Saturday, March 29, 2014


One has to comprehend why the Dalits are attracted by Buddhism.


An emblematic book from an Indian Dalit about Buddhism he converted to. The book, written in English, was published posthumously in 1956. The author was the first justice minister of the independent Republic of India. He played a role in the writing of the Indian constitution though he faced strong opposition on all issues concerning Dalits, particularly his idea of a distinct representation. Gandhi was one of the main opponents to that suggestion. We actually can wonder today why this solution was ever suggested since it would have reinforced the segregation against Dalits with a system comparable to apartheid in South Africa. It would have ossified the segregation the Dalits are the victims of. The subject of the book, Buddhism, is not a surprise since for an Indian Dalit the only possibilities in the field of religion were Buddhism and Christianity, particularly the Anglican or Catholic churches. Those were the only religious organizations that refused to reject Dalits in the name of the Hindu caste system against which they were. As we are going to see this is Ambedkar’s vision of Buddhism and some of his opinions are original.

The Buddha in the Making

The first chapters are about the younth of the future Buddha, that is to say the period of his life when he was Siddarth Gautama. Born in a royal family, rich indeed, married the way he was supposed to be and having given life to a son, he appears from the start very sensitive to the world the way it is, particularly poverty and misery in all their forms. But what makes him take the road he is known for is the decision of the council of his kingdom to go at war against their neighbors for a ridiculous, though important, dispute about the use of the water of the common river between the two kingdoms. He refuses to take part in the war as a conscientious objector and as such may be sentenced to death for treason, but it would have to be accepted by the superior king on whom this small kingdom depends, and they do not want that. The alternative is that he could be banished and his family’s estate seized. To avoid the misery that would befall his family he suggests he could leave the country right away as a mendicant ascetic, a Pavrijavaka. This compromise is accepted and that is how Siddarth Gautama became the character the whole world knows.

This version of this conversion is a lot more credible than the traditional tale about his night time visits to the poor neighborhoods of his city and the shock seeing poverty, misery and diseases would have caused in him. He decided to become what he is known for to protect his family from the consequences of his own decisions, and to save his life in a way by making it useful to himself and maybe other people, for sure by getting on the road of self quest and self improvement. That gives Siddarth Gautama some depth from the very start. And once a Parivraja, always a Parivraja.

Then Ambedkar follows him in his quest and in his various encounters. I will not enter detail there but the Buddha tries and is confronted to all possible solutions from being redeemed by some king as a member of his household to asceticism, via all possible philosophies and spiritual schools of his time, all identified as being advocated by particular spiritual leaders. None of them satisfies his project, ambition, desire. He keeps from them various elements and decides to build his own theory, his own spiritual vision centered on dukkha, the rise of dukkha and the extinction of dukkha. This can only be done by the concerned individual who uses his mind to reach that objective of getting rid of dukkha and protecting oneself against it. I will regret here the book uses the translation suffering systematically, though the author knows it is reductive, hence partly false. But that’s a point that is not fully explored by the book. Then Ambedkar speaks of the turning point in Siddarth Gautama’s life, when he finally finds enlightenment under a bodhi tree. Then he loses his name and becomes the Exalted One, or the Master, or the Buddha.

The Emergence of the Buddha

To become a Buddha, a Bodhisatta has to go through ten stages. Ambedkar calls them ten lives and it is interesting to quote them here, though the source mentioned by the author is declared unverifiable by the editors.

“First life: Mudita (joy) . . . Second life: Vimala (purity) . . . Third life: Prabhakaru (brightness) . . . Fourth life: Arcishmati (Intelligence of Fire) . . . Fifth life: Sudurjaya (difficult to conquer) . . . Sixth life: Abhimukhi (great wisdom) . . . Seventh life: Durangama (going far off) . . . Eighth life: Acala (immovable) . . . Ninth life: Sadhumati (vanquished or penetrated all dharmas or systems) . . . Tenth Life: Dharmamegha (infinite divine eye of Buddha). . .” (page 51-52)

