Schools of Buddhism
Many Kalmyks regard the Dalai Lama's visits to Kalmykia as one of the most important and auspicious events in the spiritual and social life of Kalmykia. Believers also feel blessed by the visits of other prominent Buddhist scholars and leaders to the steppe republic, including the 17th Karmapa Trinley Thaye Dorje (head of the Karma Kagyu lineage), Ole Nydahl (the founder of the Diamond Way Buddhism of Karma Kagyu), the 41st Sakya Trizin (head of the Sakya tradition), the 8th Arjia Rinpoche (reincarnation of Lumbum Gye, father of Tsong Khapa, the founder of Gelug), and others. Gelug now being the dominant school, all other traditional schools of Buddhism are currently represented in Kalmykia.
Among them the followers of Kagyu have been especially active. Apart from inviting teachers and organising popular seminars, the school has built a stupa, which houses a meditation venue, and a temple in Elista. The Nyingma and Sakya schools also each have a temple. In this collection, you can see not only interviews with teachers and lamas of various schools of Buddhism but also stories by lay people about their experiences and understanding of Buddhism.
Agvan Eshey, About Buddhism in Kalmykia
Alena recalls when she was a child the nearest temple was far away from where she lived. Pilgrimage to the temple was carried out as follows. People – women, children and elderly – gathered together in the evening and went on foot to the temple. The journey lasted till the next morning. Before entering the temple, pilgrims made several circuits of the building, although Alena does not remember exactly how many times. Inside the temple people sat on the floor. After a ceremony monks sprinkled the pilgrims with arshan or holy water. Children were told by grown-ups to smear their hands with butter and drink the holy water from the palms of their own hands. The remaining holy water was sprinkled on their hair. The ceremony went on for the whole day and in the evening the pilgrims set off on their return journey.
In the temple there were several high-ranking monks (lamas) and many middle-ranking ones (gelyungs). Young monks, or manzhik, cooked and cleaned, etc. There were also doctors, or emchi, in the temple who prepared medicine themselves from herbs obtained both locally and from Mongolia.
Alena Lidzhieva, About Monasteries, Lamas and Healers in the Past
Anna talks about Namka Kichikov who was a well-known religious practitioner in Kalmykia. In his youth Namka studied Buddhism in Tibet. In Kalmykia he helped many people in various ways, including divination. For example, he helped people find their lost livestock. He also cured ill people. Namka cured Anna from headaches and gave her advice on many occasions. Once he said to her, ‘You have a fox’s skin in your yard. Get rid of it’. Whatever he said to Anna, it materialized. After he died, Anna saw a calendar with a photo of Namka who was in a monastic robe. Anna had never seen him in a monastic robe before, for he received his patients in casual clothes. Anna had that calendar consecrated in a temple.
Anna also mentions two folk healers, namely Urlya from Yashkul’ and Zodva from Volodarovsky.
Anna has been to Buryatia a couple of times. The first time she travelled to Buryatia was in 2014 with a lama from the Yashkul’ temple called Luuzng - which is his monastic name given by Urlya. In 1993 during his visit to Kalmykia, the Dalai Lama approved that this name was suitable. At that time the lama Luuzng decided to take a vow of celibacy. Luuzng has an interesting biography. After finishing Kalmyk State University, he spent about eight years teaching Kalmyk. Then he went to Mongolia to study Buddhism where he spent about five years. Upon his return to Yashkul’, he established a temple. Today he is ill and retired. The Yashkul’ temple is run by a monk called Valery who simultaneously studies at the Ivolginsky monastery in Buryatia. Anna says that during one of her trips to Buryatia, she met five Kalmyk young monks from Yashkul’ who were studying there. She is very grateful to them for helping her and for showing her how to pray properly.
Anna Sangadzhi-Goryaeva, Kalmyk Lamas of the Past and the Present
Badma believes that Buddhism has a global future and appeal. He says that Buddhism is spreading quickly in the West for several reasons. People like the moral aspects of this religion. Modern educated people are also attracted to its philosophy. For example, in the Buddhist doctrine there is a notion of illusion, which resembles a popular idea that we all live in a matrix. Many people find the psycho-technics of Buddhism interesting as well. Badma contends that we know precious little about how to control our thought, speech and actions. Buddhism gives answers to these questions. Since there is a possibility that the world may destroy itself, Badma sees no alternative to Buddhism, if we are to survive. If society becomes more compassionate and wiser, we have a chance to avoid self-destruction and to develop further. Badma also retells a classic story about how a Buddhist sage saved children from a burning house by luring them out with toys.
