Tibetan Buddhism in Buryatia and Chita 1990

Introduction to Buryatia

In the year 2010, there were 286 000 Buryats in the Republic of Buryatia, in Russia, who constituted 30% of the population of the republic. In Chita district, Buryats make up just 5–6% of the population, and Buryats living in the Aginskoye subdistrict of Agin-Buryat district around the Aginsky Datsang make up 67% of the subdistrict’s population. Altogether they constitute 7–8% of the population of Zabaykalsky Krai that both districts belong to after 2008. The majority of Buryats on the eastern side of Lake Baikal (Transbaikalia) are Buddhists, while those on the western side (Prebaikalia) are Russian Orthodox, and the two groups greatly dislike each other. One group of Transbaikalia Buryats moved to Inner Mongolia, mostly near Hohhot, after the Revolution in the 1920s.

A Brief History of Buddhism in Transbaikalia

In the sixteenth century, the Buryat Mongol tribes who were Buddhists of the Tibeto-Mongolian Gelug tradition, started to move from northern Mongolia to the Siberian Lake Baikal area. By the seventeenth century, Russia had conquered and made Siberia a part of their empire. In 1727, the border between Russia and Mongolia, which was part of the Manchu Empire, was fixed. Although pilgrimages were still allowed after this, immigration and most formal contact were stopped. The Czars supported Buddhism in order to please the Buryats and secure the borders, and used lamas to help collect taxes and gain a stronger control over the population. Thus, unlike the Kalmyks who settled in the center of Russia, the Buryats in the far eastern border area received much milder treatment by the Russians. The Russians required the Buryat’s cooperation in order to create a position of strength with which to pursue trade and influence over Manchu China. Therefore, Buddhism developed stronger and faster in Buryatia than in Kalmykia or Tuva.

In 1741, the first permanent datsang was built at Tsongolsky, with the 250th anniversary celebrated in 1991. Three others were built shortly afterwards, the most important of which was Gusino Ozero Datsang. In order to weaken the influence of and set up a rival to the Chief Lama of Mongolia, the Bogdo Gegen Jabtzun-dampa Hutukhtu of Urga, the Czar appointed the Abbot of Gusino Ozero as the permanent administrative and spiritual head of Transbaikalia, giving him the title Bandido Khambo (Tib.: pandita mkhanpo blama).

Towards the end of the eighteenth century and during the entire nineteenth century, there was great development, and all branches of Tibetan learning were introduced. There was wide pilgrimage to Tibet, whereupon many texts were brought back. Both rare Tibetan and Mongolian texts were printed mainly at the Aginsky and Tsugulsky datsangs. Within these datangs, there were four types of colleges: tsan-nyid (debating), manba (medicine), du-kor (Kalachakra) and gyu (tantra). Most datsangs, as in Mongolia, also had a dewachen, a temple devoted to Amitabha, to be reborn in his pure land.

The main Kalachakra datsangs, following the lineage and style from Mongolia, which had been derived from the Namgyal Datsang at the Potala in Lhasa, Tibet, were Gusino Ozero, Aninsky, and Egetuisky. The main datsang in Mongolia from which they received it was Dechen Kalawa, founded by Gyalchen Rinpoche, which no longer exists. Aginsky followed the Kalachakra lineage and style directly from Labrang Tashi-kyil, although they used the same choga text (sgrub thabs mkhas grub zhal lung), and this was the main place for the actual study of Kalachakra. The old lamas recall that the Leningrad Datsang probably followed the Aginsky style of Kalachakra practice, but only performed the rituals and had no actual study of it. Aginsky took all of its lineages and traditions directly from Labrang and so they used the yigcha of Kunkhyen Jamyang Zhepa. The older lamas do think however, that Buryatia probably had all three yigchas used in Mongolia, those of Kunkhyen, Jetzunpa and Panchen, but they cannot be totally sure on this point. The best students in tsan-nyid were sent to Mongolia for further training, and the best of those went on to Tibet.

In 1917, there were 46 datsangs and dunkangs (’dus-khang, a prayer gathering hall for laypeople), and 15,000 lamas in Transbaikalia. Under Stalin, between 1932 and 1939, there was massive destruction of the datsangs, imprisonment of lamas, and the burning of books. The only ones standing fairly intact were Aginsky, Tsugulsky and Gusino Ozero, all in Transbaikalia, and the Leningrad Datsang. The rest lay in ruins, and some had been completely taken apart. Many of the thangkas and statues confiscated from these temples were stored in Leningrad or in an old church in Ulan Ude, which was used as a warehouse, where they remain. This old church still houses the original lifesize Tsandan Jowo, a sandalwood Buddha statue built at the time of the Buddha that was stolen by the Buryats from the Chinese in Beijing at the end of the nineteenth century, at the time of the Boxer Rebellion against foreigners.