We have to note the fact that Ambedkar uses the Sanskrit names that are normally used in Mahayana (and Tibetan) Buddhism (the Great Vehicle) essentially developed in China and around. This makes it difficult because, first of all the Buddha never preached in Sanskrit though he knew and read it since he criticizes and rejects the Vedas and the Upanishads, and second in the Theravada (Small Vehicle) canonical approach the language is Pali and, in this canonical approach, this process is seen as the acquisition of ten qualities, for example in the Buddhist Dictionary, Manual of Buddhist Terms and Doctrines, by Nyanatiloka Mahathera ( this process is presented as the acquisition of the ten “paramī” = “pāramitā”: (perfection) ten qualities leading to Buddhahood:


“(1) perfection in giving (or liberality; dāna-pāramī), (2) morality (sīla-pāramī), (3) renunciation (nekkhamma-pāramī), (4) wisdom (paññā-pāramī), (5) energy (viriya-pāramī), (6) patience (or forbearance; khanti-pāramī), (7) truthfulness (sacca-pāramī), (8) resolution (adhiṭṭhāna-pāramī), (9) loving-kindness (mettā-pāramī) (10) equanimity (upekkhā-pāramī).

What is surprising in this approach is the use of the term “lives” instead of “qualities” because this seems to imply that the bhodisatta has to be reborn ten times before becoming a Buddha. Ambedkar is clear about this: he rejects the concept of reincarnation of any type. Rebirth is for him of a totally virtual nature. To define it he gives three examples: the light of a candle used to light another candle, the mango stone used to grow a mango tree that gives new mangoes and the poem a student learns from his/her teacher. The use of “lives” is in line with the Tibetan approach of Buddhism but not with the Theravada canonical approach nor with what Ambedkar himself says about reincarnation. He explains what he considers the Buddha’s own view on the subject and he both acknowledges the fact that since the soul is rejected by the Buddha there cannot be any reincarnation of that soul. Then he asserts that the Buddha believed the four elements that compose the body return back to the universe but as these elements and not in the process of a reincarnation of the individual whose body these elements composed.

“Did the Buddha believe in rebirth? The answer is in the affirmative. It is better to split the question further into two parts: ‘i) Rebirth of What; and (ii) Rebirth of Whom. . . according to the Buddha there are four elements of Existence which go to compose the body. They are (i) Prithvi [pathavi dhatu in Pali, solid earth]; (ii) Apo [apo dhatu in Pali, liquid water]; (iii) Tej [tejo dhatu in Pali, heat fire]; and (iv) Vayu [vayo dhatu in Pali, motion wind]. . . Do they also die along with dead body? . . . The Buddha said no: they join the mass of similar elements floating in (Akash) space. When the four elements of this floating mass join together, a new birth takes place . . . The body dies. But the elements are ever-living . . . What happens when the body dies? is: the body ceases to produce energy . . . death also means that whatever energy that had escaped from the body joins the general mass of energy playing about the Universe . . . The Buddha . . . believed in the regeneration of matter and not in the rebirth of the soul . . . Energy is never lost . . . “ (page 174-176)

In the same way he considers karma [kamma in Pali, merit] cannot transmigrate to another individual after death because otherwise that would bring the concept of soul back into the picture and the Buddha has rejected the concept of soul.

The conclusion here is that the elements that merge into the mass of similar elements in the Universe, and the energy produced by the body does the same when the body dies, can reassemble into a new birth but without the transmigration of neither a soul that does not exist or the karma of the dead person since the concept of soul is rejected. There cannot thus be any rebirth of any individual after death.

