Historically, Buddhism was incorporated into Russian lands as early as the late 16th century, when Russian explorers travelled to and settled in Siberia and what is now the Russian Far East. It is also believed that Indian King Ashoka had sent monks to spread Buddhism all over the world including Siberia. Mongolian and Tibetan lamas first appeared on the eastern shores of Lake Baikal in the middle of the 17th century and quickly spread Buddhism in the area. Later in that century Buddhism emerged as the dominant religion in Tuva. The Kalmyks who migrated from China to the lower reaches of the Volga River in the later half of the 17th century also professed Buddhism. Tzarist authorities were fairly tolerant with respect to Buddhists.
Later, religious centers - Buddhist monasteries, or datsans - appeared in other areas of Buryatia, too. Within a short time most of the Buryats living east of Lake Baikal were converted to Buddhism. In 1764, Zayaagiyn Damba Darjaa, the high priest of the Tsongol datsan - the oldest in the Baikal region - became head of the entire Buddhist clergy with the title Bandida Khamba Lama.
In the late sixteenth century the Kalmyks were converted to Buddhism by Mongolian lamas in Dzungaria (China). In the seventeenth century, they moved to the lower reaches of the Volga River, retaining their religion. At that time the Kalmyks gained access to the first works of Buddhist literature translated from the Tibetan language.
The main form of Buddhism in Russia is the Gelukpa school of Tibetan Buddhism. Although Tibetan Buddhism is most often associated with the peoples of Tibet, in the north the school spread into southwestern and northern China, Mongolia, and finally Russia. In the south, it took hold in Bhutan and parts of northern India and Nepal.
Afterwards, it began to spread into the geographically and culturally adjacent Russian constituent regions known today as: Amur Oblast, Buryatia, Chita Oblast, Tuva Republic, and Khabarovsk Krai. There is also Kalmykia, another constituent republic of Russia that is in fact the only Buddhist region in Europe, perhaps paradoxically located to the north of the Caucasus. Buddhism has been in Russia for four centuries.
In the second half of the XVIIth century Buryats were incorporated into Russia. Beginning from 1727 when the treaty determining the borders between Russia and Manchu-Chinese empires was signed the Buryats started the official development within the Russian state. In Czarist Russia, where Orthodoxy was the predominant state religion, Buddhists were subjected to certain restrictions. Buddhist monks (lamas) were made dependent on the local police and were subordinated to the chief provincial board. The regulations for the lamaist clergy, introduced in 1853, established the almost despotic reign of officials under the czar. The latter made the most important assignments concerning even the clerical posts; in official documents the Buddhists like all non-Orthodox Christians were called "otherbelievers", or "the followers of the alien belief" (иноверци inovertsi) and the religious problems of the Buddhist were the concern of a special department for foreign religions. Nevertheless, Buddhism began spreading among the Buryats in the 17th century and became an essential and significant element of social, spiritual and material life of most Buryat ethnic groups, and has played a great role in their political and spiritual consolidation. This process of consolidation was stimulated by the formation of a centralized system of the Buryat Buddhist religious administrative structure.
The spread of the Shambhala myth and the Kalachakra Tantra in the West has a history of its own. It does definitely not first begin with the expulsion of the lamas from Tibet (in 1959) and their diaspora across the whole world, but rather commences at the beginning of the twentieth century in Russia with the religious political activity of an ethnic Buryat by the name of Agvan Dorjiev. He was convinced that the union of Tibet with Russia would provide the Highlands with an extremely favorable future, and was likewise able to convince the hierarchy upon the Lion Throne of the merits of his political vision for a number of years. He thus advanced to the post of Tibetan envoy in St. Petersburg and at the Russian court. His work in the capital was extremely active and varied. Since the end of the 19th century Buddhism had become fashionable among the Russian high society.
Tibetan medical doctor Peter Badmayev was head of the most famous private hospital in St. Petersburg. There the cabinet lists for the respective members of government were put together under his direction. R. Fülöp-Miller has vividly described the doctor’s power-political activities: "In the course of time medicine and politics, ministerial appointments and 'lotus essences' became more and more mingled, and a fantastic political magic character arose, which emanated from Badmajev’s sanatorium and determined the fate of all Russia. The miracle-working doctor owed this influence especially to his successful medical-political treatment of the Tsar. Badmajev’s mixtures, potions, and powders brewed from mysterious herbs from the steppes served not just to remedy patient’s metabolic disturbances; anyone who took these medicaments ensured himself an important office in the state at the same time" (Fülöp-Miller, 1927,).
For this "wise and crafty Asian" too, the guiding idea was the establishment of an Asian empire with the "White Tsar" at its helm. Buryats had received initiations into the Time Tantra from the Ninth Panchen Lama which were supposed to have been of central significance for Russias future vision. At the center of Agvan Dorjiev ’s activities in Russia stood the construction of the Buddhist temple in St. Petersburg. The shrine was dedicated to the Kalachakra deity. A painter by the name of Nicholas Roerich, who later became a fanatic propagandist for Kalachakra doctrine, produced the designs for the stained-glass windows. Work commenced in 1909. In the central hall various main gods from the Tibetan pantheon were represented with statues and pictures, including among others Dorjiev’s wrathful initiation deity, Vajrabhairava. Regarding the décor, it is perhaps also of interest that there was a swastika motif which the Bolsheviks knocked out during the Second World War.
