USSR: Buryats-Mongolian Buddhist Monks Confirm the Scientific Nature of Buddhism (1923)

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FI Stcherbatsky (1866-1942) was an expert in Buddhist studies in Czarist Russia – and was elevated to a Soviet scholar specialising in Buddhist thought and practise (founding the Soviet Institute for the Study of Buddhist Culture in 1928 – under JV Stalin). His books, – when translated into English – are a joy to encounter and study. He studied all over Europe and Asia during his life, and amassed an exact and reliable knowledge and understanding of Buddhist thought throughout its developmental history, and the different Buddhist cultures such thinking generated. Writing in the UK in 2017, and having had access to a very good and progressive academic and Buddhist education, I am pleasantly surprised as I encounter correct fact after correct fact (about the many and complicated facets of Buddhism) contained within Stcherbatsky’s academic out-put. However, in this article I which to convey a very interesting footnote written by Stcherbatsky in his excellent ‘The Conceptions of Buddhist Nirvana – with Sanskrit Text of Madhyamaka-Karika’ (Motilal, 2003 – Pages 33-34). Stcherbatsky is discussing the different Buddhist concepts of nirvana and samsara, and the complicated relationship Buddhist thought has with the concept of materialism – particularly in the light of the Buddha denying the existence of an eternal soul (atma). The chapter in question is entitled ‘The Vaibhasikas’ and the relevant footnote (7) reads:

‘Prof. M. Aneski, Nichiren (Cambridge, 1916) p. 137 ft. evidently alludes to the Vaibhasikas when asserting Buddhism includes a materialist school, or a school which its opponents characterised as materialistic. As a curiosity it may be added that when the educational authorities of the newly founded republic of Buriats in Transbaikalia started an anti-religious propaganda, they first of all assailed the doctrine of transmigration in its popular form and insisted on the fact that modern science favours a materialistic view of the universe. The Buddhist monks, who are Mahayanists, retorted in a pamphlet in which they developed the view that materialism is not unknown to them, since the Vaibhasikas maintained that after Nirvana, every life ceases forever.’

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FI Stcherbatsky is, of course, talking about the ‘Buryats-Mongol Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic’ (Бурят-Монгольская автономная область) [situated in Southern Siberia] which was officially founded in 1923. This area is comprised of ethnic Evenk and Mongolian peoples, many of whom follow various lineages of Tibetan Buddhism. In fact, these people actively supported the Russian Revolution, with Soviet power first being established in the region in February, 1918. It is thought that Socialism and its ideas were popular amongst these often nomadic Buddhist peoples, and this inspired their resistance against the old and oppressive feudal system. Of course, the English wikipedia page regarding the Buryats-Mongol Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic is comprised of US-derived Cold War paranoia, disinformation and myth, and disagrees at every important historical point with its Russian-language counter-part (referenced below). For instance, the US propaganda states that the Buryats Buddhists supported the 14 (capitalist) countries that invaded Revolutionary Russia in 1918 (including the UK, Japan and USA), but this is patently untrue and ahistorical. In reality, the fledgling Soviet presence in Buryats was extinguished by the fascist forces of Imperial Japan (in the summer of 1918) – which committed untold atrocities in the area looking to eradicate all support for the Socialist Revolution. The Red Army took back control of certain areas of Buryats in 1920. The Imperialist Japanese (and their White Russian and Western allies) were eventually defeated by the Red Army and a Soviet Republic established in the area in 1923. This Republic lasted until 1991 and the collapse of the USSR – but the Western propaganda states that the Soviet Authorities carried-out a systematic destruction of Buddhism in Buryats during the 1920’s at exactly the sametime that Stcherbatsky was establishing the Institute for the Study of Buddhist Culture. Not only does FI Stcherbatsky not mention any such destruction of Buddhism in the USSR, but after 1991, the Western propagandists ran into the problem of trying to explain why it was that Buryats Buddhism was flourishing like never before in a very happy Socialist Republic! The answer was to go back to the original disinformation story about the USSR destroying Buddhism – and bizarrely concoct the equally false ‘suggestion’ that the USSR (after committing genocide and cultural destruction in the area), actually ‘re-invented’ Buryats Buddhism in the 1980s! What Stcherbatsky describes from personal experience, is that the Buryats Buddhists supported a) Socialism, and b) Science, apparently because of the similarities between these two systems, and that of certain aspects of Buddhist philosophy. Finally, I have written previously (see ‘Further Reading’ below) of at least two other Buddhist republics that comprised the USSR – the story of the Buryats-Mongol Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic would suggest the existence of a third.

Russian language reference:

http://ru-wiki.org/wiki/Бурятская_Автономная_Советская_Социалистическая_Республика

Further Reading:

Two Buddhist States in the USSR

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  1. Two Buddhist States in the USSR | The Sangha Kommune.

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