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3 . The First Buddhist Priest on the Baltic Coast - by Mait Talts

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At the same time we must not rule out the possibility that Brother Vahindra’s relation to the so-called objective reality was somewhat different than that of common people. It is certainly difficult to prove, but it seems that Brother Vahindra was simply a person skilled in self-deception. At a later stage in his life he might have actually believed that he was Latvian, ten years senior of his actual age, and had visited all the countries he claimed to have visited. Indeed, after his death an unusual event occurred, for which it is difficult if not possible to find a rational explanation. Even the then prestigious Buddhist journal wrote about the news which spread like wildfire that his body did not show any signs of decomposition over several hot days (The International Buddhist News Forum 1962) and after his death Dalai Lama sent his condolences to his ‘successor’ Friedrich V. Lustig (The Nation (Rangoon) 1962). News about this spread quickly also to Estonian newspapers abroad (Eesti Päevaleht (Stockholm) 1962; Eesti Hääl 1962). In any case, Tennison clearly was a remarkable person with a highly unique destiny. The question why this young man from the vicinity of Põltsamaa chose to pursue Buddhist philosophy and promote it “in truth and spirit” has hithertoremained conclusively unanswered. Czech scholar Luboš Belka (1999), who has studied the history of Estonian Buddhism, has even argued that while Germany and the United Kingdom are traditionally perceived as the main migration routes of Buddhism to Europe, Tennison has introduced the third – the Baltic route. Even if regarded critically, this view is by no means an exaggeration. Tennison’s conversion to Buddhism is, in fact, extraordinary in the entire European context at the time. The view that Tennison was a European with the longest “career” in Buddhism is, however, a misconception (Rawlinson 1997: 39). Among Tennison’s contemporaries and somewhat younger Buddhist monks, the more important members of sangha (a Buddhist monastic assembly) of even longer period were, for instance, Nyanatiloka (civilian name Anton Gueth ) (Rawlinson 1997: 459–461) and Anagarika Govinda (civilian name Ernst Hoffmann) (Rawlinson 1997: 273–278). Furthermore, Tennison cannot be considered the establisher of the first Buddhist Gemeinde in Europe, as has been erroneously claimed at times (Fenzl 1985: 93). Today, the ‘official’ version of the life of Karlis Tennisons, created in the latter half of his life, has become almost ‘canonized’ among devotees of Buddhism in the Baltic countries. The websites and other information materials compiled by Estonian and Latvian lay Buddhists and published mainly on the Internet are entirely based on the myth created during his years in Thailand and Burma, especially regarding the alleged year of his birth 1873 (Buddhist Encyclopedia 2005–2008; Dharmakirjastus n.d.; E-mistika 2007). Quite often the devotees explain that it is the ‘legend’ that counts in Buddhist tradition, not ‘historical truth’, which may be arguable.

