From the Kalmyk Steppe to the Open Plains of 3D Virtual Reality: The Lost and Found Buddhist Temples of Kalmykia

- through Francois Leclercq

Published on

Simon Daisley at Yambulakhang in Tibet. Image courtesy of Simon Daisley

All phenomena occur (Skt: samutpada; Tib: 'byung ba) by a relation of dependence with all the other phenomena. This is how we explain the Buddhist concept of dependent origination (Skt: pratityasamutpada; Tib: rten 'brel du 'bjung ba or, in short, tender), which expresses the dynamic between consciousness and reality that evolves over time. We live in the era of digital technologies, which have a strong impact on our consciousness and on the reality in which we live – or the realities, multiple and parallel. Virtual reality creates entirely different perceptions of time and space. Digital technologies can be used to create a magical connection between past, present and future, applying ancient Buddhist ideas of interdependence. Skillful methods (Skt: effort; Tib: tabs) change over time, but the driving force behind them is reminiscent of the same thing.

Virtual reality opens the frontiers of time and space, so that we can travel through history and find lost worlds. Imagine traveling to the Buddhist monasteries of the remote Kalmyk steppe of the Russian Empire. Although the temples were destroyed during the Soviet period, the footprints (Skt: vasana; Tib: Backpacks) are still kept in space, and the gates are open to enter and explore these temples. In fact, it can be a real experience, an example of a “real” virtual journey for anyone who simply searches the web for “The Khurul Project” and opens its website.

Rebuild buildings that no longer exist, bring sacred structures lost to dramatic times back to life, create an auspicious connection (tender) with younger generations and inspiring them to see their own history and heritage in a new light, these are some of the motives and aspirations of the Khurul Project, which brings together the rich past, present and future of Kalmyk Buddhist history .

3D model of Ike Burul Khurul. Image courtesy of Simon Daisley

"To be able to move forward into the future, you still have to recognize the past," says the author of this project, Simon Daisley, in an interview with the online magazine The Digital Orientalist, where he presents his project to recreate Kalmyk Buddhist monasteries. (khuruls) using digital technology.

Daisley is an independent researcher based in New Zealand and trained in the fields of history, religious studies, and museum and heritage studies. Currently, he is working with community groups and organizations, including Buddhist groups, to preserve their heritage in a digital heritage repository. His main area of ​​research is Tibeto-Mongolian Buddhism, with particular emphasis on the history of Buddhism in the Russian Empire, particularly among the Kalmyk people.

Some of Daisley's academic research into the khuruls of Kalmykia includes the non-celibate Kalmyk Buddhist religious servants of the Ural Cossack host in the Russian Empire, the temples inspired by the mandalas found in the Buddhist temple khuruls of the Kalmyks of Buzava (Don) in the Don Cossack host of the Russian Empire, and the Bagatugtun Syume, a Kalmyk Buddhist temple in the former Russian Empire. His academic interest in khuruls of Tsarist Russia*, combined with his passion for working with digital technology, led him to consider ways to recreate some of the monasteries as digital models with the unique Khurul project. The project gives a whole new perspective on exploring the lost treasures of Kalmyk Buddhist culture. Using SketchUp 3D design software, Daisley digitally modeled three Kalmyk monasteries: Bagatugtun Syume; Kebyun Shirya Orgo (Dundu Khurul); and Ike Burul Khurul, accessible on the Khurul Project website. The site consists of 3D digital models of the former khurul buildings, interactive maps showing their locations, articles on their history and significance, and an explanation of the technology behind his work.

Simon Daisley. Image courtesy of Simon Daisley

I met Daisley in virtual space through an auspicious connection (tender) with a common Kalmyk friend. I was fascinated by The Khurul Project and dove into its 3D models with curiosity and enthusiasm. It was inspiring to enter the historic ancient temples, look out from their windows and see them from a bird's eye view. Many questions came to mind during this virtual exploration, and I was able to discuss some of them with the author, who kindly agreed to share his thoughts with Buddhist News Global.

This is how he explained the main aspiration behind The Khurul Project: "The general aim of my research is to bring the history of Kalmyk Buddhism to a wider English-speaking audience, because most of the people I meet do not even know that Buddhism exists in Russia or that it has a history going back to the imperial period.

Daisley's project contributes to our knowledge of Kalmyk Buddhism, which remains limited, especially in Western universities, which often present it as a subfield of Mongolian Buddhist studies. Additionally, the project explores how the Gelug school of Tibetan Buddhism in general and Kalmyk Buddhism in particular adapted to the political circumstances of the region.

Bagatugtun Syume 3D model. Image courtesy of Simon Daisley

“A theme that emerges from my research is how the Gelug monastic system adapted to the governmental restrictions of Imperial Russia,” Daisley explained. “This need to adapt gave Kalmyk Buddhism unique characteristics that made it different from other forms of the Gelug monastic system found in Tibet, Mongolia in the Qing dynasty, China, etc. Many Western sources often simply state that Kalmyk Buddhism had departed from its original traditions (in that there were no reincarnated lamas, etc.). I think that's just lazy, because it doesn't take into account the pressures that the Tsarist government put on non-Orthodox religious traditions. So I try to show that instead of being simply ignorant of their own religion, the Kalmyks were forced to adapt to government restrictions that were worked out within an Orthodox Christian framework.

Daisley's ideas about the forced adaptation of the Kalmyks to the restrictions of the Imperial Russian government deserve attention. This adaptation, as well as the lack of tulku system in Kalmyk monastic Buddhism under the tsars, are the subjects of his current research which has taken the form of a book. Daisley is currently looking for a publisher for her book, which will help further develop the Khurul project.

Buddhist News Global wishes Daisley well with her venture and hopes that an auspicious connection with a potential publisher will emerge soon.

Simon Daisley would like to point out that this work would not be possible without the support of Kalmyks around the world. In particular, he would like to recognize Telo Tulku Rinpoche, Bem Mitruev, Ben Moschkin, Elta Sangadzhiev and Kema Badmaeva.

* Russia was ruled by the tsars from 1547 to 1917. Tsar was a title given to the emperors of Russia before the Russian Revolutions of 1917. The tsars held absolute power, but in practice were limited by the traditional authority of the Orthodox Church and other political factors.

photo of author

Francois Leclercq

François Leclercq is the founder of Buddhist News, a website which aims to disseminate information and practical advice on Buddhism and spirituality. François Leclercq was born and raised in Paris. He studied Buddhism at the University of Paris-Sorbonne, where he graduated in social sciences and psychology. After graduating, he devoted himself to his passion for Buddhism and traveled the world to study and learn about different practices. He notably visited Tibet, Nepal, Thailand, Japan and China.

Leave comments