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Historically, Buddhism was incorporated into Russia as early as the late 16th century, when Russian explorers travelled to and settled in Siberia and what is now the Russian Far East. It is also believed that Indian King Ashoka had sent monks to spread Buddhism all over the world including Siberia. Mongolian and Tibetan lamas first appeared on the eastern shores of Lake Baikal in the middle of the 17th century and quickly spread Buddhism in the area. Later in that century Buddhism emerged as the dominant religion in Tuva. The Kalmyks who migrated from China to the lower reaches of the Volga River in the later half of the 17th century also professed Buddhism. Tzarist authorities were fairly tolerant with respect to Buddhists.

Later, religious centers - Buddhist monasteries, or datsans - appeared in other areas of Buryatia, too. Within a short time most of the Buryats living east of Lake Baikal were converted to Buddhism. In 1764, Zayaagiyn Damba Darjaa, the high priest of the Tsongol datsan - the oldest in the Baikal region - became head of the entire Buddhist clergy with the title Bandida Khamba Lama.

The main form of Buddhism in Russia is the Gelukpa school of Tibetan Buddhism. Although Tibetan Buddhism is most often associated with the peoples of Tibet, in the north the school spread into southwestern and northern China, Mongolia, and finally Russia. In the south, it took hold in Bhutan and parts of northern India and Nepal.

Tibetan Buddhism is primarily practiced by the indigenous peoples in various regions of central and eastern Russia, except for a few Russian converts based mainly in the larger cities such as St. Petersburg or Moscow, where there is greater access to urban Buddhist centers or similar facilities.

There are a few dozen Buddhist university-monasteries throughout Russia, but concentrated in the Russian Far East and Siberia, known in Russian as Datsans. Adherents to Buddhism account for approximately 700,000 in the Russian Federation, about 0.5% of the total population.

See also