Buddhism

Buddhism flourishes in Siberia, opening window to its pre-Soviet past


For decades, the only Buddhist structure in Ivolginsky – in fact, anywhere in Russia – was a small wooden temple that Joseph Stalin allowed to be built in 1946. But since the fall of communism, Buddhism has experienced a renaissance in Russia, especially in Russia. the ethnically Mongolian republic of Buryatia in Siberia, where Ivolginsky is now a sort of Russian Buddhist Vatican. For the native Buryats, mostly Buddhists for 300 years, the resurgence is part of a complex awakening. Local academics explore the distinctly non-Russian historical and cultural heritage of the Buryats and strive to reconcile it with their identity as modern Russians. “It was only recently that we had the intellectual freedom to explore our past and understand that our history, our religion, our language and our culture make us very different from the Russians,” says Timur Dugarzhapov, editor-in-chief of New Buriatia, a local newspaper. “Yet much of what we value, including our window to the civilization of the modern world, we access through Russia and the Russian language. It is not a dilemma; it is a process. No one sees our future as separate from Russia, but we have to find our own roots. “

Why we wrote this

Orthodox Christianity may be Russia’s most prominent religion, but it is only one of the country’s four official “founding” religions. Another of the four, Buddhism, is experiencing a renaissance in post-Soviet Russia. Second in a five-part series.

Ivolginsky Datsan, Russia

This group of very eclectic and multicolored pagoda-style temples, emerging from the dusty steppe a few kilometers south of Ulan-Ude, is something almost unique in a Russian landscape.

It is a sprawling Buddhist monastery, with a religious university at its center, something like the Vatican of Buddhism in Russia, and a living monument to the rapid revival of traditional religions in post-Soviet Russia. Barely 30 years ago there was only one small wood dugan, or temple, in this place: the first – and for a long time, the only – allowed to exist in the whole of the Soviet Union. There are now nearly 40 temple complexes in Buryatia alone, as indigenous Mongol-speaking Buryats are enthusiastically rediscovering their ancestral beliefs.

This is an evolution which is encouraged by Moscow, at least for what it considers to be native Russian religions. This rapid growth is approved by the authorities as a justified revival of one of the four “founding” religions of Russia – Orthodox Christianity, Islam, Judaism and Buddhism.

Why we wrote this

Orthodox Christianity may be Russia’s most prominent religion, but it is only one of the country’s four official “founding” religions. Another of the four, Buddhism, is experiencing a renaissance in post-Soviet Russia. Second in a five-part series.

For ethnic Buryats, the resurgence of Buddhism is part of a more complex awakening, as local scholars explore the distinctly non-Russian historical and cultural heritage of the Buryats and strive to reconcile it with their identity as modern Russians. Similar processes are taking place in many of the 22 “ethnic republics” that form part of the little-known tapestry of today’s Russia.

“The tradition is in great demand among young Buryats these days,” says Timur Dugarzhapov, editor-in-chief of New Buryatia, a local scholarly journal. “It is only recently that we have had the intellectual freedom to explore our past and understand that our history, our religion, our language and our culture make us very different from the Russians. Yet much of what we enjoy, including our window to modern world civilization, we access through Russia and the Russian language. It’s not a dilemma, it’s a process. No one sees our future as separate from Russia, but we have to find our own roots. “

Buryat and Russian

Today, there are around 1.5 million Buddhists in Russia, concentrated in three ethnically Mongolian republics: Buryatia and Tuva in Siberia, and Kalmykia in the North Caucasus. Indeed, in Russia, specific religions are considered to belong to a particular population: the different faiths are bureaucratized and integrated into a council managed by the central government, and they are strictly prohibited from poaching the herds of others.

It is a system that is warmly adopted here at Ivolginsky Datsan. The indigenous Buryat population has been predominantly Buddhist for 300 years. The datsan, or temple complex, is filled with local visitors eager to reconnect with their traditional faith. Most seem to know the intricate rituals of clockwise worship, how to recognize and pay homage to the wide array of icons lining temple walls, and never pass a prayer wheel without spinning it. New and larger temples are under construction. Dozens of local young men train as monks at the university, and there is even a large class of students from Chinese Inner Mongolia.


Valeriy Melnikov / Sputnik / AP

A class is studying at Ivolginsky Datsan Buddhist University in Buryatia, Russia.

