Monday, August 10, 2009

How Long Can Caste Last III

Continued from August 3rd. All this is, in a sense, understandable. Religion sometimes changes attitudes and sometimes it is changes by pre-existing attitudes. Until fairly recently, a devote European Christian would have considered it an honour to nurse lepers while having little more than contempt for a Jew. For 2000 years Jews were, in effect, the outcastes of Christendom, a situation that only started to change during the Enlightenment. And it was not the Protestant churches or the Pope who finally liberated the Jews but Napoleon, who had hardly a religious bone in his body. In the case of caste, tradition and social attitudes in Buddhist countries trumped the Buddha's condemnation of caste and his teaching of human equality and compassion. I can understand that. But that was then - this is now. It is a great pity that the modern Asian Buddhist's response to this issue is, sorry to say, pretty much like the Buddhist response to many internal problems, to smile and deny they exist. Yet more gilt is put on Buddha statues, more requisites are piled on the Sangha, more stupas are erected, but little is done for the marginalized groups within Buddhist societies.


yuri said...

Your active social stand seems to me more like an exception in modern Buddhism.
I have one more question - about the attitude of Buddha and early buddhists to the lowest varna (caste) of shudras in ancient Indian society and to untouchables, those who were below even shudras. Could they be members of the Sangha. Did Buddha ever refer to them? Were there any known disciples of Buddha from those lowest levels of the social hierarchy?

Anandajoti said...

Dear Yuri,

Working from the commentary Mrs Rhys Davids in Psalms of the Brethren (a translation of the Theragatha) worked out that 10 of the arahants whose verses are recorded in the book were: "pariahs, labourers, 'slaves', fishermen."

Unfortunately she didn't identify all of them, but 3 she did mention are; "the peasant Sumangala, the vagrant Kappata-Kura, the scavenger Sunita."

We should also remember that others like the leper Suppabuddha also attained Path & Fruit. I think the record speaks for itself. Caste was no bar to the Sangha and nor to the highest attainments.

yuri said...

Thank you, dear Anandajoty, for such prompt and convincing information.

Ken and Visakha said...

How lovely to picture the Buddha's smile when the gods paid their respect to this outcast who became an Arahat!

Thera Sunita, the Outcast

Born in a low caste,
poor was I; had only scanty meals,
a low livelihood was mine-
a disposer of faded flowers

Despised, abused and flayed
by people
and so humbled
I bent down on my knees
in deference to them.

Behold my fortune! I saw the Buddha
with his train of bhikkhus
entering the capital city
of Magadha.

Laying aside my carrying-pole
I went up to him,
to pay my obeisance,
and he, the Lord of men,
paused upon his way
in compassion just for me.

Worshiping His feet
and standing apart
I begged His leave
to enter the Order.

Then the Master,
the most kind and compassionate,
called me, “Come, bhikkhu!”
Thus was ordination given to me. So I dwelled in the forest alone
and followed the Master’s advice
with diligence.

In the first watch of the night
I became conscious of my past births’
in the middle watch
clarified was my divine eye.
In the last watch of the night
just as the day dawned
I broke asunder the gloom of ignorance.

Then came the Indra and Brahma
with folded hands
they paid reverence to me;
“Hail unto thee, thou noblest of men!
Hail unto thee, thou highest of men!
Deserving of reverence are you
for all your desires have perished.”

The Master,
seeing me revered by the gods,
smiled and said thus:
“One becomes holy
by discipline, celibacy, virtue,
and wisdom. Here is holiness supreme!”

aah-haa said...

Caste as a social attitude and tradition triumphed over Buddha's condemnation simply because Buddhists do not have the courage to acknowledge that their forebears, parents, relatives, spouses, friends, bosses, colleagues and fellow Buddhists practised and perpetuate social discrimination! Has any religious ideology solved social ills in an enduring way? Isn't Buddhism supposed to lead to 'end' of suffering? Since there are billions of followers, believers, devotees, worshippers and admirers of the main-stream religions for centuries, shouldn't the world be a better place today than it was?

yuri said...

