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Traditions and History

Buddhism in Russia

Center of Russian Buddhism

Buddhism is historically the first world religion and one of the three main religions along with Christianity and Islam. The founder of Buddhism - a real historical figure - Siddhartha Gautama, was born and lived in North India, according to researchers, in 566-473 BC. Another name - Shakyamuni - is directly related to the place of birth and family relations of the future Buddha.

statue of Buddha in Buryatia

The teachings of Buddha arose in the middle of the first millennium BC in India. Nevertheless, for many centuries Buddhism has organically manifested itself on the territory of Russia. It significantly influenced the culture and customs of Central Asia and Siberia, assimilating the elements of Brahmanism, Taoism, etc. In the Buryat-Mongolian culture, Buddhism is closely connected with shamanism, the basic principles of which - the desire for harmony with oneself and the world (nature) - did not interfere and even painted old customs and culture with new bright colors.

shaman ritual.JPG

In the territory of present-day Russia, Buddhism gained distribution in the 16-17 centuries from Mongolia through the Kalmyk nomads (Oirats), who eventually settled in the northern Caspian region and on the lands of present-day Buryatia.

The life of the Buddha became known in Ancient Russia by the text - Barlaam and Joasaph. Tsarevich Joasaph, whose prototype was the Buddha, became a Christian saint (his memory is celebrated by the Russian Orthodox Church on November 19).

During the reign of Elizabeth of Russia, Buddhism received official recognition. So, in 1741 she issued a decree according to which the existence of the Lamaist faith was recognized in Buryatia and 11 datsans (Buddhist monasteries) and 150 full-time lamas (religious teachers) were approved. This date is considered the date of official recognition of Buddhism in Russia.

ritual buddhist dances.JPG

In the 19th - early 20th centuries, Russia became one of the largest centers for the study of Buddhism.

In the 19th century, the head of the Buddhist clergy of Buryatia was approved by royal decree, and the rectors of the monasteries were approved by governors-general. In Kalmykia, the Lama of the Kalmyk people was also appointed by royal decree.

In 1914, Russia annexed Tyva as its protectorate, where shamanism and Buddhism were the dominant religions. Thus, Buddhism in Russia turned out to be the traditional religion of three peoples - Buryats, Kalmyks, and Tyvans. All these peoples profess Tibetan Buddhism.

ritual dance in buddhism.JPG

The Russians began to turn to Buddhism in the late 19th century. The ground for the appearance of the first Russian Buddhists was prepared by the nascent interest of scientific circles in the East in general and in Buddhism in particular. This interest was partly initiated by the tasks of the Orthodox mission and the political interests of Russia in the East. The study of Sanskrit and the Tibetan language developed, and Buddhist texts were published.

Buddhist rituals.JPG

We suggest you start the travel to Buryatia visiting the center of Russia’s traditional Buddhist Sangha in Ivolginsky datsan. It is here that the famous Khambo Lama Dashi Dorzhi Etigelov “resides”: the unique phenomenon of the so-called “imperishable body”.

Republic of Buryatia is located in the area of scenic Asian landscapes that include tundra, mountains, forests and steppes, and the oldest and the largest freshwater lake – the Baikal. The capital of Buryatia is Ulan-Ude.

Itigilov was born in 1852 and began his religious education at the age of sixteen years. He studied at the Anninsky Datsan (a Buddhist teaching monastery in Buryatia, of which only ruins remain), earning diplomas in medicine and philosophy. At that time he wrote an encyclopedia of pharmacology.

At the age of 75, in 1927, XII Pandito Khambo Lama Etigelov plunged into deep meditation. Before that, he had ordered disciples to exhume his body after some time and had promised to come back alive. According to his will, he was placed in a wooden box made from cedar – a bumkhan – and buried. In 2002, XXIV Pandito Khambo Lama Damba Ayusheev with datsan lamas in the presence of forensic experts and public activists revealed the bumkhan and, having performed the necessary rituals, transferred XII Pandito Khambo Lama Etigelov to the Ivolginsky datsan. 

buddhist ritual.JPG

Etigelov was found to have been miraculously preserved as if he only died yesterday and had not undergone any changes over the years. Scientists are still puzzled, modern science cannot find any explanation for this phenomenon. Forensic medical examination experts reported that the skin of the body, the nails, and the hair were safe, the tissues of the Lama were soft and flexible. It would be wrong to define him as a “body” since he sweats, changes the temperature and demonstrates other signs of living creature, not to mention his daily messages to Sangha. He’s been declared a sacred object of Buddhism. An individual temple for him was erected; the project was carried out on the pattern of old Buryat sketches. Etigelov may be seen only 8 times a year during major Buddhist holidays. There is also an opportunity to see him on some special occasions.

itigelov's residence.JPG

Khambo lama Etigelov is one of the three Buddhist shrines of Russia, along with the Atlas of Tibetan Medicine and the statue of Sandal Buddha Zandaan Zhou located at Egituysky datsan, Eravna district, 250 km. east from Ulan-Ude.

Ivolginsky datsan is the most significant place not only for three million Buddhists in Russia but also for pilgrims and tourists from all over the world. It is sited at the foot of the hills surrounding Lake Baikal. The roofs of the temples and the colorful stupas look astoundingly beautiful amidst the wilderness. In winter the monastery is even more spectacular – colored temples nestled in the snow against capped mountains. Dalai Lama noticed that Ivolginsky datsan is one of the greatest places of interest he had seen in the USSR. The datsan is protected by the government as a monument of religious architecture.

ivolginsky datsan.JPG

It is the largest Buddhist monastery and temple complex in Russia, which includes temples, dugans, a greenhouse with the sacred Bodhi tree, the Art Gallery of the Peoples of Asia “Erkhim Darkhan”. And most importantly – in 1991, the Buddhist University was established here. About 100 students are currently studying there at four departments: philosophical, tantric, iconographic, and medical. There is also a library building and a summer hotel on the territory of the monastery.

green tara.JPG

The temples are surrounded by prayer drums - Khurde. Before entering the datsan visitors should walk clockwise around it and spin prayer wheels at the same time while walking, which is the part of a spiritual practice of accumulating good qualities. Each turn of the drum equals multiple prayer repeats. This “rie goroo” is made around holy places, datsans, stupas, thereby showing one’s respect and willingness to accept the blessing. Inside the hurde, numerous mantras are twisted into a scroll around the central axis. Rotating it, you cleanse your karma as well as space, making this world better and kinder.

khurde.JPG

Ivolginsky datsan really embodies the cultural diversity of Russia and of the Republic of Buryatia: a beautiful Buddhist enclave near Ulan-Ude. It’s definitely worth going to see the architecture and feel the vibe of the settlement. Wander around the monastery village and attend ceremonies, bringing yourself to a state that you’ll try to keep for the rest of your life.

If you ever going to visit  the Center of Buddhism of Russia Ivolginsky Datsan or have any questions on visiting Buryatia please contact us and we'll do our best to help you!

Photo materials are kindly provided by Ministry of Tourism of Buryatia

The Mystery of a Buryat Lama

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Experiences » Traditions and History
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