01 August 2012

Massacre of Buddhism: Ongiin Khiid


I had no idea, when I agreed to help my friend Susan celebrate her 50th birthday by going with her to Mongolia, that I'd end up standing in a place that would make me feel some of what I felt in Auschwitz-Birkenau: the ruins of the Buddhist temple complexes of Ongiin Khiid in the Gobi Desert.

Susan and I had just finished a three-day horse trek to the lakes of Naiman Nuur so we were mostly focused on getting a hot shower and a restaurant meal -- the short walk to see the local sites was an afterthought. And it was a pretty raucous walk at that, what with peals of laughter from three small boys who kept sneaking up behind us and then running away again when we turned to look. I bother to tell you this to explain how blind-sided I was by my feelings as I began to understand what I was looking at -- and the scale of it.

Ongiin Khiid is now mostly just the smashed remnants of two enormous monastery complexes (Barlim Khiid and Khutagt Khiid) on either side of the only year-round river that runs through Dundgovi province in southern Mongolia. They were destroyed in 1938. What's left of the original buildings and the communities that supported them are the foundations of countless buildings, a few feet of wall here, some broken bits of adornment there.


In person, the ruins of Ongiin Khiid were devastating but, because the buildings were made of the earth at the site, the vast and overwhelming scope of the wreckage is difficult to convey in photographs. There were  ruins as far as you could see. The wrecked altar alcove that once housed a Buddha icon overlooked it all. 

I cannot explain the effect of this site on me. We'd already been to two other ruined and slightly rebuilt monastery sites, Erdene Zuu (pix here) and Tuvkhen.( pix here) They were a mix of sad and hopeful, touristy and sacred, run-down and beautiful. But the raw violence of the destruction at Ongiin Khiid was still visible, still palpable, even though it happened over seventy years ago. 

Mongolian Buddhism had its roots in Tibetan Buddhism and, like Tibetan Buddhism, it incorporated some of the indigenous shamanistic traditions as it evolved. 

In the first decade or so of the 20th century, Buddhism was at its height in Mongolia, with over 2000 temples, more than 700 of them resident monasteries, with something like 115,000 lamas. And it was then that its persecution by the Soviet-backed government began and escalated.

Mongolia is now an independent parliamentary republic but, in the early 1900s, it was fighting off Chinese control and even a brutal invasion by a renegade division of White Russian soldiers led by Roman von Ungern-Sternberg - the Mad Baron, so they turned to Russia for help. While the Mongolians we met believed that their country would not be independent today if it weren't for their long relationship with the Soviet Union, the Soviet-backed government all but wiped out Mongolian Buddhism for fifty years.


The attack on Buddhism began slowly, with requirements that all Buddhist lamas, temples and monasteries register. Then came the restrictions - on teaching, on replacing the Eighth Bogd Qaan (the national spiritual leader) when he died - and the propaganda campaigns with images of lamas as pillagers and parasites, the confiscation of property, the purges of Buddhists from government positions, etc. Sound familiar?

Not that anyone told us this while we were in Mongolia. The details were remarkably vague when we asked what happened and why. It never went beyond "it was part of the Stalinist purges." So, when I tried to read more about it when I came home, I felt like I felt when I walked through the horrific exhibit of orders and propaganda the Germans plastered all over Polish cities after they invaded -- the drip, drip, drip of one ordinary freedom after another stripped away, all of it the methodical and planned separation of one group from another, of individual human beings from their humanity. Then came the final orders to destroy and close all of the monasteries, remove all of the lamas, and outlaw Buddhism.  By 1939, the work was complete.


The pretext the Stalin-puppet regime of Qorlogiin Choibalsan used for the final order in 1938 to do this was the threat of invasion by the Japanese: they were supposedly using the Buddhist infrastructure to infiltrate and undermine Mongolia.

Every one of the lamas who hadn't disrobed in the preceding years was either murdered or arrested, sent to labor camps or conscripted into the army. Some estimate that between three and four percent of the population was slaughtered, among them 18,000 lamas. There are accounts of lamas shot in the head at the edge of the graves they'd just dug.

