Maria Alyokhina, left and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova (Denis Sinyakov)

One of my favourite words in Buddhism is ‘realisation.’  It’s used a fair bit – ‘May you have many realisations’ – but it was a few years before I discovered what it meant.  My teacher explained, with his usual elegant practicality, that a realisation is ‘when your understanding of a subject deepens to the point that it changes your behaviour.’

‘Realisation’ came to mind last weekend when I read I an article in the UK Sunday Times about Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Nadya to her friends, the most recognisable face of the Russian punk band Pussy Riot, who along with Maria Alyokhina has just been released from jail (Maria is on the left, Nadya on the right in the photo above).

In case you’ve missed out on the Pussy Riot story, the facts are these:  In February 2012 the band, headed up by four young women in brightly-coloured balaklavas, performed a ‘punk prayer’ as a stunt at Moscow’s main cathedral.  The song had anti-Putin lyrics and was critical of Russia’s Orthodox Church for its close ties to the Kremlin.  In the days that followed, news of the performance caused controversy and anger in Russia.  Several band members fled the country.  Three of the women were arrested and detained for months, before the case came to trial.  When it did, instead of being given a stern talking to or fine, the women were handed down two year jail sentences.  In Nadya’s case, this was served at a Penal Colony in Mordovia, an area notorious for its Soviet era gulags.

It’s unthinkable that a similar act would lead to such draconian punishment in the West.  But Pussy Riot have no doubt that the harsh sentencing came under guidance from Putin himself.  Despite a backlash from some of the world’s biggest pop icons including Sting, Peter Gabriel and Madonna,  Nadya found herself working as a slave for  work days that last nineteen or twenty hours.  She inhabited a world where inmates are regularly beaten and abused, deprived of basic rights such as going to the lavatory or even washing, and being forced to eat food unfit for human consumption.  Prisoners are set impossible production targets for manufacturing uniforms.  Failure to meet these is punished by beatings, being forced to work outside in sub-zero conditions and sexual abuse.  It is a system designed to degrade, deprive and destroy all sense of humanity.

Nadya and Maria were recently released as part of Putin’s window-dressing ahead of the winter Olympic games in Sochi.  Asked how the jail experience had changed them, Nadya replied that she now found it difficult to sleep for more than three hours because she feels so guilty that she is wasting time.  She told The Sunday Times: “I think of the eyes and the expressions of the women in prison I met who told me of the abuse they put up with.  People on the edge of life and death.”

Nadya and Maria’s behaviour were changed by jail.  They made a realisation.  There are beings in desperate situations suffering right now and they are driven to help, to practice compassion.

It’s a salutary lesson to many of us, whatever our spiritual inclinations, who sincerely hold altruistic intentions, but also live in our own comfortable little bubbles.  The suffering of others, human or animal, may penetrate our world in various ways, but to what extent is it real?  Has it changed our behaviour?  How much of our thoughts are about others, and how much about self-advancement or creating happy distractions for ourselves?

Perhaps Nadya and Maria could teach many of us a thing or two about compassion.

 

PS  I am amazed and encouraged by the interest of Buddhism in Russia.  Russian publishers have been quick to translate Dharma books, including Buddhism for Busy People – cover image below.

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BBP Russian cover

 

You can find the full Sunday Times article at:  http://www.thesundaytimes.co.uk/sto/newsreview/features/article1361392.ece

(Photo at the top of Maria Alyokhina and Nadya Tolokonnikova courtesy of Denis Sinyakov)