Other relevant keywords: Neobuddhism, Northern Buddhism, Religion, Repressed Philosophers, Science, Social Karma
Bidia Dandaron (1914–1974)
Bidia Dandarovich Dandaron was a Buddhist practitioner and scholar from Buryatia, known for his influence on the development of the philosophical study of Buddhism in the Soviet Union.
Dandaron was born on December 14, 1914 (or, according to other sources, November 12, 1913) near the village of Kizhinga in Buryatia, a region of the Russian Empire north of the Chinese Empire and east of Lake Baikal.
Several centuries ago, the Buryats began gradually accepting Mahayana Buddhism, brought to them by teachers from Tibet and Mongolian cultural, political, and religious pilgrimages and travels. The region is the northernmost part of the Northern Buddhist world. In the beginning of the twentieth century, there was a surge of religious activities in Buryatia. This surge was facilitated by the collapse of the Chinese Empire following the Xinhai Revolution (1911–1912), which opened the possibility for Mongolia to emerge as an independent country, as well as by the cultural and political progress in the Russian Empire that would eventually lead to the Revolution of 1917. Among those who were fully engaged in the political process in the region at this time was Dandaron’s father, lama Dorje Badmaev. Badmaev’s friend, Lobsan Samdan Tsydenov, was an influential religious leader and reformer. Tsydenov began teaching Bidia Dandaron from an early age, preparing him to become a leader of religious, and consequently political, reforms in Buryatia. Dandaron was recognized as tulku (the reincarnation of a famous monk of the past) and, according to his own account, embodied several lineages of tantric Buddhist teachings.
As a young boy, he already was proclaimed a spiritual ruler (Dharmaraja, namely the king of the religion) in Buryatia. Under Soviet power, this made everyday life riskier for the boy. Dandaron chose to move to Leningrad and entered the Institute of Civil Aviation Engineering. At the same time, he studied with the famous Tibetologist Andrei Vostrikov.
In 1937, Dandaron was arrested, imprisoned, and sent to the prison camps. Later he confessed that his time spent in the GULAG offered him the possibility to read brilliant books (the prison libraries were filled with books confiscated from arrested intellectuals) and learn from great minds. He learned German from other prisoners and intensively practiced yoga. At the same time, he was tortured and contracted tuberculosis. During the WWII years he tried to join the Army, but his request was denied. In February of 1943, he was released due to illness and returned to Buryatia, where he contacted local Buddhists and continued his religious studies. In 1947, he joined a group of learned Buddhists who successfully petitioned Joseph Stalin to allow the opening of Buddhist institutions in Buryatia. In 1948, Dandaron moved to the Tomsk region in an effort to escape constant surveillance, but was arrested again in 1949 and accused of espionage (Montlevich 314–322).
While in the camp for the second time, Dandaron met Vasily Sezeman (1884–1963), a renowned philosopher, professor at Kaunas University in Lithuania, translator of Aristotle, and expert in contemporary German philosophy. They learned a lot from each other. Dandaron read Sezeman’s camp writings and, according to Sezeman scholar Dalius Jonkus, Dandaron kept copies of some of these writings in his personal archive (Jonkus). He would rely on Sezeman’s explanation of German authors (such as Heidegger) in his future works on philosophical synthesis.
There were also Buddhist ministers (lamas) in the camp who had been arrested in 1945 in territories occupied by the USSR. They cooperated with Dandaron in Buddhist exercises. He continued to study Tibetan from them, which would later help him achieve his status as an expert in classical Tibetan manuscripts. Although there are few sources of information about this period of Dandaron’s life, he is believed to have produced a manuscript entitled Neobuddhism that was later smuggled out of the camp, and according to some rumors even made its way to the West (the manuscript was never found). By the early 1950s, he had already developed his idea of “Neobuddhism” as a synthesis of Mahayana Buddhism and contemporary science. A similar attitude was emerging among Western enthusiasts of Buddhism at the same time, but Dandaron’s work occurred independent of this.
Dandaron was released in 1956 and soon rehabilitated. He traveled to Moscow and Leningrad in search of employment at scholarly institutions, but in vain. He spent all his time in libraries, preparing for future research. In October of 1956, Dandaron met Sezeman’s daughter-in-law, Nataliya Kovrigina; he soon confessed his love and invited her to join him in his life of Buddhism. They exchanged letters for three years, until Kovrigina married another man. Dandaron’s letters were published under the title Letters about the Ethics of Buddhism (Pis’ma o buddiiskoi etike). They are a seminal source of information on the development of Dandaron’s Neobuddhism, and are no less meaningful as a story of his life in the mid-1950s.
