Agvan Dorjiev: The Diplomat Monk
The idea for this article came about when my teacher, His Eminence the 25th Tsem Rinpoche, mentioned Agvan Dorjiev during a conversation. Through my research, I realised that he had an interesting life. Although he was not Tibetan by birth, he served as the attendant and confidant of the 13th Dalai Lama. In addition, he played an important diplomatic role in developing and strengthening the relationship between Russia and Tibet. Unfortunately, his political role and his Russian influence over Tibet were exaggerated and eventually provoked the British invasion of Tibet in December 1903.
Although he was not successful in securing the Russian Imperial family’s backing to protect Tibet from British invasion, Agvan Dorjiev was able to obtain their support to build the first Tibetan Buddhist temple in St. Petersburg and various monasteries in Kalmykia and Buryatia.
His life became challenging after the Bolshevik Communist Revolution. Although initially he was able to ensure that Buddhism co-existed peacefully with Communism in the 1920s, he did not survive Joseph Stalin’s ‘great purge’.
Regardless of what people said about him during his lifetime, I found it remarkable that he managed to be the confidant of the 13th Dalai Lama despite his foreign background. Equally fascinating to me also were his ability to secure the Russian Empire’s support to build monasteries and eventually a Buddhist temple in St. Petersburg. It is a pleasure to be able to write about this complex character, who was highly praised though his motivation was often under suspicion.
Early Life and Education
Agvan Dorjiev was born in Baikal, Siberia in 1854 to a devout Buddhist family. He was part of the Buryat Mongol ethnic group which had been incorporated into Russian Empire in the 18th Century.
When he was 19 years old, Agvan Dorjiev travelled as part of the entourage that accompanied the 8th Khalkha Jetsundampa Khutuktu Ngawang Lobsang Chokyi Nyima, Mongolia’s highest ranking Lama, to Tibet. After he arrived in Lhasa, Agvan Dorjiev enrolled himself at Drepung Gomang Monastic College. Unfortunately, two years later, his monastic study was temporarily halted due to Tibet’s policy that prohibited foreigners from living in Tibet.
Agvan Dorjiev then travelled back to Urga (present day Ulaanbaatar) in Mongolia where he took ordination vows from his teacher and mentor, Pelden Chopel Pelzangpo. After that, Agvan Dorjiev travelled to study at Wu Tai Shan, also known as Five-Peaked Mountain, in China where he received empowerments and teachings from several teachers. One of his teachers, Dzasak Rinpoche made arrangements for Agvan Dorjiev to return to Lhasa together with Jadrel Rinpoche, which may be another name for Pelden Chopel Pelzangpo.
In 1880, Agvan Dorjiev arrived in Tibet and made considerable contributions to the monasteries in Lhasa and Tashi Lunpo in Shigatse, which helped him to circumvent the previous regulations that prevented him from staying in Tibet. Agvan Dorjiev resumed his studies at Drepung Gomang Monastic College and due to his contributions, he was exempted from the manual labour work of an ordinary monk. He successfully obtained his Geshe Lharampa degree after only eight years of study compared to the average 18 years, which is a reflection of his intelligence.
Attendant to the Dalai Lama and Diplomatic Role
In the late 19th Century, the power of the Qing Dynasty in China was declining and British India was expanding their influence to Tibet’s neighbouring countries, Nepal and Sikkim. At the same time, Tsar Nicholas II of Russia wanted to expand his influence in Asia to rival that of Britain.
Tibet had an adverse opinion to British influence. This began in the early 1800s when Britain seized Sikkim, a region that previously paid tax to Tibet, and put Sikkim under Nepal’s authority. In addition, Britain deliberately caused conflicts in the border regions between Tibet, India and Sikkim in order to coerce China to sign an agreement that would allow them to trade with Tibet. Britain’s political manoeuvring in the region created fear among the Tibetans that one day, Britain would seize their country too and destroy their culture.
Through one of his teachers, the 3rd Purchok Jampa Gyatso, who was the personal teacher of the 13th Dalai Lama, Agvan Dorjiev was able to secure the position of assistant tutor and debate partner of the young Dalai Lama. It was in these roles that Agvan Dorjiev was able to gain the confidence of the 13th Dalai Lama and used this to paint the Russian Empire in a favourable light.
