Dec 20, 2014
Sri: The host starts off with the same question to all our guests, which is asking about the spiritual context of your childhood, and in the home that you were raised in, giving a background of that spiritual context.
Pannavati: Being an African American, I’m very passionate about our religion and our practice. My family was not that religious. They didn’t go to church. My brother did, and he would take my sister and me. It was a wonderful place for me. It was where I wanted to be. I would go every day of the week if I could. The joy that seemed to be there, the camaraderie, the real interest, the getting into the Bible and trying to understand what it means … not just going through the motions of saying, “I go to church,” and dipping our fingers in the holy water, but really, it’s a part of our lives that I think is in our genes, because we needed some kind of faith, something to grasp hold of, in our ancestral slavery in this country.
That’s one reason why Buddhism is not as attractive to African Americans as as some other, theistic types of religions are. We come from a time when we had masters, and even in the times that I was still in church, we went to church to get fussed at, yelled at, every Sunday. The pastor would tell us what we needed to do, and that we needed a leader, and we’d say, “Sure, you’re right. Amen, hallelujah.”
We haven’t spent the last 200 years being whatever we wanted to be, doing whatever we wanted to do, having whatever we wanted to have, until we’re just sick of ourselves and looking for a way out. Most of us are still looking for a way in. We’re still waiting for our ship to come in. We’re still looking for that thing, looking for prosperity, looking for acceptance.
I’m often asked, “Why are there not more African Americans on the Buddhist path?” I think this is one reason. Being so fervent in my spiritual practice as a Christian set my whole life into motion and put me on a course to be fervent about everything. There’s a scripture that talks about “The fervent effectual prayer of the righteous avails much.” It’s easy for me to get into a revolutionary stance regarding social work, where I believe that only the most drastic actions matter. Everything came down to a matter of the heart.
Something could bypass the head if you felt it in the heart. You could get behind it 100 percent. This is the kind of upbringing from my early spiritual life that informs my practice and my service to the community, my co-laboring with others.
Sri: I’ve never heard that explanation of why there aren’t more African Americans in Buddhism, and that makes sense in many ways. Does that sit well with your Baptist colleagues?
Pannavati: Absolutely not. I haven’t found too many people it sits well with. I’m not saying that it’s the reason; I’m just saying that it’s my view of one reason.
Sri: You described an experience when you were in the Baptist church as a young woman and started speaking in tongues, and the church told you that wasn’t real. Can you talk a little bit more about that? How you made sense of that experience at the time, and how you make sense of that experience today?
Pannavati: I was 13. I’d been going to church since I was about six and I really loved it. I would pray when I was at home. Jesus was a constant companion; the thought of the holy life was on my mind, in the way you make sense of it as a 13-year-old.
One night when I was in bed fervently I felt this rush of energy coming up from my belly. It was so strong, and it spewed forth this …. this language. It wasn’t that I understood what I was saying, but I felt I was in a washing, I was in a cleansing. Something was happening, it was erupting out of me.
I went to church that Sunday and told my pastor. He said, “No, that passed away with the apostles.” I decided, “You all can’t help me, because you don’t even know what this is.” I decided to look for someplace else to go. my sister said, “You know, they have these people that go to these storefront churches. They call them holy rollers. They do that kind of thing, and they shout and they dance.” I went to check them out, and there I found community for a portion of my walk.
I got tired of breaking up the furniture, shouting every Sunday, and stepping out the door and If you get me wrong, you in trouble. How can this be? How can hot and cold come out of the same fountain? I can be so spiritual, so loving one moment, and the next moment, You get me wrong, I’m all over you.
That led me on to the Word churches, where we started studying what the scriptures meantand how to walk in them, how to train the mind and how to to cultivate qualities of not only being in the spirit when the mood hits you, but when it doesn’t. Those experiences laid the foundation for me to step into the deeper spiritual life that I’ve found in studying the Dhamma.
Sri: That’s beautiful. Between your slight pivot from Christianity to Buddhism, you describe these years of darkness. Can you speak a little bit more about that? What were the questions you were asking yourself, and how did that transition from Christianity to Buddhism occur?
