Buddhism in Russia
The Tibetan form of Buddhism first spread to Russia in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when the nomadic Mongol tribes of Oirats (present-day Kalmyks) and Buryats migrated to the lower reaches of the Volga and to the east of Lake Baikal.
Although the Buryats, Kalmyks, and Tuvans all shared a common religion, Buddhism evolved independently within each group. The results were distinct national systems of monasteries (Buryat datsans, Kalmyk khuruls, and Tuvankhure) and separate national ecclesiastical structures.
Buddhism had been known among the western Mongolian Oirat tribes of Derbets and Torguts since the thirteenth century, but it did not become widely practiced by them until the beginning of the seventeenth century.
It was built before 1616 in the region of present-day Semipalatinsk.
Finally there would be five to seven more years of study, generally completed by the age of thirty.
Apparently, among the Kalmyks we find a legal system requiring universal compulsory education for boys for the first time in world history. This is prescribed in section seven of the second chapter of the law code promulgated in the reign of khan Dondok-Dashi (1741-1753):
If any of the sons of the noble people shall not be taught reading and writing in todo ueeg [the Oirat alphabet], then the father shall pay a three-year-old horse as a fine and the son shall be given to a teacher for instruction.
The fine for the same offense from a person known to society: a three-year-old sheep. From a commoner: fifteen kopecks , and the son is given to instruction just as in the above situation. If he does not educate his son before age fifteen, he will be punished for this.
Historians frequently cite a decree of Empress Elizabeth from 1741 as officially recognizing Buddhism in Russia, but so far we have been unable to discover evidence of this decree among the collections of state documents.
A rivalry between these two Buryat monastic centers started and continued up to the beginning of the nineteenth century, at which time the tsarist administration recognized the priority of the Goose Lake datsan.
Before that time, both leaders of the rival groups carried the title Bandido-Khambo-lama.
By 1846 144 buildings in 34 monasteries had been built in Buryatia, and the number of clergy was increasing rapidly. While there were just 150 lamas (3) in 1741, by 1796 there were 700, and in 1831 there were 4,637.
In 1853 it forbade the building of new datsans other than the already existing 34 in a law titled Regulation Concerning Lamaist Clergy in Eastern Siberia. It also attempted to limit the growth of the number of lamas by stipulating that only one lama per 200 parishioners would be tax-free.
As a practical matter, however, the 1853 law was not actively enforced because the government had plans for expansion in East Asia and was afraid of stirring up too much dissatisfaction among the population of this key region.
This growth was facilitated by the establishment of a system of uninterrupted Buddhist education.
After the appearance in Buryatia of Buddhist faculties of tsannit (philosophy), completion of such a course of studies became obligatory for the clergy of datsans. The base curriculum lasted for fourteen years, beginning after two years of primary education.
The fourteenth year was not the end, for a complete course of study in monastic discipline would take eight years. Those who completed the entire program took exams leading to the rank of gabzha, equivalent to a doctorate.
The Buryats expended a tremendous amount of effort and material resources in order to import a mass of treasured literature from Tibet, China, and Mongolia, and to adopt many living traditions from Tibetan Buddhism.
By the end of the nineteenth century it had attained such success that doctors of Tibetan medicine Tsul'tim (Aleksandr) Badmaev (d.1873) and his younger brother Zhamsaran (Petr) Badmaev (1810-1920) traveled to St. Petersburg and treated famous people and even the imperial family.
In 1887 there were already twenty-nine publishing houses, which together managed to publish around 2,000 titles in the Tibetan and Mongol languages until their demise under the Communists in the 1930s.
At the end of the eighteenth century, after the independent Kalmyk khanate was swallowed up and the out-migration of most Kalmyks to Dzungaria, the Kalmyk steppe was transformed into one of the administrative regions of Russia.
The tsarist administration attempted to restrict the spread of Buddhism through its Regulation on the Administration of the Kalmyk People of 1838, which limited the number of clergy to 2,650 in 76 khuruls at a time when the real number of clergy was 5,270 and the real number of khuruls was 105.
Nevertheless, the first choira – a school for education of Kalmyk clergy – was opened in 1907, and in 1908 the second such school was opened. After 1910 the Baksha-Lama of the Don Kalmyks, Mynko Barmanzhinov, opened a third choira.
The Tuvans were the only Turkish people who confessed Buddhism, and they became subjects of the tsar when Russia annexed Tuva and made it a protectorate named Uriankhai, after the fall of the Manchurian dynasty in China.
At the time of annexation there were already twenty-two Buddhist monasteries (khure) and about 4,000 lamas and khuvaraki in the Uriankhai province. About half of the lamas lived not in monasteries but as householders with families.
By the beginning of the twentieth century Russia was interested in strengthening its ties in the East, and it especially wanted to establish direct contact with the theocratic governments of Mongolia and Tibet.
The construction and operation of this temple was overseen by Agwan Dorzhiev (1853-1938), the outstanding Buryat lama who was nominated as a debate-partner to a young 13th Dalai Lama, gained his confidence and acted as representative of Tibet in Russia.
