The Revival of Buddhism in Kalmykia

“Buddhism in Kalmykia” Interview with Dr. Alexander Berzin

Buddhism in Kalmykia: Hello, Professor Berzin. We’re glad to see you in the library of the Kalmyk Temple. We would like to listen to your memories about Geshe Wangyal. We know that Geshe Wangyal was our fellow countryman and he lived in the United States for a long time, so what can you tell about the specific features of the personality of Geshe Wangyal?

Dr. Berzin: Geshe Wangyal was a great teacher who did not just teach texts, but he always tried to help people to work on integrating the Buddhist teachings from the texts into their lives. When he took disciples, a few Westerners who lived with him, then he would train them in all aspects of life. He would teach students how to cook, how to sew, how to do everything in regular life. And, like a good mother or father, he did all these things himself. Sometimes he even made clothing for the students himself. So he always showed how Buddhism fits into normal, regular life.

Although he taught texts and deep philosophy in a traditional way, and encouraged his most talented students to become professors, to go to university, get a doctorate and become professors – and the most outstanding examples would be Jeffrey Hopkins and Robert Thurman – but for those who didn’t have that level of talent, who just came to visit him, he also tried to help them. He was one of these very rare teachers who actually followed some of the teaching methods of Buddha Shakyamuni himself, which is to create a situation in which the person themselves realizes something very deep and insightful, rather than teaching very directly.

I remember once I was sitting with Geshe Wangyal and a few other students in his living room, and one woman came in and she was quite upset, quite emotionally upset, and she wanted to speak with Geshe Wangyal and discuss with him what was bothering her. And Geshe Wangyal said, “It’s okay. You can speak with all these people here – we’re all friends.” Although she felt a little bit uneasy, she told her story. When she finished her story, Geshe Wangyal turned to her – he was already quite an old man at this time – and he put his hand up by his ear and he said, “Old man. Can’t hear very well. Say it again, louder.” And so he had her shout very loudly, word by word, her story, and sometimes he’d make her repeat a word two or three times. By the end of all this, she realized that she was making too big of a deal out of her story, and it wasn’t as bad as she had thought it was. So, with methods like this, he was extremely skillful. I must say, the best that I’ve ever seen.

When he moved to his retreat house in the countryside, he had some of his students actually build the house. And again he showed how to do absolutely everything, I mean, he was one of these lamas who knew how to do everything. So one of the students was working on the roof, and Geshe Wangyal climbed up the ladder to the roof and he went over to this student and he said, “What are you doing? You’re doing it completely wrong. Get out of here!” The student said, “What do you mean, I’m doing it wrong? I’m doing it exactly like you told me to do.” And Geshe Wangyal said, “Aha! This is the big ego. This is the big false me that you must get rid of.” Like this, he was a great, great master, not just of the texts, not just of ritual, but of practical life.

Some Kalmyk students are now involved in the translation of Geshe Wangyal’s works. And could you name Geshe Wangyal’s books or maybe articles where he conveys his ideas?

The main books were The Door of Liberation and The Jewelled Staircase. But one of his greatest legacies is that he encouraged his students to translate one of the major works of Tibetan Buddhism, the “Lam-rim chen-mo,” “The Grand Presentation of the Graded Stages of the Path to Enlightenment” by Tsongkhapa. This is in three very large volumes and was completed under the supervision of one of Geshe Wangyal’s closest students, Josh Cutler, who has continued to live at the retreat center and maintain this. But this work was completed many years after Geshe Wangyal passed away.

Could you tell us about the Kalmyk student monks who went to Dharamsala in the early 90’s?

A group of them – I forget how many, there must have been about maybe 15 or 20 of them – arrived in Dharamsala in the early 90’s. They were mostly between the ages of maybe 14 and I think the oldest was 20. There was a delay in getting their permits, to be able to go down to Gomang monastery and stay there and study. So I was asked if I could help prepare them to go down to the monastery because I had been here, to Kalmykia, before and I was a little familiar with their backgrounds and where they were coming from. Many of these young teenage boys were away from home for the first time, and it was really quite difficult for them, I must say. They really needed somebody that looked after them and cared about them and made them feel a little bit more at ease, because everything was so strange and new for them.

