The Datsan by the Neva: Celebrating the heritage of Buddhism in St. Petersburg

Lori Images, Legion Media
Eastern culture has been an integral part of St. Petersburg and this year marks the 100th anniversary of the Buddhist Datsan Gunzechoine.

“Well, say “om” or hum and let it go”, said someone plaintively. The carp purchased from Auchan barely moves. It is held under the dark running water with a plastic bag. The carp’s life will now be offered in a ritual to consecrate a Buddhist stupa. It is important that the carp is not released before the monk, specially invited from Nepal, finishes reading the necessary prayers. However, the fish from the supermarket looks so listless that the Petersburg Buddhists out of pity decide to release it into the river early.


The Stupa of Enlightenment

Sitting at a low table under a spruce tree, a Nepalese man calmly continues the ritual. Leafing through narrow prayer books, he rings the bells, pounds the drum and scatters grains of rice.

The Stupa of Enlightenment was built two years ago. After the site was chosen, a concrete frame was produced, which was then filled with scrolls containing prayers and other ritualistic objects, and finally the pommel was set. The Dzogchen retreat centre is also set to be constructed with a guest house as well as places for study and meditation. For now, the land remains a private site consisting of 50 m2 of the Rainbow Buddhist horticultural garden around 15 kilometres from St. Petersburg.

“Buddhists from different cities and even countries have helped us build everything here. After all, everything should be done according to certain rules, starting with the selection of the site”, explains Talya Turdubekova, the centre’s organiser. She and her husband Konstantin bought land in the Vsevolozhsk region and built the centre almost entirely at their own expense. “For a long time we’ve gathered ritualistic hallmarks of the stupa, medicinal pills, pieces of clothing from lamas, land from holy places, including the town of Bodhgaya, the place of Buddha’s enlightenment. There are even the texts of mantras, printed on standard paper and then washed with water infused with saffron.”

The Nepalese teacher Chokya Nima Rinpoche received spiritual training and, as his name implies, the guru belongs to the school Nima or Nyingma, one of the Tibetan branches of Buddhism, the “School of Old Translation,” colloquially known as “the red hats.” As intended by the couple, the stupa and centre will be open to all Buddhists, regardless of their school. Even Talya and Konstantin belong to different communities and share the management of the centre.

In St. Petersburg a few schools of Buddhism operate such as the Tibetan Nyingma, Kagyu and the most common “yellow hats,” Gelug. There are also followers of Theravada, which is popular in Thailand and Sri Lanka. There are zen Buddhists and even adherents to the exotic Tibetan Bon teachings. In total, there are several thousand people who practice today. Although for a city with a population of 5 million it is not many, it is still enough for Buddhist teachings to thrive.

The fire is lit and the choir begins to chant mantras in Tibetan. Each member holds a sheet of paper with a word-for-word translation. Everything is quiet in transformation except the mosquitoes, the eternal karmic creditors of the Leningrad region. Buddhists see killing mosquitoes as a sin, while allowing them to feed on your own blood as an act of generosity and is recorded as an act of karmic debt.



Sand Mandalas are are two-dimensional depictions of the palace of a Buddhist deity and are regularly constructed in St. Petersburg. The Da Vinci mandala in the health centre is already the second one to be built this year. Over the mandala of Green Tara are intricate images with multiple elements. A group of Tibetan monks from the Tashi Drepung Goman monastery in India worked on it for a whole week, only to destroy it on the last day. Indoors devout Buddhists gathered round, as well as eccentric esoterics and curious people. They walked around the mandalas, eliminating negative karma, absorbing goodness. It is believed that the goddess appears in the palace once the ritual of acquiring land and pouring the first coloured grains of sand onto the substrate is held. During the walk around the mandalas one should dwell on a positive thought or feeling, such as the welfare of all living beings.

It is thought that mandalas remove negative elements. The institution’s host, Yuri, believes that the first mandala of White Mahakala, built in their centre during the spring, saved Russia from economic crisis. Green Tara helps more in private affairs and it’s possible to turn to her with simple requests, hoping for quick help.

“We are a serious institution so before inviting monks, we check their Datsan and clarify who they are. Unfortunately sometimes false gurus try to deceive people”, says Yuri, a large man with cunning eyes. Although Yuri talks in-depth about energies and portals, to people mildly-devoted it is clear that he is in favour of the construction of Mandalas. He is also even supportive of their destruction! Destroying a Mandala is see as an opportunity to reflect on the impermanence of the world and of life. Sometimes mandalas are embroidered on fabric, constructed out of metal or stone, or drawn on paper, but a sand mandala is very special because it is destroyed. After a couple of strokes with a broom, instead of a divine palace in front of you, there is just a pile of colourful sand.

In the adjoining room, some of the monks hold the ritual of the twenty one Taras. The sacrificial horse is said to absorb all of the negative elements and sin. The symbolic horse is moulded out of dough and is so small, that it seems unlikely that it will be able to accommodate all of the sins of St. Petersburg. The Horse of Remission looks out of a pretty cardboard house, practically a palace. Along with the cardboard structure, it is released into the Neva River and is set to sail in the direction of the Gulf of Finland.


