A Fourth Turning of the Wheel? Ambedkar Buddhism

From a talk given at BCBS on July 3, 1997

One way of looking at the coming of Buddhism to the West, and the begin­nings of the true interpenetration of these profound world views, is to see it as a fourth yana [vehicle]. If we look at “Bud­dhism” as a tradition and we use that term in the singular, we’re really cover­ing a multitude of practices and beliefs. To focus on the kinds of beliefs and prac­tices that people like ourselves are at­tempting in the name of Buddhism raises fundamental questions about whether we’re doing something brand new, or whether in fact the seeds of what we’re doing were planted by Shakyamuni Bud­dha 2,500 years ago.

To my way of thinking, Dr. B. R. Ambedkar (1891-1956) is the most ar­ticulate and perhaps radical spokesman for a new turning of the wheel. Ambedkar, I think, really went to the heart of this problem and left us all with a provocative vision of Buddhism for the modem world.

Dr. B.R. Ambedkar

He was born among the so-called “un­touchables” in India, but through his re­markable genius he became one of the most prominent personalities of his time. After India achieved independence in 1947, Ambedkar became the first law minister in independent India (what we might call the Attorney General). As such, he was the principal architect of India’s Constitution. It’s the world’s longest democratic constitution, and in­cludes many articles against the practice of untouchability. It also provides for what we call affirmative action; people from all backgrounds should have access to education, scholarships, and gov­ernment jobs, but the preferences would be given to the lowest people in society. Ambedkar was responsible for all that.

Spring98_CQ1In the last five years of his life he made good on a promise he made in 1935, “I was born a Hindu, but I’m determined not to die a Hindu. I’m going to figure out which of the religions offers me and my community the most dignity and hu­manity.” Many who knew him and study him think Ambedkar had Bud­dhism in mind all along, because he was deeply moved by a book on the life of the Buddha given him upon graduation from high school. But if he had declared himself a Buddhist in the 1930s he would have lost a lot of his clout as a negotiator with the British and with other Hindus like Gandhi in the drama of emerging in­dependence. So he held off until 1951 when he retired from the government and spent the last five years of his life preparing for a huge conversion cer­emony on October 14th, 1956, which is the traditional date of Ashoka’s conversion to Buddhism.

The year 1956 saw the worldwide cel­ebration of the twenty-five hundredth year of the birth of Buddha Shakyamuni. So the date and the place—Nagpur in central India, a city which was associ­ated with the preservation of Buddhist teachings by the Nagas, the serpent people—was highly symbolic of the re­birth of Buddhism in a land which had seen no Buddhism for virtually a thou­sand years. Nearly a half-million un­touchables took refuge at Ambedkar’s conversion ceremony; and then six weeks later, he died of a long-standing illness.

In the years since his great conversion, Ambedkar had become a symbol of hope for low-caste people throughout India, but his Buddhist movement since then has had to struggle along with support from outsiders like Sangharakshita and his British Buddhist followers, though it also attracted some talented leaders within India and the untouchable com­munity. Where its going, and whether it’s growing and flourishing, is anybody’s guess. But we have Ambedkar’s own thoughts and writings to consider for our purposes today.

Choice and Adaptation

I’d like to mention two proposals that he made in his effort to adapt Buddhism to modem circumstances—not just for the untouchables, but really for the mod­em world. The first is that one must choose what religion one will follow, and the second is that one must adapt it to fit one’s needs.

One premise of Ambedkar’s religious sensibility was that as modern (or even postmodern) people we are forced to choose our belief system. It’s not only possible for people to become heretics, but we have what Peter Berger called the “heretical imperative.” The word her­esy, by the way, comes from the Greek root which means simply “to choose”; it means to choose a belief and a lifestyle. We really are forced by the world today to choose who we will be and what we will believe, because the grip of tradition on our minds has now been loosened by modern education, by science, by travel, and by global communication. We are now faced with so many options for be­lief and practice that we have to sit down quietly with ourselves and say, “What do I believe? What shall I do with my life? Who will be my friends and allies? Where should I put my extracurricular energies?” These are things that all people in the world are now facing. (There are certainly repressive countries where those options are limited, but I think most in the world today recognize the goal of being able to make yourself, remake yourself, and point yourself in some direction.)

