Wednesday, June 16, 2010

A Bodhisattva In Our Time

A few weeks ago I gave a talk about Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar, someone who, without exaggeration, could be called a genuine, flesh and blood bodhisattva. Gandhi, Mother Teresa, Maximillian Kolbe and a few others might well be considered bodhisattvas too, even though the first was a Hindu and the other two Christians. You don’t have to be a Buddhist to be a bodhisattva. Compassion transends sects. But these others are world-famous while Ambedkar remains little-known outside India. Since my talk eight people have asked me where they can get more information about the great man and I have given them the names of three or four good studies about him. While doing so I recalled Jabbat Patel’s 1991 award-winning film Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar, which unfortunately I have never been able to find dubbed into English. Here is the scene from the film where Ambedkar and a hundred thousand of his followers converted to Buddhism in 1956. It’s quite a moving and realistic depiction of this pivotal event in modern Buddhist history.


bodhabill said...


Agree wholeheartedly, I heard of Dr B.R.Ambedkar a few years ago, read what little is available on the net about his life and was amazed

I encourage all readers to read further to understand that he was one of the great humanitarians of all time

His book "The Buddha and his Dhamma" is a constant companion

With Metta

Anonymous said...

Hello Bhante,

I'm an avid reader of your blog. Recently, I've some questions and problems regarding my own practice and state of mind.

Is it possible for me to contact you privately via email?


Teck said...

Dear Venerable,

I am not sure whether Mother Teresa's saintly reputation is media hype or borne out by reality. Take a look at the series of videos starting from here:

Also, I read that Gandhi had strange sexual habits. He demanded abstinence from his followers but will ask that the wives of his followers sleep with him. How true, I do not know.

I feel that we cannot really trust people or hold anyone to standards mere mortals will not be able to reach. As such, I have fallen behind on my practice.

Do you have any advice?

Many thanks.

Aaron said...


Why should one's practice is contingent on the behaviour or knowledge about others? The purpose of practice is to primarily develop ourselves. Personally, I think the more important question for personal practice is what we are doing right/wrong. Instead of wondering about the 'ifs' and things that you cannot be sure of, why not spend that time thinking about and doing things that you can be sure will bring you positive benefits, like meditation, dana, observing the precepts etc? :)

ricoBaby said...

Bhante, Christians consider Fr Damien to be a saint. Would you consider him to be a Bodhisattva?

Shravasti Dhammika said...

Dear Tack, Mother Teresa had her flaws and so did Gandhi (he did ‘sleep’ with women but never had sex with him. He was always ‘testing’ himself). But from a Buddhist perspective at least, a bodhisattva is not perfect, that only comes with Buddhahood. A bodhisattva is someone who embodies courage, truthfulness, patience, self-sacrifice and particularly compassion, to an extra-ordinary degree. I would say Gandhi’s bodhisattva-like qualities were courage and resolve and MT’s were compassionate self-sacrifice. It seems both of their very human failings only emphasises their super-human virtues. I read about such people and think, ‘Human, just like me. But inspired too and achieving truly great, truly heroic virtue. If they could, perhaps so could I.’ I find their weaknesses reassuring because they speak of their humanness. It puts them right down here on earth where I am. And at least in the case of Gandhi he could be startlingly honest about his weaknesses, and even make a joke of them. I like that. There is the famous incident where a mother brought her little son to Gandhi asking him to tell the boy to stop eating sugar. Gandhi asked her to bring the boy back in a week. She did so and then Gandhi said to the boy ‘Stop eating sugar’. The mother was rather dissatisfied with this and reproached Gandhi, ‘You could have said that to him last week!’ ‘I could have’ he replied, ‘But last week I too was eating sugar’. Tack, I think the problem lies with you. You expect perfection and get discouraged when you discover a few flaws, a few quirks, a few failings, in those held up as models. Gandhi’s failings were insignificant when placed besides his good qualities, and the same is true with Mother Teresa. Why not allow yourself to be uplifted by their strengths rather than cast down by their weaknesses?

Teck said...

Dear Venerable,

Thanks for your reply.

Your point about looking at the strengths of these people and being inspired is well taken. I do not agree with your point about their weakness being reassuring.

I imagine myself being Gandhi's follower. If he asks me to practice celibacy and then wants to have my wife sleep in the same bed with him while he is naked, "just to test him", what should I make of this request (or order, since I am his follower)?

