Where to begin? It’s been a magical 24 hours.
Last night I nailed it down: I read Ambedkar’s The Buddha and His Dhamma, Parts III-V on “what the Buddha taught’. I discovered that Ambedkar defines non-self, annata, as “not atman”, i.e. as against the concept of Brahmanic atman or eternal soul. We have an ordinary personal self that disappears at death. He defines nibbana (nirvana) as “the calming of passions”, and distinguishes it from parinibbana, which is extinction.
Furthermore, he defines shunyata as impermanence and pratityasamutpadda (phenomena dependently co-arising) and nothing more. There is nothing in Ambedkar’s teachings that defines shunyata as “emptiness,” as in the extreme forms of emptiness of the Yogacara, “mind only” school, “self and other voidness” and other nihilistic philosophies. Karma is defined as the recycling of energy/matter into new forms, but not the re-embodiment of a singular consciousness, which is too close to atman. Karma is understood as the consequences stemming from one’s actions in this life.
Ambedkar taught “no panna without sila, and no panna and sila without karuna and maitri. In other words, no wisdom without ethics, and wisdom/ethics must always be practiced with compassion and loving kindness. Samadhi or meditation doesn’t even make the list, although of course it is included in the Eightfold Path. Ambedkarites practice shamatha and vipassana meditation, but the focus of practice is on social action, not meditation. Ambedkar’s tripartite liberty, equality and fraternity are likened to refuge in Buddha, Dharma and Sangha.
Ambedkar’s Buddhism is a thoroughly modern form that reframes social justice as spiritual transformation. He defined Buddhism as a social revolution comprising the ethical and compassionate relationship of human beings and all living beings. Ambekar’s Buddhism is Theravadin in practice, Mahayana mind, that is, done for the benefit of all sentient beings. The only thing I would add to Ambedkar’s teachings are the teachings of Buddhist ecology on interdependence and the connection of all things, which completes the Mahayana view.
Having read and affirmed this, I was finally at peace with myself. I found a Buddhism I could practice in good conscience. I always knew that this kind of Buddhism was possible, it was all there in the teachings of the Buddha. But it wasn’t until I discovered Ambedkar that I found someone with expert knowledge of Buddhism who could articulate it with authority and pristine clarity.
I still don’t have a Buddhist community to belong to, but it hardly matters anymore. When I look over my weekly schedule, I meditate in several different places with different people, most of whom are not Buddhists. On Tuesdays, I meditate with my 12 Step group, some of whom are Buddhists; on Wednesday evenings, I meditate with my sound improvisation group, most of whom are not Buddhists; on Thursday mornings, I meditate with my yoga group, most of whom are not Buddhists. This morning, after yoga class at the JBO on Gottingen St., I sat and meditated for an extra half hour. I did maitri bhavana practice for the relief of suffering and the liberation of all beings in my neighbourhood. I hope someday to hold a regular “community sit” on Gottingen St. to bring about peace and well-being in the neighbourhood.
I’ve discovered from doing meditation practice with non-Buddhists in non-Buddhist spaces that meditation is not just personal—it’s a way to build community. There’s a way that meditation, practiced regularly as a group, creates a sense of connection and friendship with other people, no matter what their beliefs. I practice meditation with all kinds of different people with all kinds of different beliefs, and yet, when we meditate together, we become a community. It has something to do with the way that meditation softens the energetic boundaries between people. Even if no words are spoken, there’s a way that defensive boundaries between people become pliable and permeable. We still have boundaries, but they’re not so rigid. People become more respectful of each other, and share a greater sense of warmth and kindness.
I discovered that my yoga teacher holds a monthly chanting practice at a yoga space out in Purcell’s Cove. I told her that I play harmonium and sing kirtan and chant in Sanskrit and Pali. Her eyes lit up and she suggested that we should hold regular chanting sessions somewhere in downtown Halifax. My heart skipped a beat—I felt like I was getting closer to a dream that I have longed to fulfill.
And this afternoon, I discovered that I am not alone. There is an Ambedkar community in Scarborough, Ontario. It was established as the Ambedkar Mission in 1979 in Toronto, and has been ongoing ever since. It was founded originally to help the settlement of Asians in Canada, but membership is open to everyone. Of course, most of the current membership are immigrants from India, but no matter, it’s my spiritual home. I wrote to them today to tell them that I am interested in becoming a satellite member in Halifax, Nova Scotia. The photos in this post are from their April 18 celebration of Baba Saheb’s birthday in 2014, at their new space in Scarborough. Just like the Hindu community at the Vedanta Society, the Ambedkarite community sings and chants with harmoniums and tablas. The chant leaders are always at the front of the room, leading the singing. Why just meditate in silence when you can sing? Singing and chanting as a group is the ultimate practice for creating community.
As I walk this new path of engaged Buddhism, I often feel very alone. I’ve had to let go of situations and communities that did not work for me in order to make room for new forms of community. But on days like today, I come closer to the realization of my true calling as a Buddhist.