The Buddhist from suburbia

In the Sign of the Golden Wheel
May 10, 1996

The first volume of Sangharak****a's autobiography, The Thousand-Petalled Lotus, was an extraordinary story of an Englishman, D. P. E. Lingwood, who literally gave up all his worldly possessions and set out on bare feet from the southernmost tip of India to the northernmost, a begging bowl in his hand, and was initiated, as a result of his asceticism and scholarship, as a Buddhist monk. It was a story that might inspire any reader who has ever felt at odds with life as it is lived on earth and believes there is another dimension to be found.

Sangharak****a has now arrived at the third volume of his memoirs - surely there will be more to follow - and it is sobering to find how even the inspired search of a wandering ascetic can lead ultimately into the staid, organisational world of classes, lectures, editing papers and running a society that, with all its rifts and dissensions, does not seem so different from any corporate existence on mundane earth. In the lectures and articles he summarises for us in this third volume, Sangharak****a reiterates his faith and elucidates it with great clarity and presumably, for him, there is no dichotomy between the two ways of life: in fact, he believes that personal sacrifice - ie of meditation and solitude - had to be made in order that he could use his faith for the benefit of the larger public.

So, if the first volume of his autobiography records his discovery, on reading a copy of the Diamond Sutra that he found in a London bookshop, that he was and had always been a Buddhist, and of how, on being demobilised from the British army in India in 1946, he sought and obtained ordination as a monk, then this latest volume is an account of how he transformed his private fervour into a missionary zeal to proselytise his faith. That this should have been necessary in the country where the Buddha was born and preached is an irony, but it is a fact that in the 1940s Buddhism had all but disappeared from the land so that a concerted effort had to be made to recover it and bring it back to life again. Its remnants were there in the hands of a desultory few - some apathetic, some discouraged, and all divided into infinitesimal splinter groups. This was an intolerable state of affairs to Sangharak****a, and when he writes of the Tamang Buddhists he encountered on a tea estate in Assam as "an unattractive lot . . . squat, bandy-legged, low-browed, with expressions that ranged from the dull and apathetic to the coarse and brutal, so that one had to remind oneself that they were human beings and, as such, one's brothers and sisters", he was speaking much as Christian missionaries spoke in the colonies in the 18th and 19th centuries, with a similar conviction that only the word of the Lord could save such savages. Of course what was unusual in Sangharak****a's case was that it was not the word of Jesus Christ he brought with him but of the Buddha; he ascribed the subhuman look of the Tamangs to the fact that they had lost touch with their faith and paid no attention to the Buddhist temple set up by the manager of the tea garden.

Thereafter Sangharak****a made it his duty to tour the country - a duty he thoroughly enjoyed, remarking of the experience of being drawn on a cart by a group of women and children "rarely had I beheld such a charming sight" - and give lectures, visit Buddhist societies wherever he found them, write articles for the Maha Bodhi Society journal and somehow to organise and bring together the scattered and fractious groups he found, whether in the Himalayan mountain towns of Kalimpong and Darjeeling or the cities of Calcutta, Poona, Bombay and Nagpur. His graphic accounts of travelling by bullock cart and railway remind one strongly of the accounts left by administrators in the colonies of their tours of duty (so many of the phrases he uses - "bowling along the road to catch the Calcutta Mail", "located my berth", "we secured our seats with great difficulty" - bring them vividly to mind) giving them a clearly anachronistic air.

Buddhist society as he encountered it in the 1950s sounds as unruly a tribe as any colonial administrator might have feared to find in "the colonies": a more fractious and acrimonious lot of people it would be hard to find. From the battles fought between the Mahayana and Theravada schools of Buddhists for control over the Maha Bodhi journal - "heretic" and "pseudo" are among the more politic of the epithets, "treacherous and underhand" their behaviour - to the scuffles between rival Buddhist ladies about whether a beautiful rug gifted by an admirer should be placed beneath Sangharak****a's feet as he sits reading at his desk or removed to the shrine room - the effect is one of a barely controlled riot, or comical burlesque. It is best summed up in the image of the redoubtable Alexandra David-No l descending upon a gathering of Les Amis du Bouddhisme in Paris in her red Tibetan lama costume, blaring at them mightily through a thigh-bone trumpet. "What do you think of that?" she demanded triumphantly. "I think it is not Buddhism, madame", was the retort, "and so violent was the argument that followed that . . . the building rocked."

