Kazan University was
historically one of the Russian centers that focused on Buddhist and
Oriental Studies. O. M. Kovalevskyi, a Mongolianist, and V. P. Vasiliev,
a Chinologist, were deeply involved in Buddhist studies and were on
the teaching staff of its Oriental Studies Department. In 1854 the
Oriental Studies Department of Kazan University moved to Saint Petersburg.
A year later in 1855 the Oriental Studies Department was set up within
Saint Petersburg State University. The Asian Museum of the Russian
Academy of Sciences, which was founded in 1816, served as another
center of Oriental Studies in Saint Petersburg. Today it is the Saint
Petersburg Branch of the Oriental Studies Institute with the Russian
Academy of Sciences.
did a good job collecting research data on Buryatia, Kalmykia, Tuva,
Tibet, and Mongolia. Their research expeditions were arranged by the
Russian Geographic Society and sponsored by the Tsarist government.
The latter did not do it for the sake of science, but to provide a
basis for the further development of appropriate geopolitical doctrines.
The researchers of
Buddhism did not restrict their activities to studying the classical
Buddhist literary heritage of India. Minaev and his disciples S. F.
Oldenburg and F. I. Stcherbatsky considered it obligatory for any
person involved in Buddhist studies, no matter what his or her field
was, to be well acquainted with the living Buddhist tradition existing
in Central, Eastern, and Southern Asia. Saint Petersburg Buddhist
scholars have been sticking to this approach for generations.
Oldenburg (1863-1934) was an Indianist just like his teacher Minaev.
His field of study lay within popular Buddhist literary texts and
iconography. Oldenburg and Stcherbatsky set up a series of books called
Buddhist Library (Bibliotheca Buddhica), which aimed at publishing
original Buddhist texts, monographs and multi-author books devoted
to Buddhism. At present, the series numbers thirty-seven volumes.
Oldenburg was one
of the organizers of the first Buddhist exhibition held in the Russian
Museum in Saint Petersburg in 1919. The exhibition aimed at acquainting
visitors with the Buddhist doctrine, as well as its art and cultic
artifacts on loan from Saint Petersburg museums. The exhibition could
be classified as the first Buddhism educational event due to the lectures
given by such outstanding Russian Buddhist scholars as F. I. Stcherbatsky,
O.O. Rosenberg, B. Y. Bladimirtsov, and S. F. Oldenburg.
Stcherbatsky (1866-1942) was the founder of the Saint Petersburg Buddhist
Studies tradition. His major field of study was Buddhist Philosophy,
especially logic and epistemology. His first book of a significant
importance, Epistemology and Logic as They are Viewed by Succeeding
Buddhists (vol.1, 1903; vol. 2, 1909) deals with the translation of
a Buddhist treatise on logic and its subsequent commentary. The Core
Concept of Buddhism and the Meaning of Dharma (1923), The Concept
of Buddhist Nirvana (1927) and Buddhist Logic (1930-1932) soon followed.
They were published in English and made their author, along with Russian
Buddhist Studies, famous worldwide. Russia held this reputation for
years and guided the European science.
was not only a distinguished scientist but an outstanding teacher
as well. He trained and educated a number of highly qualified Indianists,
Buddhologists and Tibetan scholars. O. O. Rosenberg, Y. Y. Obermiller,
A. I. Vostrikov, and B. B. Baradiyn are only a few famous names among
his most advanced students. Stcherbatsky's approach was to combine
academic and applied scientific achievements within the framework
of Russian Buddhist Studies. Moreover, he sincerely believed that
research of the Indian and Buddhist traditions provided a solid basis
for coming to terms with those Buddhist forms that sprang up later
and diffused among the Buryats and Kalmyks. He took a pro-active part
in arranging the expedition to Tibet and Mongolia for G. Ts. Tsybikov
and B. B. Baradiyn.
The second half of
the nineteenth century is marked by intense field research in the
areas of Buddhism's traditional spread.(11) Aleksei Matveevich Pozdneev
(1851-1920) was among the pioneer Buddhist scholars to conduct applied
Buddhist Studies. He had broad background knowledge in regional geography
and Buddhism, and spoke Mongolian and Tibetan fluently. He went on
several long trips to the areas of the diffusion of Tibeto-Mongolian
Buddhism. Pozdneev's expeditions always focused on, among other things,
acquiring information on the social, political, and economic situation
of the Buddhist areas of the Russian Empire and its neighboring countries.
His logs gave rise to several books that were the first reliable source
of precious information on Buddhism in Mongolia in the nineteenth
Tsybikov (1873-1930) is also widely known for his field research of
Buddhism. His trip to Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, lasted from 1899
to 1902. At that time any foreigner was denied of the right of entry
into Tibet unless he or she was a Buddhist follower and Asian native.
