Wednesday 27 October

by Geraldine Fagan, Keston News Service

Russia's 1997 law on religion affirms respect for Buddhism as one the
religions said to 'constitute an inseparable part of the historical
heritage of Russia's peoples'. Keston's recent observations in the east
Siberian province of Buryatia (the strongest centre of Buddhism in Russia),
however, make it clear that in practice the law works in favour of a
particular form of Buddhism among particular peoples of Russia. The law
thus perpetuates the status quo in Buddhist-state relations as it existed
both before and after the 1917 Bolshevik coup.

The Russian Empire soon brought Buddhism under state control following its
introduction to Transbaikalia (the region east of Lake Baikal) by Mongol
and Tibetan lamas of the Gelug school in the early 1700s; it was hoped that
an independent Buryat Buddhist hierarchy might prevent the population from
falling under the influence of China's Qing dynasty, which also had claims
to the region. Empress ELIZABETH II's toleration decree of 1741 set the
legal number of lamas at 150 and named the chief lama shiretui (abbot), but
this title was later changed to Khambo Lama after the emergence of rival
claimants to the earlier one. Attempts by the Buddhist hierarchy to show
their allegiance to the new state following the 1917 Revolution, when
datsans began to fly the Soviet flag and display the hammer and sickle,
failed to prevent the destruction of all 47 under Stalin: of the 15,000
lamas who were exiled, barely 200 returned. In 1948 a new datsan was built
at Ivolginsk; the Soviet government discovered that a Buddhist community in
the USSR could be useful when dealing with Asian states and created the
Central Spiritual Directorate of Buddhists (CSDB), which consistently
endorsed its policies. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, current
Khambo Lama DAMBA AYUSHEYEV told Keston, CSDB 'was preserved
and continues
as the main organisation'; it was simply renamed the Buddhist Traditional
Sangha in 1995.

At a group meeting in a private flat on 28 September members of Nogoon
Dara-Ekhe ('Green Tara'), a lay community of the Gelug school based in the
Buryat capital Ulan-Ude, related to Keston how they had registered as a
local religious organisation within the Buddhist Traditional Sangha on 1
July 1999 after spending a year trying to register as an entirely
autonomous religious organisation without success: 'As we do not have 15
years' existence they would only register us if we were formally under the
Khambo Lama'. Currently with approximately 30 members, Green Tara was
formed in 1998 when a section broke away from Ar'yaa Baala, the principal
Gelug lay group in Ulan-Ude (one member cited a desire for greater control
over finances as the principal reason for this).

As a local religious organisation rather than a religious group, Green Tara
has the right to invite foreign citizens to conduct religious activity, but
members of the group told Keston that visits by their Tibetan spiritual
restricted by the Khambo Lama, whom they had to consult before issuing an
invitation: 'Our wishes don't get heard.' On his most recent visit to
Ulan-Ude (17-24 September), Green Tara members complained, Bogdo-Gegen
on a private visa rather than in an official capacity and was thus not
received in order with his status as the reincarnation of the leader of
Mongolia before the advent of the communist regime there in 1924: 'He is
the third most important Buddhist leader after the Dalai Lama and the
Panchen Lama.' However, although they were mildly critical of the effects
of the 1997 Russian law on religion ('The law is repressive to a certain
extent'), members of the group emphasised that the situation had improved
so much in comparison with the Soviet period - which Buddhism had
nevertheless survived - that they did not consider the law to be a major
threat to their activities: 'There has always been religion.'

The successor to the Association of Buddhist Laymen, the Buddhist lay
community founded in the early 1990s by DZHAMPA TINLEI, the Dalai
representative in Russia, Ar'yaa Baala meets at a shrine within a building
which used to house the Department for Political Enlightenment. On 1
October five of the group's 100 members strongly emphasised to Keston both
that they were Gelug and that, although one of the group's aims stated on
their registration certificate of 13 March 1995 was 'the dissemination of
Buddhist teaching among laymen', this was 'only to people who are
interested.' They also told Keston that the group was currently being
reregistered as part of the Traditional Buddhist Sangha: 'Everyone is
getting reregistered through them', 'Everyone needs to get permission from
them.' In addition to a reverence towards the Dalai Lama evident from five
large portraits above the shrine altar, members stressed their allegiance
to the Khambo Lama as their leader in Russia: 'We are no one, we are
subordinate to him, he is our leader in Russia and we respect him.'