Pannavati: I want to clarify that they weren’t years of darkness. When I think of a dark night in the soul, I think of a person not knowing. Darkness in the sense of ignorance. not necessarily harmfulness. Confounded by the mystery of things searching everywhere to try to find some clarity, some answers, about the meaning of life, and who and what exactly is God. Or when I got some message about how to help someone, and it was a literal speaking, in my ear “What is that?”
I needed answers beyond, “That’s the gift of the Holy Spirit.” I knew people who were better than me. I have to tell you, I wasn’t always that good. Still am not. I felt if there was some gift being handed out, there were a lot of people who would be ahead of me in the line. I needed an answer that made more sense. I began searching.
I started with Unity, because Unity is very close. It’s like one hop away from mainstream Christianity, and that felt comfortable. Someone before that had given me a Buddhist book; it was a Tibetan book on dependent origination, and when I saw the picture on the cover of the book I said, “That’s demonic. I don’t want to even open this book. I don’t even want to have anything to do with it.” I missed my opportunity for the Dhamma, and it was 15 years before it came back around.
During those 15 years I definitely got ready for it. I touched so many things. From Unity I went to UU, and from there I went into Shamanismand from there to Taoism. Touching almost every spiritual discipline; trying to investigate, to understand what things were.
You put them into the cauldron of your own experience, and you fit with something … something doesn’t have to be poison for it be unpalatable to you. Some things I would spit out, because they weren’t my taste.. It wasn’t the kind of flavor I liked. I tried to go into everything with an open mind, to examine it and experience it from its own side. I’d sit and say, “Is this for me?”
Sri: What was it that finally drew you into the Dhamma?
Pannavati: From the very beginning, my inner cry was … I’d always been compassionate, but I didn’t have much wisdom. That can really create problems, for you and for other people. I was like, “I can’t get this wisdom thing. Where can I find wisdom?” Early in my Christian walk, some of my favorite passages were about wisdom. “Wisdom cries in the street.” If it cries in the street, how come I can’t hear it?
Always making mistakes, out of a good heart, but just not having enough wisdom; that’s what I was really looking for. As I began to gradually move, I guess, towards this particular practice, which I think is just the epitome of the wisdom path, I began to develop a little bit more confidence that I was developing wisdom. I was learning something. When Buddhism came in front of me, I was so ready for it. I had to get rid of so many fears before I was ready for it. I had to let go of somuch clinging around certain notions and beliefs.
You can have some experiences, and you don’t know what they are, or by what means they’ve come about, or how to interpret them. When they occur within a certain vessel, you go with the explanation that the leaders of that boat tell you. I knew wisdom was developing because I was able to discriminate between the experience and the container. That’s when I knew I was making progress on the path.
Sri: Do you have specific examples about that separation between the experience and the container?
Pannavati: I do. For instance, there was a time when I would get an urging , an unction is what we would call it, that something important is getting ready to happen. I would feel this coming, rising up inside, so I’d make myself ready for whatever important was about to happen. I might see something inside that might say, “Get in the car, and drive down the street.” At some point it would say, “Make a right here, and make a left here, then stop, go knock on that door. There’s somebody sick. Go in and tell them such-and-such.” I would say, “Where’d this voice come from, inside of my head?”
My pastor said, “That’s the voice of the Holy Spirit speaking to you.” I would think, “That’s the voice of the Holy Spirit speaking to me. What is the Holy Spirit? I don’t know. It’s what somebody has told me that it is. That’s the way God’s communicating, in the third person, to me, and so I accept that.”
By this time, there was some feeling that that wasn’t a good enough explanation. I encountered the Dhamma, and the Dhamma helped me understand this what I call voice and even what I might call the Holy Spirit, in a little different way. Getting in that stillness, waiting like a waiter in a fine restaurant waits on a table. He doesn’t stand too close to the guests, not too far, and he stands there expectant, looking for the slight nod of a head, looking for the water glass to get down to a certain level, and he’s right there, being attentive. It’s that kind of waiting.
I got the idea that as I was entering into this stillness, hyper-alert, vigilant yet peacefulas the Dhamma says, I was tapping in to some stream, some capacity that is always available to me on some level of mind. There’s an expansion of your skills, of your capabilities. We have a certain bandwidth we can hear. Dogs can hear more than we can. We have a certain bandwidth, by which we see. There are some other animals that see a lot more than we can.