Tsybikov managed to get into the country under the pretext of being
a Buddhist pilgrim. Actually it was far from being a personal trip,
but was actually a well-planned scientific expedition under the auspices
of the Russian Geographical Society. In fact, it was the idea of Pozdneev,
one of Tsybikov's teachers, to send him to Tibet as a pilgrim. Upon
his return to Russia, Gombodzab Tsybikov reported back to the Geographical
Society with general information on Tibet's geography, climate, ethnography,
economics patterns, state administration, and religion. While being
on this trip, Tsybikov kept a log that later grew into a book entitled:
A Buddha Pilgrim Visiting Tibetan Shrines (1919).
Baradiyn (1878-1937), a prominent Buddhist scholar and field researcher,
made an outstanding contribution to the research of Buddhist monasteries
in Tibet and Mongolia. His professors at Saint-Petersburg State University
were academics S. F. Oldenburg and F. I. Stcherbatsky. Baradiyn went
to the Labran Buddhist monastery, one of the three largest Gelugpa
educational centers in the north of Tibet (the present-day territory
of Gansu province, China). His work A Trip to Labran (1908) is based
on various data of the monks' life in Labran, obtained during his
trip. One of Baradiyn's key works is Buddhist Monasteries (1926),
which contains valuable information on Buddhist monasteries in Buryatia,
Mongolia, and Tibet.
Otton Ottonovich Rosenberg,
Stcherbatsky's most devoted disciple and associate (1888- 1919), mainly
focused on studying Indian Buddhist philosophical texts (Abhidharmakosha
by Vasubandhu) and their interpretation in China and Japan. In 1912
to 1916 Rosenberg went to Japan on a research trip to observe Buddhism
as it was in the country at that time. He also wanted to get direct
access to original Buddhist philosophical texts. Unfortunately, he
did not live long, leaving just a few works behind, his monograph
Problems of Buddhist Philosophy (1918) being of paramount importance.
This work and some of his brief articles set forth a number of basic
methodological statements that greatly predetermined the further development
of Buddhist studies in Russia.
Obermiller (1901-1935) combined the study of Tibetan Buddhist written
records with the field research of Buddhist monasteries (datsans)
in Buryatia in 1926-1927. Obermiller translated The History of Buddhism
in India and Tibet, a historiographic text by the distinguished Tibetan
historian Budon Rinchendub (fourteenth century), into English and
commented on its historical, cultural, and religious aspects.
Along with the translation
of Buddhist canonical texts and their subsequent interpretation, the
Saint Petersburg Buddhologists played a pro-active role in setting-up
the datsan, a Buddhist research center (see Section III).
Buddhist Studies in
After the October
Revolution of 1917 Buddhist Studies went on in Saint Petersburg, despite
such difficulties as a lack of up-to-date scientific information and
literature, and problems maintaining contact with foreign scientists.
F. I. Stcherbatsky and S. F. Oldenburg, along with many other prominent
Oriental Studies scholars, chose not to leave Russia both in the post-revolutionary
years and during the Civil war. Although the Russian scholars and
scientists faced a myriad of difficulties, they did continue their
research and teaching. New and unprecedented projects sprang up. The
Buddhist Exhibition of 1919 is an example of such an unexpected event.
The years that followed
the October Revolution abounded in Buddhist field research. For instance,
Stcherbatsky's students Y. Y. Obermiller, A. I. Vostrikov, M. I. Tubyansky,
and B. V. Semichov went to Transbaikalia to do field research on the
living Buddhist tradition.
In 1927 the Institute
of Buddhist Culture (INBUC) was set up within the Soviet Academy of
Sciences, on the initiative of Stcherbatsky, Oldenburg, and Tubyansky.
Young and promising scientists Y. Y. Obermiller, A. I. Vostrikov,
B. V. Semichov, B. A. Vasiliev, and E. N. Kozerovskaya, worked there,
majoring in the study of Sanskrit, Tibet, Mongolia, and China. INBUC
saw its core activities as conducting studies of Buddhist culture
and its forms, tracing their historical evolution, and doing research
on the living Buddhist cultures that settled in various Asian countries.
The structural reorganization of Oriental Studies bodies within the
Soviet Academy of Sciences took place in 1930. As a result, the Asian
Museum, the Institute of Buddhist Culture and the Department of Turkish
Studies merged together to set up the Institute of Oriental Studies
within the USSR Academy of Sciences. Stcherbatsky was the head of
the Indian and Tibetan Studies Department of the newly established
The Bibliotheca Buddhica
series was published until 1936. The year 1936 saw the last issue
in the series, number thirty, containing the original Sanskrit treatise
Madhyanta-Vibhanga submitted by Stcherbatsky. The series resumed publication
twenty-five years later.
