Ukraine’s First Warrior Assembly
both of whom live within a mile of Karme Choling, and who traveled to be Meditation Instructors at the recent Golden Key and Warrior Assembly that took place in the forest outside of Lviv, Ukraine
photos by Stanislav Yasinskiy (black and white) and Vladimir Molokovsky (color)
It began with loading the rented bus with luggage and cushions. Perched between the street’s cobblestones and a raised sidewalk, it was an old bus, a dusty bus, rounded at the corners and spewing exhaust fumes, piloted by a man in his late 40’s and his young early-teen daughter. He didn’t smile much and she looked embarrassed – who are these strange people with all these cushions and banners and jars of ink? The large bunches of freshly bought market flowers were perched between their seats as we left the Lviv Shambhala Center.
Lviv is a thirteenth-century town, whose name translates to lion. It is a small city radiating around a beautifully preserved historic center of town, and is home to a small but strong Shambhala sangha, including vajrayana practitioners and dorje kasung.
After half an hour of winding through impossibly small streets, lurching up the hill and out of the city, we arrived in Bruchovich and pulled into a forested hotel. Bruchovich is a “suburb” of Lviv and consists mostly of wild woods and occasional middle class housing, all about fifteen miles from Lviv. Everyone on the bus heaved a collective sigh, thinking in Ukrainian, Polish, Russian, English, Dutch and German: “This is it! Home for the next two weeks!” We quickly realized, however, that the place was not isolated, nor ideal for a retreat. But the buildings were clean and we had nice rooms. We also enjoyed polite and curious receptionists, one of whom was especially loved by everybody: Julia, who almost became one of us.When we walked inside the deeply chilled auditorium that was to become our shrine room, we hung our heads in dismay, muttering in our multiple languages: “how can we possibly do this?” We divided the numerous set-up tasks and by about 11pm that night, a miniature kingdom had arisen. Banners were hung about the walls, auditorium seats had been removed, the floor was swept and mopped, cushions were laid, the shrine was constructed and arranged, and then the first flower arrangements were placed.
It turned out there was no coordinator for the first weekend of Golden Key so suddenly, someone turned to me and said: “you can coordinate Golden Key, right?” Spluttering my tea, I saw the need and responded, “I guess so.” And thus, despite not speaking any of the languages, at the 11th hour, I became the coordinator for Golden Key. I could not have done it without the support of Ella, my dear friend Andriy, and the wonderfully generous translators Maks and Ania; not to mention our beloved teachers Acharya Mattias Pongracz and Shastri Jane Hope.
For Ella, coming back to Ukraine was coming back home to a world she had left behind, but still loved. It is in fact because of Ella and her first husband Igor, that Shambhala exists in Ukraine in the first place, and she is often spoken of as “Shambhala Ukraine’s Mama”. For me, coming back to Ukraine (my 2nd visit) was closing the loop on an ancestral connection. My great-grandparents, all four Russian Jews, were forced to leave by circumstances of economy and persecution. I, feeling the pull of my roots, returned in service of the dharma, and discovered in the sangha my true reflection. “Devlyatchis na vas, ya batchu sabeh.” (In all of you, I see myself.)Golden Key unfurled with many hiccups and bumps that smoothed the way for Warrior Assembly to begin. It was like being in the wild west of Shambhala. The building next to us was occupied by night-workers constructing the new Lviv airport, and who by day drank a lot and slept. Sometimes we found them sleeping on the ground, surrounded by uncountable bottles. We were pressed to synchronize body and mind in order to step around them and noticed later that they would make an effort to go to sleep in their assigned rooms – we took it as a sign of respect. During one particularly important address by our program Directors, we weathered a party of politicians singing in four part harmony just beyond our building. Two hours later, we were singing songs at our own banquet where we, in turn, sang Ukrainian songs. It took only an hour of shyness before our group launched into raucous singing!
Nobody complained even though the food was mostly a festival of carbs: weak soup accompanied by potatoes and bread, spaghetti and bread, bread and bread. Nobody had any allergies either (who ever heard of “gluten free”?). One time when a friendly homeless dog was trying to walk into our shrine room, we mentioned that some people might have an allergy to dogs. They looked at us like – how on earth you can have a dog allergy? That would be like having an allergy to a friend! Even our language barriers, which presented potential conflicts and misunderstandings were transcended through the kindness blooming from our practice. Many of us had difficult moments, but we were learning how to ride the waves.Following Golden Key, the historic moment finally arrived for Warrior Assembly to begin. The forest was ready to receive us. The smoke of our first morning’s lhasang billowed powerfully up into the spring tree tops, clearing away the obstacles. After that, we continued with a powerful bowing ceremony, and the kasung engaged in drill practice through the forest – in full uniform. Fortunately enough, two beautiful fresh coordinators arrived to manage Warrior Assembly, and with Magda and Wolf at the helm, we were all able to relax into the rhythm of the unrelenting schedule for the next 10 days. With over fifty people – thirty-two participants and 12 staff from 10 different countries, as well as five beautiful children, we became a large mixed family. Acharya Pongracz said that our children should feel at home in Shambhala, and so the generosity that was extended to the parents meant that the children were with us in the shrine room. They loved to cry “ki ki so so” during meal chants, and while we were practicing painted funny and poignant drawings of Ashe and the four dignities (some of which were proudly purchased in the final fundraising event). We became a society whole.
The assembly of new warriors was tender and potent. Eastern European culture is different from anywhere else. Traditional manners are often opposite and political correctness is unheard of, but eyes are deep and hearts are curious. These Eastern Europeans will check you out and if you are genuine they will die for you, but if you manipulate them they will attack you no matter what your position might be. They are serious and they are cynical. They don’t worry about piecing everything together, their life provides the teachings and they know that life is a mess. They just want to cry and laugh and drink, and hug and fight and drink again. There are endless parties, but they still come to practice and nobody is tired, or at least nobody bothers to talk about it. The silence is articulate and emotional.As Ella shares: “I came back to a culture that touched me deeply because people dared to feel, to express, to be awkward and tender and sometimes even too direct. I came there to be on staff, but I learned so much from the students. My heart is broken and I cannot describe it like a diligent journalist: this feast of unmasked childish wildness and sore tenderness. It was not a program, it was an assembly adorned with the decorum of raw hearts. Life is not easy for these people, they do not trust in beautiful promises, they are not spoiled by “feeling safe,” and they do not know, experience or believe that society can care, respect and nourish one’s dignity. But they all can feel, viscerally and beyond cultural barriers when something genuine descends on their land.”
The forest bloomed for us, and mirrored our blooming connections with each other. Spring in Ukraine is slow. But love blossomed, wisdom shone and our forested surroundings flourished with us. We danced and cried and sang and laughed, our practice deepening each day. The kasung presence was very strong and not only woke us up, but protected us from fires, rainstorms and late night drinking parties (mostly our own). Our faces became painted with the same hues of the forest’s evolving flowers. First white anemone, then yellow cup flower, then purple aster, then delicate pink petaled fragrant blossom. The apple trees shot into cascades of white bloom and just as quickly showered us with the snow of their petals. And by the end, the teachings having cycled round, we were a clan of warriors crying whole-heartedly “Ki Ki So So” when each of us had to depart. The depth of our connections were confirmed by tears under the moon and laughter under the sun. The deep black of the first Ashe was firmly planted in the soil of Ukraine.
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