The Lamas of Siberia: A Buddhist Monastery by Lake Baikal

On the train to Yekaterinburg an alcoholic called Pavlik diagnosed my soul as dangerously diseased. He wanted to save me. He scrawled “Ivolginsky Datsan” in my notebook and gave me a phone number. He told me to go there, call the number, meet the man and have my soul healed. With his wretched body and ravaged brain, Pavlik was an incorrigible degenerate who scared me and I had no intention of taking his advice.  I had never heard of the place, I never intended to go there and I certainly never intended to meet this man. But for some reason I did.

Three weeks after Pavlik on the train and 4000 km further into Siberia I heard “Ivolginsky Datsan” mentioned again. I was eating dried fish with a Russian by a fire on a beach by Lake Baikal. He told me Ivolginsky Datsan is a Buddhist monastery in the hills on the other side of the lake. Buddhists and non-Buddhists go there on pilgrimages from afar in search of metaphysical solutions. Suddenly I recalled Pavlik’s scribbled note. In Siberia my soul was coming under increasing scrutiny. I decided to make my own pilgrimage and have it looked at.

I took a boat and a bus from Olkhon Island to Irkutsk, a train to Ulan Ude, capital of the Republic of Buryatia, then a bus to the village of Ivolga in the middle of nowhere.

As you go further east into Siberia, Russia gives up all pretence of being European. Tarmac gives way to sand, dust and craters. Mercedes give way to hoards of improvised vehicles with extensions bolted on. Cows roam the roads as equals, refusing to give way to passing vehicles. Supermarkets are replaced by sprawling markets with precarious mountains of fruit and yodelled exhortations to try before you buy. Utilities become more immediately perceptible- water pipes thrust up from the earth, bundles of wires dangle across pathways and rusty water towers sag contentedly. Misty mountains quietly make their presence felt behind an ocean of asbestos roofs. Morosity gives way to rambunctiousness. The Slavophile-Westerniser debate becomes redundant in this place. Buryatia is a very different beast.

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The datsan was a rag-tag bundle of Buddhist temples and ramshackle lama huts. The Dalai Lama has been here five times. I arrived early and the sun was yet to burn away the morning mist. Worshippers follow a circuit round the perimeter, spinning the creaking prayer wheels, mashed-up metal cylinders mounted on sticks. Some are smaller than a bottle of Tanqueray. Some are bigger than a bear. A whole human body hurled against them instigates only a tiny rotation. The temples are like canted stacks of ornate dinner plates. They lean in and out and slope this way and that. It is only through their combined imbalance that they achieve equilibrium.

There was hardly a human in sight. Prayers rumbled out of the huts and the temples, paradoxically contributing to the peace of the hilltop.

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I phoned the number from my notebook with some trepidation. My call was answered by a lilting voice suggestive of lunacy. He told me his name was Gombo Lama. “Come and see me in an hour my dear boy.” Accepting invitations from strangers has got me robbed on so many occasions, but long ago I learnt that I will never learn. So come I did.

I found Gombo’s hut after a few more laps. Two ladies were waiting outside. One was crusty and one was not. Three vodka bottles stood beside the door. The sun was unbearably hot and we ventured up to the door and poked it tentatively. It was open and in we went. Nobody there. We sat on a bench.

One lady had come to see Gombo because her dead husband kept appearing to her in dreams and his continuing presence was casting a dark veil over her life. The other was a paediatrician who had brought her sick daughter. They were due to move to Moscow but she feared her daughter’s illness was a premonitory omen.

I realised that I was fortunate enough to have no reason to be there. All is well and I am implacably cheerful. I started to problematize my life and invent spiritual ailments to justify my presence.

The hut began to fill as more pilgrims arrived. Some of them were in a bad way. Gombo’s hut felt like A & E. Some had travelled hundreds of miles for a piece of this sagacious lama.

Then Gombo arrived. One of the strangest things about the male anatomy is that the legs don’t fatten apace with the body; however huge a man gets, his legs don’t widen. Gombo’s little legs tottered beneath a tremendous torso. Under the orange-maroon robe his gluteus maximus trembled as if he was twerking.

He took the lady and sick daughter into his room. Words were exchanged. Lama Gombo emerged and tottered off elsewhere, smiling indulgently like a bacon-butty slob. I heard activity within, then the lady moved into view clutching a broom. Stooped low to the floor, she was cleaning diligently. When the floor was swept, Gombo returned, gave a lecherous chuckle, dispensed more orders and left her to it.

She doused a rag in vodka and proceeded to wipe down the wooden Buddha statues on the shrine. Whether this was in the interests of spirituality or hygiene I will never know. When her work was done she got her séance. Sanitation for salvation is a cunning exchange. The kind of entrepreneurship upon which all religions are founded. Gombo’s weight, his scent and his noxious misogyny recalled none other than Jabba the Hutt.

