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Banished Tibetan Lama Says He Was Warned By Russian Authorities

Tibetan monk Shiwalha Rinpoche had been active in Russia for the past decade, before his shock expulsion from the country.
Tibetan monk Shiwalha Rinpoche had been active in Russia for the past decade, before his shock expulsion from the country.

A prominent Tibetan lama who has been ordered out of Russia says the country's security agency had previously warned him to be less active in preaching Tibetan Buddhism to Russians.

Shiwalha Rinpoche, who has earned a strong following in Russia over the past decade, was declared "undesirable" by the Federal Security Service (FSB) in late September and ordered to leave with no possibility of return.

"During all these years there had never been any complaint about my activities," he told RFE/RL in Moscow a day before his planned departure to India late on October 16. "But last year, FSB officials came to one of my lectures. They listened and then suggested that I give fewer sermons. This is the reason why I was less active this year."

Shiwalha Rinpoche said that he has done nothing wrong but would comply with the expulsion order out of respect for the law of his adoptive country.

"I know that I am right; that I have not committed any violations," he said. "Over the past decade, I have tried to help those who turned to me, I taught them to have a more positive outlook on life, to open their hearts to kindness and love."

His shock expulsion has raised hackles in Russia's Buddhist community and fueled suspicions of Chinese meddling -- with complicity from the Russian authorities.

The lama's disciples have taken the FSB to court in a bid to overturn the decision and have launched nationwide petitions to defend their religious teacher.

"They love him and deeply respect him," says Yelena Lokhnina, a spokeswoman for the center organizing his lectures in Moscow and herself one of his novices. "So, of course, they were upset at first. Then they started asking themselves: 'Why?'"

The FSB has remained tight-lipped about its motives, invoking state secret privilege.

Baffled Supporters

In its expulsion order, the FSB only cited the law regulating entries and departures from Russian territory.

The article it cited says foreign citizens can be declared "undesirable" in Russia if they pose "a genuine threat to national defense and security, to public order, or to public health," or if their expulsion ensures "the protection of the constitutional system, of the morals, rights, and legal interests of others."

The decision has baffled his supporters, who describe Shiwalha Rinpoche as a harmless monk who preached tolerance and helped battle alcoholism and drug addiction among Russians.

"He gives lectures, he conducts retreats, he helps people," says Lokhnina. "He gives private audiences and advises people on how to solve problems and family conflicts, for instance."

Shiwalha Rinpoche's interest in Russia goes back to 2004, when he began paying regular visits to the country's predominantly Buddhist republic of Tyva, in southern Siberia.

Four years later, he permanently settled down in Tyva at the invitation of local authorities.

The lama, who applied for Russian citizenship last year, believes he is the reincarnation of a Siberian native and says he feels a deep connection with that region.

The arrival of such a high-ranking lama has jumpstarted the revival of the faith in traditionally Buddhist sections of Siberia, where Buddhist monks were heavily repressed under Soviet rule along with other religious leaders.

Shiwalha Rinpoche, 48, bears the title of geshe -- the holder of a degree equivalent to a Western doctorate in Buddhist philosophy -- and enjoys international recognition as a Buddhist teacher.

He has thousands of followers in Russia and more particularly in Tyva, where he founded several organizations and last year opened the republic's first Buddhist meditation center.

In 2012, the local government and parliament awarded him for his contribution to the resurgence of Buddhism in the region.

"For 11 years, he brought the philosophy of Buddhism to the faithful," says Aneta Oorzhak, the head of the cultural foundation Enerel, established by the lama in 2006. "He played a big role in teaching people about their religion."

'Diplomatic Sensitivities'

Many believe it is precisely Shiwalha Rinpoche's active efforts to popularize Tibetan Buddhism in Russia that prompted the FSB to blacklist him, at China's behest.

"China's efforts to curb the spread of Tibetan Buddhism in Russia are definitely one of the FSB's motives for this decision," says Boris Falikov, a respected religious expert. "It fits into Beijing's policy aimed at the international isolation of the Dalai Lama and of other world-renowned Tibetan lamas."

Russia, which has fought wars with China and competes for regional clout but frequently moves in lockstep with Beijing on rights and geopolitical issues, has repeatedly barred the Dalai Lama from entering its territory, citing diplomatic sensitivities with Beijing.

China has outlawed Tibetan Buddhism and branded its leader, the Dalai Lama, a dangerous separatist seeking independence for Tibet.

Russia's non-Tibetan Buddhist leaders, who enjoy closer ties with Moscow, have not rushed to Shiwalha Rinpoche's defense.

Contacted by the Russian newspaper Kommersant, Russia's Buddhist Traditional Sangha said it would not stand up for the embattled lama since "Shiwalha Rinpoche has no connection whatsoever with our organization, he's on his own," a spokesman for the Sangha told the newspaper.

Russian law enshrines Russian Orthodoxy, Islam, Buddhism, and Judaism as traditional religions for the country, giving them privileged status, while believers from outside the mainstream in those religions and from other faiths sometimes face repression or harassment.

In Tyva, at any rate, few doubt the move against Shiwalha Rinpoche originated outside his adoptive republic.

Oorzhak, the head of the Enerel foundation, says Tyva Prime Minister Sholban Kara-Ool urged FSB officials to "consider the possibility of other ways to settle the issue" during a meeting to which she and other leaders of Buddhist organizations were invited to discuss the lama's fate.

According to Oorzhak, the head of the local FSB branch told the meeting that "the decision did not come from Tyva."

Shiwalha Rinpoche still hopes he can one day return to Russia.

He awaits a decision from Tyva's Supreme Court, to which the case was referred on October 13 after a local court declared itself unable to rule on the case.

Meanwhile, his supporters are piling pressure on the Kremlin to intervene.

Several of them have filed video appeals to protest the lama's expulsion and a petition is making the rounds in 12 different Russian regions.

A separate online petition calling on Russian President Vladimir Putin to cancel the FSB's decision has collected more than 2,600 signatures.

"Buddhists wouldn't hurt a fly, they preach love and kindness," wrote one signatory, Dmitry Ovchinnikov from Moscow.

"There are so many callous, thieving officials among our authorities," Dmitry Slesarev, another Muscovite, protested. "They are the ones responsible for all Russia's problems, not lamas!"

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