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History of Buddhism in Ukraine

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Despite the fact that on a superficial level Buddhism was known in Ukraine long ago due to the regular contacts of the Ukrainian Cossacks with the Kalmyks, who profess Buddhism, the interest in Buddhism in its philosophical and ethical aspects among the Ukrainian cultural and scientific intelligentsia arose not earlier than in the 19th century. Closer acquaintance with Buddhism was interrupted in the Soviet period, when any interest in religious teachings different from Soviet ideology was persecuted. As a result, such interest could not be fully satisfied and, moreover, grow into certain organizations. Therefore, the first open systematic lectures on Buddhism, sermons and lessons on Buddhist studies, date back to 1989, when the political and ideological pressure of the Soviet system was considerably eased. At that time the first Buddhist consecrations took place in Ukraine, and the first secular followers of Buddhism appeared. They passed the canonical rite of taking Buddhist refuge in the Three Jewels: Buddha, the Teaching (Dharma) and the Community (Sangha).

This activity was mostly undertaken in three eastern Ukrainian areas: the Donetsk, Luhansk and Kharkiv regions. Such territorial division must have been determined by the minimal influence of conventional Christian culture on the mass consciousness of the people living in these industrial regions. The fact that these regions have the highest number of non-Orthodox communities and religious centers, Protestant (various movements), Muslim, Jewish and Buddhist, only confirms this.

Ukraine’s first officially-registered Buddhist community was set up in Donetsk in 1991. Today Ukraine has nearly 100 Buddhist communities and groups, 38 of them are officially registered and enjoy the status of legal entity. The largest communities and groups belong to the Tibetan tradition in Buddhism, that is, the tantric tradition of Vajrayana (“Diamond Vehicle”). The most widespread among them are Karma Kagyu communities, the main branch of the Tibetan Kagyu-pa School. They are united into the All-Ukraine Religious Center Ukrainian Association of Karma Kagyu Buddhists. In Ukraine, the religious studies of this center are intended for laypeople only. Communities and groups of followers of this tradition are present in almost all regional centers of Ukraine. The official print publication of the Ukrainian Association of Karma Kagyu Buddhists is the “Buddhism Today Manual.”

The Tibetan Nyingma-pa School takes second place according to the number of communities and followers. Its first Ukrainian communities were united in 1993 to provide the most efficient spread of Buddhism in Ukraine into the All-Ukraine Spiritual Administration Buddhist Monastic Order Lunh-zhonh-pa (which means “The Wardens of the Commandments” in the Tibetan language). In Ukraine, this school conducts both lay and conventionally monastic activities; therefore a Buddhist monastery is being constructed in the village of Olhynka, Volnovask district, Donetsk region. The Nyingma-pa communities were the first to profess Buddhism systematically in Ukraine and to receive official registration. The official print publication of the Buddhist Monastic Order Lunh-zhonh-pa is “The Lion’s Roar” newspaper; the first issue of the enlightening manual “Dao” has also come out. This organization also has its web-sites in Ukraine ( and, which are said to be the best Russian-speaking information database on Buddhism there is, and it belongs to the Dharma-net international circle of Buddhist sites.

The Dzogchen School is in third place according to the number of its followers and communities in Ukraine. It developed as a separate Buddhist School in the West in the late 20th century through the efforts of Chogyal Namkhai Norbu, the Tibetan lama in emigration. Like Karma Kagyu, this school is oriented to lay Buddhists in Ukraine.

These three schools happen to be the main Buddhist centers in Ukraine.

There are also several groups and communities of other Buddhist traditions:

  • The Son School – the Korean branch of the Chan or Zen School
  • Nichiren Shu – the Japanese school, represented by the Nippondzan-Mehodzi Monastic Order in Ukraine
  • Groups and communities without clear-cut orientation towards any of the Buddhist schools, declaring that they belong to Mahayana tradition (“Great Vehicle”)

Our observations over more than fifteen years show that in Ukraine, like in all the European parts of the post-Soviet space, there are several key motivations which make people become interested in Buddhism:

  • Interest in exotic things and desire to increase self-importance by belonging to something “secret,” “esoteric,” and “tantric.” As a rule, a large part of people with such motivation lose interest in Buddhism when they face its demands of serious personal practice.
  • The attitude to the practice of Buddhism as to the part of psychological preparation in different kinds of eastern martial arts, though it is not correct in terms of prioritizing. Nevertheless, most people who convert to Buddhism for this reason are deeply and seriously concerned about the practice of Buddhism; the eastern single combat groups are the main centers through which Buddhism most often penetrates into the youth environment.
  • Interest in Buddhist psycho techniques as methods of influence on one’s psychological features and solutions to one’s personal psychological problems. This has been the most important motivation in the Western European countries and in the USA. Ukraine is also observing an increasing number of people converting to Buddhism with this motivation.