Then we were all invited in. Twelve pilgrims packed into a tiny room. This was anything but the kind of privacy conducive to spiritual healing.

Gombo racked up a line of green powder on a bed of sand and set it alight. The room filled with malodorous fumes. It felt authentic, the real deal. He looked at us expectantly.

A large lady with small eyes piped up. “My son is very ill. I think he’s dying.”

She pointed to the man beside her who had a healthy moustache and a sickly complexion. He looked older than his mother who was at least eighty.

“What’s his date of birth?” asked Gombo.  She responded. They spoke as if the man and his moustache were entirely absent.

Gombo produced a stack of cards, flicked through pensively then asked the lady if her son plays football.

“No,” she replied.

Gombo looked doubtful.

“Well did you used to play?” he addressed the invalid for the first time.

“When I was a boy…” he croaked like a frog with quinsy.

Gombo exploded with self-satisfaction, saliva and the coos of an owl.

“Well start playing football again! It’s simple!”

Before they could protest and demand a sensible response, Gombo had turned his attentions upon me.

“Ask away.”

I quickly conjured up a non-existent problem. All eyes were on me and my pores opened up, setting the sweat flowing in nervous torrents.

“I have…. I have plenty of problems. For example… I have no home. I am always going, never staying. I don’t know where I belong.”

“Where do you come from?”

“England.”

“Sixty per cent of French people have left France,” said Gombo. “Only forty per cent remain. And you know why that is? Because they are worthless. The French are worthless. Worse than worthless. They know nothing and they do nothing.”

I nodded in confusion.

“In England the English are poor,” he said. “The Indians have all the money. All of it. Come back here in six months when winter has fallen. Then you will understand everything.”

I didn’t understand but he is a guru and I smiled at his wisdom. Who needs truth when you have wisdom? I left before I began to laugh.

I sat down outside and refused to believe that people make pilgrimages to see a man like that. I was about to leave the datsan, but decided to try another lama first.

I found a discrete hut on the outskirts of the datsan, knocked and entered.

A lama peeped round a corner and beckoned me inside. His weight was normal, his whole body in proportion. We were alone.

His smile was reassuring and the touch of his hand on my arm conveyed nothing but calm and a sincere desire to help. This time I tried a different ailment.

“I have been suffering from bad feelings deep inside me. Very bad feelings indeed. They are profound. I don’t know where they come from, but they are very bad feelings.”

He hummed and reflected, then asked my date of birth. I told him and he told me I am a horse. He said this explains the bad feelings, which he specified as “sadness, loss of power, waning strength and tiredness”. I concurred, although I am a stranger to the feeling of “waning power”. He said he could rid me of these feelings with a few rituals.

He sent me away to get some milk and a tomato. I returned, incense was lit and all was ready for my ritual cleansing.

He sat me up straight, arranged my hands on my midriff and told me that whilst he chanted, I should breathe in slowly, visualising a red Buddha pouring a vase of goodness, joy and long life all over me. When my lungs were full I should exhale all the evil inside before taking in another breath of goodness, joy and long life.

I closed my eyes and the chanting began. Deep and primordial, it rattled my soul. Buddha, in my mind, tipped the vase over my head and I swelled with goodness. Then I blew out the evil and felt better already. Another breath in then out and better still. I felt better and better until I got bored and Buddha disappeared but the chanting continued. I tried to bring Buddha back but my mind refused. The chanting went on and on and by the time it finished I was so bored that the initial goodness had almost dispersed.

Then the lama sent me outside. I was to rotate on the spot, pouring milk to the West, to the North, to the East and to the South, all the time absorbing goodness, joy and long life from every point on the compass. By the time I had completed the ten rotations required, I was standing in a milky muddy mush, but I was full of goodness and the dirt was irrelevant.

Back inside I was given a final blessing, the goodness was sealed inside and a sacred drop of oil was smeared on my forehead.

When I emerged I was infinitely better (when I went in I was already pretty good). Whether this improvement was the truth or an illusion is beside the point- when it comes to your soul, all you have are your feelings- I felt better so I was better and I left it at that. I floated out of the datsan on a cloud of bounty and bemusement.

On the bus I saw a large image of Christ on the cross on the wall of a church. He was bloody, dying and in tremendous pain and I couldn’t help but think that Buddha, cross-legged and calm in the ecstasy of Nirvana is a more inspiring symbol for people to work towards. But then again, I thought to myself, Buddha is comatose and helpless, as impotent as Jesus all nailed up.

It was at that moment that I saw my own reflection in the dirty bus window. “HE IS THE ONE!” I said to myself excitedly. I was neither in tremendous pain like Jesus nor tremendous pleasure like Buddha, but I was conscious and I was moving and I realised that as far as I am concerned, I am the one for me. I kissed myself (on the lips) and pledged my life to me.

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Prayer wheels

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