Friday, February 14, 2014

Window on Eurasia: Buryatia Leading Buddhist Revival in Post-Soviet Russia, Scholar Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, February 14 – Buryatia, by virtue of its size, location and history, is leading the revival of the Buddhist peoples of the Russian Federation with Kalmykia and Tyva for various reasons trailing far behind, according to Natalya Zhukovskaya, one of Moscow’s leading specialists on that faith.

            In an interview on the occasion of the release of a collection of her articles over the last 40 years (“О буддизме и буддистах. Статьи разных лет,” Moscow, 2013 ), Zhukovskaya, who heads the Center for Asian and Pacific Research at the Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology, discusses why this difference exists as well as many other issues (

            According to Zhukovskaya, among the reasons the Buryats are in the lead in this process is that they are far more numerous than the other two traditionally Buddhist peoples on the territory of the Russian Federation.  But what may be far more important, she suggests, is the role of the Buryat intelligentsia.

            The mentality of that group, “which has preserved in its genes the experience of the rebirth of national culture at the beginning of the 20th century turned out to be completely prepared for the restoration of Buddhism.”  The intelligentsia is again working with the lamas, and Buryat scholars have published much research aboot the history of Buddhism there.

            “The contacts of the lamas and representatives of the scholarly world weren’t established immediately,” Zhukovskaya continues, “but in the final analysis, they turned out to be mutually useful for the one and the other.”

            The situation in Kalmykia is fundamentally different, she says.  The Kalmyks are only a third as numerous as the Buryats, and they suffered as a result of deportation. Indeed, that action reduced the size of the Kalmyk nation “by almost half.” The deportation remains a central fact of life for its members and the intelligentsia there.

            But even before the deportation in December 1943, the Kalmyks suffered the loss of all the Buddhist shrines and the arrest or execution of all their lamas. (The Buryats and Tyvans suffered this as well, Zhukovskaya notes.) That meant that when the Kalmyks were able to return home in 1957, they had to begin the revival of their culture “almost from zero.”    

            Moreover, she continues, when Kalmyks began to focus on their Buddhist heritage in the 1990s, there was no one to lead them.  “The older generation of lamas had already assed into another world, and a new one had not yet been trained.” Indeed, from 1989 to 1992, the Kalmyks had to ask a Buryat to serve as their lama.

The first post-Soviet Kalmyk lamas were trained in Buryatia, in that republic’s newly opene Buddhist Spiritual Academy. And only later, Zhukovskaya continues, was Kalmykia able to send young people to be trained in Dharamsala, India, where the exiled Dalai Lama maintains his residence.

Nonetheless and despite these limitations, the Kalmyk Buddhists have made some remarkable progress. With the help of the government, they have built “the largest Buddhist shrine not only in Russia but in Europe as a whole,” a facility that also serves as a library, Internet center, and center for eastern medicine.

Tyva has lagged behind, Zhukovskaya says, because there “shamanism always was stronger than Buddhism and much stronger than in Buryatia and Kalmykia.” Consequently, although one can speak about the revival of Buddhism there, shamanism “still remains a serious competitor.”

            Zhukovskaya began her research on Buddhism in Buryatia as a student in 1959-1961. In 1963, she visited the two datsans there which the Soviets had not closed, but the slightly more than ten lamas met her with suspicion, fearing that she was working for the KGB or some other Soviet agency.

            From 1969 to 1990, she worked primarily in Mongolia where the state of Buddhism under communism was if anything even worse.  In pre-1921 Mongolia, there had been 748 monasteries, she notes, but by the 1960s only one remained and it was under the close supervision of the authorities.

            Asked about her views of the Buddhist leaders of Buryatia and Kalmykia, she had the following to say.  Both Pandido Khambo-lama of Buryatia and Shadzhin-lama Erdin Ombadukov in Kalmykia have been in their posts since the early and mid-1990s and both have great authority among their followers.

            But their relations with the secular authorities have been very different. Kalmyk leaders have supported their lama on all occasions, but the Buryat political leadership has not. Instead, the republic’s president tried to undermine and force out Pandido Khambo-lama but without success.

            The efforts of the Buryat officials backfired, Zhukovskaya says, because their attacks only increased the authority of the repubic’s chief lama.  She adds, however, that neither the Buryat nor the Kalmyk Buddhist leader is the head of all Buddhists in Russia. Their authority does not extend either to Tyva or to the “new Buddhists” in Russian cities.


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