On Friday, January 27, 2023, the Russian Justice Ministry placed Telo Tulku Rinpoche (Erdni-Basan Ombadykov) on its registry of “foreign agents.” Rinpoche is еру president of the Association of Buddhists of Kalmykia and the 14th Dalai Lama’s official representative in Russia, Mongolia and the CIS countries. The ministry’s press service said that the Buddhist leader had been placed on the list because he had “spoken out against the special military operation in Ukraine and openly spoken in support of Ukraine,” and also because he “is a US citizen and lives outside the Russian Federation.”
In addition to Rinpoche, the list of newly minted “foreign agents” that day included Little Big soloist Ilya Prusikin, journalist Fidel Agumava, Free Idel-Ural Movement co-founder Rafis Kashapov, and Feminist Anti-War Resistance coordinator Darja Serenko.
The following day, January 28, Telo Tulku Rinpoche announced that he had resigned his post as the Supreme Lama of Kalmykia.
“In the last two days, many people have expressed concern and sympathy over my inclusion in the registry of foreign agents. I am sincerely grateful to them for their involvement in and appreciation of my work. In these difficult times, I would like the people of Kalmykia and all followers of Buddhism to maintain courage, steadfastness and commitment to the ideals of compassion, love and nonviolence that form the basis of the Teaching of the Buddha that we profess. […] In my thoughts, deeds and prayers, I remain entirely with the Kalmyk people and Buddhists all over Russia, to whose service I have devoted my life,” the monk said.
Who Is Telo Tulku Rinpoche?
Telo Tulku Rinpoche (Erdni-Basan Ombadykov) was born in the United States in 1972 to a family of Kalmyk immigrants, according to the lama’s biography on the Kalmykian Buddhist community’s website.
In 1991, Rinpoche visited Kalmykia for the first time as part of a delegation led by the 14th Dalai Lama. Shortly after the visit, which the website refers to as “the starting point for the restoration of Buddhism in the republic,” Rinpoche was chosen as the supreme lama of the region, the Shajin Lama.
“While serving as the Shajin Lama, Telo Tulku Rinpoche has made great efforts to strengthen the religious and cultural ties that have existed for centuries between the traditionally Buddhist regions of Russia and the Tibetan community, led by His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama XIV,” the website notes.
Another highlight of Rinpoche’s tenure as the Shajin Lama has been, according to the website, “comprehensive support for peaceful coexistence and cooperation among members of Kalmykia’s traditional confessions — Buddhism, Christianity and Islam.” In addition, under the lama’s leadership, more than thirty temples and prayer houses were erected in Kalmykia.
Rinpoche is a US citizen. He was applying for Russian citizenship, and was scheduled for an interview on February 24, 2022, but it was canceled due to the beginning of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Russian Buddhists and the War
In an interview posted on the YouTube channel Alchemy of Soul on September 30, 2022, Rinpoche openly opposed the “special operation.”
“I think it’s wrong,” he said. “This war is needless. […] I think that the Ukrainian side is in the right. It is defending its country, its land, its rights, its Constitution, its people.”
The lama explained that he had not spoken out against the war earlier because he had been worried about the safety of Buddhists in Russia and their families.
“I didn’t want to spoil the relationship between the authorities and our Buddhists. I didn’t say anything, but nevertheless, every morning I always prayed for everyone, both Buddhists and non-Buddhists,” Rinpoche explained.
The monk said that he had left Kalmykia and was in Mongolia, where he was helping Russians fleeing the military mobilization. Rinpoche was negotiating an extension of the visa-free regime for Russian nationals and helping with their accommodation and the purchase of sleeping bags.
However, not all Buddhists share Rinpoche’s opinion about the “special operation.” Damba (Vasily) Ayusheev, head of the Buddhist Traditional Sangha of Russia, explained that the lama’s anti-war stance had to do with the fact that he is a US national.
Ayusheev himself voiced his own support for the war in Ukraine on February 28.
“We live in a single Russian state and defend the interests of our country, against which a dirty information war is being waged. […] We must have a strong and reliable home front. Our sahyusan [dharmapala] are on our side, our Great Khambo Lamas are on our side, and Buddha is on our side,” Ayusheev said on Buryad FM Radio on February 28, according to Infpol.
“It is a sacred duty. We Buddhists must defend our homeland. […] In our system, in Buddhism, the man must defend [the homeland, and] if necessary, go to war, be victorious, and return to his family, to his homeland,” Ayusheev said on September 30 in a conversation with Izvestia. The Buddhist added that he was proud of his co-religionists’ involvement in the war, and called the annexation of the Ukrainian regions to Russia a “historic moment” and a “great event.”
Jampa Donied (Buda Badmayev), the deputy head of the Buddhist Traditional Sangha for Russia’s Northwestern Federal District, also argues that Buddhists are involved in the “special operation” to defend their spiritual values.
On March 16, 2022, an “initiative group of Buddhists and sympathizers of Buddhism” published an open letter in support of [the Russian government’s] military actions in Ukraine on a VK group page.
“Buddhism — which is undoubtedly a peaceful doctrine — teaches us to calm the mind, maintain internal balance and find peace in all worlds. But Buddhism is not a doctrine of non-resistance to evil, if evil is ready to destroy everything its midst. […] In response to evil, we must not trigger negative emotions of anger and malice in ourselves, but we should be able to resist aggressive attacks from external forces in a calm state of mind. We must defend ourselves without letting evil into our hearts.”
The activists called upon people to sign the letter to “express solidarity with the President of Russia’s decision to pacify Ukraine, making it possible to establish peaceful and neighborly relations with this country.”
As of March 26, 2022, forty-two people from different regions of Russia had signed the letter. Three more people have signed it since then.
According to Alchemy of Soul presenter Anzhela Kalsynova, Rinpoche is the only [Russian] Buddhist leader who has publicly condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. And yet, the lama himself suggests that his co-religionists do not support the war, but are not openly opposing it due to concerns for their own safety.
The law on “foreign agents” in Russia is discriminatory and is used to combat those who have fallen out of favor with the authorities. All “foreign agents” are required to report their activities, income and expenses to the Russia Justice Ministry. They are restricted in their ability to disseminate information and find sources of funding. They face increased official oversight and lose their working partnerships. Like Rinpoche, they are deprived of the opportunity to continue their life’s work.
Source: “Buddhism and the war: Supreme Lama of Kalmykia declared ‘foreign agent,'” OVD Info (Medium), 1 February 2023. Translated by the Russian Reader. For a brief overview of Buddhism in Russia, see Rustam Sabirov, “Buddhism in Russia: History and Modernity,” Buddhistdoor Global, November 4, 2019.