Standing on the foundation of one of the ruined buildings at Ongiin Khiid, I felt I was looking at the dark heart of what's driving me to do this project, wanting answers. Again.

My parents know, with certainty I envy, that religion itself is the cause of things like this, of most wars, of group hatred, of the Auschwitzs and Ongiin Khiids throughout history. But is it? Maybe that's just the rotten figleaf of an excuse given by those who are really trying to grab land, money, power. If not, if faith is in some way the cause, is it faith itself or something that happens when belief and faith are misunderstood or misused? Or maybe it's just something that goes awry sometimes when groups of people get together and religion is just one of the reasons groups of people get together.

I know I am pathetically attached to getting my hands on a clear cut, defined story to tell myself, to find some way of ducking the stark facts of the Holocaust, of Rwanda, of 9/11, of the slaughter of Native American tribes, of early Christians, of Muslims during the Crusades, of Ongiin Khiid, etc because I no doubt believe that effects have causes so find the cause, find the cure, no? I mean if you can find the wheel spinning that tends to lead to suffering, wouldn't it be worth it at least to try to jam a stick in its spokes? I think that may be the unfortunate underpinnings of my drive to do this project: the desire to find something To Be Done.

I want to find The Reason, to assign Blame, to find The Cause as though that will mitigate the horror and give my story-telling brain the bedtime story it so craves. Were the lamas at the time too close to political power? Had they grown corrupt? No, even if any of that were true, it's no excuse for the murderous violence of what happened. Perhaps it wasn't faith that was to blame for the jagged walls and the broken buildings and all they signify, but an insane world in an insane time; Stalin was at work in the Soviet Union, Hitler in Germany, the second World War about the begin.

No, no I can't tell myself that either. I can't tell myself that it began and ended there.

After the deeds were done and Buddhism outlawed, the Choibalsan government used the few temples left standing as storage facilities, barracks for Russian soldiers, or prison camps. In 1944, one monastery just outside Ulaanbaatar, Gandan, was reopened, staffed by lamas who were specifically banned from teaching anyone or talking about Buddhism. The stories say this was staged, initially, for the benefit of a visit by United States Vice-President Henry Wallace in 1944.

That so few people know about these massacres is small wonder: before Choibalsan began getting rid of Buddhism in earnest, he threw foreign visitors and organizations out of Mongolia and then instituted laws that prevented Mongolians from talking about Buddhism or the massacres.

But Mongolia is open again. People became free to practice religion again after the democratic revolution in 1990 and Buddhism is on the rise. It is, once again, the most widely practiced religion, followed closely by shamanism. Many of the sites have a rebuilt structure or two and some, like Erdene Zuu and Tuvkhen have lamas living there. There didn't appear to be any lamas living at Ongiin Khiid but there was a rebuilt temple, a ger with some items recovered from the rubble, and a monument to the lamas who didn't survive the massacre.

I went back alone to the site again the next morning, long before the village boys were up. In the little time I've spent in the shallow beginning of learning about Buddhism, I keep hearing that everything is Buddha. Even this. 

No Buddha is Buddha, too. 

I don't know if that answer is good enough for me.

But it is better than making up some story to pretend that any of this makes sense.


ruins of Ongiin Khiid, Dundgovi Province, Mongolia



16 June 2012

09 May 2012

25 years


This "heathen" got married twenty-five years ago today.

When I see that look on Kevin's face just after my dad walked me up the aisle, it makes me want to cry. I cannot tell you how many times I have seen that look and heard the words that come with it. That look is one of the reasons we are still together today. It's also what almost did us in.



There's this idea about romantic love, about finding your "soul mate" as that man of mine surely is, that makes us think that our lives should be entwined, enmeshed, our happiness entrusted to another. I think that idea does more to undermine good relationships than almost any other. The underbelly of that notion is: so, if I'm not happy - and who is all the time? - it is my partner's responsibility to at least try to make me feel better, happier.

