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Russia: Controversy Persists In Buryatia Over Sacred Texts

By Julie Corwin

A revered Buddhist text is now back in Buryatia after a tour of North America. The plan by regional officials in the Russian republic to allow the tour had prompted protests among local Buddhists last year. RFE/RL's Julie Corwin reports that its return may also have political consequences.

Prague, 6 October 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The Atlas of Tibetan Medicine is back in Buryatia, the southern Russian republic bordering Mongolia. But a dispute over the atlas is likely to resurface and spill over into regional politics.

Local Buddhists consider the atlas sacred. They objected last year to the republic's decision to send it to North American art museums without what they believed sufficient safeguards and a guarantee of its eventual return to Ulan Ude, Buryatia's capital. At the time, their objections led to a clash between police and Buddhist monks. Buddhists comprise roughly one-third of the republic's population and many observers predicted, wrongly as it turned out, that the dispute would cost Buryatia President Leonid Potapov reelection.

The atlas in question is not an atlas in the conventional sense, but a series of 76 paintings. Measuring 81 by 66 centimeters, they were copied by Tibetan artists in the 1920s from a 17th century medical treatise that was subsequently lost. It somehow survived former Soviet leader Josef Stalin's assault on the Buddhist Church in the 1930s.

And the U.S.-based Pro Cultura foundation, which sponsored the atlas's tour of North America, is working with Ulan Ude's Museum of the History of Buryatia to ensure its future preservation.

Museum workers say that the paintings should and will remain at the museum. But the head of Russia's Buddhist Church, Pandito Xambo Lama, also known as Damba Ausheev, apparently has other ideas. Speaking with RFE/RL recently in Ulan Ude, he said he wants the text to be turned over to local Buddhists.

"Museum directors change, governments change. New people will take over. I think in our republic of Buryatia there will be democratic leaders who understand the values of democracy, and the atlas will be returned to us, I believe, whether our bureaucrats wish it or not. State officials have no moral or spiritual right to control this property."

At the present time, the atlas is formally the property of the Russian federal government. But Ausheev says that "it would be very desirable for the atlas to become our property again and return to our possession." He also reported that the head of the Aginskii datsan (a temple), which originally commissioned the work, is gathering documents and will file a petition to have the atlas returned to the temple.

But Lidia Nimaeva, head of the Department for the North, Siberia and Far East at the federal Ministry for Nationalities Policy, says just the opposite. She told RFE/RL in Moscow that the head of the datsan understands that it "would be too much of a burden" to care for the atlas and provide "adequately for its storage and safekeeping." She says that the head of the datsan and the Museum of the History of Buryatia are in complete agreement on the issue.

Nimaeva also suggests that Ausheev's past and present stance regarding the atlas is based more on political grounds than religious ones. She says that it was no coincidence that the monks challenged Buryatia President Leonid Potapov's decision to send some of the paintings abroad just weeks before presidential elections took place in the republic.

Ausheev counters that taking the atlas out of the country "would have been a problem for us at any time." But he adds that "perhaps we were lucky that the conflict occurred when it did."

Ausheev says that neither the Aginskii datsan nor the Buddhist Church received one ruble from the proceeds of the exhibition. He argues that the primary motivation for President Potapov's agreeing to the atlas's exhibition was monetary, since the federal Ministry of Culture, the republic's government, and the museum all received hard currency in return. Nimaeva, however, says the amount of money involved was small since the atlas was shown only at university museums, each of which paid only 5,000 dollars.

A renewed conflict over the atlas would likely affect not only local politics in Buryatia but could also deepen the rift that currently exists within Russia's Buddhist Church. Ausheev's chief rival is Lama Nimazhap Ilyukhinov, head of the Spiritual Agency of Buddhists of Russia. He came out in support of Potapov following the clash with police last year. Ilyukhinov, who leads the Buddhist communities in Saint Petersburg and Moscow, criticizes what he calls Ausheev's nationalist tendencies. He suggests that Ausheev and his followers should be more open to exchanges with Buddhists in other regions and countries and less confrontational with political authorities, such as Potapov.

Ausheev, on the other hand, remains adamant not only that the atlas be returned to its original owner but that Buryat Buddhism be allowed to develop independently of the influence of other traditions. He tells RFE/RL that Buddhists in Buryatia "do not like it very much when missionaries come over from other Buddhist countries". At the same time, he stressed that it is wrong to accuse him of being undemocratic for opposing their incursions into his territory.

Ausheev links the issue to the development of democracy in Russia. "If you want Russia to become a democratic state, then you must give its traditional religions a chance to develop on their own."

Ausheev says he "understands the word democracy to mean the right of a person to live in a traditional milieu, in the embrace of the religion practiced by his parents, the religion that helped them to survive".