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SENTENTIA. European Journal of Humanities and Social Sciences

Hierarchical systems and their evolution in Buddhist communities of Central Asia

Nesterkin Sergei

Doctor of Philosophy

Leading Scientific Associate, Institute of Mongolian, Buddhist and Tibetan Studies of Siberian Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences

670047, Russia, respublika Buryatiya, g. Ulan-Ude, ul. Sakh'yanovoi, 6

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Abstract: This article examines the hierarchical systems established in Buddhist communities of Central Asia.  Hierarchies are viewed in the spiritual context: by level of taking of vows, educational attainment, level of practical implementation of knowledge, rank in the institution of “Reincarnated Lamas”; as well as hierarchies important in administrative context, such as levels of responsibility, governance of monasteries, rank within the structure of state administration, and interaction with government institutions. It is noted that genetically all of them ascend to Teacher – student hierarchy. This work explores the evolution of these hierarchies under the changing historical conditions, as well their complex interrelations. It is demonstrated that hierarchical system evolved depending on such factors, as the development of monastic education, increased role in the communities of “Reincarnated Lamas”, shift in the role of monasteries within state administration along with the role of government in regulation of the religious institutions. It is determined that hierarchies partially intersected, but also diverged due to the possibility of relatively autonomous practice of Sutra and Tantra, which formed different types of communities –  sangha and ganachakra respectively. In Russia, Buddhist communities were integrated into the system of state-religious relations, which required centralization of religious community resulting in the fact that the administrative church structures took the central stage. Liberalization of state control of the religious activity in post-Soviet Russia led to the emergence of multiple secular Buddhist associations that practiced Mahayanist and tantric methods structured as ganachakra. The central place was held by the structure of religious hierarchy along with “Teacher – student” relations. The conclusion is made that such structural differentiation of Buddhist communities is the results of the natural course of self-determination of various traditions in the conditions of freedom of religion.

Keywords: social dynamics, Mahayana, Russian Buddhism, Tibetan Buddhism, Sangha, social structure, history of Buddhism, religious practice, hierarchy, Buddhist communities

Originating in the middle of the first century BC, Buddhism offered Indian society a completely new type of social organization - the Buddhist Sangha (Community). Prior to this, the transmission of the spiritual tradition was carried out within the framework of the "teacher's house," where the teacher taught several of his students, usually associated with the village where he carried out his activities. The Sangha, originally leading a nomadic lifestyle, rather soon moved to a settled way of life inside monasteries, which already in India began to take on not only spiritual but also societal functions. In Tibet, Buddhist monasteries, especially during the theocratic period, became islands of civilization for the Tibetan nomadic community, and the largest began to perform functions similar to medieval cities in Europe. This complicated the social structure of the Buddhist community and led to the emergence of social systems and hierarchies that were complexly interconnected. Their presence largely determines the face of modern Central Asian Buddhism.

At the same time, the formation of legislation regulating the activities of religious organizations in Russia used a conceptual apparatus developed mainly on the basis of Christianity, especially Orthodoxy. This applied also to the practice of the enforcement of legislation and the establishment of relations between administrative bodies and religious communities and organizations. As a result, the Orthodox model of hierarchical organization of a religious community headed by its leader, the Patriarch, was transferred to religious organizations of other traditions and denominations, for which a hierarchical organization of this kind may not be typical. This makes it necessary to study the hierarchical organization of religious traditions that are fundamentally different from Orthodoxy - in particular, Buddhism.

In the process of the historical development of Buddhism, several hierarchical systems (relatively independent) have developed that have shaped the church organization. The first to emerge was the most significant doctrinal two-level “Teacher-student” hierarchy. It was as a Teacher that Shakyamuni Buddha, the founder of Buddhism, led the community of his followers. The overriding importance of the Teacher-student relationship is codified in both Hinayana and Mahayana statutes. It is especially important in tantra, which lists “non-fulfillment of the Teacher's instructions” as a “root downfall” [2; 6].

