Holy Land of Turkish Shamanism and Tibetan Buddhism – Buddhistdoor Global

A suburban (stupa) on the way to Burgan Izi (Buddha’s Footprint). Image reproduced with the kind permission of the author

Tuva is an isolated Russian republic in southern Siberia, whose capital, Kyzyl, lies in the geographical heart of Asia. The Tuvans are a Turkic ethnic group, historically known as one of the nomadic Uriankhai tribes living in yurts. They are traditionally followers of Tibetan Buddhism, which spread to Tuva via Mongolia, absorbing the local Turkic animist shamanism known as Tengrism (a name that derives from the region’s eternal blue sky, or tengri). Last September, I had the chance to visit Kyzyl, where I participated in the international conference “Buddhism in the Third Millennium: Development Trends and Prospects”.

Tibetan Buddhism is considered to be a blend of Bön, the shamanic traditions of ancient Tibet with the teachings of Buddhism, which first arrived from India in the 5th century. This may explain the peaceful coexistence of the two spiritual traditions in the Siberian Republic of Tuva until today.

The author in front of a statue of Buddha Shakyamuni near the
village of Pestunovka in the Ulug-Khem district. Image reproduced with the kind permission of
the author
Altyn-Bulak Cultural Center. Image reproduced with the kind permission of the author

An interesting example of this convergence of Buddhism and shamanism in Tuva is the life of Lopsan Chamzy, the khamby-lama (senior lama) of the republic. Born in 1976 in Kungurtug, southeast of Tuva, Lopsan Chamzy was brought up in a family of shamans. His grandmother was a powerful shaman at a time when, according to him, there were many strong shamans: “Today we have many shamans, but their quality is very low. Usually people say that when many powerful shamans are present, that time is very bad for the society.

Lopsan Chamzy sees no contradiction between the practices of Buddhists and shamans in Tuva. “The goal of Buddhist lamas and shamans is the same: to help people as much as they can,” he observed. “Of course, we have different methods, but the goal is the same: when the Tuvans have problems, they can meet shamans to ask for help, or they can go to a monastery to receive advice based on the philosophy Buddhist. I respect shamans and have a very good dialogue with them. Although we use different methodologies, there are no contradictions between us.

A suburban for Green Tara to the village of Pestunovka in the Ulug-Khem district. Image reproduced with the kind permission of the author

The Khamby Lama acknowledged that there are a number of shamans who claim that Buddhism is not the traditional religion of Tuva and that the original beliefs of the local people were mainly based on shamanism. These shamans advise Tuvans not to visit monasteries and avoid Buddhist rituals. Lopsan Chamzy retorts that in Chaa-Kholsky, one of the 17 of the republic kozhuuns (districts), archaeological evidence indicates that Buddhism existed in Tuva in the 4th century. With this proof, Lopsan Chamzy aims to show that Buddhism is the traditional religion of the Tuva people.

suburban of Shakyamuni Buddha, built by Shiwalha Rinpoche in Burgan Izi.
Image reproduced with the kind permission of the author

On the last day of my visit to Tuva, I was able to visit a lama who practices Tibetan medicine in his Dharma center in Kyzyl, and a shaman, who is the president of an organization of Tuvan shamans called Dyngyr (from name of a drumming shaman). Me and my interpreter Victor Sandakpan, who helped me so much during the trip, were surprised that the lama and the shaman gave the same advice regarding my health.

The lama, Kherel-ool Ayan Vyacheslavovich or, more simply, Lama Ayan, studied Buddhist philosophy at Drepung Gomang monastery in southern India, where Lopsan Chamzy also completed his studies. Lama Ayan completed his medical training at the Tibetan Institute of Medicine and Astronomy (Men-Tsee-Khang) in Dharamsala. Lama Ayan confirmed the close connection between Buddhism and shamanism in Tuva, observing: “Our mentality is heavily influenced by both Buddhism and shamanism; they are mixed in our culture.

