Russian Buddhism Comes to Hong Kong: A University and Community Sangha

- through Francois Leclercq

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Professor Alexey Maslov. Photo of the author

Due to Buddhism's long presence in Asia and beyond, it is widely believed that the religion has always been a welcomed movement and has not faced much opposition or oppression. Aside from occasional persecution by anti-Buddhist leaders, many feel that Buddhism has always enjoyed momentum and successfully spread around the world.

In Russia, Buddhism is not the most popular religion, but as one of the nation's historic religions, the government officially recognizes it as a crucial part of the cultural and religious landscape. You might think it's flourishing, but two recent lectures by Professor Alexey Maslov are sobering. These two conferences were entitled “Buddhism in Russia: introspection of spirituality and new modalities” and “Buddhist studies in Russia: academic traditions and new research”. They were presented at the University of Hong Kong on April 18 and 19, respectively, and provided a new perspective on the development and status of Buddhism in Russia over the centuries.

Professor Maslov is the author of more than 20 books, including translations of Buddhist texts, and is a renowned expert in Russia on Asian and Chinese studies. He is also a government expert on Russia's relations with East Asia and a visiting professor at various Chinese and European universities. He is a Chinese Buddhist and spent more than two years as a monk in the famous Chinese temple Chan Shaolin.

In his first speech on April 18, Professor Maslov addressed three fundamental aspects of Buddhism as practiced in Russia: institutionalized Buddhism, which consists of traditional communities (mainly Tibetan and Mongolian Buddhists) organized into various associations; non-systematic groups, which include Mahayana (Zen and Chan Buddhist groups) and Theravada; and everyday Buddhism, which emphasizes activities such as meditation that are popular among young people. Professor Maslov then highlighted the main Buddhist regions (autonomous republics) of Russia: Buryatia, Kalmykia and Tuva. In this regard, the traditional religion of Buryats, Kalmyks and Tuvans in Russia is Buddhism. Vajrayana Buddhism, also known as Lamaism in Russia, is the denomination of all Buddhist groups in these republics.

Buddhism was brought to Russia in the 17th century from Mongolia by the Kalmyk tribes, who later settled in the northern Caspian region in the region of present-day Buryatia. There is said to be a reference to Buddhism in a 1741 decree issued by Empress Elizaveta Petrovna (1709-1762), which is considered by many scholars to be the first public recognition of Buddhism in Russia. This decree essentially recognized the Russian citizenship of the Buddhist clergy, gave them legitimacy and granted them certain rights, which could be considered as an indirect recognition of Buddhism in Russia. Empress Petrovna was given the name "White Tara" by Buddhist lamas following her recognition.

Buddhist communities today are active in major Russian cities, with the majority of them concentrated in Moscow and St. Petersburg. As Professor Maslow noted in his lecture, Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism are also practiced in Russia. A small percentage of Buddhists practice the Thai school. When asked to elaborate on Theravada Buddhism, Professor Maslov noted that there are no Theravada monks in Russia.

According to Professor Maslov, the fate of Buddhism in Russia has always been strongly linked to the political goals of the state. At the beginning of the XNUMXth century, political events in the Soviet Union were connected with the suspension of studies of Buddhism and the persecution of Buddhist devotees. Government officials began forcibly stripping monks and subsequently demolishing Buddhist temples as part of communist anti-religious policies. Hundreds of Buddhist clerics were arrested and locked up. Physical violence was commonplace. Monasteries and temples in Buryatia and Kalmykia were mostly senselessly destroyed in a fit of anti-religious fanaticism. The few that were spared were used for other purposes. Most Buddhist temple property was ransacked and looted, either kept as stolen property or found in museums. As a result, Buddhist culture was declared extinct in Buryatia and Kalmykia during the Soviet period.

With the restoration of religious freedom after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of Soviet Russia, a Buddhist resurgence began soon after 1991. It was surprising that a national Buddhist revival was quite visible in the context of a New but theoretically secular Russia. Buryatia, Kalmykia and Tuva experienced a rapid revival of interest in the Buddhist roots of their people. A new paradigm of collaboration between the state and religious institutions has been developed by the government. This model was created largely to legitimize state policies and control ethnic tensions through inter-religious dialogue.

Professor Maslov noted that Orthodox Christianity has a special place in the history and life of modern society, as Russia is a multi-confessional state with different religions. He said there was a long list of books by Orthodox authors who criticized Buddhist ideas. Orthodox criticism of Buddhism serves to emphasize Christianity's dominance over non-Christian religions, portraying Buddhism as an "outsider" in society.

Professor Maslov also claimed that Buddhism developed in a way that is not directly related to the nation's history. According to him, there is a movement among atheist scholars and the science-minded public to view Buddhism more as a philosophical system than a religion, much like how Buddhism is viewed by many in the music industry. mindfulness. This point was mainly highlighted during his second speech on April 19. The key periods of Buddhist studies in Russia (or more precisely, the St. Petersburg school of Buddhist studies) were also covered.

From the beginning of the XNUMXth century, one of the first fields of "Oriental studies" in Russia was Buddhism. This academic priority has had a strong influence on state policies. It was essential to acquire and use Buddhist studies in addition to the Mongol and Buryat languages ​​due to neighboring regions and the expansion of Russian power. However, Professor Maslov observed that in the early Russian academic study of Buddhism, scholars mainly focused on Indian Buddhism.

Professor Maslov highlighted some scholars who made important contributions to the study of Buddhism, such as Fyodor Shcherbatskoy (1866-1942), a distinguished Russian Indologist credited with laying the foundations of the St. Petersburg school. However, Professor Maslow said the majority focused on the work of French and German Buddhists rather than their Russian counterparts, influencing what the St Petersburg school considered authoritative.

It is evident that successive governments in post-Soviet Russia have mostly promoted the revival of Buddhism, as well as other national religions. Tibetan, Japanese and Chinese Buddhism continue to be the main areas studied by Russian scholars. Professor Maslov highlighted some of his own contributions to Zen Buddhism. However, the St. Petersburg school continues to be small, with few scholars interested in Russian Buddhism (apart from a few lamas and scholars). Hopefully, he noted, this gap will be filled in the future, as new generations of scholars have begun to emerge from local Buddhist communities.

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.

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