Buddhism and the mind

But what is essential here is the fact that this process of the emergence of a Buddha is entirely governed by the mind of the bodhisatta. Note here this last word is Pali and not Sanskrit. In other words Ambedkar is mixing Pali and Sanskrit and this makes the book difficult. In fact the editors should have unified the Buddhist language, and Pali would have been a good choice, and/or systematically offered notes with the Pali words when Ambedkar used Sanskrit words, and vice versa. But it is important to check what is said by Ambedkar on this mind, and he never uses Sanskrit or Pali words for it, which would have been difficult since the Buddha differentiates the mind as the sixth sense (mana) from the mental states developed by the mind in various situations (citta). But here is what Ambedkar says:

“. . . The recognition of the mind as the centre of everything. Mind precedes things, dominates them, creates them. If mind is comprehended, all things are comprehended. Mind is the leader of all its faculties. Mind is the chief of all its faculties. The very mind is made up of those faculties. The first thing to attend to is the culture of the mind. The second distinguishing feature of his teachings is that mind is the fount of all the good and evil that arises within, and befalls us from without. . . The cleaning of the mind is therefore the essence of religion. The third distinguishing feature of his teachings is the avoidance of all sinful acts. The fourth distinguishing feature of his teaching is that real religion lies not in the books of religion, but in the observance of the tenets of the religion.” (page 62-63)

We can see here that the mind is not defined as the sixth sense that processes the sensory signals from the five other senses (sight, hearing, smell, taste, touch, without forgetting that the whole body is a network of sensors that are assimilated to touch though they are most of them inside the body and they all manage the body’s behavior and equilibrium, both inside and outside) and abstract sensory signals from ideas, language, concepts, etc. The world can only exist in our consciousness through the senses and the mind, for sure, but the mind does not precede objects nor the world. It precedes the consciousness we have of the world, and this concept of consciousness is absent in Ambedkar’s book. In this quotation he seems to be a full idealist for whom the world has no existence outside the consciousness we have of it.

In fact the mind is given some kind of autonomy and precedence, which is surprising because Ambedkar insists on the rejection of anything resembling what most religions call the soul, that supposedly divine part of man. Yet this mind is not seen as part of the sensorial architecture of the body. In fact the shortcoming comes from the fact that this mind is not seen as a construct built by the brain in its processing of all sensorial stimuli within the circumstantial, existential, experiential, situational and phenomenological environment of the individual who uses his/her brain to make out some meaningful pattern or set of patterns in this reality, and what comes out of this confrontation is the mind, whose very first invention is a language to give names to the various codified entities and patterns, more or less static and/or more or less dynamic, that coalesce into some kind of permanent, though transient, conceptualized items or actions.

This leads him to an ethical approach of man’s behavior: man has to abide by some rules, has to cleanse his mind of all sinful ideas, has to avoid all sinful acts or ideas. The concept of sin is not Buddhist. It is borrowed from the Christian tradition. The Buddha condemns actions of any sort that produce dukkha in oneself or in others. Most of the time this dukkha is translated as suffering though it is in fact the dissatisfaction one experiences or one inflicts on some other person when an inner or outer balance is broken, when a justified vital need is disrupted, when one intend to privilege one’s interest and frustrate the others’ interest instead of sharing what is at stake. In a way Ambedkar reintroduces the soul that he had excluded before and yet this mind that precedes the existence of the world cannot transmigrate to another individual after the death of the body that contains it. And yet his negation of the soul should imply the world preexists the mind. That is a deep contradiction in Ambedkar’s approach of Buddhism that becomes a moralistic discourse afterwards.

Buddhism and the Extinction of Dukkha

Though the Buddha is not a Savior, is not a Moksha Data [mokkha datar in Pali, salvation giver], but a Marga Data [magga datar in Pali, way giver], he identifies salvation to Nibbana (note he uses the Pali word) and that salvation is the result of the implementation of the Dhamma (note he uses the Pali word) and this Dhamma is a set of objectives the mind is supposed to fulfill:

