A Fourth Turning of the Wheel?

by Christopher Queen, Harvard University, Published on the Buddhist Channel

Cambridge, MA (USA)One way of looking at the coming of Buddhism to the West, and the beginnings of the true interpenetration of these profound worldviews, is to see it as a fourth yana [vehicle]. If we look at “Buddhism” as a tradition and we use that term in the singular we’re really covering a multitude of practices and beliefs. To focus on the kinds of beliefs and practices that people like ourselves are attempting in the name of Buddhism raises fundamental questions about whether we’re doing something brand new, or whether in fact the seeds of what we’re doing were planted by Shakyamuni Buddha twenty-five hundred years ago.

To my way of thinking, Dr. B. R. Ambedkar (1891-1956) is the most articulate and perhaps radical spokesman for a new turning of the wheel. Ambedkar, I think, really went to the heart of this problem, and left us all with a provocative vision of Buddhism for the modern world.

Dr. B.R. Ambedkar

He was born among the so-called “untouchables” in India, but through his remarkable genius he became one of the most prominent personalities of his time. After India achieved independence in 1947, Ambedkar became the first law minister in independent India (what we might call the Attorney General). As such, he was the principal architect of India’s Constitution. It’s the world’s longest democratic constitution, and includes many
articles against the practice of un-touch-ability. It also provides for what we call affirmative action; people from all backgrounds should have access to education, scholarships and government jobs, but the preferences would be given to the lowest people in society. Ambedkar was responsible for all that.

In the last five years of his life he made good on a promise he made in 1935, “I was born a Hindu, but I’m determined not to die a Hindu. I’m going to figure out which of the religions offers me and my community the most dignity and humanity.” Many who knew him and study him think Ambedkar had Buddhism in mind all along, because he was deeply moved by a book on the life of the Buddha given him upon graduation from high school. But if
he had declared himself a Buddhist in the 1930s he would have lost a lot of his clout as a negotiator with the British and with other Hindus like Gandhi in the drama of emerging independence. So he held off until 1951 when he retired from the government, and spent the last five years of his life preparing for a huge conversion ceremony on October 14th, 1956, which is the traditional date of Ashoka’s conversion to Buddhism.

The year 1956 saw the worldwide celebration of the twenty-five hundredth year of the birth of Buddha Shakyamuni. So the date and the place, Nagpur in central India, a city which was associated with the preservation of Buddhist teachings by the Nagas, the serpent people, was highly symbolic of the rebirth of Buddhism in a land which had seen no Buddhism for
virtually a thousand years. Nearly a half-million untouchables took refuge at Ambedkar’s conversion ceremony; and then six weeks later, he died of a long-standing illness.

In the years since his great conversion, Ambedkar had become a symbol of hope for low-caste people throughout India but his Buddhist movement since then has had to struggle along with support from outsiders like Sangharakshita and his British Buddhist followers, though it also attracted some talented leaders within India and the untouchable community. Where it’s going, and whether it’s growing and flourishing, is anybody’s guess. But we have Ambedkar’s own thoughts and writings to consider for our purposes today.

Choice and Adaptation

I’d like to mention two proposals that he made in his effort to adapt Buddhism to modern circumstances – not just for the untouchables, but really for the modern world. The first is that one must choose what religion one will follow, and the second is that one must adapt it to fit one’s needs.

One premise of Ambedkar’s religious sensibility was that as modern (or even postmodern) people we are forced to choose our belief system. It’s not only possible for people to become heretics, but we have what Peter Berger called the “heretical imperative.” (The word heresy, by the way, comes from the Greek root, which means simply “to choose”; it means to choose a belief and a lifestyle.) We really are forced by the world today to choose who we will be and what we will believe, because the grip of tradition on our minds has now been loosened by modern education, by science, by travel and by global communication. We are now faced with so many options for belief and practice that we have to sit down quietly with
ourselves and say, “What do I believe? What shall I do with my life? Who will be my friends and allies? Where should I put my extracurricular energies?” These are things that all people in the world are now facing. (There are certainly repressive countries where those options are limited, but I think most in the world today recognize the goal of being able to make yourself, remake yourself, and point yourself in some direction.)

