap between Vajrayana and Hare Krishnas is not so big, I think. Vaishnavas even had major debates about whether you are allowed to identify yourself with God. So maybe this conception of modern Hindus, that Buddhism was just part of modern Hinduism, is essentially correct.

Posted: March 23rd, 2010 | Book Reviews