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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Tension at the Temple

ULAN UDE, Eastern Siberia -- Outwardly, the Ivolginsk monastery is the picture of tranquility. Like a tiny jewel on a vast cloth, the pagoda-roofed temple of the official headquarters of Russian Buddhism sits on a broad plain surrounded by low mountains just south of Buryatia's capital, Ulan Ude. The only sounds are the wind and the occasional barking dog.

Yet all is not peaceful in Russian Buddhism. While the religious minority is undergoing a post-Soviet revival after years of oppression, freedom has brought new conflicts that threaten to deter Buddhists from focusing on worship and rebuilding their temples. A power struggle is under way between one Buddhist leader, Damba Ausheyev, and Buryatia's president, Leonid Potapov, with the religious leader arguing that it's time religion stopped bowing to the state. The two sides clashed in a dramatic confrontation last summer when baton-wielding police charged through a group of Buddhists protesting a government plan to take overseas a rare Tibetan medicine book from an Ulan Ude museum.

Meanwhile the Buddhist community itself has split with the emergence of a rival faction criticizing the religious practices of Ausheyev who heads the largest group - the Traditional Buddhist Sangha of Russia - and the successor to the state-controlled Soviet Buddhist organization. "This is a tragedy for all of us," said one Buddhist clergyman, or lama, of the feud between Ausheyev and Potapov. "The clergy should be concentrating on deepening the spiritual basis of Russian Buddhism, not fighting over jurisdiction."

The animosity between Potapov and Ausheyev started with a dispute over protocol, said the lama, who didn't want to be identified. As the head of a national religious organization, Ausheyev expected Potapov - head of a mere republic - to call on him. As president of the Republic of Buryatia, on the other hand, Potapov expected Ausheyev to drive up the road from the monastery south of town to his office in the town square, the lama said.

Whether or not such a minor debate started the power struggle, for Ausheyev, the focus of his fight against Potapov is now a battle for religious autonomy. Taking a break from services at his residence at the Ivolginsk monastery, Ausheyev accused the Potapov government of ruling with the old mentality, from the days when the Soviet state strictly controlled religion and a member of the clergy was "a third-class citizen." "I, as a Buddhist, must defend our sacred things," said Ausheyev, swathed in wine-colored robes. "That is unequivocal. If I consider my own life, I must say that a holy thing is more important than my own life for Buddhism."

At 36, Ausheyev is just old enough to remember the Soviet Union's repressive ways. Two monasteries, both in Buryatia, were allowed to reopen after World War II, and operated under the auspices of TsDUB, the Soviet acronym for Central Agency of Buddhists. Although there are two other traditional Buddhist areas in Russia, Tuva in Central Asia and Kalmykia on the Caspian Sea, the Soviet government found it convenient to have only one Buddhist group to oversee. Buryatia had a flourishing Buddhist culture before the 1917 Revolution, but in the 1930s, the Soviet authorities ransacked and closed the Buddhist temples and packed thousands of lamas off to labor camps.

Ausheyev defied the officially atheist system in 1983, when, as a physical education teacher in the adjacent Chita region of his birth, he applied to seek a religious education in Ulaanbataar, capital of Mongolia, then under Soviet domination. Open believers in religion were barred from many professions, including teaching other than at seminaries and other religious institutions.

Of the 20 applicants who took the exam, Ausheyev was the one the authorities permitted to attend the Buddhist institute. His area of specialization: Tibetan medicine, which he practiced for seven years after his return before his election as pandido hamba lama, or senior clergyman, by his fellow lamas in 1995. "Many of my colleagues did not understand me, my relatives too," Ausheyev said. "There was no road back, and I knew that very well. If I had failed at the institute, I could not have gone back to the school. The director would have said, no place for you here, friend, teaching children."

After the Soviet Union collapsed, Buddhism experienced a sudden upsurge in interest, much as did Orthodox Christianity. Temples reopened, Buddhist authorities published books and new clergy and monks entered religious life. The euphoria, for a while, obscured the extent of the damage. Levels of religious knowledge and observance had fallen. Most of the current lamas studied at the Ulan Bator institute, where Lama Bair Ochonov, former rector of the institute at Ivolginsk monastery, says the curriculum is "abbreviated and insufficient." Funds were short to restore and build temples, and jurisdiction questions sprang up with the end of centralized control.

