His Holiness the Dalai Lama Visits Ussr

The following article is from the Autumn, 1991 issue of the Snow Lion Newsletter and is for historical reference only. You can see this in context of the original newsletter here.

SOVIET BUDDHISTS GIVE HIS HOLINESS THE MOST JOYOUS RECEPTION EVER

by Gary Wintz

The sun has never shown brighter for Soviet Buddhists. For three weeks between July 10 and July 30, 1991, His Holiness the Dalai Lama of Tibet traveled to more Buddhist regions across the USSR than on any other of his previous visits.

Since his first trip in 1979, His Holiness has been faithfully visiting Soviet Buddhists every few years. This is the only time, however, that he has traveled to the USSR when freedom of religion has finally been respected by law and has truly blossomed. All this is thanks to the glasnost policies of Gorbachev. New radical reforms in the Russian republic, coupled with Boris Yeltsin's recent elective success, has inspired more Buddhists to feel free to greet His Holiness in record numbers.

Siberia

The Dalai Lama joined with many thousands of Siberian Buddhists in Ulan Ude in celebrating the 250th anniversary of czarist Russia's official acceptance of Tibetan Buddhism to Buryatia.

His Holiness also made pilgrimage to Mount Alkhanaione of the holiest mountains in the world of Tibetan Buddhism-located in the Chita region of Siberia, not far from the northernmost border of China. This pristine pine-covered peak has been a center of devotion for Kalmyk, Mongolian, Buryat, Russian, and Estonian Buddhists, who perform circumambulations there. In the era before the communist's conquest of Central Asia, even devotees from as far away as Tibet would make this pilgrimage of thousands of miles across the Great Tibetan Plateau and the Gobi Desert. On Sunday, July 21, His Holiness climbed Mount Alkhanai, holding a religious service which included a puja to purify the site.

Also in Siberia, His Holiness visited the once magnificent temple of Aginskaya. This great temple was the center of the finest sutra woodblock printing press outside of Tibet itself. Thousands of the highest quality sutras were disseminated from here throughout Mongolia and Siberia, to Kalmykia in the deep southern Russian steppes, and to St. Petersburg. Unfortunately, the entire printing library of wood blocks was senselessly destroyed when Stalin's purges reached Aginsk in 1936-37.

Amidst the high rolling prairies and grasslands south of Chita, His Holiness paid his respects to several elderly Aginsk monks. Somehow this handful survived the communist persecutions and have been allowed to return to the gutted buildings of the historic complex. Many young Buryat monks, (and even a Russian monk we met there last year), under the guidance of their elders, now chant the sutras in the classical, liturgical Tibetan language. This is an unbrokenalbeit sometimes undergroundchain of the Gelugpa's learning tradition dating back to the 1700s in these regions.

This Aginsk temple also had special ties with Labrang Lamasery in Amdo, on the edge of the Tibetan plateau, not far from the region of His Holiness' birthplace. Before the Soviet persecution of religion in the 1930s, some abbots and monks of Aginsky Datsan had studied at Labrang.

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Rebuilding of Temples

His Holiness also visited the temple at Ivolginskythe only other token temple Stalin allowed to function, for propaganda purposes, beginning again in the 1940s. Forty-two other gompas remain in ruins today, but a number are now being reconstructed. In the neighboring Turkic-speaking Tuvan Republic, plans are also underway to rebuild lamaseries.

Even in the remote town of Orlik in western Buryatia, the home of Ven. Samaev Tenzin Khetsun, the local temple is being rebuilt. Lama Samaev, a progressive Buryat in his forties, who was elected into the Russian parliament, is also the new abbot of the temple in Leningrad.

Moscow

On July 30 in Moscow, His Holiness the Dalai Lama received Lama Samaev in an audience in which the Orlik Lama made a donation to His Holiness on behalf of all the Leningrad Buddhists for a puja in memory of Tara Rinpoche.

Earlier in Moscow, between July 10th and 13th, His Holiness made many public appearances, including a meeting with the Writers Union and a public talk in the huge Palace of Culture. That place was totally packed, according to attorney David Urubshurow of Washington, D.C., who accompanied His Holiness in parts of the Soviet Union.

Unprecedented Visit to Republic of Kalmykia

David Urubshurow is a Kalmyk American who from the age of seven was a student of Geshe Wangyal in New Jersey. Geshe Wangyal was born and raised in Kalmykia (in the Volga Delta region of southern Russia), and studied under the great Lama Dorjief there. Geshe-la fled the Stalinist repressions in Kalmykia by escaping to the lamaseries of Mongolia. He soon found himself having to flee Mongolia for the same reason and journeyed to Tibet. Geshe Wangyal finally found lasting freedom in New Jersey where he died in 1983, after having become one of the most respected teachers in American Buddhist history.

