Engaged Buddhism & Development Chapters

Amoghamati (Susanne Traud-Dubois)

The registered charity Karutla Deutschland was established in 2006 by a group of German Buddhists. I am founding member and chair woman of Karutla Deutschland. We got inspired to start our work by the example of our sister charity in England, the Karutla Trust. As disciples of the Ven. Sangharakshita, founder of the Western Buddhist Order, we had heard a lot about the peaceful ‘Dhamma Revolution’ in India.

Living in India at the time, Sangharakshita had a number of discussions with Dr. Ambedkar before his conversion to Buddhism in 1956. After Dr. Ambedkars sudden death, Sangharakshita was present to console the new Buddhists. He gave lectures and talks on the Dhamma for the new Buddhist communities and introduced them to Buddhist practice.

The ex-untouchable communities always belonged to the most oppressed and economically deprived people in India. Therefore support for the social uplifting was as needed as teaching the Dharma. Nowadays, members of the Western Buddhist Order are closely co-operating with the Indian Trailokya Buddha Mahasahgha Sahayak Gana or TBMSG. For 25 years, financial and training support is being provided by Karutla Trust in England. Our group Karutla Germany aims to contribute to the fundraising and to the work for a better living of our Indian fellows.

I’m going a bit more into detail about how this can happen. The starting point for our movement and therefore the cause for my being here today is obviously our teacher and founder the Ven. Sangharakshita. So I’ll give you a brief introduction in his life and in his connection with Dr. Ambedkar and the Dalits. This leads to the situation of Ambedkar Buddhists nowadays and to a short description of current projects. I’ll sum up with glimpses of our work in Germany, what we try to do and why.

Bhante Sangharakshita

It is said that the Ven. Sangharakshita is one of the founding fathers of Western Buddhism.

He was born Dennis Lingwood in South London, in 1925, and had a Church of England upbringing. But from an early age he developed an interest in the cultures and philosophies of the East. At the age of 16 he read the Diamond Sutra and realised that he was a Buddhist. He then started to explore the Dhamma through study and initial practice.

Then in the Second World War he was send to Sri Lanka as a signals operator, and after the war he stayed on in India. For two years he lived as a wandering mendicant. Later he was ordained as a Theravadin monk and named Sangharakshita.
During his time in India Sangharakshita met many remarkable spiritual teachers.

Although ordained in the Theravada school was always open to other forms of Buddhism. In particular Sangharakshita was influenced by Tibetan Buddhist teachers who fled Tibet after the Chinese invasion in the 1950s. Perhaps the most influential was Dhardo Rimpoche, an incarnate lama. Dhardo Rimpoche was both friend and teacher to Sangharakshita and gave him the Bodhisattva ordination. He lived for 14 years in the Himalayan town of Kalimpong where he encountered numerous venerable Buddhist teachers. So he had the opportunity to study intensively under leading teachers from all major Buddhist traditions. He stayed ibr 20 years in India.

Finally, after consulting with friends and teachers in India, especially Dhardo Rimpoche, Sangharakshita decided to return to England to teach the Dharma. He started a new Buddhist movement and founded the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order in 1967. This new Buddhist movement celebrated the 40th birthday last year and therefore now shows a reasonable degree of maturity.

All the while Sangharakshita taught and wrote extensively. He is now the author of over 50 books. Most of these are expositions of the Buddhist tradition. He has also published poetry and his extensive memoirs, as well as works on aspects of western culture and the arts from a Buddhist perspective.

Sahgharakshita has been a translator between East and West, between the traditional world and the modern, between timeless principles and relevant practices. He has always emphasised the significance of commitment in the spiritual life, the value of spiritual friendship and community, and the need for a ‘new society’ that supports spiritual values. Throughout his life Sahgharakshita has been concerned with issues of social reform.

The Western Buddhist Order is a spiritual community of men and women who follow the Buddhist path to Enlightenment. Order members have made that commitment the central point of their lives, namely the Going for Refuge to the Buddha, Dhamma and Sahgha. The Order is open to any man or woman who is sincerely and effectively committed to the Buddhist path, not just to those seeking a monastic lifestyle. Although Order members try to lead a wholehearted Buddhist life, they are not monks or nuns. The Western Buddhist Order is neither monastic nor lay. What matters is not the lifestyle that Order members adopt but the spiritual commitment they have made. Or, as the famous saying within the Order puts it: “commitment is primary, lifestyle is secondary”.

So, some Order members live a rather monastic life style in rural retreat centers; others live with friends, or with their families, or alone. Most Order members have ordinary jobs, working and expressing Buddhist values in their professions. A few Order member work full-time in Buddhist Right Livelihood businesses and some are supported to work at their local Buddhist Centre. Sanhgharakshita always emphasizes the importance of Sahgha and the development of friendship in the Order.

