The Way of the Bodhisattva: Telo Tulku Rinpoche’s 30 Years of Noble Service to the Kalmyk People

Telo Tulku Rinpoche during the musical offering to the Three Jewels in front of Kalmykia’s Golden Abode of Shakyamuni Buddha. From facebook.com

But if my acts are good, sincerely intended,
Then no matter where I turn my steps,
The merit gained will honor me
With its resulting benefits.

― Shantideva, The Way of the Bodhisattva

Throughout its long history, Buddhism has been greatly influenced by historical, political, and cultural events and circumstances wherever it has spread and been promulgated. Russia is a good example. Despite periods of turbulence in Russian history, Buddhism has managed to establish deep roots in Russian culture. Moreover, until recently, there was talk of a revival of Buddhism there—especially in the Buddhist Republic of Kalmykia. Undoubtedly, a great contributor to this Buddhist revival in the last 30 years is one of the most influential Buddhist teachers of our time: Telo Tulku Rinpoche.1

Telo Tulku Rinpoche was born Erdne Ombadykow on 27 October 1972 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He received formal training as a Buddhist monk in India and was recognized by His Holiness the Dalai Lama as the reincarnation of the Buddhist mahasiddha Tilopa (988–1069). After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1992, Telo Tulku Rinpoche accompanied the Dalai Lama on his first visit to Kalmykia. Upon arrival, the Dalai Lama named him as the shajin lama (supreme lama) of the Kalmyk people. He subsequently served as a spiritual head of Kalmykia from 19 June 1992 until 28 January 2023, during which time he successfully led the revival of Buddhism in the Russian republic. Among his 18 predecessors, Telo Tulku Rinpoche is the longest-serving shajin lama of Kalmykia since the beginning of the role in 1639.

On 29 January 2023, Telo Tulku Rinpoche announced his resignation as shajin lama in response to being added to the Russian government’s list of “foreign agents” on 27 January, likely as a result of his speaking out against Russia’s war in Ukraine in October last year.2 Telo Tulku Rinpoche thus became one of the very few Russian religious leaders to openly condemn the invasion.3

Despite his resignation as shajin lama, Telo Tulku Rinpoche has announced that he will continue to act as His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s envoy to Russia—he was appointed as an honorary representative of the Dalai Lama in Russia, Mongolia, and the Commonwealth of Independent States at the Tibet Culture & Information Centre in Moscow on 27 October 2014. 

Speaking to the news website Phayul on 31 January from Dharamshala, the seat of the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA), Telo Tulku Rinpoche confirmed: “I will remain as the Representative of His Holiness the Dalai Lama unless the Kashag [Cabinet] decides something else.” (Phayul)

The achievements of Telo Tulku Rinpoche over the past 30 years are so numerous and so significant that a single article can barely do them justice. Instead, a librarian at the Golden Abode of Shakyamuni Buddha, Nadezhda Bakaraeva, kindly provided BDG with an overview of some of the many important events initiated by Telo Tulku Rinpoche, which is supplemented with our own articles documenting some of those events.

30 years of service to the Kalmyk people

Sacred constructions

Under the spiritual leadership of Telo Tulku Rinpoche, more than 30 Buddhist temples and prayer houses have been built, as well as some 200 Buddhist stupas and prayer wheels.4

• In 2005, the main temple of Kalmykia, the Golden Abode of Shakyamuni Buddha, was opened and became the largest Buddhist temple in Russia and in Europe.5

• In 2011, the former ambassador of Sri Lanka to the Russian Federation, Udayanga Weeratunga, and a delegation of monks escorted relics of the Buddha to the Golden Abode of Shakyamuni Buddha, and thus Kalmykia became the only place in Europe where the relics of the Buddha are enshrined. 

• In 2019, a statue of the bodhisattva Maitreya was constructed in Lagan, Kalmykia. Standing 15 meters high, it is the largest image of the future buddha in the Russian Federation and in Europe.6

Spiritual ties with His Holiness the Dalai Lama

Telo Tulku Rinpoche strengthened the centuries-old ties between His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Russian Buddhists. He has served as the honorary representative of the Dalai Lama in Russia, Mongolia, and the Commonwealth of Independent States since 2014. Thanks to Telo Tulku Rinpoche, 2020 was declared the Year of Thanksgiving to His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama.

• The Dalai Lama’s websites in Russian and in Mongolian also operate under Telo Tulku Rinpoche’s guidance, providing detailed information on the activities of the Tibetan spiritual leader, and his lectures and teachings. 