Sometimes, some of us are more sensitive to others. I can step into a dark room, but I can know instantly if somebody’s in that dark room. Other people might just step in the room and they don’t know. They don’t feel it. It’s like that.
Where on that band is my capability, my capacity? Can that be expanded through cultivation? I think the Buddha tells us that it can be. We undergo this training, to be fit and useful, first for ourselves, for our own enlightenment, our own awakening, and then to be of use to others.
Sri: Those are some of the best explanations of the Dhamma that I’ve heard in a while. Thank you for that. For young people or even not-so-young people who are trying to find their way in the world and feeling a bit lost or confused, what are the questions you think they should be asking themselves? Regarding this conversation about inner and outer work,many of us do a lot of outer work and are trying to do good, yet there can still be these questions that remain and this confusion that arises . What would you tell people they should be asking themselves, which obviously you were asking yourself as you came into the Dhamma?
Pannavati: First I want to say, young people are the greatest, because we’re brutally honest with ourselves and sometimes brutally honest with others. When we see something that’s not right or we recognize that it’s not beneficial, we say so. There is an indignation that arises because we haven’t gone through it for so long that we’ve decided, “You can’t beat City Hall, you just go with it.” We’re like, “Yes, we can. We can beat City Hall. We can stand against this. We can stand for justice.” That’s why I think young people are so great.
What I would say to young people is to be encouraged. This great passion that you feel, that is so painful sometimes, is really, really your strength. As a mother, I’ll tell you childbirth is no laughing matter. It’s no joke. It really hurts, that’s what I would say, but there’s something in the process of delivery … this knowing what you’re bringing into the world, that makes you able to bear even that level of pain. The thing is that once the baby is out, in moments the pain is forgotten.
I think because you’re at a time when you’re so into your feelings and your desire to make things count and only the most drastic actions matter, you recognize that pain comes with that. If you can accept that painful feeling comes with that … that it’s just part of the package … it will help you not be overcome by the painful feeling.
I think meditation is important. We speak of meditation as a great movement toward mindfulness practice and so forth in our country, and I think it’s absolutely wonderful. I would have to say that that which brings the most comfort is the heartwood of the Buddhist teaching, the teaching on voidness -- that nothing is worthy to be called me, my or mine It teaches us a certain way of removing the personal part of things.
If something’s too close to you, and you try to look at it, you actually have double vision. You can’t see it. Put it back a bit, at arm’s length, and then you can look at it. It says that everything in life should be like this -- put it at arm’s length, even your views, even what you’re passionate about, even how you feel about things; still, put it at arm’s length and take a look. In doing that, you soothe the pain a bit. When the pain is soothed just a bit, you can begin to come up with more creative ways to approach the situation.
That would be my advice, to know that pain comes with this level of passion and wanting to do good, but knowing you have to put everything at arm’s length. If you do, you’ll find the mind/body coming into a kind of balance and ease that will allow you to be more effective.
Sri: I think that’s one of the things that is often misunderstood about Buddhism and activism; this idea that being at arm’s length is a detachment or an apathy. In fact, it can bring clarity and even deeper engagement, or more impactful engagement.
Pannavati: Yes, I think some translations have messed us up, because we talk about non-attachment, and we talk about aloofness. These words mean certain things to us, and when we use them we paint a picture around them. I think for many people it’s avoidance or just not being willing, , “Out of sight, out of mind.” I don’t think that’s what the Buddha was talking about at all.
If you look at his life and his encouragements, you’ll see that he was very much engaged. I consider him revolutionary, doing things that were unthinkable in his day. Women were chattel, they didn’t go into spiritual practice, yet he had women in his community. He had high caste and low caste and no caste, all living together. He had rich and poor, all living together.
There was something extremely engaging in that practice, in the beginning. He said, “The whole of spiritual life is good friends,” in the Dhamma. That lets us know that this notion some of us have of pursuing spirituality and being disconnected from what’s going on in the world It should let us know that there’s something a little wrong with that.
Sri: So in the context of Ferguson and the Ebola outbreak in West Africa and the many sufferings of our world, how does an individual like you engage in those things that are both distant and near, and hard to make sense of?