The Present Situation

In the late 1940s, many people, including Dandaron and others, petitioned Stalin to re-allow Buddhism on a minor scale, which Stalin did, in two places. The new datsang of Ivolginsky was built just outside of Ulan Ude, a Central Buddhist Board was established there, and its abbot was given the traditional title of Bandido Khambo Lama. One building at Aginsky, a three hour drive to the southeast of Chita, which had in the early 1900s been modified to be slightly Russian in its architectural style, was also given to the Buddhists. The main tsogchen (tshogs chen, assembly hall), however, was made into an alcoholics hospital-cum-prison work camp, and these alcoholics were only moved out in 1989. The local district council wanted to turn it into a Buryat cultural museum, but when the idea of setting up a new Buddhist seminary was introduced instead, they seemed willing to help reconstruct it to be used for that purpose. The inside had been subdivided into small rooms and the building of the Kalachakra datsang, although still standing, is in a very bad condition. There is a large, beautiful meadow between the Kalachakra datsang and the tsogchen, and a small dunkhang still stands. Connection by small airplane between Aginsky and Ulan Ude has recently been opened.

Tsugulsky is a two hour drive to the east of Aginsky, and is quite close to the Chinese border. The tsogchen, which had been used as an army barracks, is still standing beside being in a very poor condition, as it was basically left to fall apart. It is now being reconstructed and in 1989 was registered with the Central Buddhist Board. Gusino Ozero, about an hour and a half drive south of Ulan Ude, is halfway to the Mongolian border. There are two buildings that were also left to rot, although they are not in as bad a condition as those at Tsugulsky. Alexander Kocharov, who worked for the Buryat Art Restoration Board in Ulan Ude to restore its artwork, has since been replaced by another artist from Leningrad, Yuri Nikonorovich Borsoev, who is quite skilled in making Tibetan statues. There is very little money available however, and the Buddhists have not yet thought about becoming involved.

I have visited Ivolginsky, Aginsky and Tsugulsky, but when we drove past Gusino Ozero on the way to the Mongolian border, my driver and guide did not know where the datsang was. I only lectured at the Buryat Institute of Social Studies in Ulan Ude, and that was just to scientists, not the general public.

At present (1990), there are 36 lamas at Ivolginsky, twelve at Aginsky, and five at Tsugulsky. The abbot of Ivolginsky is Sodbo Lama, that of Aginsky is Zolto Lama, and that of Tsugulsky is Jimba Gyatso Tsybenov. The former two are in their thirties, while the latter is in his late sixties, and is one of the most learned of the Buryats, as well as a physician. All of the lamas are genyens and except for one or two, all of them are married. Thus, even Bandido Khambo Lama Erdyneev is a married genyen. They are all employed and paid by the state and so can be dismissed at any time. There is only one gelong and one getsul, and they took their vows only within the last few years, but from two different traditions. Choe Dorji, the new Deputy Khambo Lama, became a getsul in Mongolia. Sherab Gyatso, who is presently studying in Dharamsala, became a gelong with His Holiness in India. Many of the lamas have alcohol problems, but it was only the Dandaron group, however, that seemed to have the custom of consuming an entire bottle of vodka as part of offering Lama Chopa tsog.

The Buryat Custom of Marriage for Monks

The Buryat custom at present is for everyone to marry, but then to take genyen vows and work in the datsang. They have their main residence at the datsang, and keep their wife and children in another home outside the datsang. They mostly wear Mongolian chubas, deel and pants, but while in the datsang, and especially while doing prayers, they put on Tibetan robes over the deel.

In Buryatia, a distinction is made between the Mongolian and Buryat gelongs. After the destruction of the monasteries and the imprisonment of the monks in Mongolia during the Stalinist period of the 1930s, later, when Gandan monastery in Ulaan Baatar was opened, most of the old lamas were married. In order to justify continuing being married, some of the lamas claimed that the Eighth Bogdo Gegen Jabtzun Damba Hutukhtu, who was married and who was the only one of his lineage to actually be the political ruler of Mongolia between 1911–1924, had given permission for getsuls and gelongs to be married. From the research of Sherab Gyatso however, no such permission was ever granted. On the basis of this justification, there arose the tradition of married Mongolian getsuls and gelongs, and ordination was given within this framework. It is unclear whether there were married getsuls and gelongs in Mongolia prior to the destruction of the 1930s, and prior to the Mongolian Revolution, and this needs to be researched. In Tuva, which followed Mongolian custom, the 94 year-old monk Shinbayol told me that before the Revolution, gelongs did occasionally marry, sometimes after they had become gelongs, even if they knew this was against the Vinaya.