Since spiritual perfection is the main focus of the path of discipleship, the hierarchy according to the degrees of spiritual growth is an organic development of the "Teacher-student" hierarchy. Buddhist literature provides a detailed description of this hierarchy, reflecting the stages of advancement of the disciple from the beginning of the path to attaining enlightenment. However, it should be kept in mind that since the degree of spiritual perfection does not have concrete, obvious markers (the characteristics described in the texts require, in general, a sufficiently high level of advancement from the expert himself for their identification), then assigning a specific individual to a particular stage of this hierarchy usually is determined by social consensus. However, despite its conventionality (in the social sense), this scale is very important for building a social hierarchy. It is the recognition of spiritual achievements for members of the community that gives its structure legitimacy in the eyes of its followers.

During the life of Buddha Shakyamuni, another hierarchical system arose – relating to the completeness of the monastic vows that the practitioner took on. In addition, fully ordained monks were differentiated by their seniority in terms of that status. Those who led an impeccably moral life for ten years or more and studied the Dharma well were then granted the right to teach newcomers [3, 54].

Later, in India, a system was developed to determine the educational level of monks in order to identify the most qualified teachers. In Tibet, with the expansion of monastic education, a system of academic degrees was developed on this basis; degrees were awarded to those who passed the corresponding exam. This system, along with the Gelug educational system, was adopted by Russian Buddhism [3, 72]. Moreover, the academic title was retained even if the person it was conferred upon, for one reason or another, renounced his monastic vows.

As the monasteries developed, yet another a hierarchy was developed, this one dependent on the levels of official responsibilities within the monastic administrative system. For this, it was necessary to have experience as a monk, often a good level of education and an academic degree. In addition, over time, monasteries became managers and/or owners of significant material resources, and they also acquired administrative and regulatory functions for the local community. Because of this, growth within the monastic administrative system began to be largely determined by non-religious factors as well. It became especially evident in Central Asian Buddhism, where the church organization began to play a significant role in the life of society and the state, so that the church often had to negotiate with the local aristocracy in its personnel decisions.

A new hierarchy which had not existed in India emerged in Tibetan Buddhism: the system of reincarnated lamas. First it appeared in the Kagyu school and then spread to other traditions. It was based on the belief that bodhisattvas who have attained enlightenment, having become Buddhas, choose their new birth in samsara voluntarily, for the benefit of sentient beings. Because of this, from the very moment of their birth they are a sacred object of worship, even before the beginning of their religious activities (taking vows, education and meditation practice). They are Teacher-Buddhas from the very beginning by definition; therefore, it is not necessary to “integrate” them into other hierarchies. In China, such teachers were called "living Buddhas," and in Tibet their title was Tulku (Skt. Nirmanakaya ) – that is, "Buddha in a manifested body." The hierarchical position of a reincarnated Tulku differed sharply from an ordinary monk, even a very educated one. In addition, they differed (not quite officially) in the seniority of their rebirths (there are “young” and “old” Tulku-Rinpoches) and in the merits of their lineage of rebirths before the Dharma. The institution of reincarnated lamas did not take root in Chinese Buddhism, but it became very important in the church organization in Mongolia and Tibet. A significant part of the monastery property was under the management of the reincarnated lamas. In addition, in many cases, the status of the monastery abbot was “hereditarily” assigned to them.

Finally, at a time when the Buddhist Church began to assume (in Tibet and Mongolia) the functions of government administration, a government-administrative hierarchy began to take shape. In its final form in Tibet, this hierarchy was headed by the Dalai Lama, and in Mongolia by Jebtsundamba Khutuktu. Many key government posts were held by church hierarchs.

Thus, in Central Asian Buddhism, several hierarchical systems can be distinguished. They are not completely or always aligned with each other, both from a doctrinal point of view and in practice. The alignment of these hierarchies could take place, for example, in a monastery, which (1) is headed by a reincarnated tulku, whose spiritual status is beyond doubt by the fact that he is recognized as a reincarnated lamas, if he (2) is a monk who has received a good education, (3) has the highest academic degree, (4) is known for his personal success in practice and (5) is the spiritual mentor of the inhabitants of the monastery. In practice, such an alignment often took place, but even in Tibet it did not always occur. The personal Teacher who instructed the student in his practice might not be a well-known yogi at all, not have official recognition as a reincarnated lama, not hold posts in the monastic administration, not have advanced academic degrees and not even be a monk. This did diminish his authority in the eyes of the disciple, and he always held the final word in matters of determining the spiritual path of his follower.