Agvan Dorjiev managed to convince the 13th Dalai Lama that the Russian Empire would be interested and able to protect Tibet from a potential British invasion. In 1898, Agvan Dorjiev visited Russia as the Dalai Lama’s representative. He returned two years later in the summer of 1900 with six other Tibetan representatives. This visit was repeated again in 1901, when Agvan Dorjiev and the other Tibetan representatives managed to meet with Tsar Nicholas II, Russia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs and the Minister of Finance in St. Petersburg. Although Tsar Nicholas II and his ministers were friendly to the Tibetan emissaries, Agvan Dorjiev was not successful in securing Russia’s commitment to protect Tibet from any British invasion.
Unfortunately, the intention and the success of these visits would be exaggerated and consequently, Britain was provoked to invade Tibet. Considering that Agvan Dorjiev was born in the Russian Empire, the British assumed that Agvan Dorjiev was acting to advance Russia’s interests in Tibet. The British used the information from various sources to justify their invasion of Tibet.
Russian Publications on Agvan Dorjiev’s Visit to Russia
Perhaps if Agvan Dorjiev’s visit to Russia was not widely publicised, the British would not have felt threatened and therefore would not have been provoked to invade Tibet. Russian newspapers however, wrote about these visits. The Tsarist official Dr Peter Badmaev, who happened to be a Buryat himself, made sure that these visits were widely publicised and that Agvan Dorjiev’s roles were discussed extensively.
Ekai Kawaguchi’s Accounts on Agvan Dorjiev’s Role in Tibet
In addition to Russian publications, the British obtained information about Agvan Dorjiev from an unlikely source, the Japanese monk Ekai Kawaguchi. Ekai Kawaguchi visited Tibet and reported Agvan Dorjiev’s activities to Sarat Chandra Das (1849 – 1917), a British agent. Kawaguchi made specific allegations against Agvan Dorjiev including:
- Fueling pro-Russian sentiments in Tibet by depicting Russia as Shambhala, the mythical kingdom associated with the Kalachakra Tantra
- Creating an arsenal in Lhasa. In addition, Kawaguchi reported that Agvan Dorjiev held the position of Minister of War in Tibet.
Ekai Kawaguchi also went the extra mile to visit Nepal where he met with Nepal’s Prime Minister, Chandra Shamsher. There he reported his perception of Agvan Dorjiev’s influence over the 13th Dalai Lama. Nepal used Ekai Kawaguchi’s accounts about Agvan Dorjiev to justify their asking for British military action in Tibet.
Colonel Younghusband’s Expedition to Tibet
The exaggerated perception surrounding Agvan Dorjiev’s visits to Russia, his presumed role as a ‘Russian agent’ and pro-Russian sentiment in Tibet caused considerable concern among British officials in India. As a result, the Viceroy of India, George Nathaniel Curzon decided to assign Colonel Francis Younghusband to lead an armed mission to Tibet and secure an advantageous trade agreement for Britain. Although the Younghusband Expedition was based on rumours about Agvan Dorjiev’s role in advancing Russian interests in Tibet, Curzon and Younghusband manipulated the British Cabinet’s opinion in order to obtain the necessary support for the expedition. Curzon famously told Younghusband,
“Remember that in the eyes of HMG [Her Majesty’s Government], we are advancing not because of Dorjiev, or Russian riffles in Lhasa, but because our convention has been shamelessly violated, our frontier trespassed upon, our subjects arrested, our mission flouted, our representations ignored.”
During his advances in Tibet, Colonel Younghusband faced opposition from the Tibetans. Due to their lack of experience and outdated weapons however, the Tibetans were not an equal match against the well-equipped British soldiers. The battle resulted in relatively low casualties on the British side – 202 lost their lives in battle, while 411 lost their lives to injury or illness. There were, on the other hand, significant losses for the Tibetan side – between 2,000 to 3,000 Tibetans lost their lives during battle or were fatally wounded in the war effort.