The Russian scholars
were able to conduct Buddhist studies as original and independent
research in 1930. The Russian Academy of Sciences was guided by the
pre-revolutionary Regulation of 1836 for several decades after the
October Revolution of 1917. The 1836 Regulation did not impose any
ideological restrictions on the research area and subjects. In 1930
a new Regulation was adopted by the Russian Academy of Sciences, one
that banned any religious research. Nevertheless, the Indio-Tibetan
Department of the Institute of Oriental Studies was privately engaged
in Buddhist studies for seven more years. The latter were non-scheduled
events with the Department.
In the late 1930s
the activities of the Saint Petersburg (Leningrad) Buddhist Studies
school glimmered only slightly. Many of Stcherbatsky's students were
subject to repression and executed. Academician Sherbatksy was persecuted
on the basis of his being an idealist Neo-Kantian. He was accused
of disseminating reactionary ideas and propagating "Indian popovshchina"
(retaining the services of priests). His last works were published
exclusively in English. When the Great Patriotic War of 1941 started
in Russia, Stcherbatsky, along with other scientists, were evacuated
to Borovoy, a settlement in the north of Kazakhstan. He died there
on March 18, 1942, having survived nearly all his students and followers.
The 1960s Buddhist
Studies revival is associated with such names as Y. N. Roerich(12),
O. F. Volkova, L. E. Myall, A. M. Pyatigorsky, and B. D. Dandaron.(13)
This Buddhist Studies Renaissance period was relatively short and
came to its end in the early 1970s. Dandaron, who had been subject
to repression in Stalin's epoch, was arrested in 1972 for the study
and propagation of Buddhism. He was accused of setting up a sect,
sentenced to imprisonment, and died in prison. Many Buddhist Studies
scholars who maintained close relations with him and who witnessed
for the defense in court were also prosecuted. The Soviet government
adopted an attitude of mistrust toward Buddhist Studies and started
to suspect people involved in it of crime. As a result some Buddhist
Studies scholars were denied the right to conduct scientific research
and some of them emigrated from the country, like A. M. Pyatigorksy
and A. Y. Shurkin.
Although certain ideological
limitations existed with regard to proper Buddhist Studies, the following
years saw the further evolution of Oriental Studies in terms of the
historical, social scientific, philological, and cultural aspects
connected with Buddhist research in one way or another. Here are only
some of the Orientalists who provided insights into Buddhist issues:
G. M. Bongard-Levin, who dealt with spiritual world of ancient India;
L. N. Menshikov, who focused on Buddhist texts (Dunjhyana) and Chinese
Buddhist literary texts (Byanven genre); M. I. Vorobieva-Decyatovskaya,
who covered Buddhist texts in Sanskrit available in Central Asia;
I. S. Gurevich, who studied Yujlu, the language of Chan; V. I. Kornev,
who described Buddhism and public life in the countries of South-Eastern
Asia; V. N. Goreglyad, who was mainly concerned with Buddhism and
Japanese literature; A. S. Martunov, who did research on the role
of and interaction between society, the state, and Buddhism in China
and the Far East; and E. V. Zavadskaya, who studied the impact of
the Chan (Zen) tradition on European culture in the twentieth century.
A new scientific center was established at that time. It was the Buddhist
Studies Department within the Institute of Social Sciences, the Buryat
branch of the Siberian division of the Soviet Academy of Sciences.
This Department focused mainly on the study of Chinese and Japanese
Buddhism. Such scholars as N. V. Abaev, L. E. Yangutov, S. Y. Lemekhov,
and S.P. Nesterkin worked here.(14)
In the late 1980s
and early 1990s, when the Russian government switched to the new socio-political
doctrine, it brought about the revival of Buddhist Studies in Saint
Petersburg. The Buddhist Studies boom of the 1980s and 1990s is associated
with the following names: A. N. Ignatovich, who studied the history
of Buddhism in Japan; V. N. Androsov, who dealt with Nagarjuna doctrine;
V. G. Lusenko, who focused on early Pali Buddhism; A. V. Parebok,
who also covered Pali Buddhism; A. M. Kabanov, who was interested
in Zen and traditional Japanese literary texts; S. D. Serebryany,
who dealt with Indian religious and philosophical texts and Mahayana
Sutras; E. A. Torchinov, whose major concern was Chinese Buddhism
and Buddhist philosophy; and M. E. Yarmakov, who studied Buddhist
hagiography in China and the Chinese Buddhism of the common people.
The late 1980s saw
the formation of a task group headed by V. I. Rudoy, which in 1992
achieved the status of a Buddhist Studies task group within the Saint-Petersburg
division of the Oriental Studies Institute, Russian Academy of Sciences.
