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'Want to ask Putin why Dalai Lama can't get Russia visa'

December 23, 2012 18:40 IST
There are more than 800 Russian Buddhists, currently, in New Delhi. On the eve of Russian President Vladimir Putin's brief visit to India, they want to hand him a signed statement demanding a visa for the Dalai Lama.

In an exclusive interview with rediff.com's Sheela Bhatt, Telo Tulku Rinpoche, who heads the biggest Russian monastery in Kalmykia and is the president of Buddhist Union of Kalmykia, says while in New Delhi, they want to attract Putin's attention to an urgent need of visa to the Dalai Lama, despite China's reservations. The excerpts: 

On Russia and Buddhism

I belong to Kalmykia Republic of Russia. My parents are of Kalmyk origin. They migrated to the United States in the late 1940s-early 1950s after the Second World War because of Communism.

I was born in the United States, and at a very young age I was recognised as the reincarnation of Tilopa and was sent to India at the age of seven. I grew up in Karnataka at the Drepung monastery. So, I spent most of my childhood here.

In Russia, there are around 1.5 million people belonging to three ethnic Mongolian groups. They have been part of Russia for the last 400 years. There are a large number of Buddhists in Russian republics like Buryatia, Kalmykia and Tuva. Also, there are many neo-Buddhists who are Russians but have recently converted to Buddhism. We don't know the exact figure but they should be around half million. For the last eight years, we have been trying to invite His Holiness Dalai Lama to Russia, but have not been able to get a visa from the Putin government 

In Russia, we are free to practice, develop and reintroduce our religion. We have no problems whatsoever, as long as we are not mixing religion with politics.

In Kalmykia alone, there were over 100 Buddhist monasteries and over 7,000 monks. All of them were destroyed during the Communist period.

So when the Iron Curtain came down in the early 1990s and we got our religious freedom back we rebuilt our lives. I call it, the three Rs -- revival, reintroduction and redevelopment.

Ever since, I have been the head of the Buddhists of Kalmykia. We have been able to rebuild or newly build 27 Buddhist temples across Kalmykia in the last 20 years now. And the number is growing; the interest is growing, especially among the younger generation. We invite many teachers, many scholars from India to give lectures on various topics.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama says Buddhism can be divided into three categories -- faith or religion, philosophy and science. So based on philosophy and science the interest is growing. Not only among Kalmyks, but among other Russians as well.

Growing popularity of Buddhism in Russia

The Buddhist philosophy, the Buddhist way of life is working; it really attracts the younger generation and to them, it makes a lot of sense. One of the interesting things about Russia it has been a closed society for over seventy years and because of communism there is very little contact with the outside world.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, many people have the opportunity to travel, explore not only the technology and science that is developing, but also explore the spirituality that exists in this world.

The interesting thing is everybody is exploring, and to them Buddhism is also making sense. Other religions are growing as well, but Buddhism is growing with great prospects in Russia. For example, this is the fourth year we are arranging the teachings of Tibetan Buddhism in India. The number of people that came from Russia was a little over 800 in 2009. This year, the number grew to 1,300.

The Dalai Lama has been to Russia about five times since 1979. His last visit was to Kalmykia in 2004. He was there only for a day and a half. We want him to visit again but have been unable to secure visa. 

There are a few factors that are coming in way of His Holiness's visit, mostly it is the economic ties with China. You look at the global economic crisis that took place a few years back. Europe has reduced the purchase of oil and gas from Russia. Russia needed to get rid of all the oil and gas it is producing. So they decided to sell it to China.

For both China and Russia, this is beneficial because we share thousands of kilometres of the border. We don't have to go through other countries. The pipeline can be just extended to China and we can export oil. It is better than trade with Europe. Because if you export to Europe you have to pay compensations to Ukraine, Poland, all the other countries from where the pipeline passes. The second issue is Russia's military ties with China. Russia's biggest customer in terms of military equipment is China.

Well, a question we should definitely ask Putin during his visit is why the Dalai Lama is not given visa. In a coincidence, during Putin's visit the Dalai Lama is going to be giving teachings to Russians in India. The teachings will begin on Dec 24 and Putin is in New Delhi on the same day.

On why Russian Buddhists want the Dalai Lama to visit them

The number of Buddhists in Russia is big; they want blessings and teachings from His Holiness. Secondly, as Buddhists, we want to visit all the Buddhist pilgrimage sites in India -- Bodh Gaya, Varanasi, Ajanta Ellora.

Three, for Russians a visit to India is a cultural experience. It's a different country; the food, mentality, spirituality is different.

We think, in Russia, our conditions of living are poor. But when we visit India we realise it's not so bad. 

But one of the things they learn from India is even though Indians live poorly, they are still happy, smiling, their hospitality is warm, they are open-minded. Russians learn from this cultural experience. But it is better that His Holiness comes and visits these Buddhist regions in Russia rather than thousands of Russians coming to India. Of course, there is an economic benefit in terms of tourism in India.

The Dalai Lama's visit to Russia is critical for us because after the collapse of the Soviet Union we have inspired the people to revive, reintroduce and redevelop. But, we need His guidance, his assistance in developing in a pure way, the right way.

During the Communist rule, Buddhism has been polluted. Not only they destroyed it but also polluted it.

Russia and China ties dithers Putin

We respect Russia and China's ties. We support it. Like the Dalai Lama says, to have engagement with China is very important. Yes, it is important. But His Holiness's pastoral visit, spiritual visit, even as a pilgrimage, I don't see how this will affect the relationship between Russia and China.

During the last visits of the Dalai Lama there was no political activity, or any anti-Russia or anti-China activities. I don't see a threat; I don't think either of the governments should feel threatened.

On current spell of self-immolations in Tibetans

There are quite a number of support groups that are politically active and ate holding candlelight vigils, prayer services and so on. So the message is being spread, through the Internet, Facebook and Twitter. But as a major political movement, there are a lot of restrictions in Russia. The law prevents us from carrying out major protests.

On Putin's Delhi visit

We are collecting signatures and have written an open letter to t Putin saying, "Our spiritual leader is not able to visit Russia, why is that? You should not be feeling threatened, China should not be feeling threatened as well. And these are the signatures of people who want to see His Holiness in Russia. And His Holiness's message of peace can be of benefit to Russia. Because even within Russia, there are acts of terrorism, acts of extremism, also within Russia there is a imbalance."

So His Holiness's message not only about Buddhism but also religious harmony, promotion of human values, these can definitely be a good lesson for the Russians.

This summer, President Putin was visiting a summer camp for teenagers and students. After his statement, he did a Q&A session with the students.

One student happened to be from Kalmykia and he had a chance to ask Putin -- His Holiness is no longer a political leader, he is a spiritual leader now, he has given up all his responsibilities, politically. So why is it that he is still not able to visit? Putin's reply was, "Yes, I understand the situation. Though he has given up his political responsibilities, he is still labeled as a political figure. So therefore there are some issues, we are working on it."

On prospects of visa of the Dalai Lama

I don't think it will come soon. Again, all this depends on the economic situation and the political situation.

Right now, if you look at Syria, its strongest allies are China and Russia. Look at the situation in Iran, in terms of the nuclear energy that is being built, their biggest allies are, again, China and Russia.

The relationship between Europe and Russia has taken a hit now because of the economic crisis.

Between Russia and America there is some imbalance. So if the relationship of Russia improves with Europe and America then there will be some distance with China. It means we will have a better chance, then.

Sheela Bhatt in New Delhi