• With Telo Tulku Rinpoche’s active participation, the long-awaited visit of the Dalai Lama to Russia in November 2004 gave new impetus to the process of reviving traditional Buddhist values ​​in Kalmykia and in Russia.7

• On the initiative of Telo Tulku Rinpoche, a large prayer service for the long life of the Dalai Lama was held at his residence in Dharamsala in November 2007. Clergy, officials, musicians, and pilgrims from the Buddhist regions of Russia and Mongolia participated in the ceremony.

• Telo Tulku Rinpoche initiated teachings by His Holiness the Dalai Lama for Russian Buddhists in 2007. More than a thousand pilgrims from Russia, as well as France, Greece, Italy, Spain, Switzerland, the US, and Vietnam, attended the Dalai Lama’s teachings in India and in Europe. During the COVID-19 pandemic the teachings for Russian Buddhists were held online.8

 • An interactive conversation between the Dalai Lama and Russian students was organized by Telo Tulku Rinpoche in March, 2021.8

Telo Tulku Rinpoche in Kalmykia. From facebook.com


Under the leadership of Telo Tulku Rinpoche, monks of the Golden Abode of Shakyamuni Buddha organized regular pilgrimages to sacred sites associated with Shakyamuni Buddha in India and Nepal, and sacred sites in Kalmykia. 

Buddhist practice

Under the guidance of Telo Tulku Rinpoche, an all-Russian retreat for the practice of Vajrabhairava, led by Kundeling Tatsak Rinpoche, was held in the village of Troitskoye, Tselinny District, in 2017. 

• An international retreat to recite the Mantra of the Buddha of Compassion 100 million times under the guidance of Lama Zopa Rinpoche was held in the Golden Abode of Shakyamuni Buddha in 2019, with the support of Telo Tulku Rinpoche.9

• With Telo Tulku Rinpoche’s guidance, sand mandalas of Green Tara, Manjushri, Hayagriva, Dzambala, Vajrapani, and Amitabha were constructed all over Kalmykia. Monks from Drepung Gomang Monastic University in India created a sand mandala of the bodhisattva of wisdom Manjushri at the Golden Abode of Shakyamuni Buddha in 2018.10

Buddhist teachings 

• At the personal invitation of Telo Tulku Rinpoche, many renowned Buddhist teachers have visited Kalmykia, among them: His Holiness the Dalai Lama; His Holiness the Sakya Trizin; His Eminence the Ninth Jebtsundamba Khutughtu; His Eminence Kundeling Rinpoche; Samdhong Rinpoche; Lama Zopa Rinpoche; Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche; Khyensur Lobsang Tenpa; Khensur Rinpoche; Geshe Yonten Damcho; Khensur Rinpoche; Geshe Lobsang Gyaltsen; Jhado Tulku Rinpoche; Arjia Rinpoche; Geshe Lhakdor; Robert Thurman; Barry Kerzin; Tenzin Priyadarshi; B. Alan Wallace; Robert Beer; and Glen Mullin.11

• Telo Tulku Rinpoche has given teachings in Kalmykia and in many cities of Russia. In 2017, he gave a public talk “Refuge for the New Millennium” in Moscow.12

• During the COVID-19 pandemic, Telo Tulku Rinpoche also gave several online teachings.13

• Telo Tulku Rinpoche contributed vocal performances for the album Bodhicharyavatara, with music by Anton Batagov. The 60-minute composition is based on selected chapters from the classic Mahayana text Bodhicharyavatara (The Way of the Bodhisattva), composed by the eighth-century Indian master Shantideva.

Revival of traditional tsam dance

• In 2009, on the occasion of the 400th anniversary of the entry of the Kalmyk people into the Russian state after the revolution in Kalmykia, a Buddhist tsam (Tib: cham) dance, was held in the Golden Abode of Shakyamuni Buddha to revive this tradition. A large ritual of summoning protectors and removing obstacles was performed by the monks of Dzonkar Chode Monastery, India.

Telo Tulku Rinpoche. From phalyul.com

Buddhism and science

With the support of Telo Tulku Rinpoche, a number of important international scientific projects and forums have been held in recent years. Russian Buddhist scholars, neurobiologists, physicists, linguists, geneticists, philosophers, psychologists, and learned monks from India participated, as well as the Dalai Lama himself.

