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The Doolally Lamas of Siberia

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Joel Lewin


5600km East of Moscow, on an iso­lated hill­top in Siberia, stands Rus­sia’s most fa­mous Bud­dhist monastery- Ivolginsky Dat­san. Recently in the media, Rus­sia is por­trayed through the lens of Putin and Gazprom, a bel­li­cose bully, in­tol­er­ant and op­pres­sive. But travel fur­ther East and you find a very dif­fer­ent Rus­sia.

The dat­san is a rag-tag bun­dle of florid tem­ples and ram­shackle lama huts. I ar­rive early and the sun is yet to burn away the morn­ing mist. Wor­ship­pers wan­der serenely round the perime­ter, whis­per­ing to them­selves or to the sky, spin­ning the creak­ing prayer wheels- colour­ful mashed-up metal cylin­ders mounted on sticks. The tem­ples are like canted stacks of or­nate din­ner plates. They lean in and out and slope this way and that. It seems it is only through their com­bined im­bal­ance that they achieve equi­lib­rium.

Prayers rum­ble out of the huts and the tem­ples. The bushes in the sur­round­ing fields are adorned with colour­ful prayer rib­bons and rags. The branches reach out eerily like itin­er­ant necro­mancers.

I was told to come here by a mot­ley as­sort­ment of fel­low train trav­ellers- a Mus­lim from Azer­bai­jan, a Russ­ian Or­tho­dox Chris­t­ian and an athe­ist al­co­holic. They dis­agreed on a lot, but they were all sure of one thing; Ivol­gin­sky Dat­san is a “spe­cial place”. Al­though it is a Bud­dhist monastery, the ap­peal of the Dat­san seems to over­ride other spir­i­tual al­le­giances in Siberia. Any­body can come to this hill­top to seek so­lace and ad­vice from the in house lamas.

Com­ing up the hill in a van, I chat to Mikhail. An eth­nic Russ­ian, he has trav­elled sev­eral days from Krasnodar to get here. He clings to his seat, bounc­ing wildly as the van trun­dles over pot­holes, a ruck­sack and sleep­ing bag clutched be­tween his legs. “I come here every few years,” he tells me, “it’s a spe­cial place. The lamas can make your life bet­ter.” The dri­ver throws a coin out the win­dow as we pass each rag cov­ered prayer tree.

Bury­a­tia: a very dif­fer­ent beast 

As you go fur­ther east into Siberia, Rus­sia be­comes a very dif­fer­ent place. Tar­mac gives way to sand, dust and craters. Flash Mer­cedes give way to im­pro­vised ve­hi­cles with ex­ten­sions bolted on. Cows roam the roads as equals, re­fus­ing to give way to pass­ing ve­hi­cles. Su­per­mar­kets are re­placed by sprawl­ing mar­kets. Misty moun­tains qui­etly make their pres­ence felt be­hind an ocean of as­bestos roofs. The Slavophile-West­ern­iser de­bate be­comes re­dun­dant in this place. Bury­a­tia is a very dif­fer­ent beast.

After a few cir­cuits of the dat­san, I speak to a mid­dle-aged lady sit­ting pa­tiently out­side a hut with her daugh­ter.  Maria has trav­elled a few hun­dred miles to come here be­cause her daugh­ter is ill. She ex­plains that they are sup­posed to be mov­ing to Moscow soon but they fear the ill­ness is a pre­mon­i­tory omen. “I’m a doc­tor,” she ex­plains, “but the lamas of Ivol­gin­sky Dat­san offer some­thing med­i­cine can­not. Speak to the lamas,” she says, “and you’ll un­der­stand”.

And so I speak to a lama.

I find a small hut on the out­skirts of the dat­san, knock and enter. A lama peeps round a cor­ner and beck­ons me in­side. His shaved cra­nium is perched el­e­gantly atop a slim fig­ure. I close the door. We are alone in the hut. Slices of sun­light break in be­tween the wooden planks.