The discrepancy between the systems of hierarchy became especially sensitive when it came to the government-administrative hierarchy, whose top positions often did not align with those in the church hierarchy and were often disputed. Thus, the supreme status of the Dalai Lamas even in Tibet was at times questioned; there is historical evidence of this. As a basis for such doubts, it was cited that his supremacy in the administrative system was not fully supported by supremacy in the spiritual. For example, the adherents of the Panchen Lama spoke about his spiritual supremacy, since this lineage of reincarnation goes back to the Buddha Amitabha himself, whose emanation is considered to be the Panchen Lama. The Dalai Lama is revered as the incarnation of the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, who, in turn, is considered an emanation of Buddha Amitabha. Hence, it was concluded that the Panchen Lamas should have priority in relation to the Dalai Lamas.

The plurality of systems of hierarchy made the problem of establishing supremacy in the Sangha difficult, opening up extensive opportunities for centrifugal tendencies. The integrity of the spiritual community was initially ensured by the fact that its head was appointed by the previous leader, starting with Shakyamuni Buddha. However, the Sangha soon began to split into many different schools. The main principle determining their institutionalization was the presence of a continuous lineage of succession of Teachers.

An important factor that led to the divergence of church hierarchy systems was the ability to practice the sutra path and the tantra path independently of each other. Even in the Gelug school, where the orientation towards combining the sutra path and the tantra path is one of the most important principles of religious practice, the autonomous practice of these paths is definitely allowed. These two paths are embodied by two representative figures. For the path of Sutras it is a monk (while lay people can also advance along this path, in this case we are talking about the most representative type) who lives, in general, in a monastic Sangha, observes the vows of individual liberation (vinaya) and has received a philosophical education (which is especially typical for the Gelug school). For the Tantric path, the representative figure is the akpa (Tib. sngags pa , Skt. mantrika, tantrika ). For this practitioner, the main focus is the Teacher-student relationship, and, in addition, the relationship with the Vajra brothers (students of his Teacher) within the tantric community (ganachakra ). These relationships regulate tantric statutes. Celibacy is not required for a Tantric akpa practitioner, just as it is not necessary to complete a full course of philosophy and graduate degrees.

In addition to the two types of statutes that regulate the activities of the monastic and tantric communities (vinaya - the monastic statutes and tantric statutes), there are the Bodhisattva vows - a set of Mahayana rules. These vows are prescribed to be carried out both by tantric practitioners (in the ritual of tantric empowerments, taking these vows precedes taking tantric vows) and monks (in the Central Asian Buddhist monastic practice, Hinayana, or "lesser vehicle" which regulates the set of Vinaya, is considered part of the Mahayana path) [2; 6].

Thus, two types of Buddhist community are constituted: the ganachakra of the tantrists and the Sangha of the monks. In addition, one can distinguish, as a separate type of community, a community of lay Buddhists who do not practice Tantric methods but hold bodhisattva vows and practice Mahayana methods. Naturally, these communities are not disparate; their mixed forms are possible. For example, tantrists with monastic vows can enter the Sangha, and monks practicing tantra can enter the ganachakra . In addition, a person who has not taken monastic vows could enter the Sangha due to the doctrinal position that any saint (arya ), even if not a monk, is an object of "refuge" and is revered as a "jewel of the Sangha," even if he is the only such person in the community. He is part of the so-called "true" Sangha that only saints belong to (in contrast to the "conditional" Sangha that ordinary monks belong to). This doctrinal position allows those reincarnated tulkus who are not monks to lead the monastic community (such as the head of the Buddhist church in Mongolia, Jebtsundamba Khutuktu).

This state of affairs made conflicts in the prescriptions of the statutes mentioned above inevitable in practical life. However, over many centuries of the coexistence of these statutes, Buddhist religious and philosophical thought has developed ways to resolve these contradictions, although it must be said that in the Buddhist community this issue periodically becomes aggravated. The most acute conflicts were in those cases when the administrative hierarchy became involved in the contradictions within them. As we have said, the ambiguous attitude towards the institution of the Dalai Lama existed even in Tibet. The heads of the schools of Tibetan Buddhism in the spiritual sense have always been more authoritative for their followers than the Dalai Lama. And in Gelug itself, the abbots of large monasteries often did not yield to his spiritual authority. In those cases, when the church organization belonging to the Gelug tradition was geographically located within the borders of another state (Mongolia, China, etc.), the administrative influence of Lhasa did not extend to it at all.