Following his dramatic announce­ment in 1935 that he would adopt a new religion, Ambedkar considered Chris­tianity, Islam, Sikhism, Jainism, and Bud­dhism as possible options for him in In­dia. They were all active religions, ex­cept for Buddhism, which, although originating in India had vanished by the twelfth century. Ambedkar asked, “Which of these traditions offers my community the most dignity, the most in­spiration, the most empowerment to move ahead and to realize a good life or a good future or a good symbolic uni­verse, a universe that makes me feel that life is worth living and there’s a future for the world?”

Buddhism seemed to offer the most for Ambedkar and his followers because it was an indigenous religion; it wasn’t, like Christianity or Islam—something im­ported. It also offered something unique, a kind of reticence to lock onto fixed be­liefs or practices. There was this notion within Buddhism that you must experi­ment within the laboratory of your own life to see what works and what makes sense.

This helped with Ambedkar’s second principle: the notion that once I’ve cho­sen a major tradition or body of thought, I must adjust it so that it works in the circumstances that I face or that my com­munity faces. Ambedkar echoed the dis­course in the Kalama Sutta in which the Buddha said, “Don’t blindly trust teach­ings and writings, but test them in your own life.” This idea of testing for your­self and questioning authority has be­come a hallmark of Western or modem Buddhism.

The heart of Buddhism was an atti­tude, or, perhaps, Buddhism was an at­titude of heart. The Buddha, of course, was a human being representing a po­tential that all human beings have. So all of that went into Ambedkar’s search for a tradition that could be adaptable to a culture in which pluralism was present, but in which a significant pro­portion of people felt disempowered and dehumanized. Buddhism, for Ambedkar, emerged as a model for becoming a full human being. Yet it was a model still in need of some changes.


The Limitations of Buddhism

In his final work, The Buddha and His Dhamma, Ambedkar pointed to four prob­lems he saw with the Buddhist tradition as received from the past, four issues that conflict with our modem sensibility. We should not forget that Ambedkar was trained in the West; he was a follower of John Dewey, the eminent American prag­matist philosopher.

  1. The first thing that Ambedkar ques­tioned was the legend of the Buddha’s isolation, as a prince, from normal hu­man experiences. How could a 29-year-old man suddenly discover ill­ness, suffering, and death, and then abandon his family in a fit of existential angst? Wasn’t that a little late for some­one to discover these things? So there’s something about the Buddha’s story that’s a little odd to our way of thinking, because we know that young people to­day confront these realities of life during their adolescent years and we encourage them to wrestle with these things and re­solve them in certain ways.
  2. The second issue has to do with the causes of suffering. The second noble truth says that suffering is a result of crav­ing and ignorance; therefore if someone is suffering we have to say, “Change your attitude. Practice meditation. Prac­tice morality, and your life will improve.” But might there be circumstances in which there are innocent victims? There are children or whole communities who are marginalized and oppressed by so­cial, political, and economic forces that are essentially beyond their control, un­less they somehow collectively organize a resistance to oppression. Can Bud­dhism encompass the notion of social change, which has both victims and op­pressors?
  3. The third problem was the question of karma and rebirth. Do we really be­lieve in rebirth? Do we really believe that karma is a kind of ongoing accumula­tion of energy that will dictate not only the quality of our life but cause us to be reborn again and again? Must we con­clude, for example, that a handicapped person is serving a sentence for past in­discretions or crimes? Ambedkar had difficulty with the place of traditional teachings of rebirth in our modem world view, not only in terms of what we now know about psychology and physics, but in light of the social issues surrounding the life of untouchables in India.
  4. The final contradiction or problem Dr. Ambedkar saw in Buddhism was the role of the monk or the ordained person. What is the true role of the ideal practi­tioner of Buddhism? Should it be one who is renouncing and retreating from the life of family responsibilities, work, and society, living essentially apart, ex­cept for the ritualized contacts of the beg­ging rounds or teaching? Or should those ideal practitioners of the Buddha’s teach­ing be seen not as sitting but as walking; that is, walking out into the community and trying to help people improve their material circumstances as well as their spiritual condition? Shouldn’t the monks be trained as social workers? This was one of Ambedkar’s core questions. And his model was the Jesuits, the Benedictines, and Protestant missionar­ies who founded clinics and literacy pro­grams and helped people to dig wells, build roads, and otherwise improve their situation through engaged activity.


In looking at these issues and other ba­sic notions of Buddhism, Ambedkar modified the tradition quite freely. One of the most important changes he made was a rather radical re-interpretation of what was meant by nirvana. According to Ambedkar, nirvana is not a meta­physical or psychological state or attain­ment, but a society founded in peace and justice. He brought a transcendent view of nirvana down to earth.

