The Beginnings of Buddhism in Latvia (1908-1940) by Leons Taivans

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The date 1908 is not elected y chance. In 1908 in Riga was published a brochure Buddha, a Prophet of Ancient Indians.

The publishing house was belonging to one A. Baltkājs.

The book was a translation from Russian brochure by Platon Lebedyev. The translator was anonymous.[1]

Latvia in early 20th century was part of the Russian Empire where religious freedom did not exist up to 1905 when certain restrictions concerning the religious freedom were lifted and it became possible to write and publish books dealing with foreign beliefs.

The paradox of the Russian empire was its multi-ethnicity and abundance of religions professed by multitude of peoples.

Buddhism was one of many religions of the empire; it was the religion of Russian Mongols, called Buryats , but outside the South Siberian region little was known about their religion.

Ethnic groups historically belonging to a certain religion had the right to profess it.

For instance Estonians and Latvians were considered Lutherans. Russian Orthodox but by no means Muslim, or Buddhist .

The first Latvian Buddhist monk Karl Tennison who openly declared himself Buddhist, was arrested, and served a prison term because he had violated Russian religious laws.[2] The first ideas about Buddhism appeared as a part of the revolutionary movement of early 1900s in Russian Empire. They could become

Latvia as well as Estonia had gone through the Russian Revolution of 1905 .

The revolutionary events were nursed by ideological shift towards new ideas of social-democracy , coming from Switzerland. These ideas resembled the ethical norms of Christianity applied to the whole society.

They became very popular among the first generation factory workers in greatest Latvian cities. Christianity as a set of ideas was not very popular among young workers who had recently come from countryside and willing to create their lives on completely new basis.

During the revolutionary events the German Lutheran clergy of Latvia heavily opposed the revolutionary movement even participating in the repressions against revolutionaries and thus increased the gap between the clergy and its flock. Thus a niche for new religion emerged.

Buddhism was one of new set of ideas which came into the empty niche but the answer of the general public was not very enthusiastic.

The reserved attitude towards the new religion could be explained with the general turmoil that took place in early 1900s.

The political ideas demanding immediate change in Latvian society were the main concern of the society.

The religion is much in demand during the historic periods of frustration when introvert tendencies are dominating. Just opposite are periods of intense social expectation when social, not individual transformation becomes popular.

The second reason of the low popularity of Buddhism was comparatively low educational level of the surrounding society incapable to grasp either the practice, or the theory of sophisticated philosophy of Buddhism .

The brochure by Platon Lebedev reflects the common scepticism of the revolutionary age saying that Buddhism has been polluted during ages by surrounding religions and “Buddha Gautama wouldn’t be able to recognize his own teaching; he would never accept modern Buddhist monks as his followers.”

[3] The author argues that more or less authentic doctrine could be found in Ceylon but even there it is allegedly crippled enormously.

[4]This very critical and in a way academic essay was counterbalanced by another translated book.

It was H.S. Olcott ’s A Buddhist catechism (Madras, 1881), translated by well known Latvian writer Augusts Deglavs.[5] H.S. Olcott Theosophical Society in Madras, the companion of M-me Blavatskaya, the founder of Theosophical doctrine .

H.S. Olcott’s interpretation of Buddhist doctrine is an issue which needs special analysis.

Here it is needed to note briefly that popularity of Theosophical doctrine was determined by its syncretistic nature.

The form of “Catechism ” itself shaped Buddhism according to Christian tradition of systematization.

Put into rigid Christian framework Buddhism was shaped according to Christian “grammar”.

Only the “words” were new. In similar way was constructed the A Catechism of Hinduism by Annie Besant .

This way of discourse was better available to European general public and the Theosophic version of “esoteric ” Buddhism became the “Buddhist mass production” in Latvia for decades. was the president of the

In 1924 the docent of the Department of Chemistry, University of Latvia A. Janēks published a book “The Basics of Buddhist Doctrine” with the Pālī cannon attached.

[6] A. Janēks was following the academic line of Platonov’s brochure published 26 years earlier. In the twenties he was representing the “intellectual flow” in Latvian Buddhism.

[7]The Preface of A. Janēks book reveals that the author relied on German philosophical literature: he says that Buddhism was misunderstood in Europe for ages and the first ones who could really evaluate this religious doctrine were A.Schopenhauer R. Wagner .

Quoting Schopenhauer A. Jāneks argues that Buddhism is a sort of scientific religion based on knowledge. Buddhism or Buddha’s teaching is science and we, the Buddhists, explore the science and revere nature, he writes on behalf of millions of Buddhists and makes a reference to the theory of evolution.[8] and The critical part of Janēks’s treatise contains the same criticism as Platonov’s book.

Janēks argues that Buddhism has been enormously crippled in different countries of presence. He writes that Buddhism is deformed mostly in Tibet , China and Mongolia.

Quoting Sven Hedin he states that the traces of clean spirit of this religion one can find in Gelugpa sect.