At this time Buddhism also began to exert an influence on Russian creative intelligentsia: Bal'mont translated into the Russian language Ashvaghosha's Buddhacarita, and the Roerih family traveled to Tibet.
A circle for the study of the Kalachakra, one of the most treasured doctrines of Vajrayana Buddhism, was established there with the help of G. I. Bokii, head of the Special Section (department of cryptography).
In 1937 almost all of its scholars were arrested.
Lamas participated in attempts to create a pan-Mongol theocratic government, the Kizhinga lama Sandan Tsydenov established the so-called [Bulagat theocratic movement]], and the schism that had begun at the end of the nineteenth century between reform-minded (Renovationist) and conservative clergy grew even sharper.
The Renovationist party headed by A. Dorzhiev was prepared to cooperate with Soviet authorities for the sake of saving religion, to seek parallels between the teachings of Buddha and Marx, and to eliminate the inequalities of property ownership among monks.
The conservatives wanted everything to remain as it was.
Even the Renovationist party's program (see my previous article in this series) was set aside in the face of new tragedies. Lamas were stripped of the right to own land, and taxes on them were increased so much that for many it was impossible to stay in the monasteries.
And if among the Kalmyks nevertheless there remained one stone building – the stone Khosheutov khurul of the Tiumen princes – in Tuva there remained only remains of the one-meter-thick walls of the Chadan khure.
A congress of leading Buddhists from the Buryat-Mongol Autonomous Republic took place May 21-23, 1946 in Ulan-Ude, organized by a group of lamas and believers headed by former monks A. Galsanov and L.-M. Darmaev.
It established a Law of Spiritual Administration of Buddhists and a Regulation for Buddhist Clergy of the USSR in which lamas were obligated to honor the Fatherland of workers on an equal level with their holy Buddhist faith and in every way promote its strengthening and flourishing.
The residence of TsDUB was the new temple Khambin sume (now the Ivolginsky datsan), constructed in a swamp area some thirty kilometers from Ulan-Ude. The first Bandido Khambo-Lama of the new era was Lobsan-Nima Darmaev (1890-1960).
Soon permission was given to open a second Buddhist temple – the Agin datsan in the [[Chita] region. Despite the strict control of the government, these two datsans preserved the Buddha's teaching over the all the long decades preceding the beginning of perestroika, or political reforms.
For this purpose in 1956 the TsDUB SSSR was entered into the International Brotherhood of Buddhists, and in 1969 a new international organization was created, the so-called Asiatic Buddhist Conference for Peace.
In the 1970s a Buddhist College of higher education was established and began to prepare new cadres for Mongolia and Buryatia to replace the outgoing generation, by means of a short five-year course of studies.
In 1991 for the first time the 14th Dalai Lama openly visited Moscow and Buddhist regions of the country, giving a powerful impulse to the Buddhist renaissance. His earlier visits of 1979 and 1981 were not advertised by press.
Today more than 200 Buddhist communities are active in Russian territory. Besides the Tibetan Buddhism native to the Kalmyks, Buryats, and Tuvans, other branches of the Dharma are now flourishing as well: Theravada, Korean Son Buddhism, and the Japanese tradition of theLotus Sutra.
By the end of the twentieth century in Russia all the other Tibetan schools had appeared: Nyingma, Kag'iu, Sakya, and Dzogchen as taught by Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche (b.1938), which unites Buddhist and Bon versions of this doctrine. The majority of Buddhist communities are united by a centralized organization: the old TsDUB, which was renamed The Buddhist Traditional Sangha of Russia in 1996.
Since 1991 the Union of Buddhists of Kalmykia has been active there, led by Telo Rinpoche – i.e., a lama reincarnated from the great Indian yogi Tilopa (who is currently the only Rinpoche native of the Russian Federation).
According to the 1997 Russian Federation law on religion, On Freedom of Conscience and Religious Associations, Buddhism is counted as one of the four 'traditional religions of the Russian Federation' other than Orthodox Christianity (Judaism and Islam are the other two).
Since 1991 the first Buddhist books began to be published, as well as a number of Buddhist journals, including Buddhism (just two issues have appeared), Narthang Bulletin (renamed Buddhism of Russia in 1995), Garuda, Mir Kag'iu (now Buddhism.ru) and others. By 2003 approximately fifty Buddhist internet sites were functioning; nowadays there are many more.
The problem of Buddhist education, however, has yet to be resolved. Although in Buryatia and Kalmykia institutions of higher Buddhist education have been established, they do not have enough financial resources or teaching staff.
The situation will not change until the Kalmyk, Buryat, and Tuvan youths who have traveled to India to study in Tibetan monasteries return (as a result of the Chinese takeover of Tibet in 1959, there was a mass exodus of Buddhist monks and many of them established new monasteries in India).
In the meantime, in all the traditional Buddhist regions, and also in Moscow and Petersburg, the Dharma is taught primarily by Tibetan monks, some of whom live in Russia on a permanent basis, while others come especially for the purpose of preaching and conferring empowerments.