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How Buddhism and Tibetan medicine came to Buryatia
The history of Tibetan medicine in Russia has close ties to the history of Buddhism in Russia. Today there are three regions in the Russian Federation where Tibetan Buddhism is practiced: the Kalmyk Republic, the Tuvinian Republic and “Buryatia”, which consists of the Buryat Republic and several smaller autonomous regions, such as Aga-Buryatia (Aginskiy-Buryatskiy Avtonomniy Okrug). In the following I focus on Buryatia.
Migration of Buryat clans from Mongolia to the territory south-west and east of Lake Baikal began in the second half of the 17th century and continued in the 18th century. At about the same time the outposts of the Russian empire reached Transbaikalia. Cossacks started raiding the area, building forts for trade and for their troupes. Russians and Buryats did not always get along well. At the same time, however, the Manchu dynasty expanded, and the Buryats chose Russia over China as their protector and therefore also recognized its sovereignty. The Manchu rule had a reputation of being very cruel, and the Buryats went for the lesser of both evils.
The Buryats practised shamanism and were not particularly interested in Buddhism at first. Only at the beginning of the 18th century did Buddhism slowly start to penetrate the steppes and semi-steppes east of Lake Baikal. In 1712 or 1720 a group of about 150 monks from Tibet and Mongolia came to Buryatia. Among the group was an emchi – the Mongolian word for a Tibetan doctor – called Chokyi Nawang Phuntsog. He is said to be an important founder of Tibetan medicine in Buryatia.

The lamas were given permission to stay by the Russian government and were also exempted from taxation. Buddhism began to gain ground very gradually and only became an important part of Buryat culture in the 19th century. The tsarist regime did not oppose this development, in spite of occasional protests by the orthodox clergy. The goodwill of the Buryat elite in the delicate border area was considered more important than orthodox qualms. In 1822 the so-called Speranskiy statute secured the Buryat privileges such as exemption from taxation and military service. After that Buddhism started to flourish. Thirty-four monasteries were counted in 1850. Some of them had huge universities where several thousand students studied. Curriculum was introduced from the renowned colleges of Tibet, and the full system of Tibetan Buddhist education could be followed in Buryatia, up to the geshe degree, the Buddhist doctor of philosophy. Together with Buddhism, Tibetan medicine came to Buryatia.

This short summary shows several things: Tibetan medicine in Buryatia did not develop undisturbed in some remote place over a long period of time until all of a sudden it had to deal with the arrival of a European power. Rather, the Buryats and Russians came to the area approximately at the same time. World politics and global power strategies were decisive there right from the very beginning. In addition, Tibetan medicine came to Buryatia through Buddhist missionaries, not aeons ago, but in the 18th and 19th centuries. The history of Tibetan medicine in Buryatia is deeply entangled with Asian as well as European histories.

Adaptation to local conditions
The major problem for Buryat physicians was that many of the traditional herbs did not grow in Buryatia and were therefore expensive and difficult to obtain. To solve this predicament Buryat physicians started to substitute the traditional herbs with local ones. A dynamic process of transformation started. As Tsiren Lama, a Tibetan physician in Ulan-Ude puts it: “Our Buryat herbs are different from Mongolian herbs, and Mongolian herbs are different from Tibetan herbs. When physicians from Tibet visit us, they don’t even know our herbs. This means that Tibetan medicine has already become Buryat. And similarly in Mongolia it has become Mongolian. Regarding the diffusion of Tibetan medicine this means that it can work anywhere on this planet, it just needs to get adapted to the local conditions.”


Tibetan Medicine as dynamic science
The film follows this diffusion of Tibetan medicine and focuses on the historical conditions it had to face and the transformations it went through. It portrays Tibetan medicine as a dynamic, contemporary science. It tells the story of the Badmayev family who played an important role for Tibetan medicine in Russia and its odyssey to the West.

Continue with: The Badmayevs
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