Friday, March 10, 2017

Putin Can’t Get Buddhism Right

Paul Goble

            Staunton, March 9 – Like numerous Russian leaders before him – and, it must be said, not just Russian ones – Vladimir Putin approaches non-Christian religions through a lens defined by his understanding of Christian churches, extrapolating to the former concepts from the latter that are either inappropriate or insulting.

            This pattern is perhaps most widespread and even notorious in the way in which the Kremlin leader approaches Islam, insisting on hierarchies in a faith where they do not canonically exist and imposing centralized control on issues of doctrine over the faithful who by definition are extraordinarily diverse.

            The latest example of Putin’s failure to understand Buddhism, a failure that has religious and political consequences for the Buddhists of the Russian Federation and their relations with each other and with other Buddhists in the world involves his new year’s greetings to the Buddhists as one of the four traditional religions of Russia.

In a commentary on Portal-Credo, Vlad Medvedev points out there are two problems with what Putin has done: On the one hand, “in Buddhism there is no New Year’s holiday as such.”  And on the other, what Putin has done is to insist on a Buryat understanding of that holiday as the model for all Buddhists in Russia (

The idea of a new year holiday is common among northern Buddhists who descend from Tibetan Buddhism but not for others. Among Russian Buddhists, the Buryats mark it with what they call “the white month” following the first new moon of the lunar year. It was marked by them in tsarist times but suppressed under the Soviets.

With perestroika, the commemoration of this White Month resumed in Kalmykia, Buryatia and Tuva and then began to be celebrated as well throughout Siberia wherever Buddhist peoples lived.  But what Putin has marked is only done in the way that he mentions in Buryatia. No other Buddhist people does the same.

But what Putin wants is that all Russian Buddhists align themselves with what is a uniquely Buryat holiday because under Russian law, “the Buddhist Traditional Sangkha of Russia is officially recognized as the representative of Buddhism and Buddhists of all Russia just as the Russian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate is for Orthodox.”

The Sangkha is the successor of the Central Spiritual Directorate of Buddhists which was set up in the USSR in 1946.  Its right to supervise all Buddhists in Russia has been challenged several times since 1991, but the Kremlin has backed it against all comers just as it has backed the ROC MP.

In return, the leadership of the Sangkha has been slavishly loyal to Moscow and to Putin personally, elevating the Kremlin leader above the Dalai Lama and showing little interest in anything Putin doesn’t want interest shown in. Indeed, its top man says that the Sangkha views all other variants of Buddhism in the same way the ROC MP does Pentecostals.

Not surprisingly, however, this slavish obedience has only won the support of the Kremlin but not of all other Buddhists, many of whom now look to non-Buryat sources of inspiration and leadership. Perhaps worse: It hasn’t even won the Buryat Buddhists a shrine in Moscow despite constant promises by the Russian regime that they’ll get one.

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