Whereas the typical member of both Green Tara and Ar'yaa Baala appeared to
be a middle-aged Buryat female, the majority of those present at a
meditation session on 3 October of the Diamond Path Buddhist Centre were
young ethnic Russian males. The group belongs to the Kagyu school of
Tibetan Buddhism (Russian Buddhist scholar ALEKSANDR BERZIN
estimates that
the four different schools have about 85 per cent in common) , has
approximately 25 constant members and was founded in 1994 following a
public lecture on contemporary Buddhism given by Danish lama OLE

The group's leader, LYUDA INKINA, told Keston that the Kagyu school
from Gelug in that it places more emphasis on tantra, or direct practical
experience, rather than sutra, or doctrine. Unlike other Buddhist centres
Keston visited, the portraits in the group's wooden yurt were not of the
Dalai Lama or Panchen Lama but of TKHAIYE DORDZHE, the seventeenth
who heads the Kagyu school: 'We respect the Dalai Lama but he is part of
another tradition.' According to Inkina, a further difference between the
two schools was that, whereas in Gelug the datsans traditionally offered
various services to believers, such as astrology and medicine, Kagyu
advocated a more direct approach: 'We just demonstrate methods, you don't
need to ask a lama to pray for you, you need to work on your own problems,
they won't change otherwise.'

Members of the group were not in favour of joining one single, centralised
Buddhist organisation in Russia whatever its nature. According to Inkina,
the significance of monastic life in the Gelug tradition would mean that
any organisation embracing all traditions would spend a disproportionate
amount of money maintaining datsans. She also stressed that 'historically
Kagyu never took up politics', and wished to distance herself from Gelug's
involvement in 'political games': 'In Tibet Gelug took over the state in
the twelfth century, then problems between schools arose and reached the
stage of physical destruction of datsans - it is all connected with
politics.' In Russia, she thought, Gelug had similarly become the dominant,
state-sponsored school of Buddhism following the toleration decree of 1741,
with the result that other Buddhist traditions had never had a chance to
get established.

'Secular power has always tried to control religion,' Inkina told Keston,
'as there are so many people in religious organisations that it is a very
strong force if you can control it - there is the fear that so many people
could join together and turn against the state.' In her view the 1997
Russian law on religion was simply 'a further attempt to control religion.'
Although the Diamond Path Buddhist Centre was experiencing minor problems
reregistering ('We have had some difficulties on the level of formulations,
we needed many more documents than before'), Inkina told Keston that the
group would become a local religious organisation within the centralised
Russian Association of Buddhists (School of Karma Kagyu) based in Moscow.
This had managed to prove 15 years of activity by the Kagyu school on
Russian territory, she said, thanks to prerevolutionary documentation from
the Republic of Kalmykia, thus assuring the position of its approximately
60 groups in Russia: 'If we were on our own, we wouldn't be legal.'

Inkina told Keston that according to the local Buryat law on religion the
only legal Buddhist organisation was the Traditional Buddhist Sangha, and
if it were enforced 'we would have to ask the Khambo Lama's permission if
we wanted to invite Ole Nydahl'. However, on 7 October VALENTINA
ALEKSEYEVA, chairwoman of the Committee for the Affairs of Nationalities
and Relations with Religious Organisations attached to the local
administration, told Keston that 'On Religious Activity in the Republic of
Buryatia' was currently being reworked 'to bring it into line' with the
federal law on religion. She thought it would be passed at the end of 1999,
but as it was not yet complete she did not allow Keston to see a copy, but
gave assurances that it contained only minor contradictions to the national

According to Alekseyeva, the 'most traditional' confession in Buryatia was
Buddhism. She remarked, 'We only have Gelug here, the "Yellow Hats" they
call us' and said that if other schools came to Buryatia they would be
considered younger than 15 years old. Kagyu, she maintained, was 'only in
its early stages'.

