Taking Refuge in the Buddha

Douwe Bob managed to capture millions of hearts with his song Slow Down, the official 2016 Dutch entry for the Eurovision Festival. In this song, that he wrote himself, he repeats the phrase ‘slow down brother’ as a kind of mantra. It makes up most of the song. Slowing down is also what many “Mindfulness” gurus and teachers tell us to practice. Douwe Bob is all of twenty-three years old and is probably not following courses in mindfulness or meditation. His lyrics contain other words of wisdom, along the slow down lines, in that utterly charismatic way that the young can and do strike the right chord in you. If you are listening, that is. And apparently millions were, because he got quite far in the competition.

“Mindfulness” courses, teachers, books and websites are to be found everywhere one looks. Amongst other practices, it incorporates slowing down. “Mindfulness” is seen as essential to our mental and emotional fulfilment, for committing ourselves to accepting what is in the moment.

Most of us connect “Mindfulness” to Buddhism. Professor of Buddhist Studies, Leiden University Jonathan Silk says that Westerners take on practices inspired by Buddhism freely, without the feeling that it clashes with their own religious background or belief system. No wonder then that a splendid exhibition, The Buddha, is now on display at the Volkenkunde Museum in Leiden and will also travel to the Tropen Museum in Amsterdam.

one of the images to be seen in the exhibition

‘The Buddha is one of the most inspiring figures in world history. What makes the life-story of this spiritual leader so intriguing? What are people searching for in Buddhism?’ These are some of the questions that the exhibition attempts to give answers to. The life of the Buddha as well as present day practices, expressions and manifestations in a host of different countries, including the Netherlands, are on display.

A Korean artist’s rendering of the Buddha as a dj in the museum









In the background, in every single room the chant ‘Buddham sharanam gacchami, dhammam sharanam gacchami, sangham sharanam gacchami can be heard’. For those of us who grew up learning about the life of the Buddha through our schoolbooks, this chant is familiar. Simply translated, it means: ‘I take refuge in the Buddha; I take refuge in Dharma; I take Refuge in the Sangha’.

The different practices linked to “Mindfulness” could be seen as a refuge from our extremely busy lives in which our balance is at stake. In another time, in another place refuge took another form. On October 14th 1956, three hundred and sixty-five thousand people participated in converting to Buddhism along with Dr. Ambedkar, the architect of the Indian constitution. The latter was of the Mahar community and seen as a pariah by caste Hindus, as were all of the other converts of that day. Unlike those of us into Buddhist inspired practises without a sense of it clashing with our other beliefs, for the converts of that day, taking refuge in the Buddha was an act of severance. A clean cut from the Hinduism that labelled them as ‘untouchable’. It is considered the largest one time mass conversion in history. Pity therefore, that this incredible historical act of taking refuge in the Buddha is missing from this exhibition.

















Our Apsara is coming!


I don’t think you would see them either, because, most probably you, like me, wouldn’t specifically be looking for them. Her breasts are bare and the slit of her vagina is clearly visible – and in focusing on these, you would probably miss the active marks of love on her body. The first time I saw her, I did not notice them. It was Anna Slaczka who showed me the scratches that her lover had made on her shoulders as a sign of the enjoyment of her body. And the lover is not the only one who lusts after her. The monkeys do too, as they try to free her from the little fabric that still clings to her legs. She stands in front of the windows of this section of the museum peacefully – her gaze turned away from the magnificent dancing Nataraja to the mischievous monkey. IMG_2771

Yet not everybody wants her. The evident excitement in the recorded minutes of the Society for the Friends of Asian Art, ‘our apsara is coming’ turned to bitter disappointment when she arrived in the Netherlands. ‘It could have been her colour, or something else’ says Ms Slaczka, the curator for South Asian art at the Rijks Museum. She did not impress her owners and stands now in the Asian wing of the museum on long-term loan. Ms Slaczka’s research into this figure reveals that she is probably from a Lakshmana temple in Khajuraho, in Madhya Pradesh in central India. She added that apsaras, such as this one and other erotic figures have a protective function. This is why they often stand at the door or gateway of the temple. These are vulnerable spots – places of transgression – as evil forces can enter from here. Erotic figures remind us of fertility, of children and life enriching processes. So they guard, or I would say, seduce evil forces away from entering a holy space.


In 950 AD, which is about the time that the sculpture is supposed to have stood her ground, possibly on one of two  pillars at another vulnerable spot in the temple, sex was not considered an evil in India. Rather the opposite, if we have to recall the apsara’s function. I had to think immediately of my friend Paromita Vohra’s on-going ‘Agents of Ishq’ project. She’s at work – getting folks to share their articulation of who they are as sexual beings. In some ways, 950 AD was way ahead of where we are now with this discussion in the India of 2016.