Now, there are 160 Buddhist groups - most of them small and scattered - registered with the Justice Ministry. Buryatia remains the center of the faith with about one third of Russia's 1 million Buddhists and as home to the headquarters of the Traditional Sangha. Russians make up 67 percent of the republic's population of 1 million, and ethnic Buryats - who are traditionally Buddhist - about 27 percent. In addition to Orthodox Christians and Buddhists, there is the shamanist religion of the Buryats, which predated the arrival of Buddhism and in some aspects blended with it, creating a unique local mix, although the Buryats' Buddhism is based on the Tibetan tradition.

If Ausheyev's views are shaped by his past, so are those of Potapov. Although he became a Communist, Potapov's parents were Old Believers - a group of Christians who split with the Orthodox Church in 1666, many later fleeing to Siberia to escape tsarist persecution and preserve their highly traditional lifestyle. Potapov, 67, grew up in the only Russian family in a Buryat village, and so is one of the few Russians who can speak more than a few words in the Buryat language. It's a talent he flourishes, delivering New Year's greetings on television in both languages, though one Buryat resident said Potapov's pronunciation made him wince.

The republic's Communist boss during Soviet times, Potapov still retains the authoritative manner of a typical party first secretary with a booming voice and strong personality. "Don't stick your nose into state activities," Potapov said, referring to Ausheyev's protest against the submission of the Tibetan medicine book to museums abroad, during an interview in his office on Ulan Ude's central square, the world's largest head of Lenin towering four stories high outside. The book is government property, Potapov said, and if Ausheyev disagrees, he should go to court, not picket. "He should be a reasonable person and stop meddling in state business, nothing more, and behave reasonably as a clergyman."

Ausheyev counters that the book - a stunningly illustrated textbook of traditional medicine, also known as a medical "atlas" - is a sacred treasure belonging to the Buddhist community. It is an early 20th-century copy of a 17th-century book whose original has been lost, and contains 76 canvas pages depicting human anatomy and medicinal plants. The only other copy, and a partial one at that, is in Tibet, where the Chinese authorities do not permit it to be displayed. Until the 1930s, the book was kept in a Buryatia temple. The Soviet government confiscated the atlas when it closed the monasteries and moved the book to the Museum of the History of Tibet in Ulan Ude. When the museum agreed to send it for a year long tour to the United States, the lama and his followers rebelled, asserting that the negotiations with the exhibit organizers were conducted in secret and did not guarantee the return of the book. The government denies those charges.

In early May, the day before the scheduled departure of the atlas, students and a few lamas from Ivolginsk, including Ausheyev, formed a picket line around the museum. The following day, police broke through the line, beating some of the protesters with batons, and entered the museum. The police then loaded three large wooden boxes containing pages from the atlas onto a military truck with concealed license plates. Local prosecutors accused Ausheyev of obstructing police, but eventually dropped the charges. "They are trying to intimidate me," Ausheyev said. "They will not succeed."

With the June 21 presidential elections approaching, the removal of the atlas turned into a political scandal. Inquiries about police behavior came from State Duma deputies in Moscow and from the Interior Ministry, which took no action against the police. And there was negative news coverage, with local television showing film of the incident, and the Moscow-based Kommersant Vlast weekly pronouncing Potapov politically dead for using force against the Buddhists.

But the president rallied. Eager to shore up his reputation among the traditionally Buddhist Buryats, Potapov turned to Ausheyev's competitor in spiritual matters, Lama Nimazhap Ilyukhinov, head of the main rival group, Spiritual Agency of Buddhists of Russia. A critic of Ausheyev's "national Buddhist" tendencies, as Ilyukhinov calls it, Ilyukhinov believes Ausheyev and his followers should be more open to exchanges with Buddhists in other regions and countries. He also disagrees with Ausheyev's confrontational tactics with authority and supported Potapov in the election. When Potapov registered his candidacy, Ilyukhinov presented him with a ceremonial white scarf, a traditional blessing, in pictures shown on television and in the local newspapers.

