British-born Buddhist monk takes pleasure in working for marginalised Indians
Published: 20/01/2012 at 12:00 AM
Newspaper section: Life
Dhammachari Lokamitra has no hobby. But if he was to name one, he would say his hobby and his work is one and the same.
“Ever before ordination [as a Buddhist monk], my dream was to help as many people as possible,” he said matter-of-factly, a gentle smile creasing his face.
Born Jeremy Goody in London in 1947, Lokamitra ordained into the Western Buddhist Order (WBO) in 1974 as a dhammachari and given the name Lokamitra which means “friend of the world”. Under the guidance of his teacher, Sangharakshita, he went to India in 1975 and he has never looked back since.
“Unknowingly, I arrived there on the 21st anniversary of Dr Ambedkar’s momentous conversion to Buddhism with his 500,000 followers, and at the very place where it happened.”
Dr Ambedkar was the founder of India’s “New Buddhism” movement and a national spiritual icon, especially among the disadvantaged. Born in 1891 an “untouchable,” people who are at the bottom rung of the Hindu caste system, he suffered discrimination and social difficulty in youth. Thanks to education under the British rule, however, he became one of the first “untouchables” who completed schooling, and later the first law minister of independent India.
Aiming at improving the situation of the 40,000,000 marginalised “untouchables”, Dr Ambedkar established a new form of Buddhism, which combines Theravada and Mahayana.
“Dr Ambedkar worked hard to improve the external environment for those poor and discriminated. But he knew clearly that external improvement alone was far from enough,” Lokamitra said. Spiritual development is also necessary to create happiness.
Dr Ambedkar passed away only six weeks after his ordination. With 500,000 followers, his funeral was a national event, laying a solid foundation for his followers, firstly Sangharakshita and then Lokamitra, to work on for the “untouchables”.
The former had worked in India for over 20 years before he went back to Britain and passed on the assignment to the latter.
Since his arrival, Lokamitra has been working in India for 32 years, focusing on eliminating illiteracy and reducing the influences of the caste system.
His work includes setting up schools in slums, building training rooms to teach basic Buddhism, dedicating to disaster relief and building friendship between people of different ethnic backgrounds, among many others. Whatever he does, however, he strictly follows the way paved by Dr Ambedkar and his teacher for those marginalised Indians.
Working with poverty, illiteracy, pain and disasters has not left Lokamitra a hard man. Tall and of moderate weight, the bespectacled Lokamitra is gentle, charming and ever optimistic.
“At first we had very limited financial resources and had to lecture in disused railway carriages or veranda of unfinished police stations,” Lokamitra said in a low voice. But he was still smiling as if talking about a pleasant experience or about the work of someone else.
His activities are sponsored by Aid for India and Karuna Trust, both established in London by his teacher Sangharakshita. They remain his major donors for the past three decades, though local donors have also been contributing.
When lecturing in Bangkok recently on his and the Buddhist doctrine of Dr Ambedkar and Sanghakashita, Lokamitra took his audience into the world of the “untouchables” through a series of documentary films.
In the first documentary, a six-year-old boy born in an “untouchable” family was traced by two policemen for a whole day only because he went out at an “improper time”.
“We are not allowed to go to school; we can only make friends with children with the same background; no one will even step into our houses,” says one “untouchable” boy .
When they grow up, they are the ones responsible for throwing off dead cows, dead dogs, dead cats and performing other “dirty” jobs. There is no access to education nor decent employment opportunities for them. They are even required to take off their slippers when walking on certain roads in their villages.
The situation of “untouchable” girls is specially miserable. Lokamitra told a story about a young girl who was raped and then killed by her villagers only because she happened to be the most educated one in her neighbourhood.
Though at the very beginning helping those “untouchables” was a mere assignment from his teacher, it has become Lokamitra’s self-defined mission. Aside from educating them, in 1998, he founded the Jambudvipa Trust, an organisation that encourages individuals and organisations from the disadvantaged sections of Indian society to take initiatives and improve their own situation.
“The Mahayana Buddhism is focusing on developing oneself for the sake of aiding others, which is what those marginalised need to do now,” Lokamitra said.
After being a monk for around 10 years, he returned to secular life and married an Indian Buddhist in 1984. Now they have two adult children.
“I am very lucky. My wife is very supportive for my work. To be honest, I am just a part-time husband and father,” Lokamitra said. His dead-pan face made it sound like he was joking.
Though having a family, he will retreat to his former life for one month every year. Every time he will choose a place near to the village his family lives in.
“My wife will also retreat for some time every year. I will support her as she supports me,” Lokamitra said, again with a big smile.
The couple are now working to establish the Nagarjuna Institute in Nagpur to train devoted from different parts of India about basic Buddhist teachings and practices.
“I cannot reach all the potential Buddhists. But hope those students can,” Lokamitra said.
They are also developing the Jambudvipa Trust in Pune, India with the aim to help more people.
“I’d like to bridge the understanding between Buddhists in India. They are from different streams of Buddhism; but should learn to work and live harmoniously.”
As a “friend of the world”, Lokamitra also dedicates himself to promoting friendship between Indian Buddhists and their kin around the world. “I see no geographical boundaries in Buddhism. It’s a world heritage. The more people it reaches, the better.”
On 7th January 2012, 13.00-17.00 hrs
Venue: Meeting room, 2th floor, Buddhadasa Indapanno Archives, Bangkok