Following his dramatic announcement in 1935 C.E. that he would adopt a new religion, Ambedkar considered Christianity, Islam, Sikhism, Jainism and Buddhism as possible options for him in India. They were all active religions, except for Buddhism, which, although originating in India had vanished by the twelfth century. Ambedkar asked, “Which of these
traditions offers my community the most dignity, the most inspiration, the most empowerment to move ahead and to realize a good life or a good future or a good symbolic universe, a universe that makes me feel that life is worth living and there’s a future for the world?”

Buddhism seemed to offer the most for Ambedkar and his followers because it was an indigenous religion; it wasn’t, like Christianity or Islam – something imported. It also offered something unique, a kind of reticence to lock onto fixed beliefs or practices. There was this notion within Buddhism that you must experiment within the laboratory of your own life
to see what works and what makes sense.

This helped with Ambedkar’s second principle: the notion that once I’ve chosen a major tradition or body of thought, I must adjust it so that it works in the circumstances that I face or that my community faces. Ambedkar echoed the discourse in the Kalama Sutta in which the Buddha said, “Don’t blindly trust teachings and writings, but test them in your
own life.” This idea of testing for yourself and questioning authority has become a hallmark of Western or modern Buddhism.

The heart of Buddhism was an attitude, or, perhaps, Buddhism was an attitude of heart. The Buddha, of course, was a human being representing a potential that all human beings have. So all of that went into Ambedkar’s search for a tradition that could be adaptable to a culture in which pluralism was present, but in which a significant proportion of people felt dis-empowered and dehumanized. Buddhism, for Ambedkar, emerged as a model for becoming a full human being. Yet it was a model still in need of some changes.

The Limitations of Buddhism

In his final work, The Buddha and His Dhamma, Ambedkar pointed to four problems he saw with the Buddhist tradition as received from the past, four issues that conflict with our modern sensibility. We should not forget that Ambedkar was trained in the West; he was a follower of John Dewey, the eminent American pragmatist philosopher.

1) The first thing that Ambedkar questioned was the legend of the Buddha’s isolation, as a prince, from normal human experiences. How could a twenty-nine year-old man suddenly discover illness, suffering, and death, and then abandon his family in a fit of existential angst? Wasn’t that a little late for someone to discover these things? So there’s something
about the Buddha’s story that’s a little odd to our way of thinking, because we know that young people today confront these realities of life during their adolescent years and we encourage them to wrestle with these things and resolve them in certain ways.

2) The second issue has to do with the causes of suffering. The second noble truth says that suffering is a result of craving and ignorance; therefore if someone is suffering we have to say, “Change your attitude. Practice meditation. Practice morality and your life will improve.” But might there be circumstances in which there are innocent victims? There are children or whole communities who are marginalized and oppressed by social, political and economic forces that are essentially beyond their control, unless they somehow collectively organize a resistance to oppression. Can Buddhism encompass the notion of social change, which has
both victims and oppressors?

3) The third problem was the question of karma and rebirth. Do we really believe in rebirth? Do we really believe that karma is a kind of ongoing accumulation of energy that will dictate not only the quality of our life but cause us to be reborn again and again? Must we conclude, for example, that a handicapped person is serving a sentence for past indiscretions or
crimes? Ambedkar had difficulty with the place of traditional teachings of rebirth in our modern world view, not only in terms of what we now know about psychology and physics, but in light of the social issues surrounding the life of untouchables in India.

4) The final contradiction or problem Dr. Ambedkar saw in Buddhism was the role of the monk or the ordained person. What is the true role of the ideal practitioner of Buddhism? Should it be one who is renouncing and retreating from the life of family responsibilities, work, and society, living essentially apart, except for the ritualized contacts of the
begging rounds or teaching? Or should those ideal practitioners of the Buddha’s teaching be seen not as sitting but as walking; that is, walking out into the community and trying to help people improve their material circumstances as well as their spiritual condition? Shouldn’t the monks be trained as social workers? This was one of Ambedkar’s core questions. And
his model was the Jesuits, the Benedictines and Protestant missionaries who founded clinics and literacy programs and helped people to dig wells, build roads, and otherwise improve their situation through engaged activity.


