NEW DELHI, India, 25 December 2012
History has its own way of uniting parted siblings — time and a charismatic visionary are the main two factors which act as catalysts in luckier cases. Buddhists from Russia, Mongolia and Tibet are going through this exciting process in recent years. And the uniting force is HH Tenzin Gyatso (77), the 14th Dalai Lama, who happens to be the supreme spiritual leader of Mahayana Buddhism across the world.
In the past 30 years the revival of Buddhism in Mongolia and Russia is fast taking shape, after going through near-total destruction (as in Tibet) because of seven decades of communist persecution and suppression in the two countries. The initial reprieve from persecution came out of the fading love affair between Beijing and the Kremlin, and the final steps to freedom came with the collapse of the USSR and communism in the early 1990s. And now it is the charismatic personality of the Dalai Lama which has put the revival of Buddhism into overdrive in Mongolia and in the three traditionally Buddhist republics of Russia — Kalmykia, Buryatia and Tuva.
It is interesting to note that hundreds of monks from these Buddhist areas today study in high-ranking Buddhist monasteries in India which have been established by the Tibetan refugee community over the past 50 years under the leadership of the Dalai Lama. Thanks to the Tibetan refugee community’s concerted efforts towards successfully reviving its culture and national identity in exile, India has once again emerged as the central nerve centre of Mahayana Buddhism in the world.
This week has seen over 800 Buddhist practitioners from the three republics of Russia and Mongolia coming to New Delhi to seek teachings and blessings from their supreme Guru, the Dalai Lama. The only reason for these devotees to come to India was that the Dalai Lama has been denied visa to visit Russia for nearly one decade. Last week a similar teaching session was organised for the benefit of a large group of Buddhists from Thailand for the very same reason — their respective governments lacking political courage to resist pressure from Beijing against issuing visa to the Dalai Lama.
The Dalai Lama has been to Russia five times since 1979. In 1992 he went to all three Buddhist republics. But in 1991 he could go only to Buryatia. In 1996 he could visit Kalmykia only on a transit visit while flying to Mongolia. In 2004 he could visit Kalmykia only for a day and half. On one occasion all Russian flights were cancelled just to ensure that Dalai Lama could not stop in Russia on his way to Mongolia. The changed status of Russia vis-a-vis China in the post-USSR period has obliged the Kremlin to keep Chinese sensitivities regarding Tibet and Dalai Lama at top priority.
In the current political scenario when economic depression in Europe has taken its toll on European governments, along with pressure from the US, Russia has lost a huge business in supplying oil to Western Europe. China’s emergence as a major buyer of Russian oil, gas, and military equipment has pushed the Kremlin further at the mercy of Beijing. With Syria and Iran being on hot pursuit of the US and its western allies, Russia finds itself badly squeezed with China in a tight corner. All this has left hardly any elbow room for Russia to take any independent step which China does not approve of. That explains Putin’s predicament with the three Buddhist republics.
The keenness of the Russian Buddhists to receive blessings and teachings from the Dalai Lama can be fathomed from the fact that following the persistent denial of visa to him by their government, they have, of late, started an annual pilgrimage to India. In 2009 about 800 Russian Buddhist devotees came to India to seek blessings and teachings from Dalai Lama. This number increased to 1300 in 2010, and to 1600 in 2011. Erdne Ombadykow (39), the energetic Head of Buddhism in the Republic of Kalmyikia, has played an important role in this new movement of reviving Buddhism in Kalmykia. In Mahayana Buddhist parlance he is popularly known as “Telo Rinpoche”, as he was recognized as the reincarnation of Telopa, a great Indian Buddhist scholar of the 11th century.
Telo Rinpoche had plans to meet President Putin during Putin’s Delhi visit, and to present to him a jointly-signed petition from the Russian Buddhists. This petition calls upon the President to review his government’s decision on the issue of visa to the Dalai Lama. President Putin had recently indicated in a youth camp at Lake Seliger in the Tver region of Russia, that his government intended to do something in this direction.
Answering a question from a Kalmykian youth during his question-answer session with the participants of the camp on 31st July this year, President Putin made it clear that it was Chinese pressure which was stopping the Kremlin government from letting Dalai Lama visit Russia. “For those who are not familiar with the details of this issue, I can say that this problem is related to the fact that the Dalai Lama is viewed more as a political leader than a religious one,” Putin said.
