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Buddha Buzz Weekly: Dalits Convert to Buddhism After Rape of Dalit Woman

Over 200 members of India’s Dalit community converted to Buddhism after the brutal rape of a young Dalit woman, Sri Lankan monks oppose an amendment giving the president more power, and the Rubin Museum of Art plans a new space for emotional and social learning. Tricycle looks back at the events of this week in the Buddhist world.

By Emily DeMaioNewton and Karen JensenOct 24, 2020

Students and teachers at a school in Patiala, India, commemorate Dr. B.R. Ambedkar’s 125th birthday in 2016. Ambedkar was a jurist, economist, politician, and social reformer who spearheaded the Dalit conversion movement. | Rajesh Sachar/Pacific Press/Alamy Live News

Nothing is permanent, so everything is precious. Here’s a selection of some happenings—fleeting or otherwise—in the Buddhist world this week.

Dalits Convert to Buddhism After Rape of Dalit Woman 

As many as 236 people in the Indian Dalit community, the lowest group in the caste system, converted to Buddhism in the city of Ghaziabad, Uttar Pradesh, on October 14, Yahoo India News reported. For many Dalits, the decision to convert came after four upper-caste men allegedly abducted and raped a 19-year-old Dalit woman in the city of Hathras last month. The attack damaged the young woman’s spine, and she died two weeks later. “The Hathras incident was the tipping point for most of us,” a Buddhist convert who used the name Kamlesh said. “Converting to another religion is not an easy decision. It means leaving behind old rituals, but we are now tired.” Another Dalit community member, identified as Pawan, agreed. “We thought of converting in the past. . .but this incident shook us up—the way state machinery is grilling the victim’s family, the way she was cremated at 2:30 am without her family’s permission.” 

In order to escape persecution, Dalits, sometimes referred to as “untouchables,” have been converting to Buddhism en masse ever since activist and scholar B.R. Ambedkar spearheaded the movement in the early 20th century. The Dalits who converted last week did so in the presence of Rajratan Ambedkar, the great-grandnephew of Ambedkar. The conversion also took place on Dhammachakra Pravartan Day, which marks the 64th anniversary of Ambedkar’s conversion of approximately 600,000 followers. Four days later, fifty more Dalits converted in the region of Udupi, Karnataka, Yahoo India News said. Despite their new faith, Dalits still face obstacles in Indian society. 

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How to Survive Election Night and Beyond

Holy Buddha. . .it’s almost the election. There’s no doubt that there is a lot going on, so it’s natural to feel paralyzed or despondent. But we invite you to consider what you can do in this moment and the moments to come: vote, volunteer, and take care of yourself and others. At the very least, we encourage you to pause before refreshing the homepage of your most frequented newsite as the results roll in. 

To help you out, we’ve put together the following guide to keeping your head in the days before, during, and after the 2020 election. 

Preparing for Election Day:

You might be feeling powerless lately. But one thing that is within our control is the ability to vote. “True acceptance is not inertness,” writes meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg. “In my mind, voting is a direct reflection of the Buddha saying everyone has innate dignity, or innate worth.” In fact, voting may serve as an antidote to despair.

But first, make a plan to vote. Whether you decide to do early voting, complete a mail-in ballot, or vote in person, make a concrete plan and stick to it. To find out more about voting in your state, check out vote.org for more information.

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Canvassing Like a Buddha

On a scorching day in July 2019, sweating and shaking with nerves, I knocked on the door of an immaculate house in Staten Island, New York. A sweet-faced young woman opened it, eyeing me curiously. I took a deep breath and launched into my script.

“If you had two minutes to tell President Trump about the job he’s doing, what would you say?” I asked. She had voted for Trump, she told me, but didn’t like the callous way he treated people. On a scale from zero to ten—where zero meant she would definitely vote Republican and ten meant definitely Democrat—she put herself at a three.

“When I vote,” I said, “it’s a political act, but it’s also personal, a gift to someone I love.” I told a story about a teenager I had mentored in a writing program. I loved her for her brilliance and talent, and also for her willingness to resolve the initial conflicts between us. “I’m curious,” I went on. “Does this make you think of someone you love?” She wouldn’t discuss a particular person but said she wanted her gay friends to be free to live as they chose. When I pointed out that she and I shared a value of caring about others—a value that the president’s behavior rarely displays—she moved from a 3 to a 5.

This exchange was my first experience of “deep canvassing,” a method of voter outreach that aims to bypass political speech by connecting with people emotionally and engaging with their sense of ethics. It’s based on the principle that facts and opinions don’t change people’s minds, values do.

