Japanese Buddhist in India Surai Sasai

November 12, 2013 7:00 pm JST

Japanese-born monk fights to revive Buddhism in India

SATOSHI IWAKI, Nikkei staff writer

Japanese-born Surai Sasai, one of the most prominent Buddhist leaders in India, attends a gathering in Nagpur in central India on Oct. 13.

NAGPUR, Maharashtra — An elderly Japanese monk is trying to revive Buddhism in India and fight discrimination by winning over converts from Hinduism’s lowest caste.

In mid-October, 100 people gathered under a huge tent set up in Nagpur, in central India. There, led by a deep-voiced monk with his fist raised, they recited the vow of conversion to Buddhism. The monk was Japanese-born Surai Sasai, one of the most prominent Buddhist leaders in India.

Around this time of year, half a million people from around the country visit the area to witness or be a part of the ceremony. In India, about 4,000 to 5,000 people convert to Buddhism annually.

Officially, only around 8 million people in India, or less than 1% of its population, are Buddhist.

Although the Constitution of India, adopted in 1950, strictly prohibits caste-based discrimination, it still greatly influences marriage and employment.

Carrying the torch

Sasai was born in Okayama Prefecture in 1935. After suffering a series of personal setbacks as a young man — there was trouble with a girlfriend and he also attempted suicide — he became a Buddhist monk in his 20s. In 1965, he went to Thailand to study Buddhism and moved to India two years later. He has made India his home for the 46 years since then.

He speaks bluntly about the caste system, calling it the biggest evil hampering India’s growth. His passion to see it end started when he learned about B.R. Ambedkar, India’s first minister of law and justice following the country’s independence and chairman of the committee that drafted its constitution.

Ambedkar sought to annihilate the caste system and revive Buddhism in India. Born an “untouchable” himself, he spent his public life fighting to free others in Hinduism’s lowest caste from the economic and social discrimination they suffered by introducing them to Buddhism. On Oct. 14, 1956, an estimated 800,000 of his supporters converted to Buddhism in a public ceremony. He too converted that day.

Action over reflection

Although Sasai does not mind spending time meditating, he says he prefers to focus his energy on fighting for the rights of the deprived through religion.

He demonstrated his commitment to action when he organized and led a march of his followers over 5,000km to demand the return of the Mahabodhi Temple, currently controlled by Hindus in Bodh Gaya, Bihar. Bodh Gaya, revered as the place where the Buddha is said to have obtained enlightenment, is a religious site and place of pilgrimage for Buddhists.

The dispute over control of the temple is on-going. In 2013, the Buddhists appealed to India’s Supreme Court, arguing that the current Hindu management of the temple violates the constitution.

Even though Sasai’s life is in India, he has not forgotten his Japanese origins. He came back to Japan for the first time in 44 years in 2009. He returned again in 2011 to visit the area devastated by the March’s earthquake and tsunami and pray for the victims.

On the Ground stories offer insights, depth, local knowledge and anecdotes from our journalists across Asia.

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