Monday, November 11, 2013

104 Years of Practice

by Konchog Norbu

Venerable Amaa at the 2008 Sakyadhita International Conference in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia

While there was no shortage of remarkable Buddhist women that I met when I lived in Mongolia (2005-2009), one stands out among them all: Venerable Amaa who, when I first met her in June 2008, was still strong in her practice at age 104.

To show just what a treasure Amaa was, a little context is in order. Not everyone appreciates that Mongolian culture was just as fully permeated by Vajrayana Buddhism as was Tibet’s. When Amaa was born at the very beginning of the twentieth century, there were more than 1,000 monastic complexes sprawled across Mongolia’s deserts, steppes, and forests. Many others practiced as lay yogis and yoginis; Amaa’s father was an accomplished lama, as was her grandfather. To be born into such a family in Mongolia was special, but not altogether unusual.

As a child in Mongolia’s eastern grasslands, Amaa began learning prayers and chanting from her father. Arya Tara and Shakyamuni Buddha were her particular focuses. As she matured and her devotion deepened, she was introduced to the ancient tantric traditions of Padmasambhava. She also learned about one of the greatest, near-contemporary practitioners in Padmasambhava’s lineage, Danzan Ravjaa (1803–1856), the famed mahasiddha from Mongolia’s eastern Gobi Desert. In particular, she felt drawn to Danzan Ravjaa’s way of practicing chöd, the rituals and visualizations for directly cutting through ego that the Mongolians call lujing, Tibetan for “offering the body.”

At age sixteen, Amaa was the youngest of a small group who accompanied the Tibetan lama Zundui deep into the countryside to learn and practice meditation intensively.

At the same time however, there were great political forces sweeping in from the north. Just as Mongolia tossed out the last of its Qing Dynasty overlords back to China in 1911, the communist revolution was gaining full strength in Russia to the north. Such was its influence that in 1924, Mongolia formally became the world’s second communist nation, the People’s Republic of Mongolia. During this time, the anti-religious aspect of communist ideology spread and intensified. Amaa’s group of retreatants had to scatter after a little over two years together.

A bit of cat-and-mouse with the communist cadres ensued. Amaa recalls her own teachers as availing themselves of particular powers. When a Red Army patrol closed in on her main Mongolian teacher, Artiin Mergen Pandita, he made two circles on the floor with sand and instructed his attendant to stand in one and not move, while he did the same in the other. The soldiers burst in, the attendant panicked and bolted his circle, and was immediately apprehended. The lama stayed still and remained invisible, eluding capture.

Under Stalin’s influence, the religious persecution only got worse, culminating in a full-blown purge during the years 1937–1939. During this time, nearly all the monasteries were looted and demolished, the learned lamas were executed or sent off to Siberia, the monks were forced to disrobe, the yogis and yoginis were scattered, and religious practice of any kind was declared illegal. So it would be until peaceful mass protests ushered in democratic reforms in 1990.

In this period, Amaa said she adopted the look of an ordinary person to survive. Given the vastness of her area and Mongolia’s sparse population, she told me she frequently was able to head off to remote cemeteries and other lonely spots to continue her practice in secret.

Thus, when I met Amaa decades later, she was the only person I knew who had direct, personal memories of pre-communist Mongolian Buddhism, and she was well-known for her courageous perseverance and accomplishment during the “dark years.” Amaa was also renowned as the only person in all of Mongolia’s three eastern provinces who could do the complete and proper chanting and ceremonies for those who had died. Nonetheless, she was utterly humble. When I made the pilgrimage to her modest family compound in Khentii Province, I found that people came to see her in her round felt ger (a kind of tent native to Mongolia) at all hours of the day or night. Even at 104, she just kept her place on the carpeted floor. She folded her reed-thin legs under her body, held upright by the traditional Mongolian boots she had made for herself eighty years prior (“one pair for summer, one for winter”), greeting everyone with the same loving, toothless smile, fulfilling their requests and dispensing advice and blessings.

In October 2008 I had the privilege of being present for the inaugural ceremonies of Amaa’s new ger (finally, at the cusp of turning 105!). It was a wonder to see the total absorption of her devoted chanting, and the reverence with which the local people held her. After the ceremony was finished I had a chance to speak with Amaa. I begged her to live longer and bless this new temple with her presence. She laughed, and replied, "Well, while we were chanting, I noticed that the flames on the butter lamps had very good color and shape. Maybe that means I'll live a bit more."

And so she did. Amaa passed away in 2010, nearly 106, one of the last of a generation and culture never to be seen again.

Fortunately, at my recommendation, Amaa was interviewed for the Mongolian Buddhist Monasteries Project (soon to have the website radically upgraded) and her memories of Buddhist Mongolia are now preserved for posterity. I excerpted this post from my own writing and photographs of Venerable Amaa, when I kept a blog during my time in Mongolia, Dreaming of Danzan Ravjaa. You can read my impressions of time spent with her and see the many photographs I took in these four posts:

Konchog Norbu: Monastic 

Konchog Norbu is an American Buddhist monk who served as director for the Mongolian Buddhist Revival Project from 2005–2009. Read more from Ven. Konchog Norbu on Shambhala SunSpace.

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