Tenzin Chodron: a scholar nun of post-Soviet Buryatia
Aiakova International Journal of Dharma Studies
Tenzin Chodron: a scholar nun of post-Soviet Buryatia
0 Department of Public Relations, Sociology and Political Sciences, Buryat State Academy of Agriculture , Pushkina st., Ulan-Ude 670024 , Russia
Tenzin Chodron (b. 1951) is a scholar nun who has opened up new pathways for Buddhist women in the Republic of Buryatia. The paper describes how, at a critical juncture in the political and religious transition from Soviet rule to greater openness as a member state of the Russian Federation, she has endeavored to bring together scholarship, social activism, and religious life. An introduction to the Buddhist history of Buryatia serves as the backdrop for Tenzin Chodron's autobiographical materials, which discuss her early life, education, professional work, and social engagement, with the aim of bringing to light the ways that women can realize their potential and play important roles in post-Soviet Buryat society. The example of Tenzin Chodron illustrates that, like men, women have the right to be ordained, at least as novices, and to be educated in the rigorous Buddhist philosophical tradition that has been carefully preserved through the cold winter of religious persecutions in this region of Siberia. Like many other nuns in the contemporary world, her active engagement in society is helping to shape a new international Buddhist conversation that gives women a greater voice and signals to Buddhist institutional authorities that women can indeed become Buddhist masters.
Buryat women; Buddhist nuns; Tenzin Chodron; Tibetan Buddhism; Buddhist philosophy
The key elements of Buddhist doctrine – the Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path,
the Twelve Links of Dependent Arising (pratityasamutpada) – are the essence of the
Buddhist tradition adopted by the Tibetans, Buryats, and Mongols. During its more
than 2,500 years of existence, Buddhism has undergone profound changes, yet the
essence of the Buddha’s Dharma (the path to awakening) has been preserved through
the ages unchanged. In the canonical literature of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, we
find all the main teachings attributed to Shakyamuni Buddha, including the transitory
nature of all compounded phenomena, the pervasiveness of suffering, the connection
between human suffering and actions created in previous rebirths, as well as the way
to overcome suffering and become free from the craving for existence. In Buryatia, the
Four Noble Truths became the guiding principles for Buddhist followers, impelling
them to meditate on the nature of existence and the meaning of life. As elucidated in
the Buddha’s teachings and practiced on the Eightfold Path, all happiness and
misfortune, in this and future lives, depends on understanding the immutable law of karma.
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The impersonal law of cause and effect places the responsibility for all actions on the
individuals concerned and evolution on the path means abstaining from the ten
nonvirtuous actions: three of body, four of speech, and three of mind. The Twelve Links of
Dependent Arising explains the process of causation that traps sentient being in the
wheel of cyclic existence (samsara) and also the process of achieving liberation.
In the seventeenth century, Tibetan Buddhism came to Buryatia from Mongolia and
Tibet, and spread among the Buryats inhabiting the region of Transbaikalia. The Gelug
tradition predominated and Guru Tsongkhapa, the founder of the Gelug tradition, was
revered by the Buryat people on a par with Sakyamuni Buddha. By the end of the
nineteenth century, Buddhism in Buryatia had become a sophisticated religious system.
As a result, there was intensive construction of monasteries, shrines, and several stupas.
Schools of theology, philosophy, medicine, and astrology were established, as were
foundries producing Buddhist religious art and ornamentation. Buddhism became an
inseparable part of Buryat life and contributed greatly to the people’s social
development (Lepekhov 2002, 25).
Some transformations and modifications took place due to the influences of local
religious and cultural traditions. As Buddhism became widespread throughout Buryat
territory, it interacted with important shamanic deities and rituals, which became
incorporated into Buddhist practice. Buryat and Tibetan Buddhists demonstrate their
unique refraction of the Mahayana tradition in their rituals and magical practices.
These modifications are due to the influence of traditional, more ancient and archaic
beliefs, practices, and rituals of the Tibetans and Buryat Mongols that predate the
introduction of Buddhism. In its philosophical, psychological and ethical teachings,
Buryat Buddhism does not differ significantly from the fundamental provisions of
Mahayana Buddhism as presented in the Tibetan version of the Buddhist canon.
