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New renaissance of Buddhism in Buryatia

Buddhism has had a serious comeback in the Republic of Buryatia, in Siberia, Russia, since the late 1980s when Russian government loosened its regulations on religions. But this quick surge in Buddhism has also brought with it problems.

Buddhist flags just outside of Buryatias capital, Ulan-Ude

After Mongolian and Tibetan Lamas first introduced Tibetan Buddhism to Siberia in the middle of the 17th century, it became extremely popular and widely spread throughout the region. In the 1930s however the soviet regime set an abrupt end to the advance of Buddhism and Buddhists were persecuted with more vigour than believers of any other religion. According to author Igor Troyanovsky “Not a single functioning temple and not a single lama remained.”

Buddhism had its comeback in the late 1980s in Buryatia due to the loosening of constraints by the Russian government. In 1997 acceptance of Buddhism was further established through the preamble of a law regulating religious organisations, which named Buddhism as historically important to Russia, among other religions.

When traveling through Buryatia today, one cannot help but notice the growing amount of newly built Buddhist temples. Many Buryats seem keen to reconnect with Buddhist traditions. “I meditate every morning and regularly visit the Datsan[1]” says a PhD student, living in the Republic’s capital, Ulan-Ude. But this quick rise in popularity has brought with it its challenges.

Buddhist monks normally enter Buddhist education at a very young age, thus having a long and intensive learning process. Because of the break in Buddhist tradition there was also a pause in the education of lamas, which has led to an acute need for Buddhist lamas. Moreover every so often believers fall prey to ‘fake monks’ who ask for high donations and practice rituals that have nothing to do with traditional Buddhism.

When recounting a ritual in a new Buddhist temple that included spitting on a piece of meat, Lyudmilla, a retired lecturer, confirms, “there is a lot of nonsense practiced, that has nothing to do with real Buddhism, it’s a big problem”.

Another challenge for Buryat Buddhists is the Russian government’s refusal since the early 1990s to grant the Dalai Lama a visa, in order to maintain good relations with China. Especially since the resignation of the Dalai Lama as the political leader of the Tibetan government in Exile this is met with growing disappointment by the Buddhist minority.

Ivolginski Datsan, the largest and most important Buddhist monastery in Buryatia

Still, when joining the festivities at Ivolginski Datsan, the main Buddhist temple in the Republic, one cannot deny that Buddhism in Buryatia is well alive in spite of all obstacles. The air is filled with the strong smell of incense and a hint of alcohol from the opened Vodka bottles that make up a big part of the offerings, which seem to fill every available spot in the main building of the Datsan. Whole families stand in the long queue in front of the temple to pay their respect to the body of the deceased lama Dashi-Dorzho Itigilov. The message is clear: Buddhism is back in Buryatia.

[1] The Buryat term for Buddhist monasteries


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