“Every Buryat is a Buddhist,” says Dymbryl Dashibaldanov, the rector of the by datsan Buddhist University. “The state recognizes our religion. Once it’s recognized, it means people need it.

Buryatia has been anchored in Russia for around 300 years, and this history has produced an extraordinarily diverse population that seems to get along without any observable tension. Many Soviet-era immigrants to the territory, who came to occupy new industries, left in recent decades when factories closed following the Soviet collapse, leaving mainly the descendants of the pre- revolutionary.

Today the republic is home to around 1 million people, split roughly evenly between Russians and ethnic Buryats. The Russians are mostly descendants of the militarized Cossacks who arrived in the 17th century to conquer this land – in a colonial expansion roughly analogous to the spread of the United States across North America a little later – and thousands of Old Believers, religious dissidents exiled here by the Czars.

Before the arrival of the Russians, this land was part of the vast Mongol Empire founded by Genghis Khan. The Buryats are primarily Mongols; they only developed a distinct identity after the Russians drew a border between this territory and neighboring Mongolia a few centuries ago. The traditional religion here was tengrism, a mixture of ancestor worship and animism that attributed the spiritual being to natural phenomena. Even today, many Buryats loosely practice what they call shamanism and conspicuously leave offerings of food, coins, and other small gifts for natural spirits next to waterfalls, mountains, or lake shores. Baikal.

“Where different religions meet”

Tumultuous changes struck at the beginning of the 17th century. “The Buddhist missionaries came from the east, the Cossacks came from the west,” says Dugarzhapov. “It shaped who we are today. No faith here is dominant. Many people somehow manage to recognize them all. We have a saying that you can “go to an Orthodox priest in the morning, a Buddhist lama in the afternoon, and a shaman in the evening” and you will be fine. “

The Russians conquered Siberia by subjugating the local populations by violence, an unresolved problem that has received little attention from Russian historians. But unlike the United States, where indigenous peoples were displaced and marginalized, Russian settlers tended to marry indigenous peoples and find conditions of coexistence with them. The Bolsheviks later created a system of national “self-governing republics”, like Buryatia, which recognized in principle the rights of indigenous peoples, even creating written languages ​​for many that had never had any before.

At the same time, they severely limited political options, cast everyday life into a Soviet mold, and severely suppressed all religions. Among the more than 80 Buddhists datsans which existed in 1917, none survived until Joseph Stalin authorized the construction of the small wooden temple at Ivolginsky in 1946.


“Buryatia was a religious border area, where different faiths meet and learn to coexist,” explains Boris Bazarov, director of the Institute of Mongolian, Buddhist and Tibetan Studies in Ulan-Ude, a branch of the Academy of Sciences. from Russia. “The Soviet regime was very hard on everyone. It was only in the post-Soviet period that we witnessed a real flowering of the Buddhist faith in this republic. In this regard, Russia has finally modernized.

Mr Bazarov says the main challenge for the resurgent Buddhist faith has not been how to get along with the Russian Orthodox Church, but how to deal with pre-existing shamanist beliefs that many ethnic Buryats still cling to.

“Many Buddhist rituals have been adapted to accommodate shamanistic rituals,” he says. “It was very flexible. It allows people to do things they are used to, like leaving coins and other small offerings, and call it Buddhism.

The leadership of the llamas

It is Tibetan Buddhism which arrived in Buryatia three centuries ago and which still strongly influences its architecture, its beliefs and its practices. A wave of popular enthusiasm for the faith took off here when the Dalai Lama visited the republic twice in the early 1990s. But, according to government demands, Russian Buddhists have their own internally elected religious leader, the Pandido Hambo Lama, who sits on the state-supported Interfaith Council in Moscow. No Russian religion is allowed to recognize an outside authority.

This is a potential political problem, as the influence of the India-based Dalai Lama appears very strong here, and his image is almost ubiquitous in the temples of Buryatia. datsans. But due to the Russian-Chinese rapprochement in recent years, everyone agrees that no future visit by the Dalai Lama to Russia would be allowed. Beijing sees the Dalai Lama, who advocates Tibetan autonomy, as a threat to Chinese sovereignty.

Mr. Dashibaldanov, the rector, is philosophical on this subject.

“The Dalai Lama is our spiritual leader, and what is happening in Tibet today is similar to what happened to us under Soviet rule,” he said.

But Buddhists are strictly forbidden not to get involved in politics, he adds. “We are living in the times we find ourselves in and we have to accept realities as they are. The main thing is that we continue with our faith.