Buryatia women’s attitudes are strongly influenced by the all-male Buddhist clergy’s belief
in women’s inferior status. For most Buryat Buddhist women, only a man can be a genuine
lama and teacher. Hence, it is widely believed that only males are genuine Buddhist
practitioners and teachers. A woman’s gender is conditioned by her karma and to be a woman is
considered an unfortunate consequence of her actions in a previous life. In modern Buryat
families, men and women are recognized as equal, with husbands and wives equally
responsibility for the welfare of the family. The worldviews of Buryat women are becoming
transformed (Tsomo 2015). Their knowledge about the roots of Buddhism and about the
equality of women and men in all spheres of social and spiritual life is growing. But as a
patriarchal society, it is impossible to maintain egalitarian principles of human coexistence.
The patriarchal mentality is evident in all areas of life, in traditions and customs, and in the
lifestyle of Buryat women. The men in the family – husbands, brothers, and sons – are
respected as superior creatures to women. Violation of these norms by a woman is
considered to be the result of a lack of appropriate education in her family and disrespectful to
Buryat traditions and culture. A Buryat woman considers her karma in terms of how to earn
merit in this life in order to be born as a man in future lives, and thereby have the good
fortune to travel along the path to enlightenment. This point of view is pervasive in Buryatia
even today, even though His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama says that men and women have
equal potential to attain enlightenment and liberation.
During Soviet period Buryat Buddhist women had to be very careful about receiving
religious instruction and empowerments. Due to unfavorable state policies, most
women conscientiously hid their Buddhist identity and avoided overt demonstrations of
religious behavior. Some women shaved their heads, however, and some wore an
orhimzho, a kind of a long scarf of red or maroon color draped over the left shoulder.
The Buryat word orhimzho means to leave or escape, implying to leave mundane life
(Budozhapova 2012, 66). For that reason, they were disparagingly called shabgantsa
and subjected to sarcasm (Budozhapova 2012, 16).
The life of Tenzin Chodron
Today the situation of Buddhist women in Buryatia is improving. Contemporary Buryat
women are educated and have different opportunities to realize themselves in many
areas of social life including religion. Buryat women openly practice Buddhist religion
and, more importantly, they study Buddhist philosophy and are engaged in social
activities to revive and spread Buddhist values among the population. Among these dynamic
women is the Buryat nun Tenzin Chodron (Irina Urbanayeva), who has taken the
precepts of a novice nun (getsulma). She holds a doctoral degree in Philosophy and
currently works as a researcher at the Institute of Mongolian, Buddhist, and Tibetan
Studies in Ulan-Ude, Republic of Buryatia.
Tenzin Chodron was born in Olkhon, a place near Lake Baikal that is considered
sacred by the Buryat people. Olkhon is also famous as the native place of a Buryat man
named Barnashka. This man was very well-known among the Buryats in the twentieth
century due to his extraordinary ability to foretell future events, predictions that usually
came true. Tenzin Chodron related:
My mother mentioned Barnaskha every time an event transpired just as Barnashka
had predicted it would. People regarded him as a shaman, but I later learned that
he was a Buddhist. For some time, he practiced at a monastery known as Datsan
Tunkinskiy. During prayers, he sat at the right hand of Lama Shiretuy, who was the
abbot of the monastery (Chodron 2016).
Tenzin Chodron kept in mind these memories of the place where she was born. As a
young adult, these recollections helped her recall her physical and spiritual roots. This
was during the Soviet era, a time when all evidence of Buddhism in Buryatia had been
erased, due to the anti-religious state ideology. Tenzin Chodron’s parents were formally
atheists, as was required at the time. By origin, she belonged to an ethnic group known
as the Irkutsk Buryats or Western Buryats. Traditionally, the Irkutsk Buryats are said to
be shamanistic by faith, but she rejects that claim. Her research led her to the
conclusion that not all Irkutsk Buryats were shamanists; some were also Buddhists. In her
analysis, the presence of two Buddhist monasteries (datsan) in the Irkutsk region –
Selo Sarantsy and Skala Shamanka – proves that there were Buddhists among the
Irkutsk Buryats. It is an historical fact that some Tibetan monks meditated at Olkhon.
Moreover, Olkhon is considered to be a residence of the Buddhist deity Paldan Lhamo.
Reflecting on her own family’s connections with Buddhism, Tenzin Chodron recalls:
My grandfather on my father’s side had no children for a long time. After some
time, my grandfather took refuge at Tamchinsky Datsan, where he was given some
Buddhist relics. These relics were kept for a long time by his family. After he had
children, they were entrusted with keeping the relics and with preserving the story
of the relics as a family treasure. Later, during Stalin’s political repressions, my
grandfather was arrested and, as was common at that time, his fate is unknown.
