It's sometimes difficult to get a handle on a man like Gandhi, particularly when someone like Samdhong Rinpoche has recommended that we ought to do just that. Americans have to feel that the internal dialogue occurring between Gandhi and Samdhong Rinpoche is something we can only speculate on, at best. An incarnate lama and scholar reading Gandhi, slayer of empire? That's a fairly high-powered negotiation that Westerners can only view from afar, right? Add to that the approaching Centenary Celebration of Hind Swaraj's publication in 2009, a celebration that Samdhong Rinpoche himself is personally helping to organize, and it slowly begins to dawn on us that we need to know a little more about this man Gandhi. Particularly in light of the Tibetan cause.
For starters, here's what Rinpoche says about Gandhi:
So profound and comprehensive is the purity, influence and vastness of Mahatma Gandhi's spiritual, moral, cultural, political, and educational work that it is hard to believe that so much, on such an all-inclusive and extensive plane was accomplished by a single individual in one life . . . Every word of his written works carries profound meaning of a sincere quest after truth, spirituality, and morality in private, public and corporate life.
Going through Gandhi's Autobiography recently, searching for the earliest signs of his greatness, I was struck by one thing, and one thing only. Not his "practice," to use a favorite word among American Buddhists, nor his catalogue of "empowerments," nor his proximity to the great teachers of this time. No, I was struck by his passion for service. Three examples suffice.
Chapter XXII: If I found myself entirely absorbed in the service of the community, the reason behind it was my desire for self-realization. I had made the religion of service my own, as I felt that God could be realized only through service. And service for me was the service of India because it came to me without my seeking . . . .
Chapter XXV: Plague broke out in Bombay about this time, and there was panic all around . . . As I felt that I could be of some help in the sanitation department, I offered my services to the State . . . I laid special emphasis on the cleanliness of latrines, and the committee decided to inspect these in every street . . . They were dark and stinking and reeking with filth and worms.
Chapter XXVI: Such service can have no meaning unless one takes pleasure in it. When it is done for show or for fear of public opinion, it stunts the man and crushes his spirit . . . But all other pleasures and possessions pale into nothingness before service which is rendered in a spirit of joy.
And so it was that before satyagraha, before the famous ashram where Gandhi lived and worked in India, before the brahmacharya vow of celibacy and the strict diet that accompanied it, before the ashram in Ahmadebad and the famous spinning wheel, before all of these highly visible and familiar images, Gandhi saw himself as a servant, cleaning latrines in times of disease and developing the humility and dedication that comes of serving "without show . . . or public opinion."
And so I can't really imagine what occurs when Samdhong Rinpoche reads Gandhi. But Gandhi once said that the British did not take India away from the Indians; he said that the Indians had given it to them.
My guess, my remote, middle-class American guess, is that it is very difficult to take anything away from someone who realizes the self's relation to truth by cleaning latrines and finding joy in that process.
This, of course, is an active and productive form of renunciation.