This is an important feature of engaged Buddhism as manifested in many parts of Asia today. A common feature of this movement is to disregard notions of an­other world, whether it’s a psychologi­cal world or a metaphysical world, and to translate that into a society based on equality and the free exchange of ideas and goods. This is a kind of socialism, and Ambedkar himself, though not a so­cialist per se, was significantly influenced by socialist thinkers.

With this different understanding, the discussion of nirvana becomes analo­gous to the discussion in Christianity about the kingdom of God or heaven. Is it an afterlife, or is it an ideal community on this planet? Ambedkar and his fol­lowers would vote for the latter concept. We need to create communities that un­lock human potential and dignity—that” s nirvana.

If you look at the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta or the Visuddhimagga you find texts setting forth a complex set of meditation skills and ethical practices which the tradition offers us as the path to awakening. That is largely deemphasized in Ambedkar’s writings and in his thought. For him the pursuit of education at all levels was a form of meditation and mental cultiva­tion. This in turn supplemented the in­stitutions of a free society—representative government, due process, and an impar­tial judiciary when an untouchable can go to a court and have a judge actually award the verdict to him or her. This is nirvana. All this has nothing to do with the traditional wealth of meditation prac­tices available.

It is important to keep in mind that Ambedkar’s primary teachers were books. In this sense he shares something with Western “Buddhists” who have been brought to Buddhism by reading Alan Watts, D.T. Suzuki, Shunryu Suzuki, or Trungpa Rinpoche, rather than being trained in Buddhism by a personal teacher who is devoting his or her life to practice and teaching medita­tion. There are many people in America who call themselves Buddhists because they’ve read books about it—the “book­store Buddhist” or the “nightstand Bud­dhist,” as Tom Tweed calls them. Ambedkar had 30,000 books, including a huge collection on Bud­dhism; these have marks all over the margins and underlines and crossings out, agreeing and disagreeing with ele­ments of the tradition and deciding how Buddhism would work for him. These books were his teachers.

As a personality, Ambedkar was cer­tainly volcanic; he didn’t have the calm demeanor of Thich Nhat Hanh. It wasn’t breathe and smile for Dr. Ambedkar. Ambedkar was deeply scarred by being an untouchable in his society all his life, and he brings the passion of that experi­ence to his understanding of Buddhism. Educate, Agitate, and Organize—this was Ambedkar’s slogan during his yearss a civil rights leaders in India. Today it is still used by his followers as Buddhists, which really irritates other Buddhists who say that agitation has no role to play in Buddhism. Well, does it? Should Bud­dhists be, in a certain sense, agitators for a better society, for reconciliation, or are these irreconcilable concepts?

Ambedkar’s Challenge

Given the way Buddhism is evolving in the West, with its strong emphasis upon meditation and psychology, Ambedkar’s perspective is very provoca­tive. Many of us are drawn to Buddhism because it offers peace—inner peace and world peace. We would like to be more imperturbable, loving, compassionate, and joyful, rather than the crusading radicals some of us were in the sixties. If Buddhism has to do with stilling the fires of passion, then mettā bhavana [the culti­vation of loving-kindness] is probably the best and highest practice for engaged Buddhism in the traditional mold—achieving peace and then projecting that peace to others. If this attainment of peace has some ripples in the world, great; but the world is really not the pri­mary concern of a traditional Buddhist. It is rather training the monkey mind to settle down.

But it may be worth looking closely at Ambedkar’s idea that Buddhism is some­thing we receive and then have to work with. Buddhist teachings invite us to take responsibility for ourselves, and this is being interpreted in engaged Buddhist circles as taking responsibility for the entire sangha, the larger community, and ultimately, our ecosystem on this planet Earth. Ambedkar’s approach tells us that if we spend too much time in per­sonal meditation practice, and in retreat from the world of social relationship, we will be irresponsible to our community. So we need to get off the cushion, get out of the house, get out there and start to educate, agitate, and organize. This is a collectivist notion of sangha as people working together for a society of justice, wherein our Buddhist practice becomes the engaged activity of social change.

Dr. Queen is the co-editor, with Duncan Ryuken Williams, of the forthcoming American Bud­dhism: Methods and Findings in Recent Scholarship from Curzon Press, U.K.

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