My Paradigm Shift in the Land of Buryat


 Introduction:

It’s one thing to read about different lands and cultures but it’s a whole different experience to see it through the eyes of another. This Guest blogger has lived in Central Siberia off and on for over 15 years. I was so delighted when he agreed to do a post for “Life in Russia”.  The culture and people  from this part of Asia is so rich and vibrant and to have someone share with us first hand about life there, well join him in exploring beauties of Buryat. The way Alex is able to weave his stories and experiences you will feel as if you were with him. You can also visit his blog at Transform Siberia

Land of Buryat – Central Siberia

These happy Western Buryats, friends, circle a sacred hill at the Yordinski Games in Central Siberia.
These happy Western Buryats, friends of mine, circle a sacred hill at the Yordinski Games in Central Siberia.

Sacred Places of the Buryat

Traveling through the lands of ancient tribes like the Buryat, one cannot help but stumble upon sacred places. As you roam you will find quaint covered shrines in front of poker-faced benches cluttered with a weathering and eclectic mix of offerings from coins, cigarettes, and candy to cucumbers and glasses of vodka. Pointing to the stars, a cupola’d hitching post for your formerly ever-present mount, and trees bend, tied in scraps of material as if they had bundled up against the coming winter. My paradigm of Buryat sacred places has shifted dramatically from when I began encountering them fifteen years ago.

Prayer.
Prayer.

Buryat lunch of Booz

Recently I journeyed to a Buryat Festival called the Yordinski games in a car filled with Buryats. I linked with them through an Ulan-Ude friend, who knew people heading for the festival. So I hopped on a night train to Irkutsk, found them, and just like that was road tripping with five people I just met! The young bunch took their culture seriously. After a proper getting-to-know-each other Buryat lunch of Booz, (steamed meat dumplings), milk tea and laughter at a roadside café, our next stop was obvious, obvious due to the multiple roadside motor cars lined and awaiting the return of their pilots who were paying respect. When we hopped out our wagon to stretch legs, beckoning me aside one of my new friends, handing me a rice handful, instructed “this is an offering to placate the local spirit of this area, sprinkle this rice in his honor”. I stepped away and cast rice saying “I sprinkle this rice in honor of the Creator who made heaven and earth, and ask him to abundantly bless all Buryat people who are made in God’s image, and particularly bless my young travel companions”.

Grandfather expounds on the history of the Buryat people.
Grandfather expounds on the history of the Buryat people.

What can someone tell me?

Ten years ago I would not have dared risking any misunderstanding that I might be honoring a local deity. I was very, very concerned, fearful even of upsetting God by accidentally worshiping some other power. Or I was afraid of condemnation by Christians who would consider any appearance of agreement in worship at a site dedicated to some other spirit as heresy. How fearful I was! How small-minded! Since my early days among the Buryats, a number of both death brushing and silly incidents related to observing holy sites have allowed me to relax and realize that God calls me to love and honor my neighbor-Buryats; if I walk their hallowed grounds with Him in my heart while humbly seeking to understand their beliefs and customs Buryats are encouraged, they open their hearts and welcome me as their own. A categorical condemnation of their perspectives earns me only closed mouth looks of distrust, and rightly so, for when I present myself as one with all the answers, what can someone tell me?

This overlook features the sacred hill, center, around which the Buryats pictured above were dancing. In the distance is enchantress, Lake Baikal.
This overlook features the sacred hill, center, around which the Buryats pictured above were dancing. In the distance is enchantress, Lake Baikal.

Shamanism hocus-pocus

Every Buryat has a story or three about that time they neglected to offer a sacrifice to some local spirit while traveling the width and breadth of the Buryat homeland that stretches from the territory of Krasnoyarsk to the Chita territory, a long stretch indeed. It isn’t but a few miles before the wheels come off, literally. Or the engine catches fire, or they swerve off the road and nail a tree. My father-in-law assured me he didn’t believe in any of that Shamanism hocus-pocus, and then related to me how a shaman informed him of a black handled screwdriver not his own at home in a drawer. He went home to rummage until he found that very screwdriver stuffed way back in that very drawer.

Archery, wrestling and horse racing are the three major sporting events of the Buryat. Here a young archer finds his focus.
Archery, wrestling and horse racing are the three major sporting events of the Buryat. Here a young archer finds his focus.

Beasts that Could not be Seen by Mortal Eyes!

I attended a conference years back with a number of Buryat Christians. Our discussion turned toward Shamans. With relish, eyes aglow, these Buryat believers related stories they clearly believed about notable Shamans in the region. “There once was a great shaman who lived on the West side of lake Baikal. In the wintertime he traveled around by sleigh. He would race down the lane and across the steppe, kicking up snow, hair flying, brandishing his whip at . . . beasts that could not be seen by mortal eyes.” And “Another renowned shaman quarreled with his neighbor. Their cabins stood side by side and shared one wall. The shaman knew his neighbor possessed one barrel of vodka. So he invited friends, to feast. When his friends noticed that he had nothing to drink, he sank his knife into a beam of the shared wall, and from it poured vodka. In this way, using his blade for a spigot, he emptied his neighbors vodka store, ensuring his guests a grand time”. These stories capture the imagination of local natives regardless of religious affiliations.

 

Shamans beat their drums in opening rituals at the rainy first day of Yordinski games.
Shamans beat their drums in opening rituals at the rainy first day of Yordinski games.

What is the most important thing in life?

Several years ago I found myself sitting in the office of a shaman. I was there with a group of Christians who had come to learn more about the Shamanist perspective. With a certain brash panache, the resident Shaman explained his craft, intermittently turning his sharp-eyed gaze upon me. After some time he addressed me directly asking “young man, what is the most important thing in life?” I responded “To love and honor God with everything you do”. He nodded his head in satisfaction replying, “You have answered correctly”.

Finding Common Ground

I suppose at the time I was a bit surprised by his answer. I have often pondered it since then. What I appreciate is, we found common ground, and that is worth pursuing. If we as people cannot find value and understanding with others from very different perspectives, we miss out on a vast treasure of wonderful life experiences of discovery, expanding horizons, and making life friends with living beings whom we might have written off out of hand because they don’t believe as we do. Rubbing elbows with like-minded people is agreeable, affirming, and . . . insular. I agree less with unlike minded people, yet I am challenged and learn far more from them. And it shall always be so.

 

For a little more color and culture from Central Siberia, follow these links.

Traditional Buryat Culture – Steppes of Summer: Yordinski Games

Relaxing Siberian Style – Fruits of the Taiga

Life on Lake Baikal’s Ice – A Long Haul for Olkhon

 

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