This past Saturday some of the students at the university offered to take me to the big Buddhist Temple to see what a "service" is like...
This is my first Buddhist service and certainly my first Tibetan Buddhist one and however unlikely an experience it seems it could be, it did indeed happen within Russia. Elista is the only region in Europe where Buddhism is the main religion and here it is Tibetan Buddhism. Their temple is also the largest Buddhist temple in Europe and the Dalai Lama has visited here twice since the collapse of the USSR.
Before we could enter the temple, it's tradition to walk around it (on the upper platform), make a small coin donation and spin all the tiny prayer wheels. There are several large prayer wheels around the temple and several others located throughout the city as well, but it's these that matter. Anyways, one of my students graciously offered me some coins to lay down, though I had my own and when I tried to tell her no, she refused. After this experience, it was time to go in.
As expected, there are no hats or shoes allowed in the main part of the temple during the service, this is a pretty common act in my experience in different Buddhist areas. We walked in and in the middle of the room there were the monks (It's my understanding that all monks travel or have traveled to Tibet to study Buddhism and the language) performing and reading prayers, while on both sides there were many low benches for people to sit on.
We came in and went to one of the back benches where we just sat down and listened to the prayers. Some of the students performed some of the rituals as the bells rang as is common in a service, but I, not necessarily being Buddhist and having no clue as to what to do or really what was happening, just sat there and contemplated life. With the exception of the student next to me continually interrupting me, it was an extremely peaceful experience, one in which I hope to repeat this Saturday and subsequent Saturdays following. I'm also not sure how long the services usually are, but when we arrived it seemed that it had been in session for some time and we sat there for another 45 minutes.
Anyways, after the service, everyone lines up and eventually goes through and offers gifts to the monks and is blessed by a monk, offers gifts to different statues of Buddha and other deities (though Buddha is not a god, I think there is a little left over here from the Kalmyk religion pre-dating Tibetan Buddhism in the region, but I'll find out) and at the end you are given water to wash your hands, face and I think hair as well as a bit of candy. Another item which I didn't quite understand and one in which my students couldn't explain in English, was people kept putting water on a table during the service. After the service, one of my students grabbed a giant bottle of water from the table, telling me it was Saint's Water and that it should never touch the ground and every time I drink from it, I should make a wish. Not sure of the significance, but I was touched all the same.
Afterwards, we walked around the temple, seeing the museum and taking a small tour (in Russian and most of which I, unfortunately, did not understand) as well as explored the upper level of the temple. At this point we decided to leave and outside, but still within the temple courtyard, is a small tent set up in the style of Kalmyk people when they still lived as Nomads. We went inside and the students first offered to buy me a glass of horse milk and then decided it wouldn't be very good at this particular joint (I'm quite grateful for this decision). Instead they bought me a glass of the local Kalmyk tea, for which I unfortunately cannot remember the name. Now I had heard that this tea or this type of tea was quite disgusting, but what I drank wasn't awful by any means. It wasn't great either, but certainly not my least favorite drink (for that think more along the lines of something that starts with a Jaeger and ends with meister or soy milk...yuck). Anyways, this particular tea is tough to describe. It reminded me, sort of, like Indian chai only without any of the delicious cinnamon and cardamom flavor (no real flavor at all) and instead of sweet, it's salty. I was also told that this particular tea was без сахара, meaning it didn't have any sugar. I'm not sure if it's supposed to have sugar, but it sure couldn't have hurt.
We did quite a bit more after the temple, but it was considerably less exciting and I'll save it for another blog, so until next time Dear Readers....