by Kadri Metsma
The first Estonian to be declared a saint was a Buddhist, and the religion also provided a means of resistance for some Estonian intellectuals during the Soviet occupation.
Although pretty impressive, the history of Buddhism in Estonia, and in the Western world in general, makes up only a fraction of the religion’s total history. The origins of the religion date back to the 6th to 5th century BC, to India. Prince Siddharta Gautama was thinking about the meaning of life under a Bodhi tree – and realised it was to remove suffering from human life.
Western scientists started to show a deeper interest in it only in the 19th century. The 1960s and 1970s brought about a rebirth (or was it a reincarnation?) of Buddhism in the West, thanks to beatniks and hippies; the religion was a suitable tool to express their opposition to the system and reach out for the eternal and imperceptible.
What follows is a brief overview of the history of Buddhism in Estonia.
Buddhism was brought to Estonia at the beginning of the 20th century by a man called Karl Tõnisson (1882-1962), also known as “barefoot Tõnisson” or Brother Vahindra. His actions embedded him in the history of Buddhism in Estonia – and, as a matter of fact, in the world. He was one of the very first Westerners to embark on the Buddhist faith as a monk.
Born in the small Estonian town of Põltsamaa, Tõnisson embraced the faith sometime around the turn of the century. He was a colourful and eccentric figure and was not taken seriously at the time – he could be seen forecasting a gloomy future for the country and the people at the marketplaces and was regarded as a fool.
At some point, Brother Vahindra left Estonia for neighbouring Latvia, where he became a citizen and was known as “Kārlis Tennisons”. He had a Buddhist temple in the Latvian capital, Riga, and was designated the first Buddhist Archbishop of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania by the thirteenth Dalai Lama.
At the beginning of the 1930s, Brother Vahindra travelled to Asia with his only devoted disciple, Friedrich Lustig (1912-1989), never to return to his homeland. He was the first Estonian to visit Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, which was a rare event at that time – only devoted Buddhists were permitted into the city.
Brother Vahindra ultimately settled in Yangon (then known as Rangoon), Myanmar (then known as Burma), where he was much respected. After he died in a temple in 1962, he was declared a bodhisattva (a bodhisattva is like a saint in Christianity: a spiritually-evolved person.)
So the first Estonian declared a saint was a Buddhist.
Namedropping up to the present day
Although not the first herald of Buddhism, Brother Vahindra certainly was the most colourful of all Estonian Buddhists. Maybe it’s partly thanks to him that Uku Masing (1909-1985), an Estonian philosopher, picked up the torch and started his own exploration into Buddhism which resulted in series of lectures and a book, Budismist (“About Buddhism”).
Masing, although not as mythical as Brother Vahindra, is still a worthy counterpart to him – what he lacked in bravado and splendour, he made up for with encyclopaedic knowledge and volume.
He was also a founding member of the Estonian Oriental Society in 1935. The society had to shut down after the Soviet Union invaded Estonia in 1940, but it was re-established in 1988. Luckily, another member of the society, the polyglot and orientalist Pent Nurmekund (1906-1996), managed to establish a Chair of Oriental Studies at the University of Tartu in 1955.
The academic chair nourished another heavy-weight figure in the Estonian Buddhist scene – Linnart Mäll, who started his studies there in the 1960s.
Mäll (1938-2010) was a student of Masing and became a teacher to many future Estonian buddhologists – he translated many of the basic texts of Buddhism into Estonian.
Thanks to Mäll, it’s relatively easy to become a Buddhist in Estonia – the texts underlying theology (if such a word may be used about Buddhism) are available in the native language and with a solid commentary – three tomes of Budismi pühad raamatud (“The Sacred Books of Buddhism”) were published in 2004-2008.
Thus, the now quite settled Buddhist community in Estonia stands on the shoulders of some giants – these were all outstanding members of Estonian academia and society alike.
Resistance to the regime
Buddhism can be described as a “way of resistance” in Soviet Estonia too. The Soviet era marked the cessation of most religious practices and education in the country. Christian denominations maintained their activity, on a much smaller scale, and membership of other religious communities dwindled remarkably.
On the one hand, this situation was a perfect seedbed for religious and/or intellectual luminaries to attract eager satellites to gather around them. Continuity of previous traditions depended completely on the “right” people in the “right” places: bravery and aptitude alike were needed to engross yourself in an unfamiliar cultural and religious concept (curiously enough, this still applies when living in the free world).