At present, it is made up of V. I. Rudoy (the Head of the group),
E. P. Ostrovskaya, and T. V. Ermakova. Rudoy was the first to start
a Buddhist Studies tradition guided by its own methodological principles
and based on a distinct strategy of conducting scientific research
over decades. One of the group's core scientific activities is to
translate and interpret Abhidharmakosha, a basic religious and philosophical
treatise of the Indian Buddhist tradition.
Today, Russian Buddhist
Studies, in Saint Petersburg in particular, is going through another
III. The Saint Petersburg
of Buddhism as a traditional religious belief of Russia is closely
connected with the construction of the first European Buddhist datsan(16)
in Saint Petersburg. The history of the Saint-Petersburg Buddhist
shrine is very dramatic and intriguing, mostly due to the fact that
the Russian Empire had always treated Buddhism as a religious belief
of ethnic minority groups. Orthodox Tsarist Russia was rather flexible
towards peoples who practiced other religions (like Islam, Judaism,
and Buddhism) in the sense that it did not hamper the evolution of
their religions and cultures. At the same time Russian Empire ideology
was always rooted in Orthodox Christianity.
The Saint Petersburg
Buddhist community at the beginning of the twentieth century
The construction of
the Buddhist datsan in Saint Petersburg, the capital of the Russian
Empire until 1917, was brought about by particular events and circumstances.
In the early twentieth century a large Buddhist ethnic community was
established in Saint Petersburg, which numbered hundreds of people.
The establishment of this Buddhist community went through several
phases. Thus, in 1869 there was only one Buddhist registered; a year
later in 1897 there were 75 Buddhists; and in 1910 there were 184
Buddhists. The core of the community was made up of Buryat and Kalmyk
people, natives of the traditional Buddhist territories of the Empire,
namely the Transbaikalia, Astrakhan, and Stavropol provinces. They
came from various social strata: college students, craftsmen, merchants,
low ranks of the Cossak military units quartered in Saint-Petersburg,
and so on.
In the early twentieth
century Kalmyk princes of the Tundutovs' and Tumens' clans settled
in the capital. The Tundutovs took an active part in the social life
of the city. The Russian nobles, public and political figures, attended
their fashionable, regularly held gatherings. There is some evidence
that Saint Petersburg Buryats and Kalmyks had an opportunity to repeatedly
petition the Emperor for permission to build a Buddhist temple, thanks
to the patronage of the Tundutovs' acquaintances.
The Orientalists majoring
in Buddhism and Buddhist culture played a pro-active role in settling
the issue. It should be noted, however, that they did not propagate
Buddhism themselves. Their primary concern was to set up a center
of Indian and Tibetan Spirituality and Culture within the datsan,
in order to have the opportunity to study and translate Buddhist texts
into Russian, with the direct help of Buddhist written record holders,
i.e., ordained religious masters.
The thirteenth Dalai
Lama Thubden Gyatso (1876-1933) and Agvan Lobsan Dorzhiev (1854-1938),
a Russian subject and the Dalai Lama's representative in Russia, demonstrated
their direct and immediate initiative to establish a Buddhist monastery
in Saint Petersburg. Dorzhiev managed to get imperial approval to
build the datsan and succeeded in raising the funds to employ the
best architects and craftsmen. Hence, it is no wonder that even today
in the twenty-first century, the Saint-Petersburg shrine is famous
worldwide for its beauty and originality.
Being a political
leader, scholar and propagator of Buddhism, Agvan Dorziev still mesmerizes
Buddhists and researchers as one of the most outstanding political
and cultural leaders of Tibetan Buddhism. Much of his life still remains
unknown to researchers, however this paper covers only those biographical
details that highlight his contribution to the establishment of the
Buddhist datsan in Saint Petersburg. A Khory Buryat by origin, at
the age of nineteen he left his homeland for Tibet to study in Drepung,
one of the largest of the Gelugpa monasteries. Having successfully
completed the traditional course of religious studies, he began the
academic Buddhist degree of Lharampa. He continued his studies to
become Tsanid-Hambo, or "Master of Buddhist Philosophy."
Dorzhiev's talents and profound knowledge won him a good reputation
and the respect of Tibet religious scholars. Soon he joined the staff
of the Dalai Lama's mentors. He was with the Dalai Lama for decades
without break when he finally became one of the most distinguished
religious and political figures of Tibet. In the late nineteenth and
early twentieth centuries England laid its military claim on Tibet.
The Tibetan religious and political administration was actively seeking
ways of rescuing the country from becoming a British colony. By that
time Dorzhiev had been appointed Minister of Foreign Affairs under
the administration of the Dalai Lama and the tough task of establishing
diplomatic ties with Russia fell to him.