Pannavati: Just like that. When you ask … When I’m asked a tough question, I’ll always laugh first, and that balances me a little bit, brings me back to a middle point. I just came back from India, and the needs are so great working with some of the colonies that we work with … that’s what they call them … the hamlets at the ends of the villages, where the untouchables are. They think that I have it so great in America. I try to share with them some of what we are actually doing here, and it’s pretty much a blackout over there. They say, “Why? We can’t believe it. No, America is a paradise.” I think it used to be for some folk and not for others. Now, I’m not sure it is for any of us.
Sometimes, things have to get so bad before they can begin to get better. A little distant, and we consider it isolated, not systemic. When it’s shown in its fullness, and we can see how pervasive something is, then I think we’re positioned to be able to take it on, to take action.
I look for the Buddhist community to realize that this is our destiny. I think Sulak, the co-founder of the International Network of Engaged Buddhism said, in a quote that I just love, “Buddhism is not concerned just with private destiny, but with the lives and consciousness of all beings, and any attempt to understand Buddhism apart from a social dimension is fundamentally a mistake.” Until Western Buddhism understands this, the embrace of Buddhism is not going to help very much in the efforts to bring about meaningful and positive social change, or even in the struggle to transform their own ego.
I’ll tell you, that’s the end of the conversation right there. If they’d say, “What does this mean?” and ponder it, and then look at their own lives and see where they are on that spectrum, we would go a long way in being the change that we want to see in the world.
Sri: American Buddhism sometimes is seen as this middle-class or upper middle-class white movement that is focused on self-improvement or personal concentration -- the gurus of the world, potentially disengaged from community or society. Is that your sense, or do you feel American Buddhism is incrementally making steps towards what you’re speaking about, which is a deeply engaged kind of proactive, almost activist stance on justice and solidarity?
Pannavati: If you go back to the beginning, to how it was introduced and who it was introduced to in this country … who brought it back to this country … you have to admit that meditation was a white elite pastime. We weren’t there in the beginning, those of us who were struggling and having a hard time. When we did come, it was an infiltration.
There’s a little struggle going on to keep it like it originally was. It was better then; we didn’t have to get into all these issues about diversity when we just had our little group, and we were sitting, “om shanti,” and we didn’t really think, and everything was fine. Now, it’s getting complicated. I think that we’re trying to respond to it. I’m not so sure we’re responding in the right way, because I don’t think we’ve had a sufficient immersion in the Dhamma. I think we’ve had some meditation, and I think we’ve put forth a lot of effort in one aspect of the path, but there’s seven other aspects, not just mindfulness. On top of that, it isn’t just mindfulness, it’s right-mindfulness. Being mindful -- we’re already mindful, it’s, what are we mindful of? Our mindfulness needs to be informed by something.
Because we haven’t had a deep enough immersion in the whole Dhamma, we’re coming away with an impotent practice that’s not helping much. It’s not even helping us, much less other people. Meditating in 20 years, and saying, “Still crazy after all these years,” that’s because something necessary is missing. I have this bakery with young people here, and I can tell you, although I knew nothing about baking bread, you have to have all of the ingredients or it doesn’t taste right. You have to put them in in a certain order, or it doesn’t come out right. Not only do you have to put them in in a certain order, but you have to make sure that when you put them in, you follow certain instructions as to how to put them in.
For instance, when I first glanced at the recipe, I knew we had to have yeast. When it got to the part in the recipe about putting in the yeast, I just opened the pack and put the yeast in. I didn’t read the whole recipe first. At the bottom, it told how to prepare the yeast. First, you had to put it in 110 degree water for three minutes or so, and then you put it into the mix. Because I didn’t do that, the bread didn’t rise.
Then I made some more yeast, put it in the 110 degree water, and put it in. It activated the yeast that was already in there and I had a double rise. All of life, we can learn something from everything; something even as simple as learning how to properly bake a loaf of bread.
I’m looking at us trying, struggling, to be effective, yet we haven’t read all the instructions, or we’ve only put in the parts that we like. In America, we don’t like to hear anything about right or wrong. We don’t want those words in our vocabulary. We don’t want to hear anything about “wholesome” and “unwholesome”. We don’t want to hear anything about “virtue” and “non-virtue”. We basically want to know how to be happy with our scene. I’m seeing people realizing now that there’s got to be more to it than this.
Sri: How important?
