For me it all began with my interest in philosophical questions about the nature of reality and consciousness. After getting acquainted with Western thinkers, I turned my attention to the East, and the first available thing was Krishnaism. I read Bhagavad-gita, then switched to the Upanishads, began to study Hindu Tantra and Kashmir Shaivism, and enthusiastically discovered Taoism and Zen. I became fascinated by the philosophy of Madhyamaka-Prasangika, and, of course, I couldn’t miss the books of Carlos Castaneda. However, soon I understood that I was most attracted to Vajrayana Buddhism: it seemed to me more accessible and very appealing.
In the early 90s, there was almost no Buddhist literature in Minsk, Belarus. I used to go to the Lenin Library, the main library of the city, look there for books criticizing Buddhism-Lamaism, and try to find something useful in them.
During my short Krishnaism period I met a man who is now called Bhairavananda Avadhuta. At that time he had a common name, and we often sat in the evenings in the kitchen, conducting philosophical conversations, studying books and meditating. Soon my school friend Alexey Danilov and several other people joined us. Thus the founding group that later became the Minsk Dzogchen Community came into being.
After that I met Buddhists from other cities: St. Petersburg, Vilnius, Kaunas. My friends and I used to visit them, borrow books on Buddhist philosophy, return home, photocopy them and take them back. At that time in Belarus, a photocopy was not cheap, and it was not as easy to make it as it is now. Then from these books we learned something.
In 1991, my friends and I decided to go to St. Petersburg and visit the Buddhist Datsan Gunzechoney on the Black River. There we met the abbot Samaev. This was the first lama I met in person. We waited for him for a long time in the reception room, and we were treated to some very old, almost wooden sweets with some tea. The abbot talked to us, found out who we were, gave us refuge, and we, joyful, travelled back to Minsk. In a sense, this was our first introduction to Buddhism.
In the summer of 1991, we went to Buryatia to meet with the Dalai Lama and to Vladivostok. For me it was also a honeymoon trip, since I had just got married. We went there with our entire community of eight people. First, we arrived in Ulan-Ude. The atmosphere was very strange there. For example, in the main square of the city there was a huge head of Lenin inside which a homeless person lived, and along the way we met some rather weird characters. We stayed in the city for some time and went to the Ivolginsky Datsan to attend the Dalai Lama’s teachings.
Arriving at the Datsan, we found that although it looked like a decent pioneer camp instead of the pioneer heroes there were temple buildings where lamas in yellow and burgundy clothes passed back and forth. At that time our knowledge was bookish, and we had a poor idea of how the teaching is transmitted in the living tradition.
In those days, the Dalai Lama gave the Avalokiteshvara empowerment. This was our first initiation. The Dalai Lama surprised and fascinated us, he talked about difficult things in simple language. It was really great. He radiated warmth and joked a lot. At some point during the initiation, a goat approached the place of teaching, an ordinary goat with a rope. At first people wanted to take him away, but the Dalai Lama said: “Leave the goat. He also came to hear the teaching. Who knows, maybe in the next life he will become human and will be a Rinpoche.”
After that we went to Vladivostok. It was also a very interesting trip with a lot of adventures. We arrived at Hasan, the crossing point of three borders – Korea, China and Russia. After that, my wife and I separated from the group and went to the Aginsky Datsan in the Trans-Baikal Territory, where the Dalai Lama continued to teach.
Then we returned home and, inspired, began to practice. I made friends with Serafim Sidorov, who was involved in Tibetan medicine. He also used to help me get Buddhist books. I followed the Gelug tradition then because the Dalai Lama was from that tradition and I received teachings from him. I also used to go to St. Petersburg to attend a Gelug teacher Geshe Jampa Tinley’s lectures and talk with St. Petersburg Buddhists.
Once Seraphim gave me a photocopy of Namkhai Norbu’s book The Crystal and the Way of Light, and it was my first encounter with the Dzogchen teaching. I remember that I thought, “Wow, Dzogchen is great. But Gelug is also cool!” When I read this book, an extraordinary clarity arose in my mind about the primordial state, rigpa, the path. This amazing book has played a significant role in my life. It was like a bolt of lightning that changed my perception of the world. It was a very unusual experience.
