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Buddhism in Russia
Igor Troyanovsky

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 Tsybikov, 82.

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.


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 republics.

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 Siberia.


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 Lama.

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.


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 suffering.

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") holiday.

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 early summer.

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.


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 moralizing works.

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 well-known lamas.

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 physicians, too.

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.



Updated: 1-2-2001

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