Embassy News /

N.L.Zhukovskaya

Buddhism in Russia: the Road Four Centuries Long

The history of Buddhism in Russia is more than 400 years long. Before the late 20th century only three ethnic groups out of 150 peoples residing in Russia were officially regarded as Buddhists, these were Buryats, Kalmyks, Tuvans. Kalmyks, the descendants of Oirats who moved to the steppes of the Lower Volga region from West Mongolia in the first third of the 17th century, were the first to appear in the territory of the Russian Empire. Today it is the territory of the Kalmykia Republic. Officially, they adopted Buddhism in the late 16th century, although they had been familiar with it for three centuries, so they were Buddhists when they arrived in Russia.

Buryats were the second Buddhist nation. Their land was gradually annexed by the Russian Empire in the 1640-1660s. This territory is the Buryatia Republic today. During that period Russian envoys traveling to China already saw mobile felt dugans, or prayer tents, the predecessors of temples, in this ethnic group. But the active spread of Buddhism among Buryats started only in the first third of the 18th century.

And Tuva (the Tuva Republic today) joined Russia (the USSR then) only in 1944. Before that, from 1921 to 1943, it was an independent republic, and the vassal of China before that. The ancestors of Tuvans were familiar with Buddhism as far back as in the early Middle Ages, their land was a part of the Uygur Khaganate (8th 10th centuries A. D.) then, but Tuvans themselves adopted Buddhism only in the 2nd half of the 18th century. By the early 20th century they already had all institutionalized forms of religion, including a monastic hierarchy, an established homage practice, and a system of priest training.

Tuvans were the third group among the ethnic groups of Russia who were officially regarded as Buddhists. They were the followers of the Gelug school, the strongest among the schools of Tibetan Buddhism.

Buddhism as a moral, a philosophy and a historical and cultural phenomenon emerged in India in the 6th century B. C., and its spread over the countries and continents continues today. Most states of the East, South East, and Central Asia either adopted it as an only, or one of state religions supported by the leaders of these countries. A characteristic trait of Buddhism that promoted its expansion over the Asian countries, at least, was its tolerance and the ability to peacefully coexist with any cults, religions and social systems which existed before its arrival and during its spread in these countries. In the countries with centuries-old cultural traditions it faced such ideological systems as Shintoism in Japan, Confucianism and Taoism in China, and it settled peacefully side by side with them. But in Central Asia (Tibet, Mongolia), South Siberia (Buryatia, Tuva) and Kalmykia it had to deal with a nomadic culture, its ideology and practice in the form of Tengriism, shamanism, and even individual cults of nature.

In its contacts with other religions Buddhism manifested its characteristic original tolerance, patient attitude to ethnic traditions and the existing ritual practices. This resulted in the appearance of a certain symbiosis of Buddhism with early forms of religion and the inclusion of the lower layer of the traditional culture of these ethnic groups in its pantheon and ritual practice. This symbiosis was not formed at once, it faced many tests in the course of four centuries and survived till our days, in the end. One should emphasize that the true Buddhism never saw earlier beliefs of Asian nations as its rivals or enemies, they were just a part of the cultural tradition that cannot be destroyed without doing harm, without driving away new adepts from following the Buddhas path.

The life of Buddhism in all the three regions Buryatia, Kalmykia, Tuva had much in common since it was tied to the milestones in the history of Russia as they are also a part of this country.

After the disintegration of the USSR all the territory of Russia, from its western borders to the Far East, witnessed the emergence of Buddhist organizations uniting the followers both of the early medieval traditions of the Tibetan Buddhism (Nyingma, Dzogchen, Sakya, Kagyu, and others) united by the common notion of Vajray.na (The Diamond Vehicle), and various national forms of Buddhism arriving from the countries of the East and South-East Asia (Vietnam, Japan, China, Thailand, Korea, Cambodia).

They were usually founded by spiritual teachers who carried the tradition, who were often emigrants from Tibet residing in Europe for several decades already, or their European disciples. The spiritual vacuum formed on the ruins of the USSR sent many intellectuals (and not only them) on spiritual quests which led them to these new communities. Their ethnic composition is absolutely diverse. While in the past one could easily answer the question of who follows Buddhism in Russia, saying: Buryats, Kalmyks and Tuvans, today this is no longer true as Russians form the majority of Buddhists now.

The official number of Buddhist organizations in Russia is close to 300. Many of them have joined various associations and unions. Thus, the Russian Association of Karma Kagyu Buddhists, for instance, includes communities from 70 cities of Russia, from Kaliningrad in the west to Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk in the east. About 50 communities have joined the Union of Dzogchen Namkaya Norbu Rinpoche Communities. They hold their practices, meditations, dedications in Russia and abroad, considerably expanding the limits of Russian Buddhism as a notion.