Our trip to the Soviet Union last summer was deeply moving for everyone involved. It was a privilege to be able to bring the gift of dhamma to a land which once had a small indigenous Buddhist tradition of its own, and which itself covers much of Asia. For the most part, the practice of Buddhism died out in the 1930s under Stalin. We felt we were truly part of history in awakening those seeds. The people most interested in meditation now, however, are not from this older tradition but are in the forefront of inquiry and humanism in the Soviet Union today.
As we grew closer to our Soviet friends on this trip, it became obvious that freedom is being tentatively explored in a wide variety of spheres. People are beginning to reclaim deep aspects of their heritage. We were, for example, taken to an art exhibit celebrating a thousand years of Russian Orthodoxy. It was created by a group of unofficial artists, who even a few years ago would not have been allowed to exhibit publicly. It was wonderfully ironic to see such a radical artistic expression celebrate such a traditional theme. The spirit of the paintings seemed to embody the very freedom to be able to paint them at all.
The fragile freedom we sensed posed for us the great challenge of distilling the dhamma to its essence. We recognized that this might be one of the only opportunities these people might ever have to hear the teachings. It was as if someone had said to each one of us, “If you have only one chance to say what is most important, what will you say?” This encouraged us to continually look to our own deepest understandings of the Buddhadhamma.
An amazing feeling of friendship developed within just a few days. People readily opened their hearts and homes, as if there were no time to waste on superficialities. Our hostess and translator in Leningrad, for example, was due to give birth at any time. She continually translated with great facility and good humor, even though she was often quite tired. We were all so grateful for the chance to be together that the deepening of our relationship on the transmission of the teachings happened very quickly.
On many occasions, all fourteen of us would meet together in someone’s home. The announcement at the end of a dhamma talk and discussion that we would take a short break became a signal for the Soviet group to roll out a large spread of food, wine and vodka. This was in a time and place of serious food shortages. We would then all eat together, some would drink together, and engage in very heartfelt conversations exploring each other’s lives. Then we would go back to meditate. The bell ending the sitting became another signal to bring out the tea and cookies, and we would begin all over again. Some of the American yogis seemed to feel we should try this format in our retreats at home!
Throughout our journey, people expressed with openness and directness what was of great meaning in their lives. One day our friends took us to a town in the countryside, Kamarova, where few foreigners visit. As we hiked to a forest lake we passed the cemetery where the renowned Russian poetess, Anna Akhamatova, was buried. As we visited her gravesite, it was amazing for us to see the depth of feeling people had for her. This unique sense of tribute gave a much stronger meaning to the idea of literary heroine or hero and to the connection that these people felt for a poet in their daily lives.
We continued on to the lake (greatly resembling lakes we’ve seen in Minnesota) and our Russian friends again brought out large quantities of food. When we got ready to meditate, we were quite concerned with what our sitting would look like to the other people around. Our Soviet friends just said that if anybody was bothered by it, that would be their problem. And so we sat.
Our whole trip had a feeling of electricity and excitement to it, and we did not sleep much in the Soviet Union. In Leningrad, the energy we felt occurred against a backdrop of nearly “white nights.” We would be running to catch the last train at 1:00 a.m. with the sky still light.
We were deeply touched by the generosity of the people we met. One night we were presented with a bell to end meditations, a Russian table to put the bell on, and records, books and other gifts for each American member of our group. But the real generosity, of course, was the generosity of the heart which we had mutually opened to each other. During our last night in Leningrad, a psychiatrist who had been coming regularly to the gatherings said that the gift of the teachings could be received so openly because of the beautiful relationship which had been developed.
On our visit to Tbilisi, Georgia, we went to see a synagogue. We were being shown around by the kosher butcher from next door, who told us that there were 40,000 Jews in Tbilisi, with one eighty-year-old rabbi. They have not been able to train new rabbis because, while it is legal to pray and practice the religion, it is illegal to teach or study the religion. This distinction clearly seemed an effort on the part of the government to have Judaism die a natural death. Without the richness of the understanding in the broadest meanings of the prayers, for how many generations could these prayers possibly endure?
This conversation helped deepen a commitment we have had at IMS for a long time—that is, the establishment of a center where people can come and study the Buddha’s teachings, and use this understanding to enliven and enrich their meditation practice. The Buddha said that one who studies as well as practices walks a very broad path, like the path the elephant makes in the jungle. It is broad because it is not confined to the knowledge of a single technique, but opens us to the understanding of how the whole of the teachings can be expressed in so many ways.
Because of the great generosity of people who share this commitment, we are now able to go ahead, look for a suitable site in Barre, and begin to establish a library and a program of study. Our hope also is to return to the U.S.S.R. to lead a ten-day intensive retreat. In this way we will be able to offer a deeper taste of silently being together, practicing meditation together, and exploring freedom together.