The concurrence of intellectual interest and religious devotion was an important precondition for a viable religious movement to start. There was also a certain amount of political finesse – for example, when Linnart Mäll was not allowed to work at the University of Tartu as a scientist; he was given a post of “engineer at the chair of Oriental Studies”. “Buddhism and dissidence were synonyms in the eyes of the state organs,” Mäll later said.
Buddhist resistance to the Soviet occupation of Estonia was peaceful, of course, in accordance with basic religious principles – Buddhist texts and contemplation instead of battle-axes and wrath. Paradoxically enough, this emphasis on the academic approach created a slight friction between the scientists – the theoreticians – and the believers – the practitioners. The latter were called “village mystics” by the former (so much better than “village idiots”, right?).
Estonian Buddhist Brotherhood
There was also a group called the Estonian Buddhist Brotherhood – also known by its nickname, Taola – that was established under the guidance of Vello Väärtnõu in 1982 in Tallinn.
The brotherhood operated as a self-funding organisation, while its members worked as boilermen – common among the resistant intelligentsia during the Soviet time. Each of them was specialised in a different field of Buddhist studies and the idea was to spread the religion’s way of thinking among Estonians.
Members of the Taola also had very intensive relations with the Ivolga monastery in Buryatia (a Russian republic in Siberia) – they visited the monastery on several occasions and talked with elderly lamas, who, in turn, visited Estonia.
Taola members also built the first stupa in Estonia – in artist Jüri Arrak’s summer-house at Pangarehe. Three more stupas followed, built from 1984-1985 in the village of Tuuru in western Estonia.
Taola was under constant surveillance by the KGB, the internal Soviet secret service – the Buddhist library was “cleaned” on several occasions and large numbers of Tibetan texts, tankas, slides and reels of Tibetan manuscripts were confiscated from Väärtnõu.
He was eventually deported from the country in 1988 – three years before Estonia regained independence – which effectively ended the successful activities of the Estonian Buddhist Brotherhood.
Buddhism in Estonia today
Our ignorance towards all kinds of religious matters has given way to numerous conspiracy theories and esoteric interpretations, most of which lack both depth and grip. It’s easy to put up a spiritual system for people who have no means to oppose to it or no adequate foreknowledge against which to evaluate it.
Make no mistake: Buddhism is not an easy way out for poseurs. It’s a religion. Despite its seemingly lax structure (keyword: “seemingly”; which takes us back to our defective religious education) and image of leniency, there is a hierarchy, and stipulations and requirements to consider and follow. It’s about decision and devotion – make up your mind and then stay on the chosen path – above everything else.
In the 2011 census, 1,145 people in Estonia defined themselves as Buddhists. However, this indicates how many people consider themselves Buddhist and not the number of members of Buddhist communities (or congregations). The latter figure is estimated to be about five times smaller.
But the number of people who attend Buddhist meditation nights certainly is several times bigger than 1,145. This is probably an expression of the phenomenon of Estonians not liking to determine themselves too eagerly as being anything. And then there is a more universal concept of convenience believers.
What do we actually know about Buddhism?
Well, here are some keywords provided by young students in Tartu: the Dalai Lama, stress management, non-violence, vegetarianism, contemplation, enlightenment, Eckhart Tolle, karma, previous lives, India, tolerance, well-being, Buddha, Woodstock, meditation. Others say that it is “bunch of concepts belonging to some other Far Eastern religions”.
This writer has always remembered Buddhism by numbers 3, 4 and 8.
Three precious jewels: Buddha (the teacher, the Awakened One), dharma (the teaching), and sangha (community). Four noble truths: there is suffering in this world; there are reasons for human suffering – the human body, yearning for pleasure and illusions; to get rid of suffering means to get rid of yearnings and desires; in order to reach a state without suffering one must embark upon the eightfold path. The eightfold path involves being a wise, ethical human being. Makes sense, right?
Logic and rationality may be slightly surprising characteristics for a “spiritual” movement to have, but I believe that’s what attracted Estonians to Buddhism during the Soviet era in particular, and what continues to do so now.
Header image – A stupa in Veltsa, Estonia [courtesy of www.estoniannyingingmaencyclopedia.com]
This article originally appeared on Estonian World
Kadri Metsma is a trained theologian (Master of Theology, University of Tartu). For now, she has turned away from celestial spheres to wonder about the Big Surprising – our mundane life, on Earth and in Estonia, in particular.
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