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Russian President Vladimir Putin has promised 100-percent support for Russia’s Buddhists - representatives of one of the country’s four traditional religions that have seen a period of renaissance over the past decades.
On Wednesday, Putin paid a visit to the Ivolga Datsan - the main monastery of the Buddhist traditional Sangha (literally meaning ‘group, assembly’) of Russia - the largest organization uniting the followers of this ancient religion in the country’s territory.
Putin met with lamas, including the head of the Sangha, Khambo-lama Damba Ayusheev to discuss the problems of Buddhist education. He noted the noticeable role of Buddhism in the country and promised Russia’s Buddhists his all-round support.
“The government of Russia and yours truly, as well as the regional authorities, are always at your disposal, and are always prepared to support you. Although your needs are very modest (I do know that you always prefer to rely on your own resources), I would like to tell you once again - we are always at your disposal,” Putin said.
The Russian president described Buddhism as ‘a very kind and humanistic teaching, which is based on people’s love towards each other and love of their own country.’
For his part, the head of the Buddhist traditional Sangha of Russia Khambo-lama Damba Ayusheev thanked the president for the visit, adding it was not accidental.
“From a Buddhist’s point of view nothing is casual or accidental. You shall always remain for us in history,” he said.
The senior Buddhist cleric explained to Putin in detail the whole procedure of Buddhist education and identified a number of problems in this sphere. For example, Buddhist universities have to put up with a situation where they have no state accreditation and their students are recruited into the army.
The Ivolga Datsan - the official seat of Khambo-lama - is a monastery-like compound and a monument of history and architecture at the same time. The decision to open the Datsan at the request of Buryat lamas was made back in 1945. The first religious services at the Ivolga Datsan took place in 1946.
The incorruptible body of Khambo-lama Dashi Dorzho Itigilov, an outstanding Buddhist clergyman, is the Datsan’s main wholy shrine.
Buddhism in Russia is one of the four traditional religions, alongside Orthodox Christianity, Islam and Judaism. The traditional areas where people profess Buddhism are Buryatia, Tyva, Kalmykia, the Republic of Altai, Trans-Baikalia, and the Irkutsk Region. Also, there are Buddhist communities in St. Petersburg, Moscow and other cities.
At the end of the 1980s, shortly after Gorbachev’s policy of glasnost and perestroika began, the process of Buddhism’s revival began to gain pace. The first Buddhist communities were registered in Tyva and Kalmykia. At present there are over two hundred Buddhist communities in Russia. Alongside the Tibetan branch of Buddhism, which is traditional in Russia, there have been spreading other branches of this religion. One can mention groups of followers of Theravada (Southern Buddism) and quite a few registered and unregistered communities of Chinese, Vietnamese and Japanese Chan-Buddhism.
According to different estimates, there are about 700,000 Buddhists in Russia.
Of late, the popularity of Buddhism is growing - both with ethnic Russians and with people of other nationalities. Old Buddhist temples are being restored and new ones opened in Buryatia, Kalmykia, Tyva and St. Petersburg. Educational establishments are being opened at monasteries, and teachers from Tibet are being invited.
As the editor-in-chief of Buddhism in Russia magazine, Andrei Terentiev, told Religo magazine in an interview, Buddhist education is one of the most crucial issues of the day. This theme, he said, has been always high on the agenda - Buddha’s teaching was oriented towards the most educated strata of society from the very outset. In Tibet, for instance, there existed a system of continuous spiritual education, extended over a period of 20 years. In the Soviet era it was wiped out together with Buddhism, so none of the current Buddhist clergymen in Russia has the full Buddhist education. Respectively, the level of Buddhism is very low. Tens of young teachers are being trained at Tibetan monasteries in India. Some educational centers have been set up inside the country.
In Russia before 1917 there were about 20,000 Buddhist monks and novices, Terentiev said. At present there are several educational establishments in Buryatia and Kalmykia. Competent teachers are scarce, so good instruction has to be sought in Tibet.
Alongside well-versed preachers of Buddhism, the expert said, there is a great need for books, in particular, those in the ethnic languages, but they are still very hard to come by. In the meantime, Buddhist ideas are being used by commercial publishers that offer esoteric and occult literature, some sects, and all sorts of swindlers, who cause laymen develop a very strange idea of this world religion.
Alongside Buddhist practices Russia is witnessing the comeback of Buddhist art. Monuments are being restored and schools of painting reopened. The State Museum of Oriental Peoples’ Fine Arts recently hosted a round-table discussion entitled Buddhist Art in the Past and the Present. Taking part in it were Buddhist scholars, art historians and specialists who have dedicated their whole life to preserving the Buddhist heritage, related with the ancient religion, as well as modern craftsmen following the Buddhist tradition.
Mikhail Kochergin, the director of one of Russia’s few Buddhist publishers Orientalia, has said “modern Buddhist scholars, art critics, museum workers and enthusiasts are faced with two main tasks - firstly, how to keep safe the surviving ancient Buddhist artifacts, and secondly, how to preserve the tradition of their mentality for the future.”