Forest Sangha Newsletter July 1993

Devotion and Gnosis; Ajahn Sumedho
Metta and the English Problem; John Aske
An Open Letter from Dharamsala
On Returning to Ladakh; Ven. Sanghasena
Indian Summer; Ven. Asabho
The Highest Tantra; Ajahn Sucitto


On Returning to Ladakh

At the age of seventeen, Venerable Sanghasena left a peaceful way of life in Ladakh for the promise of success in the developing world. In 1979 he ordained as a Theravada Bhikkhu and has now returned to his homeland where he has started a Buddhist school, and is working to help his people in the face of poverty, modernisation and the erosion of their ancient Buddhist culture. During our 1992 winter retreat, he visited us at Amaravati. The following interview was recorded during the teatime break with lay guests who were staying at that time.

Q: How did you come into contact with Theravadin Buddhism?
A: There is a little story behind this. In ancient times, before China occupied Tibet, many Lamas from Ladakh used to go to Tibet for higher studies. Then when China attacked Tibet many Tibetan Lamas and Ladakhi monks had to escape to India. One of the Ladakhi Lamas who came from Tibet searching for a place to live came into contact with my teacher, Ven. Buddharakhita, in Bangalore. My teacher told him that he could stay in his temple (which was of the Theravadin tradition), as long as he chanted the rules, wore Theravadin robes, and learnt a bit of the Pali Canon. This Lama agreed to that. Gradually my teacher began to inquire about Buddhism in Ladakh and came to understand the difficulties and the hard life of the Buddhist people there, and also the distress to the culture and to Buddhism in Ladakh. So he told the Lama to go to Ladakh and bring a few children to educate in Bangalore, and to train as Buddhist monks so that they could then go back to work to preserve Buddhism there. The Lama went and brought back the first batch of small kids - one of whom was my cousin.
     After 3-4 years this cousin returned to Ladakh for a visit. At that time I was in the Indian army and was on leave. My cousin invited me to his house. I asked him, 'What have you been studying in Bangalore?', and he told me very interesting and inspiring things about Dhamma. This led me to decide about my future. Now I had been born into a very pious Buddhist family, but it was mainly a devotional approach. I would carry a picture of the Buddha and the Dalai Lama with me wherever I went, and every morning I would prostrate three times towards the pictures, then offer some flowers and incense. That was my Buddhism!
     After hearing some Dhamma from this monk - my cousin - I thought that I was wasting my life in the army. It was not a Buddhist life. In the army we were taught and trained to kill, how to drop bombs, how to shoot guns, how to destroy others and save ourselves - whereas the Buddha taught how to sacrifice yourself for the cause of other people. I asked my cousin 'Is it too late for me to give up this life and to join the monastery?' (In Ladakh and Tibet men normally become monks at quite an early age.) He answered, 'It is never too late for Dhamma. If you are really interested in living the life of a monk, our teacher, Ven. Buddharakhita, will be very happy to help you.' I immediately resigned from the army and went to Bangalore.

There are many things that we don't yet know about, and we'd like to invite knowledgeable people from different parts of the world to share their knowledge and to educate our students in this sort of development.