The comparably unpolluted doctrine is found in Birma, Siam , Ceilon and Cambodia .

In modern times, argues Janēks, Western Europe has become a new centre of Buddhism where thousands of Europeans are converting to Buddhism, erecting believers’ associations and publishing houses.[9]

Janēks vision is Buddhist Europe with “secular Buddhists” who will implement the minimum of five ethical commandments.

In case this dream is realised, all evils of the European society, such as greed and negligence will disappear.

The basis of new morals will be knowledge but not faith any more.[10] A final criticism concerns the fashionable in 1920s theory of the social engineering, which is advocated in this volume.

Kārlis Tennisons (Karl Tõnnison , 1873–1962), was popularising Buddhism in Latvia in 1920s. K. Tennison(s) is an essential, although controversial figure in the history of Buddhism in Estonia and Latvia.

He was, without doubt, the first to disseminate Buddhism in the Baltic countries . Karl August Tõnisson , was born in 1883 near Põltsamaa , Estonia , later repeatedly changed his biography.

[11]In 1925 he printed on his own account a book which described his own merits as a Buddhist monk .

The title of the book is What Buddha Priest Tennison wants give to Latvian People?

[12]He writes that his monk’s name is Wahindra ; he has visited five continents and during Russian tsarist reign has served a prison term “for the promotion of pagan religion”.

He affiliated himself with Tibetan Buddhism , allegedly was the guardian of the Buddhist Temple in St. Petersburg i n early 1920ies.

In 1925 in a private house he established a small Buddhist shrine in Riga .


Tennison’s book contains a chapter describing Tibetan Shambala where the author allegedly had spent one and a half year.

Tennisons’ fantasies about Shambala obviously were inspired by Gurdjieff’s writings.[13] Karl Tennison thus is one of forerunners of New Age ideology in Latvia .


* * *

To sum up it should be said that Buddhism for Latvia at the dawn of 20 century was not imported by Chinese labourers, as it was in Chicago in 1820s, but it was getting its little dose of Asian philosophy.

A couple of Latvians Estonian had been captivated by Oriental wisdom and were trying to inject it into the Latvian public opinion.

Buddhist thought did not find the religiously inclined mainstream in Latvia whose people was concerned with European social thought (socialism) and real social reforms.

Minor publications were not capable to open the door for Latvians to become Buddhists, or to study its message.

The short period of independence, interrupted by Soviet occupation and ideological monopoly chequed the possible growth of the Buddhist ideas.

Post-Soviet period (1990s) gave a short renaissance for Buddhist ideas but later the emerging Buddhist sects decayed becoming a tiny aristocratic community tided by sophisticated teaching and practice too complicated for Latvian general public. and one

Footnotes

  1. Platon Ļebedew, Buda, seno indusu prawietis. Tulk. Meln.Alk. (Rigâ, A.Baltkàja grahmatu tirgotawas apgahdibâ: 1908). Russian version of the book was published five years earlier.
  2. It should be considered that K. Tennison’s narratives about his life changed repeatedly throughout his life, therefore the fact of imprisonment could be invented by himself. At the same time this sort of pressure from authorities is very probable. See Mait Talts, “The First Buddhist Priest on the Baltic Coast”: Karlis Tennison and the Introduction of Buddhism in Estonia. http://www.folklore.ee/Folklore/vol38/talts.pdf, p.3.
  3. Platon Ļebedew, Buda … 32.lpp.
  4. ibid.
  5. Henrijs S. Olkots, Budistu katķismis (Tulk. Augusts Deglavs) (Rigâ, I. Pagasts: 1908)
  6. A. Janēks, Buddhas mācības pamati (Rigā: F. Vītuma izdevums, 1924).
  7. Budisms. “Latvijas konverzācijas vārdnīca”, 2. sēj., (Rīga, 1928-29), 3191.sl.
  8. A. Janēks, Buddhas …, IV lpp.
  9. ibid., 79.lpp.
  10. ibid., 81-82.lpp.
  11. Mait Talts, “The First Buddhist Priest on the Baltic Coast”: Karlis Tennison and the Introduction of Buddhism in Estonia. http://www.folklore.ee/Folklore/vol38/talts.pdf Mait Talts’s article extensively deals with the development of K.Tennisons’s ideas.
  12. K. Tennisons , Ko Buddas priesteris Tennisons grib dot Latvju tautai? (Rīgā, 1925).
  13. “During the years 1909–1916”, writes Mait Talts, “Tennison must have travelled quite frequently between Riga and Tallinn and definitely visited, at least a few times, St Petersburg, where the spiritual alternative was offered at the time by active theosophists, anthroposophists and the followers of Gurdjieff.” (Mait Talts, “The First Buddhist Priest on the Baltic Coast”: Karlis Tennison and the Introduction of Buddhism in Estonia. http://www.folklore.ee/Folklore/vol38/talts.pdf, p.38).