The Trials of Dandaron

Buddhist Perseverance in RussiaStephen Batchelor

Shortly after his birth the young Dandaron was recognized as the reincarnation of Tsedunov's teacher, Hambo Lama Jayagsy Gegen, a former abbot of Kumbum Monastery in eastern Tibet. But when, according to tradition, a delegation arrived from Tibet to take him back to Kumbum, Tsedunov refused to let him go. Then in 1917 the revolution broke out. The following year, taking the Bolshevik policy of land redistribution literally, Tsedunov's followers declared him dharmaraja (dharma king) of a Buddhist state comprising 400 farmsteads on the steppe of the Kizhinginski Valley. Such action was the policy of the Balagat (Nomadic) Movement, of which Tsedunov was cofounder. One of the movement's central aims was to remove the focus of spiritual authority from the monasteries by establishing lay communities based on Buddhist practices such as mahamudra and dzogchen. The Bolsheviks, however, did not share their ideals, and Tsedunov was quickly imprisoned. The community was forced underground, and in July 1921, proclaimed the seven year-old Dandaron as the successor of Tsedunov. Tsedunov was released from prison in 1922, only to be banished far from his homeland. He was last heard of in 1924. One witness claims to have seen him dressed in European clothes boarding a train for Italy.

Courtesy of Stephen Batchelor

Not all Buryat lamas agreed with the tantric, lay approach to Buddhism advocated by Tsedunov and later by Dandaron himself. Foremost among these was Agvan Dorjiev, the founder of the St. Petersburg temple, who devoted his life to preserving monasticism and the Gelugpa tradition of rigorous Buddhist studies.

In 1880, at the age of twenty-six, Dorjiev was accepted in Drepung Monastery. Within six years he became a lharampa (the highest ranking geshe) and was appointed as a religious advisor to the Thirteenth Dalai Lama, a post he held for the next ten years. It was not long before he assumed the additional role of lobbyist for the imperial Russian cause. Convinced that the British were preparing to "devour" Tibet, he explained to the head lamas how Russia was not only Britain's enemy but also a place where, in Buryatia and Kalmykia (another Mongol republic in the lower Volga region), Tibetan Buddhism flourished. But this political maneuvering upset other factions in the government, and in 1897 the Dalai Lama recommended that Dorjiev take a three-year leave of absence.

Upon returning to Buryatia, Dorjiev was immediately summoned to St. Petersburg. This resulted in an audience with Nicholas II in 1898, when a possible Russian role in Tibet was discussed. The following year he was back in Tibet, his position enhanced by the sanction granted him by the tsar. As Dorjiev saw it, the Tibetan government was now split into three factions: those still loyal to the Manchu emperor of China; those who feared the collapse of the Manchu dynasty and proposed closer ties with Britain; and those (like himself) who preferred an alliance with Russia. Persuaded by Dorjiev's arguments, the Dalai Lama prepared an official letter and gifts for the tsar and sent his emissary once more on his way.

By this time, Dorjiev's involvement in the "Great Game" had placed him firmly in the sights of British Intelligence, who failed to share his enthusiasm about a Russian presence along the north Indian border. Nonetheless, he traveled back to Russia via India, disguising himself as a pilgrim and staying somehow one step ahead of the British. He met the tsar at Yalta, presented him with the Dalai Lama's letters, then hurried back to Lhasa via Mongolia with the tsar's reply. By the time he reached Odessa, his stature was such that he was escorted to St. Petersburg as a virtual ambassador.

Dorjiev did not return to Tibet again until 1904, by which time events had spun out of his control. The British, under Colonel Francis Younghusband, were preparing to enter Tibet by force to demand a trade treaty with the Dalai Lama. In April 1904 they had reached Gyantse and were preparing to march on the forbidden city of Lhasa. On Dorjiev's advice, the Dalai Lama decided to flee. One morning before dawn, a small party of eight—including the Dalai Lama and Dorjiev—left Lhasa and made their way to the safety of Urga (modern Ulan Bator), the capital of Mongolia. The Tibetan government, meanwhile, signed the trade agreement.

Dorjiev was to see Tibet only once again. In 1912, he traveled from Buryatia to meet the Dalai Lama in the southern Tibetan town of Phari. Although the reappearance of Dorjiev sent tremors of apprehension through the British, he bore only a letter of good wishes from the tsar. As a parting gift, before he took his final leave for Mongolia, the Dalai Lama gave him 50,000 silver pieces as a donation to the temple that he had recently received permission to build in St. Petersburg.Courtesy of  Ellen Pearlman

IN SPITE OF VIRULENT OBJECTIONS from the Orthodox Christian Church, the temple was consecrated finally in 1915. Dorjiev managed to acquire the services of one of the foremost architects of the day, Gavriil Vasilyevich Baranovsky, to actualize in European architectural terms his own ideas for a Tibeto-Mongolian-style building. The temple was dedicated to the tantric deity Kalachakra. Sufficient monks were installed to conduct the bimonthly monastic confessional and to observe the annual Rains Retreat, thus making it the first functioning Buddhist monastery in a European capital.

St. Petersburg at this time was a center of spiritual and scholastic ferment. Theosophist followers of Madame Blavatsky were active, as were disciples of Rudolf Steiner, the founder of Anthroposophy. G. I. Gurdjieff held groups in the city, attracting to his circle intellectuals such as P. D. Ouspensky. Yet apart from a few European faces in group photographs taken on the steps of the temple, there is little evidence of European involvement in the practice of the Gelugpa Buddhism that would have been taught by Dorjiev and his monks. The temple primarily served the religious needs of the sizable Buryat and Kalmyk communities of the capital. Serious interest among European Russians was limited, it seems, to the Buddhologists at the Oriental Institute.

Although the Bolsheviks took to suppressing Christianity after the outbreak of the revolution in 1917, it took them several years to work out an official policy for Buddhism. Since the Marxist critique of religion was essentially a refutation of Christian theism, it was unclear exactly what a good party member should think of the Buddha's dharma. The situation was further compounded by the practical need to win the sympathy of the Buddhist populations of the nascent U.S.S.R. to the Soviet system. Dorjiev's political shrewdness again came to the fore: taking advantage of this ambivalence, he argued that Buddhism and Communism, with their common emphasis on a nontheistic, rational, and altruistic philosophy of life, were perfectly compatible.

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