|< previous | next >Letters Home: Naj Wikoff in Ulan Ude, RussiaContents | NCPR Home|
"This is a once in a hundred year event," said Danzan Lama. "Tomorrow you will attend another event that happens once in a hundred years.
A large man with warm, intelligent and compassionate eyes, Danzan Lama spoke to me these words as he easily blessed and blew the breath of god on the heads of many surrounding us as we stood on a gentle slope overlooking the Chikoi River and Mongolia beyond. Danzan Lama's formal title is Did Khambo Danzan Lama. He is one of three lead deputies to Pandido Khambo Lama Damba Ayusheyev, the 24th Khambo Lama of all Russia, and he serves as the Assistant Director and Vice President for International Economic Relations. He is the holder of the Maltese Order (Cross) for his work with the children who were victims of Chernobyl. Above us, nestled in the middle of small bowl, stood a sparkling white stupa that had been dedicated that morning in honor of Damba Dorja Zayayev the first Khambo Lama, and built on the very spot where his parents' yurt had been when he was born. He was raised here leaving at age thirteen to follow a spiritual path that took him to Tibet, where he studied under the guidance of the then Dalai Lama, and back to build Buddhism in Russia.
The setting, the sacred mountain beyond, the wide ox-bow bend, and the lower field at river's edge where athletes and performers were gathering to celebrate the day with traditional sporting events, music and dance, was breathtaking. The day was sunny and warm, though cool in the shade. The smell of fresh food cooked over an open fire wafted up and we could see below rows of long tables being readied for the hundreds of people to be fed.
Getting there was a modest adventure, but part of the pilgrimage made more special by our driver and lodging. It began the night before, a Saturday, when Yanzhima called to say our plans had changed and we were leaving now for Narin Xynde, not early in the mourning as she had thought. I knew we were going to the dedication of the stupa, but wasn't sure exactly where Narin Xynde was; near or just across the boarder into Mongolia I had understood.
Her son Bier dropped us off in a small village about 22 kilometers southeast of Ulan Ude where we transferred to another car. In the driver seat was a large mustached burly man wearing a tight knitted red hat, none other than Ganzhur Lama, who is assistant to the president of Buddhist University at the Ivolginsky Datsan. This would be like having a bishop who also served as the vice president of Notre Dame as your driver. I was introduced to Zorikto, an extremely fit young man who was a fourth-year student at the university, and to Luba, a woman, who was a citizen of the village of Kyahta and provided us with detailed travel notes on the history and scenery as we drove along.
Like most Russians, Ganshur Lama zipped down the highway. Pounded down the highway may be more apt as the roadway was not the smoothest. We passed the small city of Gusinoye (Goose Lake) and 250 kilometers later reached Kiakhata, the once great trade city that, during the 19th century, was listed on the top ten cities in the world for having the wealthiest citizens; tea merchants who plied their trade between China and Russia on the fabled Silk Road. The churches had been known for their icons and glorious interiors, but now all the gilt was gone along with the once stately mansions although many ghosts of long past glory remained. All that ended with the advent of the Soviet state. Now Kiakhata is a border town, military base and a major entry point to Mongolia.
Around midnight we checked into the three-story Friendship Inn. Friendly it was. The place was rocking as music throbbed out of the dining room where three birthday parties were in full swing; one honoring a young woman (20's), another woman (early 40's) connected with the military as nearly all her male guests were decked out in camouflage attire, and a third woman (30's) I perceived to on good terms with both civilians and the military as her guests were dressed half and half. The tables were filled with bottles of vodka, beer and food. About a third of the people were on the dance floor, a third at the tables, and a third dashing in and out to smoke cigarettes. Maybe ten percent of the men had no shirts on.
Naturally the only rooms still available were right above the hall. The sound and vibration had our teacups and plates rattling their way across tabletops towards the edge (one does not just go to bed without first having refreshments). Yanzhima and I gave up on sleep and went down and spoke (shouted) with some of the members of the tank division for about an hour before finally crawling into our beds, but the band didn't stop until three. The décor was early Holiday Inn. A broad central stairway led up to the second floor and two long hallways that stretched left and right the length of the building. Ceilings were high and a terrace ran along the front accessible by a door on top of the second floor landing and from the parlors of guest room facing the street. Our rooms were suites containing a small room with two beds (Zorikto and I shared one) and a TV, a living room with a day bed that slept a third, and a long narrow bathroom. There was no hot water, showers, tubs, toilet seats, toilet paper or tank tops on the toilets in the bathrooms, but the beds were comfortable, parlor spacious and we didn't have to go outside to use a privy as is the norm in rural communities.
