issue 20 summer 03
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A Singular Calling

Working among India's new Buddhists has been a long-held dream for Santavajri. But, as she told Vajrasara, leaving London for a simpler life with her Indian Dhamma sisters has had its challenges.

Working in India's spiritual community has beckoned ever since I became a Buddhist in 1990. I had always been politically motivated and concerned about justice. After studying languages at university, I spent two years on a Voluntary Service Overseas project in rural Nepal. I learnt to speak Nepali and made many Nepali friends. It wasn't always easy but it was a formative experience and I became steeped in the culture.

Back in London I did a master's degree in Peace Studies, and I pursued my Asian interests – in its music, food and people. Then I worked as an inner-city teacher with mainly Asian pupils, subsequently teaching English as a second language. I learnt to speak Hindi and adopted various Indian habits, like wearing shalwar kameez and chewing cloves after a meal. So I came to Buddhism with strong links to the Subcontinent.

As I became involved in the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order I discovered that our teacher Sangharakshita had spent many years as a monk in India. I read of his wanderings and encounters with many spiritual teachers, and I learnt about our movement's work in India, where it is known as TBMSG. There it strives for the social and spiritual uplift of Indian Buddhists who mainly come from Dalit communities that were considered Untouchables under the Hindu caste system. Millions converted to Buddhism in the movement started in the 1950s by the inspirational Dr Ambedkar.

So work in India held out the possibility of bringing together my feeling for the Dhamma, the Buddha's teaching – which I came to regard as the most precious of all gifts – and for the Dalits – who are among the most disadvantaged people in the world. Before long I felt an inner momentum towards working with tbmsg.

Speaking Hindi helped me to forge links with other British women involved with the Indian sangha (Buddhist spiritual community). In our women's residential community I gave Hindi lessons before breakfast to two others, which often involved hilarious imaginative exercises to practise grammar. Peals of laughter would ring from my room while morning meditation went on downstairs. We quickly became firm friends, and one of these women, Karunamaya, later conducted my private ordination into the Western Buddhist Order. In 1997 Karunamaya moved to India and the prospect of joining her was further incentive for me.

For a number of years I gained experience of Buddhist teams and communities and worked towards joining the Order. Then I set my departure for August 2001, two years after ordination, and spent the preceding year tying up loose ends, handing on responsibilities and giving away possessions. I took only a few essentials to India. Simplicity appeals to me, and mostly this shedding process felt liberating, even joyful, echoing the traditional Buddhist practice of 'going forth' from domestic life.

Moving so far away from my parents, who live in the north of England, has been a concern. They find it difficult to understand why I have chosen to work in India, and worry about my health, but they don't oppose the decision. I am an only child and as they get older, I feel an increasing need to be in regular contact.

Arriving in India I felt emotionally ripped apart. Despite my previous experience of Asia, the scale of the poverty, the erosion of natural beauty and the degree of suffering all shocked me. My horizons opened up dramatically and I felt as if I had lived a protected existence in London. It took time to acclimatise, but now India's realities are part of my daily landscape.

So, my relationship with India is complex. It feels an indelible part of me, but I don't always love it. I frequently have to remind myself to see the funny side of things. The frustrations of unexpected delays, power cuts, computer failures, being shown a different film from the one that was billed ...would all do you in, if you couldn't have a good belly laugh about it.

I am based in Pune in western India (which is a focus for TBMSG's work) and I have a fairly open-ended brief. But my broad purpose is to promote women's Dhamma activities – mainly, but not exclusively, among Dalits. I have a lot of autonomy, which is stimulating, but it challenges me to take initiative and has led to false starts. I engage in a wide range of activities: from regular weekend and week-long retreats to teaching English to those hoping to join in sangha activities in the West. Each week I co-lead an English-medium meditation class, which attracts middle-class people, thus reaching quite a different circle from that of the Dalits. Sundays are spent leading day retreats, visiting girls' hostels, or meeting Buddhist women in Bombay, Nagpur or Aurangabad.

I am still learning how best to be effective. Essentially my work means pastoral care or mentoring, learning to be a spiritual friend (kalyana mitra). I keep in mind Sangharakshita's comment that, 'the spiritual life is best caught not taught'. The other Order members and I contribute simply by being ourselves and providing an example for women aspiring to live a Buddhist life.

Having had a positive experience of Buddhist teamwork in one of London's 'Right Livelihood' businesses, I am keen to support situations where women are working collectively – and that means helping to strengthen connections between people. I also enjoy affirming the socially-engaged work of the women running the educational hostels or health projects.

Every week I visit the slums of Pimpri, near Pune, where a group of committed women Buddhists runs a medical centre, a kindergarten and adult literacy classes. One of these women, an Ayurvedic doctor called Manda, is becoming a good friend. Along with medicine, Manda informally dispenses advice to the old and lonely, counsels on HIV, leprosy and birth control, and does healthcare checks in outlying villages.

Another weekly visit I make is to Jeevak, a similar social work project employing 20 women in the Dapodi district of Pune. This altruistic enterprise has plenty of potential but little spiritual leadership or guidance; so I am befriending and supporting the women who take most responsibility and helping them to build an effective team. Since so many of the new Buddhists come from a very deprived background, confidence is a key issue, especially among women. However, I don't think it is helpful if foreigners with more 'worldly confidence' lead from the front. It's better to encourage and enable local people to get things off the ground. I aim to support them in their own vision.