Pannavati: I’m happy about that, because that’s where all my students come from. Most of them have been practicing 10, 20, 30 years, and they’ve finally gotten to the point where they’re saying, “There’s got to be more to it than this.” I’m still anxious. I still get angry. I still have a lot of deep-seated sadness and misery. What I would do, I don’t do; what I don’t want to do, I do.” This is where I came in. That was my beef with my Christian practice. I loved God with all my heart, but you, I could have a problem with. How could this be? What I didn’t want to do, sometimes I found myself doing. What I wanted to do, many times, I didn’t do.
When people come to me in Buddhism, I totally understand it. Buddhism is a label, Christianity is a label; those are all just labels. If you go beyond the labels, putting aside the labels to what motivates and moves us toward our greatest human potential, then we start to see that there is a definite path that leads toward that, and there are definite practices and activities that lead away from that.
Sri: Can you talk about, what is a day in the life of Venerable Pannavati in terms of your practiceAre you meditating? Is it mostly service? Is it a combination of both? Is there chanting, or are there types of contemplation?
Pannavati: First of all, my day is not programmed, because every day is a found day. We have to just show up and bear witness to the day and do what needs to be done. There is a … sitting on the pillow, that’s not practice, that’s preliminary. Practice is what you do in the moment, dealing with the vicissitudes of life. Buddha says that we train sitting secluded … quite secluded, from unwholesome mental states, and from a lot of external distractions, to learn how to center ourselves, to settle ourselves, to come to that still point.
It’s no good if you can only do it when you go into a quiet room, and sitting by yourself. No, it’s when somebody’s yelling at you, when somebody’s calling you by the “N word, or somebody’s following you around in a store, or when somebody is rolling their eyes at you, or maybe not even saying anything to you, but you just feel it, because you are in some way different from them. Then, can you find that still space, in that moment? If so, then you’re a practitioner.
We learn to meditate at all times; on the pillow, off the pillow, when we’re walking, when we’re working. It becomes a state that you can find, and be at peace, and be focused, no matter what’s going on around you.
Yes, I have times of sitting every day. That’s because for me, that time in a sitting meditation is like, for young people, I would say like slipping away to see your lover; personal time. I do it because I just like being able to get away, to be alone with the stillness, you see. By continually dipping my toe in that stillness, I know where to find it, how to pull it up almost at any time. I know when that stillness in me is slipping away, because I’m so familiar with it.
My day is mostly responding to whatever comes up. That could be some crises with the youth, or youth at the bakery, or something like right now, I’m looking at the fact that I need to raise $100,000 by March, to start building this school in India. I could feel a little bit of pressure around that. I’ve got a dozen college kids; the college is paying for them, university is paying for them to fly there for two weeks, to do the first building phase. I know I’ve got to find that money by then.
What do I do with that, at this moment? I’m there looking for grants part of the day, or I’m making phone calls and I’m trying to share the vision and the investment of the work that we’re doing. Somebody will call, and they have a personal problem; “My husband just left me, my dog died, I’ve lost my job.” Helping them to find the Buddha nature inside, in that moment, and then dealing with my own situations as well. My day is just like your day.
We think that all monks’ days are like mine, because I made the decision that people are my forest. You said in your introduction, that I was ordained Mahayana, and that’s true, but also ordained Theravada, and that’s my primary practice. It’s the practice that filters through all my other practices. Of course, you know, forest monks are just used to meditating and sitting in the forest, but for me, people are my forest. I sit amongst the people, and I’m touched by their feelings of infirmity.
Sri: After so many years as a nun, how much does being a black nun inform your world view? Is it something that is still in the day-to-day … your look, blackness, is it very relevant, or is it something that you don’t hold as your identity as much anymore? I think that your story of how you came to work in India is really fascinating, so I think after that, Afreen had a couple more questions, but just talking about your blackness as a black nun, and then potentially sharing a little bit about how you came to work in India.
Pannavati: It’s a funny thing; everything is two-sided. You hold up a coin, and you have heads on one side, and you have tails on the other. I don’t think of myself as black, but I know other people do. I don’t see it as affecting or informing my life as a nun, but other people do.
Ninety-nine-point-five percent of my audience is Caucasian. My whole sangha is white. When I’m invited to speak around the country, in the beginning they invited me to speak at people of color events, and I’d turn down the invitation and say, “I’m not a black Dhamma teacher, I’m a Dhamma teacher. If you want me to talk to your whole sangha, invite me again.”
