Forest Sangha Newsletter April 1998

Self-naughting; Aj Sumedho
Discernment v's Self-Deception; Upasika Kee Nanayon
Meditation Class; Aj Sucitto
Dhammma Refugee ; Ajahn Viradhammo
Pilgrim's Way: the Place of the Buddha; Ajahn Candasiri

Signs of Change:


Dhamma Refugee

Shortly after his 50th birthday last year, Ajahn Viradhammo set out with Nick Scott on a pilgrimage through the Baltic States. This is hardly the Buddhist heartland, but of heartful significance to the Ajahn: his parents fled Latvia when Stalin took over. He was born in Germany, but left there when he was seven to grow up in Canada. Last year then was the first time that he had seen his ethnic homeland.
Q. What are some of the words you would use to describe this trip?
A. Interesting, exciting, and sorrowful. It was a mixture. I had a deep interest in my peopleís country, which Iíd so much heard about in my childhood, and in speaking my motherís tongue and finding out peopleís personal histories. Then there was the sadness of seeing the mistreatment of people and the attempted destruction of a culture over the past fifty years.
What was surprising was how well it went and how everything came together so perfectly -- whether it was through bus rides, or people helping us out, or finding places to sleep in the forests, or in a whole variety of things. So that sense of being taken care of by forces of goodness was very magical. However, in terms of what I saw politically, socially and economically there were no real surprises; I had expected something like it from my readings and from what Iíd talked about with my mother and other Latvians. Seeing it in real life, however, is much different.
It was also interesting when we werenít with people. Some of the bird watching we did was fabulous: eagles and cranes and black storks and white storks and all kinds of water birds. But the overall feeling was that I was very grateful that my parents had escaped from Latvia!
There is ... The magic in just doing your best and trusting that things will somehow work out OK; that the forces of goodness will provide.

