Existing Member?

xEurasia Odyssey


RUSSIAN FEDERATION | Friday, 10 August 2018 | Views [331]

Atsagat Lama giving talk on Agvan Darzhiev, the 13th Dalai Lama's teacher

Atsagat Lama giving talk on Agvan Darzhiev, the 13th Dalai Lama's teacher


Our first surprise came when the taxi driver who picked us up from the train station didn’t take us to the hotel I had booked through booking.com, but to another one.  I kept trying to show him the paper with the reservation, but, of course, it was in English and not in Russian or Cyrillic. He insisted that we go into the lobby of the hotel he drove us to and as this was 11 at night, we had little choice. Through Google Translate and hand motions we learned that our hotel no longer existed and that their clients had been spread into other hotels across the city.  They kept the terms of our reservation, but the room was quite stuffy, had no windows, the shower and sink were in the middle of the room – which when traveling alone or as a couple is fine, but when traveling as friends is a bit of a nuisance –and the breakfast consisted of an almost inedible slice of packaged white bread lathered with butter. So much for the bad news.  What the hotel did do, and for which I am very grateful, was arrange for Arthur to be our driver/guide for a couple of day trips in the region.  Arthur was wonderful!  A good guide can make all the difference between a simply enjoyable trip and a stellar learning experience. As the two and a half days we spent with him were a continual mixture of traditions that could be quite confusing, I’ll try to organize the key aspects of the Christian, Buddhist and Shamanic sites by faith rather than chronologically as we experienced them.

 To start, however, just a bit of background on Ulan-Ude. It is one of the oldest settlements in Russia and was a major center of the ancient Hunnu (Xiongnu) Empire, which lasted from about 209 BCE to 93 CE and encompassed all of modern day Mongolia, Inner Mongolia, Buryatia and the surrounding regions. The Empire was a confederation of nomadic tribes and the nomadic tradition continued well into the 20th century.  The first Russians, Cossacks, appeared on the scene in 1666 to open as ostrog/fortress to foster trade with the East and collect tribute from the local population. The city sits at the confluence of the Ude and Selenga Rivers, both of which are part of the 360 rivers that flow into Lake Baikal. The Selenga is the longest river in Siberia, stretching over 1000 km, and forms a beautiful valley with mountains on either side. Ulan means ‘red’ and the Ude is high in mineral content and flows red, hence the name means ‘red river.’

 Most buildings in the ostrog were made of wood; the first masonry structure was the Odigitrievsky Cathedral dedicated to the Theotokos. The Church is also known in English as Our Lady of Smolensk, but I never heard that name used in town. This church is representative of the Russian Orthodox practice after the Nikon Reforms in the 1660s. Nikon was the Patriarch of Moscow who initiated a series of liturgical reforms based on a church council in 1666-1667. What he didn’t do was check with the clergy or the parishes about how they would implement the changes. Up until this time there had been a fair amount of freedom among the differing Russian Orthodox practices in how the liturgy was conducted. Nikon wanted to standardize everything and bring it in line with the Greek Orthodox tradition. Anyone who has spent much time in universities can see the parallel here; there is always the push and pull of decentralization vs. centralization and Nikon wanted central control, much the way many of our university presidents do today. He also did what many of our university presidents are doing and ran haywire over anyone who didn’t agree with him. Those who couldn’t, or wouldn’t agree, were forced underground or exiled.  Many of these ‘Old Believers’ went to Poland, where they tried to keep their practices alive. When Catherine the Great came to power and was concerned about movement on the Chinese front, she recognized she needed to send troops to the area. There was no way to support the troops, however, so she further exiled the Russian ‘Old Believers’ living in Poland to Siberia to work the land and provide food for her army. The ‘Old Believer Village’ about 50 km from Ulan-Ude is now a tourist attraction, but one that explains some of these traditions.  The Church is fairly new, but it houses some of the icons that were brought from Poland. The oldest is from the early 16th C, but it, as many of the others, is severely worn and the images are almost gone. There are also modern icons so the church creates a balance between old and new.  Across the street is the small museum which houses primarily agricultural tools, but also has a section of prehistoric animal skulls, bones and tusks, as well as some religious artifacts, including crosses and a few icons, including a traveling shrine. The blue Russian cross was especially interesting. There were two from the 1700s in the church and others probably not so old in the museum. The blue enamel background highlights the bonze high relief of the figure of God Father at the top, the dove above Jesus’ head and the feet pointing to the angle of the third cross near the bottom. There are a number of symbols on this cross that all relate back to the Old Believers’ faith.  Also in the museum was a wooden casket. It seems that a man must make his own casket and that for his wife each out of one tree. It is the man’s responsibility to make sure his wife is taken care of in the afterlife.