The legal status in Russia of another Tibetan Buddhist tradition, Dzogchen,
is rather less secure. When Keston asked Valentina Alekseyeva about it, she
twice replied that it was not 'widely distributed', before concluding, 'We
don't have it here.' On 29 September NIKOLAI DUDKO, leader of
one of three Dzogchen groups in Ulan-Ude, explained to Keston that this
advanced practice, according to which a person can achieve enlightenment
within one lifetime, was 'not a school but a teaching practised in all four
schools; it penetrates all of them'. He said that his group of
approximately 20 permanent members includes very varied people, from
shamans who mix Buddhism with their practices to BAIR OCHIROV, a Gelug
who used to head the Dashichoikhorlin Institute at Ivolginsk Datsan, the
main institution for training Buddhist clergy in Buryatia.

In Dudko's view all teaching came from Buddha, and the different schools
were simply different methods of attaining enlightenment: 'You can have
different restaurants - French or Chinese - but the aim is still eating.'
Yet despite its long tradition in Tibet - it was practised by PADMA
SAMBHAVA, who founded the first monastery in Tibet in the eighth century -
Dzogchen does not appear to have 15 years' official history on Russian
territory. Although Buryat Buddhologist BIDIYA DANDARON, who is
particularly respected among Russian followers of Dzogchen, engaged in
advanced Buddhist practices deemed to lead to fast enlightenment, he
refused to categorise this, stating simply 'I unite all schools.'
(Recognised as the reincarnation of the reformist spiritual teacher of
DZHAYAGSY GEGEN, a Buryat lama who rejected monastic life as samsara -
world of cyclic existence and suffering - and returned to intensive
spiritual practice, Dandaron died in a Soviet prison camp in 1974. He
believed Buddhism would be required in the West and gained many converts in
the European part of Russia.)

Dudko told Keston that Kundrolling only began to form in the late 1980s,
when 'two or three of us read a book by our now spiritual teacher, NAM KHAI
NURBU RINPOCHE, and understood that it was a great teaching.' In 1995 the
group was registered after a six-month delay: 'Not being under the auspices
of the Sangha, our local officials did not understand what Dzogchen was.
They asked, "How can there be two Buddhisms here? Isn't this
sectarianism?", and sent all the documentation to Moscow.' Dudko said that
his group was finding the reregistration process under the 1997 law
'troublesome and complicated.' He said that there had been three
possibilities: to register with the Moscow Dzogchen group ('We tried this
but they don't have provision for it in their charter'), to register with
the Buddhist Traditional Sangha ('This would be very disadvantageous as we
would automatically come under their control') or to register as a
religious group and reregister every year for 15 years. Dudko told Keston
that Kundrolling would take this last option 'despite all its minuses', and
said that he did not believe that the situation requiring annual
reregistration would actually continue for 15 years.

When Keston pointed out that as a religious group Kundrolling would forfeit
the right to invite its Tibetan spiritual teacher, Dudko's initial response
was 'the Dalai Lama says, "The further away your teacher, the greater his
blessing".' He then commented, 'We are Soviet people and we know many
of getting out of a situation. Our aim is to have our teacher here, how we
do it is not important. We could just invite him privately. We would not be
breaking the law but trying to get around it.' When Keston asked whether
the various other restrictions of the 15-year rule would nevertheless
affect his group, Dudko replied: 'The more firmly a lid is placed on a pot,
the stronger the pressure of the steam trying to escape - and it will
always find a gap. As soon as a problem arises we will either find a legal
or roundabout way to deal with it.' Although Dudko assured Keston that
having to get around such situations did not concern him, he also commented
'I don't like passivity' and remarked with irritation, 'We are forced to
act like this, that's how we live.' In his view the 1997 law was 'in the
Soviet tradition' and had been adopted 'solely for Orthodoxy's benefit'.

Dudko told Keston that Kundrolling was 'keeping away from politics and
trying to preserve our purity as much as possible.' He did not think that
the Khambo Lama felt particularly hostile towards his group: 'He probably
doesn't have a view of us. Maybe as a group of intelligentsia playing with
Buddhism.' However, Keston heard about the Khambo Lama's disquiet at
Dzogchen's growing public profile from curator of the Museum of Buryat
History MARGARITA ROMANOVNA, who told Keston that in May 1997 he
telephoned her in indignation when the museum put on an exhibition of
Buddhist tanghas (icons) by renowned local artist BATODALAI DUGAROV,
follower of Dzogchen and former student of Bidiya Dandaron: 'The Khambo
Lama asked, "Why are you putting on a Dzogchen exhibition? Don't you know
that he [Dugarov] opposes the Dalai Lama?" I answered that Dugarov's work
was in the Hermitage and that I didn't know anything about his religious
status, but he insisted that Dugarov was "an enemy of Buddhism". When I
said that I didn't think that Buddhism was an aggressive religion, and
surely he didn't have enemies, he replied, "Are you trying to teach me
about Buddhism?"'

