The Trials of Dandaron

Buddhist Perseverance in RussiaStephen Batchelor

Illustration by Milton Glaser

SOMETIME DURING the cold dark night of February 22, 1937, four trucks from the Ministry of Internal Affairs (NKVD) pulled up outside the nondescript boardinghouse next to the Tibetan Buddhist temple on Primorski Prospekt in the north of Leningrad (St. Petersburg). Four plainclothes officers positioned themselves around the building while a gaggle of others marched inside to arrest Ostov Budayev, a Buryat-Mongol lama. Budayev was bundled into the back of a truck and ordered to squat on the floor. After rounding up the night's remaining quota of political subversives, the trucks returned to the NKVD building on Liteinyi Prospekt and packed Budayev into an underground cell.

On August 29, 1937, after six months of interrogation and torture, Ostov Budayev was charged and convicted with offenses under article 58 of the criminal code, subsections 1a (treason to the Motherland), 8 (terrorism), 9 (sabotage), and 11 (belonging to a criminal organization). That night he was taken to a basement room soundproofed with mattresses and shot at point-blank range in the back of the head. While his body lay in the morgue, his blood, merged with that of many others, was drained out of the building into the adjacent river Neva. Moments later, specially assigned boats churned it up with their propellers so that citizens going to work that day would not be unduly alarmed. The following night, the corpse was covered with sackcloth and packed into another truck, which trundled across the river and out of the city to the suburb of Levashova, where the body was tipped into a mass grave and concealed beneath lime and earth.

Although a Soviet citizen, Budayev was ethnically a Mongolian from the outlying republic of Buryatia, an area around Lake Baikal in eastern Siberia. The Buryat are a nomadic Mongol people who for centuries have tended their flocks on the steppes to the east of Lake Baikal. During the expansion of imperial Russia in modern times, this culture, like many others, was inevitably engulfed by the empire. Buryatia submitted to the rule of the Russian tsar in the late seventeenth century and was formally incorporated in imperial Russia in 1728. Only fourteen years earlier, in 1714, it had received its first mission of Tibetan lamas, who converted to Buddhism most of the population in the eastern part of the province, which until then had been rooted in traditional shamanism. In 1741, the first two monasteries were founded in the region and Empress Elizabeth Petrovna officially recognized a Russian Buddhist Church. This, during the reign of the Seventh Dalai Lama, was to be the last major movement of Buddhism from one country to another until modern times. From then on, a tradition was established for promising young Buryat monks to travel to Drepung Monastery in Lhasa to receive their religious education. Whether Budayev himself trained in Drepung is unknown. He was invited directly from Buryatia to Leningrad in 1930 by his teacher, Agvan Dorjiev (1854-1938), the founder of the Buddhist temple, to work as a painter of religious art.

THE YEAR 1937 marked the high point of Stalin's purges and the second wave of arrests to befall the Buddhist monks in Leningrad. The first, in May of 1935, had been relatively mild. The seven convicted at that time were sentenced to three to five years' hard labor in Siberia. But the six arrested in 1937, were, like Budayev, simply shot. Only one resident of the boardinghouse survived: a layman called Dylykov, who, unknown to the others, was employed by the NKVD. After the lonely death in Buryatia of Agvan Dorjiev the following year, Dylykov "donated" the temple to the city authorities, who declared it a rest home for the workers of Leningrad.

While Stalin was ridding Russia of its Buddhist monks, he made sure that the Leningrad Buddhologists suffered a similar fate. The Buddhology that flourished during this time was characterized, largely through the towering figure of Fyodor Stcherbatsky, by an attempt to combine the Western rationalist approach to Buddhism with the traditional methods of teaching preserved in India and Tibet. Stcherbatsky had visited India and had studied with the native pundits to learn their methods. His philosophical interests, however, turned him increasingly to Buddhism, and he began seeking out lamas. Although he was twice invited to Tibet by the Thirteenth Dalai Lama, for political reasons the foreign ministry in St. Petersburg refused him authorization to travel. Nonetheless, as a Russian he had access in his own country to lamas trained in the great universities of Lhasa. Through Agvan Dorjiev, Stcherbatsky established contact with the monasteries in Buryatia, and both he and his students were able to study directly with the geshes (masters of Buddhist learning) there.

Around five hundred Leningrad orientalists were either imprisoned or executed during the purges of the 1930s. Rounded up with them was a young Buryat-Mongol called Bidiya Dandaron, a student of aeronautical engineering, who, with Dorjiev's recommendation, also attended lectures at the Oriental Institute. Fortunately, Dandaron was too young and inexperienced even for the imaginative NKVD to accuse him of the kinds of crimes imputed to Ostov Budayev and the orientalists. He received only ten years' hard labor.

Born in December 1914, Dandaron was the son of Dorje Gabzhi Badmaev, a Buryat poet, philosopher, and yogin who was a disciple of one of the most prominent lamas of his day, Lobsan Sandan Tsedunov (born c. 1850 in Buryatia; disappeared c. 1924). Tsedunov had entered the local Kizhinginski Monastery in eastern Buryatia as a young man, quickly rose to the rank of geshe, and was sufficiently esteemed to be included in an official Buryat Buddhist mission to St. Petersburg and an audience with Alexander III (reigned 1881-1894). But once ushered into the palace, Tsedunov refused to bow before the emperor of all Russia. He was not only immediately evicted but was also condemned by his fellow Buddhists.

Shocked, he forsook his vows with the declaration that "monasteries are samsara," and retreated to a small wooden hut in a remote forest in Buryatia to begin a 30-year contemplation of the tantric deity Vajrabhairava. By 1906, long hair and beard now replacing his shaven scalp, Tsedunov declared himself a follower of the Nyingma school of Tibetan Buddhism and began to accept disciples, among whom was Dandaron's father.

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