 When we got to the performance area, a concert was already underway for a group of Spanish tourists.  Two of their members participated in the story of a young girl meeting her future husband for the first time; marriages are arranged by the fathers even today, although, now, the young couple certainly has a say in the matter, which they didn’t before. The performance continued after the Spanish group left for us with a song about a girl leaving home to go live with her husband’s family that is actually sung in church and ended with an Amen. This tour included lunch, which this more than made up for the hotel’s shortcomings. The ‘Old Believers’ lunch consisted of a delicious soup, marinated home grown cucumbers, tomatoes, coleslaw, mashed potatoes with pork pieces, a variety of cakes, bread and something similar to Navajo fried bread.  All in all it was delicious and very filling.

 What is amazing to me is that the cause of this split from the current Russian Orthodox church are more or less five points, that were outlined in a 160 page document in the 1660s. They revolve around the spelling of Jesus’ name, the deletion of  ‘True’ in the Creed, the way to sign the cross, the deletion of 2 Prosphora, the addition of a third ‘alleluia’ in “Alleluia, Alleluia, glory to Thee, o God,” and the direction of the processional.  This ‘my way or the highway’ in religious matters has been a source of constant suffering throughout human history.

 Buddhism is based on alleviating human suffering and that was the principle on which the Ivolginsky Monastery was founded.  This monastery has a fairly unique history in that it seems it developed twice during otherwise repressive regimes. The first was in the mid-1700s when the main lama traveled to Moscow to request permission for the establishment of a Buddhist center in Verkhnaya Ivolga, ca. 30 km. outside Ulan-Ude. Catherine, who had exiled the Old Believers to the region for their ‘heretical’ Christian faith, granted the lama his request and approved Buddhism as an official Russian religion. For this act she, and all subsequent Tsars, were seen as the manifestation of White Tara, the representative of long life. Mothers are considered manifestations of Green Tara. Catherine called the lama the first Khambo Lama. The 12th Khambo Lama was a highly respected teacher and when passed on to the next realm in 1927 his body did not deteriorate. It is now on display in a specially built temple on the monastery grounds. The web said that the temple is only open for viewing eight times a year, so we must have been incredibly fortunate to walk right in and then be blessed with a blue knotted kata by the local priest. The body looks like leather, but there is a special energy that emits from the case where the body is housed. This lama passed before the religious purges of the 1930s initiated by Stalin. It is, therefore, even more amazing that it was precisely Stalin who allowed the monastery to reopen in 1946 after a group of Buryat monks took the signatures of 16 of the old lamas who had been exiled to the Soviet leader. It was the sole religious institution he permitted. The monastery now has seven temples, a university, the monks’ residences, a gallery of Buddhist art, a greenhouse where a fig tree grows as a reminder of the Bodhi Tree, and the residence of the head of the Russian Buddhists, Pandito Khambo Lama.