Outgoing and pro-active in his approach, Telo Rinpoche is at the forefront of reviving and rehabilitating Buddhism to its past glory days, before Communists destroyed Buddhism and the Kalmykian identity. He presents an interesting mix of traits which reflect his multi-coloured background. He was born to a Kalmykian refugee couple in Philadelphia, who had settled in USA after being uprooted from the erstwhile USSR in post-second World War months. In 1979 when the Dalai Lama visited Philadelphia, he came across this 7-year-old baby, who walked into his lap during a public audience. Later the Dalai Lama recognized him as the reincarnation of Telopa.
The previous incarnation of Telopa was a Mongolian who played an important political role in resisting the Bolsheviks who destroyed over 2000 Buddhist temples and killed about 30,000 Buddhist monks in Mongolia in 1939. Following the failed Mongolian resistance, he migrated to the US, and later established a Buddhist temple in Philadelphia, where he died in 1965.
Following his recognition as an incarnate Tulku, Telo Rinpoche was sent to the Tibetan monastery Drepung in Mundgod town of Karnataka in Southern India where he studied Buddhism. Later, following the fall of communism and the disintegration of the USSR, he decided, on the advice of the Dalai Lama, to work in Mongolia and Kalmykia to revive Buddhism.
“Before the communists occupied Kalmykia, there were over 100 monasteries and about 7000 monks. They destroyed everything and we lost most of it during 70 years of communist rule. Buddhism met the same fate in Buryatia and Tuva. In the past 20 years we have rebuild 27 monasteries and revived Buddhism to a good extent in Kalmykia. The same process has been going on in the other two Buddhist republics,” says Telo Rinpoche.
Buddhism arrived in these three republics of Russia 400 years ago from Tibet via Mongolia. Most of these followers are of Mongolian origin. Today there are about 1.5 million Buddhists in the three republics. New opportunities to travel abroad and international exposure has attracted millions of Russians towards many new spiritual ideas and philosophies. The number of neo-Buddhists among Russians today is estimated around half a million. Buddhism is a constitutionally-recognized religion along with the Orthodox Christian church, Islam, and Judaism.
“We have all freedoms and liberties in practicing Buddhism, provided we don’t mix religion and politics,” says Telo Rinpoche. Other Buddhist communities in Buryatia and Tuva also have common motivations with the Kalmykians. A new surge of Buddhist temples, learning centres, and visits of Tibetan Buddhist scholars from India reflects this enthusiasm.
Kalmykian experience during the communist days in USSR, especially under Joseph Stalin, has many parallels to the Nazi holocaust, which now works as a motivator. Nazis invaded USSR from the Caspian Sea direction, and Kalmykia was the first region to fall. Nazis enrolled the Kalmykians and Chechens to fight the Russian communists. There was no shortage of enthusiasts among the two races who took it as a chance to get rid of communist occupation and slavery. But following the fall of Germany, Stalin branded the Kalmykians as “traitors” and ordered the entire Kalmykian population to be deported to distant labour camps of Siberia. Over a million Kalmykians were pushed into railway cattle wagons to be further tortured in Siberian labour camps.
“About half of our population died in the process. All this happened within thirteen years. Following the death of Stalin, Khrushchev ordered repatriation of Kalmykians to their homeland. But all good lands, houses and jobs had since been occupied by the Russian communists in our homeland. Ban on our language and religious practices almost finished our identity until the USSR collapsed in early 1990s,” says Telo Rinpoche.
In the changed phase of present-day history, new links between Tibetan, Russian and Mongolian Buddhists promise new hopes for all of them. “Kalmykians and Tibetans have a lot to learn from each other. We lost our language but Tibetan refugees still read and speak their language even fifty years after their exile to India. We have to learn in this field from them. But we saved our determination to revive our identity despite 70 years of ruthless communist rule. I am sure Tibetans can learn from us,” says Telo Rinpoche. Recent developments indicate that the learning process has taken deep roots already.
About the author
Vijay Kranti is a senior Indian journalist, photographer, and Tibetologist, based in New Delhi. He blogs at VijayKranti.com and he can be contacted at v.kranti(at)gmail.com