My mother’s father was a communist and Buryat nationalist patriot. He was very
worried about his family and decided to move them to Selo Egita, where today there
is a famous sandlewood Buddha enshrined at Egituyskiy Datsan. Later, he was also
arrested and nobody has any information about his fate.
My father worked as the director of a school. Any evidence of Buddhism was strongly
prohibited in my family – no Buddhist relics, books, even conversations on Buddhism
were allowed. Because Buddhism has been maintained as a folk tradition, my mother
secretly visited the datsan and lamas, because she always felt a need for spiritual and
moral support. My father usually drove her on these visits to the datsan and waited for
her outside, sitting in the car somewhere, so nobody could see him (Chodron 2016).
One incident left a deep impression on Tenzin Chodron’s consciousness, because if
ran counter to the regime’s anti-religious ideology and contravened the rules and
norms of Soviet society:
When I was in school, I had a classmate who invited me to her home. Nearby,
there was a little house where (I later learned) her grandfather stayed and practiced
meditation. I never saw him, but my classmate told that he meditated and recited
mantras all the time, with only short pauses for taking food and drink. Now I realize
that he was in an intensive retreat and was a dedicated Buddhist practitioner. At
the time, I was very impressed by the thought of this old man sitting in meditation
posture and continuously reciting mantras. It caused me to reflect, because, at the
time, this was something extraordinary (Chodron 2016).
Another event that had major impact on Tenzin Chodron and encouraged her on the
Buddhist path occurred when she was a student of the Department of Philosophy at
Moscow State University. Her family moved to the village of Baryun Hasurta and there
her mother became acquainted with two shabgantsa, older women with shaved heads
who observed five Buddhist precepts (Syrtypova 1998, 17). These women lived together
and prayed all the time in front of the Buddhist altar in their home. Her mother and
father became their caretakers, treating them as if they were their own mothers. Since
they had no parents of their own, they wanted the women to feel like their closest
relatives. The shabgantsas had taken Mahāyāna vows and were genuine Buddhist
practitioners, even yoginis. When Tenzin Chodron visited her parents during her vacations,
she observed the women, trying to understand their practice and hoping to get some
idea about Buddhism in general. When the two women went away, they left their altar
with a statue of Avalokiteśvara, a very beautiful prayer wheel apparently made in China,
and a copy of the Sutra of Golden Radiance (Buryat: Altan Gerel) for her mother.
Tenzin Chodron keeps the statue of Avalokiteśvara on her altar today to this day. At
this stage, Buddhism became associated with mystery and wonder in her mind:
One day, my mother met a pilgrim who was a tantric practitioner of chod
(Buryat: zhodchin) and invited him to our place, where he performed tsog. In tantric
Buddhism, tsog is an offering ceremony performed to purify the mind, eliminate all
obstacles, and accumulate merit and wisdom toward the goal of perfect awakening. That
time we were not allowed to observe this ceremony, but my younger sister managed to
take a peak while hiding behind the fence. She told us that, at the end of this practice, a
big plate of food was brought out the house and scattered about. Suddenly, she heard
loud sounds like dogs barking and eating the food, but there were no dogs to be seen!
We decided that hungry ghosts had visited our house (Chodron 2016).
As a student, Tenzin Chodron was interested in philosophy in general. At that
time, students at the universities studied Russian and Western philosophy, and the
courses included no information about Buddhist philosophy or Buddhist teachings.
The meaning of life and the problem of death were questions of central
importance for her, but at the university she was not able to find satisfactory explanations
or answers to her many questions.
At this point, Tenzin Chodron began to feel a strong need for guidance and
teachings. In the end, her spiritual quest led her to the Buddhist philosopher and yogin
Geshe Jampa Thinley. When this Tibetan lama came to Buryatia in 1993 as the
ual Representative of His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama to Russia, news of his visit was
not widely disseminated. There was no publicity and no mass media announcing the
event. Tenzin Chodron received information about the event accidentally, but it went
straight to her heart. She had a feeling that Geshe Thinley was the right person to teach
her and lead her along the Buddhist path. Since the time of their first meeting, she has
followed Geshe Thinley, who has worked tirelessly to help restore Buddhist traditions
and has given teachings all over Russia, especially in the three Buddhist regions of
Buryatia, Kalmykia, and Tuva.