The nail marks and the monkeys who want to undress her and Ms Slaczka’s other findings about the apsara, were made possible by Tata Steel. They are responsible for Ms Slaczka’s present position as the curator of the South Asian collection in the Rijks Museum.


Link to Ms Slaczka’s publication on the apsara

Link to ‘Agents of Ishq’ – Paromita Vohra’s project

Link to The Society for the Friends of Asian Art (in Dutch)

“Teacher take your headscarf off !”

These words written by Ebru Umar,a journalist who writes for Metro to a primary school teacher caught my eye. The school comes under the category ‘public’, which means that it opens its doors to students and teachers of all faiths in a spirit of mutual respect. Of the different people who responded in my newspaper to Ebru’s words, here is the one written by Sarah Spruijt.

“Children see the outside world as well

I am a high school student and I grew up in an extremely white environment in the province of Friesland. I have actually never talked to a woman who wears a headscarf and I find that a pity because it is not representative of our society. I find it quite lovely that in the protected atmosphere of Gooi, a primary school teacher chooses to wear one. And let’s be sure of this: she has thought about it for a while and chosen to do so of her own free will. And no – this does not mean that the children of the primary school cannot be brought up to be neutral. You cannot close them from the outside world, and what better place to be confronted with this than in the protected environment of primary school? Apart from the headscarf, the children will not know anything about the religious beliefs of the teacher, and they are anyway going to be coming across headscarves in reality or on the internet. You can hardly live in a world that is free from the expression of beliefs, Ebru. Even children can’t. This is a part of upbringing, a part of Dutch society. And however much of a pity you find it, a part of the future.”

One other respondent’s argument in the newspaper was this: that while the freedom of expression and faith should continue unabated, the outward display of one’s faith should be set aside, because, we, in the Netherlands do not know how to have this discussion.


Yet young Sarah did her best to open up a discussion. I was struck by the fact that a person under eighteen could argue so simply and clearly, and with such wisdom.


In India, this scenario would not play out in quite the same way.  In principle no one could ask another to take off their headscarf or turban. Many Dutch people equate India with Hinduism. India is not a Hindu country. India’s constitution, while being secular, gives different religions a legal framework through ‘personal laws.’ In this way, people can and do express their religion in a variety of ways. This makes it different from the Dutch constitution. In doing so, it echoes Sarah when she says “you can hardly live in a world that is free from the expression of beliefs”. The outward expression is not where the problem lies. It lies in the fact that the outward show of faith, accepted by law, is one of the ways by which to unlawfully exploit or turn against people of another faith. This is what happened when innocent Sikhs were slaughtered in the aftermath of Indira Gandhi’s assassination as they could be clearly recognized by the turbans they wore. When Sarah writes of the teacher, “she has thought about it for a while and chosen to do so of her own free will”, could she be referring to the risk one takes – opening oneself up to judgement (or worse) with such an outward show of faith?


Many of us here in the Netherlands resort to wearing something by which we draw strength, or which has meaning for us as a way to hold on to our beliefs. I, a teacher have worn a Buddhist pendant in the classroom for the last one year in schools that refer to themselves as having a Christian identity. Yet no one said “teacher take your pendant off”. It appears to me that some symbols or outward expressions of faith are not seen as problematic in the Netherlands, but others are. What would Ebru have to say about my pendant, I wonder.

Unlike Sarah, I have fortunately had the opportunity to talk to women in headscarves in the Netherlands, and have enjoyed the experience.

Here is a link to one such meeting. False Flowers and Real Wasps



Dutch Direct – Indian Indirect?

Some years ago I asked an Indian lady working for Tata Corus what she found to be the biggest difference between working in India and in the Netherlands. She said it was the directness of her Dutch colleagues that took some getting used to. I smiled remembering the couple of times I almost packed my bags and left for Schipol airport after hearing my then boyfriend’s ‘no’ followed by a physical removal of himself from the common space. Simple, efficient, clear. Message conveyed. When he did that, I sometimes felt like I’d been slapped on my face.

I think Dutch directness is another manifestation of the idea: ‘we are transparent’. What you see is what you get. Why else is it so easy to look into the living rooms of so many Dutch people? A walk in Amsterdam allows, beside other tourist attractions, the possibility to gaze into the homes of its folk. This attraction is not confined to Amsterdam alone. While on my bicycle sprees I have looked through a lot of windows in Holland. And what you see are orderly, neat spaces designed to tell the viewer that all is well and above board here.

A transparent folk. An honest folk. Those clean, glass windows seem to call out, ‘don’t you see, what you see is what you get’!


