Teaching in Eastern Europe and the Former Soviet
by Venerable Thubten Chodron©
Part 1 [25 min]: Download
Part 2 [21 min]: Download
Part 3 [31 min]: Download
Planning for the trip to Eastern Europe and
former Soviet Union (FSU) was an adventure in itself, with my passport
getting lost twice in the U.S. mail, the Ukrainian embassy refusing
my visa, and the travel agent keeping my urgent itinerary at the
bottom of the stack of papers. I called the places in Eastern Europe
to let them know the dates of my visit, and a man in St. Petersburg
was supposed to organize the part of the tour in FSU. But I soon
learned that organizing a sixteen city teaching tour in former communist
countries made travel in India look like a piece of cake.
My first stop in Eastern Europe was Prague,
a beautiful capital whose buildings were comparatively unscathed
during World War II. I stayed with Marushka, a delightful woman
with whom I'd been corresponding for a number of years, although
we had never met. She had been hospitalized twice for emotional
difficulties and told me hair-raising tales of being in a communist
mental institution. Juri, my other host, showed me around the city,
one memorial site being the exhibit of children's art in the Jewish
museum. These children, confined in a ghetto in Czechoslovakia during
the war, drew pictures of the barbed wire compounds in which they
lived and the cheerful houses surrounded by flowers in which they
formerly lived. Below each drawing were the child's birth and death
dates. Many of these little ones were taken to Auschwitz to be exterminated
in 1944. All over Eastern Europe and the FSU, the ghost of the war
reigns. I was constantly reminded that the demographics of the area
changed radically in a few years and that people of all ethnic groups
My talks in the Prague were held downtown. They
were attended by about twenty-five people, who listened attentively
and asked good questions. Jiri was an able translator.
The next stop was Budapest, where spring was
just beginning. Most of the city had been destroyed by door-to-door
fighting at the end of the war. I stayed with a lovely extended
family, two members of whom had escaped during the communist regime
and gone to Sweden to live. The talks were at the recently-established
Buddhist College, a first in that part of the world. But I was surprised
when entering the principal's office, to see on the wall behind
his desk not a picture of the Buddha, but a painting of a nude woman!
I also visited a Buddhist retreat center in
the countryside where ten people had just begun a three-year retreat.
Over lunch, the Hungarian monk explained the difficulties that people
raised under communism have when becoming Buddhists. "You don't
know what it's like to learn Marxist-Leninist scientific materialism
since you're a child. This does something to your way of thinking,
making it a challenge to expand your mind to include Buddhist ideas,"
he said. True, I thought, and on the other hand, people in Western
Europe and North America have to undo years of indoctrination of
consumerism and if-it-feels-good-do-it philosophy when they encounter
Oradea, a town in Transylvania (Rumania) that
is renown as Count Dracula's home, was the next stop. Rumania was
much poorer than Czech Republic and Hungary, or rather, it was more
neglected. As I later found in Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine, people
had things, but they were falling apart and left unrepaired. The
roads, once paved, were now rutted. The trams, once brightly painted,
were now dilapidated. There was no idea of fixing things, or if
there was, no money to do it. Transylvania was traditionally inhabited
by Hungarians and in recent years, there has been an influx of Rumanians.
The Dharma group was mostly Hungarians and took every opportunity
to tell me how awful the Rumanians were. I was shocked at the prejudice
and ethnic hatred, and found myself talking passionately about equanimity,
tolerance, and compassion in the Dharma talks.
The people I stayed with were kind and hospitable,
and as in most places, I felt real friendships develop. However,
they knew little about etiquette around monastics, and at a gathering
in someone's flat after a talk, I was surrounded by couples making
out. They would take turns talking to me and then resume their (obviously
more pleasurable) activities. Needless-to-say, I excused myself
as soon as possible and went to my room to meditate.
Then on to Krakow, Poland, the site of Schindler's
List. Venerable Tenzin Palmo, a British nun who meditated twelve
years in a cave in India, was also teaching in Poland at the time,
and our schedules were arranged so we could meet in Krakow. It was
lovely to see her again, and together we discussed the recent tragedy
that had befallen many Polish Dharma centers. Years ago, a Danish
teacher in the Tibetan tradition had set up centers in many cities.