Next morning at eight, after what was anything but a restful evening, we piled into the car and took off passing military barracks, rows of tanks, jeeps and other ordinance, some lovely old churches and headed northeast for the next 160 kilometers tight along the Russian Mongolian border consisting of two fences separated by a well-used gravel road and occasional watch towers structured much like an Adirondack fire tower, and similar in height. Startling to those at the hotel front desk, and a bit later to the attendants at a small shop and a gas station, was our driver now decked out in his formal attire for high religious celebrations. A big man in bright orange and yellow is hard to miss, and Ganzhur Lama carries his weight with ease and authority, and can at times move quite quickly. Seeing him behind the wheel turned not a few heads as we cruised along. We drove through many small villages, largely populated by ethnic Russians it seemed, until we turned off on what was obviously a recently created gravel road that skirted along the wide and winding Chikoi River. We had reached Narin Xynde near Sharagol, or near Yellow Cliff.
We pulled up into an area set aside for parking that already had a few cars in it. Our very first activity upon arriving, after being welcomed and given white hadaks, was to pay our respects by entering the small white fence surrounding the stupa, bowing low, making an offering (coins) and, starting left, circumventing three times bowing and praying at each of the four sides as we went.
The stupa seemed about thirteen feet high. It had a square base that stood about four feet in height and, aside from decorations, was painted white. On top of the base was shelf about eight inches in width covered with an ever-increasing number of coins and other offerings. From the shelf, the stupa's sides stepped back and up, with each step around four-five inches high and deep, and then went up for about nine inches creating a flat band around the stupa on which were painted bright blue crest-like shapes. Above that the sides flared back out in three three-inch steps, then another shelf, perhaps 4-5 inches deep, then a series of receding steps until what appears to be a large round upside-down flared-bowl. On the front was affixed a crest-shaped frame over glass covering a small statue of Buddha. On top of this was a 2.5 foot tall cone, about a foot and half wide at the base going up to eight inches wide at the top giving the appearance of stacked discs. This is topped with a small gold cap, and either side of the tall cone were two flat saber shapes, painted gold, that come down from the top and rest on the top of the dome. Inside the cone is a piece of cedar selected from the forests by lamas for is ability to channel energy, in this case into and from the stupa.
After our prayers we went over to a small field tent and paid our respects to Pandido Khambo Lama, who was sitting in a line with several of his deputies greeting the new arrivals. Buddha Lama grabbed my arm and pulled me into the tent and bade me sit down and join them for breakfast. My arrival was greeted with hoots by several lamas who rushed over and asked for my blessings, laughing and getting their photo taken with me. Several days earlier I had received notice that a packet of diskettes from North Country Public Radio addressed to me care of the Pandito Khambo Lama Itigelov Institute had arrived at the main post office. The Russian post office didn't know the meaning of c/o and shortened the address a bit giving the impression to the local post office that it was addressed to the current Khambo Lama Naj Wikoff. Had Khambo Lama Damba Ayusheyev died? Who is this person claiming to be the new high lama? Not a Buryat? An imposter! They called Institute director Yanzhima to learn the meaning of this. It required my going down with Yanzhima, bringing my passport, to sort things out. The story was great fun for her to tell to friends, some who are lamas and some others happened to be there to witness our long negotiations with the post office. So here I was benefiting from the spreading joke enjoyed by all and, no doubt, confusing those who wondered why some of the lamas were having such sport with me.
