Buddhist Perseverance in Russia
In retrospect, the 1920s were for the Buddhists of the Soviet Union a period of renaissance and calm before the blunt instrument of Stalinist repression crushed them in the 1930s. Under Dorjiev's leadership new monasteries were built in both Buryatia and Kalmykia. In January 1927 a Congress of Soviet Buddhists was held in Moscow. Speakers emphasized the similarities between Buddhism and Communism and even sent a letter to the Dalai Lama praising Soviet policy. Some of Dorjiev's more enthusiastic followers proclaimed that the spirit of the Buddha animated Lenin and that the Buddha rather than Marx was the true founder of Communism.
The turning point came in 1929, when Stalin, having consolidated his power, embarked on the repressions and purges that, by his death in 1953, were to have claimed the lives of as many as thirty to forty million people. Henceforth, Buddhism was viewed as just another weapon of oppression used by the unscrupulous ruling classes, and anybody found still harboring such beliefs was liable to be arrested. The lamas in Buryatia and Kalmykia were charged not only with betraying the class struggle but also with being either "in service of Japanese militarism" or engaged in "fermenting pan-Mongolism." The monasteries were systematically closed.
The worst was still to come. Following the 1934 assassination of Kirov, the amiable Leningrad political leader, Stalin unleashed the full fury of his terror. Within the next three years most of the remaining lamas in Buryatia were arrested and either imprisoned or shot. Dorjiev was arrested in 1937 and died the following year in a prison in Ulan Ude. At the outbreak of World War II, the Buddhist swastika was dutifully removed from the floor of the Leningrad temple and the building was turned into a radio-jamming station.
Following his arrest (together with that of his wife and two young children) in 1937, Bidiya Dandaron, the young Buryat tulku and student of aeronautical engineering, was transferred to a camp in Siberia. His wife was released but died a few months later from tuberculosis. Dandaron was tortured—the scars from a cavalry saber remained until his death—and settled down to what was to be the first of his twenty-two years of imprisonment.
Although Dandaron would later refer to his time in the prison camps as "nineteen years of Stalin's drudgery," his time there was not wasted. After all, the best surviving minds in Russia were locked up together in Siberia. Dandaron brought to the camps a combination of yogic intuition, which had been nurtured in him from the time of his birth, fluency in classical Mongolian and Tibetan, which he had studied with the monks of the local monasteries, and a sharp scientific intellect. Against the oppressive backdrop of imprisonment, he managed to sustain and deepen his practice of meditation, continue his Buddhist studies through discussion with other incarcerated lamas, and offer instruction to any who sought insight or solace through the Buddha's teaching. For twenty years Buddhism in Russia hung on by the most tenuous of threads in, of all places, the Gulag Archipelago.
In 1944, Dandaron was released from prison to the relative comfort of internal exile and worked as a record keeper in a paper mill. But in 1947 he was again denounced, arrested, and sentenced to a further ten years in the camps. Now in his mid-thirties, he increasingly assumed the role of teacher and counselor, leading groups in Buddhist philosophy and meditation as well as writing articles and books. Finally, in 1955, he was released and rehabilitated in Buryatia, where he was appointed as a research officer at the Buryat Institute of Social Sciences in Ulan Ude, responsible for cataloguing the huge number of Tibetan and Mongolian texts that had been deposited there on the closure of the monasteries.
Two years later, the seemingly more liberal climate of Khrushchev's Russia lured back home from thirty-eight years of exile the eminent Buddhologist George Nikolaievich Roerich. Roerich was renowned as one of the world's leading experts in the field of Tibetan and Mongolian studies. On his return he was appointed as the first director of the Buddhist branch of the Institute of Oriental Studies in Moscow, and his arrival there stimulated a vigorous new wave of Buddhological research. In 1958, Dandaron met Roerich and the two men decided to collaborate. All of a sudden Buddhist texts started being translated again and articles appeared in scholarly journals discussing problems of Buddhist philosophy.
Unlike some westernized Buryat intellectuals, Dandaron was not interested merely in providing information about his native culture and religion; he was a practicing yogin and lama, concerned with passing on the Buddhist traditions of which he was one of the very few surviving practitioners. By 1965, a circle of disciples had gathered around him, including an increasing number of Europeans who would travel many days by train across the Soviet Union to Ulan Ude to spend time in his company. He attracted a diverse group of men and women, united by a common despair about the materialism of the Soviet system and a profound need to discover a spiritual dimension to their lives.
Dandaron was no romantic who rejected the contemporary world in order to dream of a long-lost, idealized past. According to his disciple Alexander Piatigorsky, he "worked on the interpretation of the main propositions of Buddhist philosophy so as to enrich and develop modern scientific thought. At the same time he worked on an interpretation of a number of basic propositions of modern philosophical and scientific thinking so as to give them meaning in the context and spirit of Buddhism." Dandaron combined this intellectual enquiry with traditional Tibetan Buddhist meditation training and, in particular, Vajrayana practice, instructing his students in the sadhanas, or spiritual disciplines, of the Anuttara yoga tantras ("supreme yoga tantras") and engaging with them, sometimes using forceful and eccentric methods, to shock them out of their habitual attitudes. He used to say that it was not they who were coming to him in Ulan Ude but Buddhism that was going West.