He takes me to a room which con­tains a wooden bed, a desk and two chairs. He sits at the desk and his ma­roon robe hangs air­ily around him. “What can I help you with?” he asks gen­tly in Russ­ian.

I feel like he can help me with every­thing and with noth­ing. I am nei­ther sick nor spir­i­tu­ally chal­lenged, so I im­pro­vise.

“I have bad feel­ings deep in­side me. I don’t know where they come from, but they are very bad feel­ings.”

He hums and re­flects, then asks my date of birth. I tell him and he tells me I am a horse. He says this ex­plains the bad feel­ings, which he spec­i­fies as “sad­ness, loss of power, wan­ing strength and tired­ness”. I con­cur, al­though I am a stranger to the feel­ing of a “loss of power”. He says he can rid me of these feel­ings with rit­u­als and med­i­ta­tion. He sends me away to get some milk, which will be nec­es­sary for my heal­ing.

Rus­sia- an eth­nic patch­work

The Buryat peo­ple are in­dige­nous to Siberia. They were here be­fore the Rus­sians and they were even here be­fore the 13th cen­tury Mon­gol inva­sion. Rus­sia is not sim­ply a ho­moge­nous, Or­tho­dox, bel­li­cose Slavic coun­try, as many Manichean west­ern media out­lets would lead you to be­lieve. It is a patch­work of dif­fer­ent cul­tures and eth­nic­i­ties, and Bury­a­tia is the per­fect il­lus­tra­tion of this. 20% of Bury­a­tia is Bud­dhist, 30% of peo­ple in the re­gion are eth­nic Bury­ats, and in Rus­sia as a whole there are about 1.5 mil­lion Bud­dhists.

Stalin tried to stamp out Bud­dhism. Lamas were ex­pelled as “Japan­ese spies”, be­liev­ers were shot and So­viet sol­diers al­legedly rolled cig­a­rettes with an­cient Bud­dhist man­u­scripts. But since Com­mu­nism fell Bud­dhism has been resur­gent. In April 2013 Vladimir Putin came to this very dat­san to ex­press his “100% sup­port” for Russ­ian Bud­dhists. “Bud­dhism plays a sig­nif­i­cant role in Rus­sia,” Putin told the lamas of Ivol­gingsky dat­san. “It has al­ways been that way. It is well known that the Bud­dhists helped dur­ing both world wars.” He said Bud­dhism is a “kind, hu­man­ist learn­ing based on love for oth­ers and love for one’s coun­try.”

Heal­ing time

I re­turn to the hut with the milk. The lama stoops and pulls a bag of green pow­der out of a drawer, racks up a line on a bed of sand and lights it. The room fills with mal­odor­ous fumes.

The lama sits me up straight, arranges my hands on my midriff and tells me that while he chants, I should breathe in slowly, vi­su­al­is­ing a red Bud­dha pour­ing a vase of good­ness, joy and long life over my head. When my lungs are full I should ex­hale all the evil in­side be­fore tak­ing in an­other breath of good­ness, joy and long life.

I close my eyes and the chant­ing be­gins. Bud­dha, in my mind, tips the vase over my head and I swell with good­ness. Then I blow out the evil and feel bet­ter al­ready. An­other breath in, then out and bet­ter still.

When the chant­ing is over the lama sends me out­side. He tells me to ro­tate on the spot, to pour milk to the West, then touch the ground, to the North, then touch the ground, to the East and to the South, all the time ab­sorb­ing good­ness, joy and long life from every point on the com­pass. By the time I com­plete the ten ro­ta­tions, I am stand­ing in a milky muddy mush, but I am full of good­ness and the dirt is ir­rel­e­vant.

Back in­side I am given a final bless­ing, the good­ness is sealed in­side and a drop of scented oil is smeared on my fore­head.

When I emerge I am in­fi­nitely bet­ter (when I went in I was al­ready quite good). Whether this im­prove­ment is the truth or an il­lu­sion is be­side the point- when it comes to your ‘soul’, all you have are your feel­ings- I feel bet­ter so I am bet­ter and I leave it at that.

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