Stalinist secret police agents tried to oppress all religious groups, leading to a decline in Buddhism.
Tibetan Buddhism is primarily practiced by the indigenous peoples in various regions of central and eastern Russia, except for a few Russian converts based mainly in the larger cities such as St. Petersburg or Moscow, where there is greater access to urban Buddhist centers or similar facilities.
The Russian Federation and Austria are the only two European states today that recognize Buddhism as an "official", though not necessarily "state religion" in their respective countries. On top of that, Russia also recognizes it, along with Islam, Judaism, and of course Orthodox Christianity, as native to Russian soil in the 1993 Constitution of the Russian Federation. All other religious groups are unrecognized, and must officially register and be subject to rejection by the state.
There are a few dozen Buddhist university-monasteries throughout Russia, but concentrated in the Russian Far East and Siberia, known in Russian as Datsans. Adherents to Buddhism account for approximately 700,000 in the Russian Federation, about 0.5% of the total population.
Organizations: The highest authority for Russian Buddhists is the Central Buddhist Board based in the Ivolga Datsan in the Buryat. (A permanent office in Moscow is concerned with external relations). The congress of clergy and laity convenes once in four years and elects the members of the Board. Head of the Central Buddhist Board is Bandida Khambo-lama.
Russian Buddhism is representative of the Gelugpa school ("the School of Virtue"), which is a branch of Tibetan Buddhism in the Mahayana tradition, that is, "the broad path" of salvation from endless rebirth in the world of suffering. Russian Buddhism has a number of specific ritual peculiarities that have taken shape over the course of history. Historically it has been marked by the prevalence of rural lamas living outside datsans because of the nomadic way of life. To some extent, this tradition has survived to this day. In keeping with tradition, six major holidays, khurals, are celebrated annually and are attended by a large number of people who bring various gifts to datsans as well as money and food for lamas.
Tsagaalgan is a holiday celebrated on the eve of the lunar new year, which usually falls in February. This khural is devoted to the twelve miracles of Buddha during his dispute with six preachers of heresy. Services and a series of religious rites are conducted to mark the occasion. Buddhists, dressed in their best clothes, come to pray together for well-being and more happiness. On the eve of the new year, a solemn evening ritual is performed during which food is served to the doksheetsi, the protectors of the faith. This involves the ritual burning of Dugzhub, a magic pyramid of paper and wood; according to a Buddhist belief, a ritual fire consumes all evil thoughts.
A long note from a big white conch proclaims the first day of the lunar new year. A traditional service is held to celebrate the Sagaan Sar ("white month") holiday. In the main temple lamas, replacing one another, pray for fifteen days for peace and goodness.
The khural Duyn-khor, a second major holiday, lasts three days in April. It is dedicated to the preaching of the sacred teaching of Kalachakra.
The third major holiday is Gandun-Shunserme, devoted to the birth and enlightenment of Buddha and his attainment of nirvana. It is celebrated in early summer.
The fourth holiday Maidari is dedicated toMaidari, the Buddha of the future (Maitreia). It is always celebrated for two days in midsummer. People spend the first day in many hours of devout prayer. On the second day the gilded statue of Maidari is solemnly carried out of the temple and placed on a chariot twined with silk ribbons. It is surrounded by lamas in ceremonial dress. A green horse of plaster is harnessed to the chariot, and the procession sets off around the datsan. This ceremony symbolizes Maidari’s tour of the universe and the spread of his grace throughout it. Several thousand people gather in the datsan for the procession. Akharang, a big copper shield, is struck with a mallet, and its sounds can be heard far away. There is a fanfare, the drums roll, and conchs are blown. The procession stops at every turn of the monastery walls for a reading of sacred Scriptures. Many Buddhists attending the procession try to approach the chariot, to hold onto its beam and harness, and to throw money at the feet of the statue of Maidari.
The last two khurals are celebrated with less splendor, but they also attract large crowd of believers. Lhabab Düisen, marked in autumn, is devoted to the Buddha’s return from the thirty-third heaven. The holiday Zula is dedicated to the passing away of the father of Lamaism,Bogdo Tsongkhapa. A thousand candles are lit during the service.
Lamas who live in monasteries observe the Dulva, a traditional moral and ethical code. Depending on the level of ordination, they participate in services and philosophical discussions and perform special religious rites at the people’s request.
Recently, in addition to Buryats, Kalmyks, and Tuvinians, more and more Russians, Ukrainians have been attending Buddhist services. Previously, they all went to pray at the Ivolga datsan, but today, with the 1991 reopening of the temple in Leningrad, followers of Buddhism from the Europe an part of the country will travel there, too.