• The conferences include “Buddhism and Phenomenology” (Institute of Philosophy, Russian Academy of Sciences, 2016), and “Buddhism and Science” (Institute of Philosophy, Russian Academy of Sciences, 2017). 

• The first dialogue between the Dalai Lama and Russian neuroscientists as part of the first joint scientific conference “Fundamental Knowledge: Dialogues between Russian and Buddhist Scientists” took place in New Delhi in 2017.14

• In 2018, the Dalai Lama participated in the second dialogue between Russian scientists and Buddhist scholars in Dharamsala, India, under the theme “Understanding the World.”15

• The first international conference “Buddhist Civilization and the Spiritual Heritage of the Peoples of Eurasia: Oral and Written Traditions in a Historical and Cultural Context,” dedicated to the 420th birth anniversary of the prominent Oirat Buddhist scholar Zaya Pandita Namkhai Jamtso (1599–1662) was organized in Kalmykia in 2019.16

• Other conferences include: “The Problem of Consciousness and Modern Science” (M. V. Lomonosov Moscow State University, 2019) and “Tibetology and Buddhology at the Intersection of Science and Religion” (Institute of Oriental Studies, Russian Academy of Sciences, 2020). 

• In September 2020, Telo Tulku Rinpoche held a discussion with Kalmyk scholars on establishing a center for Buddhist higher education.17

• The international scientific conference “Buddhist Education: Problems and Perspectives of Development” was organized in 2021 and attended by leading Russian and foreign experts in the field of Buddhist education.18

• A project is being carried out to study meditation and altered states of consciousness at Tibetan Buddhist monasteries in India, led by academician Svyatoslav Medvedev (N. P. Bekhtereva Institute of the Human Brain, Russian Academy of Sciences).

International tuberculosis project

• A joint project of the International Foundation of His Holiness the Dalai Lama in the US and the Association of Buddhists of Kalmykia, headed by Telo Tulku Rinpoche, has become a significant event in the republic. As part of the project, an international conference of phthisiatricians was held, attended by specialists from the republic, American doctors from the Step Forward Foundation, and specialists from the Central Research Institute of Tuberculosis in Moscow. The republic was presented with equipment for diagnosing infections. 

Telo Tulku Rinpoche. From facebok.com

Buddhist courses in Kalmyk schools

• Schools in Kalmykia have been conducting foundation course in Buddhism since 2009, aimed at introducing knowledge of national history and culture through the study of Buddhist philosophy. Telo Tulku Rinpoche has provided assistance to teachers, with training conducted at the Golden Abode of Shakyamuni Buddha.

Translation and publication of Buddhist texts 

Telo Tulku Rinpoche headed the organizing committee for the first Russian national research and practice conference for translators of Buddhist texts: “Toward a Russian Language Buddhist Canon,” which was attended by leading Russian translators, researchers and publishers. The conference was organized in 2018 and in 2020.

• Under his spiritual guidance, the Save Tibet Foundation in Moscow publishes the Nalanda series of books on the Buddhist teachings, designed for those who would like to better understand the essence of the Buddha’s teachings, presented in the works of philosophers of the ancient center of Buddhist thought, Nalanda.

Inter-religious dialogue

Telo Tulku Rinpoche was an active member of the Inter-religious Council of Kalmykia, which has developed new educational projects aimed at consolidating society and promoting moral values. He conducted extensive work to develop Buddhism, promote universal moral values, and strengthen inter-religious and interethnic harmony.

International Buddhist summit

Telo Tulku Rinpoche took part in the 7th International Buddhist Summit in 2017, a conference of Buddhist leaders from the Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana traditions. The summit plays an active role in bringing together Buddhist leaders to achieve harmony and productive dialogue.

Telo Tulku Rinpoche in Kalmykia. From facebook.com

Preservation of the Kalmyk culture

Unique musical performances were conducted in Kalmykia in 2018 and in 2019, featuring 700 musicians and 300 vocalists. The events were held in front of the Golden Abode of Shakyamuni Buddha as an offering to the Three Jewels and to promote the culture of the Kalmyks. The idea and spiritual support for this project came from Telo Tulku Rinpoche.19

• A musical performance titled I Am Buddha and staged by the B. Basangov Kalmyk State Theater of Drama was created in 2018 with the blessings of Telo Tulku Rinpoche and presented in Kyzyl, capital of the Tuvan People’s Republic, and in Ulan-Ude, capital of the Republic of Buryatia.20

• With support from Telo Tulku Rinpoche, the National Shrines Project is being implemented with the goal of publishing sutras from the Word of the Buddha transcribed into modern Kalmyk writing from the Oirat script todo bichig, and translated into Russian. The work is being carried out in cooperation with scholars from Moscow and St. Petersburg. The Prajnaparamita Sutra, Diamond Sutra, and Dharani of the Ushnisha Sitatapatra have already been published, and the Golden Light Sutra is currently being translated.

