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My Third New Year's: Buddhist in Buryatia 2/4/06

Naj and an 80+ year-old Cossack, comparing walletes, each with a photo of the 12th Khambo Lama.

I have now celebrated Christmas twice and New Years Eve three times this winter. In many ways the last was best. Don't get me wrong. I loved the fireworks whizzing in all directions, Grandfather Frost, the gifts and non stop parties of the first (Jan 1) and second New Years, Old Orthodox (Jan 13), the latter including a karaoke song fest and dancing at the local actor's club in Kemerovo. And how could I forget those - 48 degree temperatures. But the Buddhist New Years (Jan 28-30) was driven by a spiritual celebration that included honoring the past, letting go of pain and bad health, letting the wind blow my horse wind flag, and gaining the guidance of lamas for the days ahead. We need guidance this year as it is the year of the fire dog. Fire is not a good sign, at least for the weather as the year of the fire snake was 1941 when the German's launched their attacks on Moscow and St Petersburg in weather that turned so cold the advance froze in its tracks. This year has started with the coldest winter across Russia since 1941, and predications are for a hot and violent summer. Many see Hurricane Katrina as a harbinger of things to come. As I write it is -44 outside for the third day in a row.

Lunch with a veteran of the Great Patriotic War (WWII).

The Buddhist New Years was spread over three days. Day one I arrived back to Ulan Ude on an all-night flight from Moscow. I was met at the airport by Nicholi, whisked to his and Yanzhima's home for a quick shower and breakfast, and then off to the Ivolginsky Datsan where I shared lunch with an 80+ year old WWII veteran and Cossack, this following Yanzhima and my sacred walk and prayers around the inner perimeter of the datsan and within the central temple itself, and a personal welcome by the Khambo Lama Damba Ayusheyev. Next we and the Cossack went to the stupa honoring and located at the birth site of Pandito Khambo Lama Itigelov, the 12th Khambo Lama of all Russia. There I had the honor of playing his personal conch-shell horn, a skill I learned many years ago in the Bahamas with prep-school friend Terry Covington, and teaching the skill to the volunteer guards, protectors and interpreters of the site. We circled the stupa three times, made our prayers, broke bread, had tea and returned back to the Ivolginsky Datsan, where I crashed for an hour on Ganja Lama's couch, while he gave guidance to a long line of people waiting with their horse wind flags.

"Ganja Lama," I said pointing to his now bald head and missing mustache, "A new look, but you are a real Siberian lama to shave your hair in January. I would have waited until June."

"Ha," he said. "It is for the New Year. Fresh start. Shall I give you a haircut?"

"Everyone here is constantly afraid I am about to freeze to death. They keep piling more clothes on me. If I cut my hair they'd think I'm really a hopeless cause."

Slapping his ample girth, Nicholi said, "Your problem is you do not eat enough."

People circling the datsan on their one of three prayer walks.

Yanzhima grabbed my arm and hustled me out of Ganja Lama's office and over to the temple where we settled in on a small bench on the center right side next to the youngest lamas. There we sat for the next four hours while the building soon filled to capacity. Lamas chanted and prayed in a mesmerizing ritual. People slowly shuffled through seeking and getting their blessing from the Khambo Lama Damba Ayusheyev, and left their names and the names of loved ones to be included in the prayers by the various lamas. Many brought food and drink that they placed at the high alter so it would become sacred. Many, like Nicholia and Yanzhima, brought holy water obtained on Creschenie, Thursday January 19, the day of Christ's baptizing, either from the Russian Orthodox Church or collecting it at midnight, reflecting an ongoing borrowing of each others traditions by the followers of different faiths and shamanism.

Inside the Datsan on Day 1.

Friends and family slowly found us and squeezed in our ever-tightening space, with Dr. Ardan's (of Orlik, and Nicholi's first cousin) wife Dr. Valentina (of the Republic Children's Hospital) and her mother to my right. At 6:45 lamas started shooing people out and closed the doors to more entering as it was soon to be time for the center doors to be opened and the lamas to process out for the lighting of a huge bonfire, that was to explode into a towering pyre of flame, and the tossing of our balls of dough filled with the pain, fears and sadness we wished to let go so we may begin the new year with a feeling of peace and hope. On this day many Russian Orthodox and followers of different faiths came to participate in this cleansing ceremony mirroring the Buddhists who collected their holy water earlier in the previous week. After the fire ceremony, we returned to the temple for another hour of prayers and meditation, then the lamas left the temple to go to their homes and offices where many awaited them to discuss their horse wind flags.