When Keston spoke to Khambo Lama Ayusheyev on 4 October he maintained
Dzogchen was a new phenomenon in Russia which arrived via Kaliningrad and
described its followers as 'sectarians'. A member of the Interreligious
Council of Russia (which also includes METROPOLITAN KIRILL, chief
rabbi of
Russia AVROM SHAYEVICH, chairman of the Council of Muftis of Russia
RAVIL GAINUTDIN and chairman of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of
ARCHBISHOP TADEUSZ KONDRUSIEWICZ), he pointed out that he had
supported the adoption of the 1997 law on religion, but preferred 'the law
in Latvia according to which every religion - Catholicism, Orthodoxy,
Islam, Buddhism - has one centre. In the final analysis we have one
president and one prime minister, although there may be many parties - that
is for the well-being of the country.' However, he did not want all schools
of Buddhism to join the Traditional Buddhist Sangha - 'the Sangha is Gelug'
- but simply wanted them to respect the Gelug tradition 'because it is the
historical tradition in Russia. In Tuva, Kalmykia and Buryatia 99 per cent
of Buddhists are Gelug.' When Keston asked about affording the opportunity
to choose other schools, he replied: 'We are in a period of instability
now, when we get out we can experiment, but not while Russia is weak. Don't
change your horses midstream.'

Several of the Buddhists with whom Keston spoke remarked that in their view
one of Buddhism's positive aspects was that an individual could choose the
method or school best suited to him or her: 'there is great wisdom in it
because people are different,' 'Gelug will always have the dominant
position but that doesn't mean that everyone will go into it - the
mentality of different people is different.' The Khambo Lama, however,
appeared to view choice of school as the decision of a whole people
(narod): 'Every people accepts the teaching of Buddha in its own way, every
people has its own karma.' In this context he criticised 'open missionary
activity from the West' and contrasted 'Buryat Buddhism' ('We don't engage
in missionary work. A person should come to Buddhism knowingly, out of
their own volition.') with what he described as Russian (rossiisky,
denoting all peoples in the Russian Federation, rather than russky, which
refers only to ethnic Russians) Buddhism, which began in the early 1990s
'when many teachers came from the West and gave lectures - some Tibetan
teachers from Europe also do this in Russia - they didn't make any contact
with us, the Sangha.' In Buryatia, he said 'our forefathers never did this,
the people came to Buddhism by themselves. In Europe they see it
differently - they actively promote themselves and teach people.'

Ayusheyev viewed his main tasks as Khambo Lama to be the construction of
more datsans, training more clergy and 'finding a common language with our
traditional religious organisations for the sake of security in our
country.' He emphasised that the 300 years during which Buryats had been
living within Russia under the influence of Russian culture had led to a
significantly different cast of mind from 'purely Asian' Tibet and
Mongolia: 'Russia is a strong power - Russian Buddhists have had to fight
in wars. A small, poor Buddhist country looks up to Europe, begging. We
don't have that mentality - we are Buddhists with nuclear weapons.'

According to head of the Dharma Centre in Ulan-Ude, NIMAZHAP
'the Khambo Lama is trying to destroy other Buddhist communities using
structures of power.' Originally in the Traditional Buddhist Sangha, the
Dharma Centre did not leave, he said, but rather 'it suddenly turned out
that the leadership of the Sangha did not consider us part of their
structure. In the press - everywhere - they said that we were not part of
it.' According to Ilyukhinov, strong support among local believers -
'although the Dharma Centre is small we had the same standing as their huge
registered organisation' - meant that the Khambo Lama viewed them as
competitors: 'He decided this impinged upon his authority so he rejected us.'