In Russia, Buddhism took root in the form of the Gelug school, accepting the plurality of its hierarchical systems and the absence of a doctrinal need for spiritual unity of command [4; 5]. The status of the Khambo Lama - the head of the Buddhists of Buryatia - was initially established by the Tsarist administration in consideration of convenience of administrative management. Although, according to the rules codified in customary law, applicants for this post had to be competent within the Buddhist tradition (they had to be monks with at least ten years of experience, be educated in Buddhist philosophy, hold a Geshe degree and be competent in conducting tantric rituals), they were perceived only as “the first among equals.” The institution of reincarnated tulkus began to take shape in Buryatia quite late (in the late 19th - early 20th  centuries), so the Khambo Lamas did not have the charisma that the heads of church organizations in Tibet and Mongolia possessed. However, centrifugal tendencies that periodically emerged in Buryat Buddhism (for example, the occasionally intensified striving of the Khorinsky datsans to get away from Khambo control, leaving behind the Selenga datsans) were balanced by the firm policy of the Tsarist administration, which was not interested in dividing the Buddhist Sangha, fearing the loss of its controllability. In post-Soviet Russia, the restoration of the Buddhist church organization began under completely new conditions when the government was removed from interfering in internal church affairs. This resulted in the emergence of a large number of administratively independent Buddhist organizations [1; 5]. The noticeable prevalence of centrifugal tendencies over integrative tendencies at that time was presumably caused by the absence of the doctrinal need for undivided authority. In the absence of external restrictions on autonomy amidst not well-established intercommunal ties, this led to the emergence of a large number of Buddhist communities. In particular, the tendency towards independence became evident in the organizations of the followers of tantra structured as ganachakra , since for them following their own teaching tradition always had a higher priority than submission to the church authorities.

Another model of social organization was the monastic Sangha, which formed the core of the Central Spiritual Directorate of Buddhists (CSDB) – succeeded by the Buddhist Traditional Sangha of Russia (BTSR). Its integrative potential was significantly weakened due to the rupture that occurred in the religious and cultural tradition of Russian Buddhism. This gap was the result of the lack of a full-fledged system of spiritual education and, accordingly, the normal regeneration of the Buddhist community during the years of Soviet power. Fundamental changes have taken place in the composition of the Sangha – nowadays monks make up a minority of the Sangha. The functions of the datsans have changed accordingly. They have in practice lost their main function as a place of solitude for monks; instead, their main activity has become conducting khurals and fulfilling religious requests from the lay population. This, accordingly, has led to an increase in the number of dugans, which began to be built for the convenience of parishioners in residential areas (datsans, in contrast, should be located at a considerable distance from residential areas, according to the vinaya). The rituals performed during the khurals in the Gelug tradition are mostly Tantric. This requires that the clergy who perform them are experienced in tantra practice. Tantra gives the grounds for the foundation of communities of ganachakra - which, in turn, creates the preconditions for their autonomy.

For all the attractiveness of the idea of uniting Russian Buddhist religious organizations, it seems that the current situation is a consequence mostly of the natural course of self-determination of various traditions under conditions of freedom of religion. What remains primary, though, in these evolving conditions is the Teacher-student relationship, which unites all traditions.


In Buddhist communities of Central Asia, systems of hierarchies governing their structural integrity had different origins and significance, and their focus evolved through historical periods which put more or less emphasis on factors such as educational attainment or the institution of reincarnated lamas. These hierarchies sometimes correlated with each other, but also frequently diverged. Further, the Sangha became increasingly disparate with the advent of new schools of Buddhism with differing relationships to the paths of tantra and sutra, as well as with the decentralization of authority against the backdrop of changes in government. As we examine the changes overall, we see that systems of hierarchy have fluctuated greatly in their structure and constitution. In order to evaluate the current situation of Buddhist communities in Central Asia, it is necessary to examine the most foundational and longest lasting hierarchy, which is that of the Teacher-student relationship – as this is what constitutes the most important characteristic of the spiritual community.

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