I won't speak for other people but, in our determination to put how we felt about each other into practice, we kinda got it wrong for a while. In the misguided attempt to make the other happier, we contorted ourselves and our lives into painful and unrecognizable pretzel shapes...or felt guilty when we didn't or couldn't. We thought we were responsible for each other instead of to each other. The result? We had about two years of hell that stripped our relationship right down to its foundation. I remember standing on a street, looking across the top of a car at him and thinking: I am willing to lose this but I am not willing to not be myself anymore.

I was lucky. He was braver and more determined than I was. He took the first steps to break our dynamic. At the time, it felt like he was retreating to his corner to work on his own issues, but it gave me the room to do the same. I would never, ever, ever want to go through that again (have I said "never" and "ever" enough?) however, the new relationship that was built on what remained, that foundation, that look, is everything I ever wanted and more.

What we now know is that marriage isn’t about two becoming one, but about learning how to be yourself in the presence of another. And that isn't always comfortable. Or easy. It means learning to accept that we won't always agree and, on occasion, that we might have to make choices for ourselves that disappoint or don't include the other. Kevin's done that for me and I've done that for him. And our relationship is stronger for it. That, to me, to us, is the secret of a marriage worth having.

Boy, I love you, I admire you, I like you, and I'm grateful for you and to you for our quarter century together.

Your Girl.











13 April 2012

"We are our own S.S. men..."


The artwork of Marian Kolodziej
Auschwitz prisoner #432

While this post is actually reaction and commentary to the post Auschwitz One , I am posting it here so it's easier to find for anyone who might want another way to address suffering, their own or others'....

The Auschwitz Bearing Witness Retreat is multi-faith but the very idea of going to a place like Auschwitz to "bear witness" is a very Zen Buddhist practice. Gemmon and I spoke after she read and helped me fact-check the post, Auschwitz One. She liked that I caught myself, mid-post, avoiding my feelings about standing in the gas chamber by telling facts. And she added,  "I liked your breakdown about the expectation phase. See, Auschwitz still has something to tell you: maybe how hard you are on yourself? Aren't we our own worst SS men?" 
Gemmon leading one of her
Caregivers Workshops 


Yes, Gemmon, I am. I am brutal to myself and, when I sit with dear friends and we really tell each other the truth about how we talk to and feel about ourselves, I'm quite sure I'm not alone in this. I would not let anyone speak about the people I love the way they sometimes speak about themselves. And I know they would defend me against anyone who might judge me as harshly as I judge myself. I can bear witness to that.

But, months after the retreat, I still have no simple answer for the people who ask why I went "really" or "why anyone would put themselves through that?" In other words, what's the "purpose" of "bearing witness" and, when you do, how to cope with all that comes up?  Zen Master Bernie Glassman, who organized the retreat more than sixteen years ago, explains the purpose this way: 
Much of Zen practice, including many teaching techniques used by Zen masters, is aimed at bringing the Zen practitioner to this same place of unknowing, of letting go of what he or she knows. After walking through Auschwitz and Birkenau, there is an end to thought. We are numbed. All we can do is see the endless train tracks on the snow, feel the icy cold of a Polish winter on our bare hands, smell the rotting wood in the few remaining barracks, and listen to the names of the dead.  
Fine, but I still am left with some oxymoronic paralyzing need to act, to DO something when there is nothing to be done, at least about what happened to the people murdered at the Auschwitz camps.

12 April 2012

When everything crumbles, what is left?

Bernard Enginger was a member of the French Resistance when he was captured by the Nazis and put in concentration camps for a year and a half. After he was released, he spent years in India, among many other places, where he was given the name Satprem by his spiritual teacher. One of the Auschwitz Bearing Witness Retreat participants heard an interview he gave much later in life and transcribed what he said. It's astonishing...


…. A man only starts to BE when he reaches the complete nothingness of what he is, what he believes, that he thinks, what he loves. When we reach this complete nothingness, then something must BE, or we die, right? 