Controversial Beginnings

Buddhism has been strongly entrenched in St. Petersburg for a long time. The most important Buddhist place in the city is the famous Datsan Gunzechoinei, located on the banks of the Bolshaya Neva. It is a tiny piece of Tibet in the heart of the northern capital.

In spite of the obstacles to its construction, next year the unassuming-looking temple marks its one hundredth anniversary. Although it received special attention from the Dalai Lama and despite the intentions of the Russian imperial authorities to bring Tibet under its protection, the construction of a Buddhist temple in St. Petersburg faced many obstacles. Christian clergymen protested, the Black Hundreds threatened to disrupt construction, authorities froze the construction permit so money was always short, and the Tsar’s intelligence agencies suspected the Buddhist centre to be an outpost of the Japanese intelligence.

But work progressed. Only in 1905 did Nicholas II issue an edict of toleration, banning official texts from calling Buddhists idolaters or pagans, and after 10 years a monumental temple was built. Its architect was Gavriil Baranovsky, the very architect who designed the building of the Russian Geographic Society, as well as the Elisseeff emporiums in Moscow and in St. Petersburg. Stained glass windows with Buddhist symbols were made based on sketches by Nicholas Roerich.

Buddhism in Russia was not some pagan cult. In 1741 Empress Elizabeth Petrovna recognised it as a traditional religion second to Orthodoxy. Even Islam and Hinduism were later recognised. This toleration by the Empress was of course part of a political project. Russia was expanding to the East, and she had to show her support to groups who willingly joined the empire. Catherine II established the official post of the Khambo Lama, the head of the Buddhists in Eastern Siberia and Transbaikal. Then in 1766 the Buryatian Lama recognised the Russian Empress as the incarnation of White Tara, sympathetic and compassionate. Since then all autocrats of the Russian Empire, until the revolution, considered themselves incarnations of the goddess. During the presidency of Dmitrii Medvedev, the media reported that the Buryatia Lama offered to recognise White Tara within him. Of course this is all nonsense.

After great difficulty, the datsan was Eventually built but then it was plunged into the revolution, civil war and repression of the clergy under the communists. The temple itself has survived with just a bullet to the Victorious Banner, a gold plated cylinder on its roof. During the second world war, radio broadcasting transmitters operated inside the Datsan. with antennas run out of a barrage balloon. Around the same time, a Buddhist swastika was removed from the floor of the temple near its entrance. Today there is now a hole which has been patched with tiles. After the war the building became a jamming station for enemy radios, and then became a department of the zoological institute.


The centre of Budhhism and eastern culture in St. Petersburg

After the renovation of the temple, services began to be held again, and now the temple is full of activity. A Buryatian culture centre occupies two rooms, where children can learn traditional songs and dances. Kalmyks, Tuvans, Altai people and anyone interested in the spirituality of the East come here. Classes on meditation and lectures on zen Buddhism are also conducted. A Thai teacher also holds classes on Theravada. Near the main statue of a seated Buddha stands a small Buddha, which was given to the temple by the King of Siam one hundred years ago.

The walls in the dugan (the main hall) are decorated with mosaics of deities and bodhisattvas completed only a few years ago. The use of hard materials is new for Buddhism as usually, these kinds of images are made in soft fabric. However, in the cold and damp conditions of St. Petersburg, Buddhist fabrics don’t last long. In the courtyard in front of the datsan’s entrance grow mighty Siberian larches brought from Buryatia. Prayer wheels with mantras inside sit alongside the trees and are surrounded by scattered coins left by believers.

“Do not leave money on the prayer wheels or throw it into the courtyard”, warns the head of the datsan’s press service Anna Namsareva. “They are sometimes picked up by those who like to drink or children out of ignorance and this disturbs their karma. It is better instead to use rice or corn.”

In the courtyard it is possible to improve your karma by walking around the temple in a clockwise direction rotating the prayer wheels as you go. For success in business and prosperity, stick a hand into the mouth of one of the Chinese lions guarding the entrance, and rotate the stone ball inside.

Usually shoes have to be removed at the entrances of Buddhist temples. In St. Petersburg however allowances are made for the congregation and it is possible to buy five ruble plastic covers that can be worn around your shoes.

In addition to communal prayer, monk astrologers also work at the datsan. They give useful advice and conduct protective rituals. At a souvenir stall near the entrance it is possible to buy astrological calendars for every day. They even state what day you should travel or get a haircut.

“Honestly, I don’t pay attention to those, but instead am guided by a master”, says Alla. Her hair is perfect. “Fanaticism appeals to no one. In Buddhism the middle path has been adopted.”

In the basement of the building, there is a cafe that serves traditional Buryat-Mongolian dishes. Large ravioli or buuz come in the form of small yurts, and are served with slightly salty milk tea. This kind of food gives the nomads strength and warmth, fitting for a cold St. Petersburg as well.

On a wooden walkway in the datsan one of the monks lifts a 32 kg weight. A healthy body leads to a healthy mind. One can not exist without the other. There is no fanaticism, only balance.

All rights reserved by Rossiyskaya Gazeta.

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