A note Gusino Ozero, seat of imperial Russia's Buddhists

by H. S. Hun4ley

Asian Affairs

Vol. 25 No. 1 Feb.1994


Copyright by Asian Affairs

[SHE WRITES: Last spring and summer while researching a nineteenth century Siberian nationalist movement in Irkutsk, I was able to get away to Buriatia. Having almost completed a scholarly article on the Russian policy toward Buriat Buddhists, I wanted to see the seat of power of the Buriat Buddhists in Imperial Russia at Gusino Ozero for myself My simple (or simple-minded) desire turned into quite a learning experience for me, despite having spent countless hours reading articles of similar activities by your members at the turn of the century. Because of continued sensitivity to issues concerning differences in culture and ethnicity in the Russian Republic, I have been intentionally vague as to who accompanied me on this journey. After being asked by a colleague in Irkutsk if I intended to "stir up ethnic trouble" with my research topic, I have redoubled my sensitivity to Russian sensitivities.] The monastery compound on the southwest shore of the Buriat Republic's Gusino Ozero [Goose Lake] has been silent for sixty years. Only two of the original structures survive. But that will soon change as the remaining buildings are being renovated and new buildings to house a school of Tibetan medicine are being built. Given the derelict state of the compound, one must ask why the Buriats are spending their precious money at this time of extreme inflation on an isolated place near the Mongolian border. The original inhabitants of the surrounding rolling steppe and mountains on both sides of Lake Baikal were Mongols who moved northward from central Mongolia in the thirteenth century. Time and intermarriage with the local Tungus and others resulted in the creation of the Burial people, related culturally and linguistically to the Mongols, but separated by time and distance from them. They soon became the dominant group in Baikalia, and were only supplanted with difficulty by the Russians in the seventeenth century, with liberal use of the policy of divide and conquer and superior weaponry. Despite the Russian arrivals some two centuries before, it has only been since the nineteenth century that the Buriats have shared their lands with large numbers of Russians. In the late seventeenth century, Tibetan and newly-converted Mongol Buddhist monks of the dGe-lugs-pa [Yellow Hat] sect arrived to convert the shamanist Burials. The Buddhist missionaries were wildly successful. From the 1740s to 1777 alone twelve monasteries were built in the Transbaikal. This growth in a religion with foreign leadership caused the Imperial Russian government some concern, as they continued to fear the security of this comparatively recently annexed area of Siberia. In order to alleviate Buddhism's potential threat to Russian sovereignty, an internal leader, a Bandido Khambo Lama [senior lama], was created. A special seat of power at Shiretui tsongol'skii datsan [established 1730] was designated to augment his alienation from Lhasa and the Dalai Lama. The first seat of power soon became embroiled in a power struggle with the rival datsan at Gusino Ozero. In 1809, the faction at Gusino Ozero won, becoming the home of Russia's Buddhist leader. For 120 years it served this purpose well. Throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth century, government decrees filtered through this monastery, More importantly for the faithful, Gusino Ozero became a major depository for Tibetan and Mongol language books, artifacts, a centre for training monks, and a institutional base for defence of the Buddhists against the Imperial Russian government's attempts to curtail their activities. Buddhist monks and the Khambo Lama were not totally unworldly at this time. The list of Khambo Lamas removed from their post by the Russian government in the nineteenth century attests to the continuing struggle between a government attempting to limit the purview and growth of Buddhism, and the Buddhist leaders chafing at limitations on religious activities. By the end of the nineteenth century, the Buriat faithful and a growing number of Buriat sceptics fervently argued about the correct direction for Buriats--either towards mainly religious or towards mainly cultural and economic connections with fellow Mongols and Tibetans. From the time of the Revolution to the end of the 1920s Gusino Ozero served as a seat of All-Buriat councils as well as a focal point for Buriat and Buddhist culture. Religious issues concerning the role of Buddhism in the modern world, as well as discussion of very secular issues of rights and directions for the Buriat people within the new state were mooted at these meetings. The Buriat Buddhists' internationally renowned, exceptional leader, Agvan Dorjiev, and his colleagues, defended Buddhism well in Moscow under Lenin, but they had merely postponed the inevitable. In the late 1920s and early 1930s, in a rapid and clean sweep of Buddhist lamas and their institutions in the Soviet Union, the compound at Gusino Ozero was closed and its datsans stripped of their artifacts and books, while the buildings were destroyed. All fell silent on the lake, and the growing Russian village surrounded the former monastery and crept ever closer to the remaining derelict buildings. To underline its "non-existence" in the 1970s, a surviving shell of a building from Gusino Ozero was rebuilt on the grounds of the Ethnographic Museum at Ulan-Ude. The official silence and inactivity changed in 1990. As President Gorbachev's glasnost had resulted in increasingly vocal and open activity on the part of Orthodox, Jewish, and Moslem Soviets, the Buddhists acted as well. A new Bandido Khambo