Buddhist Perseverance in Russia
YET THE LEGACY OF STALINIST intolerance still festered in the air. On September 19, 1972, Dandaron was arrested once again, this time accused of running an illegal Buddhist sect that practiced animal sacrifice and ritual sex, attempted to murder anyone who sought to leave, and had ties with international Zionism. Shortly afterward four of his European disciples in Buryatia as well as numerous Buddhist scholars throughout the Soviet Union were arrested and interrogated on grounds of being implicated in his "cult." Although charges against the scholars were dropped, the four disciples were declared insane and dispatched to psychiatric hospitals. Many others of his circle, including relatives, were declared "morally unsuitable" and consequently lost their jobs. Dandaron's writings were confiscated by the KGB and disappeared.
One might have expected such bizarre accusations to have rallied Dandaron's fellow Buryats around him, to have raised him up as an innocent victim of KGB oppression against persecuted minorities. But although faceless officials in Moscow were doubtless at the root of this farce, they had no difficulty in persuading the local Buryats, even his colleagues at the institute, to denounce him and to testify against him. "They hated him," recalls Piatigorsky, "precisely because he belonged to their spiritual tradition, which they themselves had repudiated. . . . Dandaron, as it were, served as the living reminder of their apostasy from their former culture." The local paper, Buryaad Unen, commented: "If we look carefully at the members of Dandaron's group we can see that they are all as bad as each other—questionable, suspicious individuals. They have no conscience, no honor, . . . no notion of fatherland, of family, they are true vagrants, capable of anything to get money. In reality they do not believe in Buddhism but are hiding their dark deeds behind religion." Thus the KGB, anxious to stamp out a growing spiritual movement among Russian intellectuals, successfully manipulated local Buryat prejudices to achieve its ends.
In court, Dandaron was portrayed as a drunken profligate and speculator in Buddhist antiquities who cynically exploited the gullibilities of others in order to be worshiped by them. In the end, on December 25, 1972, he was found guilty on two counts: infringing the person and rights of a citizen under the guise of carrying out religious ceremonies, and financial opportunism. Sentenced to five years' hard labor, he survived less than two years in a corrective labor camp on the shores of Lake Baikal. The official cause of his death on October 26, 1974, was given as pneumonia and a brain tumor. He was buried near the camp, and his relatives were not allowed to exhume the body.
YET EVEN AS THE AGING DANDARON languished in a Siberian camp, another movement was underway that disseminated Buddhism in European Russia. This was the hugely effective samizdat (underground) publication of contemporary Buddhist writings, which were translated anonymously from English into Russian and circulated among a network of contacts in carbon and Xerox copies. These books began appearing in the late 1960s with the works of D. T. Suzuki and Alan Watts on Zen, and those of W. Y. Evans-Wentz, Alexandra David-Neel, and Lama Anagarika Govinda on Tibetan Buddhism. By the late 70s interest and demand was such that only three to four months would elapse between publication of a Buddhist book in the West and its appearance in a Russian samizdat edition. One widely circulated title was Dandaron's Thoughts of a Buddhist, a presentation of Tibetan lamrim (stages of the path) teachings in modern Russian, concluding with an introduction to the Vajrayana. Plans are now under way to publish the text in Ulan Ude.
Forbidden to travel to India or Japan to develop their interest in Buddhism, a few young Russians started making the long trek to Buryatia in hopes of finding lamas there. After the war, the authorities had allowed the establishment of two monasteries: Ivolginski near Ulan Ude and Aginski near Chita. A handful of lamas who had survived the camps were permitted to live and conduct ceremonies there. This allowed the Soviet Union to present showcase monasteries to the outside world as well as to send representatives to international Buddhist conferences. By the time the first curious Russians arrived in the mid-70s, they were received by a handful of old monks, who, despite their age, agreed to teach them. In this way, European Russians succeeded in establishing contact with living teachers from both the yogic and scholastic lines of their own indigenous Buddhist traditions in Buryatia.
In 1985, with glasnost and perestroika in the air, the trickle of Russians traveling to Buryatia to study Buddhism increased dramatically. Buddhist teachers from such diverse places as the United States, Korea, and India began to visit and teach in the Soviet Union, and in 1987 the Fourteenth Dalai Lama stopped off in Leningrad en route to Mongolia. Symbolically, the most significant recent event has been the return of Agvan Dorjiev's temple in St. Petersburg to the Buddhist community in the city. In November 1989, Tenzin-Khetsun Samayev, a young Buryat lama recently ordained by the Dalai Lama in India, was appointed as abbot, and in January 1991 he settled in. A month later the statute of the Datsan Kuntsechoney (Dharma Place of Wisdom and Kindness, the name originally given by Dorjiev) was officially registered.
Except for the spire missing from the top, the temple looks much as it did at the time of Dorjiev. Although rather shabby, the boardinghouse where Ostov Budayev was arrested in 1937 still stands next door. No longer an elegant avenue with horse-drawn carriages, Primorski Prospekt now rumbles with the noise of trucks, buses, and cars. The view across the road, over the broad, still canal to the wooded park on Eliagin Island is largely unchanged from what Dorjiev and his monks would have seen.
On entering the building one is struck by fragments of its former grandeur: metalworked lotus leaves at the base of the dark red marble columns in the portico, carved wooden lintels around the doors, painted motifs high and inaccessible at the tops of pillars, stained-glass representations of the eight symbols of good fortune. Yet the overriding impression is one of disrepair and abandon. Crude scaffolding props up perilous ceilings. The bureaucratic gray and yellow paint slapped over the vivid Tibetan colors is blistered and peeling. The concrete stairwells are dank and cold. The main hall is bereft of either sculpted or painted images. Only on closer inspection does one find a color snapshot of the Gelugpa Assembly Tree on a makeshift altar. In addition to Abbot Samayev, eighteen young Buryat novices, their bright red robes the only signs of warmth and comfort, live in bare rooms on the upper stories. Although a poster on the wall proudly declares celebrations to mark 1991 as the 250th anniversary of Buddhism in Russia, like everyone else in St. Petersburg today the monks have barely enough to eat.
Stephen Batchelor's books include The Faith to Doubt: Glimpses of Buddhist Uncertainty (Parallax Press). An expanded version of "The Trials of Dandaron" will appear in his book on Buddhism in Europe, currently in progress.
Images (top to bottom)
Illustration by Milton Glaser
Map of Union of Soviet Socialist Republic (no artistic credit given)
Bidiya Dandaron, Courtesy of Stephen Batchelor
The Kalachakra Temple in St. Petersburg, courtesy of Ellen Pearlsman
Agvan Dorjiev (1854- 1938) © Alexander Andreev/ Courtesy of Ellen Pearlman
Lobsan Sandan Tsendunov, circa 1880, Courtesy of Stephen Batchelor
Officials on the steps of the Kalachakra Temple, circa 1915-1917, Courtesy of Ellen Pearlman
Novices at the Kalachakra Temple in St. Petersburg, circa 1991, Courtesy of Ellen Pearlman