Chögyal Namkhai Norbu’s First Retreat in Buryatia

Nick Dudka

Chögyal Namkhai Norbu first came to Buryatia in 1992. I was fortunate enough to be one of the organizers of that truly unique, amazing retreat. It took place near Lake Baikal, on the slightly smaller Kotokel lake, which is connected with Baikal by underground waters, and there were only 120 people present. Later, while attending other retreats, I saw how hundreds and thousands of people came to the great master, and was shocked by the privacy, in a sense, the intimacy of that first retreat in Buryatia.

Rinpoche with people at the retreat in Buryatia, 1992. All photos are by Igor Ustyuzhanin.

The background to this retreat is very old. My personal interest in Buddhism arose around the mid-80s, when I, an artist, a seeker of oriental images, returned to Buryatia from Ukraine and met my first spiritual teacher, Dharma Dodi Lama. He was a Gelug teacher with an absolutely amazing biography, who served 14 years in Stalin’s camps. He gave initiations, some instructions, and by about the end of the 80s and the beginning of the 90s, I had a completely vague, abstract idea of ​​Buddhism, the path, methods and practice. All this was fragmentary, very vague and seemed completely unreal for this life.

In the late 1980s, I came across a samizdat [underground press in Soviet times – ed.] book by Chögyal Namkhai Norbu, Talks in Conway. At that time, samizdat was highly regarded. There were almost no copiers, and people made photocopies of books, arranging through acquaintances in offices or factories. It was impossible to read it, because each subsequent copy lost its print quality and I already had the 8th or 10th copy of that book.

Talks in Conway made a strong impression on me, putting in order the previous 5-6 years of practice. A few words of Rinpoche revealed such clarity in my mind that it became distinct where to move, how to move on this path and what the path itself is. I realized that this is the teacher I would like to see.

People at the retreat: Batodalai Dugarov in the front, Nick Dudka behind him.

By that time, I was already intensively studying the Tibetan language, and I really wanted to talk with Tibetans, receive teachings in Tibetan, etc. At that time it was unthinkable: there were neither books nor Internet. But after reading Talks in Conway, I realized that in order to communicate with this teacher, I would not need Tibetan, but English. I gave up Tibetan for a while and began to study English intensively in order to meet Rinpoche.

By 1990, we had already formed a group of fellow-thinkers who wanted to meet Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche. There were 3-5 of us, and we tried in every possible way to find at least some material related to the Dzogchen teachings and Rinpoche’s lineage.

Due to my natural activity, I started writing to Merigar. At that time, I could already write something crooked and clumsy in English. I asked how one could get teachings and some literature. Merigar responded with great joy and began to send me booklets, brochures, books – something in English, something in Italian. It was remarkable.

Rinpoche giving teaching

My very close friend Volodya Bardakov and I – now he is a wonderful doctor of Tibetan medicine in Kharkov, Ukraine, and then, fortunately, he lived here in Buryatia – did some personal retreats, having no transmission, no initiation, no knowledge, and no understanding, just a passionate desire to develop in this direction and move along this path.

At that time, Volodya lived in a small village 300 km from Ulan-Ude. Even now it is not so easy to get there, but then it was almost impossible. Nevertheless, I would come to him in the village, then we would walk together into the taiga [boreal or snow forest – ed.]. He knew those places, we would find a winter hunting cabin and do retreats there for a week or 10 days. I don’t remember exactly, but maybe we did three or four such retreats. We had no shadow of doubt, no feeling that we were doing something wrong. We read brochures in which Rinpoche explained everything clearly, and if there was something unclear, we turned to our Bible, Talks in Conway.

In 1991, there was a rumor that Fabio Andrico was coming to St. Petersburg, for the first time on the territory of the former Soviet Union. We already knew who Fabio was and what he taught. Of course, I rushed there with great pleasure and took part in that retreat. We had a wonderful translator, Lena, we did Yantra Yoga and Fabio joked a lot.

Rinpoche showing how to play drums in the practice of the guardians.

When we learned that Rinpoche was going to visit us soon, we began to prepare. It was the summer of 1992. About 100 people came to that retreat from all over the former Soviet Union. Also, about 20 foreigners arrived, including Annalen Gull, Andy Lukianowicz, John Shane, Jean Macintosh, Naomi Zeitz, etc., with whom we immediately found a common language, as if we were not seeing each other for the first time. It was an absolutely amazing retreat.

Irkutsk photographer Igor Ustyuzhanin made many beautiful photographs that very well conveyed the atmosphere, the time and state of Rinpoche. Rinpoche could be reached with a hand and he did not leave a single question unanswered. He saw your every glance and preceded your question with a ready-made answer. Then I, of course, became enraptured. Something for what I had been preparing for all these years switched on.

I often remember that first retreat and the experiences that happened there. During the first 4-5 days of the retreat, there was the summer heat, the sun was blazing and some people fainted. For us local people, it was customary, but for visitors it was hot. Rinpoche was like an unyielding lion, like the sun. And the sun cannot burn the sun, so he felt great.

On the last day of the retreat, the sky was suddenly covered with leaden clouds. They hung directly over us, touching the trees, and threatened to rain down. The retreat took place in the open air on a small dance floor that could accommodate everyone and there was still room, and there was no umbrella or awning in case of rain.

