in India, the Untouchable castes are also called “the Broken people.” An English-speaker would think that this means they are psychologically or spiritually broken, and in indian culture, that is also one meaning of the term. But “the Broken people” has a more specific historical meaning. The Broken people are descendants of tribes that had gone to war with other tribes, many centuries ago, and suffered huge losses, the mass death of their members, the loss of their tribal lands. The Broken people were the survivors of those defeated tribes. They did not have enough resources to form their own tribes, and they were not allowed to join the conquering tribe or other tribes. So they were “broken” from the tribal system, and lived as rootless individuals and families. They were forced to live outside of the tribal villages—thus, they were “outcastes.” They were not allowed to farm, work or trade with members of other tribes. Historically, the Broken people were subsumed and reclassified under the Hindu caste system as the Untouchables. But the Untouchables are not even a caste within the Chaturvarna caste system. They are outside the caste system, or “outcastes.” And so today, the Untouchables, the outcastes, are also known as the Broken people.
In Siddhartha Gautama’s day, to be without a tribe was to face annihilation: violence, desperate poverty and early death. The sangha, or Buddhist tribe, was indeed a refuge, a tribal connection that helped one to survive and thrive within the tribe’s cultural life. That’s why, for a person practicing Buddhism, the third refuge is the sangha. When a person left his or her family and tribe to join the Buddhists, they became ‘broken people.” The new Buddhists were welcomed into a new tribe, the sangha. Even today, to be without a sangha often feels like one is without a tribe. To be without a sangha is to be a Broken person. There are many Buddhists who don’t fit into traditional Buddhist sanghas, either because of differences with respect to authority, dharma teachings and practices, or because of racism, sexism, poverty, homophobia, ethnicity, disability or other forms of marginalization. These are the Broken people, the Buddhists who have no tribe.
Broken people don’t need to be “fixed,” they need to be connected. That’s why it’s critically important for the Broken people to form their own tribes, or dharma groups, even if it doesn’t feel as “tight” as a traditional Buddhist sangha. Oppressive power structures within the sangha marginalize people and push them to leave, thus becoming “broken”. We have to come up with a way to form sangha that doesn’t involve submission to the authority of a guru or to a practice hierarchy, in which decisions are made only by the people closest to the guru or with the most experience. We have to come up with a way to form sangha that allows for differences of dharma interpretation and practice, that doesn’t require allegience to a lineage. We must stop and prevent the pervasive emotional and sexual abuse by sangha leaders. And we absolutely must find a way to form sangha that does not marginalize or exclude people due to race, gender, poverty, homophobia, ethnicity, disability or other social differences.
I learned the history of the Broken people and the caste system from the writings of Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, in his history of the Untouchables. Ambedkar believed that the Untouchable castes, the Dalits, were originally the ancient Buddhists of India who were outcaste from the Hindu caste system.