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Dec 07
Compassion for Ukraine
Out of the Headlines and Into the Heart

Out of the Headlines and Into the Heart

Compassion to Ukraine

by Cara Thornley

Getting out of the Headlines and into the Heart is how one of the regular members describes his experience of the daily meditation practice of shamatha and tonglen done online for, and with, Ukrainians by the U.S., Canadian and European Shambhala communities. The Zoom link for this daily practice, starting at 11AM EST, is https://sites.google.com/view/ukraine-tonglen/homeEveryone is welcome. Meditation instruction can be arranged for persons needing it. Just enter into the chat that you are new to the practice/s and would like instruction and the host for the day will help you.

This group began in February of this year when Kerryann Diloreto from Wisconsin decided to host a zoom practice session and invited Bill Brauer to lead it. Around 200 people showed up. Following that turnout Ella Reznikova, Bill’s wife, herself originally from Ukraine, asked one of Shambhala online members, JT Buck, if daily tonglen sessions could be held, and so the meetings began.

Ella recounts that everyone at that time thought that the Russian invasion would be a temporary disaster, but 9 months later both this unfair war and our daily group compassion practice continues. Ella says,

We are like an army that holds a space for our Ukrainian sangha and beyond!

Following the meditation we have discussion and sometimes our Ukrainian friends share their news. We are becoming a diverse family united, not because of what particular spiritual path we follow, but because of our heartfelt compassion for the experience of war-ravaged Ukrainians. Sometimes we cry together, sometimes we laugh and even bicker just like any family does. We have a stable group of 50-60 people with new people coming every day. Some are older practitioners, some are newer. One of the regular practitioners, and a Zoom host, says,

From the day the war and the daily tonglen practice started, I have been so motivated to get myself out of bed to practice a practice I had not ever done so regularly and with such clear purpose. The good fortune to join with others to send space, support and peace on the out breath to the people in Ukraine is very much appreciated. The regular gathering of people around the world to practice together is an incredible example of how practice works, how we can help one another spiritually and practically.

Through these regular practices and gatherings I have benefited way more than what I have given. My understanding of the hinayana, mahayana, and vajrayana teachings and practices has increased more than any other time in my life thanks to the presentations from all of the teachers and umdzes and to the following conversations. I so appreciate the example we are showing that we can all learn to listen to one another; have differing opinions; have different teachers, practices and paths, even no practice centers, and we can all come together for one purpose. I am very grateful for how we all make the teachings so available without using Shambhala or Buddhist jargon.” 

Many group members, to whatever degree they are able, have sent funds to the Ukrainians in the group, enabling them to purchase everything from food to generators for themselves and their Ukrainian communities.

Food delivery for displaced families bought by Shambhala donors

A few months ago via another Vermont Ukrainian, Ella made contact with Yura, a volunteer from the Ukrainian Dnipropetrovsk region, who helps to deliver food to shelters for families displaced from their homes. Some members of the meditation group started financially supporting Yura’s volunteer work. He (Yura) then got curious about the people who were helping him, and subsequently asked for meditation instruction. He now regularly participates in meditation and shares the work he is doing and what help is needed. Sometimes his eyes tear from people’s generosity.

Generator delivery

Recently, Yura wrote a story about how he came back to his fully destroyed town in Severodonetsk just to save his cat. He left the cat when the family was in a hurry to escape the shelling. It is a very touching story and we are including it below for you to read.

Our meditation and discussion sessions are definitely an example of Enlightened Society. Many people said that these gatherings are the only way for them to practice at this point in time. They call these gatherings their real sangha, where dharma and life join together.

Sadly, our friends in Ukraine can’t join us as often as they would like because of unreliable internet connection, but they tell us that they still feel our love and care. They are very curious about how dharma can be applied to war times and keep challenging our Buddhist assumptions. Our schedule is full of lively conversations. We discuss news from the front and have even started doing the Atisha Mahayana  slogan practice.

There is both a deep sadness about doing these meditation sessions, about what has precipitated their existence, and a deep gladness that they seem genuinely helpful in the midst of a horrendous situation.

Businka’s Story by Yura Muchin.

It is the fifth day since we cannot leave the bomb shelter due to continuous heavy weapons fire. About eighty people, many of them children and the elderly, have gathered in one dusty and long-abandoned room to escape death. This war took everyone by surprise. People are crying because they no longer have a home, and some have lost their loved ones. I cannot show that I am scared since my mother, my wife, and my son who just turned 11 are relying on me. A lot of thoughts in my head; they come and then evaporate with each new explosion that shakes everything around, but one thought is not leaving my head, I could not stop thinking about it: My favorite pet, my cat, my Businka. She is on the other side of town, alone and very frightened by the constant explosions, locked in an apartment without heating, in early cold March. 

