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August 26, 1999
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Central Asia/Russia

Buddhist revival tangles with politics
By Sergei Blagov

MOSCOW - Russia's eastern region of Buryatia is witnessing a revival of Buddhism, once brutally persecuted under the Soviet regime, but this is being undermined by the priests' growing involvement in regional politics.

Already, Buddhist leaders and believers are split into rival factions and are accused of supporting Buryatia's rival political leaders as well.

Roughly one-third of Buryatia's one million population are Buddhists, Nikolai Ilyin, representative of Buryat Buddhist Church in Moscow, said in an interview. But ''it is a tricky task to come up with realistic estimates regarding the numerical strength of Buddhist followers in Russia'', added Dr Natalia Zhukovskaya, an expert on Buddhist studies at the Moscow-based Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology.

For instance, in Buryatia many Christians visit Buddhist temples and some Buryats are still devoted to Shamanist beliefs. But Zhukovskaya estimates there are some 500,000 adherents of Buddhism in Russia, some two-thirds of them in the Buryat republic which lies between Lake Baikal and the Mongolian border.

The Buryats, a nomadic people, commenced converting to Tibetan Buddhism in the 16th century and there were some 200 temples and monasteries before the 1917 Bolshevik revolution. But during Stalin's purges and persecution of all faiths in the late 1930s, thousands of lamas, or priests of Tibetan Buddhism, were executed or sent to the gulags. Virtually all monasteries and temples were destroyed.

Later, Soviet authorities were more conciliatory toward Buddhists and allowed priests to travel to Mongolia to study. Now monks visit India, Japan and other countries to study Buddhist canon and establish contacts with Buddhist faithful overseas.

But greater freedom and the Buddhist revival failed to bring peace and unity to the Buddhist congregations, and the sangha in Buryatia - Russia's largest - recently split into two opposing factions. The schism has widened recently, Zhukovskaya says.

Buryatia's khambo lama (chief priest), Damba Ayushev, was deposed by another leader, Nimozhan Ylyukhinov, although Ayushev's term expires only in 2000. As a result of the power rivalry, two parallel Buddhist congregations emerged.

A Buryat Buddhist representative, Ilyin, says the split occurred because local authorities supported Ylyukhinov. The conflict was highlighted by a violent incident last year, when interior ministry special troops forcefully dispersed Buddhist monks who were trying to prevent unique Tibetan drawings being sent from Buryatia for a year-long tour across four American cities.

The subject of the row was the Tibetan Medical Atlas, considered the finest of three surviving copies made in the 19th century of the 17th-century medical treatise. Soviet authorities had seized it in 1936, during the Buddhist persecution.

The supporters of khambo lama Damba Ayushev protested against the tour, arguing that the tour contract had loopholes which could result in the atlas's indefinite seizure in the US. However, the Tibetan medical text and paintings returned safe and sound under heavy police guard on July 20.

The Dalai Lama and American actor Richard Gere, who converted to Buddhism, reportedly supported the US tour of the atlas. The Dalai Lama, Tibet's exiled spiritual leader, is the spiritual head of the Gelugpa (Yellow Hat) sect to which most Russian Buddhists belong.

But the controversy did not end there. Officials in Buryatia said the Buddhist protest was designed to discredit the Buryat president, Leonid Potapov, before the 1998 presidential election. Some say the incident was orchestrated to undermine Potapov's popularity. But despite the noisy protests over the atlas's US tour, the incumbent Potapov won in a landslide.

However, Potapov did not forget that Ayushev, who used to be his supporter, had organized that anti-government demonstration. Potapov now supports Ylyukhinov, Ayushev's foe.

In many ways, the religious conflict is surprising for Buryatia, where Buddhism is amalgamated with animistic Shamanist beliefs.Local officials say that Buryatia's tradition of religious tolerance, where Orthodox Christians, Buddhists, and Shamanists worship peacefully alongside each other, has contributed to the political stability in the region.

But experts now argue that the Buryat Buddhist clergy is getting increasingly involved in political infighting. The Buryat lamas are too politicized. They are interested not in doctrinal problems, but rather in mundane affairs,'' says Zhukovskaya, and ''Buryat authorities are meddling in Buddhist affairs.''

''Moves to rely on religion in ongoing political battles are extremely dangerous,'' says Valery Borschev, deputy chairman of the social movements and religious denominations committee of the State Duma, the lower house of the Russian parliament. Some Russian regional politicians hope to benefit from the religious factor, forgetting that such conflict could prove to be worse than ethnic violence, he argues.

(Inter Press Service)

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