I’ve been very clear about that. It seems like I can’t get away from it. I’m asking myself, what responsibility do I have to be an advocate for unity. I’m giving that a lot of thought. Diversity is such a buzzword today, but I don’t really think the Buddha talked that much about diversity. He did talk about unity, and he talked about unification of mind. He would talk about how he had all different kinds in his community. He said, “Other people do this, but we don’t do that here.” He taught them not how to divide into groups to feel safe, but how to sit in their uncomfortableness, but in their honesty, continuing to dialogue, and continuing to try to overlook faults and build relationships until those things dissolved.
I think that that’s the direction we need to take. In our sanghas … We can’t really take it out there to the world if it’s not in our sanghas. That’s just it. We have some homework to do. We have some work we need to do, within our own community. When we’ve done that, then we have something real that we can take to the world, instead of just platitudes.
We have to learn through developing friendships how to overlook differences, and then how to respect others’ opinions, and how to challenge our own assumptions about things. That can only happen by us being together, and not separate and apart
Afreen: Venerable Pannavati, it would definitely be lovely to hear about your work in India, Sri was referencing. I watched a video where you were sharing about how you got involved with the Dalit community in India, and I think particularly with work with the Dalit community, and the sort of Buddhist practices that have been adopted. It’s very interesting to hear your insights into that history, as well as the present.
Pannavati: What I know, is that I wasn’t prepared for what I saw, because I felt that there were very few people in the world who had suffered more than those of us from African ancestry. But when I got there, I was really shockedYou have to look really closely to see it. Everything is so well-known, how one should act and what one should do, that the visitor or tourist might miss it completely.
But being there with them for weeks, and walking among them, I began to see the differences. Even when we go, we have to be so careful which hotels we select to stay in, because some will not be welcoming to our Dalit sisters and brothers, to come and meet us for brainstorming sessions and that sort of thing.
I was asked to come and to teach the Dhamma, to give deeksha and to teach the Dhamma. The first time I went, around 250 people took deeksha; they converted from Hindu to Buddhism. They simply said that the Hindu faith offers them no hope of advancement, and that’s what they were looking for. It wasn’t so much that they were looking for a deep spiritual practice, but they were looking for hope as a people; some way that encouraged them to advance in society, to just become human, since they’re considered non-human.
I realized that there was no point in trying to teach them the Dhamma, per se. They needed an example for that. I said, “We’ll get to the Dhamma in a little while, but right now, you don’t have water. Let’s see if we can get you some water.” We started fundraising to build a well, and we’ve completed one, and working on our second well. We have a third well planned, along with a school.
After water, they don’t have toilets either. Sanitation is really an issue. So many children are stunted in their intellectual capacity because of poor sanitation, parasites and things that affect their brains. Many die. I said, “I imagine with water, maybe we need toilets and some training in sanitation.” This time when we went back we started installing toilets.
It’s like that; just showing up and bearing witness and seeing what’s needed. You have some ideas; in my tours, we go with the expressed desire to lay down our, “We know what you need” kind of mentality, and to just be there with them and hear them speak. It does so much for them, for us just to be there and to touch them. Untouchability is the root of the issue; to just be able to be embraced by us does so much for them. To get out and to work alongside them does so much for them.
Now we decided, “They need education.” First, one of the schools that we’re working with, the school doesn’t even have … it’s a Dalit school, and they don’t even have a bathroom. They have a couple of hundred kids, and no bathroom. When I go back in March, the first thing I’m going to do is to put a bathroom in that school, for the kids.
Sri: Is it with an organization that you connected with, or is it a community that invited you?
Pannavati: I am working with an organization there called Viharaand the Foundation of the Sacred Majesty. These are two Dalit groups. One is a spiritual group, and the other … they’re both headed by the same person, but the other is a social activism platform. I don’t have any place here that I get money, but what I do is, I give the money that I receive from dana, and my speaking engagements and my retreats, and my needs are very few, and I share what I’m doing and ask people to join with me. I ask people to go with me, and I ask people to send money to invest in the lives of these people.
It’s really taking off. The first trip, we just went to see. The second trip, we came back and we started working with the well. We have to meet with the upper caste leaders of the villages to ask them, “Can we do these things?” There’s no point in putting in a well, if it’s going to be poisoned the next day.