Over the years a special friendship developed between Geshe-la and H.H. the Dalai Lama. Urubshurow said that His Holiness often invoked the memory of Geshe Wangyal throughout his un-precedented visit to Geshe-la's homeland of Kalmykia in July. His Holiness also met in private audience with the relatives of his old friend, including two nephews and a grand-niece.

Of all the regions His Holiness visited this time in the USSR, his journey to the Kalmyk Republic was perhaps the most significant and most eventful.

Everybody who was anybody in the Kalmyk Republic was there at that capital airport in Elista to greet His Holiness, said David Urubshurow.

The republic had arranged a government charter flight and the Dalai Lama was warmly greeted by both President Basanov and by Prime Minister Mikhailov. These two leaders had actually initiated the invitation and even had the courage to stand up to the stern warnings of the Soviet Foreign Ministry who were worried about the communist Chinese making trouble. These Kalmyks were courageous and farsighted. They held their ground over the protests of the Soviet Foreign Ministry. In fact, they flat out defied them.

In all the Soviet Union, the largest crowds to greet His Holiness were in Kalmyk country, Urubshurow proudly recounted.

During the six-day visit, His Holiness gave Avalokiteshvara teachings for three days at the horse race track on the edge of Elista.

Starting at six in the morning thousands upon thousands of people each day came from all over the Republic, Urubshurow said. The crowds were overwhelming. When all the huge grounds had filled with pilgrims, His Holiness gave permission to the security guards to allow people to come into the infield with him. The infield totally filled up within minutes.

I was amazed at the number of old people who were carrying religious objects of devotion, like prayer wheels, malas, and even thangkas, which they brought for His Holiness to bless. The faith and courage of these people to somehow hold onto these things through seventy years of communist persecution, even through the decimating exile into Siberiasomehow they held onto these thingsit was all very moving and very humblingand this is an unemotional lawyer you are talking to! confessed Urubshurow.

Over and over as I spoke to older Kalmyk people, Urubshurow related, they kept saying that this was a dream come true. Nothing short of that.

For almost 400 years the Kalmyk Mongolians have had a loyalty to and reverence for the Gelugpa sect in general, and the institution of the Dalai Lama in particular.

But until now no Dalai Lama had ever set foot in Kalmyk country. No one there ever thought they would see His Holiness, or any living Dalai Lama.

The Kalmyks and the Tibetans

This thing didn't just happen because the Kalmyks suffered near genocide, Urubshurow continued. It happened because Tibet suffered. His Holiness suffered upheaval and displacement. Had His Holiness not gone into exile, the dream of a Dalai Lama visiting the Soviet Union and the Kalmyk Republic would not have come true.

This is historic. Unprecedented! His Holiness was well aware of the fate of the Kalmyk people, the destruction of their culture. The Kalmyk Mongolians were the only Asian population group on the European continent to embrace Tibetan Buddhism, and they were the first to suffer from communism as it swept toward Asia. The Buddhist Kalmyk experience with Marxism-Leninism became the paradigm for all the Tibetan Buddhist cultures of Central Asia who would later suffer under communism in Buryatia, Mongolia, Inner Mongolia and Tibet.

The Buddhist holocaust begins in Kalmykiathe first venue where it was destroyed. The visit of the Dalai Lama represents the beginning of the renaissance of Buddhism. It is now being revived. His visit was nothing less than religious CPR. I was there on stage in Elista during the initiation by His Holiness when at least a dozen young Kalmyk monks professed their initial vows before him.

I considered myself lucky to be there through the kindness of my Lama. The message of His Holiness emphasized the tremendous difference one man can make in the world, e.g., Geshe Wangyal. It was such a joyous celebration for Kalmyk country. It truly is a dependent arising situation.

There are now two Kalmyks in the Supreme Soviet. Both met His Holiness and were visibly moved. These two men of power will not forget Tibet. They will feel kinship and sympathy. It really is true. One person can make a difference.


Molly McGinn and Gary Wintz have lived in Tibet and have traveled to Buddhist regions of the USSR numerous times since 1978. In 1990 they were hosted by braiiches of the Soviet Academy of Sciences to give talks on Tibet. They lecture around the world about the Russian-Mongolian-Tibetan Connection. Contact them if you are interested in having them speak in your area, or to join them in tours to these regions: Molly McGinn/Gary Wintz, InterNet/Soviet-Tibet, 1341 Ocean Avenue, Suite 232, Santa Monica, CA 90401.

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