So they used to come to my house, which was basically just one room – very small – and everybody would crowd in, sitting almost on top of each other on the floor, and I gave them their first lessons in Buddhism – teaching them lam-rim (the graded stages of the path), and just general advice about what to expect in the monastery and what their life would be like. We developed a very warm feeling. I felt a little bit like their substitute father. Now that I have come to Kalmykia this year and I’ve met a few of them, it’s really wonderful to see how they have developed. They were very, very brave to be the first group from Kalmykia to go to India and go to the monastery. I admired their courage very much.

Bakula Rinpoche was in Kalmykia in 1992 and his visit became a great stimulus for the people. What can you tell us about Bakula Rinpoche’s activities?

Bakula Rinpoche was probably the most important figure for the Tibetans in exile in India and also for caring about the traditional Buddhists in Mongolia and in the former Soviet Union. He was from the royal family of Ladakh in India, which is a traditional Buddhist area in the Himalayas. After he completed his studies, he served in the Indian government and he was a member of parliament. He was the one who convinced Nehru to allow the Tibetans as refugees to stay in India, to give refuge to His Holiness the Dalai Lama. He was a representative of Buddhism and India in many of these meetings and conferences that took place among the Buddhists in the communist world.

So he was able to visit in Vietnam, and in China, Mongolia, Buryatia, during this whole communist period. He was the first authentic Tibetan lama from the Tibetan Buddhist tradition that went to these areas. He eventually became the Indian ambassador to Mongolia, after the fall of communism there. He was very, very instrumental in helping with the revival of traditional Buddhism in Mongolia. He was the one that arranged for permission from the Indian government, and money from the Indian government, to pay for monks from Mongolia, Buryatia, Kalmykia, Tuva, to go to India to study at Gomang monastery; it was all through his kindness. In Mongolia itself, he started a monastery, with the main emphasis being that the monks there followed the monks’ vows very strictly. He also started nunneries in Mongolia, which they didn’t have before. In so many ways, he helped with the revival of Buddhism.

In the middle to late 90’s, Richard Gere asked me to organize a project for him – to have translated and published some of the Buddhist teachings, particularly of Bakula Rinpoche, into colloquial Mongolian, to make them available for the people. So I helped to organize this, together with Bakula Rinpoche’s assistant, and his books in Mongolian have been very, very helpful and inspiring for the people. He passed away about a year or two ago and his young reincarnation has already been found.

Where was this reincarnation?

As far as I know, also in Ladakh.

They often say that Buddhism is the philosophy of tolerance. In Kalmykia, we have the representatives of three basic religions; and, so far, they have been cooperating successfully in our republic. And the people believe that this model of confessional cooperation could be very productive in the modern world. Could you comment on this?

I think it’s very wonderful that you have Buddhists and orthodox Christians and Muslims living in harmony here in Kalmykia. This is something that His Holiness the Dalai Lama is always encouraging and always very happy to see when this is actually taking place. His Holiness is always emphasizing the importance of mutual respect of all the religions, and this is based on mutual understanding – having some knowledge of each other. Of course there’s going to be some philosophical or theological differences – this is only natural – but one must recognize that these different sets of beliefs suit different types of people, just like different types of food suit different types of people, and they’re all beneficial, and they all help those to whom they suit to become kinder persons and, in general, more ethical persons, and so on. And so places like Kalmykia, where this is actually working and taking place, are very inspiring examples for the world.

Now numerous artists in the modern world devote their works, their creations, to Buddhism. We can name certain artists in the world of music, or painting, or cinema. Some artistic efforts are also being undertaken in the Kalmyk temple. So these people are trying to convey Buddhist ideas through their art. What could you tell us about the correct ways of conveying Buddhist ideas to people through artistic forms?

