I was having dinner with some Buddhist friends recently. I started to tell them about my interest in Theravada Buddhism, particularly my interest in the Navayana or “new vehicle” of Dr. B. R. Ambedkar. These were all Tibetan Buddhists, and they didn’t seem to get it. “What attracts you to Theravada?” I told them that I felt that Theravada was the “most reality-based” of al the Buddhisms that I have investigated. I shared with them that I was deeply impressed with the Buddhism founded by Dr. Ambedkar in India in 1956. When Bhimrao took Refuge vows in Nagpur, half a million people in India converted to Buddhism with him.
I explained to them how Dr. Ambedkar had studied Buddhism in Sri Lanka and Burma, because there were no Buddhist teachers in India at that time, approximately 1940-1956. He wrote a kind of one-volume “bible” of Buddhism, The Buddha and his Dhamma. It was based on the Pali cannon, and it gave people a practice of Buddhism in the simplest terms possible. Bhimrao was an Untouchable, and though he himself had two doctorates and a law degree, he designed his Buddhism to be as simple and accessible as possible. He wrote it so that the Untouchables, the Dalits, could read it, or hear it, and understand it. Ambedkar knew that the Dalits would have no access to education, and no access to Buddhist teachings, since there were no Buddhist teachers in India at the time. In one volume, he gave them a Buddhist practice that they could do with minimal instruction and support.
The brilliance of Ambedkar’s Budddhism was that he stripped it down to its essential principles and practices. He designed his Buddhist practice as a social movement, focusing on the ethical teachings of Buddhism. Because of his experience as an Untouchable, he felt that the greatest suffering people experienced was hatred and prejudice between people, particularly as a result of caste, gender, race and ethnicity. Ambedkar’s Navayana was engaged Buddhism as social justice.
So I explained my interest Ambedkar’s Navayana in simple terms to my Tibetan Buddhist friends. Their reaction? “That’s Buddhism for Dummies.” Ok, I thought, that’s incredibly insulting, but I’ll ignore it for now.” I choked down my anger and went on with the meal. As the discussion went on, people discussed their plans to attend retreats at far-flung corners of the continent. I said that I could not afford to do such things, living on a limited working wage. I was told that if I didn’t have enough money to go on expensive Buddhist retreats that it was my choice. Essentially, I was told that I “chose to be poor”, so if I couldn’t afford expensive programs to obtain Tibetan “empowerments”, that was my own choice. I retorted that in Asian countries, Dhamma teachings are always free. So they told me, “Then you go to those dirty, bug-infested countries and study Buddhism there.”
At that point, I totally lost it. I got up, put on my coat and left. I’ve heard this so many times from so many Tibetan Buddhists that “Hinayana” (sic) is “the lesser path.” It’s for those who don’t have the capacity for “higher” or “more advanced” forms of practice and realization. What I find amazing is that this is coming from Tibetan Buddhists who go on about the evils of “spiritual materialism”, yet their institutions and practices are some of the most egregious examples of it. Tibetan Buddhism as it is practiced in the West, especially North America, is Buddhism for rich people. And they have no qualms about saying that’s so. In fact, it’s something they are particularly proud of. They consider their wealth to be a kind of Buddhist predestination, a religious justification for wealth. They worked hard for their money and they were meant to be wealthy so that they could study the dharma.
And while these Buddhists display so much fawning admiration for monks in robes, few if any of them would choose to live the life that the Buddha himself lived, as a homeless beggar whose robes were sown from discarded patches of cloth, who owned nothing more than a robe, a begging bowl and pair of sandals. If they lived as the Buddha lived, they could never afford to fly across the continent to attend exclusive retreats for esoteric “empowerments.” But thats beside the point for them.
What they can’t fathom is that Buddhism was meant to be simple and accessible to all. Not many Tibetan Buddhists I met have actually read any of the Pali suttas, or even the Dhammapada. What the Buddha taught, recorded in the early suttas, in what are said to be the most authentic teachings of the Buddha himself, was incredibly simple, straightforward, understandable by anyone, yet profoundly liberating. The Buddha’s own teachings were given to people of his day who also had no access to education. Most members of the original Buddhist sangha that Buddha established were illiterate, but they weren’t dummies. And the simple-yet-profound teachings that the Buddha himself taught certainly was not “buddhism for dummies.”
RIY Buddhism: Read It Yourself
I spent a whole year studying Hinayana (sic), and never once did we read any of the Suttas. My teacher told me “they [I think meaning “the Tibetans”] don’t read the Suttas.” Well, why the hell not? The Suttas are so simple and straightforward; really, anyone could understand them. I think it’s because they want you to think that you can’t read the Pali scriptures by yourself, because (sic) you wouldn’t understand them or interpret them correctly. They want to keep you ignorant and dependent on some lama to digest them and regurgitate them for you. But in fact, anyone can read them in their native language and understand the basic message. The Suttas are so very simple because they were originally an oral tradition for illiterate people with no written language.
I started reading the Dhammapada on my own, Gil Fronsdal’s wonderful translation. These verses are said to be the closest to what the Buddha himself said. The Dhammapada is incredibly simple and yet profoundly liberating. The Dhammapada is a series of chants, quatrains of verse written like a song, full of poetic images, rhythm and rhyme. They weren’t meant to be read; they were meant to be chanted, so that people could remember the teachings by hearing and chanting. Three hundred years after Buddha’s death, they were written down in Pali, and then in this century, translated into English. Yet they retain that profound simplicity that really anyone could understand. Don’t depend on the lamas and ajahns. Read the Suttas yourself and empower yourself.
The Buddhist label I put on myself is secular engaged Buddhism, a contemporary Western form that is very modern, even post-modern, but refers back to the early Pali cannon. But if I had to put a label on my practice that corresponds with a Buddhist tradition, I would call it DIY Theravada: no teachers, no gurus, no empowerments, no flying across the continent to exclusive retreats for the rich. I am entirely self-taught, although I have many Buddhist friends and teachers from all traditions that provide guidance and support. In particular, I practice the Theravada Buddhism established by Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, a modern Indian form, although he derived it from ancient Sri Lanka and Burmese traditions. The practices are Theravada, but the intent and benefit are for the liberation of all beings, not just oneself. This is called “Theravada practice, Mahayana mind“, what Ambedkar called the Navayana or “new vehicle.”
I have no problem with being one of the children of a lesser Buddha. Too many of the Tibetan Buddhists dismiss the Theravada as “the lesser path”. Like Bhimrao, I also have a law degree and several other advanced degrees, and I have taught at the university level for fifteen years; I’m no dummy. Yet I embrace the poverty and profound simplicity of the path of liberation as Buddha originally taught. And like Bhimrao, my aspiration is to bring the Navayana to the most marginalized people in North America.