Healing Power at a Buddhist Monastery in Eastern Siberia
Ulan Ude is the capital of the Russian republic of Buryatia in the middle of the vast steppes of eastern Siberia at kilometer 5,640 on the Trans-Siberian railway. Long before the railroad ever arrived, its position was already strategic as an important point on the trade route from Russia to China.
Ulan Ude reflects both Asian and Soviet influences. Overall, the city seems a bit disordered like many other Asian cities, but there are still plenty of reminders of Soviet, including a huge head of Lenin in the main square and many Soviet style buildings are mixed in with old mansions.
One of the main reasons to go to Ulan Ude is to visit the Ivgolginsky Datsan, a Buddhist monastery just outside of Ulan Ude that was open throughout Soviet times. Because I had been under the mistaken impression that all religious institutions were closed down by the Soviets, I was surprised to hear about a Buddhist monastery that functioned continuously throughout Soviet times.
The monastery compound is located in a beautiful green valley surrounded by mountains. It is famous among Buddhists because it is home to the perfectly preserved body of Dashi-Dorzho Itigelov.
In 1927 when he was the lama of the monastery, he directed his fellow monks to bury his body after his death in whatever position they found it and to wait 30 years to check it. He then adopted the lotus position to meditate and died while meditating. The monks buried his body without embalming it in an unmarked grave to avoid possible reprisals from the Soviet government.
When his body was exhumed 30 years later, he was still sitting in the lotus position and his body showed no sign of decay or decomposition.
His body was later unveiled in 2002, 75 years after his death. Since then, the body has shown minor signs of decay but continues to be preserved in a way that scientists cannot explain. Buddhists, understandably, believe that his preserved body shows that he attained nirvana.
The monastery is not usually busy, except for the seven Buddhist holidays when the body is exhibited. On those days, the monastery overflows with pilgrims who believe that the lama’s body has healing powers. Crutches and canes are often left nearby as evidence of healing.