I see this as an insult to women. Also, does this not show that his need to prove himself (ego?) is far more important to the respect he should accord his fellow men and women! How will I possibly feel reassured by his weakness?

In Mother Teresa's case, if you watched all three videos, she and her congregation received much donation money. But instead of treating the sick providing the destitute with proper care, she housed them, many to a room, on stretchers, to await their death. I fail to see what part of her motivation is that of a bodhisattva? That only through suffering does one meet God so these poor people are deprived of medical care? I would have thought through alleviating the suffering of others does one meet Him. I think she did more harm than good.

To me, I don't think I expect perfection per se. But I think it is disheartening to see that the teacher of the dhamma has the same flaws as me. My point was that I do not see how that teacher can guide me as such.

Shravasti Dhammika said...

Dear Teck,
A few years ago I unexpectedly met a good friend of mine at the retreat centre of a famous Burmese meditation teacher. He was acting as a translator for the teacher. He had been there for five years, learning from the teacher and acting as his translator when Sri Lankan monks came. He told me that he recently translated for the teacher a letter written to the teacher by an American man the day he had left. ‘What did the letter say?’ I asked. He replied ‘The American guy had said the teacher was arrogant, tyrannical, cold and lacking metta. He accused him of being ‘an empire builder’ and said he was creating around himself a cult of personality’. This was a bit blunt, even for me, and I was quiet for a while. Then I asked, ‘How much of that is true?’ ‘Most of it’ he said. His reply surprised me even more, not the admission itself (I had heard the same thing from many others) but that he should say it. ‘Then why are you still here?’ I asked. He said, ‘Because he also happens to be a particularly skillful meditation teacher and I’ve learned a great deal from him, what to do and also what to avoid. And Ill stay until I can’t learn any more.’ I think this is a very mature attitude. All too often we idealize teachers, heroes, etc. Then when we find they aren’t perfect we either deny their imperfections or dump them completely. This first approach leads you into possibly dangerous delusions while the second means you might deprive yourself of something important you might have otherwise learned. When a teacher is morally flawed, that is another matter. When they claim to be enlightened that’s another matter too. But if they don’t do either of these things and their flaws are just of the ‘personality’ type and they have some genuine insights or some real skills, I say ‘Learn from them what you can, be grateful for it, and move on’.
One last point. One of the many reasons I prefer early Buddhism over the Vajrayana tradition is its insistence that one can and should question and scrutinize a teacher (see the Vimsaka Sutta). If this advice is taken on board (and it not always is)it should be possible to learn from, benefit from and have gratitude towards a teacher, even if he or she has imperfections.

Teck said...

Thank you, Venerable. I appreciate your comments very much.

Alessandro S. said...

Shravasti Dhammika wrote:
«Jabbat Patel’s 1991 award-winning film Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar, which unfortunately I have never been able to find dubbed into English»
I've seen this happen over and over again so many times, about movies and books from everywhere in Asia (India, Sri Lanka, Thailand etc.) but I still am befuddled when I run into a new episode of this nonseless. How could people neglect to promote their own culture, work of art, religion and everything their own civilization has best to offer to mankind when doing it would be so easy? Why are such good movies not dubbed in english, how much would this add to the cost of the production of the entire movie? I just don't get it. I would expect award-winning film to be imemdiately dubbed in dozens of languages and to be easily available everywhere, at least they should be easily ordereable from the Internet. Why does this happen so few times? Why is so much good art left to collect dust in some producer's closet? Why is mankind deprived of these jewels?

Alessandro S. said...

Shravasti Dhammika wrote:
«I have given them the names of three or four good studies about him»
Would you please be as kind as to let us know what studies those were? I would be very glad if you did.

Shravasti Dhammika said...

Perhaps the most widely read book on Ambedkar is D. Keer’s Dr. Ambedkar: Life and Mission. Johnannes Beltz’s Mahar Buddhist. Religious Conversion and Socio-Political Emancipation and Reconstructing the World: B.R. Ambedkar and Buddhism in India are good sociological studies of Ambedkar’s influence today. A readable Buddhist ‘take’ in the great man is Sangharashita’s Ambedkar and Buddhism. Ambedkar’s own book The Buddha and his Dhamma gives a good idea of how he saw Buddhism. It has almost the ‘bible’ of Indian Buddhists.

Anonymous said...

Dear venerable,

For your information I had translated this article into Bahasa yesterday, and I had published it into my blog... thank u for ur permision..

Thank u,

Alessandro S. said...

Thank you, bhante.