Buddhism in the Republic of Belarus
The short review of local Buddhist groups
Buddhism is a new and, to some extent, exotic phenomenon to Belarus since the culture of the country is predominantly Christian. Although most of people consider themselves Christians, Belarus remains a secular state in its education system, ideology and politics, perhaps, due to 70 year atheist propaganda of the former Soviet authorities.
In 70-s Buddhism was something like an underground movement popular with some intellectuals. Most of them were students of scholar and Vajrayana Lama Dharma Dodi of Buryatia. One of his students from Belarus whom I knew personally passed away several years ago.
The second wave of Buddhism came to former USSR republics upon so-called Perestroika politics and further collapse of the Soviet Union. The first Buddhist groups that popped up in Belarus belonged to Tibetan Vajrayana. Two the most popular Buddhist groups formed in early nineties by followers of Lama Ole Nidal from Denmark (Karma-kagyu school) and Tibetan Lama Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche (Dzog-chen tradition) currently residing in Italy. Later some Dzog-chen practitioners formed a Nyingma-school group whose main teachers were Lamas Tsevang Dongyal and Palden Sherab living in New York at the moment. There were about 10 to 15 members in those groups. .
There may have been some Zen groups in Belarus but mostly those groups were connected to various martial arts clubs rather than to authentic Zen meditation tradition.
Theravada group was formed virtually several months ago. I have been an independent practitioner of Theravada meditation practices since mid-nineties. By independent, I mean that I practiced basic methods on my own. Then through Internet I met a person who was interested in Theravada tradition. Later we began to meet to meditate together. Then we met more people of the same interest and today we have about 10 people meting weekly for meditation in group.
Most of Buddhist in Belarus is middle-class people; their average age is 30-35. I don’t claim 100% accuracy of this fact, but from my observation, Vajrayana schools appeal to people of creative activity such as artists, musicians, actors, and those whose work somehow connected with theater, radio and TV. There is a certain percentage of entrepreneurs in those groups. Many Vajrayana followers have a touch of various kinds of youth subcultures like hippies.
Theravada is a very young movement and it is difficult to say anything concrete about its make-up. Time will tell. One general trend observed is that many Theravada potential practitioners work in the IT field or somehow deal with computers.
There is also a percentage of people who from time to time visit Buddhist retreats and practice some forms of Buddhist meditation, nevertheless they would be classified as New Agers following mixed traditions of Yoga, Buddhism and other mystical traditions.
Peculiarity of Buddhism in Belarus as was already shortly mentioned is that it is a philosophy and a way of life of mainly urban middle class young people in their thirties or even younger, most of whom have one or two college degrees and involved in such trades as teaching, arts, IT technologies, business. Such tendency is observed through the Western world in general, therefore, Belarus is no exception in this case.
Buddhist of all traditions in Belarus maintain rather tight connections with their strong neighbor Russia since Russian Federation has many established Dhamma centers and rich tradition of Buddhists retreats and seminars. Buddhism definitely has a future in Belarus.
First, because it aims at the universal existential questions human beings have been trying to answer since the times immemorial. Yet unlike faith-based religions whose main concern if belief in certain types of mythologies no one able to proof, Buddhism’s main concern is the mind-training in order to develop purified states of mind and experience happiness, harmony, and peace of mind here and now.
Secondly, Belarus has very friendly relations with countries belonging to the Buddhist culture such as People’s Republic of China, Vietnam. Dealing with these countries it is impossible to ignore their cultural heritage. Through various channels such as cultural centers, exhibitions, student exchange, martial arts even through cousin certain percentage of Belarus citizens are attracted to “oriental spirituality” where Buddhism plays a very big role. My opinion is that cultural centers of Buddhist countries may be a very important factor in spreading the message of Buddha in Eastern Europe. For an example, the Indian embassy through whose various cultural programs a great many people got in touch with the spiritual side of Indian culture.
Thirdly, although nominally a Christian country, Belarusian mentality is more secular oriented than that of neighboring Russia or Ukraine which facilitates transferring to a new form of spirituality.
First. Buddhism due to its philosophic nature may remain limited to particular strata of urban population without touching hearts of common folks. On the other hand, even though some people may have an interest toward “oriental spirituality” they prefer something more mysterious to simple and down-to-earth Buddhist practices.
Second. Even though the Belarus has friendly relations with some countries of the Buddhist culture, its internal policies toward so-called non-traditional cults is very restrictive. It must be mentioned that all Buddhist groups in the country do not have an official status that is they are not registered as religious organizations with the government. The official registration gives an entity a right to have its own seal, a bank account, to invite teachers from abroad and so on.
The very fact that their members meet together for “religious purpose” is considered to be a violation of the administrative code of the country which is punished with fines even if the meeting is held in a privately owned place.
Third. Main enemy of all types of religions is materialism and consumerism. It is true of Belarus as well. As everywhere in the worlds minds of people in Belarus turn toward getting material things rather than looking for the spiritual values.
Dealing with the problem.
I briefly outlined a number of hindrances and advantages that Buddhism may have in Belarus. My report does not claim to be profound research, it is only an observation. Yet having all pluses and minuses at hand it is necessary to make wise steps using all opportunities and avoiding hindrances.
People sometimes want to have a quick fix to a problem, some miraculous method that changes situation. But the answer is in our own everyday practice and following recommendations of Buddha. If there is no personal development or interest to Buddhist bhavana, there is no point talking about the future of Buddhism in general terms.