i-                     Three forms of purity, in body, in speech and in mind;
ii-                   Five weaknesses: taking life; taking what is not given; lustful, evil practices; lying; indulging in spirituous liquors, which cause idleness.
iii-                  Four arisings of mindfulness: contemplating the body as body, the feelings as feelings, the mind as mind, ideas as ideas
iv-                 Three failures: in morals, in mind, in view.
v-                   Three perfections: in morals, in mind, in view.
vi-                 Three ideas underlying Nibbana: the happiness of a sentient being as distinct from the salvation of the soul; the happiness of the sentient being in Samsara while he is alive; the exercise of control over the flames of the passions which are always on fire.
vii-                Three groups of passions: craving/attachment (lust, infatuation, greed, lobha), antipathy (hatred, anger, vexation, repugnance, dosa), ignorance (delusion, dullness, stupidity, moha/avidya).
viii-              The Middle Way, the Noble Eightfold Path, the eight “right”: right outlook, right aims, right speech, right action, right means of livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration. (page 123-128). It is also identified as the Path of Righteousness and its eight constituents page 70: Ashtangamarga [atthangika magga in Pali, the path leading to the extinction of Dukkha]: Samma Ditri (Right Views); Samma Sankappo (free mind and free thought); Samma Vacca (Right Speech); Samma Kamanto (Right Behavior); Samma Ajivo (earning one’s livelihood without causing injury or injustice to others); Samma Vyayamo (Right Endeavor); Samma Satti (calls for mindfulness and thoughtfulness, constant wakefulness of the mind); Samma Samadhi (positive, concentrate  and think of Good Deeds and Thoughts during concentration)
ix-                 The path of Virtue and the ten virtues or Paramitas (States of Perfection): (i) Sila (moral temperament); (ii) Dana (the giving of one’s possessions, blood and limbs and even one’s life for the good of others); (iii) Uppekha (datachment; (iv) Nekkama (renunciation of the pleasures of the world), (v) Virya right endeavor); (vi) Khanti (forbearance); (vii) Succa (truth); (viii) Adhitana (resolute determination to reach the goal); (ix) Karuna (loving kindness to human beings); (x) Maitri (extending fellow feeling to all beings). (page 72-73)

 But I would like to come back to the Noble Eightfold Path in its canonical presentation (Buddhist Dictionary, Manual of Buddhist Terms and Doctrines, by Nyanatiloka Mahathera

magga: 'path'. 1. For the 4 supermundane paths (lokuttara-magga), s. ariya-puggala - 2. The Eightfold Path (aṭṭhaṅgika-magga) is the path leading to the extinction of suffering, i.e. the last of the 4 Noble Truths (sacca, q.v.), namely:
III- Wisdom (paññā)
1. Right view (sammā-diṭṭhi)
2. Right thought (sammā-saṅkappa)
I- Morality (sīla)
3. Right speech (sammā-vācā)
4. Right bodily action (sammā-kammanta)
5. Right livelihood (sammā-ājīva)
II- Concentration (samādhi)
6. Right effort (sammā-vāyāma)
7. Right mindfulness (sammā-sati)
8. Right concentration (sammā-samādhi)
1. Right view or right understanding (sammā-diṭṭhi) is the understanding of the 4 Noble Truths about the universality of suffering (unsatisfactoriness), of its origin, its cessation, and the path leading to that cessation. . .
2. Right thought (sammā-saṅkappa): thoughts free from sensuous desire, from ill-will, and cruelty.
3. Right speech (sammā-vācā): abstaining from lying, tale-bearing, harsh language, and foolish babble.
4 Right bodily action (sammā-kammanta): abstaining from killing, stealing, and unlawful sexual intercourse.
5. Right livelihood (sammā-ājīva): abstaining from a livelihood that brings harm to other beings, such as trading in arms, in living beings, intoxicating drinks, poison; slaughtering, fishing, soldiering, deceit, treachery soothsaying, trickery, usury, etc.
6. Right effort (sammā-vāyāma): the effort of avoiding or overcoming evil and unwholesome things, and of developing and maintaining wholesome things (s. padhāna).
7. Right mindfulness (sammā-sati): mindfulness and awareness in contemplating body, feelings, mind, and mind-objects (s. sati, Satipaṭṭhāna).
8. Right concentration (sammā-samādhi): concentration of mind associated with wholesome (kusala consciousness, which eventually may reach the absorptions (jhāna, q.v.). Cf. samādhi. There are to be distinguished 2 kinds of concentration, mundane (lokiya) and supermundane (lokuttara) concentration. The latter is associated with those states of consciousness known as the 4 supermundane paths and fruitions (s. ariya-puggala).”