Every Order member undertakes to practice 10 ethical precepts. These traditional precepts point to basic principles of ethical behavior. They apply to all actions of body, speech and mind that mean there are 3 precepts for the body, four precepts for speech and three for the mind. Men and women Order members take the same precepts, and practice on an equal basis. Order members meet regularly in chapters where there is space for exchange of personal experience with Dharma practice in daily life. An important practice in this regard is the confession of faults.

Sahgharakshita has always pointed out the importance of meditation. So Order members are supposed to uphold a daily meditation practice. It is on the cushion that we work with our mind and that we can change our deeply rooted emotional habits.

Now Sahgharakshita is in his 80s and has handed over his responsibilities for the FWBO to a group of senior members of the Order. He is based in Birmingham and is now focusing on his writing. He still frequently meets his disciples and visits Buddhist Centres abroad.

The FWBO is now an international movement with activities in more than 20 countries, including India. The FWBO is a non-sectarian Buddhist movement which seeks to promote the practice of Buddhism in a form appropriate to the modern world. It is aimed to grow roots in the Western societies and to further develop a genuine Western Buddhism.

One of the German Buddhist Centers of the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order is based in Essen where I life. For 17 years I’m now a practicing Buddhist and engaged in Dharma activities in the Center. I live with my husband who is practicing the Dharma, too, and our three children.

Indian ex-untouchables and Dr. Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar

The revival of Buddhism in India is mainly due to the former Law Minister Dr. Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar.

In 1956 he converted to Buddhism, only two months before his death. He led five hundred thousands of followers into conversion to Buddhism, mostly belonging to his own ex-untouchable Mahar caste.

Dr Ambedkar had been pondering over the question of an appropriate humanitarian religion for decades. Again and again, he made a plea to fight casteism amongst the scheduled castes. He passionately put forward the argument that the scheduled caste movement needed unity, self-reliance, and organisational strength, and that women had to take an active part in it to make it a success.

When he finally embraced Buddhism, his understanding of the Dharma was founded on a radical rejection of Hinduism and the caste system. Dr Ambedkar had suffered a lot from caste discrimination. He was painfully aware of the entanglement of religion and society through the example of Hinduism and the caste system. Therefore, he intended to reconstruct Buddhism not only as a religion for the untouchables but as a humanistic and social religion. His Buddhism projected a religion for a modern, civic society.

Dr Ambedkar had met Sahgharakshita shortly before his death. Sahgharakshita later played a key part in the revival of Buddhism in India, particularly through his work with the followers of Dr Ambedkar. After Dr. Ambedkars sudden death, Sahgharakshita did what he could to console the new Buddhists. He gave many, many lectures and talks on the Dhamma for the new Buddhist communities and introduced them to Buddhist practice.

Dalit Buddhists: Trailokya Bauddha Mahasangha Sahayaka Gana (TBMSG)
The Indian wing of our movement is called Trailokya Bauddha Mahasangha Sahayaka Gana (TBMSG). It mainly draws from the Dalit communities (lit. the oppressed communities). These people have suffered the abuses of the caste system of India for centuries. When their great leader Dr Ambedkar led them in converting to Buddhism, this happened out of his final conviction that there won’t be any advancement within the Hindu system. At that time Sangharakshita was in contact with many of the Dalit groups. These links were maintained over the years and when Sangharakshita returned to India in the 1970’s he was greeted with enormous enthusiasm. So he asked several of his disfciples to stay on and establish Buddhist activities there.

The FWBO’s or TBMSG’s work in India has two aspects: firstly providing facilities for teaching the Dharma among Buddhists from the Dalit communities formerly known as ‘untouchable’; and secondly running social work projects to contribute to the betterment of those communities.

When the activities started it soon became clear that simply teaching Buddhism was not enough. There was clearly a need for practical and material help, so a charity, Bahujan Hitay (“for the welfare of the many”), was set up to run social work projects. These projects have educational, medical and cultural objectives and they are now spreading throughout India.

The main educational project involves running 20 educational hostels. Here children can stay who would otherwise not be able to continue their schooling. Other projects include kindergartens, adult literacy classes, and non-formal education classes. Medical projects include health centers and networks of slum-based community health workers. Cultural activities include the Asvagosha Project, which uses story-telling to explore issues relevant to local communities. Karate classes are offered for children, which help greatly in the development of self esteem. Hundreds of years of oppression left a deep mark on the psyche of many new Buddhists. Whereas, a healthy self esteem can be seen as a very basis for the development of a strong and happy human being. Maybe it’s difficult for anybody with a Western or Buddhist upbringing to realize, how deeply affected many of the ex-untouchables still are by their history.

Beside all this, the teaching of the Dharma still remains a very important part of activities; even though this is now mainly provided by Indian Order members. Still the lack of education and also lack of Dharma knowledge prevail in the Indian Buddhist community. One simply has to take into account that many of the ex-untouchables converted primarily out of social reasons and not out of genuine religious conviction. Therefore the need for Dharma teaching is tremendous.

