Thursday, April 17, 2008

Wheels Turning in Sarnath

Each of the pilgrimage places associated with the life of the Buddha has its own atmosphere. Bodh Gaya, where the Buddha gained enlightenment, is a vibrant focus for practice and devotion for Buddhists from around the world; Vultures Peak, the site of many important discourses, remains a remote and beautiful spot; and Sarnath, where he first shared his teaching, has an atmosphere of quiet concentration. Several ancient stupas mark the spots where his former disciples first saw him approaching; where he gave his first discourse; and where he later taught others who had come from the nearby Hindu holy city of Varanasi.

Across the road from the main site and set back a little is land belonging to the FWBO/TBMSG. To date, only a small building has been erected on here, but it hasn’t been unused and plans are afoot to create an international study centre. There’s another, separately administered, plot of land in Bodh Gaya.

On February 3rd Vishvapani gave a talk on the land on ‘The Unity of Buddhism’, which was attended by around fifty people. Most were dalit followers of Dr Ambedkar, tens of thousand of whom became Buddhists in the 1960s. However, there has been little follow-up in the following years, despite the presence of many Buddhist teachers in Sarnath. Two years ago Dhammachari Shantighosha moved from Pune (in the TBMSG heartland, many miles to the south) to look after the land and work with local Buddhists. The people attending Vishvapani’s talk had gathered as a result of Shantighosha’s work, and over the next three days Vishvapani and Kamalagita led a retreat for ten local dhamma-mitras.

Vishvapani reports: ‘I was very impressed by their appreciation of Shantighosha and by their enthusiasm for he Dharma. Asit, one of the mitras on the retreat, collects scrap metal, and whenever he visits a locality he gathers people around and he tells them whatever he has just learned about Dr Ambedkar and Buddhism.’

The retreat came at the end of a pilgrimage in which Vishvapani, Kamalagita, Vidyadaka and Phil Daley were taken around the Buddhist holy places by Manidhamma and his wife, Samantha. Manidhamma has recently returned to India after six years study and training in the UK, and the pilgrimage benefited from his deep knowledge of the Buddha’s life and considerable experience of pilgrimages. He plans to lead many more in the coming years.

Manidhamma is working with Manidhamma is working with the Dhammaloka Trust, which intends to develop the Sarnath study centre. Their ambitious plans include a pilgrim’s guest house, a shrine room and an library and study centre that will host courses and retreats for people around the world. He also hopes to develop contacts between Sarnath’s cosmopolitan Buddhist community and the local Ambedkarite Buddhists.

The project has Sangharakshita’s blessing, but it will depend on donations from outside India. If you would like to learn more about the project or help support it, contact The Dhammaloka Trust.

Text by Vishvapani

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