Sangharak****a displays a novelist's relish for such scenes, and they enliven the detailed accounts of the various factions and their disputes. He himself was inclined to see Hinduism as a far more serious threat - Hinduism, that "vast ocean" in which Buddhism was a tiny and very threatened island. To him it was the universalist quality of Hinduism that threatened it most and he takes exception to those Hindus who see Buddhism as no more than an offshoot of their religion. What incensed him was the "benevolence" of such Hindu Brahmins as ran the Maha Bodhi Society in Calcutta: "For them all religions were one, all paths led to the same goal, so that it was a matter of indifference whether the head of a Buddhist organisation happened to be a Buddhist or a Hindu. Indeed, as Hindus possessed, innately, a far deeper knowledge of Buddhism, or of any other religion, than its own professed adherents, it was actually better that a Buddhist organisation should be headed by a Hindu than by a Buddhist. 'But Buddhism is in our blood', Hindu friends would insist when I attempted to correct their misunderstandings of Buddhist doctrine, meaning that they had the ability to understand Buddhism without the necessity of actual study, simply by virtue of the fact that they had been born and brought up in India." It is understandable, then, that Sangharak****a adds: "I am not a universalist. I did not believe that all religions were one . . . and all paths led to the same goal." This led to his being dubbed anti-Hindu, a charge he did not discredit since he believed that the "curious combination of piety and prejudice" he detected in them was "the hot air of devotional frenzy inflating the bladder of brahminical egotism".

It is an irony - one that has many precedents in history - that it was not such passionately held beliefs, nor such small, isolated and ineffective organisations as the Maha Bodhi Society that brought about any noticeable change in this state of affairs. It was the Hindu political leader, Dr B. R. Ambedkar, officially a member of the lowest of castes, the Harijans (formerly known as Untouchables), and also a leading advocate and the man who drafted the Indian constitution, who by converting to Buddhism as the only way to break the caste barriers of Hindu society, led legions of others to do the same - a quarter of a million in a single instance - giving the missionary movement a new impetus and strength. The fact that his conversion was based on a desire for social reform rather than any spiritual need plays sadly into the hands of those very Hindus who infuriated Sangharak****a by placidly - and repeatedly - claiming that Buddhism was not a religion but a reformist offshoot: "a purified form of Hinduism", as one put it. Sangharak****a admired Ambedkar greatly and was to have met him in Nagpur but arrived a few hours after his death. He describes vividly the condolence meeting at which he spoke and where Ambedkar's disciples were so grief-stricken as to be completely demoralised - they had converted to Buddhism only two months earlier and it seemed that the movement was in danger of collapse. However, Sangharak****a is convinced, "I can say without vanity that I created a tremendous impression . . . Had I not been there, there is no knowing what might have happened."

The other seminal event of the times - to which Sangharak****a, completely lacking in any interest in politics as a monk must be, gives scant attention - was the invasion of Tibet by China which led the Dalai Lama to flee to India. As a matter of fact, Sangharak****a's description of his meeting with the Dalai Lama - when he was ceremoniously received at the Maha Bodhi Society in Kalimpong - is distinctly cool and by no means glowing: there is no mention of his charisma, spiritual qualities or status; in fact, he points out how erroneously he is referred to as "the God king" and himself prefers to call him "the hierarch". Yet no one can doubt that the Dalai Lama's presence in India has brought about a great revival of interest - and, it may be argued, a more genuine wave of conversions - in India and the West than any previous event of this century.

It is characteristic of Sangharak****a that he is much more inspired by the wild-haired, penniless wandering mendicant, Chattrul Rinpoche, a lama with a reputation for his magical powers; it is he who prescribed to Sangharak****a that he take the Green Tara as his tutelary deity to whom he would henceforth address his prayers and meditation - for all that he has resisted idol and relic worship for his many years as a Buddhist. The book ends with his move to a cottage in the village of Chibo near Kalimpong where he installs the Buddha image in the hope it will become the permanent home of the Maha Bodhi Society. He winds up, as gravely as any river entering the sea, with the belief that: "Having completed its first two and a half millennia Buddhism has entered upon its second, which according to tradition was to culminate in the appearance of Maitreya, the Buddha of love." Sangharak****a himself was to leave for Europe and dedicate himself to the activities of a Buddhist missionary in England, as founder of the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order.

Of course there can be no closure to such a story and one's interest is piqued in the chapters that must surely follow regarding the most recent cycle of Buddhism in India, and the great renewal of interest in it all over the world, from California to Russia. Sangharak****a's books about its very modest and fraught beginnings, are as detailed and factual as one can hope to have at this time. Considering that it belongs so much to its times and the political and historical events thereof, it is a pity it is so lacking in dates that would help readers know, for example, when the friendship proclaimed by Nehru and Chou En-lai between India and China broke up, when the Dalai Lama fled Tibet or when Ambedkar converted to Buddhism. Yet these events are central to this story of Buddhism in India which is so marvellously full of detail.

Anita Desai's most recent novel is Journey to Ithaca (1995). She is professor of writing, Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

In the Sign of the Golden Wheel: Memoirs of an English Buddhist

Author - Sangharakshita
ISBN - 1 899579 14 1
Publisher - Windhorse Publications
Price - £14.99
Pages - 343

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