In looking at these issues and other basic notions of Buddhism, Ambedkar modified the tradition quite freely. One of the most important changes he made was a rather radical re-interpretation of what was meant by nirvana. According to Ambedkar, nirvana is not a metaphysical or psychological state or attainment, but a society founded in peace and justice. He brought a transcendent view of nirvana down to earth.

This is an important feature of engaged Buddhism as manifested in many parts of Asia today. A common feature of this movement is to disregard notions of another world, whether it’s a psychological world or a metaphysical world, and to translate that into a society based on equality and the free exchange of ideas and goods. This is a kind of socialism, and
Ambedkar himself, though not a socialist per se, was significantly influenced by socialist thinkers.

With this different understanding, the discussion of nirvana becomes analogous to the discussion in Christianity about the kingdom of God or heaven. Is it an afterlife, or is it an ideal community on this planet? Ambedkar and his followers would vote for the latter concept. We need to create communities that unlock human potential and dignity – that’s

If you look at the Satipatthána Sutta or the Visuddhimagga you find texts setting forth a complex set of meditation skills and ethical practices, which the tradition offers us as the path to awakening. That is largely de-emphasized in Ambedkar’s writings and in his thought. For him the pursuit of education at all levels was a form of meditation and mental cultivation. This in turn supplemented the institutions of a free society – representative government, due process, and an impartial judiciary when an untouchable can go to a court and have a judge actually award the verdict to him or her. This is nirvana. All this has nothing to do with the traditional wealth of meditation practices available.

It is important to keep in mind that Ambedkar’s primary teachers were books. In this sense he shares something with Western “Buddhists” who have been brought to Buddhism by reading Alan Watts, D.T. Suzuki, Shunryu Suzuki, or Trungpa Rinpoche, rather than being trained in Buddhism by a personal teacher who is devoting his or her life to practice and teaching meditation. There are many people in America who call themselves Buddhists because they’ve read books about it – the “bookstore Buddhist” or the “nightstand Buddhist,” as Tom Tweed calls them. Ambedkar had thirty thousand books, including a huge collection on Buddhism; these have marks all over the margins and underlines and crossings out, agreeing and disagreeing with elements of the tradition and deciding how Buddhism would
work for him. These books were his teachers.

As a personality, Ambedkar was certainly volcanic; he didn’t have the calm demeanor of Thich Nhat Hanh. It wasn’t breath and smile for Dr. Ambedkar. Ambedkar was deeply scarred by being an untouchable in his society all his life, and he brings the passion of that experience to his understanding of Buddhism. Educate, Agitate, and Organize – this was Ambedkar’s slogan during his years as a civil rights leaders in India. Today it is still used by his followers as Buddhists, which really irritates other Buddhists who say that agitation has no role to play in Buddhism. Well, does it? Should Buddhists be, in a certain sense, agitators for a better society, for reconciliation, or are these irreconcilable concepts?

Ambedkar’s Challenge

Given the way Buddhism is evolving in the West, with its strong emphasis upon meditation and psychology, Ambedkar’s perspective is very provocative. Many of us are drawn to Buddhism because it offers peace – inner peace and world peace. We would like to be more un-perturb-able, loving, compassionate and joyful, rather than the crusading radicals some of us were in the sixties. If Buddhism has to do with stilling the fires of passion, then mettá bhávaná [the cultivation of loving kindness] is probably the best and highest practice for engaged Buddhism in the traditional mold – achieving peace and then projecting that peace to others. If this attainment of peace has some ripples in the world, great; but the world is really not the primary concern of a traditional Buddhist. It is rather training the monkey mind to settle down.

But it may be worth looking closely at Ambedkar’s idea that Buddhism is something we receive and then have to work with. Buddhist teachings invite us to take responsibility for ourselves, and this is being interpreted in engaged Buddhist circles as taking responsibility for the entire Sangha, the larger community, and ultimately, our eco-system on this planet Earth. Ambedkar’s approach tells us that if we spend too much time in personal meditation practice, and in retreat from the world of social relationship, we will be irresponsible to our community. So we need to get off the cushion, get out of the house, get out there and start to educate, agitate and organize. This is a collectivist notion of Sangha as people working together for a society of justice, wherein our Buddhist practice becomes the engaged activity of social change.

crtsy: Buddhist channel, June 8, 2005

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