Vello Väärtnõu (born 17.07.1951) is the founder of Estonian practical Buddhist tradition, builder of stupas and master of thangkas, internationally recognized painter, founder of Estonian National Independence Party and author of its program, also author of Buddhist Encyclopedia and international Buddhist conferences, founder and leader of Estonian First Buddhist Brotherhood and Estonian Nyingma.
When talking about Estonian born and nowadays Swedish citizen Vello Väärtnõu, one must keep in mind, that the starting point for all his actions has always and only been Buddhism. History has shown that this is hard to understand for people who dwell on material goods, scientific communism, mass opinions and whose knowledge is small.
Väärnõu has always stood up for his firm, Buddhism based principles and has never let society nor ruling regime to dictate his way.
Väärtnõu was the only one, who already in 1970 socialist Estonia publicly called himself a Buddhist. Moving around in Tartu and Tallinn, in cultural circles, he enjoyed having disputes with christians and philosophy students and interestingly many of his conversation partners from these days are nowadays leaders of different religious institutions in Estonia.
When asking from Väärtnõu, how and when his interest in Buddhism began, his answer was that it started when he was 10-12 years old and found books and magazines hidden in his grandparents attic in Saaremaa, which also talked aboud orient and Buddhism, which interested him greatly.
There are a lot of ship captains and Estonian Republic military officers in Vellos family. Many of them were killed or imprisoned for several years when the soviet occupation began. Family history has set base also for Vellos political wiews.
When he was 17, he tried to escape to the west, setting his sights for studying Buddhism there. This attempt ended in 3 years of prison time in Vuktõl prison camp and lifetime of KGB interest in him. KGB colonel Movtshan has later made a statement that it was obvious in his case genes had played greater role than soviet discipline.
Many people in Estonia have tried to depict Väärnõu in different ways, according to ones abilities and position – starting from ignoring his actions completly, on the other side of this his actions are talking for themselves, because they are seeable and touchable by everybody.
During the Soviet times KGB had named him a traitor of his homeland. Crazy Buddhist and scizophrenic was a label he got from commission headed by Dr. Saarma, his reasoning being that a person who is trying to establish Buddhist monastery cannot be anything else but crazy. Orientalist L. Mäll from Tartu named him village mystic and sayd personally to Vello in 70-s that Buddhism and Buddhists are of no interest to him. Different opinions had the monastery of Ivolga and the two head lamas in Russia – Hambo Lama Erdineev and Hambo Lama Munko Tsybikov, whith whom Väärtnõu studied 8 years. Also professor Pent Nurmekund from Tartu university spoke in his newspaper articles proudly about his students in Tallinn and Väärtnõu – namely he was teaching old Mongolian language to Estonian Buddhist Brotherhood, established by Väärtnõu in the 1980s. Finnish writer Harri Sirola, who was a frequent visitor with the Brotherhood, wrote about Väärtnõu as the establisher of Estonian Buddhist tradition in Finnish magazines and later a novel “Two Cities” . After deportation from Estonia in 1988, Väärtnõu was received in Sweden as freedom-fighter and was named as national hero.
Väärnõu’s actions describe him as person with unusal capabilities and knowledge, who has been active in Estonia over 40 years and it is hard to compare his contribution to Estonian Buddhism by his knowledge, skill and actions to anyone else, so the most frequent used words are – the first, only one, establisher, leader etc.
In 1982 Vello Väärtnõu established the first Estonian Buddhist Sangha – Estonian Buddhist Brotherhood in Tallinn. Under his guidance the Brotherhood or Taola (meaning something like Tao’s place) had set the beginnings to practical Buddhist tradition and nyingma tradition in Estonia. Having studied in Ivolgaa monasteri during 1978-86, he made use of his studies in Estonia – under his guidance 4 stupas were built in Western Estonia between 1983 to 85, those being the only stupas erected in Estonia. Books and other texts were obtained, copied and translated and a library was set up.Väärtnõus gift in art was put to use in Buddhist thangkas and statues, which were made by Taola dwellers under his guidance in their Kadrioru apartment.
