Tue, Jul 13, 2004 - Page 5 News List

Buddhism reviving in deepest Siberia

PEACE RETURNS The Soviet Union's demise allowed Buddhism to stage a comeback in remote Russia, sometimes luring city folk eager for enlightenment


Vladimir Chimitdorzhiyev was once an ardent communist who wanted to lead young people in Siberia to a Soviet paradise.

"That was a long time ago. All that is water under the bridge now," he said in his dimly lit retreat near Russia's border with Mongolia, ancient scrolls depicting Buddhist masters hanging over his shaved head.

"I am now a Buddhist monk. I've left irrelevant things behind. I've come here to learn and to teach," he said.

Tibetan teachings Chimitdorzhiyev helped revive in his ancestral homeland 6,000km southeast of Moscow are now at the forefront of a revival of interest in Buddhism in post-Soviet Russia.

After the Soviet collapse in 1991, Chimitdorzhiyev -- now known as Babu Lama -- returned to the rolling hills of his native Buryatia, brought together a dozen Buddhist priests and helped rebuild an old shrine.

Closed for decades in Soviet times, the Aginsk Datsan is now Russia's biggest Tibetan Buddhist temple.

"Peace has returned to this land ... But there was no peace here when the Datsan was closed," said Babu Lama, 46.

Under a fixed stare of a bronze statuette of Buddha, he looked out of a window and gazed at the temple's golden roofs.

Yellow banners with densely printed Tibetan inscriptions flapped in the wind, and worshippers chanted prayers inside the temple.


Before Buddhism spread here from Tibet three centuries ago, Siberian tribes worshipped trees, animals and stones, their beliefs linked to other forms of Asian animism such as Japanese Shintoism.

For those tribes -- Buryats, Kalmyks and Tuvans -- Buddhism was their first source of education. In many ways, this is still the case in the most desolate villages like Aginskoye in this swathe of Siberia between Lake Baikal and Mongolia.

Following in his ancestors' footsteps, Babu Lama -- involved in various youth organizations in eastern Siberia in Soviet times -- reopened a Buddhist academy here to teach Buddhist ways to 50-odd disciples from all over Asia.

Russian Buddhism -- still linked to shamanism -- dates back to the 1700s when Empress Elizabeth, the liberal daughter of tsar Peter the Great, issued a decree recognizing Buryatia's Lamaistic beliefs and ordered the building of dozens of Buddhist temples.

Recognized as one of Russia's four official religions, Buddhism numbers 1 million followers in Russia, mainly in Buryatia -- a region once visited by the Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama.

Both the Aginsk Datsan and the academy, built by Tibetan astrologists in the 19th century, were shut down in a clampdown on religion by Soviet dictator Josef Stalin in the 1930s.

Many lamas were arrested and deported to penal colonies, some accused of being Japanese spies.

Temples were turned into tuberculosis asylums to scare off believers.

The communists reopened a few temples after World War II to appease predominantly Buddhist tribes and even allowed theologians to travel to Mongolia to study.


But it was only after the Soviet collapse that people like Babu Lama returned to Buryatia and Buddhist communities started to mushroom along the Mongolian border.

"And then we who doggedly carried Buddhism through the harsh Soviet years, gathered here in the 1990s and declared the temple open," said Lyubov Austermonas, a sinewy woman in her 50s and the Datsan's chief administrator.

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