BUDDHISM IN RUSSIA
Statistics: There are about 300,000 people of Buddhist faith, 432 Buddhist
communities, and 16 datsans (monasteries) with 70 lamas in Soviet republics.
Most Buddhists are located in the Huryat, Kalmyk, and Tuva republics, in the
Chita Region of the Russian Federation, and in Leningrad and other cities.
Organizations: The highest authority for Soviet Buddhists is the Central
Buddhist Board based in the Ivolginski Datsan in the Buryat Republic. (A
permanent office in Moscow is concerned with external relations). The congress
of clergy and laity convenes once in four years and elects the members of the
Board. Head of the Central Buddhist Board is Bandido Khambo-Lama Munko
Brief History: Mongolian and Tibetan lamas first appeared on the eastern shores
of Lake Baikal in the middle of the 17th century and quickly spread Buddhism in
the area. Later in that century Buddhism emerged as the dominant religion in
Tuva. The Kalmyks who migrated from China to the lower reaches of the Volga in
the later half of the 17th century also professed Buddhism.
Tzarist authorities were fairly tolerant with respect to Buddhists. In
the 1930s the Buddhists suffered more than any other religious community in the
Soviet Union. Prosperous monasteries and churches, many of which were
architectural masterpieces, were closed. All Buddhist religious buildings in
the Khalmyk Republics and Tuva were razed as were most Buddhist monasteries in
the Buryat Republic. Not a single functioning temple and not a single lama
remained. After the Second World War, two temples with a limited number of
monks were built. Religious life was under rigid official control. The late
1980s saw a renaissance of Buddhism; monasteries were opened and the
publication of spiritual literature and periodicals resumed. In early 1991 a
Buddhist school opened at the Ivolginski Datsan.
Current Situation and Problems: There is a dire shortage of lamas, even
though training is provided in Mongolia and Nepal. Contrary to the traditional
view of their way of life, many of them are married and have children. Their
families live in datsans. One new development is the nontraditional involvement
of people in the west-European Soviet areas in Buddhist activities.
REBIRTH OF BUDDHISM
As the day of 15 January 1989 dawned, the people of the Kalmyk Republic
capital, Elista, for the first time in fifty years head the divine sound of a
conch proclaiming the rebirth of a Buddhist community. People sitting in a
praying posture expressed joy and had tears in their eyes when lamas who had
arrived from the Ivolginsk datsan - a Buddhist monastery in Siberia - began the
ritual of opening a Kalmyk holiday, the khural.
In 1991 the first Buddhist religious school opened in Buryatiya (Siberia)
with sixty pupils not only from Buryatiya but also from the Kalmyk and Tuva
The Kalmyk Autonomous Republic on the Caspian steppes of the lower Volga,
the republics of buryat and Tuva, and the Chita and Irkutsk regions in Siberia
are the traditional areas of Buddhism in the Soviet Union. However, in the
1930s, at the height of Stalin’s dictatorship, all Buddhist temples in the
country were closed down, and thousands of lamas were persecuted. Buddhist
monasteries were blown up, their priceless treasures thrown into the fire if
attempts to hide them failed.
Only after World War II, when government policies towards religion softened
somewhat, the Aginski datsan (monastery) in the Chita region reopened and the
Ivolginsk datsan in the Buryat Republic was rebuilt. However, Buddhism remained
a banned religion in the Kalmyk and Tuva republics.
The years of perestroika and glasnot have made it possible to correct this
glaring injustice. A revival of Buddhism has begun both in Siberia and in the
European Soviet republics. New temples are opening and the number of lamas is
increasing. A Buddhist community is being established in Tuva, in south central
SOVIET BUDDHIST HISTORY
Mongolian and Tibetan lamas first came to the area east of Lake Baikal,
regions close to the Mongolian border, in the first half of the seventeenth
century. Later, religious centers - Buddhist monasteries, or datsans - appeared
in other areas of Buryatiya, too. Within a short time most of the Buryats
living east of Lake Baikal were converted to Buddhism. In 1764, Damba Dorzhi
Zayayev, the high priest of the Tasongolski datsan - the oldest in the Baikal
region - became head of the entire Buddhist clergy with the title Bandido Hambo
In the late sixteenth century the Kalmyks were converted to Buddhism by
Mongolian lamas in Dzungaria (China). In the seventeenth century, they moved to
the lower reaches of the Volga River, retaining their religion. At that time
the Kalmyks gained access to the first works of Buddhist literature translated
from the Tibetan language.
In Tuva Buddhism firmly established itself toward the end of the seventeenth
century, having ousted shamanism, the traditional folk beliefs.