In 1957, Dandaron became acquainted with the famous Orientalist Yuri Rerikh, who recognized him as a person of great competence and proposed that they collaborate. In the same year, Dandaron returned to Ulan-Ude in Buryatia, having realized that it would be impossible to obtain a position in Moscow or Leningrad (mostly due to his past imprisonments), and took a position at the Buryat Institute of Social Sciences, where he worked with its vast collection of ancient manuscripts and xylographs, mostly in the Tibetan language. He began to produce and publish scholarship using this collection, including serving as the principal author of a Tibetan-Russian dictionary (1960). In 1965 he met philosopher Alexander Pyatigorsky in Moscow, who visited him in Buryatia in 1968. Their relationship had a significant influence of Pyatigorsky’s vision of Buddhism as way of life.
Beginning in the mid-1960s, young people from all over the USSR began to visit Dandaron in search of Buddhist instruction. Eventually they comprised a circle of disciples, sometimes informally called “Dandaron’s Sangha” (i.e., “a community of monks and/or followers of the Teaching” in Buddhism). Among them were Alexander Zheleznov and Vladimir Montlevich, and others who later would become influential teachers of Buddhism in the USSR and post-Soviet Russia. Some of these people decided to settle in Buryatia in order to live near the Teacher. He gradually educated them in Tibetan (Tantric) Buddhism and gave initiations. He thought that teaching “Westerners” was a necessary step for the development of Buddhism in contemporary times, as he expressed in his motto: “Tantra—to the West!” This was a radical innovation at the time, since proponents of Northern Buddhism were not inclined towards including Westerners into their circle of followers of the Teaching.
Even a quick study of Dandaron’s biography reveals how complex his identity was. He was a devoted and experienced practitioner of Tantric (Vajrayana) Buddhism, which he learned from the best teachers available for people of his generation in Buryatia; he was leader of a small semi-legal community of young people, for whom he felt himself responsible; at the same time he was a loyal Soviet citizen, trying to do his best to follow the basic rules of everyday life in a Soviet provincial region. He felt optimistic about the development of his scholarly career, even if this ultimately proved to be next to impossible in his circumstances. He was also married and raised children.
At the Institute, Dandaron’s main responsibilities were to describe, analyze, and catalog manuscripts and xylographs from the collection. He was extremely efficient and produced a huge number of papers, reports, and catalogues, work that remains mostly unpublished. He signed some of his papers intended for unofficial circulation with his alias, Chitta-vajra. He was also responsible for various consultations and explanations of Buddhist-related topics, which the Institute was required to produce in its role as a state-funded institution. This position provided Dandaron with opportunities to travel to Moscow and Leningrad, where he met scholars and gave many consultations on Buddhism. He also initiated several people into Tantric Buddhism, among them the influential Soviet Indologist Oktiabrina Volkova, who became one of his closest associates (she said to her friends that he was “like a prince”). In 1970, Dandaron completed his main manuscript, Thoughts of a Buddhist (Mysli buddista).
On August 31, 1972, Dandaron was arrested again. The KGB planned an elaborate show trial in Buryatia and four of Dandaron’s close followers were arrested as well. Oktiabrina Volkova, Yuri Parfionovich, and Alexander Pyatigorsky, all renowned scholars of Buddihism, were searched in Moscow, though they did not belong to the close community of his immediate followers. Linnart Mäll, a leading Buddhologist in Estonia, was also searched and interrogated. Dandaron was accused of establishing a religious sect, where he allegedly deified himself and forced his disciples to participate in bloody sacrifices. As evidence of this accusation, the authorities produced photos of Dandaron in ritual garment that were taken previously for a booklet for the Ulan-Ude state museum. However, the case became well known in the USSR and abroad and, thus, the staged trial could not be held as planned (Semeka). In the end, four members of “Dandaron’s Sangha” were proclaimed “mentally ill” and several people lost their jobs. Only Dandaron was sentenced, in December, 1972 for five years. Just before the sentence, his translation of a seminal work from eighteenth-century Tibetan history, History of Koko Nor, was published. However, after his imprisonment, any distribution of this book was banned.
Dandaron was sent to a prison camp in Vydrino, Buryatia, where he took every opportunity to continue his spiritual practices. In 1973, he wrote a lengthy explanation of the “Four noble truths of Buddhism,” which he, as follows from his letters, intended to distribute in Samizdat; the book was published posthumously as The Black Notebook (Chernaia tetrad’). He continued to exchange letters with disciples and friends while, meanwhile, his health seriously deteriorated. Yoga helped him survive. There are different and contradictory narratives about his final days in the camp. According to a widespread legend, Dandaron practiced some forms of yogic meditation until he achieved samadhi and thereby voluntarily shut down vital functions of his body. In the autumn of 1974, he helped produce a letter to the camp administration, containing a detailed description of its insufferable conditions and tortures, after which he was effectively murdered. In his letters, he described the hostile attitudes of the camp administration and medical personnel. He refused to work due to a crippled hand and emerging epilepsy, was harassed by the camp administration, and was eventually put into a special disciplinary cell in retribution, where he died on October 26, 1974. His body was later retrieved and reburied in his native village.
