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Buddhism in Russia

Historical background

The first evidence of the existence of Buddhism in contemporary Russia refers to the VIII century BC and is linked to the State of Bohai, which occupied the area of today Primorye and the Amur region in the period of 698-926. Bohai people, whose culture had been influenced by the neighboring China, Korea and Manchuria, practiced Buddhism in one of its Mahayana traditions.

The second entry of Buddhism into Russia dates back to XVI-XVII centuries, when the nomadic tribes of Western Mongolia – so called Oirats or the Kalmyks – came to Volga in Siberia. Oirats adopted Tibetan Buddhism in the XIII century and they received the original empowerments from the ‘Red Heat Lamas’ – Lamas from Sakya and Kagyu schools. At the time of their arrival to Volga region due to the nature of the political situation in Tibet, they were mostly transferred to the Gelugpa – the school of the Dalai Lamas.

In the XVII century, Tibetan Buddhism spread in Buryatia – here it came through the local devotees, who had been trained in Tibet, mainly in the Gelug monasteries, and then brought the teachings of the Buddha to their country. In 1741, by the decree of Empress Elizabeth, Buddhism was recognized as one of the Russian religions.

Throughout the centuries, Buddhist culture has been developing in Russia. The presence of two Buddhist regions in the Empire and the proximity of other countries with Buddhist culture contributed significantly to the fact that one of the strongest in the world Oriental school was established in Russia in the XIX – early XX century. In the universities of St. Petersburg, Moscow, Kazan, Kharkov and other major research centers launched the departments of Sanskrit, Tibetan Studies, Sinology; the most important Buddhist treatises were translated; expeditions to Asia were conducted. Proceedings of Vasilyev V.P.(1818-1900), Stcherbatsky F. (1866-1942), Obermiller E.E. (1901-1935) and other prominent Russian orientalists serve as an example for scientists around the world. Due to active cooperation and support of leading Buddhist researchers and imperial government Buryat lama Aghvan Dorje built Datsan (Buddhist temple) in St. Petersburg in 1915.

The difficult 30s of XX century became a period of persecution of Buddhism and Buddhist studies as a science. Many lamas and monks were killed in the camps, most of the temples and monasteries were shut down or destroyed. For almost two decades any variation of Buddhist Studies has been completely stopped in Russia.

Partial revival of Buddhism and Buddhist tradition began in the 50-60′s, but officially they were reestablished at the turn of the 80-90′s. In 1989 a group of Buddhist Studies was created on the basis of Saint-Petersburg Branch of the Institute of Oriental Studies of Russian Academy of Sciences under the leadership of Rudy V.I. It became the first officially established Buddhist studies tradition since Scherbatsky. The other departments and the Department of Buddhist Studies at several universities appeared after that, and the recovery of Oriental science became in general faster. Simultaneously with that remaining Buddhist temples were restored in Buryatia, Kalmykia, Tuva and new ones started, schools were established by the monasteries, and Tibetan teachers were receiving first invitations to come and teach. Currently Russia represents many Buddhist schools: Theravada, Japanese and Korean Zen, several Mahayana traditions and virtually all the world’s schools of Tibetan Buddhism. According to the last census, about 900,000 Russians consider themselves being Buddhists.

Today, the Russian Association of Diamond Way Buddhism of Karma Kagyu tradition is the largest Buddhist organization in Russian Federation by its representation in the regions.

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