Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Window on Eurasia: Many Russians, Offended by Orthodoxy’s Authoritarianism, Now Turning to Buddhism

Paul Goble

            Staunton, February 26 – Just as at the end of the imperial period, many Russians, who are offended by the authoritarianism and obscurantism of the current leadership of the Russian Orthodox Church, are turning to Buddhism, and their numbers are sufficiently large that one journalist feels comfortable entitling her article about it “Buddhist Rus’.”

            In an article on Gazeta.ru, Aleksandra Garmazhapova reports that approximately 30 percent of those attending the New Year ceremony at the Buddhist datsan in St. Petersburg earlier this month were ethnic Russians and that they were not just curious but in fact committed to Buddhism (gazeta.ru/politics/blogs/garmazhapova/b_4972749.shtml).

            Garmazhapova, a Buryat who now works as a “Novaya gazeta” correspondent in the northern capital, says that when she was growing up, her parents and grandparents regularly took her to datsans and that for her it was more “a tradition” than “a faith.” She notes that “Russians rarely appeared at such ceremonies,” and then only if they had Buryat or Kalmyk friends.
            When Russians did come, she continues, they “stood at the side watching what was taking place.” But “about two years ago, the number of Russians coming to the datsan not to watch but to pray became larger, although not too much.”  Now, their numbers and their interest have grown.

            Indeed, Garmazhapova says, those Russians who have become Buddhists are often more consciously so than are “certain Buryats or Tuvins” who like her take part because that is a part of their national traditions rather than a faith as such. And it is clear that the new Russian influx into Buddhism is not driven by fashion either.

            At least part of the reason that ethnic Russians are turning to Buddhism, the journalist suggests, is the “aggressive” approach of the Russian Orthodox Church as it seeks to gain a larger role in the Russian political system.  Many Russians are offended by that, and some of them have decided to “flee from it” to other faiths, including Buddhism.

            One can dispute the suggestion of one communist who said recently that “the Russian Orthodox church will soon drive out its entire flock,” she says, but one cannot ignore the reality that “over the course of the last year, the number of Russians coming to Buddhist temples has become significantly larger.”

            A recent example of the contrasting approaches of Orthodox leaders and Buddhist ones occurred in St. Petersburg.  There one Orthodox deputy proposed that religious organizations have a veto over the holding of meetings near their facilities. Most went along, but Buda Badmayev, the leader of the local datsan, objected, saying that such an action would simply lead people to say that “religious fanatics are again seeking some kind of preferences for themselves.”

            Badmayev suggested that “today, faith is becoming a pragmatic institution which has nothing in common with spirituality” and said that the Buddhists “do not want to be converted into apparatchiks.” That commitment to freedom undoubtedly is attractive to those who have been part of a church whose basic message is “prohibit—prohibit--prohibit.”

            Garmazhapova does not mention it, but there is a precedent for Russians turning to Buddhism.  In the last years of the Russian Empire, when many Orthodox leaders were promoting the most authoritarian and obscurantist ideas, a significant number of ethnic Russians turned to Buddhism and viewed it as a possible salvation for their nation.


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