Forest SanghaNewsletter 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 setout with Nick Scott on a pilgrimage through the Baltic States. This is hardlythe Buddhist heartland, but of heartful significance to the Ajahn: hisparents fled Latvia when Stalin took over. He was born in Germany, but leftthere when he was seven to grow up in Canada. Last year then was the firsttime 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 adeep interest in my people’s country, which I’d so much heard about in mychildhood, and in speaking my mother’s tongue and finding out people’spersonal histories. Then there was the sadness of seeing the mistreatment ofpeople and the attempted destruction of a culture over the past fifty years.
What was surprising was how well it went and how everything came togetherso 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 therewere no real surprises; I had expected something like it from my readings andfrom what I’d talked about with my mother and other Latvians. Seeing it inreal life, however, is much different.
It was also interesting when we weren’t with people. Some of the birdwatching we did was fabulous: eagles and cranes and black storks and whitestorks and all kinds of water birds. But the overall feeling was that I wasvery grateful that my parents had escaped from Latvia!
There is ... The magic in just doing your best and trusting that things willsomehow work out OK; that the forces of goodness will provide.

Q. Was it a kind of tudong (pilgrimage)?
A. Well I didn’t go with that intention. I just was going more asa person whose heritage was Latvian. I didn’t go pindapata or seek alms. Nickwas there, he had money and took care of us, but it ended up that people werevery interested in what I was doing. Seeing something so exotic as a Buddhistmonk in the backwoods of Latvia was very fascinating for them. So it did endup being like a tudong in the sense that we made lots of contacts and peopleseemed to be very grateful for us being there. There was the magic of tudong,of spontaneous happenings through just being open and trusting and havingfaith.
Q. How do you think you can bring back a little bit of that magicto our monastery?
A. Well I think one of the big lessons of tudong, for me, alwaysis, and this time especially was, trust and faith. Life in a monastery ismore regulated by meetings, there isn’t the spontaneity of just taking offand walking which is a very free, liberating feeling. Because of thecomplexities of monastic life and because we live on alms, there can easilybe a tendency to worry. The magic is in just doing your best and trustingthat things will somehow work out OK; that the forces of goodness willprovide. That quality of faith is something that brings a lot of joy andsparkle 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 kindof vague contact in Estonia and a good contact in St Petersburg: but ourLatvian contacts were a bit vague. In some of the places we walked through wehad no contacts, and we just went without knowing anyone. In many ways thatwas the most interesting because then one has to live in complete faith. Thecontacts that we did have were the ones which created the most populoussituations for sharing Buddhist teachings with groups. We were invited toteach in Riga (Latvia); in Poland we did some teaching, just to small groupswho 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 sortof 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 contactwith, and that turned out to be a Kagyu group. We met them every evening andhad Dhamma discussion on several nights. St. Petersburg was the mostorganised venue: people had rented a school room and about thirty people werethere every night. One night we had a meeting in the Buriyat Temple, which isthe Buddhist Temple in St. Petersburg.
Q. What differences do you see between what you teach in those placesand the things that would come up, say, in Canada or here in England or NewZealand?
A. I taught so briefly to people there that it’s hard to say, butI should think the sense of freshness, of people not having had much contactwith Dhamma and being very fresh and grateful. That was very, very strong. Ithink what was different in their lives was the physical and socialdifficulties they’re facing in order to just pay the rent and have a place tosleep. So to hear someone talking Dhamma when most of the time the discussionis 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 endedup 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 desertedbarn. In the evening I sought out the local farmer to get some drinkingwater, and it turned out that he was a policeman. He gave us the water andthen came by later with a whole basket full of cottage cheese and milk andrhubarb and all kinds of lovely things. He had studied philosophy at theUniversity of Leningrad for five years and then taught Marxist philosophy inUniversity of Riga for twenty years; then with the collapse of the Sovietempire and Marxist philosophy being no longer in favour, he had no job and sohe 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 todo 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 tohear something different then say people in England and New Zealand?
A. Yes, I think so, I think somehow one has to address thepredicament of their conditioning which has been for the last fifty yearsthrough the Soviet system. So basically I had to get to know that firstthrough their questions. I can speculate that part of their conditioning hasbeen of a very suppressed mentality which has no chance of self-expression,so there’s the fear of self expression and of initiative. But also there’sbeen the security of a system which gives you enough to survive on. So that’screated an apathetic kind of mentality based both on fear and on beingminimally taken care of. This is something that people talked about and wouldhave to be addressed.