But in recent years power struggles developed, and the teacher,
becoming involved in the Tibetans' dispute over the new Karmapa,
forbade his centers to invite other teachers from even his own Tibetan
tradition. As a result, the centers throughout Poland split into
opposing groups, with the Danish man and his followers retaining
the property. The tragedy is that many friendships have disintegrated
and much confusion generated about the meaning of refuge and relying
on a spiritual mentor. Ven. Tenzin Palmo and I did our best to alleviate
the confusion, encouraging people in the new groups to go ahead
with their practice, to invite qualified teachers, and to practice
together with their Dharma friends. This experience intensified
my feeling that we Westerners need not and should not get involved
in political disputes within the Tibetan community. We must remain
firmly centered with a compassionate motivation on the real purpose
of Dharma practice and check teachers' qualifications well before
establishing a teacher-student relationship with them.
The Poles were warm and friendly, and we had
long, interesting and open talks. "As an American, do you have
any idea what it's like to have your country occupied by foreign
forces? Can you imagine what it feels like to have your country
carved up and your borders rearranged at the discretion of powerful
neighbors? Do you know how it feels when citizens are deported to
foreign lands?" they asked. All over Eastern Europe, people
remarked that their countries were the walking grounds of foreign
troops, and indeed so many of the places were alternately occupied
by the Germans and the Russians. The smell of history lingers on
in each place.
I enjoy inter-religious dialogue and while in
Prague met with the novice training master at a monastery. In Budapest,
I met with a monk from a monastery with its church carved as a cave
in the rock along the river in Budapest. In both these conversations,
the monks were open and curious about Buddhism -- I was probably
the first Buddhist they had met -- and they shared their experiences
of following their faith despite the fact that their monasteries
had been shut down during the communist regime.
In Krakow, Ven. Tenzin Palmo and I visited some
sisters of St. Francis at their cloister in the center of the city.
Two sisters in full traditional nuns' dress sat behind the double
grill as we exchanged questions and answers about spiritual life
and practice. One topic of interest was how to keep our religious
traditions alive and yet adapt to the circumstances of modern life,
challenges that both Buddhist and Catholic monastics face. Our discussion
lasted two hours, and by the end thirteen Catholic nuns (half of
the monastery's inhabitants) were crammed into the tiny room. With
much laughter we showed them how our robes were worn and they peeled
off layers of black and white cloth to show us how to assemble their
robes. We traded prayer beads through the grill, like teenage girls
sharing secrets, and parted with a sense of love, understanding
and shared goals.
Later, in Russia and Ukraine, I tried to meet
with Orthodox nuns, but could not find any. One large Orthodox nunnery
we visited in Moscow is now a museum. Fortunately, in Donetsk, Ukraine,
a young Orthodox priest and a Catholic woman attended my talk at
the Buddhist center. We spent a long time talking about doctrine,
practice, and religious institutions. I explained to the priest
that many people in America who had been raised Christian suffered
from guilt -- from their youth, they were told that Jesus had sacrificed
his life for them and they felt they were too egotistical to appreciate
or repay this -- and asked how this could be alleviated. He explained
that many people misunderstand Jesus' death -- that Jesus sacrificed
his life willingly, without asking for anything in return. He also
said that women played a greater role in the early Church than they
do now in Orthodoxy, and that slowly, he would like to see them
resume that place.
Ven. Tenzin Palmo and I also visited Auschwitz
as well as the Jewish neighborhood, the ghetto, and the cemetery
in Krakow. It was rainy and cold those days, the weather illustrating
the horror of what human beings' destructive emotions can perpetrate.
Coming from a Jewish background, I had been raised knowing about
the tragedy there. But I found it odd, and all too familiar, that
people were now vying for their share of suffering and pity. Some
Jews objected to a Catholic nunnery being built near the concentration
camp, and some Poles felt that the fact they lost a million Polish
patriots at Auschwitz wasn't adequately recognized by the world.
The importance of meditating on equanimity became obvious to me
-- everyone equally wants to be happy and to avoid suffering. Creating
too strongly of a religious, racial, national, or ethnic identity
obscures this basic human fact.
In Warsaw, I went to the site of the Jewish
Ghetto where now a monument stands for those who died in the Warsaw
Ghetto Uprising. The area is a park surrounded by socialist flats,
but old photos reveal that after the uprising it was nothing more
than leveled rubble. At the Jewish cemetery, we overheard an older
woman visiting from America say that she had been in Warsaw at the
time of the uprising and came back to look for the graves of her
friends. It seems to me that Caucasians haven't completely come
to terms with the atrocities committed under Hitler and Stalin (to
name a few) -- they view these as flukes or aberrations, because
white people could never cause such heinous events. I believe that
this is why we have such difficulty grappling with events such as
the situations in Bosnia and Kosovo in the 1990s.