The author with Lama Kherel-ool Ayan Vyacheslavovich. Image reproduced with the kind permission of the author

After my medical examination, Lama Ayan emphasized the importance of Buddhist teachings in his practice as a doctor. In Tibetan medicine, to properly treat a patient, the doctor does not just use medicine: “I have to perform astrological calculations in order to decide what kind of prayers and rituals are needed for patients,” he said. Explain. “I also give advice according to the teachings of the Buddha and especially according to Buddhist psychology. I try to explain how patients should examine their problems and realize the nature of samsara, how important it is to be compassionate, to have faith and also to deal with negative emotions in a spiritual way.

The holy place of Burgan Izi. Image reproduced with the kind permission of the author

Lama Ayan pointed out an important characteristic of Buddhism in Tuva: “Nowadays, young Tuvans are beginning to follow the Buddhist path with a higher level of consciousness. We started teaching Buddhism in schools and it helped develop Buddhadharma in our republic,” he said. “The old people here have strong faith and they don’t need explanations regarding philosophy.” Even though there are differences in the perception of Buddhism between younger and older generations, there is a strong spiritual tradition in Tuva that connects people whether they follow Buddhism or shamanism. This natural spirituality finds its origin in the earth, which is inhabited by the spirits of their ancestors; every tree, every source of water is considered sacred.

Saryg-ool shaman Sara Kaadyr-oolovnais. Image reproduced with the kind permission of

The first thing Saryg-ool shaman Sara Kaadyr-oolovnais shared with me was also about the sacred nature of the land. “All of us Tuvans live in sacred places. Tuva is an amazing place for spiritual growth and when people with different problems come here they find relief and something changes in their lives,” she noted. “We live in a spirit world and there are many sacred places in our republic that have spirits as hosts.” She explained that the Tuvans continue to sanctify new sites where it was previously impossible to do so due to the former communist regime.

Burgan Izi – Buddha’s Footprint. Image reproduced with the kind permission of the author

Shamans are considered messengers and intermediaries between the human world and the spirit world. Through altered states of consciousness, they are able to enter supernatural dimensions to find solutions to various problems plaguing a person or community, although this is often not an easy task. Saryg-ool Sara explained some of the hardships of the shaman’s life: “I never wanted to become a shaman because I saw that the shaman’s life is very difficult,” she recalls. “My grandfather was a very strong shaman and I saw that it is very difficult to predict the future and to feel a lot of things that ordinary people cannot feel. It is very difficult to become a real shaman You must master yourself, develop the qualities you have inherited, and make the spirits your friends.

The author with interpreter Victor Sandakpan in Burgan Izi. Image reproduced with the kind permission of the author

Saryg-ool Sara’s last words to me were simple but profound: “It’s normal for everyone to have problems, but we can change everything in our lives. We should enjoy life and appreciate every moment. I heard these words in the melodic Tuva language, which belongs to the Turkish linguistic family, and I was able to understand their meaning thanks to my interpreter Victor, who transmitted the messages between different languages ​​in the same way that shamans transmit messages between the worlds of people and spirits. Victor’s humble presence during the encounters with the lamas and the shaman showed me that spirituality is beyond religion, and in the simple act of kindness and caring, he respected religious traditions with a keen intelligence and awareness.

The vast expanse of Burgan Izi. Image reproduced with the kind permission of the author

Victor then took me to one of Tuva’s holiest sites, where people can offer prayers and wishes: Burgan Izi (Buddha’s Footprint), located between the villages of Tselinnoe and Shambalyg. In 2013, Shiwalha Rinpoche, a Tibetan lama of the Gelug school, built a suburban (stupa) to Shakyamuni Buddha, symbolizing his descent from Tushita paradise. As I contemplated the vast space of this holy place, immersed in complete silence, I realized that the stone imprint of the Buddha is simply a reminder of the actual traces of the Awakened that are imprinted in our minds.

Related features of Buddhistdoor Global

The Golden Triangle of Russian Buddhism
International conference in Tuva marks revival of Buddhism in Central Asia
Connecting Art, Women and Spirituality, with Lyudmila Klasanova from Sofia University
Kalmykia: tradition and memory on the other side of the Buddhist world
The Kalmyk Restoration: Telo Tulku Rinpoche on the Buddhist Revival of a Russian Republic
Emptiness and Fullness: Windows on Buddhist and Russian Orthodox Dialogue