Lama. Munko, was named and a new seat for him provided, Izvolsky datsan. The choice of this datsan, only 40 kilometers from the Buriat Republic's capital, Ulan-Ude, refects the shift in concentration of population from the eighteenth century, and moreover does not invite historical connections. What then of the former centre? In the spring of 1993 1 told Russian friends that I was going to be in Irkutsk for some time doing research, and that I intended to go to Buriatia to see Gusino Ozero. In April they called friends in Ulan-Ude and replied that they did not think that there would be any buildings of historical interest to me at Gusino Ozersk. I corrected them saying that my destination would be the village, Gusino Ozero, on the southern tip of the lake, not the modern industrial town Gusino Ozersk, on the northern tip of the lake. This bantering lasted throughout May and into June of 1993. A Russian who had lived in Ulan-Ude many years and has extensive Buriat contacts in Ulan-Ude was called and he responded that after "asking around" he found that no one knew what I was talking about. The American must be confused. Nevertheless, the American historian was to be humoured. Even to the day I arrived in Ulan-Ude my host had no positive information for me. Prevailing upon his limitless good humour, I encouraged continued efforts on his part resulting in a final call to a friend, a Buriat artist of international repute. All of this questioning and negative responses had elicited some important information; numbers of educated and interested Buriats in Buriatiia either did not know about the existence of a monastery, or were vague as to its historical importance. While some Buriats were aware of the importance of its most illustrious inhabitants, like Agvan Dorjiev, they were unclear where they had lived or whether the buildings still existed. If this was the case with educated people in Ulan-Ude, what would I find in the countryside? Stalin's efforts had succeeded. Even after the artist agreed that indeed Gusino Ozero was the old centre of Buriat Buddhism, and that it still existed, amazingly scepticism still reigned. Nevertheless. on a clear and sunny Saturday at noon we set out in an eight year old Lada with a bag of left-over cookies and a box of Fig Newtons from Irkutsk. The two-hour trip south to Gusino Ozersk reminds visitors of the logicality of traditional Buriat herding, given the terrain. Among the Buriat herds, the new Chinese vegetable farms are changing the diet and economy of the Transbaikal. Not only do these new farms appear prosperous but, upon arriving at Gusino Ozersk and seeing the bustle and building of new single family homes, they hint at a changing economy. My Russian friends still doubted the existence of my datsan, especially upon hearing either rather vague directions, or outright denials of the existence of the datsan from people on the road to Gusino Ozersk. With a second tank of petrol we skirted the eastern side of the beautiful Goose Lake on a paved road. We finally found a lorry driver who said we would need to travel on a dirt road on the south end of the lake. One half-hour later, upon rounding a corner and seeing the open landscape a village appeared sitting on the southernmost tip of the lake. Some five kilometres from the village I cried out. "There it is!". Indeed, still soaring, the main temple stands out above its surrounding apartment houses. After two false attempts to actually reach the temple, due to the labyrinth of roads serving the new houses almost completely encircling the compound, we found a gate, a new gate, identifying this place as Tamchinskii datsan. Inside, we found a recently remodeled secondary datsan, and a damaged but salvageable main datsan, 250 years old, being prepared for renovation. The three-storey building exhibiting the Chinese influence of the eighteenth century in its roof, lacks all of its original ornamentation on the walls, columns, and ceiling. The floor itself is seriously damaged. Despite the derelict state of the main datsan, its solid, thick walls have taken it through these difficult times. A caretaker in an "Adidas" outfit told us, in Russian, the history of the destruction of the other buildings by the Soviets. The caretaker opened up the now functioning datsan for us to see, with its Buddhas and small collection of nineteenth century photos of Khambo Lama Gomboev and others. The building itself has once again been richly, if not profusely, ornamented with painted columns and ceiling. New prayer wheels were just being built. They are preparing to build a school of Tibetan medicine and dormitory in the near future, but money is a major stumbling block. Despite the political changes in the last two years, the Buddhists still face opposition and misunderstanding from Moscow. They are perceived as being "rich" and face heavy taxation at a time when every rouble is needed for rebuilding and refurbishing. In addition, just as in every other segment of the Russian economy, they face the problems of obtaining material necessary for rebuilding. The drive towards a truly independent Buriat Republic might possibly provide them with a far more sympathetic administration to deal with, both Russia and Buriat, although administrative support would not solve their problems with obtaining supplies. Also, a more independent Buriatiia might need even more local tax money to support their strained administration. As we walked back to the car, our host suggested that I needed to come back to see the new school. I replied theat indeed in five years the compound will be bustling. Despite all of the difficulties facing them, all indications are that my prediction will be correct. MAP: Russian Republic PHOTO: Main datsan Gusino Ozero.