When war comes to your house, you have to make a lot of spontaneous and quick decisions, and I made a mistake for which I was blaming myself every minute. I didn’t take the cat with us at once because I hoped that the war would pass us by, as it did in 2014. Before leaving the house I opened a jar of her favorite food and poured water into a pot which should have been enough for several days as if I knew that something might go wrong and it would be impossible to return home.

Our beloved city Severodonetsk, in the first days of the war was divided into two parts by block posts with military equipment and the military troops. My town took in all the aggression and was destroyed with inhuman cruelty. We, in the bomb shelter on one side, and Businka on the other. I had to go and get her, whatever it would cost.

The situation got complicated because my car had burned down on the second day of the war; a large-caliber shell hit it and in a matter of minutes it became only a pile of scrap metal. I had hoped that someone would drive to the other side of the city and I would be able to go with them. A couple of days later someone like that showed up! A young guy I knew from before the war came to the bomb shelter and brought his grandmother. He said he was going to try to get to the blocked part of the city to get his things out of the apartment. I knew he lived next door to the apartment where my cat was. But I wasn’t thinking about things, I wasn’t thinking about anything but Businka! The guy’s name was Alexander, and he said if I wanted to go with him I had five minutes to get ready. I grabbed the keys from the apartment, hugged my mom, asked her not to tell anything to my wife and child who were at the upstairs part of the shelter, and said I was going to get the cat. 

While we were in the bomb shelter, I could hear the constant whistling of shells and explosions above us, but I had no idea how my beloved city had changed during that time!

Alexander was not going very fast since the whole road was strewn with shell splinters and pieces of asphalt torn out by explosions. He was afraid of cutting his tires and was looking carefully at the road. I, on the other hand, had a chance to look at the terrible picture of what was happening around me. My beloved city was in ruins in a matter of days; it was enveloped in thick smoke from the fires, along the roads were dozens of burned cars and some of them contained burned bodies of people, some of whom died trying to leave the city, some of whom were trying to get their relatives and loved ones out of the basements and bomb shelters. Bodies of people torn apart by shells and shrapnel had been lying on the streets for days, with no one there to pick them up. The houses were punctured by shells that left wounds the size of a floor, and sometimes an entire entranceway.

After a while we arrived at a checkpoint where there were two military men, who were surprised at our desire to enter a closed part of the city. After checking our documents the guys in uniform said that if we wanted to live, we had half an hour to leave the area we were entering. They obviously knew something! Afterwards one of them said that we were crazy, but judging by the scenery that surrounded us it was clear even to us.

There was active fighting in the direction we were going. The picture around us was getting scarier and the rumbling was getting closer. We opened the car windows. While sitting in a bomb shelter I read many articles on how to behave in a war zone, and one of them said that when driving in a car open windows help you to hear a projectile whistle and react in time. Fortunately or unfortunately it came in handy.

It was a little over a kilometer to our destination: on the left was a dense forest, from which we could hear machine gun fire and explosions, and on the right were broken and burnt out multi-story houses. Ahead I saw several armored cars and tanks with Ukrainian flags; there were soldiers who ordered us to stop, and at that moment we heard the sound of a shell, which was getting closer and stronger, and then there was an explosion, very loud and deafening. A shell landed on the road, 30 paces away from our car, then another one… We jumped out of the car and fell on the ground, a military officer ran up to us and ordered us to take cover in a multi-story building next to the road. After waiting for several more explosions, each of which covered us with pieces of torn out soil, we got up and ran to the shelter. We spent the next twenty minutes in the basement of the house, hoping that it would not collapse on us from the shells, some of which hit it. We worried that the only car we had would be destroyed. As soon as everything calmed down, we went outside and saw that part of the house, in the basement of which we were in, had been destroyed to the foundation. There were two soldiers standing by the shell-shattered military vehicle, who forbade us to go further and ordered us to leave immediately. Our car was punctured by shrapnel and dented by pieces of asphalt torn out by the explosions, but fortunately Alexander was able to start it up and we drove back to the air-raid shelter where our relatives were waiting for us. They could hear the terrible explosions coming from where we had gone.