It was Dorzhiev who
came up with the idea of establishing friendly ties with Russia, and
treating it as a potential protector of the Buddhist state. In 1898
Dorzhiev, acting as an official representative of the Dalai Lama,
passed the Tibet ruler's appeal to Nicholas II to establish diplomatic
relations and render assistance in the struggle against the military
aggressiveness of England and China. This appeal happened to parallel
the policy Russia was pursuing toward the eastern countries. Nevertheless,
the negotiations of 1901, held in Peterhoff Palace between Nicholas
II, the Tsar of All Russians, and the Tibetan delegation headed by
Dorzhiev did yield some results toward this end. In response to the
Dalai Lama's official appeal and generous gifts, the Russian monarch
promised Tibet his protection and expressed the desire to establish
a solid, friendly relationship between the countries. He entrusted
Dorzhiev with the official Russian reply and with gifts for the Dalai
The Tibetan delegation
returned to their homeland, except for Dorzhiev, who stayed in Saint
Petersburg to act as an official diplomatic representative of Tibet.
He did his best to strengthen and cement the ties between Tibet and
Russia. His major concern was to acquaint Russian intellectuals and
educated people with Buddhism and Buddhist culture, and to diffuse
accurate knowledge about Buddhist teachings among them. This allowed
him to raise more funds to build new monasteries in Buryatia and Kalmykia,
which would later serve as religious educational centers.
Since Dorzhiev was
appointed the Tibetan diplomatic representative to Russia, he was
persistently trying to promote the establishment of a Buddhist temple
in the capital of the Russian Empire. He became acquainted with Saint-Petersburg
Orientalists, and world-renowned Buddhist, Tibetan, and Mongolian
Studies scholars and artists like V V. Radlov, S. F. Oldenburg, F.
I. Stcherbatsky, H. K. Roerich, V. L. Kotovich, and A. D. Rudnev,
among others. Having enlisted support and received backing, Dorzhiev
entered into negotiations with Nicholas II to discuss the location
and architecture of the proposed temple.
In 1903 Dorzhiev went
back to Tibet to report on his activities both in Saint Petersburg
and in the Buddhist territories of the Russian Empire. By that time
Tibet's situation in the world arena had been considerably aggravated.
Having gained victory in the Anglo-Boer war in the south of Africa,
and having entered into alliance with Japan against Russia, England
launched a military invasion in Tibet. The Dalai Lama had to leave
the country for Mongolia, where he sought Russia's assistance through
the mediation of Dorzhiev, his diplomatic representative to Russia.
Through the years
that followed (1905-1907) Dorzhiev raised funds to build the Buddhist
datsan in Saint Petersburg, which was then viewed as a would-be residence
of the Tibet theocratic ruler in Russia. Having received imperial
approval, Dorzhiev tried to spark the interest of Saint Petersburg
and European scholars and artists in this undertaking.
However, the Russian
Orthodox Church was strongly against the establishment of the Buddhist
datsan in the capital of Russia. These protests gave rise to a wave
of church services and public prayers against the "pagans"
throughout the country, in Kiev, Kazan, Irkutsk, and so forth. The
Theological Department was flooded with petitions to repeal the approval
to build the datsan. The anti-Buddhist drive greatly slowed down construction
of the datsan, and led to the revision of the initial construction
plan in order to minimize Buddhist symbolism on the temple fronts.
all the difficulties, resistance, and counteraction, February 21,
1913 witnessed the first service held in the datsan. It was also the
year the Romanovs celebrated the 300 year anniversary of their rule.
Construction of the datsan was fully completed in 1914 and 1915. Nicholas
II confirmed the arrival that very year of a staff of clergy and nine
lamas. Three of them came from Tranzbailkalia, four from Astrakhan
province, and two from Stavropol province.
The second large Buddhist
service was held on June 9, 1914 for the consecration of two Thai
statues that were solemnly brought into the datsan. One of the statues
was a gilded copper figure of the Sitting Buddha Shakyamuni, a gift
from the King of Siam, Rama VI, Prince Vajiravuda. The other was a
molded bronze figure of the Standing Buddha Maitreya, stuffed with
plaster for sturdiness. It was a gift from G. A. Planson, from the
Russian Council in Bangkok.
August 10, 1915 saw
the consecration of the datsan. The datsan was given the name of Gunzechoinei,
or "The Source of the Buddha's Religious Teaching that Has Deep
Compassion for All Beings."
Construction of the
Buddhist datsan in Saint Petersburg
The construction of
this imposing building was rather fascinating. Once the architectural
design of the datsan was underway, Dorzhiev suggested taking a classical
Tibetan cathedral temple as its pattern. The temple was meant to be
a place for holding Buddhist services for Buryat, Kalmyk, and Tuvian
laity now residing in the city, and an educational center for would-be
Dorzhiev chose the
site of the future datsan, guided by the Buddhist construction canon.
