Photo: Arman Umarkhojiyev
Photo: Arman Umarkhojiyev

from Issue 6

Steppe 6 Cover

Buddhism: Not The Ends of The Earth

by Medeine Tribinevicius

Reverend Junsei Terasawa, a Japanese Buddhist monk of the Nipponzan Myohoji order, and his disciple Alexei, from Kazakhstan, believe the mountain and the steppe hold the key to Western spiritual culture. Medeine Tribinevicius meets two men reconnecting with age-old nomadic beliefs

It’s a chilly day in Turkistan; a cold wind blows from the northwest through this small southern Kazakhstan town. The colour of the blue domes of the mausoleum of the Sufi holy man Ahmed Yasawi mirrors the cloudless sky. Groups of pilgrims, tourists and bridal parties move in and out of the mud-brick monument, the white headscarves and robes of the pilgrims swirling together with white, torte-like wedding dresses and dyed-blonde bridesmaids. Turkistan is the most important site of pilgrimage in Kazakhstan, and people travel hundreds and sometimes thousands of kilometres through vast tracts of deserted steppe by bus, train and car to visit this mausoleum, seeking guidance.

Dressed in the characteristic orange robes of a Buddhist monk, Reverend Junsei Terasawa is a splash of unusual colour anywhere, but he is even more noticeable here. Though this is his first time in Kazakhstan – he has been invited to present a series of lectures on Buddhism in Almaty, Astana and Karaganda – this Japanese monk is no stranger to Central Asia. He first visited Kyrgyzstan seventeen years ago and returns annually to the dojo (place of meditation) he established about 40 km outside Bishkek. ‘I have a very strong connection to [Kyrgyzstan],’ he says. ‘[It] is a place of rest, a place where I am truly free.’ He is visiting Turkistan for a few days, accompanied by two students (Alexei, a Kazakh, and Sergei, a Ukrainian), drawn, like the pilgrims and bridal parties, by this centre of Kazakh spirituality.

For our interview, we retire to a basic guesthouse near the monument. We sit cross-legged on the floor around a low table in a mud-brick room; Sergei periodically refills our glasses, pouring the strong-brewed, lukewarm tea in first and then diluting it with boiling water from the kettle simmering on the woodstove. We eat pistachios and spoon dark red preserved crab apples into our mouths from a small blue bowl. With a wide, peaceful smile Rev. Terasawa leans back comfortably, propped up on a pillow against the wall.

It is not surprising that a Buddhist would feel at home in this region. It is thought that Central Asia has had contact with Buddhism since the time of the Buddha himself: there are records of a pair of merchant brothers from Bactria (modern-day northern Afghanistan, Tajikistan and southern Uzbekistan) visiting the Buddha and becoming his disciples; upon their return to Bactria, they built temples to him. Between the second century bc and the second century ad, Buddhism spread east from India via the Silk Road. Over 50,000 km of trade routes connected China and India with Persia and the Mediterranean, and Buddhist merchants and monks travelling these routes disseminated Buddhist teachings to the oases along the way. By the seventh century ad, Buddhism had spread to Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan via the Turkic conquerors from Mongolia in the north, completing a cycle from India through Central Asia to China and back again to Central Asia. Buddhism in Central Asia went into decline with the expansion of Islam in the eighth to the eleventh centuries.

Rev. Terasawa is at the heart of a rebirth of Buddhism in Central Asia. However, he is not interested in conversion; rather, his focus is to learn about the traditional nomadic spirituality of the region. ‘Historians see this place as the edge of civilisation, but the nomadic way of life is not a lack of civilisation, it is the cradle of Western spiritual culture,’ he says. He sees many connections between nomadic spirituality and the development of other religions: ‘Central Asia was the springboard for spirituality that brought about all the world religions.’ He also connects the main practices of nomadic spirituality with those of Buddhism: ‘There is no empire, no materialism in the nomadic way of life. The cosmos are honoured in the kurgans [burial mounds specially aligned with the heavens], and there is a sensitivity to the mind-cosmos connection. There is an openness to their spirituality.’

Rev. Terasawa’s Kazakh student Alexei is part of a growing Buddhist community in both Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. (There are Buddhists currently practicing in Uralsk, Bishkek, Almaty, Karaganda and Ust-Kamenogorsk.) Born on the steppe in the village of Barankul, on a bend of the Ishym River in the north of Kazakhstan, Alexei is descended from Ukrainians exiled to the steppe in the late nineteenth century. He first came into contact with Buddhism while studying history in Donetsk, Ukraine, in the years following perestroika. ‘It was there that I began learning about religion, that not all religion is bad, and opened myself up to it,’ he says. ‘I came to Buddhism slowly, naturally, not seeking it out specifically but finding it waiting for me when I came to it.’ There was already at least one monk practicing in Ukraine when he was studying there. ‘It was destiny,’ he says. ‘Buddhism touched my heart.’