We have to begin to start working with the upper caste, and not seeing them as a perpetrator or as an enemy or anything like that, but just seeing it as people on two sides of an issue, of a belief system, and not thinking of the Dalits as victims, and not thinking of upper caste or the Hindu teachings as any kind of oppressive institution. It just is what it is.
As we talk this way, we find that we are received, and they allow us to come into the communities and work with the Dalits and help. It’s breaking down the animosity between the two groups, and it’s so subtle, but now after three years we see that happening, and they’re beginning to work together, because they’re coming to know one another as human beings.
Sri: The way they talk about their struggle, do you see parallels to the American struggle in the states? Do they talk about their liberation in similar terms, or as you said, that really they’re trying to address the water and the sanitation needs before they start articulating kind of liberation principles?
Pannavati: A part of Ambedkar’s message was that the Buddha had a social platform. They have a book called “The Buddha and his Dhamma”, that Ambedkar wrote, and it left out many of the things that I consider foundational or fundamental in developing an awakened mind, and it focuses purely on the social aspects.
Part of my coming was to say, there’s something that needs to come before that. In order to bring about social change, there’s a certain cultivation of heart and mind that has to occur. We talk about these things as we work alongside each other, so that they can understand how it is. The reason I went … because there’s a lot of work I could be doing right here in America … but the reason I went is because the young man, [Gotama, who invited me, he said, “In times past, we accepted this way of life, but our children of today, they do not accept it. They will fight for their freedom, or they will die.”
That’s why I came. I came for the children, to show them that there’s a way to cut through ignorance, without picking up weapons and fighting.
Sri: Ambedkar, I was reading a biography of his recently, and the conversion from Hinduism to Buddhism is perhaps the largest mass conversion of beings anywhere in the world. You do get the sense that it was primarily political … I think he engaged in Buddhism, but it was a primarily political reaction to the oppression of Hinduism. I think it’s fascinating that you’re coming in from your deep, deep tradition and practice to say, “There is a foundation that comes before that, before, or alongside, in parallel with, engaging in the social aspects of Buddhist teachings. There’s also a foundation that’s needed.
Pannavati: Yes, it’s true. In all fairness I think Ambedkar was connecting them to the monastic community, but he died so suddenly after that, and that connection never happened. When I first started working with the activists, this was really a sore point; a point of contention. I had to share with them … I have to tell you, Ambedkar wasn’t a Buddhist practitioner. He investigated. He looked at “religion from the outside” and said, “This offers my people the greatest chance for having any kind of a life.” That’s not the same thing as practice.
You can’t really say anything about Ambedkar, unless you’re looking for a fight, but I just wanted to tell the truth about it. I said, “If you walk this walk with me, you will come to understand something, and you’ll come to understand the deeper reality of the practice and of the walk, that part that is truly powerful, and that is not just rhetoric, that can really sustain, and that can really break yolks, and that can really transform.”
Over these three years, that’s what’s been happening. Where there may be this idea of, “I don’t have much; get what I can get.” We used to call it, here in America, we called it country slick; when guys would come up from the South to meet us Northern girls. (I know I’ve got a Southern twang, but I’m a Northern girl.) They’d try to put what we called their country slick on us. When I go there, there’s a lot of that sleight of hand, that double talk, fast talk, that male chauvinism, even among the Dalits. That little bit of dishonesty, and I’ll stop and I’ll point it out right then. I’ll say, “In the beginning, you told me this was going to cost X amount of dollars. Now you’ve come back four times with a different price. Either you knew it was going to cost twice as much to begin with, or you’re padding and adding on.” This is what I’m talking about; about not taking what is not given, it means that … about not stealing. “When you mislead me about something, that’s stealing.” I don’t care if you recite the five precepts; if you have your hand in my pocket …Not pretending I didn’t see it, and not … just right up front, “See that right there? That’s what I’m talking about. That’s a wrong intention, right there.” It’s like training in that way, that we don’t say one thing and do another, but that our thoughts, our speech and our actions line up.
This way … They’re beginning to really get it. They’re a sweet, loving people, without a doubt. I can’t imagine how they can be so sweet with the hardships they go through, and that’s why it’s really fertile ground, to work with them. It’s a delight, it’s a pleasure to work with them, because they don’t really want to fight. They just want to be able to have a life, be able to earn a living. The mothers just want their families taken care of. The fathers, most of them are drunks, because they live in a society where, as men, they have not been able to provide for their families, and they certainly can’t protect them.