Tenzin Chodron’s next challenge was to make an effort to reconcile her
newfound interest in traditional Buddhist teachings with her personal and
As I now understand, I had a long way to go to develop a deep understanding the
Buddhist teachings. But at the time, after that first meeting, I still had to continue
with my everyday work in the Buryat Scientific Center and my public activities as a
leader of the Union of Buryat Intelligentsia. This organization aimed to support Buryat
intellectuals in their efforts to restore Buryat traditions and Buddhist culture. I was
very active in the social and political life of Buryatia. At that time, during the 1980s
and 1990s, I was known to be a Buryat extremist and nationalist, speaking out against
the Communist Party. It is difficult to assess which direction was right or wrong, but
gradually I realized that I needed to transform myself and found it very important to
try to understand more about my inner world (Chodron 2016).
As she began to devote more time to her spiritual development, her social activities
became more closely entwined with Buddhism and she made Buddhist friends.
As Tenzin Chodron learned more about Buddhism and reflected on her personal
development on the Buddhist path, she became more devoted and eventually came to
the decision to become ordained as a nun. Geshe Thinley approved her decision and
advised her to go to India where he and some of his teachers, including Geshe Namgyal
Wangchen and Geshe Sopa Rinpoche, could ordain her. In 2002, she went to India with
a group of Buryat pilgrims to attend the Kalachakra empowerment ceremony, which
unfortunately was canceled due to the illness of H. H. Dalai Lama. In Bodhgaya, Geshe
Namgyal Wangchen and Geshe Thinley ordained her with the vows of renunciation
(rabchung). In 2003, she was ordained as a novice nun (getsulma) by H. H. Dalai Lama
in Dharamsala. Three women were ordained as nuns at that ordination ceremony: two
from Buryatya and one from Moscow. However, nuns are not regarded as equal to
monks in Buryat society and, generally speaking, are not taken seriously. They are
considered unusual and outside the mainstream in Buryat society. For these reasons,
two of the nuns ordained at that time later disrobed.
Only a few lay people in Buryatia know about the existence of Buddhist nuns and
their activities. The example of Tenzin Chodron illustrates that, like men, women have
the right to be ordained, at least as a novice, and to be educated in a rigorous Buddhist
philosophical way. Like many other nuns in the contemporary world, she is actively
engaged in society. For example, in 2005, in the center of Ulan Ude, she organized a
large-scale meeting and collected the signatures of Buddhist followers and lay people to
invite His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama to visit Buryatia. Despite her best efforts, the
Russian government did not grant a visa for His Holiness to visit Buryatia. Tenzin
Chodron was able to attract the attention of all the local mass-media resources, but all
their efforts were unsuccessful. Russia and China have been building what they call a
“strategic partnership,” so in recent years, Moscow has wished to maintain good
relations with China.
Buryat Buddhists aspire to see His Holiness on Buryat land once again and keep the
hope that one day their dream will come true. Tenzin Chodron asks, “What kind of
freedom of conscience can we claim if we have no chance to see our Buddhist leader
the 14th Dalai Lama in Buryatia and other Buddhist regions in Russia – Kalmykia and
Tuva?” (Bochanova 2008). She initiated a letter to Putin, the President of the Russian
Federation, in which Buryat Buddhists expressed their resentment toward the position
of silence that Russia has maintained regarding the violent crackdown on peaceful
protests in Tibet since March 10, 2008. The signers requested the Russian government
not to close its eyes to the Tibet issue, but instead to act as a mediator in negotiations
between the Chinese government and the 14th Dalai Lama as a positive contribution to
resolving the conflict. Buryat Buddhists are deeply concerned about the situation in
Tibet and pray for the Dalai Lama and all the Tibetan people. Tenzin Chodron believes
that for Buddhists in Butyatia, Kalmykia, and Tuva, the Tibetans are brothers and
sisters, and the Buryats cannot remain indifferent to their hardships. So far there has
been no answer from the President, but the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has stated that
resolving the conflict was an internal affair. Tenzin Chodron replied, “For all the world
community the 14th Dalai Lama is a great personality, Nobel Peace Prize laureate,
philosopher, political and religious leader, and preacher of peace throughout the world.
The most precious figure that the Tibetan people have is the Dalai Lam. It is difficult
to describe how they treat and love His Holiness. In himself, he represents all that is
sacred and precious to the Tibetans in their history, which is all connected with their
culture, faith, and hope” (Bochanova 2008).
As the leader of the Green Tara (Nogон Dara Ekhe) Buddhist community, Tenzin
Chodron has been active in society for many years. Green Tara has used a holistic
approach to community development, working in research, publications, training, and
social mobilization. Members aim to bridge the gap between rural and urban, rich
and poor, and men and women in accessing services and improving their health
and well-being through community development, philosophy, principles, and ethics.
