Buddhism wins over a new generation of converts in Russia


by Francoise Michel

ULAN-UDE, Russia,

Feb 16 (AFP) -

Dandar, who has been studying to become a lama (priest) for three years, and Darima, who visits the temple every day, are only two members of a new generation in Russia's remote republic of Buryatia returning to Buddhism now that Soviet repression is a thing of the past.

Dandar lives with three friends in a small house without running water at the Datsan (temple) of Ivolginsk, the spiritual centre of Russian Buddhism, around 30 kilometres (18 miles) outside the Buryat capital Ulan-Ude, near the Mongolian border.

"My studies are difficult, especially the Buddhist philosophy, but I really want to become lama from the bottom of my soul," says Dandar with a broad smile.

At his school classes begin at seven in the morning, and carry on for most of the day for the 130 mostly ethnic Buryat students taking courses in religion, Buddhist painting, Tibetan (the language of prayer), ancient Mongolian as well as Tibetan medicine. After hours the apprentice priests live under the tutelage of a lama, who acts as their spiritual guide.

"There is a lot of work to do in the evenings. I never get to bed before half past midnight. I don't have time to do anything else," says Dandar, who is the grandson of a lama.

Inside the typically Russian house, the students have erected an altar with a statue of Buddha and a portrait of the Dalai Lama, whom all Buddhists revere as their spiritual leader "In order to study successfully, conditions should not be too easy. The seminary only gives the students one free meal a day. Because you learn better on an empty stomach," explains the head of the school.

"Education, education, education," Dagba Ochirov adds with a grin, quoting Lenin's celebrated mantra.

In the aftermath of the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, Buddhism in Buryatia has witnessed a renaissance but now, 10 years on, the faith's hierarchy is more interested in the intellectual quality than the numerical quantity of its priests.

"We don't want Buddhism to develop at any cost. Our priority is to produce specialists of a very high level, in astrology, in philosophy, and in Tibetan medicine," explains Dagba.

As a result, the selection process is punishing, with only one candidate in every three or four passing muster. Women Buddhists have also been encouraged to pursue their studies at a temple in Ulan-Ude opened in 2000 and run by 10 female lamas, and Darima is only one of the eager apprentices.

"I have always wanted to become a lama. The Buddhist way of life agrees with me. I am searching for myself and Buddhism will help me," says the 26-year-old Buryat woman. Every morning she places offerings at the altar, then helps with the first prayer meeting before commencing her Tibetan studies for the day.

"A woman cannot say everything she has to say to a male teacher, but she can open her heart to a female lama," says Darima Tsynguyeva, the head of the temple.

One Russian woman called Olga also comes to the brightly painted sanctuary to pray with a Buryat friend. "I am going through a difficult phase at the moment. I have turned to Buddhism without renouncing my Orthodox faith. The two religions complement each other," she explains.

Buddhism first appeared in this region bordering Mongolia in the early 18th century, but suffered harsh repression under Communist dictator Stalin who deported many priests and shut down the majority of temples.


Russian Buddhists invite Dalai Lama to visit



Russian Buddhists have invited Tibet's spiritual leader the Dalai Lama to visit Russia this summer, the ITAR-TASS news agency reported on Saturday. The invitation was issued by cultural and religious associations in the Siberian republics of Buryatia and Tuva, and in the republic Kalmykia bordering the Caspian Sea, where most of Russia's one million Buddhists live.

Talks are currently under way to determine the dates of the visit. Earlier this week the Dalai Lama, who lives in exile in India, cancelled all appointments for three months -- including a planned North American visit -- to fully recover from a recent bowel infection. The Dalai Lama visited Russia once before, in 1991.

Last September, according to a Tibetan official, the Dalai Lama was obliged to cancel a visit to Mongolia after Russia refused to grant him a transit visa. The official said Moscow had done so at the request of Beijing. The Dalai Lama fled Tibet after a failed uprising against Chinese rule in 1959.

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