We have been observing lately an increasing interest in Buddhism as a system that bears fruit in this life already, “here and now,” not in the afterlife or in the other world. The opinion that it is purely practical interest in the philosophical and psycho-technological aspects of Buddhism, not a simple human desire for “exotic things,” can be proved by the fact that neither among the authorities of the Buddhist communities nor among the ordinary Buddhists are there any representatives of the national minorities living in Ukraine (the Buryats, the Kalmyks, the Koreans, the Chinese and the Tuvinians) and traditionally professing Buddhism in its ritual form.

We believe that this is a very important tendency in society, because it leads to the recognition of the real importance of Buddhism as public property, not an exotic eastern cult.

Problems of the Development of Buddhism in Ukraine

One of the key problems connected with the spread of Buddhism both in Ukraine and in the whole Western world is, on the one hand, its high demands for the personal practice of the Teaching. It requires a rather high culture of thinking and desire for self-perfection. On the other hand, the peculiarity of Buddhist symbolism and rituals (especially in their tantric version) often puts certain obstacles for Western people in understanding the essence of Buddha’s Teaching.

Unlike Western European countries and the US, which have large diasporas of people coming from countries where Buddhism is considered to be the traditional religion (Japan, China, Korea, Vietnam, Thailand, India), or unlike Russia, which has quite numerous densely-populated national minorities that traditionally profess Buddhism (the Buryats, the Kalmyks and the Tuvinians), this is not the case in Ukraine. Therefore, it sets tasks for Ukrainian Buddhists which were not so urgent in other Western countries.

It is necessary that the traditional Buddhist Teachers and their Ukrainian followers make long-term, conscious efforts to adapt the symbolism, terminology and rituals to the Ukrainian culture, mentality and modern way of life. Since one of the main Buddhist postulates disapproves of purely external ways of spreading the Teaching, this task seems quite realistic; and a certain amount of work is being done in this direction by some Ukrainian Buddhist organizations. A great obstacle to the development and spread of Buddhism in Ukraine is the total absence of a national scholarly school of Buddhist studies and, as a result, an absence of Ukrainian terminology, which hinders the translation of the Buddhist canonical and philosophical texts into the Ukrainian language. It is even more saddening that neighboring Russia is experiencing a “renaissance” of national scholarly Buddhist studies: the works of Buddhist Teachers are annually translated and published; serious scholarly work is conducted; contacts with foreign traditional Buddhist centers are systematically established; Russia itself is annually visited by world-known Buddhists, who give their sermons there.

The absence of Ukrainian scholarly Buddhist studies is upsetting because Buddhist philosophy has had a great influence on different Western philosophical traditions. Therefore, I believe university education can be considered full only if the study of philosophy includes the essentials of Buddhist philosophy.

It still remains a large problem that scholarly circles do not have full understanding of Buddhism as a psycho-technological system, in the first place, where all ritual, moral, ethical and philosophical aspects subordinate to only one aim: to change and purify human conscience, to lead it to the highest perfection and harmony, which is called Enlightenment.

A narrow philosophical, cultural or historical approach will not give a full picture of Buddha’s Teaching itself or an understanding of the activities of separate ancient and modern Buddhist Teachers, or the mechanisms of different traditions and schools of Buddhism, or the dynamics of the development and spread of Buddhism in the modern world.