From time to time on the trip, I met some Jewish
Buddhists, in Eastern Europe and the FSU, where so few Jews are
left! They are generally assimilated into the main society now,
and although they say, "I am Jewish," they don't know
much about the religion or culture. It's similar to many people
from my generation of Jews in USA. In Ukraine they told me that
since so many Russian Jews in Israel can get Ukrainian TV, that
there are now advertisements in Hebrew on their TV! They also told
me that since things opened up in the FSU, that many of their Jews
friends have left for Israel and the USA. It was interesting that
the people I met didn't want to leave, given how chaotic and directionless
those societies are now.
The Transition from Communism to ??
As I traveled northward, spring disappeared,
and I entered the countries of the former Soviet Union, where winter
lingered on. I realized that the person in St. Petersburg who was
supposed to organize this part of the tour had dropped the ball.
Some places didn't know I was coming until I called them the night
before to give them the arrival time of the train! People told me
this was normal -- since the disintegration of the Soviet Union,
ties had been broken, there were now border checks and customs in
what used to be one country, and things were not well-organized.
All over Eastern Europe and the FSU, people
told me how difficult the change from communism to free-market economy
and political freedom had been. First there were economic hardships
due to the changing system. Then there was the change in mentality
required to cope with it. People said that under communism they
lived better -- they had what they needed -- while now they had
to struggle financially. Under the old system, things were taken
care of for them, and they didn't have to take personal initiative
or be responsible for their livelihood. They worked a few hours
each day, drank tea, and chanted with their colleagues the rest,
and collected a pay check that allowed them to live comfortably.
Now, they had to work hard. Factories were closing
down, and people losing their jobs. Although the markets had plenty
of Western goods, in the FSU hardly anyone could afford them. Even
people who were employed were not paid well, if their employers
had money to pay them at all. Many educated and intelligent people,
especially in Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine left their jobs to do
business, buying and selling from one place to another. The poverty
was real. In the Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine we basically ate rice,
bread and potatoes.
In Eastern Europe, the situation was not so
grave, and the mood was upbeat. People were glad to be free from
communism and from Russian domination. Circumstances were difficult,
but they were confident they would get through them. The people
in the Baltics felt the same and were especially happy to have their
independence. In all these areas, which had been under communism
only since the war, the people removed the statues and symbols of
communism as quickly as possible.
But in Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine -- areas
that were communist since the early 1920s -- the atmosphere was
different. Economically, they were more desperate, and socially,
more disorganized. Their great empire was lost and their confidence
destroyed. Only one woman I met in Moscow saw the present situation
optimistically, saying that Russians now had the opportunity to
develop an economic system which was neither capitalist nor communist,
a system which could fit their unique cultural mentality.
But others I met felt confused. With the
advent of peristroyka,
things snowballed, changing so fast in ways that no one had expected,
with no advance planning or firm direction for the society. Now
clever people are profiteering from the chaos, and the gap between
rich and poor is growing. It broke my heart to see old grandfathers
in St. Petersburg begging outside the churches and old grandmothers
in Moscow with their palms held out in the subways. Such things
never happened before, I was told. But when I asked people if they
wanted to return to the old system, they replied, "We know
we can't go back." Yet, they had little idea of what lay ahead,
and most did not have confidence in Yeltsin's leadership.
The Baltic Countries and Former Soviet Union
Back to my time in the Baltics. I taught in
Vilnus (Lithuania) and Riga (Latvia), but had the best connection
with the people in Tallinn (Estonia). They were enthusiastic, and
we did a marathon session on the gradual path to enlightenment,
after which all of us were elated and inspired.
In previous decades a few people from the Baltics
and St. Petersburg had learned Buddhism, either by going to India
or to Buryatia, an ethnically Buddhist area in Russia just north
of Mongolia. Some of these people were practitioners, others were
scholars. Yet, the public has many misunderstanding about Buddhism
-- I was asked if I could see auras, if Tibetan monks could fly
through the sky, if one could go to Shambala, or if I could perform
miracles. I told them that the best miracle was to have impartial
love and compassion for all beings, but that wasn't what they wanted
I met people who had learned a little about
tantra from someone who knew someone who knew someone who had gone
to Tibet in the twenties. Then they read Evans-Wentz's book on the
six-yogas of Naropa, invented their own tummo (inner heat) meditation
and taught it to others. They were very proud that they didn't have
to wear overcoats in the icy Russian winter, while I was relieved
that they didn't go crazy from inventing their own meditation. It
brought home to me the importance of meeting pure lineages and qualified
teachers, and then following their instructions properly after doing
the necessary preliminary practices.
