By Therese Fitzgerald
With the support of many friends from the Sanghas in Sebastopol, Berkeley, and Cambridge, Arnie Kotler and I were able to return to St. Petersburg and Moscow to lead retreats for our Russian brothers and sisters, continuing the pattern of biannual visits since Thay went to Moscow in the Fall of 1992.
The first two days in St. Petersburg were devoted to meetings with the core members of the Sangha to settle the many details involved in offering a weekend retreat and two evening sessions. Given the complexity of community politics and individual personalities in St. Petersburg, plus the difficult business of securing a place and publicizing events in Russia, nothing was simple. The three Buddhist groups—Theravadin, Tibetan (Buddhist House), and Zen (Dharma Torch), in the persons respectively of Sasha Gavrilov, Oleg Borisov, and Vadim Druzhinin and Sasha Shevchenko—were all somewhat involved in organizing our visit. After hearing the various pros and cons of having the retreat at the Theravadin flat or the Buddhist House center in a village near the Gulf of Finland, we suggested having one day in the flat and the next day in the village center. A handful of people came to every gathering, but there was a significant turnover of attendees. Twenty-five people came to each day of the weekend retreat, and 40 attended the evening sessions.
One of the special delights of the day in the village center was the practice with children. A Tibetan monk, Sasha Poubants, joined me in offering them "pebble meditation" and slow walking meditation, and then we joined the adults. They practiced breathing so beautifully and sincerely that everyone was inspired. Later that evening, a mother of two who had been present said her older daughter had taught her two-year-old son to meditate. All three children came to the last evening session with lovely "pebble bags" sewn by their babushkas (grandmothers). One eleven-year-old participant, young Oleg Borisov, wrote this deeply perceptive account of the retreat:
During the first sitting meditation, it took some effort to concentrate on the breath. Toward the end of the first fifteen minutes, it became easier. During walking meditation, it was much easier to concentrate. If I started to forget, I had only to concentrate on my feet and repeat "In, out." During the second sitting meditation, I tried to say to myself, "Breathing in, I know that I am breathing in. Breathing out, I know that I am breathing out." I said the first phrase on the in-breath, the second on the out-breath. Unexpectedly, I discovered that I was noticing everything around me more sharply. The sound of the bell seemed to go straight through me.
Walking meditation on the street left an unforgettable impression. My heightened senses made each object, each stone, each blade of grass, each animal beautiful. All thoughts blew out of my head with the gusts of wind.There was no anxiety about the future, memories about the past. This was a surprising, wonderful feeling. One more strange detail: the Earth seemed dark and damp, the snow, cold even though I had boots on. At the tea meditation, I began to notice I was growing full from every piece. During the next sitting meditation, I was completely calm. That feeling stayed with me when I came home and all the rest of the day.
Arnie's Dharma talks in St. Petersburg painted a broad picture of the development of Buddhism, emphasizing the cultural influences in the various cases and outlining the essential teachings of the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path. I think people appreciated his delineation of the first Noble Truth as "suffering exists" rather than "life is suffering" and his emphasis on being wary of denial of suffering. Arnie empathized with the Russians' anxiety over economic and political instability, but he cautioned them against taking refuge in the hope or belief that economic and political stability will be the ultimate solution for happiness. The practice with the bell, sitting and walking meditation, smiling and bowing to each other brought everyone very softly together. During the last evening session, we set up an altar and held a precepts receiving ceremony for almost 20 people taking them formally (simultaneous with a drumming session by some stubborn fellows in the adjacent room!).
While in St. Petersburg, we had many important meetings. One afternoon I set off with Sasha and Pasha, our translator, to see an Oriental museum, I thought, only to find myself sitting before a renowned Pali scholar, Andrei Paribok, who has undertaken to translate the entire Pali Canon into Russian. I immediately wished that someone more worthy of his scholarly wisdom, like Arnie, had come with me, but we managed to have a wonderful exchange nevertheless, discussing his love of Buddhist texts and the difficulties of working without a computer or enough time.
We traveled to the oldest section of the city to meet four Buddhist artists who call themselves Achiravati (named after the river in Kushinagara, where the Buddha said, "During 45 years, I have not said anything."). After sharing Chinese green tea at their table lit by an extraordinarily delicate lamp decorated with glass grapes and leaves, we listened and looked at each artist's works (mostly oil paintings but also one set of intricate designs on silk). One artist later described how satisfying it was for the artists to receive responses from fellow meditators who could appreciate the depth of their work. These artists all received the Five Precepts at the closing ceremony.
We met the next morning with a wonderful woman, Margareta Terientov, who develops educational programs to expand the consciousness of young people. I was particularly intrigued by the work she is doing to introduce meditation into the school schedule, and we promised ourselves some days together next time we come to St. Petersburg to explore these matters with the children directly.
