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Kazakhstanis in Search of Nirvana: How Buddhism Came to Kazakhstan

Buddhism has existed in Kazakhstan since the 17th century, which is evidenced by the ancient pagodas and temples discovered by scientists during excavations. Buddhist rock carvings on river Ili and in Tarbagatai, as well as the remnants of Buddhist pagodas: Kyzyl Kent palace in Karaganda oblast and fortress-monastery Ablainkit in East Kazakhstan oblast date back to that period.

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*This publication was prepared as a series of CABAR.asia articles dedicated to raising awareness on religious diversity in Central Asian countries. The authors do not seek to promote any religion.

In early 90s, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Buddhism again penetrated into Kazakhstan. Various Buddhism teachers from India, Buryatia, South Korea and China started to arrive in the country.

Kim Tae Il serves at the Won Buddhism temple. He arrived in Kazakhstan back in 1992 upon referral of his centre in South Korea and was teaching for the first years in his small apartment. Two years later, he bought a land plot in Almaty and began to build the temple, which was opened in 1997, and is successfully functioning up to date.

Kim Tae Il. Photo from personal archives

— When I arrived, there were no other religions but Islam and Christianity here. At least, I haven’t seen them.

Buddhism has many different divisions, but we don’t communicate with each other, so it’s hard to tell the exact number of the followers of Buddhism in Kazakhstan. In general, they are not numerous.

At first, I used to have a language problem, I didn’t have enough practice. Moreover, it’s a different culture here, Asian region. The main worshippers were local Koreans, but their culture and mindset were different, so it was difficult to understand each other.  However, Buddhism requires no words, but more meditation and practice. We achieve enlightenment through practice.

Photo from personal archives

Now we have nearly 30-40 regular worshippers. We don’t demand that they visit the temple constantly, so I can’t tell the exact number of visitors. Some people visit once a year, others come once a week. People come and go. There are many representatives of other ethnic backgrounds among them: Russians, Kazakhs, Uzbeks.

We celebrate parents’ day twice a year, when we pray for our ancestors. The whole process of the prayer ceremony lasts for one hour, and then we drink tea and talk to each other for half an hour.

We don’t have any donations, we don’t accept them. It’s not expensive to maintain the temple, so I cover small expenses myself.

Photo from personal archives

The Won Buddhism movement is one of the two officially registered Buddhism organisations in Kazakhstan. The second one is the Tibetan Lamaism in Uralsk. The rest cannot be registered because the minimum number of followers should be 50.

Aleksei Shmyglia. Photo taken from his personal account on Facebook
According to official data, the Buddhism associations had 4 temples throughout the country before reregistration of all religious organisations in Kazakhstan. Today there are only two of them.

Aleksei Shmyglia is a strolling Buddhist monk of the Nipponzan Myohoji order. He was born and grew up in Kazakhstan, but he has lived in Kyrgyzstan, in the village of Gornaya Mayevka for over 15 years. The village has the Buddhist mini-temple, which is usually called “The place of path”:

The current law on religious freedom makes it impossible for religious associations to register due to overly strict restrictions, in particular, regarding the compulsory minimum number of the members of association, which is excessively high.
See also:  Life of the Only Buddhist Community of Kyrgyzstan

Andrei Almazov. Photo from personal archives

The same problem was encountered by the Karma Kagyu movement. This school emerged in Kazakhstan 15 years ago and its founder is the Almaty-based artist, who fell in love with a Moscow-based Buddhist, became interested in this teaching and brought it to her motherland. Today the followers of this school regularly come together and meditate.

Andrei Almazov, practitioner of the Karma Kagyu lineage of Tibetan Buddhism: 

— Today Kazakhstan has traditional Korean Buddhists, who practise Won Buddhism, which is Mahayana Buddhism. There are Buddhists who consider themselves the disciples of Dalai Lama, they have a community in Uralsk. There are few followers in Karaganda and in the north of Kazakhstan. There are also the disciples of prominent lama Namkhai Norbu. And there are us who practise the Karma Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism.

I can’t say I was searching for Buddhism intentionally. I just had an internal need to become better because I didn’t like the way I treated other people. I understood it was wrong and wanted to change it somehow, but didn’t know how to. So I accidentally met a girl who was a Buddhist. We had a relationship and I understood that Buddhism was right for me.

A gompa. Photo provided by A.Almazov

It’s about 30 people in Almaty and we are a functioning community of practitioners. We have rented an apartment in a beautiful place for 9 years already on the 11th floor with a mountain view. We have a separate room – a gompa (a meditation room, editor’s note) equipped with the statues of Buddha and other things that make the mind to be in the here and now state.

But we don’t only meditate here. We also like parties, sometimes noisy ones. Usually we have noisy parties in bars. Now we have equal number of men and women aged 25 to 50, their ethnic background is diverse.

Photo provided by A. Almazov

 Our laws do not allow our registration because we need 50 people for registration. But no one has prevented us from practising. Law enforcement bodies have investigated our activity; supervisory authorities responsible for culture and religion know us, but we are open and don’t violate the laws.

Since we are not registered, we may not carry out public activity, cannot officially invite lamas and hold public events as a religious organisation. However, we can hold public events as a registered public association “The cultural heritage of the Himalayas”.

Although it’s typical for Buddhists to hold prayers and ceremonies in front of the statues and the altar, it’s actually a form that can direct thoughts in the right way. The main thing for a Buddhist is to self-improve and to help those near him.

If Christians and Muslims find the doomsday teaching important, Buddhists have the teaching on karma, the universal law of cause and effect. According to it, every person gets retribution for their thoughts, words and actions in this life – for all their previous reincarnations – and then in all subsequent lives, until they reach nirvana and break the chain of reincarnations and becomes a Buddha.

This publication was produced under IWPR project «Forging links and raising voices to combat radicalization in Central Asia»

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