Research in these branches also cannot be complete without a sufficient level of competence in the issues of Buddhism and the history and culture of southeast Asian countries where Buddhism has made the greatest influence in all spheres of life. Another problem which hinders the spread of Buddhism in Ukraine is the actual inequality of various religions in Ukraine. Despite the fact that both Ukraine’s Constitution and Ukraine’s law “On Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organizations” declare the equality of various religions, in real life this equality is viewed by the state structures according to the principle “all are equal, but some are more equal.” This affects not only Buddhism; various Protestant churches, even the [Ukrainian] Orthodox Church-Kyivan Patriarchate and the Greek Catholics have similar problems, especially in eastern regions and the Crimean Republic. For instance, Ukraine’s National Committee on Religious Matters refused to allow the Greek Catholic Church to set up an eparchial administration in the Donetsk region just because the Donetsk Administration claimed that it was “not needed”; the Donetsk region has several dozen Greek Catholic communities. Only after Cardinal Husar’s public address was the decision reconsidered. On the basis of the same formulation of being ”useless,” the National Committee on Religious Matters refused Ukraine’s single Buddhist School, the Buddhist Academy of Ukraine, official registration. Despite the fact that the Supreme Court of Ukraine decided this refusal was not legitimate, the National Committee on Religious Matters under various pretexts has refused to register this school.

The Buddhist Sheichen-linh Monastery in the Donetsk region has been having similar problems with its registration for 8 years now. Regardless of the fact that it was blessed and has worked de facto since 1993, both the Donetsk Council on Religions and the National Committee on Religious Matters refuse to register it, claiming that (I am quoting an extract from the official response of the Donetsk Administration): “According to recent information from Ukraine’s National Committee on Religious Matters, the Buddhist doctrine of the Sheichen-linh community involves some methods of transformation of consciousness and inner energies, which are little known in Ukraine.” Needless to say that this community belongs to Nyingma-pa School, widely-known and the most ancient Tibetan Buddhist School, with one of its hierarchs being His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama.

One of the most striking examples of arbitrariness on the part of the state bodies concerning the Buddhist community took place in Kharkiv: the Buddhist community of Nippondzan-Mehodzi was deprived of a monastery which had been operating for two years in the city. All this was done not according to a decision of the court but according to the decision of the local administration.

Regardless of the fact that Article 161 of the Criminal Code of Ukraine presupposes criminal liability for “offending human feelings connected with one’s religious beliefs,” you can find publications in the press where Buddhism is called “satanism” and Buddhists are called “extremists” and “terrorists.”

We have every confidence in saying that Ukraine has two types of laws concerning so-called “non-traditional” religions: the first type being the official legal acts which are supposed to show the ruling bodies to the Ukrainian and world community in a positive democratic light; the unwritten laws of how the legal acts are executed in real life belong to the second type. The essence of this practice in terms of “non-traditional” religions was clearly formulated in the “Crimean Truth” newspaper by V. A. Malyborskyi, head of the Council on Religions at the Board of Ministers of the Crimean Republic. When in his interview he was asked about the equal rights of all religions as fixed in Ukrainian legislation, Malyborskyi said: “I think the legislators were too quick about such an approach. The result is clear, as they say. We should have learned from the experience of Europe. There are plenty of good examples we could follow. For instance, Orthodoxy is, in fact, the state religion in Greece. In order to construct a cult building of some other non-Orthodox denomination, it is necessary to receive not only architectural approval but also the permission of the main Orthodox hierarch. Proselytism, i.e., enticement of the faithful away from one denomination into another, is considered to be a crime in Greece and it is prosecuted by law.” It is small wonder that none of the dozen Buddhist communities in Crimea is officially registered.

In my opinion, the problem of complicated relations between Buddhist communities in Ukraine and the Ukrainian authorities is, in the first place, connected with the fact that the Ukrainian authorities were left without any ideological support after the collapse of the Communist ideology; therefore they wanted to create a new ideology, obligatory for everyone, with the “dominant role” of traditional Orthodoxy. The ideas of democracy were alien to the Ukrainian authorities, since most officials were representatives of the old personnel, brought up on Communist ideology. It can be widely observed in the surroundings of the officials who have relations with Ukraine’s National Committee on Religious Matters or to the regional councils on religious matters: practically all the heads of these structures were oppressing religious freedom in Ukraine in Soviet times. Quite demonstrative is the fact that Mr. I. O. Kozlovskyi is the key expert in religion of Ukraine’s National Committee on Religious Matters. He is known in the religious circles of the Donetsk region as the person who actively fabricated religious reports on the KGB’s orders, on the basis of which the faithful of different confessions were massively arrested and sentenced. Today this person trains new experts on religion with a base at the Donetsk State Institute of Artificial Intelligence. I wonder if the world outlook of these newly-named “experts on religion” will be characterized by particular toleration and democracy?