Reverend Junsei Terasawa in the Kyrgyz mountains

In 1996, Alexei was ordained in Moscow; he now divides his time between Bishkek and Almaty. His practice, like Rev. Terasawa’s, is based on chanting and drumming – physical acts that connect him with the spiritual world and nature. He practises this way most often in a natural setting, but sometimes in urban centres as well. When I ask him about these latter experiences, he tells me about being detained by police once in Astana for drumming and chanting in the streets: ‘They said I was shaming Kazakhstan,’ he says. They held him for some time, but there was nothing they could charge him with. They instructed him not to drum and chant anymore in Astana and released him. He has since practised there again. In general, his family is accepting. ‘At first they did not understand my interest in Buddhism,’ he says, ‘but now they are very supportive, even if they still don’t really understand.’

An important part of Buddhist spiritual practice is travel – another connection between nomadic spiritualism and Buddhism. During the course of our conversation, Rev. Terasawa refers several times to the seventeen-year journey of Xuanzang, a Chinese Buddhist monk who travelled overland on the Silk Road in the seventh century from China to India and back. According to Xuanzang’s meticulous records, he crossed the Tian Shan Mountains on foot in 630 ad and took refuge on the calm shores of Lake Issyk Kul in Kyrgyzstan to recover both from that arduous mountain crossing as well as the trials of the Taklamakan Desert. It is on the shores of this very same lake that Rev. Terasawa and his students spend their summers, hosting a prayer yurt, which is erected near Tamga in early June until September, drawing visitors of many faiths.

For this tireless monk, Central Asia is a unifying place, the connecting point of many cultures and spiritual channels. The summer prayer yurt is his way of helping access these channels. ‘There are many people who are turning to traditional nomadic spiritualism in Kyrgyzstan, in particular women,’ he says.

But the prayer yurt is just one of Rev. Terasawa’s initiatives in a life devoted to peace activism in the post-Soviet region and around the world. He saw the collapse of the USSR first-hand: he was at the barricades in Moscow resisting the August 1991 putsch. He describes the end of the Soviet Union as opening up the region not only in an economic and cultural sense, but in spiritual ways as well. ‘The corridor between China and India was blocked by the Iron Curtain,’ Rev. Terasawa says, referring to the historic link between the Silk Road countries. ‘Now, a process of transformation is awakening, a period of confusion and searching. This is an opportunity for the reawakening of mankind’s original spirituality.’

His interest in reviving Central Asian spirituality is connected to his political conscience. He describes a ‘disorientation in global consciousness’, the solution for which can be found in the steppe. ‘We live in a difficult geopolitical time – there are conflicts in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Tibet – and many of these conflicts can find their resolutions in Central Asia through consciousness transformation. In many ways, this region is now caught up in a geopolitical replaying of the Great Game. But this time the stakes are based on control of energy resources and on security, in particular in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran. And the nuclear threat looms once again.’

The future of much of the world depends on how peace is brokered in these regions, Rev. Terasawa says, and he sees hope – in particular in Kyrgyzstan, where people are beginning to see the limitations of relations and alliances based on conflict. ‘People are fed up with politics,’ he says. ‘Many channels are opening, and people are making contact with the heavens.’

Like Xuanzang and the other Buddhist monks who travelled the Silk Road, Rev. Terasawa prefers to travel overland; it is part of his spiritual practice. He explains that even the process of searching for knowledge and wisdom are forms of travel. ‘The traveller is a carrier of knowledge, and nomads acted on this instinct, seeking wisdom, which is transmitted by the movement of people and by contact with other people. To travel is to orient oneself, to find a vision for the future.’

On the train from Almaty to Turkistan, Rev. Terasawa and his companions played a game: ‘What would I do if I was Obama?’ Rev. Terasawa laughs as he describes sitting in the coupé watching the Kazakh steppe rolling by outside the window, discussing this what-if scenario. But by his answers you can tell that it’s no joke:

‘One: sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Two: immediately ratify the Kyoto Protocol. Three: join the International Criminal Court …’ It’s a hefty list, but he’s not done yet: ‘Also, say “no” to the European missile defence system. Do not visit Russia. Boycott the Sochi Olympics. And do not visit Beijing until the Dalai Lama is invited for an official visit.’

He says all this with a beaming smile and a sureness that, like Obama, you cannot help but share.

Medeine Tribinevicius is a writer and translator. Her work has appeared in The Walrus, VilniusNow and Pen International Magazine, among others. When not on the road she divides her time between Vilnius and Toronto. She is currently researching a book about tourism, museums and nostalgia in the post-Soviet region.