The year 2022 will undoubtedly go down in history as a chapter of painful transition from a global pandemic to a war (which some call a military operation) that has shaken Europe and the world.
The active participation in the war of Buryats, Kalmyks, and Tuvans, combatants from the three Buddhist regions in Russia, has been a cause of much controversy and debate. Buddhist lamas blessing soldiers, and Buddhist temples and statues being built with the help of the defense minister of the country leading the war are undoubtedly topics for deep reflection. How does the taking of human lives relate to Buddhist practice? And how do the blessings of Buddhist teachers help people on the battlefield?
As BDG’s correspondent for Eastern Europe and Russia, my focus over the past few years has been the spread of Vajrayana Buddhism in these regions, and especially in the Buddhist republics of Buryatia, Kalmykia, and Tuva, which I have had the good fortune to visit. However, since 24 February, the subject of Buddhism in Russia, and all other aspects of life in this much-loved country, has taken on new dimensions that I am carefully reconsidering. Of course, this does not refer to Buddhism per se as a doctrine, philosophy, and practice, but to the historical, political, social, and economic events that accompany its spread in different regions.
As a Bulgarian who grew up in a communist society with a strong Russian influence, and as someone who has devoted more than half my life to the study of Buddhism, I found my spiritual home in those magical republics of Buryatia, Kalmykia, and Tuva, of which most of my friends had never even heard. The kindness, humility, and sincere faith of the people in these countries have been a source of inspiration to me. Some of my friends there have helped me to feel how they experience war, as ethnic minorities facing possible mobilization to fight against a brotherly people. The situation is inexpressibly sad, as all war is sad and horrific yet an integral aspect of human history. I do not know how much the Buddhist faith can help these people, or help them kill with compassion, but one thing is certain: Buddhist teachers can help us to deal with the turbulent times in which we live.
This past year also saw the slow and gradual recovery of physical meetings with Buddhist teachers and the resumption of live teachings, while online contact continued in full force. His Holiness the Dalai Lama was one of the first teachers to reinstate in-person teachings. Following his visit to Ladakh in July, His Holiness is now in Bodh Gaya to give teachings, with more than 60,000 pilgrims expected to attend.*
Even in my own country, Bulgaria, with its modest spread of Buddhism, three Vajrayana teachers visited and gave teachings between August and December. On 20 August, Kenpo Ramesh Negi and Kenpo Samten, representatives of the Drugpa Kagyu tradition, arrived in Bulgaria. From 28 August–3 September, Kenpo Ramesh taught on the Thirty-Seven Practices of the Bodhisattvas (Tib. gyalsé laklen so dün ma), an important text by Gyalsé Tokmé Zangpo (1297–1371), which gives instructions on how to follow the bodhisattva path. Khenpo Ramesh gave the teachings at the center of the Bodhichitta Foundation, which he founded as a branch of Kampagar Monastery, near the town of Kazanlak.**
In October, Ven. Phuntsho Namgyal visited Bulgaria and gave an oral transmission and teachings on the practice of Orgyen Norla, Guru Rinpoche, in the form of Dzambala, the Buddha of Prosperity. Originally from Bhutan, Phuntsho Namgyal is an accomplished teacher training in the Ngagyur Nyingma Institute of Namdrling Monastery (officially Thegchog Namdrol Shedrub Dargyeling), the world’s largest teaching center of the Nyingma school. At present he resides in Bhutan, teaching at Sangchen Pemagatsal.
In December, Pema Rinpoche, founder of the Palyul Center Bulgaria, visited and gave teachings on “How to Cope in These Difficult Times” and an oral transmission of the Dzambala prayer and mantra. Pema Rinpoche was born in Kham, and completed his monastic education at Namdroling Monastery under the guidance of His Holiness Penor Rinpoche. He founded the Palyul Center Bulgaria in 2011 as part of the Palyul Dharma Center global project under the patronage of Penor Rinpoche.
During the teachings, Pema Rinpoche advised his students to chant the prayer and mantra of Guru Rinpoche, who had predicted hard times to come. His mantra is powerful, and for people who have faith in him it can be of great help in such times. Pema Rinpoche also advised people not to lose touch with the master whose mind remains connected with those of his disciples, although he is far away, and gave instructions on how to cope with our present difficulties:
At the moment, we are inundated with a tremendous amount of negative information, whether it is with COVID and other diseases, or the war that is so close to us, but also with other wars that do not stop. As far as diseases are concerned, the important thing is not to worry because that makes us more vulnerable. There have always been illnesses and difficult times. The important thing is not to worry. In the same way, wars have always occurred, but we need to carefully take in information and calm our minds, develop compassion, move on with our lives, and support our families. We also need to remember the good things in the world and how many wonderful people there are, that there are bodhisattvas living among us who can be our support.
Javor Konstantinov, who co-chairs Palyul Center Bulgaria and is a Dharma practitioner of long experience, shared his impressions of Pema Rinpoche’s visit to Bulgaria especially for BDG:
After three years of not visiting the center due to the COVID-19 pandemic and other difficulties, the appearance of Pema Rinpoche was accompanied by many positive emotions. He was able to meet each and every one of us, bringing back our smiles and uplifting us. It was extremely energizing to observe this and how everyone heard what they needed. Rinpoche gave energy to the whole sangha, about 40 people, and within three days he met with each one of us. It was very inspiring for me to see how a kind word, a smile, and enlightened energy can lift so many people and give them advice on how to move on.
In an interview with BDG last year, when Javor and I discussed Buddhist practice during the pandemic, he told us: “The Dharma teaches us that even in the most difficult moments there is a chance for renewal and awakening. Everything we thought was stable and permanent is now changing, falling apart. The pandemic has sent us into the retreat of impermanence.” ***
After a long, painful pandemic, and now amid a tragic war with severe social and economic consequences, we ask ourselves again: How can the light of the Dharma illuminate our path, help us to accept impermanence, and protect our minds in these challenging times?
Related features from BDG
Energy as a Way of Life: Japanese Buddhist Priests Reflect on the Ukraine and Sri Lanka Crises While Calling for Local Energy Self-Sufficiency
Living as a Russian After the Outbreak of War in Ukraine
Buddhistdoor View: Praying for Ukraine Across Religious Identities