Another local Buddhist center with a renown former lama is the Atsagat Monastery near the Buryat Cultural Center. This was the monastery of Agvan Dorzhiev, one of the 13th Dalai Lama’s teachers, who is considered a manifestation of Nagarjuna. When he was a young man he journeyed to Tibet to join a monastery in the holy city. According to what the current lama told us, Lama Dorzhiev learned the eighteen year curriculum in eight. After obtaining his Geshe (doctorate) degree, he became a teacher to the 13th Dalai Lama. He was also an engineer and was responsible for the first hydro-electric dam in Tibet. When not working as an engineer he traveled extensively sharing Buddhist doctrine; he was the first to spread the word in Paris. Upon returning from his French mission, he was made Tibet’s Foreign Minister. When the English started meddling in the area, he urged the Dalai Lama to flee to Mongolia, where the head of Tibet remained for four months. Lama Dorzhiev stayed in his former homeland and after the Revolution, Lenin made him the Chairman of the Minority Ethnic Cultures ministry, but in 1937 he ran afoul of Stalin and was put into prison. In 1938 he miraculously vanished from his cell in a rainbow body (this is when the body dematerializes and only hair and nails remain). The current lama went on to explain that Lama Dorzhiev also had a connection to Nicholas II. It seems that Nicholas II didn’t have the son he needed as an heir and asked for help from a variety of sources. The lama meditated and was told to go to his teacher for help. His teacher, who was over 90 at the time, responded by saying, “I don’t know how I’m going to feel inside a European lady’s body.”  Alexei Nikolaevich was born eighteen months later. The story continued with the miracles worked by Lama Dorzhiev in that during the war no bombs fell within 50 meters of the monastery and in 1942 when the Russians shot down a German plane, they found a map with a circle protecting the monastery from harm in the pilot’s cap.  Supposedly Hitler had a copy of the Kalichakra text in his bunker and wanted to protect this site.

 From our driver/guide, Arthur, we learned of a place further north were there is the site of another miracle by a lama who left in a rainbow body in 1916.  Contrary to the journeys taken by Lama Dorzhiev, Soodei Lama spent his life between two villages in the Barguzinsky district of Buryatia. He was known for working miracles, and at the site where he meditated an image of a dancing Yanzhima, a form of Saraswati materialized on a rock.  Saraswati is prayed to for fertility. those who want a husband, and those involved in arts, education, and religion. Normally she is a Hindu goddess, so I was a bit surprised that she is worshipped in Russia as a Buddhist deity but roday people come from all over to see the stone and its image. Arthur’s video on the centennial celebration of  Soodei Lama’s passing can be found at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TaxEIuxKWnc

The newest Buddhist center in Ulan-Ude is the Rinpoche Bagsha center on a hill behind Ulan-Ude. The view from the center is fabulous as the entire region can be seen, including the confluence of the two rivers. Construction at the center is on-going as it was only opened about ten years ago.

Down in the center of town, the main square is decidedly not religious.  It houses the largest head of Lenin in the world. Across the main square is a marvelous looking opera house with a musical fountain in front, i.e., the spouts dance to the harmony of whatever music happens to be playing at the time.  Down Lenin Street heading to the river, is the pedestrian zone and a very nice gallery that had an exhibition with some fine Buddhist and Buryat sculptures including that of the Princess of the Steppes, a Nagini, and an intriguing etching of a feminine figure as Mantra. Not far from the end of the street further along the river is a Remembrance Square dedicated to those tortured during Stalin’s reign. 

On the last morning in town, I had the great good fortune to be able to witness the preparations for a Lo Saatan (the spirit of water) shamanic ritual. Arthur arranged for us to get to the center and just by chance we were able to speak to the shaman as he was making his preparations.  I will write more on this ritual and compare it to those in Mongolia in a later blog. Suffice it to say at this point, that Lo Saatan, as a female spirit, lives in the Underworld and acts both in that realm and this one. Female spirits are only active in the upper world through the efforts of the shaman.  After the preparations, we went over to the office and the shaman I met on Orkhon Island was there, so I could ask him a few more questions with Arthur’s translation help.

Our brief trip to Ulan-Ude was filled with new insights and perspectives.  Arthur was a wonderful help and I’m grateful to him and to all the people at each of the sacred sites for sharing their traditions and ideas with us. We now head on to Mongolia for different Buddhist and Shamanic traditions.

Tags: cities, religious sites


Add your comments

(If you have a travel question, get your Answers here)

In order to avoid spam on these blogs, please enter the code you see in the image. Comments identified as spam will be deleted.

About krodin

Follow Me

Where I've been


Photo Galleries

My trip journals

See all my tags 



Travel Answers about Russian Federation

Do you have a travel question? Ask other World Nomads.