Ambedkar misses the second level hierarchy that is not from beginning to end since it is III-I-II and he only keeps the first degree hierarchy from 1 to 8, thus flattening the hierarchy itself. We also must note this Noble Eightfold Path is split into two presentations in Embedkar’s book, hence cutting the path of Righteousness from the Noble Eightfold Path. In many ways this increases the moralistic and rule-giving approach that is entirely set under the sole responsibility of the individual’s mind:

“Mind is the only instrument through which light can come to us.” (page 70)

Here we can wonder what is first in this vision, the world or the mind, the world or the representations of it the mind constructs, and to reduce the mind to a tool is to miss the fact that this tool does not preexist the individual, does not preexist the world but is a construct produced by the brain through the circumstantial, existential, experiential, situational and phenomenological confrontation of the individual with his/her environment.

Buddhism, anicca, dukkha, anatta

These three concepts are the central concepts of Buddhism, but together and not in separate order. It is because of anicca that states every material, mental, spiritual or virtual thing is impermanent, transient, constantly changing that dukkha arises constantly since nothing is permanent. But here dukkha cannot be understood without its antagonistic double sukha. The latter is the satisfaction of any desire, want, need, wish or whatever man can have. But this satisfaction is absolutely normal in man, and the Buddha condemns any asceticism that aims at making the body and the mind suffer in order to become pure, to win their (the body’s and the mind’s that becomes the soul’s in this perspective) salvation. This satisfaction will necessarily end and bring forward the former because man is naturally getting attached to what brings sukha. This concept of attachment is not sufficiently insisted upon by Embedkar. It is tanha. It is necessary to insist here on the excessiveness of this attachment. Love for other people and for all living beings is set as fundamental in a Buddhist, but without tanha, without excessive attachment.

In the same way anicca makes believing in any permanent part of our being totally delusive and illusionary. We do not have a soul seen as permanent and as godlike since the concept of god is refused by the Buddha and since anything in us is seen as impermanent. In the same way then we do not have a self because at every single instant of our life we are changing, we are different. In the same way no idea is permanent and that should have been emphasized by Embedkar but he could not because of his inspiration coming from the Tibetan Great Vehicle Buddhism that has in many ways ossified the concepts. This concept of anatta is absolutely central to Buddhism. It is vain and useless to pretend even the most powerful concepts of Buddhism are permanent. They cannot be eternal since they were “invented” by the Buddha, but they have no permanence in them because the world is changing and the basic concept about the world is that it is a constantly evolving and transforming reality. I say basic not permanent, since we could even come to the contradiction of stating that this basic principle of ever-changing reality is itself changing and could become ever-lasting, permanent, at least in our own eyes.

Here we need the concept of samsara without which dukkha cannot even be conceived.

" saṃsāra : 'round of rebirth', lit. perpetual wandering', is a name by which is designated the sca of life ever restlessly heaving up and down, the symbol of this continuous process of ever again and again being born, growing old, suffering and dying. More precisely put, saṃsāra  is the unbroken chain of the five-fold khandha-combinations, which, constantly changing from moment to moment follow continuously one upon the other through inconceivable periods of time. Of this saṃsāra , a single lifetime constitutes only a tiny and fleeting fraction; hence to be able to comprehend the first noble truth of universal suffering, one must let one's gaze rest upon the saṃsāra , upon this frightful chain of rebirths, and not merely upon one single life-time, which, of course, may be sometimes less painful.” (Buddhist Dictionary, Manual of Buddhist Terms and Doctrines, by Nyanatiloka Mahathera

Note even in this canonical dictionary they use the word rebirth but it is clear that for them it is the rebirth of the fruit in the seed that will produce a new tree and new fruit. The world is an extremely complex unlimited and non-finite set of material, spiritual, mental or virtual entities and items that all have a beginning, a life and a death leading to a new beginning in a different way with a different definition. We are living in a maelstrom of constantly moving and transforming jungles of all kinds of beings that are all living but that are not all flesh and bone and blood but may be composed of none of the four basic elements we have seen, and thus may be virtual, spiritual, mental.