As a practicing Buddhist scholar and teacher, Dandaron was first and foremost concerned with expanding Tibetan Buddhism. Thus, reading him as a philosopher demands, as a prerequisite, a method of separating between purely spiritual (religious) content and the philosophical aspects that would retain meaning for those who are not seeking Salvation through the practices of Tantric Buddhism. He was worried about misunderstandings of the word “tantra” among Westerners; he included, in his careful use of the term “Westerners,” Soviet citizens of non-Buryat origin. However, a separation between spiritual and philosophical content is not always possible. Setting aside his analysis of Tibetan Buddhist, when we consider the development of Dandaron’s thought, it is important to consider his work in the context of his time.
Dandaron was deeply interested in contemporary science, especially nuclear physics․ He received a solid introductory level education in applied science and technology and read popular works summarizing scientific progress for the general public. His writing borrows many examples from such works. However, he did not develop detailed science-based arguments to prove the interconnections of traditional doctrine with natural science. Rather, he used these examples to prove his principal idea that scientists, Western philosophers, and Buddhist scholars all move in the same direction and can learn a lot from each other. As Sergei Lepekhov writes, “his theory could be called ‘the theory of culturological convergence’: starting from various mythologemas and philosophemas, at the end of the day humanity ought to arrive at the same senses, such that differences in titles are not that meaningful” (Lepekhov 263). However, it is remarkable that in his two main later works, the word “Neobuddhism” is not mentioned at all.
Dandaron believed that the emptiness of matter discovered by nuclear physicists had, in fact, long been known to Buddhists. The Emptiness of Matter (Shynyata) is the principal ontological category in Mahayana Buddhism. Dandaron thought that great physicists like Einstein had discovered Shynyata intuitively (Chernaia tetrad’, 177). However, experimental science cannot progress any further, he argued, as one needs intuition to study Emptiness; and as such, experimental science (primarily physics) has reached its final stage. This view also implied a reasonable rejection of materialism.
Since the beginning of the 1950s, Dandaron searched for a synthesis of Western and Eastern (Mahayana Buddhist) wisdom. This search is documented in his letters to Kovrigina. He had substantial first-hand knowledge of the tradition and read European philosophy in search of parallels with Buddhist teaching. In his 24th letter, written on December 22, 1956, he presented a plan for his system of Neobuddhism: “(1) Individual ‘I,’ (2) Psychology, (3) Teaching about dependent origination [i.e. Pratītyasamutpāda, key Buddhism concept], (4) Ethics, (5) Karma and new birth, (6) once again about Nirvana, (7) Attitude towards God, (8) practical religion, (9) Theory of cognition, (10) the Yogacharas’ ways to excellence. This plan, I believe, should include everything: sansara along with nirvana” (Dandaron, Pis’ma o buddiiskoi etike). Dandaron never produced any extensive papers according to this plan. However, it demonstrates how he imagined the unification of scientific explorations in the natural sciences with traditional Buddhist knowledge (Albedil’ 150).
According to Dandaron, by exploring Emptiness, physics ultimately proved that Buddhism was compatible with science, and could even complement it. He agreed with the concept of Evolutionism, believing that the general direction of world evolution, as it was sketched by the natural sciences, occurred in accordance with the Buddhist idea of the universal move of everything towards Salvation. However, there are obstacles in this general development of consciousness, and one of them is materialism. Materialism is a form of evil conscience created by evil spirits to preclude the achievement of genuine knowledge (Chernaia tetrad’ 204).
Dandaron considered intuition the main method of acquiring critical knowledge. In Thoughts of Buddhist, he described various types of intuition, which is the ultimate method of achieving cognition of Emptiness. Intuition is crucial for those who seek Salvation. Every living creature has a certain amount of intuition, which makes it possible for every living creature to follow the Teaching of Buddha. Moreover, humans have different kinds of intuition, depending on the condition of their bodies. Thus, the practice and training of intuitive cognition requires a peculiar discipline of the body, where personal effort is crucial. Dandaron did not reject the existence of the individual “I” completely, as was often a key feature of Buddhism for its Western followers.