And so it was a heavily-armed Younghusband Expedition that entered Tibet in 1903. Agvan Dorjiev advised the Tibetans to avoid battle with the British Expedition as the Tibetan army and soldiers were no match against the organised and more experienced British army. However, Agvan Dorjiev’s advice fell on deaf ears. It was not well-received by the Tibetan government and powerful factions in Lhasa who had the patriotic interest to defend their country. Eventually, Colonel Younghusband and his troops arrived in Lhasa in August 1904.
To his dismay, Younghusband found out that the 13th Dalai Lama and Agvan Dorjiev had left Lhasa for Urga, and therefore he had difficulties finding someone to sign the treaty to conclude the war. The Dalai Lama requested for Russian support to fight against the British. Unfortunately, Russia was focused in a war with Japan in 1904-1905. Therefore, the 13th Dalai Lama’s request for Russian assistance was not fulfilled.
Finally, Younghusband managed to coerce the Regent, Gaden Tri Rinpoche, and the Tsongdu (Tibetan National Assembly) into signing the Treaty of Lhasa containing the following terms:
- Allowance for British trade in Tibet
- Recognition of the Sikkim-Tibet border
- Payment of 7.5 million rupees in indemnity (to be paid in yearly installments for 75 years) and the Chumbi Valley, which would only be returned to Tibet when the indemnity had been paid in full
- Restriction for Tibet to build relationships with other nations except with Britain
Later, Qing officials from China canceled this treaty and signed an Anglo-Chinese treaty on April 27, 1906 with Britain, known as the Convention Between Great Britain and China Respecting Tibet. In this treaty, the British recognised Chinese authority over Tibet. The Acting Viceroy, Lord Ampthill reduced the 7.5 million rupees compensation by two-thirds. In return, China agreed not to let other foreign influences interfere with the Tibetan administration.
Realising that his effort to secure foreign support to help Tibet was not bearing fruit, the 13th Dalai Lama left Mongolia for Kumbum Monastery in Amdo in the second half of 1906.
On August 31, 1907, Russia and Britain signed the Anglo-Russian Entente, a treaty that put an end to their rivalry in Central Asia and recognised China’s authority over Tibet. This treaty ended Agvan Dorjiev’s diplomatic endeavours to align Tibet closer to Russia.
In February 1908, the 13th Dalai Lama and Agvan Dorjiev traveled to Wu Tai Shan where they met various foreign diplomats from Britain, America and Russia in order to gain support against the oppressive Qing rule of Tibet. Although they were unsuccessful, the 13th Dalai Lama developed an appreciation for international politics. At this point, Tibet’s adverse opinion against Britain had lessened and the leaders began to consider enlisting British support in protecting Tibet against Chinese influence.
The Dalai Lama and Agvan Dorjiev continued to travel to Beijing where they met with Empress Dowager Cixi and Emperor Guang Xu, who would both die within one day of each other in November 1908. In December 1908, the Dalai Lama returned to Lhasa and Agvan Dorjiev left for St. Petersburg.
Establishing Buddhism in Kalmykia and Buryatia
After his third visit to Russia, Agvan Dorjiev visited Kalmykia and Buryatia for two years to establish Buddhism there. During this visit, he met with a gifted student, Ngawang Wangyal. Agvan Dorjiev helped Ngawang Wangyal to go to Tibet and study at Drepung Gomang Monastery where he obtained his Geshe degree. Geshe Ngawang Wangyal would later play a vital role in bringing Tibetan Buddhism to the United States in the 1950s.
During his stay in Buryatia and Kalmykia, Agvan Dorjiev followed the advice of both the 13th Dalai Lama and his teacher, Purchok Jampa Gyatso. He spread the Buddhadharma by establishing monasteries, ordaining monks and bestowing tantric empowerments. Agvan Dorjiev’s effort was not without opposition from influential local priests who were afraid that Agvan Dorjiev would override their authority. Fortunately for Agvan Dorjiev, he received the backing of Tsar Nicholas II.
Not all Agvan Dorjiev’s projects however, were supported by the Imperial Romanov family. He began a project with his friends, Bazar Baradiin, a philologist and Zhamtsarano, a professor at St. Petersburg University which was aimed at creating a Buryat alphabet in order to preserve Buryat culture. This was not supported by the Russian government and his partner Zhamtsarano was also exiled to Mongolia. This project was therefore left incomplete.
