A cup of tea with a Tuvan Lama

The reformation of the actual Russian Federation and the political independence of the Tuva Republic in 1993 had lead to a return in the traditional values and to a rediscover of local religions.

Of the 300,000 people living in Tuva Republic, around the 82% of it is composed by Tuvan ethnicity, and most of the tuvan believes in Buddhism and Shamanism.

“The original religion of the Tuvinians was shamanism. The second major religion of Tuva, Buddhism, was a later (thirteenth-century) arrival; it never supplanted shamanism, but alongside shamanism was declared one of the two state religions in the eighteenth century.”

 From Religion in Tuva: Restoration or Innovation?, Philp Walters

What is fascinating of this little angle of Asia is the flexibility of his people to shift from one tradition to the other and making them coexist together. It could be compared to Japan, where along people life Shintoism, Buddhism and other religions can be present  altogether in people daily lives.

I experienced many situation when the same Tuvan friends stops for praying not just in a Buddhist temple , but also in Orthodox or Christian churches, and etc.

Buddhism has since always coexisted with the local credos of all around Asia, shaping it self with new features. We find examples of Bompo cultures in most of the Tibetans provinces or in China where Buddhism has accepted the cult of ancestors.

The encounter with the Tuvan lama has been hilarious, as for many encounters before with a Tibetan monk.

After few minutes we end talking about his favorite Italian soccer stars of the 80’s-90’s. This is an icebraker which I’m glad for since I didn’t want to be impolite with my friends guest, who has been invited to benedict the family. I’m happy that he likes so much Italy, he explain to us that his brother now lives in Italy with his Italian wife, who met in Nepal and asked him to join her in Italy.

Even if Tsecheliing monastery is located in the northern part of the town, near the river Yenisei, the Buddhist monks of this temple are all living on a building nearby.

Tsechenling Tibetan Buddhist Temple, Kyzyl

Tsechenling Tibetan Buddhist Temple, Kyzyl

Our monk has a very intersting story, which is not him the one telling to me, instead are our friends, just a few days after our encounter.

He arrived to Tuva around 15 years ago from Tibetan provinces by walk. Without knowing any Russian (nonetheless Tuvan) he arrived in Kyzyl in full winter, exausted, carrying with him just few clothes. Heavely sick for the fatigues of his journey he got recovered in Kyzyl hospital.

After all these years he is very welcome by the buddhist community. He become very fluent in Tuvan and quite good in Russian too, which allowes him to communicate also with those Tuvan that cannot speak their language anymore.

The lama has been invited to give a benediction to the house and the family reunited.

Preparation of the Tsampa.

Preparation of the Tsampa.

After a rich lunch (during our stay in Tuva we ended up to have more meals than expected…), the monk start to prepare little altar made of Tsampa to symbolize the four cardinal directions and altars.

Tsampa Sculpture, necessary for the ritual.

Tsampa Sculpture, necessary for the ritual.

Tsampa is a kind of toasted flour typical of nomadic population of steppes and highlands, mostly Mongolian, Tuvan, Tibetans, etc.

Tsampa is highly nutrient, dense and usually combined by hand whit salty-tea-milk. It can also be accompanied by some vegetables and tea to integrate the diet and facilitate its digestion.

The monk before starting his prayer for the house, invited us to take a piece of tsampa wich he prepared for each of us and to spread over those body parts we would like to heal.

Once ready we press our palm, as a punch, around the Tsampa and we make pressure on the top and on the bottom with the other had, giving to it a shape similiar to some backbones. Finally, we put them back on the side of the altar-plate.

The monk asks us to pass the tsampa pieces on the part of our bodies we want to heal, then to press it in our palms, an then putting them back on the altar.

The monk asks us to pass the tsampa pieces on the part of our bodies we want to heal, then to press it in our palms, an then putting them back on the altar.

The ceremony least for 30-45 minutes.

I don’t know the meaning of those mantra, but the ritual this time is different. I’ve been invited by Tibetan monks to take part to their prayers or class before, but this is the first time that is me to be part of a Buddhist ritual.

I can feel that the redundant rhythm the monk use to spell the words of his sacred tests, the burning of  artysh plants as incenses and the fact we are not moving during the ritual, it should induce the observers to feel fiscally tired and therefore more conscious about its solemnity.

At the end of the ceremony, the monk burns more artysh, a subspieces of Juniper (Juniperus chinensis), that is possible to find in other Asian regions as Inner Mongolia, Gansu and Sichuan. Also in Japan Shintoist and Zen Buddhist are using a very similar plant which is also use as incense during the rituals.

The ritual for us ends, the little tsampa altar and the artysh are taken rapidly away, and they will be dispose in a location outside the house, which is not possible for us to see.

After the ritual we are all tired. I’m wondering how the monk feels after the ritual but I don’t dare to ask. 

We start drinking more milk-salty-tea, and when everyone is more relaxed, the monk starts giving us some recommendations for our lives. The process is similar to the sermons of Catholic church, but without  its moralism, the message is rich of a very nomadic values: the unity of the family over all of them.

What he wants us to remember is that a family needs to be strong and united, no matter how far the distances, because it will always be family.

People in fact need to be strong and to support each others. 

He didn’t say that this is the secret of life or other predictable catch-phrases. What he is talking about here is integrity, in his most simple way and I completely agree with this interesting and hilarious person. Is a value I share too after all these years away from home.

Has he arrived smiling and laughing, so he departed from us.

Surely not a typical figure most of us would expect to meet in the hearth of Siberia!

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