Since the collapse of the USSR, Tibetan Buddhism has been gaining popularity in Siberia. AMY ADAMS visits Southern Buryatia for some enlightenment.
Early afternoon on a stark hillside near the Siberian town of Ulan Ude the harsh wind has stripped the land bare and is attempting to do the same with us. It whips through our several layers of clothing and stings our exposed faces as we make a dash from the van to the nearby Buddhist monastery. A man walks towards us dressed in head-to-toe leather – hat, jacket and trousers. He looks like a roadie so I’m a little surprised when our guide Svetlana, blushing in his presence, introduces him as the head lama (Tibetan Buddhist monk).
He leads us into an out building and we rush to the heater, exclaiming as we warm our shaking hands and accidentally waking a student monk in the process. He peers out, blearily from a mass of sheets in the corner, before wrapping himself in his cocoon again and turning to face the wall (student life is clearly universal). The head lama doesn’t bat an eyelid, picking his way through the mess, past a bulky television, to show us a collection of Eastern medicine paraphernalia.
If Buddhism is a religion and philosophy dedicated to finding a path to enlightenment between the excesses of worldly life and the extremes of self-denial, then the Tibetan Buddhists of Siberia seem to have found a rather comfortable middle ground. Their relaxed attitude is enough to explain the increasing popularity of the religion in this area of Russia, but Buddhism is not a new thing in these parts. In the area between Lake Baikal and the Mongolian Border, known as Southern Buryatia (part of the autonomous Republic of Buryatia) Tibetan Buddhism has been practised since the 17th century.
The Buryats (a nomadic, indigenous people descended from the Mongols) nearest Mongolia, began converting to a form of Buddhism spread from Tibet as a way of education and defence against Russification. In 1741 it was declared an official religion and the first datsan (monastery or temple) was built. Over the centuries Buddhism flourished with Buryatia alone boasting 100 temples and several monasteries, but the growth was curtailed in the 1930s when Stalin’s enforced atheism meant datsans were destroyed and lamas sent to gulag camps.
Since the collapse of the USSR Tibetan Buddhism has undergone a rapid revival, with new datsans appearing in every district of Buryatia. The Atsagatsky Datsan opened 19 years ago, on the site of a previous monastery that was razed to the ground. The new version consists of a main temple with a scarily realistic looking model of the Dalai Lama (Tibet’s exiled spiritual leader), and several other buildings – the aforementioned student digs, a small museum of Buddhism and hopefully, in the future, a museum devoted to Eastern medicine. It’s impressive, but not a patch on the centre of Buddhism in Russia, Ivolginsky Datsan.
Built in 1946 (an uncharacteristically generous gesture from Stalin) 25 miles from Ulan Ude, it’s the size of a small village – a complex of temples, meditation huts and classrooms surrounded by prayer wheels, colourful prayer flags dripping from trees, and a pen for the sacred roe deer. We walk round clockwise so our right sides are kept respectfully towards the temple, turning the prayer wheels the same way so they follow the direction of the sun. When a group of students saunters past us, one turns a prayer wheel anti-clockwise. Students” Svetlena mutters under her breath.
Since proclaiming national sovereignty in 1990, the Buryat Republic has seen an upsurge of interest in its national culture as well as its dominant religion. Moving from one small village to another we head to Arbeczcheel, local population 70. It’s a self-contained Buryat enclave mainly inhabited by elderly Buryats as most of the young head to the city for educational – the local school here has one classroom and seven pupils – social and financial reasons. Some live off the land during the summer then head to the city when it gets too cold. Gelya Erdyneeva’s daughter lives in the city with her grandmother, but she stays here all year round, making a living from showing tourists traditional Buryat culture.
Gelya’s house is two rooms built around a stove with an outside toilet. She greets us holding a cup of milky green tea in a hadak (a blue scarf, held open as a sign of welcome), from which the eldest male among us must drink. A glass of Ampurria, a 45% proof spirit nicknamed immortal juice, follows so the rest of us don’t feel left out. If you’re not fond of the taste, the ritual of flicking some to each compass point for your neighbour’s health comes in handy.
We sit down to a lunch of several courses, from buryat cheese (sour cream and flour) to pine-nuts, Pozie – spiced beef dumplings which we try to make ourselves with dismal results – and finally, dough twists dipped in ‘Siberian pineapple’ (a fruit called sea buckthorn) jam. The meal is punctuated with endless cups of milky green tea (Russians, particularly in Siberia, beat the English hands down when it comes to drinking tea) and more Ampurria. When the games begin we know why.
Flicking sheep’s ankle bones together while trying to decide if the way they’ve fallen means they’re a goat, sheep, camel or horse requires extreme sobriety. From the determined look on our host’s face she might have plied us with alcohol for a reason. When Svetlana wins we leave the games behind and move swiftly onto dressing up in the brightly coloured outfits and arctic fox fur hats of the traditional Buryat costume.
While you’re unlikely to see anyone walking around Ulan Ude in traditional garb, the capital of Buryatia is seeing its own revival of Buryat culture in the form of a growing interest in Tibetan medicine. The school of healing, closely connected to Buddhist philosophy focuses on the treatment of the whole body rather than an isolated problem.
When we visit the city’s Centre of Eastern Medicine it’s a Saturday so there’s no chance of a consultation, but Ludmilla, a practitioner at the centre, runs us through the dominant techniques, even giving us an impromptu tai chi demonstration. As she passes round acupuncture needles and talks about bloodletting with leeches and stubbing a herbal cigar on your skin, few of us are regretting the timing of our visit, but there are many other remedies. Later, our host Valeria tells us she and most of her friends turn to Tibetan medicine when they’re ill.
Back at the Atsagatsky Datsan, as our head lama fishes about in a wooden cabinet, showing us the various herbs and tools (weighing scales, a pestle and mortar) needed to make Eastern medicines, his pupil is probably slightly disgruntled at the renewed interest in this outpost of Buddhism. But as it shows no sign of slowing down, he’d better get used to interruptions.”