Sadness was prevalent and pervasive, one sensed what had happened there.It wasn’t the sadness that you might have if you walked into the killingfields of Cambodia. There wasn’t that kind of horror around. It was more thesadness of a culture which had been dominated by something very grey, veryhumourless and totally lacking in love. Also there had been economicmismanagement. So there was a pervading sense of how unnecessary and stupidit had all been, and the sadness of what people had to endure. But becausethere wasn’t a lot of killing it didn’t get depressing in that way.
I'd be speaking to someone in Latvian and I'd hear their story. Say, asof one man who had been sent to Siberia twice and now he's 75 and retired, hestarted to cry and we talked for two hours. Just reflecting on the sadnessbrought a lot of compassion and warmth and feeling for those people. And allthe time it was interesting because there was an unveiling of historyhappening.
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, sohe tended to carry more than me. We had middle-weight sleeping bags, bivvybags -- which are kind of waterproof sack that you sleep in, some rain gearand a minimal amount of clothing. I used sandals.
Sometimes we’d stay in Bed and Breakfasts, sometimes we’d stay withpeople who had arranged things. Some people in Riga gave us a flat, people inTallinn 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 wetended to live in people’s flats, but then out in the wilds we just lived inour bivvy bags, which was very difficult with the mosquitoes which werehorrendous from Latvia onwards.
Our journey started in Poland in mid-May and we were there almost a weekin two big national parks. From there we went to South-East Lithuania wherethere is a big national park; then on to another large wetland area inLithuania. In Lithuania we travelled to the capital, Vilnius, then fromVilnius we went to Riga. In Riga we took a bus over to the coast and then wewalked 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 theGauja National Park which has a beautiful river. Then we went very briefly upto 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 beHare Krishna. Especially in Riga, because Riga has a big Hare Krishnarestaurant and a very compassionate soup kitchen. In the country the peopledidn’t know really what we were but they knew I was some kind of religiousperson.
I stuck to the Vinaya even though people would always want to feed us.For instance, there’s a festival in Latvia on the longest day of the year inJune, and it’s big, bigger than Christmas, which they celebrate and they do alot of eating and drinking all night, and we were with a family who werehaving a barbecue. They really wanted me to eat, you know, "have something toeat" and so on, so I said to Nick "You eat for me." So Nick nibbled on a fewthings. But I tried to show them how a bhikkhu lives; but not in anoppressive way.
Q. Did they understand after a while?
A. The people that we stayed with for longer periods of timerespected it. Obviously people who we met for just an hour or two didn’treally pick up on what the rules and the Vinaya structure were about. I thinkthey just appreciated seeing a different kind of person. A lot of peopleseemed honoured that we would be there, because a lot of the places that wewent to are just so off the map, so forgotten and the people feel likethey’ve 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 Nickand I were walking in Old Riga. In Old Riga you’ll find pensioners begging;people who have been trapped between two political eras and who just can’tmake it. They are very poor and try to survive by selling little bits andpieces. One of these women came up to me thinking that I was a Hare Krishnaperson and she tried to sell Nick and I some postcards. I had to get toanother place so we couldn’t do anything right then but she seemed soembarrassed and so humiliated by having to ask to sell those littlepostcards. 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 wentback about a quarter of an hour later and found her sitting on a benchlooking at her postcards and we bought them at twice the price, and she wasover the moon, she was so happy. It wasn’t the kind of poverty you might seein Calcutta but there was something about those people who had lost theirculture and who had no real stability and no possibility of income... itreally broke my heart. And this is still with me.
Visually what stands out is the beauty of the huge pine forests which aremostly untouched. Because they haven’t had much economic development they’veremained quite pristine. So there are the beautiful nature images and thenthe images of people who are struggling to survive and being very generouswith whatever they have. In the midst of that human difficulty and tragedythere is this goodness shining through, people not just dwelling inbitterness or in anger at the Soviet system but struggling with what they cando.
Q. Thinking personally, you were in your fiftieth year, and youwent back into your roots, did you touch something deeper?
A. Yes, I think what it really touched was the feeling that myparents’ lives were tragic, but that I’ve found my roots in Dhamma. What Icould see was the conditionality of my personality. I could see what some ofthat was; I felt really at home being able to hear Latvian which had been aforeign language in Canada. And even though I can speak English much, muchbetter than I can speak Latvian, just being in a Latvian culture and hearingLatvian made me feel very much at home. So there was that feeling. But Icould see that all that’s the conditioned mind; that some of my personalityhas been conditioned through that language and that culture. And obviously Iwas 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.