Before anything else, I want to wish my sister Laura a very happy birthday. I love her so much and the occasion of her birth is, for me, and for many others whose lives she’s touched, a day to celebrate and not make every April Fool’s joke she’s already heard. I wish I could be with her to
fight her kids for the piece of cake with the most frosting lift a glass of sparkling cider to her many more years to come.
I’m a bit giddy today as tomorrow a new friend, Robert Cater, is taking me for the weekend to his place in “the countryside”. Now, lots of people here say this: “the countryside”. I’m not 100% sure, but I think it basically means “not Ulaan Baatar” or, conversely, “the rest of Mongolia, plus Siberia and Kazakhstan”. In this case, it’s about 60km out of town. He assures me rusticity, outdoor plumbing, vigorous walks in the fresh air and, if I like, horseback riding. Hmmm. Last time I sat on a horse was 33 years ago. It was in the White Mountains of Arizona. I was 6 and Socks, the horse (OK, pony), decided to skip the intermediate gears and bolt from stock still to gallop without so much as a “Hang on, dude.” Needless to say, like a cartoon I sat suspended for a second over the puff of smoke that had been Socks and then whomp! I ate dirt. At 6 this qualified as a pretty good time and I did get to wear a cool cowboy hat. Robert might get me on a horse if I can wear a cool hat, take a photo, and brag about it. But frankly, I just want to see about the birds of “the countryside”, not eat countryside dirt.
Robert is an old Mongolia hand who specializes in international microfinance, helping the poor get access to capital and improve their lives. Earlier this week, I had dinner at his home with his delightful wife Altanzaya (“Zaya” for short) and their remarkably precocious teenage daughter, Nomin. The Caters have accomplished quite the feat in Mongolia, that of maintaining a healthy vegetarian diet. As in all Mongolian households I’ve experienced, the food just kept coming and coming, a marvelous and welcome break from the Parade O’ Mutton (actual item I encountered on a Mongolian restaurant menu: Lamb Fried Sheep. Preferable, though, to the Spine Fried in Pork and Udder Salad – other true items).
Among Nomin’s gifts are an unusual sensitivity to spiritual matters for her age and a killer singing voice. I think she’s a bit of a local celebrity, doing live concerts and appearing on radio and TV and whatnot (she was just the target of the Mongolian version of Punk’d). Anyway, a highlight of the evening was being played her electrified, sorta hip-hopped rendering of a traditional song by none other than Danzan Ravjaa! It had a long Mongolian title that I can’t remember, but it’s a short song about the five senses. Apparently, it was one of the few old songs allowed during the Communist regime and everyone in the country knows it. It’s also one that the monks and nuns can sing as it has a dharma meaning in the lyrics. I’m going to see if Nomin will teach it to me with the traditional melody.
A couple of final things, speaking of the Communist regime. The first is that I discovered that, contrary to what I said earlier, Bakula Rinpoche was not Indian ambassador during that time, but rather in the first decade of Mongolian independence, 1990-2000. He was, however, an important member of the Indian parliament and visited Mongolia and the Soviet Republics many times from the 1960’s, even arranging the Dalai Lama's first (difficult) visit to Mongolia in 1979.
The second is that I was moved yesterday to visit The Victims of Political Persecution Memorial Museum. Part of the impetus was a pamphlet Jan gave me. In Mongolian and English, it not only describes the accidental unearthing of a mass grave near Ulaan Baatar by a construction company in 2002 but it gives much more detail than I knew about the religious persecution and killings carried out by the communists in the 20’s and, especially, the 30’s. Directly egged on by Stalin, Russian and Mongolian communists collaborated to devise trumped-up charges of “counter-revolutionary activity”, “espionage”, and “treason” to carry out the execution of tens of thousands of people -- mostly lamas, monks, and the Mongolian intelligentsia -- as well as loot and completely demolish all but three of the 700 monasteries that existed across the country.
The museum is a little frustrating in that many of the descriptive cards are in Mongolian. But it’s obviously a labor of conscience and love by just a couple of people and was quite touching in that respect. I was the only one there and the particular memorial I show you here needed no descriptive language. These are some of the actual skulls and bones from the mass grave, in which it was estimated there were 1000 bodies. You can see bullet holes at the top of many of the skulls, indicating that the victims were forced to kneel.
If there’s a silver lining to this story, it’s that the current government allowed the bones to be collected by a group headed by the Buddhist artist Purevbat. They filled two dumptrucks. They were then cremated, pulverized, mixed with lime, and pressed into hundreds of large tsa-tsas, or molded stupas. These tsa-tsas were then enshrined in a beautiful two-story stupa. There’s a picture of the stupa on the back but it doesn’t say where it’s located. I’ll find it, though, do many prayers, and take a picture to share with you.
Please join me in praying for an end to political violence everywhere in this world. As Jetsunma has said many times, enough is enough.
Finally, finally, I wanted to draw your attention to a button I’ve added to the left for online donations to KPC’s Mongolia Project. If you resonate with the goals of this project, to enhance the revival of Mongolian Buddhism, are filthy rich (or not) and feel inclined to support it financially, I can assure you that your contribution won’t go to waste. Right now, most of the funds are for travel and living expenses, but very soon we will shift to translation and printing of dharma teachings, and other beneficial uses beyond that. The online form is secure and your donation is tax-deductible. Thank you, thank you.