Buddhists compete under “traditional religion” status in Russia’s religious economy

    Buddhist monks in the Red Square in Moscow
    (© 2019 Txetxu Rubio / Flickr).

Even though Buddhism has been recognized as a “traditional religion” in Russia, Buddhist groups are increasingly divided, with an ethnic denomination that is highly loyal to Vladimir Putin appearing to have the brightest future in the country, writes J. Eugene Clay in the Journal of Church and State (online in February). As with other religions, Russia’s attempt to regulate Buddhism has encountered ethnic and religious divisions and conflicts, as well as competition. Buddhism in Russia has mainly been the religion of the ethnic Buryats, Kalmyks, and Tuvans, following in the Tibetan line of Buddhism, though non-ethnic coverts have started new groups in recent years. After decades of Soviet repression, Russia’s 1997 law on freedom of conscience and religious organizations recognized Buddhism as a traditional religion (along with Orthodox Christianity, Islam and Judaism), but that left Buddhist groups and leaders struggling over which organization would represent them to the government and how to define “traditional.” Clay writes that an early contender for such leadership was the Spiritual Directorate of Buddhists in Russia, headed by Nimazhap Iliukhinov, which remained active for two decades until it was liquidated by the courts in 2020. This group saw itself as more in line with the Dalai Lama’s teachings while seeking to serve many ethnicities and include such groups as Zen Buddhists.

Iliukhinov embraced a more liberal politics than his rival Pandito Khambo Lama Damba Ayusheev, who is a strong supporter of Vladimir Putin, including his invasion of Ukraine last year. Ayusheev heads the largely ethnic Buddhist Traditional Sangha of Russia (BTSR), which receives millions of rubles from state subsidies to support construction and restoration of its monasteries. At least 60 registered Buddhist communities in Russia belong to the BTSR, the largest share of any of the Russian denominations of Buddhism. Ayusheev has gained credibility and charisma among the country’s Buddhists by exhibiting he body of his predecessor, Dashi-Dorzho Itigilov, preserved in the lotus position, in a special palace built for him, attracting many pilgrims. Ayusheev has faced several schisms and upstart groups embracing various Buddhist traditions and more direct links to such international leaders as the Dalai Lama. The second most popular Buddhist group is the Russian Association of the Diamond Way Karma Kagyu Tradition, which is a westernized Tibetan Buddhist movement that has drawn non-ethnic converts. Although attacked as a cult, the Diamond Way movement at first gained many members, but many of its centers have been liquidated by the courts in recent years. Clay concludes that even with the competition, Ayusheev and the BTSR, with its narrower vision of serving ethnic Buddhists, its cultivation of Putin and other politicians, and its leader’s superior organizational abilities (not to mention his harnessing of the “thaumaturgical power of Itigilov’s sacred body”), has emerged as the most successful of Russia’s Buddhist organizations.

(Journal of Church and State, https://academic.oup.com/jcs)