Q: Could you explain about your teacher - what his tradition is, and how he became a teacher in India.
A: Originally he came from a Brahmin family, and was very learned and educated. He was in the British Army, but after seeing a lot of bloodshed and killing he decided to lead the spiritual life. Having ordained as a Hindu Swami at the Ramakrishna mission, he lived there for one year studying and practising, and then left to become a Buddhist monk. He studied Pali and the Tripitaka and practised Vipassana meditation in Sri Lanka and Burma. Then he moved to India. Eventually, at the request of some Sri Lankan people, he went to Bangalore and started the Buddhist Society there in 1954. He was a very dynamic monk and a very good teacher. He also used to visit hospitals and homes for elderly people, and would often distribute medicine and clothes.
     One day he saw a burns patient lying outside the hospital, and he found out that the reason he wasn't being treated was because the hospital was full - but the patient's condition was serious! So, he returned and collected funds and built a hospital especially for burns patients. Now it is run by the Government and 200 patients are getting treatment there. Then he built another hospital with the support of many Hindu followers, an artificial limbs manufacturing centre which provides limbs and crutches for the poor, and a school where we have 75 children who are given a free education. We also have our own printing press and publish a lot of books in the Indian language and in English.
Q: Do you have any industry in Ladakh, or any natural resources on which to capitalise?
A: No, the people don't have any industry, but they are very hard working people. The only income for Ladakh is tourism. There are some handicrafts. For example, they have beautiful painting, weaving and carving - they make many beautiful statues, but these would need to be developed as a source of income. So far our people have not thought in this way. They don't have any idea about this - how to make something, and sell, and make money.
     However, we have an idea for the children in our school to do some handicrafts, Ladakhi art, and painting - they could make and sell them to earn money. We'd like to educate them in how to improve their standard of living by using more natural resources like greenhouses, and to learn how to make use of solar energy. Yesterday I told you about the tomatoes; nobody thought it was possible to grow tomatoes in Ladakh. Now in one part of Ladakh they grow plenty of tomatoes! There are many things that we don't yet know about, and we'd like to invite knowledgeable people from different parts of the world to share their knowledge and to educate our students in this sort of development.
Q: You must teach them commercial skills, too. It's important in the world of Samsara!
A: Yes. We have already planned this. It seems that only education can save us from exploitation and suppression, so we need to develop this. If people do not gain education, they will remain poor and will be easily exploited by other people, other communities. One time I went to visit a family Health Centre, and inside it there was nothing - not even a sheet on the beds. We asked if there was a doctor. They said, 'Yes, but he is not here'. We asked how long he had been absent. The person answered, 'One year'! - there is no doctor here!
Q: Do you get any help from the UN or W.H.O. etc.?
A: No. Ladakhi people have no education, they have no idea at all about these or the many volunteer organisations. They don't know so they haven't contacted them.
Q: It seems that Ladakh is a country which benefits from not having so complicated a society. There, although people may look as though they don't have very much, they can seem content with the little that they have. It seems strange that you, as a Dhamma teacher, are trying to bring these things from outside in.
A: There are many reasons. First of all, it is true that Western countries are overdeveloped educationally and intellectually, so it was not our intention in starting the school for the children to become too dependent on being intellectual. People also say that if we create this school, it might lead to what is happening in big cities in California, New York etc. But there is nothing to worry about; it will take a few hundred years and even then, Ladakh will not become like big Western cities. Tourists can only go there for a few months each year. The rest of the time, Ladakh is Ladakh.
     Many people say that Ladakhi villagers are simple and contented. They have to be contented because they are not developed. Our people don't have much comfort, but I think all people deserve a little bit of comfort that modern science and technology can provide - there is a minimum requirement to lead a dignified and comfortable life. You can't say that the Ladakhi people are happy and contented. If you go to the villages you will find that people seem to be happy and contented, but that is not because they have understood Dhamma - it's because they are totally closed. They are not exposed to the world, they don't know anything. You can't say that they have a peaceful and happy life, because they are ignorant. What you see is not real happiness, which arises from understanding of Dhamma - it is not wisdom.
     We can share - there are some things you could learn from Ladakh, and there are some things we could learn from you. Q: Can you tell us about your first impressions of the Western world. What was it like when you left Ladakh to join the army?
A: At first I was very happy. I had prayed and desired to get out of Ladakh to see and know the world. I used to like all the modern things - travelling on buses etc. - I liked any modern technology. I wanted to go very much and was happy to see the big cities. In fact, I think most people in Ladakh or underdeveloped villages would be very happy to go West and experience modern life. Now you might be fed up with living in London but, in the beginning at least, most people in India feel that they are transported to heaven - all this comfort! If you press a button the tea is ready, press another button and you can see what is happening in America - sitting in a chair! These things are very interesting for them at the beginning. I felt that, but now I realise that I do not prefer to have these things and to live in the West. I like living in Ladakh. I want to go back and live in Ladakh. I realised that all the modern comforts cannot give us contentment or satisfaction or happiness.