I experienced this in the concentration camps. There was nothing. All was destroyed, broken. Even I was broken. All the ideals, the nobility, everything was broken. There was nothing, nothing, nothing, You see? No politics, no religion, nothing to hold on to. So when there is nothing, what is left? What is left? There is a centre of strength, of being. There is something left. And that is the key. It’s not all that we think, all we feel or love. It’s not our ideals or God. It’s none of that! It’s something poignant, as if the whole being was wrapped up in an anguish that is so intense that it becomes a prayer. Or like love, it is warm, powerful. There are no words to describe it. It is our being, what we are. That is the question, the thing that everyone reaches. When everything crumbles, what is left?


Everything is broken to force us to reach that human moment, where we are what man truly is. What is man, really? We are completely fooled by philosophies, religions, politics. They are only outgrowths that were added from one century to the next, They have nothing to do with human reality. So, what is human reality? A man in a cell who will get shot the next morning, knows what that is, sometimes. 


In the morning, in my cell, I often heard steps in the hallway.

19 March 2012

"Marigolds in my mouth"


Illustration Andrew Zbihlyj

This essay by poet Kazim Ali published in the Harvard Divinity Bulletin is a gorgeous piece of work worth experiencing.

A quote:
I believe the "self"  is a risky conjecture... a weird coalition of celestial and spiritual matter, a wobbly and wild thing that quivers through life ... the way a compass needle quivers as it searches for the "real" magnetic north, which a scientist will explain to you is a floating and not fixed point.  
You are half yourself and the other part is just a set of notions -- some of them brilliant, some of them ridiculous, but in any case you will have to think hard in order to sort yourself out and sometimes it will take a stranger in the middle of another city to explain something to you.
And another:
As a human body, I have the privilege to be like dirt listening.  

18 March 2012

The power of storytelling...



"By telling a story, things don't control me anymore: it's in my vernacular, it's the way I see the world. Our stories ask our big questions...what's funny in this world, what's sacred -- And, even more important, by asking them in front of people, with people, even if we don't find the answer, by the asking we find we are not alone and I find that's even more important than the answer." 

I found this interview that Krista Tippett did in her radio program On Being with Kevin Kling inspiring and moving, especially this short excerpt from one of his shows in which he says:  "Every scar is a monument to a battle survived. Now, when you're born into loss, you grow from it but, when you experience loss later in life, you grow toward it."  Kling is a performer and writer who was born with a defective left arm followed by a motorcycle accident in his forties that almost killed him and paralyzed his good right arm.

That first quote of Kevin Kling's about questions without answers reminds me of something Bernie Glassman said in a talk he gave in Germany this year. In starting a conversation with a group, he invited people to ask him questions so he could get to know them better. "But I'm not going to answer them. Because I don't believe answers are useful. In fact, answers can be very deadly. Questions have a lot of energy, they have a life. With a question, you can go on."    

The trick is getting comfortable living without answers. I think Kevin Kling has it just right: asking questions in front of and with other people does make you feel less alone.

15 January 2012

Packing lunch


Auschwitz-Birkenau: selection site
Matt went back to college today. It's a long trip for him: a plane, a subway, a train, and then a taxi. I got up early to pack him a lunch he could take with him.

Packing lunch -- an ordinary act I used to take so for granted when the lunches came two a day, every day. Now, it's almost a sacred act, feeding my children when they allow themselves to be fed by me. But, in that quiet kitchen, the rectangle of torn wax paper on the counter brought with it all the mothers who carefully packed food for a trip they didn't
Auschwitz-Birkenau: end of the tracks
want to take. They had no idea where they were going or what they'd find when they got there but they did what mothers do -- they packed food. They probably stood in their kitchens, terrified, but they did what they could do.

Long after the carefully wrapped food was eaten, too many of them sat on their suitcases, with their children all around them, in the stand of beautiful trees, and waited their turn.

It would be a lot easier to move through life wrapping sandwiches in oblivious peace...but I'm not sure I can do that ow that I know, now that I have seen.

For the moment, contentment with not knowing, not realizing, not seeing what happened, feels like sleepwalking to me.


Auschwitz-Birkenau: the woods near the gas chambers