When I came back I immediately ran to look for my loved ones. My mother was hysterical, she started hugging and kissing me. My wife was in the apartment, in the hallway, on the first floor of the house where there was a bomb shelter. Someone had told her where I had gone. She just sat on the floor and did not want to leave, she was waiting for me, telling everyone who tried to take her to the shelter that I was coming, that I would be okay, and when I ran to her she started hitting me, cursing, hugging and kissing me tightly.

After drinking hot tea and warming up a little, I began to come to my senses. Today’s trip was the worst day of my life, but it did not affect the overwhelming desire and need to find Businka. It had been eight days since I was last at home and the fact that the cat had run out of food constantly haunted me. How cruel it would be to leave her there. I was sure she was waiting for me and hoping that I would come and save her from a horrible death of starvation.

Three years ago on Christmas Day, my wife was coming home from work when she saw a small, very sick and frozen kitten in the snow outside the house. She was afraid of people and it was clear that the kitten was wild and abused. We had warmed and fed her, and the next day we went to the vet, who gave Businka a prescription and told us she would not last a month outside because of her sick ears. So we saved her life and kept her in our home. And it was real love! Therefore I was ready to go after her on foot, risking my life, knowing all the possible consequences of my decision. 

The next morning I began to get ready, had a good meal and took some water with me. I charged my phone, the antenna signal came through occasionally and very weakly, so I could only call someone by dialing a hundred times or by chance. At the entrance to the shelter one of the men noticed that after yesterday’s heavy fighting on the outskirts of the city, it was quiet enough. He said that he was thinking about trying to leave the city, but to do that he needed to get to a garage in a nearby neighborhood, a seven-minute walk away, and get his car. Without much hope I offered him money to help me to get the cat. After a couple of minutes he agreed, but asked for half a thousand dollars for his help. I carried all my savings in my pocket and I had a little less than a thousand dollars. We were not preparing for war, we were living a happy, relaxed life.

Realizing that this was my only option, I agreed and together with the man whose name was Igor, we went to get his car. The day was really quiet. Somewhere in the distance we could hear explosions, but after what I had gone through yesterday, it did not bother me anymore. Fortunately the garage was intact and so was the car, and we immediately drove towards the apartment where Businka was. Igor knew the city well because he worked as a cab driver, and took a safer road, bypassing the area where I had miraculously survived yesterday. We did not meet any living souls on the way and arrived without incident, although a few strong explosions were heard somewhere nearby. Igor said I had five minutes to pick up everything I needed, and in the meantime he was going to see what state his relatives’ house was in.

As soon as I got out of the car, fear gripped me. I saw a house, one of whose apartments my beloved cat was in. The house had been hit by shells and all the windows had been blown out. But it had not burned down, which gave me hope that Businka was okay and still waiting for me. I ran as fast as I could and just stopped for a few seconds next to the dead, gray-haired man lying on the ground, trying to identify him, but it was not a person I knew. When I reached the apartment, with tears in my eyes and trembling hands, I opened the door and entered. All around were the shards of glass from the broken windows and it was as cold as outside. The cat could not be heard, I cautiously walked into my room, said, “Busia” in a trembling voice, and froze in anticipation.

Yura’s house in Severodonetsk after shelling

My cat looked out from behind the couch meowing anxiously. I took her in my arms, examined her in a hurry, making sure she was all right and kissed her furry little face. At that second I heard a loud explosion nearby, then a few more. It was close and the glass that was still in some of the windows shattered into tiny pieces. But we were already in the hallway observing the rule of two walls, as mentioned in those articles I read. I firmly held my cat in my arms and under no circumstances was I going to let her go, and she was looking fearfully in my eyes, thanking me for being there, she had waited for me!

Trying to call the driver I endlessly dialed his number, but there was no connection. Мore than ten minutes had passed. My house was shaking from the explosions somewhere nearby, and Igor was still not there. The hope that he would come to get us was slowly fading, but as soon as everything had calmed down, I heard a car honking outside. He came back for us, and didn’t let us down! I hid Businka under my jacket and ran out of the apartment, said goodbye to my home, got in the car, and we drove to the bomb shelter where my family and friends were waiting for us.

That same evening I was searching through an Internet group that had been set up to search for missing persons in my town, and I was able to identify the dead, gray-haired man whom I had seen outside my house by his photo. Grief-stricken relatives told me after a couple of days that they could take away his body and bury it in the garden of their country house.

And to finish the story, answering the question of those people who asked me if I was crazy for risking my life to go twice to rescue my cat. No, I’m fine! But, I would have been crazy to leave her there to die a horrible and hungry death, waiting for me to come and get her.

The heroine of the story, cat Businka, who recently gave birth to three kittens


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