I share a flat with two other western women, Karunamaya and Vajrasuri, when we're not away teaching. I find them both inspiring practitioners and the depth of communication between us is one of the key things that sustain me. Like the pace of life, our work in India goes slowly. But we are breaking new ground and are clearly having an effect. In part, our influence comes simply by operating harmoniously, because there tends to be conflict within the sangha.

Peace matters deeply to me. My name, Santavajri, can be translated as 'she who brings peace through her penetrating insight into reality'. I've had some training in conflict resolution, although I am reluctant to focus too much on mediation-type work. However, given that we're not relatives or part of any group, we can provide a certain neutrality and hopefully a bigger perspective on the conflicts. We may be foreigners with funny habits, but locals seem to respect our integrity, trust that we won't gossip – and so can confide in us.

As both a westerner and an Order member I receive lots of attention, and this can feel uncomfortable – especially when people touch my feet. Yet it's important not to dismiss these devotional gestures. The West lacks a culture of respect and devotion to spiritual teachers, and the Indian capacity to feel and express gratitude is remarkable. When I find it oppressive I realise I need to spend time alone.

Recently nine women were ordained, a joyful event which at least 2,000 people attended. As soon as the ceremony ended, I made a bolt for our hut – extricating myself from the tidal wave of people wanting to greet me. At the last such event nearly every man, woman and child tried to introduce themselves. This time, when one girl asked for my autograph, I just shook my head and hurried off. I'm not a film star, and it does nobody any good to play along with all that.

On the other hand so much generosity comes my way. Frequently I am invited to people's homes. Offering hospitality – which is usually expressed in huge meals – is a central part of Indian culture. Once you have accepted someone's hospitality, it is as if you have accepted their friendship.

I have learnt a lot from living in India: one of the many insights it has sparked concerns happiness. I never imagined that I would be happier in India than in London, yet last year I found myself struggling to accept that India couldn't provide certain things which I felt I needed in order to be happy. Gradually I understood there was no point in grasping after happiness, nor were there any situations that guarantee it. This dawned on me one day while riding along in a rickshaw feeling unaccountably joyful. Happiness is the fruit of our skilful actions (in Buddhist language, a karma vipaka) that appears to descend like a gift, and then passes. I've since found it more valuable to focus on developing contentment rather than seeking happiness.

People have remarked that I seem more settled in India, but I don't think that's quite true. I am not really settled anywhere externally – although I am more settled within, and have periods of deep contentment and peace. As an unmarried woman, I am sometimes viewed as an oddity. I am not celibate, although I'm heading towards becoming an anagarika (a 'homeless one' who has renounced major attachments, especially sexual relationships, and practises simplicity and contentment). I have a boyfriend who I see a few times a year and I greatly appreciate his friendship. Increasingly, though, I feel like an anagarika with a boyfriend!

In India it's as if the context of my life is now so big that I can let go of petty concerns. I have no time to get into comparison or irritation with others – as I might have done with my peers in London. That sort of behaviour seems irrelevant in the face of the bigger canvas I confront each day. Being in India brings me closer to reality; it reminds me that practising the Dhamma more deeply is the most reliable way of overcoming difficulty. Somehow I could overlook this more easily in Britain.

Living abroad sharply focuses what you rely on in your home country. I anticipated missing close friends, but I didn't realise how much I would miss the British countryside, and it's almost impossible for a woman to walk alone in the country in India. I also miss London's cultural opportunities, especially the music and art galleries.

Given that I struggle with my health, the heat, and lack of beauty, friends have asked why I put myself out to such a degree. I don't believe I do; I don't think I'm heroic. The answer lies in my background: I have teaching and language skills, there is valuable Dhamma work to do, and I can do it. Sometimes I enjoy it, and when I struggle, I am motivated by my connections with local women. I care about them and I want to support their growth. I have a definite purpose and I don't want to back out of that. I'm also inspired by the image of the Bodhisattva, who strives to ease the suffering of all beings. But I don't want to strain myself unduly and must be realistic about what I can manage.

More recently it has become clear that I need to make extended visits to the UK. Not only can I avoid the hottest seasons of the Indian year but I can spend time with friends and with my parents, recharge my batteries, and go on retreat.

My other main activity during my UK breaks is fundraising for the Karuna Trust. This involves a team of Buddhists going door-knocking to raise money for the welfare work that so many of my Indian friends are delivering. To my surprise, I have found it a great adventure to tramp the streets asking for money. I've felt very alive while engaged in such a concrete and challenging task, compared to my less focused activities in India. I have had meaningful communication both with strangers on the doorstep and with my fellow fundraisers. And tapping into people's desire to give is a delight. There is also a satisfying continuity between the donors I meet in Britain and my involvement in the projects in India, which their money supports.

Working in India feels inevitable at the moment. Helping to re-establish Buddhism in the land of its birth is a worthwhile, inspiring task, and I am happy to give myself to it. Yes, it's a stretch, but stretching myself is satisfying. India isn't easy, but the experience of living here is a rich one. It deepens my relationships and deepens me. And I know my presence has a positive effect.