Q. Was it a kind of tudong (pilgrimage)?
A. Well I didnít go with that intention. I just was going more as a person whose heritage was Latvian. I didnít go pindapata or seek alms. Nick was there, he had money and took care of us, but it ended up that people were very interested in what I was doing. Seeing something so exotic as a Buddhist monk in the backwoods of Latvia was very fascinating for them. So it did end up being like a tudong in the sense that we made lots of contacts and people seemed to be very grateful for us being there. There was the magic of tudong, of spontaneous happenings through just being open and trusting and having faith.
Q. How do you think you can bring back a little bit of that magic to our monastery?
A. Well I think one of the big lessons of tudong, for me, always is, and this time especially was, trust and faith. Life in a monastery is more regulated by meetings, there isnít the spontaneity of just taking off and walking which is a very free, liberating feeling. Because of the complexities of monastic life and because we live on alms, there can easily be a tendency to worry. The magic is in just doing your best and trusting that things will somehow work out OK; that the forces of goodness will provide. That quality of faith is something that brings a lot of joy and sparkle to the monastic life.
Q. Did you have any Buddhist contacts before you went?
A. Strangely enough most of our contacts were outside of Latvia. We had a good contact in Poland; a good contact in Vilnius, Lithuania; a kind of vague contact in Estonia and a good contact in St Petersburg: but our Latvian contacts were a bit vague. In some of the places we walked through we had no contacts, and we just went without knowing anyone. In many ways that was the most interesting because then one has to live in complete faith. The contacts that we did have were the ones which created the most populous situations for sharing Buddhist teachings with groups. We were invited to teach in Riga (Latvia); in Poland we did some teaching, just to small groups who were interested, we did a one-day meditation in Bialystok in N.E. Poland; and then in Riga I came together with a group several times. There was a sort of vague invitation, a possibility of doing a retreat next year in Latvia. Then in Estonia we had a name from a Buddhist Directory which we made contact with, and that turned out to be a Kagyu group. We met them every evening and had Dhamma discussion on several nights. St. Petersburg was the most organised venue: people had rented a school room and about thirty people were there every night. One night we had a meeting in the Buriyat Temple, which is the Buddhist Temple in St. Petersburg.
Q. What differences do you see between what you teach in those places and the things that would come up, say, in Canada or here in England or New Zealand?
A. I taught so briefly to people there that itís hard to say, but I should think the sense of freshness, of people not having had much contact with Dhamma and being very fresh and grateful. That was very, very strong. I think what was different in their lives was the physical and social difficulties theyíre facing in order to just pay the rent and have a place to sleep. So to hear someone talking Dhamma when most of the time the discussion is about how to survive -- I think just that was very refreshing.
Q. So you found they were open to you.
A. Yes, very open: even the ordinary farming people that we ended up talking to. There was one incident when Nick and I were backpacking, walking along a river bank and we ended up spending the night in a deserted barn. In the evening I sought out the local farmer to get some drinking water, and it turned out that he was a policeman. He gave us the water and then came by later with a whole basket full of cottage cheese and milk and rhubarb and all kinds of lovely things. He had studied philosophy at the University of Leningrad for five years and then taught Marxist philosophy in University of Riga for twenty years; then with the collapse of the Soviet empire and Marxist philosophy being no longer in favour, he had no job and so he ended up having to do subsistence farming with his wife and her brother. His salary as a policeman is barely enough to pay for petrol so they have to do subsistence farming. So he is a policeman and farmer -- and he loves it. We sat for many hours and talked.
Q. But do you think that the people in these countries need to hear something different then say people in England and New Zealand?
A. Yes, I think so, I think somehow one has to address the predicament of their conditioning which has been for the last fifty years through the Soviet system. So basically I had to get to know that first through their questions. I can speculate that part of their conditioning has been of a very suppressed mentality which has no chance of self-expression, so thereís the fear of self expression and of initiative. But also thereís been the security of a system which gives you enough to survive on. So thatís created an apathetic kind of mentality based both on fear and on being minimally taken care of. This is something that people talked about and would have to be addressed.
Sadness was prevalent and pervasive, one sensed what had happened there. It wasnít the sadness that you might have if you walked into the killing fields of Cambodia. There wasnít that kind of horror around. It was more the sadness of a culture which had been dominated by something very grey, very humourless and totally lacking in love. Also there had been economic mismanagement. So there was a pervading sense of how unnecessary and stupid it had all been, and the sadness of what people had to endure. But because there wasnít a lot of killing it didnít get depressing in that way.
I'd be speaking to someone in Latvian and I'd hear their story. Say, as of one man who had been sent to Siberia twice and now he's 75 and retired, he started to cry and we talked for two hours. Just reflecting on the sadness brought a lot of compassion and warmth and feeling for those people. And all the time it was interesting because there was an unveiling of history happening.
Q. Can you explain just some of the practicalities; how you slept, what you carried, how you ate?
A. We had minimal sized packs, Nick had a bigger pack than me, so he tended to carry more than me. We had middle-weight sleeping bags, bivvy bags -- which are kind of waterproof sack that you sleep in, some rain gear and a minimal amount of clothing. I used sandals.
Sometimes weíd stay in Bed and Breakfasts, sometimes weíd stay with people who had arranged things. Some people in Riga gave us a flat, people in Tallinn in Estonia gave us a flat, art students in Vilnius gave us a studio, and someone let us use their flat in St. Petersburg. So in the cities we tended to live in peopleís flats, but then out in the wilds we just lived in our bivvy bags, which was very difficult with the mosquitoes which were horrendous from Latvia onwards.
Our journey started in Poland in mid-May and we were there almost a week in two big national parks. From there we went to South-East Lithuania where there is a big national park; then on to another large wetland area in Lithuania. In Lithuania we travelled to the capital, Vilnius, then from Vilnius we went to Riga. In Riga we took a bus over to the coast and then we walked along the coast for three weeks, which was the major walking portion. Then we went back to Riga again and did a canoe trip east of Riga in the Gauja National Park which has a beautiful river. Then we went very briefly up to Tallinn in Estonia, and finished off with five days in St. Petersburg.
Q. Were you recognised as a religious person?
A. Oh definitely -- but in the cities we were often thought to be Hare Krishna. Especially in Riga, because Riga has a big Hare Krishna restaurant and a very compassionate soup kitchen. In the country the people didnít know really what we were but they knew I was some kind of religious person.
I stuck to the Vinaya even though people would always want to feed us. For instance, thereís a festival in Latvia on the longest day of the year in June, and itís big, bigger than Christmas, which they celebrate and they do a lot of eating and drinking all night, and we were with a family who were having a barbecue. They really wanted me to eat, you know, "have something to eat" and so on, so I said to Nick "You eat for me." So Nick nibbled on a few things. But I tried to show them how a bhikkhu lives; but not in an oppressive way.
Q. Did they understand after a while?
A. The people that we stayed with for longer periods of time respected it. Obviously people who we met for just an hour or two didnít really pick up on what the rules and the Vinaya structure were about. I think they just appreciated seeing a different kind of person. A lot of people seemed honoured that we would be there, because a lot of the places that we went to are just so off the map, so forgotten and the people feel like theyíve been cast aside. We were often treated like honoured guests.
Q. How do you see that trip now?
A. One of the most powerful memories for me is of a time when Nick and I were walking in Old Riga. In Old Riga youíll find pensioners begging; people who have been trapped between two political eras and who just canít make it. They are very poor and try to survive by selling little bits and pieces. One of these women came up to me thinking that I was a Hare Krishna person and she tried to sell Nick and I some postcards. I had to get to another place so we couldnít do anything right then but she seemed so embarrassed and so humiliated by having to ask to sell those little postcards. She looked quite intelligent, she probably had a PhD or something, and she looked about 60 years old. It just kind of broke my heart. So we went back about a quarter of an hour later and found her sitting on a bench looking at her postcards and we bought them at twice the price, and she was over the moon, she was so happy. It wasnít the kind of poverty you might see in Calcutta but there was something about those people who had lost their culture and who had no real stability and no possibility of income... it really broke my heart. And this is still with me.
Visually what stands out is the beauty of the huge pine forests which are mostly untouched. Because they havenít had much economic development theyíve remained quite pristine. So there are the beautiful nature images and then the images of people who are struggling to survive and being very generous with whatever they have. In the midst of that human difficulty and tragedy there is this goodness shining through, people not just dwelling in bitterness or in anger at the Soviet system but struggling with what they can do.
Q. Thinking personally, you were in your fiftieth year, and you went back into your roots, did you touch something deeper?
A. Yes, I think what it really touched was the feeling that my parentsí lives were tragic, but that Iíve found my roots in Dhamma. What I could see was the conditionality of my personality. I could see what some of that was; I felt really at home being able to hear Latvian which had been a foreign language in Canada. And even though I can speak English much, much better than I can speak Latvian, just being in a Latvian culture and hearing Latvian made me feel very much at home. So there was that feeling. But I could see that all thatís the conditioned mind; that some of my personality has been conditioned through that language and that culture. And obviously I was very grateful that my roots are in Dhamma; like Luang Por Chah would say: "Our real home."

Ajahn Viradhammo has subsequently received an invitation to teach
a ten-day retreat in Latvia; this will be in June of this year.