Väärtnõu spread Buddhist teaching to the Brotherhood and conducted the first Buddhist rituals in Estonia, planned and leaded Taolas life and activities personally during the six years. It must be mentioned that wider public in Estonia was unaware of this activities, but the place was popular among cultural elite. Since officially all kinds of religious activities and propagating were banned, public appearance would have been bad also for Ivolgaa monastery. The connection was tight between the Brotherhood and Ivolga monastery – lamas visited Estonia secretly already in 1980s and vice versa – monastery was often visited by Brotherhood members.
Buddhism as progressive and forward-looking worldview lead Väärtnõu to establish Estonian National Independence Party in 1988 January, which was act of bravery unheared until at this deep soviet time and depictive example of the accurancy and proficiancy of Buddhist way of thinking. Tunne Kelam has stated in a speech years later that timing of this kind of national political alternative was only possible through good instinct and personal risks.
Many of today's parliament members refused to sign the application in that time, saying that Estonian people will be murdered, because the party openly declared the making of first opposition party in the Soviet history, which goal was to establish independent Estonia.
Estonian authorities have tried to ignore Väärtnõus national actions, since mostly the state power is in the hands of the same communists,who had the power 20 years ago
2010 in newspaper “Sirp” Jaak Allik is asking questions why Väärntõu is the only one with whom there is no interview in the voluminous book about the history of ENIP, allthough he is the establisher of this party and why public is still in the dark about his heroic journey to Moscow in 1988, where he held a press conference for foreign newspapers announcing the creation of first opposition party, the ENIP, and its program. This was written by international magazines and newspapers like New York Times, Washington Post and others at that time, but not a word was said in local press, although news spread around Estonia very fast. Väärtnõus home and Taola were constantly searched and thangkas, slides, manuscripts etc were confiscated and the final result was his deportation in the February of 1988, by personal directive of Gorbatshov.
After deportation Väärnõu lived 5 years in Himalayas.
During the many years Väärtnõu is educating people in eastern culture and Buddhism in Estonia, as he did in 1980s Taola, were studying was the main activity and always so to say obligatorily popular.
In 2005 Väärtnõu started the first Estonian Buddhist Encyclopedia online, where by now are more than 3200 articles, containing terminology, explanations, travelogues and scientific articles which make it possible to deal with the materials through different approaches .
Here on important Buddhist principle of Väärtnõus actions must be mentioned – namely he has never took money for his actions, starting from his first activities in 1970s until today, since he always works free for Buddhism.
This principle is deployed also to his work with the Buddhist Encyclopedia, which he alone by himself has spent many years with and international conference “Buddhism and Nordland” to which he is the author and main organizer.
Already during the soviet times Väärtnõu was thinking about scientific conferences were scientist and Buddhists would work together, researching Buddhism in Northern countries, but in the soviet time it was impossible to organize such a cooperation. So the first international conference “Buddhism and Nordland” took place in 2007 and now it has gathered every year scientists and Buddhists to Tallinn from Nordic countries and East.
Since 2007 old and new nyingmapas are acting under the name Estonian Nyingma, that has its roots in Buddhist Brotherhood, under the same teacher – Vello Väärtnõu. During 2008-2010 Estonian Nyingma built under his guidance a new big stupa, the fifth in Estonia, temple and prayer wheels to the Estonian Nyingma Centre in Pärnumaa.
Altogether another big subject about him are his thangkas, in which gifted artist and knowledge in Buddhism come together perfectly. Väärtnõu studied in Estonian Art Academy with master Sarri and was acknowledged artist in Estonia already 1970-80s, some his works were also exhibited in 1980 at Tokyo World Exhibition. Later he had exhibitions in Europe and America and he is until now a member of Swedesh graphics union. In the last decade he has created thangkas using computer graphics, these have already found their way into the Stockholm Etnographycal Museum and this year he started painting new thangkas.
Many people are producing thangkas by copying them, it is like a separate production line in the eastern countries. But originals, grown from knowledge and understanding of Buddhism, can only be made by teachers with deep knowledge and with that Estonia is very lucky to have Väärtnõu make our first Estonian thangkas.
Today we can say that Buddhism which reached Estonia over a 100 years ago with Karl Tõnisson has taken a big step ahead and obtained features of proper Buddhist traditions – there are 5 stupas, temples, thangkas, literature, Buddhist Encyclopedia, international conference “Buddhism and Nordland” in Estonia.
All this made by only one man – nyingmapa Vello Väärtnõu.