We are also often confronted with a faulty attitude to Buddhism as to a factor that is alien to the revival of the national Ukrainian culture, which is felt especially in Ukrainian national patriotic circles. Such an attitude is part of a bigger problem: approaching spiritual and religious traditions only from a narrow, ideological point of view. Religious teachings are considered in terms of their applicability in the ideological and political struggle, while the task of every spiritual tradition is to be above any political and ideological bias, and, in this way, not allowing ideologists and politicians to violate human spiritual principles. History has shown that every time religious principles were subordinate to short-term political and ideological interests, this inevitably led to the spiritual degradation of the nation where these events took place.

Representatives of the [Ukrainian] Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchate, which is most widespread in Ukraine and enjoys great support on the part of the local authorities and members of regional administrations in eastern Ukraine, quite often demonstrate confessional intolerance. We have repeatedly received information that priests of the Moscow Patriarchate and of the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church call Buddhism “satanism” in their talks with the faithful.

Another serious problem is speculation in Buddhism for purely commercial purposes and creation of groups and sects which use Buddhist terminology as a cover in order to exploit their followers. Organizations like Aum Shinrikyo, much talked about for its highly dubious doings, or its less-known Ukrainian analogue The White Lotus with its center in Cherkasy, heavily discredit Buddha’s Teaching on mass consciousness and serve a perfect excuse for officials who put obstacles in the way of the activities of true Buddhist organizations.

Recently this problem has become less acute largely due to the work of Russian experts in Buddhism and translators of Buddhist literature. Thanks to numerous works by Buddhist Teachers of different traditions published in Russia it has become quite difficult to speculate on the lack of information about Buddhism.

Prospects for Buddhism in Ukraine

When considering the prospects for Buddhism in Ukraine, one should bear in mind that today it is the only teaching there is that removes conflict over faith, i.e. between emotional experience and intellect, rational experience. That is why Albert Einstein wrote about Buddhism the following: ”The religion of the future will be a cosmic religion. It should transcend a personal God and avoid dogmas and theology. Covering both the natural and the spiritual, it should be based on a religious sense arising from the experience of all things, natural and spiritual as a meaningful unity. If there is any religion that would cope with modern scientific needs, it would be Buddhism.”

The ability of Buddhism to combine objective and subjective experience in the process of spiritual practice makes it attractive in the eyes of people whose level of knowledge and inner culture have outgrown the limits of local religious traditionalism. Therefore Buddhism is spreading in the West and in Ukraine, in the first place, among students, the cultural and scientific intelligentsia. Buddhism is attractive not because of its exotic nature, as some people think, or because it helps “to escape from life,” as recent atheistic propaganda used to claim; it attracts people by its purely practical methods which help them solve real everyday problems connected with the high psychological tension of modern life and responsibility for decisions made.

The correctness of this idea can be proved by the fact that the spread of the Buddhist practices belonging to the class of the so-called Anuttarayoga Tantra (the practice of the highest yoga), i.e., practices determined by symbols and rituals or bearing fruit in no time in the sphere of taking control over your own psyche, is taking place in Ukraine. These practices require that adepts have high starting intellectual and psychological potential, which is one of the key reasons why Buddhism is spreading in the environment where this potential is the basis of professional activity (science, culture, arts, high tech).

Today this environment is not satisfied in its spiritual demands in Ukraine. Correspondingly, this is connected with the fact that the traditional Christian churches cannot provide a profound teaching which would not interfere with modern scientific achievements and the way of life. Therefore the tendency of the spread of Buddhism in the above-mentioned surroundings will continue.

Taking into account that this environment has a great influence on the formation of public opinion, social stereotypes and the direction of mass culture, it is anticipated that simplified elements of Buddhism will penetrate broad masses. This penetration will take place through the introduction of an increasing number of Buddhist terms in everyday language (for instance, the words “karma,” “nirvana” and “meditation” have become widespread), as well as through the achievements of the serious and elite literature and arts and through mass culture: songs, music, films and literature.

The difficult economic situation and comparatively small number of Buddhists in Ukraine will hardly allow a noticeable increase of Buddhist clergy soon. Even if monastic communities appear, they will adhere to the so-called Chan (coming from the Chan Buddhist School) model of clergy, a model which presupposes active cooperation with the lay environment and is minimally determined by the specific rituals of the monastic code of behavior (which is characteristic of the Theravada School, for instance).

For the same economic reasons, the chances that huge Buddhist monasteries or Buddhist temples are going to be built in the next decade are also pretty low. The odds are that new Buddhist monasteries and churches will be miniaturized and economically self-sufficient.