Meetings with Oleg Borisov of Buddhist House and Sasha Shevchenko of Dharma Torch focused on publishing know-how and mindfulness practice on the job, especially in the realm of communication. After so many years of oppression of freedom of thought and speech, and so many years of surveillance, Russians are now struggling to find new ways to conduct their lives. It seems no one understands or trusts persons with strong individualist urges to create a business, such as a publishing house, and yet doing things by consensus presents endless obstacles given the difficulties of communication where the phones may or may not work and where an hour by metro is the minimum time it takes to meet someone. And yet, people in Russia really need each other to do things. There are few resources, especially in terms of places to meet, publicity, capital, and computers. Arnie and I were given many vivid reminders in St. Petersburg and Moscow of the importance of taking time to cultivate good communication among Sangha members and among Buddhists of different schools.
Oleg and Sasha are passionately involved in trying to get Buddhist books translated and published in Russia. Three of Thay's books—The Sun My Heart, The Miracle of Mindfulness, and Being Peace—are about to come out in one volume by Andrei and Sons, and A Guide to Walking Meditation has been translated and will be published by Buddhist House soon. And Sasha is helping get Present Moment, Touching Peace, Peace Is Every Step, and The Diamond That Cuts Through Illusion translated and published. Much about organizing retreats and public lectures was also discussed. After a discussion with the leaders of the three Buddhist groups, we left in the snowy wind for the afternoon train to Moscow.
All my fears of being robbed (and even maimed or killed!) by mafiosi on a Russian train became absurd when we realized that the greatest hardship in the general passenger section was the nonstop top-40 rock music blasting over the mediocre-at-best loudspeaker. Our yearnings for the breakdown of the sound system were in vain, and we arrived in Moscow nine hours later rattled yet relieved to be out of the radio's sphere and in the arms of our Muscovite friends. The Moscow Sangha organized a public lecture in a beautiful hall at the Museum of Oriental Art in the center of the city that 100 people of all ages attended. Arnie's Dharma talk was both a general lecture about Buddhist history and an orientation talk for the three-day retreat about to begin. Later many people said that they appreciated Arnie's reminders during the talk about the Russian love of beauty and the invitation to develop Russian Buddhism.
The retreat in Moscow with 50 people ages 11 to 70 was very strong. The quiet, contemplative setting of a school on the site of an Orthodox nunnery in the process of restoration in the center of the city, the sincere readiness and commitment of the participants, and the attentive core members made for a fertile environment for the practice of mindfulness. Right away, people's sitting, walking, and movement meditations were deeply concentrated. Even people who, at the public lecture had been preoccupied with speculation about the occult and mysticism, "settled the self on the self in the spirit of interbeing," as Arnie put it. Even though there was a significant turnover each day, a strong core of people continued the practice. When Arnie asked the first day's participants to pass on the basic instructions to the newcomers the second day, people's words and actions demonstrated their attentiveness and right effort. By the third day of the retreat, questions and comments were very practical and full of light.
One evening at a gathering of the local Sangha, Sergei chanted the Heart Sutra in Russian and Arnie and I responded in English with a Gregorian-style chant Sergei chanted his rich version of the Heart Sutra again during the precepts ceremony the last day of the retreat, as well as his version of the incense offering chant. There was a wonderful feeling in the room at the end of the ceremony as the afternoon sun streamed in through the windows. I looked out at the beautiful faces of people who, at least for a time, had transformed their suffering and confusion into gentle intimacy with themselves and each other.
At another meeting of the local Sangha, there was time for people to express some of their tender feelings over the past months of being misunderstood. The people who take responsibility for regular meetings and practice felt somewhat abandoned by some of the energetic, dynamic, but more scarce members. These communications, though difficult, helped nurture understanding. The last night before an early morning flight home, we met again and enjoyed a delicious meal and warm camaraderie culminating in a sharing of Belgian chocolates sent by the Berkeley Sangha.
When we asked what time Russians eat lunch so we could schedule lunch during the retreat, Sasha Shevchenko responded with a twinkle in his eye, "Whenever we can find some food."
When I turned on a strangely dim light at sundown in the Theravadin Buddhist flat, someone commented, "Now it is even darker."
In Moscow, our driver and friend Dimitri was able to help us with every need for transportation except for our departing flight at seven in the morning. He told a story about appealing to a friend once for help in a similar situation, and it was only now, years later, that he really understood his friend saying to him then, "Life can be hard sometimes."
Riding past the Kremlin, Arnie commented, "If Russia can make this transition and become stable politically and economically, and if fascism does not take over, I can see that in just a few years Moscow will be a beautiful thriving city." Dimitri responded tersely, "If."