This Mongolian custom of married getsuls and gelongs was however not accepted in Transbaikalia, and probably not in Kalmykia either. The Buryats did not become getsuls and gelongs in modern times, then, because they followed more the Tibetan tradition and felt that monks should be celibate. This is why it is so dangerous that Choe Dorji has taken the getsul ordination from Mongolia, rather than taking it in Dharamsala, undoubtedly because he hopes to follow the custom of allowing married monks.

Religious Practices at the Datsangs

Ivolginsky is the only one of the three datsangs at which daily prayer sessions are held by the lamas. Each morning in the tsogchen, they recite the Heart Sutra, 21 Taras, Duhkar and various other prayers like Zangcho Monlam. Sometimes, they also recite A Chorus of Names of Manjushri. On the second day of each month, they perform Lhamo and Jamsing, on the eighth the Medicine Buddha, and on the 30th the four mandala offerings to Tara. Once a year they do the self-initiations of Kalachakra (in a more abbreviated form than in Mongolia), Thirteen Deity Yamantaka, Luipa Chakrasamvara and Guhyasamaha, as well as the Drugchuma offering. Hardly anyone has the initiations for these, except for Yamantaka, or knows how to chant. Occasionally, Lama Chopa is performed. At the gonkhang (mgon khang, protector chapel), they do Jamsing and Lhamo every day.

At the other two datsangs, although they do not have daily prayers, they do have daily protector pujas. At Aginsky, they do Jamsing each day, and other protectors upon request. They do Lama Chopa five times a year, sometimes Medicine Buddha and the four mandala offerings to Tara. Once a year, they do Thirteen Deity Yamantaka and Drugchuma offerings. At Tsugulsky, they also do Thirteen Deity Yamantaka and Drugchuma only a few times a year.

The lamas all go to the five year training course at Gandan Monastery in Ulaan Baatar for their education. Before, only Buryats went. This year, in addition to 25 Buryats, seven Kalmyks have also gone. The Tuvans also wish to send ten people, even though they have 20 applicants, but they have not been well-informed about the procedure. In theory, European Russians could join as of this year, but the five candidates were rejected. Some think that they were rejected because they didn’t know how to speak Mongolian, while others speculate that the KGB-controlled Council for Religious and Cultural Affairs was behind it.

It should be noted that Khalkha, the main dialect of the Ulaan Baatar region of Mongolia, and the Buryat and Kalmyk dialects are mutually fairly unintelligible. Buryat is closer to Khalkha than Kalmyk. All of these dialects are, however, further apart than the Lhasa, Kham and Amdo dialects of Tibetan, and are rather more like the difference between Hindi and Punjabi. It takes several months for a Buryat speaker to be able to understand Khalkha. Tuvans living on the border of Mongolia already speak Khalkha, although their own language is a Turkic dialect, related to Uighur. Thus when the Buryats insist that they will have separate teaching facilities from those of the Russian Europeans, it will not be easy for the Kalmyks or Tuvans to join them. Nor will it be a simple matter of just importing some Khalkha speaking lamas from Mongolia to teach them.

Update 1994

Christian missionaries are now active in Buryatia, but less so than in Mongolia. Rev. Moon’s organization is also here, just as it is all over the former Soviet Union, but not as strongly as in Kalmykia.

There are currently thirteen active monasteries in Buryatia. These include:

  1. Ivolginsky Datsang, outside of Ulan Ude. There are 30 monks, but there is still the problem of many of the monks being married and drinking alcohol. The monastic school has four Tibetan teachers from India, headed by Yeshe Lodro Rinpoche, who speaks excellent Khalkha and Buryat Mongolian. He and the other Tibetans are frequently invited to people’s homes for rituals, which doesn’t allow a lot of time for them to provide teachings to the laypeople. The school has between 60 and 70 students, with three Dharma classes covering Tibetan language and basic debate, and one medical class. The students are mostly Buryats from the various datsangs of Buryatia, and the language of instruction is either Buryat or Tibetan. There are also three Russians, a few Tuvans and a few Mongolians in the first class. There is lam-rim instruction also in Buryat, and one American teaches English.
  2. Gusino Ozero, the first monastery built in Buryatia, now has five monks and three teenage pre-novices, of whom one is Buryat, one Russian, and one from a mixed marriage. They study Tibetan language and do rituals. The abbot is a traditional emchi (doctor) and many local Buryats and Russians come to him for both medical treatments and religious rituals.
  3. Aginsky Datsang has a monastic school with 30 students and two Tibetan teachers from India, with classes in Dharma and medicine.
  4. Egutuisky Datsang, about 250km southwest of Ulan Ude, now houses the Tsandan Jowo sandalwood statue of the Buddha.
  5. Work on the construction of a large stupa at Kizhinga has stopped due to lack of funds.