Buddha's Dhamma, I feel, is not a political doctrine aimed at transforming this world of samsara or radically changing its fundamental aspects like anicca and dukkha. Dhamma is for each human being, but the Buddha fully understood that only few people were ready to understand and make it their guide in life. Verse 85 in Dhammapada clearly states this. It is interesting that real Jesus (not invented Christ) made the same point by saying in the Gospel of Thomas: "Many are standing at the door, but it is the solitary who will enter the bridal chamber." It takes so much effort and “virya” to practise the teaching ((in all its aspects) which goes against the stream. That, of course, doesn't mean that buddhists should avoid social work and not take their stand on social issues. This is actually a must because of metta and compassion. But the best dana of the buddhists to the world is dhamma dana, and the wider the dhamma is known and practised the better the world may become, but, alas, it is a very slow and painstaking process, and this world will never be a perfect place.

Shravasti Dhammika said...

Dear Yuri,
Anandajoti has already answered your questions. Concerning your latter observations- of course it is true that B is not a political doctrine, any more than Christianity, Taoism, or Jainism is (Islam, Judaism, Confucianism and certain movements within Hinduism defiantly are) but that does not mean that the Dhamma does not have some political, or perhaps better, some social implications. For example, it cannot be denied that some individual and social situations are more conducive to the practice and realization of the Dhamma than others are. Freedom of thought and religion, an adequate means of living, literacy, etc make it much more likely that more people would be able to practice the Dhamma, and that would be good. To what extent a Buddhist is prepared to go to in order to bring about a more conducive (not ‘perfect’) social conditions would be up to the individual. Myself, I have the highest respect for people who oppose injustice, oppression and social deprivation – so long as it is done hand in hand with ‘inner’ Dhamma practice. To me this can be a legitimate expression of love, compassion, generosity and kindness.

Shravasti Dhammika said...

Dear Yuri,
Concerning your questions in yesterday’s comments – if you have a meditation practice please ask your teacher or mentor about the issue you mention. I have come to feel that giving meditation advice ‘at a distance’ to people you no nothing about is not a good idea. As for my accent, it is ‘fading Aussie’ mixed with small doses of ‘Singlish’ and ‘Indish’ struggling to counter my attempts to improve my diction. What's your 'accent'?

Walter said...

Generally, the religion professed by the greater majority of the people in any country bears little semblance to the ideal form of the religion. For example, how could there be justification in the teachings of Jesus for slavery and anti-semitism.

In Buddhism, it is concerned with the liberation of individuals. It does not impose social or political systems on societies, though it has something to say about what are the moral and ethical values that will be good for society. Thus, for the caste system to be eradicated in Buddhist societies where it still exists, it has to wait for the political will to be exerted.

But it appears to be a contradiction between practice and beliefs. Why don’t the Buddhist politicians do something about it? I believe it has very much to do with the way the average Buddhist thinks. He thinks: “Yes, they are disadvantaged socially but they nonetheless are free to practise the dhamma. This life is but transient after all… they can look forward to a better one if they practise the dhamma. It will be their own fault if they don’t. If they practise hard enough, they can even in this life become an arahat (ah ha!). Anyway, if I become too upset that they are still in their lowly castes, I lose my equanimity and my own practice is affected… better to “smile” and keep an even mind…” Thus, the will to change the status quo is weak, and this is in the case of the “more reflective” Buddhists. I suspect that for most so-called Buddhist politicians, it is simply personal gain and advancement that preoccupies their mind.

In Chinese Mahayana there is a movement to work towards a “heaven on earth”. Perhaps more Buddhist social activism is the solution to social injustice.

Just some personal observations. They do not reflect any judgment on any particular people or sect.

yuri said...

Dear... um... Bhante... I have a problem with addressing you :) «Bhante» is OK with me but I am not sure if it is proper as I don't belong to the Sangha and you are not my teacher, though honestly I wish you were. Dear Shravasti Dhammika seems a bit formal, but if it is alright I'll accept it. Please help me here! :)
Now the problem — I see it in envolvement with politics. Moral position on social issues is fine, but in most cases it inevitably becomes a political position. On an individual level it is OK. But when we use plural form 'Buddhists think...' or 'The Sangha stands for...' or something like this then the trap door snaps.
Questions about meditation. I have no teacher. There are no Theravada teachers in Russia. Traditionally Russia has had contacts with Tibetan Buddhism, as it is prevalent in some Asian regions of Russia. Of late we also have Zen centres. When Achaan Sumedho came to Moscow for a week-long retreat, most of the participants were Zen and a few lamaists. I was the only one interested in Theravada. The retreat was very intensive — we were meditating all day long either sitting or walking. For me the result was amazing. No more doubts. Many psychological changes for the better. It was almost my second birth. But I still have questions — not too many but I would be grateful if you could help me. I wonder if your blog is the right place for such questions or probably email will be more appropriate.