Q: It seems that as a Theravadin monk, you are living like a Bodhisattva which is of course more the Mahayana ideal, as opposed to the aspiration of the Theravadin tradition to become an arahant.
A: It sounds very nice, but I personally think that it's not very practical. In Mahayana, they will not attain to Nirvana until all sentient beings are liberated from Samsara. Can you imagine!? Can you alleviate the suffering of all sentient beings? If you remove a stone you will find hundreds and thousands of ants - how can you alleviate their suffering? It's just not possible. That means that we are not going to attain Enlightenment.
     Actually, real compassion for others comes only after you have known liberation through understanding Dhamma. From the beginning Buddhists are taught to help others. Now in what way can you help others? In order to give you must have first. You may want to become a Doctor, but in order to become a good Doctor you have to spend time studying and practising. You have to know first yourself - only then can you give treatment and help to others. Without knowing the medicine you cannot give medicine. I have seen many great monks in Theravadin Buddhism who have done a lot of good work for others, and also from the Mahayana tradition. So all the schools cover the same teaching. You can't say that just because we are in this tradition that we don't practise the Bodhisattva vow. Those who understand the Dhamma are liberated from suffering, and this will give rise to real compassion. I think that the Bodhisattva is like this: someone is suffering so much that he tries hard and finds Dhamma, and attains liberation from suffering. But at the point when he is about to attain Nirvana he looks back and sees thousands of people suffering, so he thinks, 'I was also there suffering without knowing the Dhamma in the darkness. Why don't I wait and help these people?' - and he postpones his enlightenment in order to teach them Dhamma. This may be good, however not everyone who follows Mahayana adheres to the Bodhisattva vow, neither does everyone in Theravadin Buddhism penetrate Anatta!
Q: In this context, could you explain how you see your practice towards enlightenment in the light of the kind of work that you do - which is active in helping other people. How do you perceive your path to Nirvana by living like that?
A: Liberation from this wheel of samsara and the practice of sila, samadhi, panna are inseparable; that is why I really mustn't get lost in all these projects. I feel that it is very important to retire to the mountains and to have concentration and deep meditation to clarify one's understanding. If you are very good, but your mind is totally deluded and confused, you can't really see the subtle phenomena and understand the Buddha's teaching - to understand this you have to come to the depths of meditation.
     I try to keep up a continuous practice of meditation, but I am not satisfied. I want to go to the mountains for 3-4 months and even more in the future. So if these projects are set up and I get people to help, I would like to do more retreats. Sometimes these projects can become an obstacle for meditation. When I am involved in a project and I sit in meditation, those things came to mind and I could consider it an obstacle; but these projects have their own value in helping us to understand the Dhamma. If you stop these activities, and go to the mountains, naturally concentration can arise quickly. It all depends on the individual - his present paramitas, his present thoughts, his present understanding - I don't think that there is one path, or method, one thing for everybody. I do think that these projects are very important for others, but at the same time - if I don't die - I would like to do a lot of retreats.
     The Projects initiated in Ladakh by the Mahabodhi Society, under the supervision of Ven. Sanghasena include: a new Meditation Hall, a school and hostel for 25 children and a kitchen and dining block. A library, stupa and a 70 foot standing Buddha rupa are also planned. Further information about any of these projects and how to assist may be obtained from: The secretary,
Mahbodhi International Meditation Centre,
P.O. Box No.22,
Rde Wa Chan,
Leh, Ladakh - 194101 INDIA.
or: The Ladakh Project,
21 Victoria Sq.,
Bristol B58 4E5, UK.
Tel: 0270 744853; FAX: 0270 744853