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Buddhism in Estonia

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Buddhism was brought to Estonia by beginning of 20th century – Karl Tõnisson (1882-1962) and Friedrich Lustig alias Ashin Ananda ( 1912-1989).

Tõnisson was known among people as an exotic and colourful figure, and due to his lifestyle he earned the name "barefoot Tõnisson " (also known as brother Vahindra ).

Tõnisson was born in 1883 near Põltsamaa, travelled in Estonia and Russia until he reached Agaa convent in Buryat.

He got letter for pilgrimage as he studied there and joined the other pilgrims who headed for Tibet.

Thus, was Tõnisson the first Estonian who went to Lhasa, which was a very rare event in that time– many Europeans had tried that, but only devoted Buddhists were permitted into the city.

Returning from the Himalayas, Tõnisson engaged in the life of Buddhist temple in St. Petersburg during the time of revolution, and in few years returned to Estonia.

In the 1936-s he found himself a companion and co-walker Friedrich Lustig

Together they travelled by foot through Europe to Asia until they reached Burma, where they settled and where later on Lustig. Friedrich was also known as a Buddhist poet and translated poetry from local languages into English.

Karl Tõnisson died in Burma and after his death he was declared as bodhisattva in Rangon

Also buddhist baron Roman Ungern von Sternberg Estonia. He fought during the Russian civil war for Mongolia and is one of the most famous Estonians of all times.

Ungern Stenberg was raised and educated in Tallinn and later in military school in St. Petersburg.

He was Cossack general commander, commander of Asian cavalry and the commander in chief of the white army in Mongolia.

In spring of 1921, the division he led, conquered Urga and restored the power of bogdo gegen.

He was a genius army leader -he never lost a battle, lived a simple, ascetic life and never took a dime of money.

His companions were mostly Mongols, in whom he discovered ancient virtues and who considered him to be an incarnation of Genghis Khan and the liberator of Mongolian people.

The next event in Estonian Buddhism is considered to be the establishing of Estonian Buddhist Brotherhood under the guidance of Vello Väärtnõu in 1982 in Tallinn.

Also well known in Estonia and Russia by nickname Taola.

The idea to establish the Nyingma tradition and budhist brotherhood in Estonia came to him already in the 1970s and during that time Väärtnõu made contacts with Ivolga monastery in Buriatya which belonged to the Gelug sect, the reason for not contacting Nyingma was that Nyingma convents did not exist in the territory of the Soviet Union.

The only way to approach Buddhism was through Gelugpa.

Vello Väärtnõu's idea was to institute a Nyingma monastery and tradition, where Buddhist education would be available and thus eventually have educated Buddhists in Estonia.

Also a plan was made to send people to study abroad in the orient and who then would return as educated lamas. This was the idea of establishing Estonian Buddhist Brotherhood.

Traditionally they started by building a stupa, which under the guidance of Vello Väärtnõu was built in artist Jüri Arrak's summerhouse at Pangarehe.

The first Estonian Buddhist Brotherhood lived and operated in Tallinn and quickly became known as Taola (it means something like “Tao's place”), the members were called taolased (followers of Tao) and Väärtnõu as their leader became known as Vanemtaolane (elderTao).

Taola operated as a self-funding, self-learning organization, the members worked as boilermen, which was very common among intelligence during the Soviet time.

Each of them was specialized in a different field of Buddhist studies.

At the same time many faith–followers gathered around Taola – as Taola was divided into two kinds of members – part of them who lived and worked in Taola, and faith-follower who lived in one’s own home, faith-followers also were engaged in translating.

The idea of it was to spread the Buddhist way of thinking among Estonians.

Taola was a popular meeting place among Buddhists and also among some other cultural figures in Tallinn ; from time to time guests from all over Estonia visited Taola, and also guests from Russia and Siberia.

Many people who visited Taola helped in finding materials and in book-binding, copying and with other works.

All those people contributed to establishing Estonian Buddhism.

With the money earned they made burhans, silk-screen printed thangkas and inscents

Dozens of books were translated and copied into hundreds of exemplars; also a remarkable library was founded, whereas most of the texts were from Buriatya.

To get literature also from western countries, several foreigners were asked to help, and they brought suitcases full of Buddhist literature, so also giving their bids into establishing the foundation of Estonian Buddhism.

The relations with Ivolga monastery in Buriatya were very intensive – they visited the monastery on several occasions and talked with elderly lamas, who in turn visited Estonia.

They also took tankas and burhans made in Estonia to Ivolga monastery and those were thought to be of great value there.

It can be said that the lamas from Ivolga monastery had great merits in the development of Estonian (and also of all the Soviet countries') Buddhism.

In the years 1984 – 1985 three stupas were built in West Estonia. The main activity was still studying and self-educating: Buddhist education was taught by Vello Väärtnõu, languages by Pent Nurmekund from university of Tartu, who at the same time established the oriental studies department in Tartu University and taught them Tibetan and Old–Mongolian languages.

Also extra education was received from different language schools. It can be said that independent studying and active self-education were obligatorily popular.

Additionally Taola started the compelling of the first Estonian book in Tibetan language studies, but unfortunately it was not published since they engaged in fighting activly against communism.

Being forward-looking, 5 or 6 of them opened the door for freedom and independence in Estonia,. In 1987, Vello Väärtnõu came up with the idea and program of creating Estonian National Independent Party.

So can Estonian Buddhist Brotherhood and Buddhist way of thinking be considered a part of Estonian fight for independence; they were the first in soviet times to attack openly the foundations of communist country. Taola was the only place that printed, copied and spread leaflets.

On 30th of January in 1988, Väärtnõu organized a press-conference in Moscow for the accredited foreign newspapers.

From the newspapers New York Times,

Washington Post, Chicago Tribune and one Swedish magazines a.s.o were represented,also US TV company ABC was there.

Väärtnõu made a public announcement to the international audience about the proposition of starting an opposition party – Estonian National Independence Party, which was an unheard event in that period of time.

Due to breaking of the communist system. Taola was under constant control by the KGB – the Buddhist library was "cleaned" on several occasions and large amounts of Tibetan texts, tankas, slides and reels of tibetan manuscripts were taken from Väärtnõu.

Also militia ( Soviet police) 14 citizens signed under the initiative of Väärtnõu the proposition of creating ENIP and he also drew up the first program.

This resulted in the deportation from the country by KGB. The leaving of these people put an end to the successful activities of Estonian Buddhist Brotherhood in 1988 in Estonia.

During 6 years, members of Taola built a visible, touchable body of Buddhism, which is only a drop in the sea of what Buddhism will do for Estonia.

Väärtnõu lived and worked years in the Himalayas, visiting convents and interviewing and filming several teachers living there. Now he lives in Stockholm, Sweden.