India 2011 — #4 — To the North


Nagaloka Students & Think Sangha all mixed up.

We left Nagaloka at 6 this morning, for the Nagpur airport and an early flight to Delhi.  Tonight, an overnight train to Panthankot and passage to Dharamsala and Deer Park monastery in Bir.

Nagpur’s morning streets were blessedly free of traffic.  The cool air, before sunrise, seemed to glow.  Our five days at Nagaloka were very full and increasingly intimate, as our group has come together harmoniously and we bonded individually and collectively with the Nagaloka students. The only shadow was yesterday’s earthquake and tsunami in Japan.  Jon Watts had difficulty reaching his family in Yokohama and Kamakura, but found they were fine and unharmed.  News footage of the northeast Sendai regions is alarming – the relentless wave moving far inland and reducing all to matchsticks.

For the last three days we have been doing workshops and hanging out with the Naghaloka students. This is young groups – averaging 20 or 21, Silvie’s age – very eager to learn and simply to connect with us.  They tended naturally to gang up on Wintomo from Indonesia and PaPa from Burma, close to them in age.  But really all of us had our share of engagement.  On the first day we had a long presentation on the history and condition of India’s Dalit/untouchables, as well as the development of Ambedkarite Buddhism since the 50s and the formation of Nagaloka.  The rest of the day, though, we heard from the students themselves.

Speaking mostly in Hindi, some in English, story after story echoed each other.  The students are mostly from rural areas all over India.  Few of them have had any previous experience of Buddhism, coming from nominally Hindu families — although local temples back home were off limits to them.  Many of the students, coming from Tamil Nadu and other areas with strong local culture and language came to Nagaloka with no fluency in Hindi, the school’s operating language.  So on arrival they had to get up and running in a new language, new religious practices, new food, and new companions.  Some left, understandably.  But those who stayed are clearly in the flow of personal transformation.

The girls are compelled to stay close to home.  Educational is hard to obtain.  One girl told us how her teacher would not allow her to study English with her classmates at home.  “Why study? Where would you need English?”  the pressure to marry is more than I can easily imagine.  Once married, of course, that is it.  The rest of her life is cooking, cleaning, raising children.  Those who find their way to Nagaloka aspire to education and another kind of life, one of service to society.

The boys are in a similar situation.  A little freer to go out in town and get some education, but tracked to very low-level menial or service jobs.  But like the girls, like children everywhere, they are sharp and energetic.  They wish another kind of life.

We did not hear a yearning for consumer goods.  Maybe a phone, a motor scooter, and a computer for communication and work.  But these young people, despite the influence of television, seem to have their eyes on higher matters.

Their sitting practice is strong, very good posture.  Meditation practice at Nagaloka is usually anapansati/mindfulness of breathing or metta bhavana/cultivating lovingkindness.  The daily liturgy is chanted in pali — refuges, five precepts, and several other recitations, sung or recited in strong voices. Men and women have dharma halls and practice separately except on certain occasions or holidays.

The second day’s workshop gave each of us from Think Sangha an opportunity to talk about our lives and our respective work.  We included Lama Rangdral — a visting Tibetan teacher from the West to in the presentations.  As an African-American, he spoke from the heart about the destructive and still-present realities of racism in the west, and what we can learn from the groundbreaking work of Dr. Ambedkar on caste and discrimination.  In the afternoon we organized topical small groups on gender justice, Buddhist economics, transforming anger, living an engaged Buddhist life, and social mobilization — as much learning from the students’ experiences as “teaching” them.

Our sessions were punctuated by songs, something that magically creates connection.  I vowed to myself that next year I will be able to sing a “filmi” song in at least intelligible Hindi. So, our farewells yesterday were emotional on both sides.  I have several hundred photographs — and last night burned a cd so the students could have them.  Photos bring faces and memory to mind.  But when will we meet again?

For support and hospitality we must thank Mangesh Dahiwale, Dh. Lokamitra, the Nagaloka staff, and the ever-ready students of Nagaloka.  Their generosity is so natural and great.  Their hearts are as wide as the nation they will in time transform.

— Alan Senauke






About asenauke

Zen Buddhist priest, activist, writer, father, musician
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