Japanese Buddhism in Kyrgyzstan

Driving to a Japanese Buddhist monastery – the only of its kind in Central Asia – I look up excitedly at the passing mountain slopes, to see if I can catch a glimpse of the temple to which we are destined.

One lonely looking structure on the mountainside looks temple-like, but I find out (thankfully before I ask) that it is in fact one of the many mausoleums one finds in Kyrgyz cemeteries. The less outstanding tombs and headstones surrounding it then become quite apparent.

As in the majority of former Soviet Union republics, Kyrgyzstan has a dacha thing going on, where those living in the cities and towns have summer houses to which they retreat in the heat of summer, where they grow vegetables, cook shashlik and so on.

It is towards one of these expanses of dacha reaching up the mountainside that we drive; small allotments with modest ‘houses’, some mere ruins, some with tended gardens; most are empty, being too early in the season for it to be comfortable to stay, especially with the mountain weather.

We pull in beside one dacha, with a beautiful Buddhist mural painted on the side of one building, with two smaller buildings either side and a modest but well-tended garden stretching out in front of them. There is a path leading from the buildings to the outhouse with rocks to hop between, stones delicately balanced atop of each other at the crux of each corner, daffodils bursting from beneath the snowmelt, and a tin roof overhanging an old Soviet oven with a bucket underneath to catch the rainwater.

We are greeted by Utkur, a quiet-spoken and very welcoming Siberian from Altai in Russia. A former monk, he traded in the separated nature of monastic life for samsara, for material life and the odd treat. Utkur still cares for the monastery, conducts the chants and welcomes all who wish to visit and to pray.

We enter one of the small buildings, taking off our shoes and dropping our various belongings beside them. The dacha is generously heated, we immediately become very warm, as we enter a room with a bright and beautiful rug and an ornate shrine with various Buddhist trinkets and treasures. There is a large drum beside the shrine, and there are Japanese and English renderings of the Lotus Sutra on the shrine, window ledge and walls. We are given square cushions on which to sit, and we all kneel to face the shrine.

Utkur knocks the gong, before beginning the mantra, “Naaam-uuuuu-myooooh hoooooo reeeeeng gehhhhhhh kyooooooo“, in a deeply resonant, throaty chant that sends goosebumps shooting down my arms and makes the hairs stand up on the back of my neck.

After three chants, three bows, Utkur turns to face us, bows, and chants the sutra three more times to greet us. It is an intense greeting. Certainly beats a handshake, which all of a sudden seems somewhat superficial.

We go upstairs – an awkwardly steep ascent up odd-spaced wooden slats leading to the attic-cum-second floor – to sit cross-legged around a shin-high table and drink chai from the mountains, and eat food. The simplicity is enchanting, after you’ve made yourself comfortable. For me, it is preferable to the different discomfort of sitting in rigid chairs worrying about whatever standards of etiquette prevail at table. Sit and eat how you will.

Our second overnight visit to the monastery, we had a couple of other characters present.

Utkur’s mother, a sage Siberian woman who cooked some stupendously moreish fried bread, refilled our cups with chai and squatted down to wash dishes in steel pots; and an older Russian gentleman, we will call Yuri, who is wearing simple clothes around a thin frame with a picture of a guru in his necklace, and who dodged the question as to where he was from with, “I am from the Kingdom of God.”

Yuri asks whether I am Christian or Buddhist or something else, and I say via my Russian-speaking friend, “I don’t like saying I am Christian or Buddhist or anything else because I think they are all attempting to approach the same thing in different ways, for better or worse, and I like different aspects of each.” See, two can play at that game, Yuri.

Yuri agrees with me, and insists one of us say a prayer before we eat. Nobody has a prayer to offer, so I have everyone put their hands together before saying the Lord’s Prayer, which most do not understand or have never heard in English before.

We eat a vegetable curry, pick at bits and bobs, have seconds, some have thirds, and have conversations from our different walks of life. I think it is deceptively beautiful that there is something connecting humans from the United Kingdom, Siberia, India and Israel all in the attic of a Japanese Buddhist monastery on the side of a mountain in Kyrgyzstan.

After being fed to the hilt and having our offer to help wash up refused by Yuri – for we are ‘not holy enough’ – we make our way to the other hut to lay down for the evening.

We lay mats on the floor, on which I put my flimsy sleeping bag and jumper as a pillow. On the wall there is a calendar with quotes from Buddhist texts, and there are cupboards holding reams of books in Russian and English on various senseis and gurus, including several on Mohatma Gandhi.

Yuri pops in to say goodnight, and to conduct a session of yoga with us four unholy heathens.

I have since stripped down to my boxer shorts, and kneel down facing Yuri in my full glory, as he directs us to place our right hand on our heart and our left hand on our left knee with the palm facing upwards. We are directed via our bilingual friend to make certain affirmations and to go through the motions of the yogic practice. Yuri invites us to the ashram being built here in Kyrgyzstan before saying farewell.

We lay down, knowing we are to wake up before dawn breaks the following morning, at about the same time some of us have been going to sleep the past few days.

Tiiiing… Tiiiiing… Tiiiing…

Utkur comes quietly into our hut at 5.30am, tinging a triangle, giving us a gentle alarm that is not alarming at all really. We rise and put some clothes on before revisiting the shrine, to begin the day the Japanese Buddhist way.

We entry the shrine silently, and sit on the square cushions placed on the floor for each of us. We each take a skin drum the size of a tennis racket, and a wooden stick with which to hit it. I can hear rain outside, hitting the tin roof, plopping into various buckets placed there for that purpose, and applauding into the window of our room.

Utkur knocks the gong, irradiating the room with its resonance, before kneeling to face the big drum next to the shrine, picking up two thick wooden drumsticks.

There is an eerie, beautiful silence, but for the rain.

Utkur begins the mantra, beating the drum in front of him as he chants, “Naaam-uuuuu-myooooh hoooooo reeeeeng gehhhhhhh kyooooooo!”

His voice is so deep and guttural it sounds almost like an engine. One chant finished, the half-dozen so people in the room repeat the mantra, chanting together, “Naaam-uuuuu-myooooh hoooooo reeeeeng gehhhhhhh kyooooooo!” Hitting our tinnier drums, we keep Utkur’s beat, which I feel in my naval and my chest as much as I hear it in my ears. All is resonant.

Naaam-uuuuu-myooooh hoooooo reeeeeng gehhhhhhh kyooooooo!”

We chant the mantra for an hour, which goes in a whizz and a whirr, eyes closed and mind absorbed completely in the chant. Except for noticing the total numbness of my legs in the last quarter of an hour or so, my mind was was quiet thoughtless.

We finish on the hour, the room still resounding with drum and voice. Utkur chants a prayer by himself, keeping beat with a metallic sounding instrument.

After this, we bow our heads for 15 minutes or so of silent meditation.

My issue with meditation – in the form of a silent thoughtlessness – is that my mind takes some time to quieten before I get to a stage where I would say I am in a meditative state.

After the last hour of chanting the lotus mantra, though, I am already ‘there’.

Gently conscious of the dawn’s birds chirping away, and the steady drip-drip-drip of the rain outside; no words, no thoughts, just awareness. The moment is perfectly, timelessly serene, and beautiful.

Yet we have to return to words and actions and life.

We bow and chant facing the shrine three times before turning inwards and bowing and chanting towards each other three times.

I stretch my numb legs and open my eyes unwillingly. It is about 7.30am. The day has begun, the right way.

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