The teachings in St. Petersburg were well-attended.
While there, I visited the Kalachakra Temple, a Tibetan temple completed
in 1915 under the auspices of the Thirteenth Dalai Lama. In the
1930s, Stalin had the monks killed, and the state took over the
temple, turning it into an insect laboratory. In recent years the
Buddhists were allowed to return, and there is now a group of young
men from Buryatia and Kalmykia (between the Caspian and Black Seas)
who are training to be monks. The women at the temple -- some European,
others Asian -- were enthusiastic about Dharma, and we talked for
hours. With excitement, they kept saying, "You're the first
Tibetan nun who's been here. We're so happy!"
In Moscow, the teachings were organized by a
new-age center, although there are many Buddhist groups in the city.
Before leaving Seattle, I met with the Russian consul, who was interested
in Dharma. He gave me the contact of his friend in Moscow who was
a Buddhist. I looked him up and had an impromptu meeting with some
of the people from his group. We discussed Buddhism from the point
of view of practice not theory, and there was a wonderful and warm
feeling at the end of the evening.
Then on to Minsk, Belarus, where the trees were
barely beginning to bud and the Dharma group was earnest. Again,
people were not very familiar with etiquette for monastics, and
I was housed at the flat of a single man who had a huge photo of
a naked woman in his bathroom. Fortunately, he was kind and minded
his manners, but it put me in an awkward position -- do I ask to
stay elsewhere even though everyone else's flats were crowded?
On the way from Minsk to Donetsk, we stopped
for a few hours in Kiev and met a friend of Igor, the man translating
for me. She and I had a good connection and I was touched by how
she shared the little she had with us. She and I were about the
same size, and the idea popped into my head to give her the maroon
cashmere sweater that friends had given to me. My ego tried to quench
that idea with all sorts of "reasons" about my needing
it. A "civil war" broke out inside me on the way to the
train station, "Should I give her the sweater or not?"
and I hesitated even after she got us sweet bread for the trip,
although she had little money. Fortunately, my good sense won out,
and I reached into my suitcase and gave her the beautiful sweater
minutes before the train pulled away. Her face lighted up with delight,
and I wondered how I could have considered, just five minutes prior,
being so stingy as to keep it myself.
Donetsk, a coal mining town in eastern Ukraine,
was the last stop. Here I stayed at a center begun by a Korean monk,
where the people were friendly and open to the Dharma. The town
had little "Mount Fujis" all around it -- when the mines
were dug, the excess earth was piled in hills of pollution around
the town. Nevertheless, the town had trees and green grass--welcome
sights after the dreariness of Moscow -- and spring was again present.
In addition to speaking at the center, the public library, and a
college, I gave talks to two large groups at a high school, with
many students staying afterwards to ask more questions.
With a good sense of timing, after finishing
the last talk of this six-week tour, I promptly lost my voice. On
the train from Donetsk to Kiev, I was coughing and sneezing, and
the compassionate people who shared the train compartment -- two
slightly-tipsy Ukrainian men -- offered to share their precious
vodka with me, saying that it would definitely make me feel better.
But being unappreciative of their generosity, and using the (in
their eyes) lame excuse that drinking was counter to my monastic
vows, I refused. In an effort to overcome my ignorance, they kept
repeating their offer, until I finally feigned going to sleep to
have some peace.
As a final touch to the trip, on the flight
from Kiev to Frankfurt, I sat next to an evangelical Christian from
Seattle who had just been to Kazakhstan, Moscow, and Kiev to spread
the "good news." He was a pleasant man, who meant well
and wanted to help others. But when I asked him if the Muslims who
converted to Christianity faced difficulties with their families,
he said, "Yes, but it's better than going to hell."
By the time I arrived in Frankfurt and my friend,
a German monk, picked me up at the airport, I felt like Alice reemerging
from the hole, wondering about confusing and wonderful experiences
-- the kindness and the complexity -- that others had just shared