In 1905, Agvan Dorjiev managed to gain approval from Russian authorities to build Datsan Gunzechoinei, a Buddhist temple in the city of St. Petersburg. The establishment of the temple was funded by Agvan Dorjiev, the 13th Dalai Lama, the 8th Jetsundampa Khutuktu and Buddhists in Buryatia and Kalmykia. Although the plan was opposed by leaders of the Russian Orthodox Church, Agvan Dorjiev managed to enlist the support of powerful nobility, politicians and personalities such as Prince Esper Ukhtomsky, P. Badmaev, V. V. Radlov, D.F. Oldenburg, G. Th. Stcherbatsky, V.L Kotvich, N.K. Roerich and P. Kozlov. The temple construction commenced in 1909 and was completed in 1915.
For Agvan Dorjiev to be able to enlist the support of many powerful personalities to build a prominent Buddhist temple in the Russian capital, despite the Russian Orthodox Church’s very strong and powerful opposition, is remarkable.
The End of the Qing Empire and Agvan Dorjiev’s Political Manoeuvring
In February 1910, the 13th Dalai Lama and his entourage escaped to Darjeeling, India as the Qing government sent the Chinese army into Tibet in order to strengthen their control. The Dalai Lama and his entourage stayed in India from February 1910 to mid-1912.
During this self-imposed exile, the 13th Dalai Lama tried to enlist the support of the British and Russian governments to protect Tibet against China’s power. Unfortunately, neither Britain nor Russia were willing to violate the treaty they signed in 1907. Therefore, the Dalai Lama’s effort was unsuccessful.
In February 1912, the Qing Empire fell apart and the Dalai Lama used this opportunity to rid Tibet of the Chinese influence and declared Tibetan independence.
Excerpt from the 13th Dalai Lama’s declaration of independence:
I, the Dalai Lama, most omniscient possessor of the Buddhist faith, whose title was conferred by the Lord Buddha’s command from the glorious land of India, speak to you as follows:
I am speaking to all classes of Tibetan people. Lord Buddha, from the glorious country of India, prophesied that the reincarnations of Avalokitesvara, through successive rulers from the early religious kings to the present day, would look after the welfare of Tibet.
During the time of Genghis Khan and Altan Khan of the Mongols, the Ming dynasty of the Chinese, and the Ch’ing Dynasty of the Manchus, Tibet and China cooperated on the basis of benefactor and priest relationship. A few years ago, the Chinese authorities in Szechuan and Yunnan endeavored to colonize our territory. They brought large numbers of troops into central Tibet on the pretext of policing the trade markets. I, therefore, left Lhasa with my ministers for the Indo-Tibetan border, hoping to clarify to the Manchu emperor by wire that the existing relationship between Tibet and China had been that of patron and priest and had not been based on the subordination of one to the other. There was no other choice for me but to cross the border, because Chinese troops were following with the intention of taking me alive or dead.
On my arrival in India, I dispatched several telegrams to the Emperor; but his reply to my demands was delayed by corrupt officials in Peking. Meanwhile, the Manchu empire collapsed. The Tibetans were encouraged to expel the Chinese from central Tibet. I, too, returned safely to my rightful and sacred country, and I am now in the course of driving out the remnants of Chinese troops from Do Kham in Eastern Tibet. Now, the Chinese intention of colonizing Tibet under the patron-priest relationship has faded like a rainbow in the sky.”
Agvan Dorjiev was reunited with the 13th Dalai Lama in Phari, who then travelled back to Lhasa under the protection of British Indian officials. In August 1912, Agvan Dorjiev departed to Mongolia. The Dalai Lama entrusted Agvan Dorjiev with gifts and a letter for Tsar Nicholas II. That would be the last time Agvan Dorjiev met with the Dalai Lama in person.
In 1912, Mongolia declared its independence from the Qing Dynasty, and the 8th Jetsundampa Khutuktu, a patron of Agvan Dorjiev’s St. Petersburg temple, was installed as the Khan. Agvan Dorjiev, representing Tibet, signed the Treaty of Friendship and Alliance between the Government of Mongolia and Tibet, with the new Khan’s ministers. This treaty stated both Tibet and Mongolia recognised each other’s independence, agreed to strengthen their friendship and acknowledged that they have shared the same religion for years.