A large crowd was gathering and it was soon time to attend the service. A line of small tables had been set up. Behind them sat about 40 lamas, with others sitting slightly behind or in a group to the left, with the Khambo Lama on the far right with the stupa to his right and the line of lamas stretching to his left. Most of the people were bunched up on several rows of temporary benches facing him, or sat on the ground, stood behind, or filled in wherever else they could. We were surrounded on three sides by the steep slopes of the grassy hillside - the natural bowl that embraced the stupa and crowd of people, many dressed in traditional attire, old uniforms or their "Sunday" best. The feeling was of intimacy and respect. I met several from the local hamlet, deeply proud that one of their own had contributed so much and was being honored by the leadership of the Buddhist faith. One Cossack, in full dress uniform, felt especially honored, as the Twelfth Khambo Lama had blessed Cossacks of the region preparing for the Sino-Russia War. None of them so blessed died in battle. Since the Twelfth was (is) the reincarnation of the First Khambo Lama, this was for him a special day. Indeed for everyone, as it was the 303rd anniversary of the First Khambo Lama, 153rd anniversary of the Twelfth Khambo Lama, and third anniversary of the Twelfth's return, all beginning with the dedication of this stupa. Three days later a Buryat was elected as prime minister of the Ukraine, a remarkable event seen as a favorable omen and blessing from the gods of these unfolding celebrations. (Out of 50 million+ Ukrainians, for a Buryat, not native to the country, to be elected was rare indeed).
I was especially pleased to meet Lama Bier of the Kiakhata Datsan. A slight modest man, with great humor, he spoke English quite well and became a valued guide and friend to me throughout the day. He had decided to follow his religious training relatively late even for a Buryat, as most are required by the state to first go to regular school and military training before they may dedicate their lives to Buddhism. In Tibet, a person can dedicate themselves at a very young age to religious training when it is easier for the mind to absorb the many texts and full depth of education, say nothing of having a ten or more years head start.
The service was like many I had now attended, the mesmerizing chanting, the ringing of bells, taps of small tam tams, thunder of large drums, crashing of symbols cymbals, the tossing of offerings, incense being passed around, the call and response with the congregation, and the prayer walk three times around the stupa; lamas inside the small fence and us circling around. Many food items and liquids had been set out on the ground out to be blessed and were tossed into the sky towards the end of the service. A special moment was when the lead lamas took blue hadaks blessed by the Khmabo Lama and presented them to others. Lama Bier, standing away from the crowd, assured me that he would not be receiving one as he was too low, but his mentor sought him out presenting him one, an act that moved him deeply. Indeed his peers and the Khambo Lama all gave their attention joining in a collective pause and feeling of appreciation. A proud and overwhelming moment was when later he presented this same hadak to me, a great gift that I shall treasure always.
Indeed I felt especially honored to be there, the only westerner; indeed one of the few not a Buryat and one of a handful, if that, who wasn't a follower of Buddhism. It was then, standing after the service and the warmth of this great gift of the moment and Lama Bier's generous act, that I found myself with Danzan Lama and experienced his blessing, more than the breath of god, but a laying on of hands accompanied by a long chant that left me deeply at peace and feeling one with the earth, all those present, and dear ones in my heart and memories.
The afternoon floated by watching archery, volleyball, foot racing, a horse charging by, and a deeply fought all-weight class wrestling match that included about sixty contestants from the very young to powerful veterans leaving, at days end, Natsagdorsh Yureltuyev standing undefeated and overall-champion to the great thrill of all present, most especially as he was a lama, indeed the only lama there to have achieved Tantric Specialist, a no less exceptional achievement; indeed much more so. An added thrill for me was I attended a Fire Ceremony he participated in the week before at Alkhanay, and sat near him during the Call to God Dimchik ceremony also held there. Natagdorsh won not only the traditional sheep, that he carried over his shoulders in a victory lap around the ring, but, to his and the crowd's delight, a brand new Zhiguli Six sedan, the once pride of the Soviet state. Last I saw of him he had placed the hobbled sheep into the trunk and, the car now filled with friends, was driving off horn sounding and many arms waving.
Prior to the sporting contestants, the village ladies cooked a feast over several open fires staggering in depth, diversity and quality. I was especially delighted to see rows of samovars dolling out the tea as the now ubiquitous electric pots not functional in such locations. One popular section was a long table set facing the cooking area with cooks and servers bustling about one side and locals eating away on the other much like a village diner. Tea and light refreshments were available all afternoon and a second wave of hearty fare was served at the conclusion of the sporting matches.
The sun was now dipping behind the sacred mountain, shadows were lengthening; Ganzhur Lama headed for the car. It was time to go and we had a long road ahead. We all climbed in and left for home. Hours later, around eleven as we neared Ivolginsky, we could see in a distant field a white stupa lit up by surrounded car lights as the workers were finishing for tomorrow's celebration to honor the Twelfth Khambo Lama, reincarnation of the first and believed, by many, to have reached emptiness.
2005 North Country Public Radio, St. Lawrence University, Canton, New York 13617-1475