In his “Credo,” as elsewhere, Dandaron agreed that God exists. The pure manifestation of God is Good (dobro). He found that in every religion, the foundational idea of the Good is a predicate of God, as Plato characterized it (Chernaia tetrad’, 180). Every individual has this aspect of God in himself, thus everyone’s task is to develop it. Dandaron explained this development in terms of Plato’s vision of the Good, but thought that Plato did not go far enough to discover the basic ideas of Buddhist psychology: “What was not said by Plato was finally pronounced by Buddhists” (180). The path of self-development in pursuit of the Highest Good drives the individual to a state of unification of the material and spiritual. Here again, the aim of individual salvation proposed by Buddhism can be achieved. Aesthetic intuition, or the experience of art, can help us understand the true existence of the Good, thereby disclosing the essence of human creatures (169). Art tells us about the Good, facilitating intuition that guides us towards this unification, which in turn discloses the blessed Emptiness of everything. The open anti-materialism of Dandaron’s teaching put him into direct opposition with the governing Soviet discourse of “dialectical materialism.”
The Idea of “Social Karma” in The Black Notebook
In his The Black Notebook, Dandaron introduced the original concept of “social karma” (obshchestvennaia karma). Perhaps we can attribute this idea to the influence of Spengler’s Fall of West, which he read in 1930s. No less important were Dandaron’s conceptualizations of the experience of life in a totalitarian state and of unjust incarceration. In the traditional Buddhist understanding of the idea, karma cannot be “social.” However, Dandaron applied this seminal concept as a way of explaining the realities of the society in which he lived.
He introduces the concept by explaining the first Noble Truth of Buddha about suffering. Karma is always the product of an individual’s decisions and actions, but as soon as a significant number of people behave identically, their karmas become the same. This is how social karma emerges: it is born by mass consciousness but acts as an independent force, and thereby shape consciousness in return. Its worst fruits are those great dictators who emerge by the force of social karma to torture millions of people. He wrote: “Vozhdi [“the great leaders,” in Russian; for people of Dandaron’s generation, this was a nickname for Stalin] cannot and never could not act apart from the laws of social karma: for what they have done they deserve neither gratitude nor condemnation; we cannot have any compassion for them and have no right to blame, because we know they are only products of that social karma that has been produced by these millions of people who survive and suffer under these great dictators” (Chernaia tetrad’, 143). In Dandaron’s later work, his vision of social history based on this concept was pessimistic. He saw how, again and again, masses of suffering people produced bad social karma for themselves through activities of their evil consciousnesses. Moreover, this social karma makes it impossible for people to see the real source of their sufferings and simultaneously reproduces suffering, thereby creating mass support for a society of non-freedom. These people have been duped by materialism, he argued. He advocated for a rejection of any form of materialism, along with any utopian thinking, as essential to changing this social karma. A proper understanding of social karma unconditionally discloses the absolute interconnectedness of matter and spirit, he argued.
Dandaron’s idea of social karma is an independent interpretation of the problem of mass society—a problem widely discussed at the same time by sociologists in other countries. He developed a vision of human history as a genuine “Process without a Subject” (as Louis Althusser defined it). Neither great heroes nor exceptional villains are possible. This vision would explain the emergence of social evil without any reference to the “evil will of bad people” (typical for common sense) or “social injustice created by class struggle” (as in Marxism), but served as a social, and even political, philosophy of salvation. Dandaron thought that social karma works to manage available methods of salvation, as well as the knowledge necessary to use them (Chernaia tetrad’, 184). Social karma is produced by evil will, such that it will govern people as long as that evil will exists. One of Dandaron’s most famous dictums was “it is good to be born in Russia for the Buddhist, although not for Buddhists,” as if Soviet Russia was a sort of testing grounds designed for a better understanding both of the essence of consciousness and the proper ways of achieving salvation.
Bidia Dandaron undoubtedly influenced the development of Buddhology in the USSR in direct and indirect ways. He created a living community of disciples who were instrumental in reviving Buddhism in Buryatia, along with its establishment in post-Soviet Russia. One of them, Vladimir Montlevich, edited and published Garuda, the first Buddhist journal in post-Soviet Russia. Moreover, Dandaron had a great personal influence on nearly all those scholars involved in the development of Buddhist philosophy in the USSR in the 1960s, after the long break produced by previous repressions, including Alexander Piatigorsky, Linnart Mäll, Margarita Albedil’, and Oktiabrina Volkova—all involved in “Dandaron’s Sangha.” For others, his charismatic presence represented the very possibility of contemporary Buddhist teaching, available not only as an area of scholarly specialization, but as a personal religious choice. In secular atheistic society, Dandaron was a living representative of the tradition: a yoga practitioner and Tantra scholar, equally capable of speaking with both laypeople and academicians in their language and about their interests. Thus, he influenced the very self-determination of Buddhology as a scientific discipline in the USSR in the 1960s, as the Soviet Union was clarifying its own relation to Buddhism as a religion. This is how he paved the way for spreading Buddhism and Buddhist philosophy in the “Western” parts of the USSR, i.e. out of its traditional regions. Today Dandaron is recognized as one of the most influential Buryat intellectuals.
Mikhail Yu. Nemtsev, September 2022
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