When Buddha was dying at the comfortable age of eighty-one, his attendant Ananda stayed by his bedside, taking care of the old man and fielding questions from the anxious students gathered outside.
“People are asking, now that you are about to go, what is the most important thing you have taught? What is the definitive lesson?” Ananda is said to have asked. “I think it’s the rules of right action (dharma), don’t you?”
Buddha looked earnestly at his young friend. “Say not so, Ananda,” he replied. “Solidarity with our friends (sangha) is the most important thing that I or anyone else has taught. There is no question about that; solidarity is everything.”
I was reminded of this story when I arrived at the airport in Kyiv last month.
What a feeling it was to pass through the familiar scuffed-glass doors, peer down the corridor of waiting people - all holding flowers or paper signs, or yelling “taxi” at the arriving passengers - and see, standing at the back of the scrum, my old friend Slavic waiting patiently for me!
Slavic took my bag with one hand and hugged me with the other. He good-humoredly submitted as I kissed him on both cheeks, demanded that he tell me everything, and then, without letting him get a word in, launched into my own account of everything going on with me. As we pulled out onto the lovely, tree-lined airport road I felt completely secure, as safe in his hands as does everybody else - his parents, his sister, his daughter, his intelligent dog, Ponya - who has the good fortune to be taken under his wing.
I’ve known Slavic and his best friend Vitalysince the summer of 1995, when I first arrived in Kyiv. I was just a young pup wet behind the ears, and I found myself in a completely different order than any I had experienced, a country at once stumbling and lost, and full of strange and marvelous things. Slavic and Vitalik took me under their protection and into their homes, teaching me more about Ukraine, the Soviet Union, and simply life, than any class or textbook ever could.
So much has changed, and so little. Twelve years later Slavic took me to his home, carried my bags upstairs, picked up the phone and called Vitalik. And the good times began, as though I had never left.
We went for walks and ate Uzbek barbeque, talked late into the night, made the rounds of friends and colleagues. I cooked dinner for them, and they put up with my whims and fancies. We discussed politics and economics, dachas and families, travel and movies. It’s a gift, each time, to find we still have it, whatever it is: this fascination with each other which is the foundation for our friendship, after all these years.
And Kyiv had not finished showing me its delights. I also got three days with my violinist friend Valery, who is doing fabulously well, taking his hometown of Donetsk by storm and playing every night. We listened to music, talked about music, even tried playing some music until the neighbors banged on the walls to get us to stop.
At lunch downtown, we spotted our favorite Ukrainian rock star, Svyatoslav Vokarchuk, the lead singer for Okean Elze. Last time we’d seen Svyatoslav he was setting a Moscow concert hall on fire, singing with such passion and conviction that the crowd defied an official order and surged to the front of the hall, leaving the hapless security guards to give up and just enjoy the show. Now here he was, just a few feet away. I think it motivated both of us to get more serious about music (not that Valery wasn’t serious already), in the hope that someday we could actually jam with Svyatoslav, rather than just see him across the room.
The whole trip was about solidarity. Solidarity with our friends, with our families, with those dear unknown ones who we seem to know because they have sent their voices out into the world. It was perfect, and the time flew by, as good times always do.
I said good-bye to Valery and Slavic and Vitalik and moved on to London. On to jazz clubs and singing lessons, and heartfelt talks with my London friends who, I’m amazed to find, I have now known for years. Life moves on, new friends come, and ripen into old friends. The only thing that doesn’t change seems to be how blessed we are to find kindred souls in this world.