BUDDHISM IN THE USSR TODAY
Soviet Buddhism is representative of the Gelugpa school (“the School of
Virtue”), which is a branch of Tibetan Buddhism in the Mahayana tradition, that
is, “the broad path” of salvation from endless rebirth in the world of
Soviet Buddhism has a number of specific ritual peculiarities that have
taken shape over the course of history.
Historically it has been marked by the prevalence of rural lamas living
outside datsans because of the nomadic way of life. To some extent, this
tradition has survived to this day.
In keeping with tradition, six major holidays, khurals, are celebrated
annually and are attended by a large number of people who bring various gifts
to datsans as well as money and food for lamas.
Tsagaalgan is a holiday celebrated on the eve of the lunar new year, which
usually falls in February. This khural is devoted to the twelve miracles of
Buddha during his dispute with six preachers of heresy. Services and a series
of religious rites are conducted to mar the occasion. Buddhists, dressed in
their best clothes, come to pray together for well-being and more happiness. On
the eve of the new year, a solemn evening ritual is performed during which food
is served to the doksheetsi, the protectors of the faith. This involves the
ritual burning of Dugzhub, a magic pyramid of paper and wood; according to a
Buddhist belief, a ritual fire consumes all evil thoughts.
A long note from a big white conch proclaims the first day of the lunar new
year. A traditional service is held to celebrate the Sagaan Sar (“white month”)
In the main temple lamas, replacing one another, pray for fifteen days for
peace and goodness.
The khural Duyn-khor, a second major holiday, lasts three days in April. It
is dedicated to the preaching of the sacred teaching of Kalachakra.
The third major holiday is Gandun-Shunserme, devoted to the birth and
enlightenment of Buddha and his attainment of nirvana. It is celebrated in
The fourth holiday Maidari is dedicated to Maidari, the Buddha of the
future. It is always celebrated for two days in midsummer. People spend the
first day in many hours of devout prayer. On the second day the gilded statue
of Maidari is solemnly carried out of the temple and placed on a chariot twined
with silk ribbons. It is surrounded by lamas in ceremonial dress. A green horse
of plaster is harnessed to the chariot, and the procession sets off around the
datsan. This ceremony symbolizes Maidari’s tour of the universe and the spread
of his grace throughout it. Several thousand people gather in the datsan for
the procession. A kharang, a big copper shield, is struck with a mallet, and
its sounds can be heard far away. There is a fanfare, the drums roll, and
conchs are blown. The procession stops at every turn of the monastery walls for
a reading of scared Scriptures. Many Buddhists attending the procession try to
approach the chariot, to hold onto its beam and harness, and to throw money at
the feet of the statute of Maidari.
The last two khurals are celebrated with less splendor, but they also
attract large crowd of believers. Lkhabab Duysen, marked in autumn, is devoted
to the Buddha’s return from the thirty-third heaven. The holiday Zula is
dedicated to the passing away of the father of lamaism, Bogdo Tsongkhapa. A
thousand candles are lit during the service.
During the khurals prayers are said in honor of the protectors of the faith
and for well-being and peace on earth.
Lamas who live in monasteries observe the Dulva, a traditional moral and
ethical code. Depending on the level of ordination, they participate in
services and philosophical discussions and perform special religious rites at
the people’s request.
Recently, in addition to Buryats, Kalmyks, and Tuvinians, more and more
Russians, Ukrainians, and people from the Baltic republics have been attending
Buddhist services. Previously, they all went to pray at the Ivolginsk datsan,
but today, with the 1991 reopening of the temple in Leningrad, followers of
Buddhism from the European part of the country will travel there, too.
That temple was initially built from 1909-1915, but the social changes in
Russia after 1917 forced its closure. In the first years of the Soviet regime,
a military unit was stationed in the grounds of the Buddhist temple. The
interior of the temple was seriously damaged, statues and manuscripts were
destroyed, and soldiers used paper with ancient Tibetan texts to roll their
cigarettes. Only after the famous Tibetan doctor Agvan Dordzhiev lodged a
vigorous protest was the temple returned to the Buddhist community. In 1923 and
1924 the interior of the temple was partially restored. A 4.5 meter statue of
the Buddha with colored porcelain eyes was brought in from Poland.
In 1938 the Buddhist temple was turned into a sports center, and during
World War II grenades were manufactured in the building’s basement. After the
war, a radio station was located here, and in early 1960s the USSR Academy of
Sciences took charge of the building and set up a zoological laboratory there.