By that time there were already 12-15 of us and new folks appeared. We did practices meeting at somebody’s apartment. We created a certain schedule, got together, prepared thematic lectures on Buddhism and did meditations based on the teachings that we received from the Dalai Lama. Then in 1992 it turned out that Namkhai Norbu was going to visit Moscow, St. Petersburg, Ulan-Ude, Riga and Vilnius to give teachings.
It was easiest to go to Vilnius because in those days we were tight with money. We went to a retreat, which was held near Vilnius in the Shilas health resort. Namkhai Norbu came there, taught Dzogchen, and there was such an impression that here it was, a live real lama. With the Dalai Lama, for example, there was a great distance. There were many people, about 1000 people at his teachings, and in Vilnius it was a rather small personal retreat, about 60 people, mostly Lithuanians.
We met different people there, including Jim Valby. He was absolutely charming and had also just met Rinpoche. We swam together in the lake, and he played the violin for us. Namkhai Norbu was close, we went for walks with him and asked him questions about things that worried us. It was a very warm, human interaction. This made an absolutely lasting impression. Later, when we came to the big retreats, in this sense it was more difficult.
All experiences were fresh and powerful, and the practices of joint meditation were accompanied by vivid states of emptiness and clarity. Rinpoche, as always, gave a direct introduction to the Dzogchen teachings, some explanations and lungs of ritual practices. After this trip, the direction of our practice was finally determined.
At that time, we had financial difficulties, and we continued to gather at home: one time at one person’s, the other time at another’s. Then at some point we managed to find a place.
It was incredibly difficult to organize something in Belarus. The country was already reactionary in those years, and it was not easy to invite someone and do a retreat. Once we invited Adriana Dal Borgo for the Dance of the Vajra. Everything happened in winter in the Sosny quarters near Minsk. We managed to make a Mandala and rent a local school. The school was not heated and it was terribly cold. It was definitely an unusual experience for Adriana. We did our best, but I think it wasn’t easy for her anyway.
We continued to study and practice Dzogchen. We did Guruyoga, practices on the special days, calendar Ganapujas – everything that is usual in the Dzogchen Community. We practiced Yantra Yoga, made a Mandala and danced the Vajra Dance. Although we wanted to invite Namkhai Norbu to Minsk, due to his busy schedule and our limited possibilities, Rinpoche never visited us.
Nevertheless, in 1997 we managed to invite to Minsk the Bonpo teacher Nyima Dagpa Rinpoche, who also taught Dzogchen. We wanted to expand the community so that there were more people and the opportunity for renting premises arose again. We printed flyers inviting people to attend the teachings of a real Tibetan master, and covered the entire city with them. The government reaction was very negative and the local press accused us of inviting a fascist lama.
We rented a boarding house outside the city, but many obstacles arose. There was a terrible frost with wind and rain, the trees were broken, power lines were torn, and the electricity was cut off. Instead of the expected 100 people, 340 people came, because this was the first visit of a Bonpo master in the territory of the former USSR. Everything got out of hand. We couldn’t feed the people because the kitchen was electric. We had to find another way. On the other hand, Nyima Dagpa Rinpoche gave excellent Dzogchen instructions. Many people came to us from the Moscow and St. Petersburg Dzogchen Communities. In the end, despite all the obstacles, we were able to do it and it was a wonderful retreat.
Although we focused on Dzogchen practice, we went to retreats of other teachers such as Palden Sherab Rinpoche and Tsewang Dongyal Rinpoche, Chagdud Tulku Rinpoche and other masters. For many years, when Namkhai Norbu came to Russia, we attended the Moscow retreats. Personally, Dzogchen fascinated me with its simplicity, clarity and essence compared to the deep, but very extensive Tantric teachings.
In 1994, Namkhai Norbu gave our community the name Jigdrelling (Place Beyond Fear). Probably because despite the fact that we were born in a country where there was no Dharma before and the government of the country is still very negatively disposed towards any teachings except Christianity, we managed to create a Dzogchen Community and establish regular practice.
In 1999 I emigrated to America, and people still continue to gather in Minsk and practice, but that’s another story.