Ganapuja

When we do the practice of Ganapuja, in Buryatia it is not customary to just offer a piece of meat and drink a sip of wine. We prepare huge fifty-liter cauldrons with meat – lamb, beef, broth – and vats of alcohol for a sumptuous feast.

I was sitting near Rinpoche because I was recording the retreat on a cassette recorder. Rinpoche gave lungs as usual, after which we had to do a Ganapuja and say goodbye. Meanwhile, the clouds thickened and thickened, and the first drops of rain fell. The organizers, who were taking care of the Ganapuja, began to glance at the sky, realizing that if it rained, our entire luxurious banquet would be spoiled.

Then Rinpoche quietly said to Fabio in Italian, “Give me some wine.” Fabio handed Rinpoche a bottle of champagne. Rinpoche opened it, took a glass that came to hand, and began to do Serkyem, performing several times, as I later understood, its last part. Rinpoche spoke words quickly, poured champagne and sprinkled behind him. Then he happily put down the glass with the words: I’ve done everything, I’ve done everything, I’ve done everything,” and he began to whistle something.

Rinpoche at the teaching

Immediately, raising my eyes to the sky, I saw how the thunderous, swollen clouds, like a curtain in a theater, instantly flew to the sides, and above there were ordinary clouds that did not carry rain but graciously provided a covering from the sun. After that we did an amazing Ganapuja, naturally, we ate all the vats of meat, drank everything that was meant to be drunk, and at the end of the Ganapuja everyone was in a blissful and peaceful mood. Rinpoche was pleased and laughed, it was clear that he was very happy, like all of us. He, as usual, said goodbye to everyone. At that moment, I raised my head, since Rinpoche was sitting higher on the throne, and a large raindrop fell on me exactly in the place of the third eye. I took it as a good sign.

When we, joyful and benevolent, boarded the buses and began to share our impressions, it turned out that a raindrop fell on almost everyone’s head. Then I realized that this was the teacher’s blessing. During the retreat, the teacher managed to offer so much knowledge, information and faith to the students, and everyone took something of their own. I’m sure none of the 120 people who were there have left the Community. Some are already, unfortunately, no longer alive, but all the rest have continued to follow the teachings.

At the end of that retreat, Rinpoche invited me to paint the Merigar Gönpa, and in April 1993 I went to Italy. There were several teams: one was engaged in external painting, the other painted the walls in the directions of the cardinal points. We painted flowers, decorations and mantras over the front doors, but the whole design was, of course, done by Rinpoche himself. Later, another team painted the columns and a Tibetan couple painted the lineages of the transmission of teachings – Nyingma, Gelug, and so on – on the walls.

People at the Buryat retreat: Serafim Sidorov and Farida Malikova.

When I was working on the painting, at the same time the amazing artist Drugu Choegyal Rinpoche was invited to Merigar. I bombarded him with questions about how to stretch and prime the canvas, how to mix paints, etc. During that time, I became very close to him, and on the wall with the twelve Tonpas that he painted, I helped him draw one Tonpa  that emerged from the egg.

Now, after so many years that I am with a teacher, in the teaching and engaged in Tibetan painting, I can say that for me Rinpoche seems to be the sun, which is always present in the sky, regardless of whether it is cloudy or not, night outside or day. It is happiness to be able to meet such a great master in this life, receive the Teaching and carry its transmission within oneself. Like the fire of the sun, it will never go out, and it depends on us, Rinpoche’s disciples, who continue his lineage, his Teachings.

Therefore, I try to follow Rinpoche’s teachings and be useful, living here in Buryatia, in Russia, on planet Earth, doing something for others. Since I studied as an artist, first doing European painting, and then Buddhist thangka painting, I try to spread this in every possible way both within the community and outside.

Rinpoche showing steps of the Dance of the Vajra

In 2020, while everyone was sitting at home during the pandemic, I published several books to show the art of thangka so that people can move, like on a bridge, to the spiritual path. One of them is Dzogchen – Path of Thangka, also a huge album Thangka – Art of Meditation, Philosophy and Yoga and several other books. I am happy that His Holiness the Dalai Lama himself wrote the foreword to the album. And this autumn I plan to start a thangka painting course at the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow.

The inspiration for all my activities is the Teacher. Every day of my life I wake up with the thought of the Teacher and fall asleep with the thought of him. Because he, like the sun, inspires, warms, awakens everything to life. After all, without the sun there would be no life and the sprout would not grow. Observing and communicating with him for over 30 years, I saw how compassionate he was with people, how he tried to help people in different ways. It is very important for me.

Now, when there are chitchats in the community about his successor and the continuation of the Teachings, it seems to me that each of Rinpoche’s disciples is a successor, each of Rinpoche’s disciples is a continuer and carries the Teachings of a great Teacher. This light depends on each of us. If we continue this Teaching and carry the fire of this sun within us, then this fire will shine on everyone until awakening.

Editor’s note: This historic retreat was organised by a group of practitioners, including Batodalai Dugarov, Nick Dudka and students of the well-known Buryat author and teacher Bidia Dandaron.

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