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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Buddhist Russia Undergoes Revival




ULAN-UDE, Eastern Siberia -- Saffron-robed and driving a BMW, Humbo, the deputy chief Buddhist monk of Russia arrives in a leafy suburb of Ulan-Ude, the capital of the autonomous Russian republic of Buryatia.


In this vast land, flanked by Mongolia, Humbo's morning task is to chant a mantra to exorcise the spirit of a man who had hanged himself after a vodka binge. Then he's off to read health horoscopes to Buryats and Russians who travel huge distances with questions ranging from why they have a fever to whether they can expect a safe childbirth.


Since the collapse of communism, Buryatia has experienced a huge Buddhist revival. Only two Buddhist monasteries survived the Soviet era, but residents have financed the construction of 30 monasteries, known as datsans, in the past five years. In Ulan-Ude, a Buddhist center offering courses on medicine, philosophy and religious instruction is about to open.


Once strictly out-of-bounds for foreigners because of the region's proximity to the Mongolian border, Buryatia's datsans today are abuzz with monks from India, Mongolia and most recently from Tibet. The Dalai Lama is set to visit for a third time this year. Parents are now sending their sons to the monasteries for education and are themselves flocking to temples on weekends to leave money at the foot of portraits of the Dalai Lama and Buddha.


"They couldn't worship under communism. They couldn't study Buddhism or say they are involved. Now they come in droves," said Rimbould, an elderly monk who moved here from Tibet four years ago.


The Buryats are an Asiatic people who traditionally practice the Tibetan North Mahayana branch of Buddhism. They comprise a quarter of Buryatia's population of 1 million.


Ivolginsk Datsan, a monastery surrounded by sandalwood trees near Ulan-Ude that boasts two temples, is the focal point of the revival. Buryats, as well as Russians, have come here from across the republic to learn Tibetan and study Buddhism.


"Unlike the Orthodox Church, Buddhism is a way of life. It's your own religion. It's with you in everything you do," said Oksana Kilishapova, from Voronezh in southern Russia.


But while the Buryats rush to the temples, there are also signs of corruption. Empty vodka bottles line the rooms of some of the most senior monks even though drinking is frowned upon according to religious teachings. Monks tell fortunes for large bundles of rubles. At lunch time, monastic elders can be seen in Ulan-Ude's top restaurant, proposing marriage to young girls. Photographing the vividly decorated temples is forbidden, but Boris, the monk at the door, will let you take a snap if you slip him a dollar.


Before perestroika, KGB agents sat in cars near the entrances to datsans, noting anyone who took the risk of visiting a monastery. "I was unable to enter the monastery as I had always wanted," recalled Banza, 25, who two years ago returned from studying Buddhism in Burma. "I was refused a place in the university because I had expressed an interest in Buddhism and had to work in a factory."


In the 1930s the majority of Buryatia's monks were declared enemies of the people and taken to labor camps. Buddhism had been an officially recognized religion in pre-Revolutionary Russia, but under Stalin, all but two of the region's 46 monasteries and 150 temples were closed.


"In 1937, I was taken to a labor camp with 300 other monks from the monastery. I was there for 18 years," said Shalga Orabhanov, 87, lifting his shirt to reveal how lumps of flesh had been removed from his armpits as part of experimental surgical operations at the camp. "I nearly died. Everyone else did. I was the only one who returned."


As the Buddhist revival gains ground, so too are political movements calling for the Russian government to apologize for what some refer to as the genocide of the estimated 30,000 Buryats who died in the camps.