Nowadays, round one third of the Order is Indian that means about 500 Order members out of 1.500 worldwide.

Projects supported by Karuna Germany

In Germany we got inspired by the work done in India and the supportive and fundraising activities carried out in England by the Karutla Trust. Therefore, to give our share to improve the living conditions of Buddhists in India and of other poor communities we ‘decided to set up Karutla Deutschland. We are still very young and small; we started work only one and a half years ago. But from the example and cooperation with the Karutla Trust in England we are confident to grow steadily. Growing as charity in Germany means more active members. That leads to increased fundraising for the benefit of the disadvantaged.

At present, we support projects in Dalit communities in India, in the hill region of Bangladesh, and in the poor countryside of Nepal. Projects, which are being supported by our sister charity the Karuna Trust in England, too. The focus is on health care, education and on women empowerment. In some projects we support sustainable social and economic development, in others we help providing access to the Dharma.

To give you a more concrete impression of the projects here some examples: one Order member of the Western Buddhist Order is working as medical doctor in Nepal. She founded the Green Тага Trust which is running a health project in the impoverished and remote areas of Nepal. The focus of work is on mother and child care and on community-led health promotion. An important issue is sexual health education for young people in order to prevent young pregnancies and the increase of infections like HIV. Nepal is a country with an extremely poor health care system especially in the country side and an incredible lack of medical professionals present. Also, people still suffer a lot from the consequences of the war. An additional aspect is the cooperation with the Nepali Health administration regarding the modernisation of health curricula. Here, we are happy and proud that one of our Order sisters has taken on the vocation to run a project of this kind.
Another example is the Arya Тага Mahila Trust (ATMT) in Pune, India. Founded by Indian Women Order members the focus is on capacity building for Dalit women and children. A computer institute named Karuna Computer Education Center offers professional training for women and children. Nowadays computer skills are often a prerequisite for a good job; however, most of the slum dwelling kids don’t have access to computer education. So here they can learn computer skills as well as they receive English lessons necessary for computer work. Advanced pupils can go further to obtain a state government recognised qualification.

Also, the Arya Тага Mahila Trust runs a hostel for girls providing them the opportunity to continue a secondary education. Very often girls from backward classes still don’t get a good education. The opportunity to live in a hostel to attend school is precious for Dalit girls and poor village girls.

Next, ATMT works against domestic violence prevailing in many families. Even Buddhist families are infected by this mistreatment of women out of traditional patriarchal prejudice. The work covers awareness raising campaigns as well as practical training for women to better cope with situations of this kind.

Last but not least the ATMT team of Indian Order members is spreading the Dharma. They are supported by Western Order members working here part of the year as volunteers. They give lectures, offer classes to study the Dharma and run retreats for the Indian Buddhist women. The “Dhammajyoti” called team of seven women has been operating for the last three years, taking the Buddha-Dhamma out of Maharashtra to other Indian states and to more remote rural areas.

In Germany

In our country, Karuna Deutschland fundraises for these projects. A second aim is to raise the awareness of people. Many Germans know about poverty and inequality in the world and often tend to give quite generously for humanitarian purposes. However, most have surface knowledge only of the actual living conditions. Therefore we started to organise information stalls on cultural events and write articles in journals, especially in a German Buddhist magazine. We inform about “our” projects and also about the discrimination of the ex-untouchable communities in India that still prevails. India is nowadays a rather popular country in the German public. Media attention on India is now focussed more and more on India as the emerging power on the global market place. But of course, that is only half of the picture. Westerners are often oblivious to the ongoing social problems. For instance, India is no longer receiving development aid by the German government for social projects. A shift has take place to give money only for technical assistance for climate change related projects etc. People think that a powerful country like India should be able to alleviate poverty and injustice itself. However, it is obvious that millions of people continue to suffer from low education, lack of access to income generating means and caste or gender prejudice and discrimination.

To raise awareness of the German public for human misery in so many parts of the world, not only in India, one of our undertakings is our work with school children. Although in Germany there is a minority of disadvantaged children, too, most children live in prosperous — not to say spoiled — material conditions. Many kids have so many toys, fine clothes and entertainments that they tend to feel like little princes in the centre of the universe. To counteract this tendency, many schools have become patrons of projects in poor countries. To foster the seeds of compassion and generosity in German kids it is necessary that they get a feeling for the real world. To support such activities, Karuna Deutschland offers to visit schools to inform about our projects and the local situation. Once the kids are more aware of other kids’ circumstances, they usually want to actively help. With the support of their teachers they may organise various fundraising events in school life like sponsored runs, school bazaars, or even a social work day. On such occasions the children will work for a few hours and then donate their income to the projects the school has adopted.

Up to now, we have made agreements with schools and plan to have the first workshops with kids in the course of this year. In this way we aim to build relationship with more’and more schools – and thus integrate fundraising for our projects with teaching German kids awareness, generosity and compassion.