I think that it’s not so easy to convey the very deep and extensive teachings of Buddhism through art alone. But I think that various types of artistic works can help to stimulate interest in Buddhism. Then, on the basis of this interest, then they can look more deeply into what the teachings actually are. But certainly songs that speak about peace – these sorts of things – are certainly more beneficial than songs that talk about the love of a man for a woman. When we are talking about something that has a Buddhist theme, it would be something which is much more universal; in the sense of talking about world peace, harmony, concern for others in general, not just one special person that you are in love with. Also, I think artistic aspects that present cultural features, for instance, Kalmyk dance, can also stimulate interest in people to learn a little bit more about Kalmyk culture and, in this way, come closer to Buddhism.

When we talk about art, it’s very interesting to see what do we include as art, because we have, for instance, the use of graphs and pictures to help with teaching. Sometimes when you make a chart or a graph of some very complex idea, showing how different pieces fit together and what the relations are, it’s much easier to understand it. You can also have videos of various lamas’ teachings. These can be very, very helpful, especially for those who are not able to meet these lamas in person, and particularly when the lama has already passed away.

Also, in terms of the use of the internet, for instance, I have a large Buddhist website, and this has a great many articles as well as audio files of my teaching and my translations, and it’s translated and available on the website in many languages, including Russian. One of the features to make it more attractive and easy for people to use is its graphic art. So the graphic art means not having it very flashy, like selling something, with things popping up, flashing in your eyes – that’s not appropriate – but the choice of the colors and the layout and the various symbols or emblems that are used, these sorts of things make a very beautiful environment within which to read the teachings or listen to the teachings. If you do this in a very respectful way, which is in a manner that helps calm the mind, this is, I think, a very nice use of art, in the sense of graphic art, to help with the presentation of the teachings. And, in making graphs and charts on the website to present complex material, if you use different colors and different artistic features, it increases the quality and the ease of understanding.

Professor Berzin, would you comment on the fact that some Western philosophers now have substituted the term “compassion” with “sympathy.” What do you think about it?

I think that sympathy is only a very small part of compassion. It doesn’t encompass the full meaning. In general, sympathy is a very passive term, whereas compassion in Buddhism is very active. Compassion in Buddhism is defined as the wish for others to be free of suffering and the causes of suffering. So it’s based on sympathy, which is the understanding that other people have as much suffering and want to be free of their suffering as much as we want to be free of our suffering. Their suffering hurts them as much as our suffering hurts ourselves. But compassion is much more than that. It also includes the understanding and conviction that it is possible for others to be free of their suffering, and an understanding of what needs to be done in order to eliminate suffering – or at least some general idea – and has an active aspect of actually taking responsibility and doing something to help. So it’s not just sitting back and feeling sorry – “Oh, I’m so sad that you are suffering” – but feeling that there’s nothing that can be done or nothing that I can do.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Shajin Lama Telo Tulku Rinpoche have often emphasized the necessity, the need to preserve the monastery traditions – the monks’ vows. What do you think about it?

This is absolutely essential, that all of this be maintained in a very pure state. Buddha said that as long as there are monastics keeping the vows purely, then my teachings are still in existence. But the main emphasis is that the monastics, the monks and the nuns, actually keep the vows and follow very seriously the Buddhist path. So quality is more important than quantity.

And the last question. Catch us up on the so called modernization of Buddhism which has been suggested by some Western Buddhologists. What they suggest is that they think that the ritual part should be separated from pure Buddhist teachings, and modern people should concentrate on Buddhist philosophy. What do you think about it?

I think that this is not being fair to the Buddhist tradition and is a bit short-sighted. Because it is true that ritual just by itself without any understanding, without any education, is not of much benefit, but when combined with understanding, and with education, and meditation, then it certainly has an important role. It gives a structure or a form for being able to express one’s respect and belief. And it has a very important social role, because it helps to bring a community together. Even if they don’t understand what’s going on in a ritual, just listening to the monks chant creates a very peaceful atmosphere. So, even on a superficial level, it has a benefit. It also helps to define the culture of a society, like here in Kalmykia. Especially in the present world where everybody is starting to become so much alike, it is very important to have some sort of defining characteristic of one’s own individual culture, especially in places like here in Kalmykia where the culture had been repressed for so long and you are trying to revive that culture. Ritual helps to connect people nowadays to the previous generations, and it helps them to define and create a sense of self-confidence and self-worth – that they have something beautiful and meaningful.

Original Audio from the Seminar