Badma Narmaev, About Buddhism
Lidzhi says he studies lamrim, a Buddhist text about the stages in the path of enlightenment as taught by Buddha. Lidzhi also believes that great Buddhist leaders such as the Dalai Lama, the Bogdo Gegyan and Telo Tulku Rinpoche (the Supreme Lama of Kalmykia) all managed to free themselves from a circle of samsara, or rebirth, and are now among us only out of their deep compassion. According to Lidzhi, the Buddha Avalokiteshvara is omniscient and sees what happens in all worlds, including hell. The Dalai Lama is the embodiment of this Buddha. Lidzhi recalls a 12-day long lamrim teaching given by the Dalai Lama in southern India where his Holiness said to the audience that he would like it if all people attained nirvana, but it is only up to people themselves to accomplish this.
As a Buddhist, Lidzhi tries to do the following regularly. Every morning he promises to himself that he will think positively, for it is very important to control one’s mind and have clean thoughts. He also reads prayers to his clan deities, to a personal protector (the Buddha of Medicine) and to Okn Tengr. Then he reads prayers for the wellbeing of all living beings. According to Lidzhi, it is not correct to read prayers for oneself only. Every Buddhist needs to pray for all other living beings, and only in this case their buyn (merit) will increase. If one has the correct motivation and a positive outlook on life, that person can live as if in paradise even in this lifetime.
There are other advanced prayers and techniques of bowing and prostration that Lidzhi mentions. If one follows all this, that person can be reborn as a human being in the next life or even attain nirvana. Even getting human rebirth should be seen as a great achievement, given the sheer number of the unlucky i.e. all insects in this world, sinners in hell and souls suffering in the world of hungry ghosts.
One day Lidzhi attended a teaching by Telo Tulku Rinpoche who advised that Buddhists should go and visit holy places where Buddha was born and gave his teachings. By taking this advice, Lidzhi and his wife visited Varanasi, Bodh Gaya, Sarnath and other holy sites. Auspiciously, the next year Lidzhi’s wife gave birth to a boy.
Lidzhi Amikov, Buddhism as a Philosophy and Practice
Lidzhi talks about stupas and religious statues that he helped to build. Lidzhi built his first stupa in the village of Malye Derbety in 2002. He came to Buddhism via his mother who read mantras every day and had Buddhist images in their house. In 2001 when his mother passed away, Lidzhi asked a Tibetan lama Geshe Dugda what to do. The lama told Lidzhi to read prayers for 49 days in honor of his mother, light candles and continuously chant om mani padme khum. Lidzhi read this chant 10,000 times. The next year Lidzhi went to Elista to ask Geshe Dugda for a blessing to build a stupa. With the lama’s blessing secured, the stupa was built in a couple of months and opened during the traditional holiday of Zul. After that, Lidzhi built another stupa with Geshe Dugda’s consent and blessing. Lidzhi also participated in the building of a statue of the Kalmyk deity Tsagan Aav in Tsagan Nur. In his projects Lidzhi was helped by his sons.
Lidzhi also recalls how he helped build a stupa in the village of Solyanka in Volgograd oblastIn the past in that place stood the winter palace of the Kalmyk Prince Tseren-David Tundutov. The Prince was buried in that place. Today only a part of the foundation is left from the palace. Lidzhi was asked to help in the construction of the stupa dedicated to the Prince by Nina Sandzharykovna Ulanova, who is a relative of the famous Kalmyk writer Nomto Ochirov. Lidzhi and Nina met when they were on pilgrimage in India. In the beginning, Lidzhi could not understand why he was asked for help. Later he discovered that on his maternal side he was related to the Prince. Both the mother of the Prince and that of Lidzhi belong to Bargs arvn. It is a convention in Kalmykia that relatives should participate in the construction of a stupa that is dedicated to a common ancestor. The stupa in question was built quickly in a couple of months on donations from various people, including Russians who gave them building materials.
Lidzhi Amikov, Building Stupas
Nadvid Ubushiev, About Buddhist and Shamanic Deities, the Tsagan Aav, the Snake and the Dalai Lama
When Oleg was a student in Moscow, he got to know an underground religious organization. One day Oleg heard from his friend about a religious sermon to be held outside of Moscow at 11 pm. Oleg took an electric train, which was empty, to get there. When he arrived, the church was already full of people and the sermon continued until 5 am. After the sermon a woman who was in the audience offered Oleg a key to her house, for it was too early for the trains to start running. The woman herself went to work. In the Soviet period religious people trusted each other. Being religious was like belonging to a brotherhood.