I’d finally found a form of political action that matched my own convictions. For the past twenty years, I’ve practiced vipassana, or Insight Meditation. Since the 1960s, I have also participated in political action—marches against the Vietnam War, demonstrations toward a more sustainable climate future, and protests against the war in Iraq. But by the time of the Iraq War, I’d become uncomfortable with angry chanting and strident rhetoric demonizing political enemies, which felt at odds with the shift in thinking about dealing with conflict brought about by my Buddhist practice. I’m absolutely anti-Trump, but I don’t want to hate Trump voters. I want to understand them. And it was now clear to me that not only did anger feel wrong, it was also an ineffective strategy in a country so divided.

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Practicing Questioning

Over the past forty years, I’ve trained with meditation teachers in the lineages of Theravada, Zen, and Tibetan, both in Asia and in the United States. I’ve found that, in all of these lineages, learning how to ask wise questions is a huge part of cultivating a skillful practice. Meditative inquiry fosters greater inner freedom and allows us to loosen up and let go of conditioning. But how do we do this? 

In meditation practice we calm our minds, and then we look into the true nature of things as they are, which leads to greater understanding. This understanding brings about inner liberation. Investigation or inquiry is another key aspect of practice. To investigate is to contemplate with a silent mind. It’s to illuminate that which is cloudy or confused—to explore and to discover what we have not yet noticed or understood.

This kind of deep inquiry provides us with the tools to free the mind from suffering and the pitfalls of an unexamined life. Of course, freeing the mind from suffering is the point of the practice and at the core of the Buddha’s teachings. Looking into life as we generally live it—carefully examining our habits and our patterns—encourages us to examine the whole world differently. Asking questions is a way to allow intrinsic wisdom to emerge, wisdom that is there within each one of our hearts, that has not yet had a chance to come forth and inform our lives. 

I also think questioning is part of the Buddha’s injunction to practice ehipassiko, a Pali word that means “comes and see for oneself.” Meditative questioning is one way to understand for ourselves and to build a greater sense of self-confidence and self-trust. We learn to know for ourselves what brings about liberation and what does not, what further mires us in misery or confusion. 

In this practice, doubt is totally OK—we’re encouraged to test the teachings out so that they become our own. But questions like, “Why am I here?”, “What is the meaning of life?”, “When can I get what I want, or get rid of what I don’t want?”, “Why am I so deluded?”, or “Why are others so deluded?” tend to take us nowhere. I’ve found that they cause us to circle around and around and do not reveal a way out. The deep inquiry I’m talking about doesn’t mean constantly questioning oneself, obsessing, or running after thoughts. 

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Don’t-Know Mind and the Election of Our Lives

Noam Chomsky recently warned that we are now living through the most dangerous moment in human history. He cited the climate crisis, threat of nuclear war, and rising authoritarianism, but a long list of other issues can be added, among them the COVID-19 pandemic, economic breakdown, increasing social polarization… and the November election, in which many of those problems are at stake, perhaps including the very future of our democracy. No wonder so many of us are feeling anxious these days.

Buddhist teachings have always emphasized impermanence, and this year certainly offers us plenty of examples to demonstrate that truth. The instability of the world that most of us nonetheless took for granted has become more apparent and the future seems more unpredictable than ever. It’s not that we should want to return to the “old normal,” which was never that good for most people and certainly not for the biosphere. But it’s also looking doubtful that there will be anything like a “new normal” in the foreseeable future. We may not know what happens after we cast our ballot in what could be the most important election in US history, but there is good reason to believe we’re in for a wild ride that will test the maturity of our practice. 

One Buddhist teaching that is all the more relevant today is don’t-know mind—a teaching that calls attention to the “not knowing” state of our consciousness that exists before discursive thought. 

One Buddhist principle that is all the more relevant today is don’t-know mind—a teaching that calls attention to the “not knowing” state of mind that various meditation practices cultivate, in which we let go of discursive thought. The practice of don’t-know mind applies this state of mind to everyday life, but it’s easy to misunderstand. It doesn’t imply willful ignorance about what is happening. When a student once asked Chan (Jp., Zen) Master Yunmen what the goal of a lifetime of practice is, he replied: “An appropriate response.” We, too, must determine how to respond appropriately to our formidable array of challenges, and we need to keep abreast of developments in order to be able to respond appropriately. 

Don’t-know mind is not an excuse to evade responsibility. Rather it involves letting go of our fixed ideas about the world, including our expectations. Such “not knowing” is the first tenet of the Zen Peacemakers, a network of socially engaged Buddhists co-founded by Zen teacher Bernie Glassman in the late twentieth century. (The second tenet is bearing witness to the joy and suffering of the world, and the third is taking action that arises from not knowing and bearing witness.) Peacemakers co-founder Roshi Egyoku Nakao describes it as a “flash of openness or a sudden shift to being present in the moment” in which we “take shelter in the place before anything arises, a place of emptiness and profound silence.” We become more spacious, more aware of our own reactivity, and more open to the perspectives of others. 

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