As a result, said Ilyukhinov, the Dharma Centre, Lamrim Centre (both Gelug)
and the Ulan-Ude Dzogchen community headed by ALEKSANDR
joined with three Moscow communities and three St Petersburg communities
(each trio including one Dzogchen community) to form the Spiritual
Directorate of Buddhists (SDB), which was registered as a centralised
organisation on 23 September 1998 with Ilyukhinov as president. Although
mainly Gelug, SDB does not belong to one school, explained Ilyukhinov, but
to the Rime Movement, which embraces all traditions in Tibetan Buddhism:
'Our fundamental principle is one dharma, one teaching.' In his view, the
main Buddhist organisation in Russia should include all Buddhists in Russia
'not just Gelug or Buryats, although the dominating role should be played
by Gelug, because it already has many centuries of tradition in Kalmykia,
Tuva and Buryatia and is the majority.' Ilyukhinov expressed a desire for
more communities to join SDB and complained that the leadership of the
Sangha had restricted its activity both geographically - to within Buryatia
- and to those who were not well-schooled in Buddhism and so were easy to
control: 'When Buddhism is just reviving here it is senseless for different
schools to oppose each other instead of consolidating and uniting all
Buddhist communities and pointing out the dangers of totalitarian sects
like Aum Sinrikyo. Instead of that the Khambo Lama is trying to make
Buddhism the particularity of two or three peoples in Russia and give it a
national hue, such as "Buryat Buddhism". This does not exist - nor does
Tuvan, nor Crimean Buddhism. The only Buddhism is that of Hinayana and
Mahayana [early and late Buddhist scriptures].'

In Ilyukhinov's view, the 1997 law on religion had both positive and
negative aspects. Although he remarked 'at least there is some regulation
now', he believed that it made manoeuvres on the part of the state more
possible: 'How can the Ministry of Justice supervise religious
organisations? What does it know or understand about religious activity?'
He also complained about a lack of fixed concrete rights for believers:
'Why should an 18-year-old Buddhist be taught to kill when he goes into the
army? Religious groups don't have the right to protect their members from
laws governing military service.'

When Keston asked whether he thought the law was affecting possible
Buddhist revival in Russia, he replied: 'If you say that Buddhism is
undergoing a revival in Buryatia now you are a great optimist.' However, he
believed that Buddhism did have a bright future in Russia, as its 'emphasis
on facing reality helps people who have lost a faith - such as in communism
- to find strength, confidence and spiritual balance.'

Although the Khambo Lama is described as 'head of the Buddhists of Russia'
in official communications from the Interreligious Council in Russia, it is
not only Buddhists outside traditionally Buddhist areas within Russia who
do not come under the auspices of the Sangha. Buddhists in Tuva and
Kalmykia have set up their own structures, and even within Buryatia several
of the 20 datsans have decided to leave the Sangha. Keston learned that
TUVAN-DARZHI TSYMPILOV, the abbot of Atsagatsk Datsan, had adopted
title 'khambo lama' (which originally meant simply abbot), and Valentina
Alekseyeva confirmed that the Atsagatsk Datsan was registered separately
from the Sangha on 26 May 1999. In addition, she said, two datsans in
Tunkinsky region and one in Okinsky region registered as local religious
organisations in April/May 1999 in order to form a centralised religious
organisation, Maidar, which was registered in Ulan-Ude on 6 July.

On 2 October founder of Maidar and former abbot of Kuntsechoinei Datsan in
St Petersburg, DANZAN-KHAIBZUN SAMAYEV, explained to Keston that
datsans had formed Maidar 'to protect them from the Sangha from the point
of view of the law, the Khambo Lama wanted to change the abbots there.' In
Samayev's view the 1997 law on religion 'gives traditional religions the
opportunity to become more powerful' and was 'necessary for survival', as
it attempted to correct the financial advantage which Catholics and
Protestants, for example, had over Orthodox, Muslims, Jews and Buddhists
'on a cultural and educational level - it does not concern the right to
religious expression.' However, he saw the law's centralising tendencies as
negative: 'There should be an arrangement according to which autonomous
local organisations form the Sangha - the initiative should come from the
bottom up - so that the local organisations can change the Khambo Lama if
they wish, and he cannot close datsans.' He added that this would also mean
that if new datsans were built 'in Omsk or Khabarovsk, for example' they
would not have the power of the more established datsans due to the 15-year
rule, and would thus be under the close supervision of the centralised
religious organisation.

