From Russia with Metta

As the Western nations consider tougher economic penalties in the wake of the failure of sanctions and diplomacy to halt Russia’s annexation of Crimea, here is a bit of news from that country of a very different sort: Sometime this year construction should begin on the first Buddhist temple in Moscow.

Buddhism has flourished in Russia since the end of the Soviet era, and while there are nearly two dozen different Buddhist schools in Moscow, evidently the temple will belong to Russia’s Association of Buddhists at Karma Kagyu School. However, it seems that Buddhism in Russia has a healthy non-sectarian spirit. Drikung Mahayana Buddhist, Alexander Dogayev says, “Buddhists don’t care that much about schools or doctrines, they want the temple. Certainly, we need this temple. It will be both a religious facility, and a meeting point of different schools.”

The temple, expected to be a 3,299-square foot facility, will also house cultural and medical centers, a conference room, a soup kitchen, and a stupa, the mound-like Buddhist commemorative monument, which according to Alexander Koybagarov, president of the Russian Association of Buddhists, will be a symbol of unity for all Buddhists: “Stupa is a common space for prayers and meditation, rituals and different Buddhist holidays . . . This can be a universal and uniting facility. We aren’t enemies, we don’t clash or compete.”

Buddhism came to Russia from Tibet via Mongolia in the 17th Century. In 1741, Empress Elizabeth of Russia, issued a proclamation recognizing Buddhism one of Russia’s official religions, and the Romanov rulers were viewed by Russian Buddhists as incarnations of White Tara, a female bodhisattva considered an emanation of Avalokitesvara (Tibetan: Chenresig).

Agvan Dorzhiev
Agvan Dorzhiev

Some years ago, I read Buddhism in Russia by John Snelling, which not only recounts the history of Russian Buddhism, but also tells the story of Lama Agvan Dorzhiev (1854–1938), a Russian-born monk who became an adviser and envoy of Tubeten Gyatso, the 13th Dalai Lama (the current Dalai Lama is the 14th).

As I recall, the first Buddhist temple, or datsan, in Russia was the one in St. Petersburg that Dorzhiev received permission from the Tsar to construct in 1909. It was not completed until 1915, and had a relatively short lifespan. In 1917, the temple was heavily damaged and ransacked, and then appropriated by the Red Army two years later. Eventually the temple was returned to Buddhist hands, and following some restoration, there were several brief periods of activity. By the 1930, St. Petersburg was Leningrad, and Buddhists in the city were persecuted.

The last service at the temple was held in December 1933 to observe the passing of the 13th Dalai Lama, who had died on December 17. In 1935 the NKVD arrested a large group of lamas, who were sentenced to 3 to 5 years hard labor, and one day in 1937 the remaining Buddhists in the city were all arrested and executed.

For the next 50 or so years, Buddhism survived in Russia, but only underground. When the Communist era came to an end, there was a revival of Buddhism in Mongolia that spread quickly to other parts of Russia. Today, the Karma Kagyu, a branch of Kagyu, one of the four major Tibetan schools, is the dominate form of Russian Buddhism.

Agvan Dorzhiev was a fascinating figure. After the revolution, he was arrested and sentenced to death but reprieved by the intervention of some influential friends. Dorzhiev was allowed to be a free man and conduct his Buddhist activities, but all the while the Soviet authorities waged a campaign against him, determined to bring him down. They finally succeeded, in 1937, when Dorzhiev became a victim of Stalin’s Great Purge. Arrested and charged with treason, fomenting armed revolt, and spying for the Mongolians and Japanese, he died in prison “as a result of cardiac arrest and general physical weakness due to old age” on January 29, 1938.*

Shakyamuni Buddha was the first in human history to proclaim the notion of the vital unity of life, not only of human life by itself but of all living creatures on earth . . . Shakyamuni Buddha (moreover) taught that all living creatures have the same aspirations to life and life’s benefits, and that service to living creatures is the highest duty of every man. He also taught that, among living creatures, man is the most able to attain the supreme good, this being his sole prerogative.”

– Agvan Dorzhiev

What I have presented here is obviously a very abbreviated version of Russian Buddhist history. For anyone interested in learning more, I believe that Snelling’s book, published in 1993, is still the definitive account.

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* John Snelling, Buddhism in Russia, Element Books Limited, 1993, p. 252

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