This should lead us to thinking that our thoughts, as soon as they find some material medium (speech, writing, images, or whatever) base their material dimension in the possible transmission from one person to another. Communication, education, transmission is the very materiality of all “non-material” beings. But as soon as one idea is captured in a way or another, produced, received or transmitted, by a mind supported by a brain supported by a body it becomes material, though virtual in nature (meaning not composed of the four basic material elements).

This reflection is constantly behind what Embedkar says but it is not entirely expressed, formulated. He keeps some contradictions at the level of the materiality of our existence and thinking, which makes him adopt an ethical, moralistic discourse of what we have to do to get rid of our sins, to purify our mind, to get on the path of righteousness and virtue. Embedkar remains an idealist at heart instead of seeing that there cannot be either survival or development if we do not accept the ever changing concepts of samsara, anicca, dukkha and  anatta as the material reality in which we have to survive and develop.

This leads us to a final concept Embedkar does not use enough because he states that the cause-effect reasoning is fundamental in Buddhism. This is partially false. The cause-effect affiliation of things does not correspond to the concept of samsara that implies another affiliation of things: dependent origination, paticcasamuppada.

paṭiccasamuppāda: 'dependent origination', is the doctrine of the conditionality of all physical and psychical phenomena, a doctrine which, together with that of impersonality (anattā), forms the indispensable condition for the real understanding and realization of the teaching of the Buddha. It shows the conditionality and dependent nature of that uninterrupted flux of manifold physical and psychical phenomena of existence conventionally called the ego, or man, or animal, etc.
Whereas the doctrine of impersonality, or anattā, proceeds analytically, by splitting existence up into the ultimate constituent parts, into mere empty, unsubstantial phenomena or elements, the doctrine of dependent origination, or paṭiccasamuppāda, on the other hand, proceeds synthetically, by showing that all these phenomena are, in some way or other, conditionally related with each other.”

If we consider the whole samsara the world is, any phenomenon develops when the surrounding samsara in which it is situated enables this very phenomenon to emerge. It is not a causation but the fulfillment of an emergence from a surrounding nurturing environment. It is subductive in nature, neither inductive or deductive.

Buddhism and the Dalits

This is the last idea I would like to insist on. The basic principle in this field is the refusal of castes and hence the refusal of segregation against the Dalits:

“The Sangh [Buddhist religious monastic order] was open to all. There was no bar of caste. There was no bar of sex. There was no bar of status.” (page 222)

This is clear when he considers Sadhamma (true dhamma). It is the Dhamma brought to perfection in one’s life by the implementation of several practical stances. One has to do with equality among human beings.

“Dhamma to be Sadhamma Must Break Down Barriers between Man and Man. (page 161) . . . Dhamma to be Sadhamma Must Teach that Worth and Not Birth is the Measure of Man. (page 164) . . . Dhamma to be Sadhamma Must Promote Equality between Man and Man. Men are born unequal. Some are robust, others are weaklings. Some have more intelligence, others have less or none. Some have more capacity, others have less. Some are well-to-do, others are poor. All have to enter into what is called the struggle for existence. In the struggle of existence, if inequality be recognized as the rule of the game, the weakest will always go to the wall. . . What society wants is the best, and not the fittest. It is, therefore, the primary reason why religion upholds equality. . . A religion which does not preach equality is not worth having. . . The religion of the Buddha is perfect justice, springing from a man’s own meritorious disposition.” (page 165-166)

The dichotomy of best versus fittest justifies all questioning and rejection of any social order that becomes in any way ossified and that considers human beings must fit this ossified order. This approach advocates the opposed point of view that social order is part of samsara and has to change constantly just the same way all human beings in their realistic differences but righteous equality in rights and duties are part of this samsara. Human beings constantly change and they must try to govern that change in the right direction, just the same way as society constantly changes and must try to govern this change in the right direction, and that right direction is equality in rights and duties for everyone to produce the best and not the fittest.

Anyone can see such principles are fundamental but at the same time change has to come on its own energy and not imposed by any decision from any one or ant body that has or takes the authority to do so. That’s the worst part of democracy: change has to come all by itself and not be forced onto any one individual or any none society.


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