This Tibeto-Mongolian treaty was controversial as it drew objection from the new Chinese authorities who tried to exert their influence in Tibet. Britain was not happy with the treaty either because they thought Mongolia was heavily influenced by Russia. They saw it as an opportunity for Russia to increase their influence in Tibet. On the other hand, Russia was wary of this suspicion and denied any involvement in the signing of the treaty. During that time, Russia tried to maintain a good relationship with Britain due to the impending First World War.
Upon signing the treaty, Agvan Dorjiev travelled to St. Petersburg and presided over the first service at Datsan Gunzechoinei, the new Buddhist temple. The historic event took place on February 21, 1913 although at the time, the temple construction was not yet completed. The event coincided with the 300th year celebration of the Romanov Dynasty.
Datsan Gunzechoinei was officially opened on August 10, 1915 when Russia was heavily involved in the First World War. Together with Dashi Dorzho (spiritual leader of Buryatia), Agvan Dorjiev helped in raising funds to support the Russian Empire’s war effort. Unfortunately, the Romanov Dynasty would soon see their end and in the process, Agvan Dorjiev lost a powerful ally.
Aftermath of the Bolshevik Revolution
After the fall of the Romanov Dynasty, Agvan Dorjiev and Russian Buddhists faced a challenging time. Datsan Gunzechoinei in St. Petersburg was looted and the monasteries in Kalmykia were destroyed by the Red Army. Agvan Dorjiev himself was imprisoned on suspicion of trying to sneak money out of Russia.
Fortunately, with the help of Russian intellectuals who were scholars of Oriental Studies, and with whom he had maintained good relationships with (e.g., Th. Stcherbatsky, S.F. Oldenburg and B. Vladimirtsov), Agvan Dorjiev was freed by the Bolsheviks. The Red Army also withdrew from the Datsan Gunzechoinei Temple, sparing it from further destruction.
In his effort to preserve Buddhism in Russia, Agvan Dorjiev tried to adapt Buddhism to Communism. The Buryat Buddhist Congress was held on two occasions in 1922 and 1925. The participants of these congresses discussed changes such as eliminating the private property of monks, separation of religion and government, encouraging monks to engage in military service and so forth. Although the conservative Buddhists were not happy with these changes, Agvan Dorjiev managed to allow Buddhism to co-exist with communism.
The Bolsheviks seemed to recognise the influence that Agvan Dorjiev held in Tibet and Mongolia, so they sent him to Tibet three times to rebuild diplomatic relationships that were severed after the fall of the Romanov Dynasty.
However, although Agvan Dorjiev outwardly appeared to support the Bolsheviks, he sent a secret letter to the 13th Dalai Lama informing him that Buddhist principles and teachings were facing serious oppression in Bolshevik Russia.
By the late 1920s, after Joseph Stalin became the leader of the Soviet Union, Agvan Dorjiev’s effort to ensure Buddhism co-existed with Communism was seriously threatened. The fact that many monks took part in anti-government rebellion gave the Soviet government reason to persecute Buddhist practitioners. Many monks were arrested and sent to concentration camps. They even went as far as to arrest the 13th Dalai Lama’s representative in the Soviet Union, Sharab Tepkin in 1931. In 1933, Agvan Dorjiev received devastating news regarding the passing of the 13th Dalai Lama and the following year, he was arrested for the second time. He was released within 20 days, most likely due to the help of his friends in the Soviet Foreign Office.
In January 1937, Agvan Dorjiev travelled to Buryatia to spend his days in solitary retreat at his house. However, on November 13, 1937, he was arrested for the third time on suspicion that he was spying for Japan. His other charges also included activities such as terrorism, armed rebellion, etc. After a two-week interrogation, he was sent to hospital due to an unspecified illness. Agvan Dorjiev would pass away on January 29, 1938.
For more interesting information:
- Nicholas Roerich & Art (1874-1947)
- Ekai Kawaguchi – Three Years in Tibet
- Alexandra David-Neel
- The Russian Princess Buddhist Nun
- Incredible Geshe Wangyal
- Kalmyk People’s Origin-VERY INTERESTING
- Russian Leadership Supports Buddhism
- Wu Tai Shan
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