Upon the Emperor's approval he bought a plot of land on the outskirts
of the city, on the northern bank of the Greater Nevka in Staraya
Derevnya, at the corner of Blagoveshenskaya ulitsa (now Primorsky
Prospect-Maritime Avenue) and Lipovaya Alley. This site met all the
requirements of the Buddhist construction canon. The building would
be located on the northern bank of the river, which served as a natural
boundary between the "lay" part of the city and the sacred
territory of the datsan. The woods surrounded the datsan on the south,
which more or less met the Buddhist requirement that the southern
walls of the datsan be protected by the mountains.
Since Dorzhiev's plans
were to establish a Buddhist educational center (datsan) for future
monks, the initial plan was to build a two-story temple and a residential
building next to it for disciples to live. The construction committee
consisted of academicians V. V. Radlov, F. I. Stcherbatsky, S. F.
Oldenburg; Architect and Expert in the field of Civil Engineering
G. V. Baranovsky; Prince E. E. Uhtomsky, a high Emperor official;
artists N. K. Roerich and V. P. Schneider; Orientalists V. L. Kotovich
and A. D. Rudnev, both of whom taught at the Saint Petersburg State
The Saint Petersburg
datsan was consistent with other Tibetan temples in consisting of
two parts: southern and northern. Its southern part, or the temple
pivot premises, was the place for the monks to gather and hold religious
services (khurals). It was a spacious room divided by the columns
into three naves. Light came from a glazed opening in the roof to
fall on the eight-petaled lotus made of tiles on the temple floor.
Such internal arrangements within the temple aimed to copy Tibetan
and Buddhist symbolism. The light that traditionally symbolized Knowledge
and Enlightenment was to stream down from the skies onto the Earth
to fill the lotus, a symbol of human consciousness on its way to Enlightenment.
It was to project in practitioners' minds an image of the attainment
of religious essence.
The massive altar
occupied a deep niche and faced the entrance of the ceremonial room.
The three meter tall Buddha statue was placed in the heart of the
altar. Small religious statues brought from Tibetan, Chinese, and
Mongolian sanctuaries occupied glass cases to the Buddha's left and
The throne for the
temple's religious Head (abbot) to sit on was placed right in front
of the altar. According to tradition, the temple superior should sit
on a dais, like the Buddha among his disciples, while services are
being held and sermons are being delivered. The height of the throne,
draped with the most exquisite and soft hand-made furnishings, indicated
that the temple superior, or any other highly educated monk, was a
representative of those religiously high ranking individuals solely
responsible for the preservation of the Buddhist written tradition
and its passing over from one generation to another.
In the central part
of the ceremonial room two rows of low benches lined the columns.
There were tables piled with sacred texts and ceremonial things. At
religious services ritual objects such as vadjras (bronze or silver
symbolic plates picturing ancient sacred arms), bells, and seashells
serving as sacred brass instruments were used. Some of these ceremonial
articles were ordered by Dorzhiev from Peking and Dolon Nura in Mongolia.
Others were made in the shop run by the Emperor's jeweler Nicholas
Linden in Saint Petersburg.
iconographic items) and religious flags that symbolize victory over
greed, ignorance, and the evil of death in the Buddhist doctrine,
were placed in the altar niche and among the columns.
The central part of
the second floor, located above the ceremonial room, was tiled with
glass and circled with small wood-partitioned cells. The cells were
designed for the religious masters permanently residing at the temple
and for visiting monks to stay in. They also stored Buddhist texts,
sacerdotal robes, thankas, musical instruments, and so forth.
The northern part
of the datsan, a four-story tower, was a small praying room. According
to the Buddhist construction canon, it was a sacred dwelling place
for the Buddhist deity who safeguarded the Teachings. Their statuettes
and the statues of the temple guards Mahakala and Lhamo were
As for the temple
architecture, the Oriental prototypes Tibetan, Mongolian and Buryat
datsans were considerably adjusted to suit the European modernist
style. The entrance hall and staircases in the southern part of the
datsan illustrated the European architectural approach, which was
most evident in the layout and choice of finish materials. Hence,
the datsan style differed greatly from Tibet patterns of temple construction.
The datsan fronts were finished with materials in full compliance
with the northern architectural canon: rock-face granite, as well
as decorative and glazed tiles. A modernist style was evident in the
temple interior as well, for example, in the strikingly beautiful
stained glass plafond, in rails decorated with Buddhist symbols, and
in the multicolored tiled floor of the ceremonial room.
As had been initially
planned, a four-story hostel for the religious disciples was built
outside the temple's stone walls.
The Buddhist clergy
chose to be a part of Russian and Saint Petersburg public life. The
years that followed the temple's opening witnessed mass prayers targeted
at helping the Russians gain victory in World War I.