Oleg also relays a story about divination with stones that he heard from his female friend. This story happened in the 1930s. She was a daughter of a wealthy farmer. One of the workers in the farm was a strange man. He neither smoked nor drank, but always went somewhere to hide. One day the worker went to a cow shelter. She followed him. In the shelter the man pulled out a small bag with stones and began doing divination. This was a time when monks were repressed and religion banned. It turned out that the man had been a monk, ran away and ended up working on that farm. She asked him to do a divination for her. Although the farm was on the rise and prosperous, the former monk advised that her family should give up their farm, for they soon would lose it all and live in a remote place between the earth and the sky.She did not believe him. But not long after, her family was arrested as kulaks and sent to Siberia. They indeed ended up living inside an earth shelter on the top of a hill.
Oleg says that he himself only witnessed divination using a sheep’s blade bone. The bone is smoked on both sides and the diviner reads signs on the cracks.
Finally, Oleg recalls that when he was a student and lived in a dormitory, one of his neighbors was keen on reading people’s hands and faces. Soon Oleg himself became interested in this kind of divination. He spent a lot of time alone, reading books. This helped him to understand people better and keep away from the bad ones. As a result, he spent New Year alone, trying to keep away from bad people. Soon a realization dawned on him that there is no such thing as ‘normal people’. In order not to end up a lonely person, he decided to give up divination. The ability to foretell only brings suffering. It is a punishment for diviners. There is a saying: ‘By adding to your knowledge, you also add to your sorrows’.
Oleg Mandzhiev, Religion and Religious Dissidence in the Soviet Period
Sanal covers the following topics: (1) Schools of Buddhism and the spread of this religion among Mongolian groups; (2) Buddhist temples; (3) Holy sites; (4) Buddhist temples and symbols; and (5) Monastic dress code.
Sanal is originally from the village of Ketchenery in Kalmykia. He is from the Bagshin Shevnr clan. In 2001 at the age of 17 he became a monk. He made this decision after reading extensively about Buddhism and long reflections. Sanal is not the first monk in his family. He had a famous ancestor on his maternal side – Geshe Vangyal (his secular name was Lidzhin Botya) who was a monk and lived in the village of Shin-Mer. In his youth Geshe Vangyal studied Buddhism at the Drepung Gomang monastery in Tibet. At the age of 18 Sanal decided to follow in the footsteps of his famous ancestors and went to study at the same monastery that is today relocated in India. At the time of this interview Sanal was on his summer holiday in Kalmykia from his studies in India.
Schools of Buddhism and the spread of this religion among Mongolian groups. Sanal says that when Buddhism was introduced among the Kalmyks, it incorporated local shamanic beliefs. In Buddhism it is permitted to respect local deities in order to achieve certain goals, but Buddhists should seek refuge only in the Three Jewels of Buddhism (Buddha, Sangha and Dharma). In this sense, folk beliefs and Buddhism have co-existed in Kalmykia.
Buddhism has a long tradition going back 2500 years. It has been deeply influenced by Indian culture. Later Buddhism spread south among the Mongols and Tibetans. The Oirats, ancestors of the Kalmyks, borrowed Buddhism directly from Tibet.
Buddhism has two major branches: a southern branch (known as Mahayana) and a northern branch (known as Theravada). Mahayana is also described as a school of Great Vehicle. In the 8th century the philosopher Nagarjuna wrote a detailed commentary of the Prajnaparamita sutras.Mahayana takes its origin from that period. The main aim of the Mahayana school is not only about the attainment of personal salvation but the emancipation of all living beings from the circle of samsara. Mahayana was spread in southern India, and later was adopted by the Tibetans and Mongols.
It is believed that prior to that the Mongols had been acquainted with Theravada, introduced to them by the Sogdians.
The famous Oirat lama Zaya Pandita, who established the Tod (Clear) script, made translations of the most important Buddhist texts into Oirat and explained Buddhism to ordinary people. That is how Buddhism spread among the Oirats and Kalmyks.
In Tibetan tradition of Buddhism there are four schools: (1) Nyingma – an ‘old school’ which was established by the guru Padmasambhava;(2) Kagyu – a 'line of oral instructions', originates in India from the yoga teachers Milarepa and Marpa; (3) Sakya – was established by Sakya Pandita; and (4) Gelug – came into being in the 15th century thanks to the teachings of Tsongkhapa.
Historically speaking, the first school that the Mongols adopted was Sakya, then Kagyu and later during the times of Altan Khan and the Dalai Lama III Gelug became a dominant school. The lama Sonam Gyatso was given the name of Dalai Lama (Ocean Lama) by Altan Khan who was his spiritual disciple. The 4th Dalai Lama was an ethnic Mongol and a relative of Altan Khan himself. Although today it is Gelug school that dominates in Kalmykia, all other schools also enjoy representation.