The building’s outward appearance changed; certain parts disappeared. For
example, copper hand-chased round cover plates that decorated three pairs of
doors were scrapped, and their handles were substituted with iron handles
typical of the period.
These days Buryat lamas are frequent visitors in Leningrad, just as in the
Kalmyk Republic, where they are helping to revive spiritual life. Many of them
have abandoned the traditional celibacy and now have families.
Hundreds of Muscovites also have applied for registration and permission to
open a house of prayer.
SOVIET BUDDHIST SCHOLARSHIP
There is a growing interest in Buddhism among Russian scholars. The
Russian buddhological school had won an international reputation already in the
nineteenth century. Many books treating various Buddhist subjects were
published in the Russian language during that time. For instance, the great
Russian writer, Leo Tolstoy, outlined the biography of Buddha in a brochure
issued by the Posrednik (Mediator) publishing house. He also used ideas
borrowed from the Dhammapada, a code of Buddhist ethics, as a source of his
At present Buddhism is studied in research centers in Moscow, Leningrad, and
Tartu, as well as in Central Asia, Ulan-Ude, Elista, and Kyzil. Together,
scholars examine the Buddhist religious system, the social functions of
Buddhism, and its influence on the culture and traditions of Oriental people.
The Moscow buddhologists concentrate on the role of Buddhist rituals as well
as the place and role of Buddhism in the social and political structures of
Asian countries. In Leningrad, scholars are engaged in deciphering ancient
Indian inscriptions, textological research in the field of Buddhist
terminology, the study of different aspects of Buddhist art, and old Uighur,
Mongolian, Tibetan, and Chinese texts.
Buryat researchers focus on a broad range of social, ideological, and
cultural phenomena linked with Buddhism. They analyze canonical literature,
translate texts on Indo-Tibetan medicine, and carry out sociological research
into the place of present-day Buddhism. The research covers all 108 volumes of
the Kanjur, a collection of the most authoritative texts and sayings of Buddha
Sakyamuni, that have canonical validity. The Kanjur of the Ivolginsk datsan
library is one of the rarest. All of its volumes are handwritten in a highly
artistic style using ink solutions of nine precious stones and metals.
The library also boasts a complete Tanjur (“collection of commentaries”) in
225 volumes. It contains treatises on theology, philosophy, logic, medicine,
philology, art, rituals, and architecture. The Tanjur includes all twenty-four
existing Tantric systems, united into the four sections of the Tantra, and the
most important writings of the “six decorations of India” - the teachers
Nagarjuna, Aryadeva, Asanga, Vasubandhu, Dignaga, and Dharmakirti.
Among the library’s other treasures are invaluable manuscripts in the
Tibetan, Mongolian, Sanskrit, Buryat, and other languages. Alongside works
devoted to the Buddhist history, mathematics, and folk medicine, the collection
also includes namtars, the biographies of prominent Buddhist leaders and
A group of scholars has prepared for publication a unique volume - a
complete atlas of Tibetan medicine which has been used to teach many
generations of Tibetan doctors. This unique book has been preserved in the
Buryat Republic and will, of course, prove a priceless manual for modern
Buryat scholars believe that forgotten remedies of natural origin may be
very effective in supplementing modern drugs, especially in treating diseases
of the digestive organs. Buryat scientists have developed preparations that
restore the functions of the liver in cases of hepatitis and are also effective
in the treatment of chronic gastritis, ulcers, and enteritis. They also study
many other ancient methods of Buddhist traditional medicine, such a massage,
acupuncture, cauterization, phlebotomy or blood-letting, and hydrotherapy.
The chronopharmacological trend in Buryat medicine is also of considerable
interest. What it entails is determining the best possible time for the action
of drugs and medicines during the day, month, or year. This is to a great
extent in line with the present - day concept of biorhythms.
A major research effort is the study of oncological diseases. Tibetan
medicine has been accumulating clinical knowledge in this area. The Buddhists
also have interesting methods of mental training, which can be extremely useful
in conditions of stress.
Tuvinian lamas know a number of methods of brewing herbal teas or herbal
lamb broth, which is herbs boiled with a shoulder of lamb. For some diseases
lamas recommend eating half-raw meat, explaining that this meat preserves its
healing properties better. Lamas treat measles with blood taken from a live
female goat, wounds with the fat of a ram, and bear gall applied topically for
fever, swellings, or contusions.
Only recently Buddhist physicians could not practice their art, because this
was strictly prohibited. However, perestroika had made it possible for them to
treat patients freely and to participate in scientific research.
Source: Igor Troyanovsky (1991) Religion in the
Soviet Republics, Harper , USA.