Celebrations for White Month, the first month of the Lunar New Year, are held in Kalmykia with rituals and cultural events, often led by Telo Tulku Rinpoche.21

Special festivals were organized at the Golden Abode of Shakyamuni Buddha during the COVID-19 pandemic.22

• Prayer ceremonies in the Golden Abode of Shakyamuni Buddha are conducted in the native Kalmyk language. The temples also organizes free Kalmyk language courses.

• A documentary on the life of the Kalmyk monk Geshe Wangyal was released on 16 November 2022, written, directed, and produced by Ella Manzheeva, the first film director from Kalmykia, and filmed with the blessings of Telo Tulku Rinpoche.23


• The monastic sangha of the Golden Abode of Shakyamuni Buddha conducts a range of charitable activities with the blessing of Telo Tulku Rinpoche. Charitable assistance is provided to low-income earners, the disabled, the elderly, disadvantaged families, people in difficult life situations, and people in need of medical treatment. More than 20 social services and organizations receive help from the temple.

1 The Kalmyk Restoration: Telo Tulku Rinpoche on a Russian Republic’s Buddhist Revival (BDG)

2 Telo Tulku Rinpoche, Supreme Lama in Russian Republic of Kalmykia, Announces Resignation (BDG)

3 Telo Tulku Rinpoche, Supreme Lama in Russian Republic of Kalmykia, Condemns War (BDG)

4 Buddhist Holy Sites of the Russian Steppes (BDG) and Buddhism in Kalmykia: Construction of a Stupa as a Symbol of Unity (BDG)

5 Kalmyk Buddhists Mark the 15th Anniversary of the Golden Abode of Shakyamuni Buddha (BDG)

6 New Maitreya Statue Consecrated in Kalmykia (BDG)

7 The Dalai Lama’s Visits to Kalmykia (BDG)

8 Dalai Lama Begins Three-day Online Teaching for Russian Buddhists (BDG), Dalai Lama Holds Two-day Online Teaching for Russian Buddhists (BDG), and Dalai Lama Joins First Interactive Conversation with Russian Students (BDG)

9 Lama Zopa Rinpoche Visits Moscow and Kalmykia (BDG)

10 Monks from Drepung Gomang Monastic University Create Sand Mandalas in Kalmykia (BDG)

11 Jhado Tulku Rinpoche Visits Moscow, St. Petersburg, Kalmykia, and Tuva (BDG) and Senior Gelug Teacher Arjia Rinpoche Visits Kalmykia (BDG)

12 “Refuge for the New Millennium:” Telo Tulku Rinpoche Gives Teaching in Moscow (BDG) 

13 Telo Tulku Rinpoche Gives His First Online Teaching to Mark the Beginning of Saka Dawa (BDG)

14 Dalai Lama Joins Russian and Buddhist Scholars for Historic Dialogue in New Delhi (BDG)

15 Dalai Lama Joins Second Dialogue between Russian Scientists and Buddhist Scholars (BDG)

16 International Buddhist Conference in Kalmykia Marks the 420th Birth Anniversary of Zaya Pandita (BDG)

17 Planning Underway in Kalmykia for a Center of Buddhist Higher Education (BDG)

18 International Conference in Kalmykia Unites Leading Buddhist Scholars (BDG)

19 Kalmykia Hosts a Unique Musical Offering to the Three Jewels (BDG)

20 Kalmyk Musical Performance of the Buddha’s Life Presented in Tuva and Buryatia (BDG)

21 Kalmykia Marks the Sacred White Month with Buddhist Rituals and Exhibition (BDG)

22 Kalmykia Marks Festival of Miracles with Prayers and Online Teachings (BDG)

23 An Interview with Ella Manzheeva, Director of the New Documentary Geshe Wangyal: With Blessing of the Three Jewels (BDG)

See more

Dalai Lama’s envoy to Russia branded “foreign agent” for condemning war in Ukraine (Phayul)
Его Святейшество Далай-лама XIV

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