The culminating Fire Ceremony of Day 1.

While at the Ivolginsky Datsan, the Most Precious Body of Pandito Khambo Lama Itigelov was presented for special prayers and attracted thousands, the official New Years service began in the evening of Day Two about eight. First people laid out nine bowls of white food (white cheese, milk yogurt, ice cream, ricotta cheese, cottage cheese and such), along with other foods as an offering to the god Buddha. These are not to be touched through the night, if you have cats lock them in the basement, dogs outside, or some other place where they can't nibble at the offerings. Then it is off to the datsan for a service that will last until around 1:00 AM. A break is given until six. Then back for three more hours of chanting and praying followed by words and actions to live by given by the lama; at my neighborhood datsan these were to do good deeds and think of others. Happiness is not found in being materialistic, he stressed.

You stagger back and think, ahh sleep, after first eating from all nine of the dishes. Not so as families, now on Day Three, dressed in traditional clothes, visit each other giving blessings and sharing food, activities that will continue through the white month. You should not either accidentally leave anything or loan something to someone over the next three days as that can bring bad luck. Best see a lama if you do and have a cleansing ritual. How you greet someone during this time is important. The younger person bends both arms ninety degrees at the elbow and holds them straight out in front towards the older person. The older person facing him-her, places their elbows in the cupped hands laying their arms on top of the outstretched arms turning their hands slightly so their hands cup around the elbow of the person facing them. You bend forward laying your cheek against the side of theirs, and then the other cheek against their other cheek doing this four times (a variation on the French greeting without the kissing of air and four times instead of two). It is expected that the younger person will present a gift to the older person, this can be just a white or blue hadak (scarf, colors used most often in Buryatia) offered outstretched between two hands, or an item given with the hadak or on its own.

Ganja Lama visits the upper air..

On Day Three I learned that we cow people should not wear red this year, and that my spirit for the year is the Blue Buddha of Medicine, to whom I should direct my prayers and whose stupa I should circle three times bowing to all four directions. I also was invited to have lunch with the Khambo Lama Damba Ayusheyev, given a seat of honor on his immediate right, and later given the honor of a private witnessing of The Most Precious Body. Following I went outside where Ganja Lama was launched into space in a basket attached to a hot air balloon. The air, being -35, was not easy to keep hot so it was not a high ride, and lack of wind kept the ballooners drifting about the neighborhood much to the displeasure of the local herd of cows, none wearing red bandanas I was glad to see. But he stayed up there for quite some time and I have to say the rather rough three bounce landing didn't look to be the most gentle.

As we watched the director of the Buddhist University rebound across the frozen fields, Yanzhima said, "Now we go home and eat posies, yes?" Her daughter Ayana, who had been promised and eagerly anticipated a flight, eager until she witnessed the less than soft multiple decent, gave her enthusiastic support. Nicholi smiled and we headed into the sunset and home.

(Note about the nine bowls: During the first 15 days of the first lunar month, many prayers in datsans are devoted to the fifteen miracles of Buddha, miracles he used to help stop being hounded by shamans and others who doubted or derided his message. On the first day he stuck his tooth brush (made from a twig) into the ground from which sprang a great tree covered with fruits that grew so big it blocked the light of the sun and moon; the second day he constructed two great mountains on the left and right, and so on. The nine bowls of white food reflect the fifteenth miracle when he first caused all bowls in the village to be filled with food, food that the people found pleasing to the taste. Then he opened the ground creating a great chasm that revealed deep below people writhing in hell sent there having lived a sinful life. Those who looked down and saw these people made resolutions to live a good life without sin. The nine bowls of white food reflect these miracles and, and in tasting them after a night of prayer, our promise to live a good life. Thus, having let go of our pain and sin at the fire ceremony, mediated and prayed through the night, received the blessings of our lama and placed our horse flag in the wind, tasted of the sacred food and pledged to live this year without sin, we begin the new year sharing our gifts and thanks with our family and friends, and honoring our elders.)

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