Potapov also exploited the role played in the atlas dispute by the most famous Buddhist in the world - the Dalai Lama, whose picture hangs everywhere in Ulan Ude, including in offices, taxi cabs and bars. The Dalai Lama had written a letter to the Russian government, urging that the atlas be made available for display abroad so that a wider audience could see it. Potapov's campaign advertising showed a copy of the atlas given to him by the Dalai Lama with a friendly inscription.

Defying the predictions of political analysts, Potapov was easily re-elected with 63 percent of the vote. Some observers suggest that the president shrewdly encouraged the split among the Buddhists to maintain his political power. Potapov courted Ilyukhinov "because he was preparing for presidential elections and it was important for him to have Buddhist support. ... It was ... his desire to preserve his power," said Igor Pronkinov, who ran campaign headquarters for losing presidential candidate Vladimir Saganev.

Asked if he favored one side or another in the Buddhist split, Potapov laughed. "That would be a big mistake on my part. Let them decide themselves," he said. But he indicated he was willing to recognize Ilyukhinov's group as "another branch" of Buddhism - sort of like the difference, he said, between the major groups of Christians, like Old Believers and the Orthodox.

One reason Potapov was re-elected, said Pronkinov, is that while Buryats reacted with dismay to the beating of the protesters, they remain politically passive. "Our people respect authority too much," said Pronkinov, who is a Buryat. "They say there are three thiangs a shaman cannot go against - fire, water and authority, because authority is from God."

Ilyukhinov, in contrast to Ausheyev, agrees to some extent with such a philosophy of taking the middle ground. In an interview in his modest headquarters, a small temple located in a market building in Ulan Ude, he said that Ausheyev should be more cooperative with the authorities and devote his energies to raising the current levels of monastic observance. Each monastery should have at least four full-fledged, celibate monks who spend a mandatory 45-day period in isolation every year, for example. But not all monasteries fulfill that quota.

Ochinov, the former Ivolginsk rector, thinks a desire for control over the community, not a difference in opinion over religious affairs, is behind the rivalry between the two lamas. "Each is trying to form their own structure to gain political influence over Buddhism in Russia," he said.

So far, the dispute between the two lamas and the involvement of the president, isn't of much interest to the ordinary Buryat Buddhist. It is less important for Buddhists to have a central authority to look to than it is for Roman Catholics or Orthodox Christians, who owe allegiance to a leading bishop. Buryatia's form of Buddhism draws on the tantric tradition of the religion, in which a personal relationship with an individual spiritual teacher matters more than allegiance to a central headquarters. And a typical resident's worship doesn't go much beyond attending ceremonies at temples on Buddhist holy days and offering prayers at a small altar at home.

But Ochinov worries the feud could damage the general process of reviving Buddhism in Russia where the younger generation in traditional communities as well as some ethnic Russians are learning about the faith for the first time. "There is no need for a central power that might repress others," Ochinov said. "The dispute could undermine the interest in religion among new adherents. It's a very negative thing."

It's difficult to tell just how many supporters each of the two groups have. Most say that the bulk of the 19 monasteries in Buryatia acknowledge Ausheyev, as do most of the lay people in the republic. A conference in April among followers of the Traditional Sangha to change its bylaws drew 127 lamas and laypersons, said Boris Dundakov, Ausheyev's press secretary. By contrast, the midsummer meeting held by Ilyukhinov's group drew only about a dozen lamas, he said.

Yet Ilyukhinov supporters recently won control of the important St. Petersburg temple, a stately turn-of-the-century building on Primorsky Prospekt, driving out Ausheyev's supporters. Since there is no Buddhist temple in Moscow, the insurgents thus have what is arguably the most visible piece of Buddhist religious property in the country. Pronkinov, the former campaign staffer, said that Ilyukhinov's supporters within Buryatia did not extend much beyond his friends and family, but that he has substantial support among Buddhists trying to revive their religion in the two other former strongholds, Kalmykia and Tuva.

With such turmoil at the top, it is unlikely that Buryatia's ordinary worshippers and the peaceful temples that dot the region's plains can remain untouched by the feud much longer.