Samayev was exasperated by what had happened within the Sangha: 'The
Lama doesn't understand issues of government and state. I was his deputy
and used to try and explain to him but it was useless. Ilyukhinov
understands very well, he knows PR and the mass media. When I tried to
explain to the Khambo Lama that he needed to do the same, he said, "No, I
don't need to, I'm the Khambo Lama". That's why the Sangha looks like a
local religious organisation and not a federal one.'

Western press coverage of Buddhism in Buryatia over the past few years has
reported 'a huge revival', 'the ultimate resurrection', concentrating on
the reconstruction of the datsans as evidence. According to Samayev,
however, 'revival is not in buildings - it is a revival if you think the
same way as before, there must be spiritual development the same way as
before.' He cited the construction of a huge stupa (Buddhist reliquary or
monument symbolic of the cosmic order) at Kizhinga Datsan as an example of
false revival: 'It doesn't reflect any teaching, it is just connected with
money. Donations should be humble, from the heart.' In his view, Buddhism
in Russia was currently in a very strange situation: 'I have been to Altai,
Tuva, Kalmykia. Revival means when people are thinking as Buddhists. This
is not a revival (vozrozhdeniye) but degeneration (vyrozhdeniye). When
Keston asked why he thought this was the case, Samayev explained: 'Before
perestroika all the "smart and brave" people went to secular colleges,
people who couldn't do anything else went into religion, and so we don't
have enough good monks.'

According to Samayev, 'the Soviet Union created hidden Buddhism': 'Lamas
just perform, the dress is theatre. Buddhism isn't chanting, it depends
upon your ability to think.' When Buddhists could not wear robes and pray
openly in the Soviet period, he explained, religious life became
internalised, which led to a completely new understanding: 'When you try
and pray and think in prison it is different. Buddhism from books is one
thing, how it is understood in an extraordinary situation is another. If
you have unlimited time you perform rituals over time - when you know you
could be shot tomorrow the thinking is different - you cannot tell a
student to memorise a text, for example. This creates new methods of
teaching, visualisation - it is like the difference between using a
computer or a pen to write - the teaching and meaning are the same but the
method and way of understanding are different.'

Samayev believes that this experience has led to a truly Russian Buddhism,
which embraces both traditional Gelug and Dandaron and his disciples,
'whereas Russians learning Buddhism from foreigners today is something
new'. The last lamas of the Soviet period, who survived the gulag, passed
on to him 'everything they achieved', he said, and this differed from
Buddhist understanding outside Russia: 'In Buddhism, for example, it is
normal to think that you will be born many times so you don't need to worry
about present events,' Samayev explained, but huge environmental damage and
the sense of imminent danger in the Soviet state had taught his spiritual
teachers 'that we need to worry now about ecology.' In his view Buddhism
could flourish in Russia: 'You don't need to go to the Himalayas to learn.
The social instability in Russia now creates adaptation and makes you
think.' However, he agreed that the effect the 1997 law on religion had had
on Buddhist structures in Russia had sidelined this true, less obvious

In the view of member of Green Tara ALEKSANDRA DUGAROVA, the 1997
law on
religion is 'a totalitarian law in a completely Soviet sense. It seeks to
control, restrict and direct religious activity, not towards sensible ends
or common human aims but for so-called "state interests". How can the
restriction of a citizen's right to believe be in a state's interest?' In
particular, she believed that the law was discriminatory because it meant
that ancient schools of Buddhism could become sects: 'The clarification of
things like differences between schools - such deep philosophical questions
- should not belong as part of a simple bureaucratic process of
registration.' In addition, she complained, 'the law supports conservative
tendencies in religion as against renewal movements - the question of what
is traditional is relative, tradition and rich history are all well and
good, but there should also be a sense of the present, a movement into the
future.' When Keston related the Khambo Lama's explanation of 'Don't change
your horses midstream', she remarked that Russian politicians frequently
used the same phrase to justify the status quo, and asked, 'When was Russia
ever not in midstream?' (END)

All Keston News Service material is protected by copyright:
(c) Keston Institute 1999