As a devout Buddhist, Tennison preferred public appearances and direct communication to promote his views, but has also left behind a number of books, brochures and postcards with texts that he sold not only for ideological purposes but also for money. Since he stayed in Russia during 1917–1923 and in Latvia in 1923–1927, his publishing activities in the Estonian language could be divided in two periods: 1909–1916 and 1927–1930. His publishing activities in the entire Baltic area may be divided in three major periods, which rather nicely reflect the development of his views. These periods could be tentatively labelled as (a) pre-Buddhist period (before 1911); (b) “theosophical -Buddhist” period (1911–1916); and (c) “ego-Buddhist” or neopaganist period (books published during 1925–1930). The most accurately named category is the first. Indeed, the earliest books published by Tennison make almost no allusions to Buddhist philosophy. By 1910–1911 he had already discovered and conceptualised the teachings of Dharma for himself and had started to promote the doctrine in the Estonian and Russian language. He introduces himself as a “theosophist ” without having actual relation with the theosophical worldview in particular, which was as such a compilation sewn up of several disciplines with a coarse thread (Mäll 1998: 131). During the third period his unusual syncretic worldview with certain political reservations, though still largely egocentric, is formed, which may be easily interpreted as a mental disorder. At the time, several prolific literati such as Kaarel Leiumaa, Juhan Koritz and Voldemar Kits were active in Estonia; compared to their works, Tennison’s texts were quite well reasoned. Like Tennison, Kaarel Leiumaa aspired to step up as a reformer in religious and socio-political issues.Tennison comes across as a fickle, somewhat mentally unbalanced person, even though he certainly did have more lucid periods. In his recollections, Alf Kubbo describes the “barefoot Tõnu ” as a man of sharp wit, presenting rather logical argumentations (Kubbo 1967: 227–232). After Tennison’s death, August Kala recounts about his personal contact with him in Tartu at the end of the 1920s, I was left with the impression that he was a considerate, widely-read and -travelled scholar, who is particularly familiar with the distant past and development of the Estonian people (A. J. K. 1962). Even today there are people in Estonia who remember their childhood encounters with Brother Vahindra with great warmth and regard him as a truly remarkable personality (Jõulu 2003).Such dual attitude is also reflected in his publications of the early period, in which eccentric passages alternate with balanced and objective parts introducing the principles of Buddhism or summarising the history of Buddhism.


Leaving aside the views of Karl Tennison (Tennisons 1954; 1959), who argued that the religion, now known in the world as Buddhism, was spread the Baltic area before the German occupation, it has to be conceded that the first serious people involved in Oriental religions and philosophy were the local Balto-Germans. The Sanskrit language has been taught at the University of Tartu at least since 1837 (Verzeichniß 1837: 4); even during the first period of independence in Estonia Orientallanguages were taught at the same university mostly by Germans (Hallik 2001a). In fact, from the end of the 19th century until the beginning of the 20th century an array of Orientalists emerged in Estonia, the work and activities of whom is even now little known here. Among the Orientalistsmore closely involved in Buddhism and Buddhist studies were Hermann von Keyserling (1880–1946) and Alexander Sta?l von Holstein (1877–1937). The gripping travelogue of India by these two men (Alexander Sta?l von Holstein 1991) and the anthology of the philosophical essays by Hermann von Keyserling (1998) have been published in Estonian. The contribution of both men to Oriental has been extensively studied by Martin Hallik and Olaf-Mihkel Klaassen (Hallik & Klaassen 2002: 157–160, 178–179). At the same time, Otto Karl Julius Rosenberg (1888–1919), who died at a relatively young age, is virtually unknown in Estonia and his person has started to attract some scholarly attention only recently (see Läänemets 2001). It must be conceded that the influence of Balto-German scholars of Buddhism to the contemporary Esto-Folklore Estonian society was rather insignificant and even the first writings of these scholars were translated into the Estonian language only in the late 1980s, when the Oriental studies in Estonia, in search of its roots and looking back to the past, reintroduced them to the general cultural audience (see Keyserling 1989). By the way, in his manuscript book The Mahatma of Baltic, Friedrich V. Lustig (1965: 271–274) describes the meeting of Tennison and Hermann von Keyserling, but considering all the circumstances this account is not entirely reliable. Another important intellectual, although even less identifiable factor influencing the religious scene in the early 20th-century Estonia were the theoso phists of St Petersburg and Riga. Theosophy emerged as a counteraction to doctrinal Christianity and, in addition, theosophists took interest in the religious and philosophical tendencies of Oriental origin. Be that as it may, even Karl Tennison calls himself a theosophist in his first books on Buddhism. Tennison most probably was in contact with theosophists in Riga. and was likely influenced by analogous spiritual movements in St Petersburg . During the years 1909–1916, Tennison must have travelled quite frequently between Riga.and Tallinn and definitely visited, at least a few times, St Petersburg, where the spiritual alternative was offered at the time by active theosophists , anthropo sophists and the followers of Gurdjieff.