Buryat Buddhism in an International Context
Tenzin Chodron has been exploring Tibetan Buddhism, history, and culture, as well as
the so-called Tibet issue. Having traveled to the countries where Tibetan refugees live,
such as India, Nepal, China, and Mongolia, she has explored the life of the Tibetans
and Tibetan Buddhist monasteries, which has allowed her to gather extensive research
materials for many publications and monographs. When speaking about Tibet’s unique
culture and how the Tibetans have managed to maintain their Buddhist teachings and
traditions, Tenzin Chodron repeatedly emphasizes that the preservation of Tibetan
language and culture means the preservation of Buddhism in general. Her research
interests include Tibetan Buddhism, logic, meditation, Tibetan written and oral sources,
and the relationships between Buddhism and science. One way she pursues these
interests is through her position as the leading editor of Je Tsongkhapa Publishing House,
which is dedicated to spreading the teachings of the Buddha in Russia and to
publishing the texts of great Buddhist masters in Russian and Buryat languages (Ayusheeva
and Yangutov 2011, 246).
Tenzin Chodron is the author of more than one hundred publications. Her
knowledge of Tibetan language allows her to translate many philosophical texts and to adapt
them for Russian readers in a way that expresses deep wisdom and insight. Today, due
to her diligent efforts, Russian and Buryat people are discovering the principals of
Buddhism as philosophy and science. Among her recent books that have been
published in Buryatia are Buddhist Philosophy and Meditation in Comparative Context,
Based on the Indo-Tibetan Texts and Oral Traditions of Tibetan Buddhism and The
Formation of Tibetan and Chinese Mahayana in the Context of Authentic Buddhism
Problems. In the first book, she studies the rationalist approach of Buddhism in
comparison with the cognitive approach of modern science and Western philosophy.
She explains the relationship between Buddhist philosophy and meditation as presented
in the Indo-Tibetan tradition and explores the meaning of the Nalanda scholarly
heritage as preserved in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. In the second book, she examines
the most important aspects of Tibetan and Chinese Buddhism in a comparative format
to better understand their objectives and the cultural and psychological factors and
strategies that influenced the development of Buddhism in Tibet and China.
Tenzin Chodron’s vast scholarship can be summarized in what is explained as the
union of wisdom and method: “The doctrine of śūnyatā (emptiness) is related to what
is called the ultimate bodhichitta. The highest bodhicitta is the mind that comprehends
śūnyatā in conjunction with conventional bodhicitta. The conventional bodhicitta is
love and compassion toward all sentient beings. One of the central Buddhist prayers is,
‘May I become a Buddha for the sake of the happiness of all sentient beings.’ In my
opinion, we must pay attention to this altruistic message if we want to liberate
ourselves and achieve awakening” (Bochanova 2008). This message represents the core
of the Buddhist teachings that Tenzin Chodron shares with the Buryat people.
Buddhism has spread all over the world as a religion and philosophy. For Buryat people
it remains to be seen as a religion rather than a philosophy. But it doesn't say the
Buryats believe blindly in the supernatural or superpower beings capable to satisfy their
wishes and dreams. But they believe consciously in Buddha, Dharma and Sangha
seeking for the very natural truth of the existance. The spiritual or moral values such as
patience or loving kindness are natural phenomenas but they are superpowerful indeed.
This is the core of the Buddhist religion and philosophy. As a Buddhist practicioner
and a Doctor of Buddhist philosophy Ven. Tenzin Chodron trasmits the Teaching to
the Buryat belivers in both ways: religious and philosophical. The way of life of
Ven.Tenzin Chodron maybe was not so heroic, full of dramatic or extraordinary events but
she is very unique phenomena in Buryatia. Her way was ordinary in a sense that the
most of Buryat women of the time grew up in the atheistic atmosphere and got a
higher education in the institutions and universities. Ven. Tenzin Chodron had
managed to overcome that standard of life and had a great courage and inner freedom to
change her life to serve the people. It is not that has she changed the society or not or
going to do this, but the fact of her presence is a hopeful beginning for the awakening
of Buryat women.
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Budozhapova , Larisa. 2012 . Buddhist Terminology in Buryat language [in Russian] . Ulan Ude: Buryat State University.
Chodron , Tenzin. Interview by author . Tape recording. Ulan-Ude, February 26 , 2016 .
Syrtypova , Surun-Handa. 1998 . Female deities in Buddhist confession in Buryatia (PhD .diss.). Ulan-Ude : The Institute for Mongolian, Buddhist and Tibetan Studies .
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