The Buddhist datsan
in the 1920s and 1930s
The history of the
temple, which was never used as the thirteenth Dalai Lama's residence
or great Buddhist Theological Academy, is rather complicated and confusing.(17)
The defeat of Russia in the Russian-Japanese war led to the country's
failure to render assistance to Tibet, and to the Dalai Lama being
denied the right to come to Saint Petersburg. After the October Revolution
of 1917, or to be more exact, the fall of 1919, the Red Army unit
was quartered in the datsan, driving the monks out of Saint Petersburg.
It should be pointed
out that the religious situation in Russia was rather complicated
and confusing until 1929. In 1929 a law was adopted that imposed a
ban on propagating and practicing any religious belief in the country.
Back in 1918 the government had issued the Decree that broke off the
long-existing ties. It separated the Russian Orthodox Church from
the State and cut off the educational system from the Church. The
Decree of 1918 did not directly ban religion within the country.(18)
Its primary concern was to reduce the ideological impact and influence
of religious institutions. However, this Decree had little to do with
Buddhism at that time. The new government treated Buddhism as a means
to ideologically consolidate the ethnic Buddhist minorities of Russia.
This was possible thanks to a new political movement that sprang up
amongst Buryat lamas. They called themselves Buddhist Modernists,
and interpreted Buddhism as an atheistic doctrine relating to Marxism-Leninism.
According to Buddhist Modernists, Buddhism, just like Marxism-Leninism,
granted equal rights to all the people no matter what their origin
or social status was, and no matter what ethnic group they belonged
to. Above all, it was emphasized that Buddhism denied classes and
castes. The Congress of Soviet Buddhists was held in winter of 1927
in Buryatia, under Dorzhiev's direction. The congress delegates discussed
the possibility of uniting Buddhism and Communism. Thus, the Buddhist
lamas' loyalty to the new government and Dorzhiev's intense activity
made it possible to propagate Buddhism, set up new monasteries, and
so forth, in the first decade after the October revolution of 1917.
In Buryatia, Kalmykia, and Tuva the candidates for the Communist movement
were sought among students of Buddhist monasteries. At the same time
there was a great increase both in the numbers of Buddhist adherents
and newly established Buddhist monasteries. Buryatia counted 34 monasteries
and 15,000 lamas. In 1928 there were 119 secondary schools and seventy-three
schools for Buddhist monks. In 1916 Kalmykia had seventy monasteries
and 1,600 lamas. The latter greatly increased in number to 2,840 in
1923. In 1929 Tuva counted twenty-two Buddhist monasteries and approximately
2,000 monks from an overall population of 60,000 people. Thus, the
Decree of 1918 mainly affected the religious centers of Saint Petersburg
The datsan was temporary
closed in 1919. The Buryat lamas who lived in the temple left the
city. The Buddhist library was vandalized and destroyed. These acts
desecrated the shrine and raised Dorzhiev's strong protest, and he
appealed to the People's Commissariat of Foreign Affairs for help.
It should be emphasized that the regular Buddhist clergy was not directly
persecuted at that time (the 1920s) and was not prohibited from holding
religious services in the temple. In 1922 the People's Commissariat
of Foreign Affairs ordered the Red Army unit to leave the datsan premises
and the local authorities helped to restore the building. The temple
land was registered as its property. However, no services were held
due to its understaffed clergy.
The operation of the
datsan was closely connected with Dorzhiev's intense political and
religious activity. He was among the most pro-active propagators of
so-called "Buddhist Modernism" in Russia. The Soviet Government
tried to patronize the Asian people who took to Marxism-Leninism,
especially in Mongolia and Tibet. Dorzhiev, who was respected by the
highest lamas of Russia, was appointed Tibet's representative to Soviet
Russia and became an authorized diplomat. He set up a Mongolian mission
at the Saint Petersburg datsan, which viewed its core task as cultural
In 1926 the temple
was handed down to Mongolia, as part of the heritage equally shared
by Tibet and Mongolia. The year 1927 marked the revival of religious
ceremonies held on great religious days by Mongolian and Tibetan monks.
In the 1930s the Gunzechoinei datsan was more of a Buddhist cultural
center in Leningrad (the Soviet name for Saint Petersburg) than an
educational center for would-be religious masters. The first All-Union
Buddhist gathering took place in January 1927 in Moscow, to decide
about converting the Leningrad datsan into the residence of the All-Union
Religious Board of the Soviet Buddhists. So, in the late 1920 and
early 1930s the Leningrad datsan became an arena of fruitful cooperation
of Buddhologists and Buddhist religious masters from Buryatia and
Kalmykia. The four-story building that used to be a hostel for religious
disciples now provided lodging for the students of the Institute of
the Contemporary Oriental Languages: Buryats, Kalmyks, and Mongols.