Dutch directness to my mind is also about efficiency. Why would you spend time and energy on a long explanation that implies a ‘no’ when you can simply say it (and maybe leave to get onto other important things)? If it is in the interest of the listener, they may follow up with a question or follow you, to know the reason for the ‘no’. If they don’t, you were right – the story underlying the ‘no’ was not so important, anyway.

In contrast, many people in other parts of the world find the story underlying the message more important than a direct utterance like ‘no’. They take the listener with them, meandering sometimes, so that when the ‘no’ message comes, it resembles a nudge and not a slap. Quite often, it is nuanced – so that it reflects many a possibility along the ‘yes- no’ continuum.

This is often how communication goes in India. Indirect.

However, some Dutch people who have been to India tell me that they have experienced a shocking form of directness in their Indian colleagues. It’s a good idea to think about where and when this direct form of communication takes place, because that tells one a lot about India, and of course about Holland.


Some useful links to the website of India Connected


Working in India is a feast


Adventurous entrepreneurs perform better in India


Questions (and answers about working in India)




Two and a half intense years of studying appear to be coming to an end. By tomorrow I may just be a student with the number ‘s1634690’ in the administration system of Leiden University. As I wait for the last grade to find its mark, I decide to put down some thoughts that have nothing to do with those grades, but with other values, in other schools, with other teachers and other companions and friends.

Last year, I could not spare much time to support two institutions on two different ends of the world. I’m speaking of the University of Amsterdam (Uva) here in the Netherlands where I am now, and the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII)– where I once was. Glancing furtively up from my books – telling myself I wasn’t going to be spending much time on a quick catch up, I saw how students of both these ‘ex schools’ of mine stood up in rebellion.images

In Amsterdam, a year ago in February of 2015, just after I finished my Masters in English Literature, students peacefully took over the administrative heart of the University – a historic monument and the equally impressive building that housed the faculty of humanities. I had spent many wonderful hours in the latter as a student. The protest was in response to budget cuts to the humanities in favour of those subjects that supposedly draw the crowds (and the money) and apparently contribute to careers. In other words – the students were protesting against the idea that the humanities don’t really count. Languages were badly hit. I was told that my thesis supervisor’s contract was not renewed and that another teacher of mine left for America, where the future looked brighter. One of the things the students tried to negotiate was a representation of those who learn (students) and those who teach (teachers) in decisions that involve what a university stands for. Thus, not managers and more managers. Its not just the economy stupid.

images-1When I met one of my teachers at a seminar, I asked him if there was anything I could do to show my solidarity. He said, ‘tell as many people as you can to go to University’. Because, quite simply, if enough students don’t register for the humanities, the latter are seen as irrelevant to society and scrapped. This same teacher, who later gave the inaugural speech at our graduation ceremony had done his research, and could convincingly show that graduates of studies like English language and literature do find jobs – and ones that deeply satisfy them. But…jobs made up one part of the speech. He lingered with love on what literature does to the mind, the heart and soul of those engaged with it. Hearing him that day, anyone would understand those protesting students whose message was clear: there’s more to life than returns and efficiency.

In the Film Institute of India, the protest began when unqualified people were appointed to run the institution. Or…differently put, people whose qualification was highly evident in their worship of the prime minister and not in their knowledge of cinema; people whose credentials lay more in their membership of Hindutva and less in the skills required to really educate young, impressionable minds in anything else. Every now and then, I caught a glimpse of a classmate, or friend, now alumnus of FTII taking the time to go to the campus and address the students, to repeat everything I heard as a protesting student so many years ago there – that this place – where the questioning, curious minds of all those who enter its gates – rich, poor – from every corner of the sub continent- had to be kept just that way – open to questioning and curiousity – and it was now threatened with some form of ideology that opposes those very precious qualities. Filmmakers, thinkers, writers joined in – one did not need to be an alumnus of FTII. One needed to care about what was happening in the society at large under Hindutva. I read of the protest march in Delhi – of broken bones; of the surgeon who reduced his fees when he realized that those broken bones came from a lathi charge. I read about the corner shop that stocked magazines of the student protest – so word would get around.images-2

In both cases, police were called in to use force to break the protests. In both cases, the message had already spread and was not any more confined to these institutions alone. It resonated with a larger public. In India, this student protest spurred many more voices of dissent.

But why am I writing all this? Because maybe by tomorrow, I will have met the formalities required for a teaching qualification. Because my newspaper says that since robots and computers are going to be taking on much of the administrative tasks and the mechanical work we do, schools should be focusing on nurturing those qualities that make us ‘human’.

And where do you think the word ‘humanities’ could be coming from?

Human it is.