Buddhist temples. It was Buddha himself who established the first community of monks that received his first teachings. In the beginning the community was nomadic and the monks constantly moved from one place to another, leaving behind small monastic centres. During Buddha’s lifetime his teachings were transmitted orally. The Buddhist canon was written down on palm leafs only after the death of Buddha. Over time the first stupa was built to contain the remains of Buddha. The first image of Buddha was also drawn long after his death. The first monastery was called Nalanda where monks studied philosophy and various sciences, including medicine, astrology, etc. When Buddhism spread into Tibet, the Nalanda served as a template for other monasteries. Since the harsh climate was not conducive for monks to go out, in Tibet monks stayed indoors and the laity brought them food. By contrast, in Mongolia the first monasteries were housed in yurts and were transported from one place to another.
Tantric practices and rituals were developed in Tibetan monasteries. Today in Kalmykia the temples also carry out rituals related to tantric practices.
Holy sites. Mount Bogdo is regarded as a holy site among the Kalmyks. The Khosheutovsky Temple, dedicated to the victory of the Russian and Kalmyk troops over Napoleon, is the only temple that partly survived to this day. Also, Odinoky Topol’ (Lonely Tree) in the territory of the village of Khar-Buluk in Kalmykia, which was planted by Purdash bagsh, is another holy site. Recently several stupas were erected around that tree.
Buddhist temples and symbols. Inside any temple the altar is placed on the southern part of the building. The entry to the temple is from its northern side. This tradition comes from India. The corners inside temples are decorated with umbrellas that symbolize victory over personal imperfections. Temples are also decorated with symbols of happiness. According to a legend, there is a stone called chindamani that fulfils wishes. The Three Jewels of Buddhism (Buddha, Sangha and Dharma) represent this wish-granting stone, for these three jewels fulfil our wishes to attain a better rebirth and free ourselves from suffering. The Vajra symbolizes a thunder lightening, and the bell – a wisdom. Some parts of Buddhist prayers are accompanied by musical instruments, including bells, tsimbala and drums. In other words, offerings can be also made in the form of music.
Monastic dress code. When Buddha rejected a worldly life, his attire consisted of saffron, yellow and orange clothes. Yellow and orange were what the poor in India wore at that time. The wealthy, by contrast, wore white and black clothes. Therefore, these colors are not recommended for monks to wear. A monastic attire consists of two upper cloaks and an inner one that covers the lower part of the body of the monk. The left shoulder of the monk is covered with a cloak and the right shoulder is left naked symbolizing the poverty of the monks. Monks also carry a cup for alms, which originates from Buddha himself.
In Tibet yellow and orange are expensive colours to produce. Instead Tibetans use deep red pigments, a cheaper alternative, to dye their robes. Since the climate in Tibet is colder than in India, Tibetan monks also wear vests. The Oirats adopted Buddhism from Tibet, including the monastic dress code. In Buddhism dogmatisms is not encouraged. Buddha himself said that some minor rules could be changed depending on the situation. The first monks did not wear shoes, although it was not forbidden. Tibetan and Mongolian monks wear boots.
Sanal Mukubenov, Buddhism: History, Monasteries, Sacred Places and Monastic Dress
Sangadzhi says that people sometimes have problems that can be resolved neither by modern medicine nor by science, but by Kalmyk rituals. Despite the deportation of the Kalmyk nation and the decades-long repression of Buddhism in the Soviet period, many former Kalmyk monks managed to keep their faith, rituals and tradition. Kalmyk rituals are related to the natural elements, including water, fire, earth and air. In Kalmykia Buddhism has organically blended with local culture and rituals. Sangadzhi finds it wrong when some Kalmyks call for the revival of shamanism at the expense of Buddhism. He also points out that there are people who criticize the Tibetan monks who work in the temples in Kalmykia. Sangadzhi reminds us that these foreign monks serve the local people and read prayers for the development of Kalmykia.
Sangadzhi Kononov, Buddhism in Kalmykia
Ubush says he goes to Buddhist temples in order to recharge himself with positive energy. He believes that the length of any Tibetan mantra is the same as that of the wave of a human bio-field. When a person falls ill, his/her bio-field is interrupted, but recovers when subjected to a mantra. Tangkas, or Buddhist paintings also have energy. Some old tangkas emanate such a high level of energy that some people pass out. Ubush thinks that Buddhism in Kalmykia is developing in the right direction. The Shajin Lama (Supreme Lama) of Kalmykia sent Kalmyk youth to study Buddhism in Tibet and today some of them have already completed their studies and are working in Kalmykia. According to Ubush, Buddhism in Kalmykia is also pure, because the Kalmyk monks receive their education from the very source of this religion in India.