Academician F. I. Stcherbatsky founded the Institute of Buddhist Culture
in 1927. The Buryat and Kalmyk religious masters who stayed in the
datsan were advisors to the Institute, due to their knowledge of the
This short period
wherein the datsan resumed its activities was over in 1929 with the
adoption of the law banning religion in Russia. Mass media widely
propagandized this law. Leagues of Militant Atheists were set up throughout
the country to spread the ideas of Science Atheism. The Leagues also
focused on making it clear to the people that Buddhism and Marxist
teachings would never integrate. For example, such a League was set
up in Buryatia to reveal the threat of Buddhism and the falsity of
its philosophy. This period was marked by the intensive persecution
of the Buddhist monks and the closing of the monasteries.(20)
The toughest time
for those who either practiced Buddhism, propagated it, took a deep
interest in Buddhist culture, or conducted scientific research on
it, started in the mid 1930s with the Epoch of Stalin's Terror and
Repression. Starting 1933, no religious services were held in the
temple, and the year 1935 brought a wave of arrests of the Buddhist
masters currently staying in Leningrad. In 1934 Dorzhiev was exiled
from Buryatia to Leningrad, where he was arrested in 1937. A year
later he died in a prison hospital in Ulan-Ude. Starting from the
late 1930s the temple passed from one institution over to another,
never being used for religious purposes. This situation lasted until
the late 1980s, only to dramatically change in the early 1990s. The
Law on Liberty of Conscience and Freedom of Religions, and Saint Petersburg
Buddhist followers' efforts targeted at taking back their shrine greatly
contributed to the Gunzechoinei datsan becoming the heart of Buddhist
culture in the northern capital of Russia.
IV. Buddhism in Saint
Petersburg During the Late Twentieth and Early Twenty-first Centuries
The religious Renaissance
that started in Russia in the late 1980s was a result of fundamental
changes in the state political doctrine. The Law on Freedom of Religions
was adopted in the early 1990s. It should be pointed out that the
Law of 1929 was re-issued without any changes in 1975 and was in force
The Law on Liberty
of Conscience and Freedom of Religions (1990-1997)
When in 1990 the Supreme
Council of the Russian Federation adopted the Law on Freedom of Religions,
foreign Christian and non-Christian missionaries flooded the country.
The law did not restrict in any way the registration of the religious
groups and movements set up with the local authorities by foreign
missionaries. The Law of 1990 followed the stipulations of the Universal
Declaration of Human Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights.
According to the Constitution (Clause 28) and the Law of 1990, the
citizens of Russia, as well as foreigners, enjoyed the right to adopt
and practice the religion of their choice, as well as to form associations
that can acquire status as legal entities. The Law did not draw a
clear-cut distinction between foreign religions and those traditional
to Russia. 1990-1996 witnessed the revival of the religions that were
practiced in Russia for centuries. At the same time, new religious
movements, psychocults, and intensive conversion of the Russian citizens
to non-traditional religions brought about the need to introduce some
restrictions on the propagation of these non-traditional religions,
and to register the religious groups formed by foreign missionaries.
The Law on Liberty of Conscience was adopted in September of 1997.
The new law signified a radical departure from the spirit and concept
of the Law of 1990. This Law favored the role of the Russian Orthodox
Church as an "inseparable part of the all-Russian historical,
spiritual and cultural heritage" and mentions the state's recognition
of Islam, Buddhism, Judaism, and other religions that "traditionally
existed in the Russian Federation" (the Preamble).
Buddhist convert communities
at the turn of the century
Along with the re-birth
of the Saint-Petersburg datsan, the early 1990s marked the springing
up of various Buddhist convert communities that propagated autonomous
religious forms free from clergy. The majority of these were established
by religious Western convert teachers. The communities founded by
Ole Nidal, Namkhay Norbu, and Russian Buddhists who studied in India
and Nepal were widely known and popular. The community members considered
themselves to be Buddhist laypeople. As for the datsan, they went
there only to attend lectures delivered by traditional religious masters
from Nepal, India, Taiwan, and Sri Lanka. The birth of these Buddhist
convert communities, which did not associate their religious life
with services held in the Saint Petersburg datsan, constituted a highly
extraordinary phenomenon at the turn of the century.(21)
The convert communities
claimed to be autonomous from both the Gelugpa tradition and the Buryat
Buddhism propagated by the datsan. I would like to stress the fact
that the Saint Petersburg datsan, in its history, has never functioned
as a monastery or as an educational center over a long period of time.
The datsan had its own monastic community for several years only,
from 1989 through 1996. At this time the community abbot tried to
introduce Buddhist practices and ceremonies for laypeople, as well
as religious curriculum for would-be monks. Since 1996 a fierce struggle
between the Buryat Buddhist monastic community and Buddhist converts
living in the datsan has taken place. This never-ending war prevented
the datsan from becoming a sacral place for those who would like to
follow the Buddha's path.(22)