There’s so much work that needs to be done, on so many, many levels, but I see change in just three short years, just in this small area where we’re working.
Caller: Hi, Venerable Pannavati. I’m feeling so blessed to listen to you. Thank you so much.
Pannavati: Thank you.
Caller: I’ve been to the Vipassana center. I saw these two words inscribed on the stone. It said, “Be happy.” I was just wondering, is it all about being happy, or is being happy a byproduct of mindfulness, or is it just a first step? If you could help me fully understand what that really means, that would be very helpful. Thank you so much.
Pannavati: You’re so welcome. You have to start from someplace, like “What happiness means to me.” You can’t really tell me what happiness would be to me. That’s got to be something that comes up from inside our being. I might not get the right answer when I start, but I start somewhere, and I ask myself, “What is it that I’m unhappy about? Why don’t we start there?”
As I start looking at the things that make me unhappy, I see that there has to be a very firm grasping around me, for unhappiness to exist. I get a clue, then, that happiness might be found in not focusing so much on myself but on concentrating on others. When I forget about myself, then all my troubles go away.
The Buddha says that there is a happiness that is found, and it’s not of this world. That means that nothing in this world can give us lasting happiness, because everything is impermanent. Everything will be fundamentally unsatisfactory to us, because even if it makes me happy now, if I have too much of it, I get sick of it. If I’m happy with it, but it goes away, then it brings me suffering.
He said, there’s nothing in this world that’s going to really make you happy, so you’re going to have to look someplace else. He said, if we look into the contentment of emptiness, not grasping around for such a solid sense of a personal “me”, then I’m at the doorway to happiness.
My day is not always perfect. There are many things that happen, and they don’t feel good. They don’t feel comfortable. But that’s balanced out by the care and concern I have for others. If we start directing our life that way, we’ll start to find out the things that we thought mattered so much don’t really matter. These things out here; what we have, and what we don’t have, praise or blame, loss or gain, pleasure or pain, shame or fame. They’re just the shifting vicissitudes of life, and that’s what life is. Things come and things go. Things are good and not so good.
We can stand stable and fixed with a calm mind, when we understand this is the way life is. When I was talking earlier about putting everything arm’s length from you, that’s what I mean. Don’t hold things so tightly to yourself. As you do that, you’ll find more happiness, in just holding the world loosely and going with the flow. That’s a starting point.
It’s going to take a paradigm shift. I see people with almost … with literally nothing, and they’re happier than we are, with too much. Happiness, then, is really a state of mind, isn’t it?
I often tell the story, my father was a doorman. He’d be dressed up in this suit that looked like a military suit, with all these braids and brass and all of that. I was so proud of him. He took me to work with him one day, and I saw what he really did. He carried bags for people. This was a …
Caller: He opened the door.
Pannavati: Yeah, he opened the door. I’ve got this thing in me about doors, and he opened the doors. You know how you go to the mall and you open the door, and somebody walks right through like you opened it for them? That would upset me so badly, and if I was in a really bad mood, I’d grab you when you walked through that door and I’d say, “You think I opened this door for you?”
Now, if I was in a middling mood and I opened the door and you walked through, I might just say, “You’re welcome,” and then turn to my friend and say, “They’re so rude.” If I was in a good mood, I’d open the door and you walked through, it just didn’t mean anything to me. It gave me pleasure to hold the door for you.
What was the difference? It was just the opening of the door, and somebody walking through when I opened it. The difference was, my own mental state. If you look at it, then, happiness or sadness or anger … all of that is in the mind. The work has to be done in the mind. Training the mind to not so easily take offense will reduce a lot of suffering for some of us, particularly activists.
Sri: I think we'll have to end on that note. I myself have a bunch of other questions, but I just wanted to thank you, Venerable Pannavati. I think for most of us who are trying to be activists in the world, there’s sometimes not the level of wisdom that you’re bringing to the table. There’s a saying, “We make the road by walking it,” and I think you’re very much walking it, and lighting the path for a lot of us to also follow your example. This conversation has been a great joy for me, and I appreciate your time.
Pannavati: Thank you so much.