In Russia, academic Buddhist studies began from the middle of the 19th century. By the end of the century, the Russian Buddhological School had won international prestige. With the discovery of Buddhist manuscripts in Central Asia at the beginning of the 20th Century, a new stage in the study of Buddhism began. The Central Asian, Sak and Uyghur Buddhist texts with their Chinese and Tibetan translations have been published. The international series Bibliotheca Buddhica, founded in Russia by S.F. Oldendurg and F.I. Tsherbatsky became the center of Buddhist studies; attracting the greatest scholars of the world: L. de La Vallee Poussen, Max Walleser, Sylvan Levi and others.
From 1897 to 1937, the most important Buddhist texts in Sanskrit, Tibetan and Uyghur on Buddhist philosophy, logic, etc. were printed in a 30-volume series. In 1960, V.N. Toporov published a translation of Dhammapada, becoming the 31st volume, and A.I. Vostrikov’s book The Tibetan Historical Literature became the 32nd. Many of the works published, particularly on Buddhist logic, have been regarded as unsurpassed. In the enormous volume of buddhological works, the quantitative contribution of Russian scientists has been rather modest, but their qualificative aspect is of high value.
In 1985 with the publication of the Monuments of the Indian Texts from Central Asia by G.M. Bongard-Levin and M.I. Vorobyova-Desyatovskaya the edition of this series was continued. Later on a few other publications appeared. Among them one can mention the study and the translation from Sanskrit of the first part of the Abhidharmakosa done by V.I. Rudoi (BB, vol. 35), the translation from the Pali of the The Questions of Milinda (Milindapanhi) carried out by A.V. Paribok (BB, vol. 36) and also the publication of the work by the Chinese author Huei Tsyao: Biographies of the Distinguished Monks(Gao Sen Chuan) carried out by M.E.Ermakov (vol. 38).
At present Buddhism is studied at research centers in Moscow, St. Petersburg, as well as in Ulan-Ude, Elista and Kyzyl. The buddhologists in Moscow concentrate their efforts on the role of the Buddhist cult as well as the place and role of Buddhism in social and political life of Asian countries, and its influence on the culture and traditions of oriental peoples. In St. Petersburg, scholars are mainly engaged in deciphering ancient Indian inscriptions and textological research in the field of Buddhist art and old Uyghur, Tibetan, Mongolian and Chinese texts and treatises. In buddhological studies —mainly pursuing the fields of sinology and indology— notable achievements have been made; whereas in the fields of Tibetan and Mongolian studies, the scope of research has not been so broad. Nevertheless, all the buddhological studies are closely interrelated. A great many texts in the Tibetan language, translated from Sanskrit, are accessible now; though their original texts in Sanskrit have been lost. Therefore the value of these Tibetan texts becomes all the more significant. The fact that in Russia, there is a living tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, spread among Buryats, Kalmycks and Tyvanians, greatly contributed to the development of Tibetan and Mongolian studies, and within their frame to the buddhological studies.
Buddhism in Buryatia, a region in Central Asia and Southern Siberia, which was the northern-most point of the spread of Buddhism. The Buryats were, and are still are the largest Buddhist population in Russia. The Buryats, Kalmycks and the Tyvanians are the three Buddhist nationalities in Russia, historically belonging to the common Mongolian spiritual realm and to the Tibetan and Mongolian cultural and religious tradition of the great Central Asian civilization. Tibetan religious and cultural influence has been playing, up to now, an important role in the culture and history of these peoples.
In the beginning, Buddhist monasteries were the centers, not only of culture and learning, but in fact they became moral and ethical regulators of everyday life of Buryat families. Buddhism stimulated the formation of the nation’s intellectual potential. There appeared different monastic educational faculties with many learned monks and scholars. Among them we can mention Agvan Dorjiev (1857-1930), one of the tutors of the 13th Dalai Lama, who was his representative in the Russian court and played a great role in Tibet's international political life, establishing various relations between Tibet and Russia. By the beginning of the century, Buddhism had become quite strong and this caused the anxiety on the part of the Christian church.
In order to adapt the Buddhist teaching and church to the rapidly developing and changing world, Agvan Dorjiev and some prominent Buryat scholars initiated a modernization movement among Buddhist clergy and intellectuals, proclaiming the necessity of combining the Buddhist philosophy with the best achievements of Western culture and civilization. The movement has gained a wide scope in Buryatia. It was due to the fact of mutual interest of both: the Buddhist clergy wanted to preserve somehow the church, by means of modification, whereas local intelligentsia regarded Buddhist ideas as a cultural and social basis for further national development after being freed from pagan elements. Though "modernists" played an important role in the national liberation movement of Buryats and promoted national and cultural autonomy of Buryats within the Russian Federation and establishing of the Buryat-Mongolian Autonomous Republic after the revolution, still the movement was doomed to failure because it was unrealistic to expect gaining self-administration for Buryat people by means of religious reforms and revival of national culture neither before the revolution nor after it. The attempt of these "modernists" to emphasize similarity of ideas in Marxism and early Buddhism also failed. This movement is all the more noteworthy because no comparable developments took place in Tibetan Buddhism until after the confrontation with Chinese communism in 1949. By 1935 there were about 45 or 46 Buddhist temples and monasteries in Buryatia.