There are very good prospects for the creation of something that is called Dharma centers in the West; those are modern analogues to Buddhist temples where sermons and lectures on various aspects of Buddhism and meditation take priority over rituals and ceremonies. These Dharma centers will spread the Teaching of Buddha efficiently in Ukraine, since they are absolutely open to all those interested in Buddhism, they are devoid of sectarianism towards its various traditions and are not determined by rituals.

For those people willing to practice meditation more seriously, so-called retreat centers, i. e. centers specially adapted for the stable practice of meditation, will be created in Ukraine very soon. Russia, the US and Western Europe have similar centers, which have been functioning there for more than 30 years. These retreat centers are modern analogues to Buddhist monasteries, where people do not take monastic vows though, following only the minimum code of the Buddhist norms of everyday life, which makes them attractive for lay Buddhists who cannot put lay concerns aside for a long time.

The number of open lectures on Buddhism and various meditative training groups will undoubtedly grow, since the number of people willing to spread the Teaching of Buddha actively will increase annually. But it is unlikely that the ritual aspects of Buddhism will take place, because in order to create an environment where Buddhism will be considered a traditional religion and where rites will be adequately requested, it will take decades, and several generations of Ukrainians need to grow, for whom Buddhism would be the traditional and “family” religion with all the attributes characteristic of any religion.

So, the spread of Buddhism in Ukraine will be accompanied by its adaptation, firstly, to the lay way of life of the vast majority of Ukrainian Buddhists, and it will require a corresponding presentation of Buddhist psychological techniques. Secondly, the adaptation to the rather high scientific and cultural level of the lay followers, who will constantly demand from Buddhist missionaries the ability to draw a parallel between the Teaching of Buddha and the latest scientific discoveries in the sphere of physics, psychology, biology and other applied sciences, will be needed. Thirdly, the adaptation of Buddhist terminology, symbols and rituals to close and significant analogues of traditional Ukrainian culture and modern national mentality is also very important.

There is no doubt that very soon in the environment of Ukraine’s Buddhists we will observe a growing tendency to receive information on Buddhism not from books but by inviting authoritative Buddhist Teachers of different Buddhist traditions to Ukraine. It will allow us to receive competent lectures on various aspects of Buddhist philosophy and practice directly from the native bearers of the Teaching. Today most spiritual contacts of Ukrainian Buddhists with Buddhist Teachers take place in Russia, the Buddhist community of which is much larger and richer and, therefore, is able to invite the Teachers to their country regularly.

The issue of inviting authoritative Buddhist Teachers to Ukraine has been raised a number of times in various Ukrainian Buddhist communities and the only obstacle to its positive outcome has been the insufficient funds of these communities.

In the future we will also solve the problem of sending representative of Ukraine’s Buddhist communities to study at traditional Eastern Buddhist Centers. It will allow Ukrainian Buddhist communities to have their own competent experts in the issues of the Teaching (both its lay and monastic branch) in Ukraine.

Another important issue posed to Buddhism in Ukraine, and which goes outside the limits of Buddhism itself, is the development of domestic scholarly Buddhist studies. The scholarly study of Buddhism is destined to have further development in Ukraine, since, as was mentioned above, neither the normal development of philosophy nor the study of the history and culture of South-Eastern Asian people is possible without it.

The development of Ukrainian Buddhist Studies and the Ukrainian terminological background for the translation of the Buddhist texts seem quite realistic, since Ukraine has sufficient scholarly potential. The cooperation of Buddhist researchers and practicing Buddhists competent in the issues of the Teaching has every prospect of success. Scholarly conferences on Buddhism and student seminars for those interested in such spheres of learning, where the knowledge of philosophy, history and psychological techniques may be quite useful, also have great prospects.

The solution of these issues is very important for Ukraine because at this point practically all information about Buddhism is coming to our country from Russia, which makes Buddhism another “agent” of Russian cultural expansion.

The participation of the representatives of Ukraine’s Buddhist communities in foreign and international Buddhist events seems to have good prospects, too. Such activities may considerably raise the popularity of Ukraine in the West and improve the image of our country as a truly democratic country which follows the principles of freedom of conscience in practice, on the international arena.

To sum up everything mentioned above, I have every confidence in saying that Buddhism has taken root in Ukrainian ground already and it has great prospects for future development and spread in Ukraine.