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Estonian Nyingma

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The stupamaster Vello Vaartnou and his 5th Stupa
See also: Buddhism in Estonia, Vello Väärtnõu, Ivolginsky Datsan

Vello Väärtnõu, the Head of Estonian Nyingma

Vello Väärtnõu was born in 1951 in Saaremaa. He studied in Kuressaare gymnasium and was very active in sports. There were a lot of ship captains and Estonian Republic military officers in Vellos family. Many of them were killed or imprisoned for several years when the soviet occupation began. Family history has set base also for Vello's political views. When he was 17, he tried to escape to the west, setting his sights for studying Buddhism there. This attempt ended in 3 years of prison time in Vuktõl prison camp and lifetime of KGB interest in him. KGB colonel Movtshan has later made a statement that it was obvious in his case that genes had played greater role than soviet discipline.

In the 70s he got interested in philosophy, languages and history and already then all his readings and activities were directly connected with Buddhism. Parallel to the interest in Buddhist and Taoist philosophy rose an interest in Chinese art.

His special interest was in 16th century literature and art, to which additional interest in Japanese Edo period evolved. The favorite subject in Chinese religious landscape of this period for him was Taoist mystical school of “White Lotus”. Taoism as religion and philosophy has always intrigued Väärtnõu and he has claimed that in China the Nyingma school was always greatly influenced by Taoism. After the famous Samye dispute, which lasted 3 years and ended with the defeat for Chinese, Taoism received a companion for centuries in the form of Nyingma or Red-hats school. Both schools (White Lotus and Nyingma) have influenced each other for years. The reports form Russian missionaries in 18th century also mention the wide range of Taoist monks in Buddhist monasteries. That this point of Väärtnõu’s is valid was shown also by the life of last Chinese empress Tzu Hsi, who was helped by two Taoist monks from Nyingma monasteries living in the backyard of her imperial palace.

Väärtnõu was the only one, who already in 1970 socialist Estonia publicly called himself a Buddhist. Moving around in Tartu and Tallinn, in cultural circles, he enjoyed having disputes with Christians and philosophy students and interestingly many of his conversation partners from these days are nowadays leaders of different religious institutions in Estonia.

Crowing interest in astrology lead Väärtnõu to establish Estonian Astrology Association in Soviet times, lecturing those with interest in the years 1980-82 about astrology and Buddhism in the studio of artist Jüri Arrak in Tõnismägi.

Foundation of the first Buddhist Brotherhood

From the left: Jüri Saard, Enn Jaanson, Tõnis promet, Vello Väärtnõu, Arno Arrak

In the end of 70-s Väärtnõu gathered around him a group of people, who already in these soviet times were interested in practical Buddhism and establised the first Buddhist Brotherhood in 1982 in Tallinn.

With this Brotherhood the tradition of practical Buddhism and the tradition of Nyingma was established in Estonia. The creation of Buddhist tradition in Estonia was his wish already in 1970s, because the tradition imported by Tõnisson in the beginning of the century had already lost its continuity. Väärtnõu had always been interested in Nyingma school (as the first and oldest tradition in Tibetan Buddhism) and hence the wish to establish this tradition in Estonia.

The establishment of the Brotherhood was only on step in his far-reaching plans, which included the creation of Nyingma monastery in Estonia, where an opportunity of Buddhist education was to be established for the purpose of creating educated Buddhists in Estonia. Plan included sending people to study in Asia and get educated lamas and Buddhist scholars to return.

Since there were no Nyingma monasteries in Soviet Union, his only opportunity to reach Buddhism was through Gelug school and so he made contact with the monastery of Ivolga in Buryatia. Väärtnõu studied from 1978-1987 under the guidance of a number of famous teachers in Ivolga monastery which is the main monastery in Russia today, and two of his gurus, Ven.Munko Tsybikov and Ven. Zhimba Erdineev were the Head Lamas (Khambo lamas) of Russia.

All these years found Väärtnõu in constant travels between Buryatia, spending sometimes months at a time, learning from elderly lamas of the monastery. In Ivolga the gurus were understanding his fanatic interest towards Nyingma school, he even got a nickname Guru Rinpoche. All what was learnt was to propagate eastern culture and the Buddhist way of thinking among Estonians.

In socialist time any religious propaganda was officially forbidden, because Soviet Union was atheistic country, but despite of that, this little community was very effective in its actions.

Vello Vaartnou and Khambo lama Erdineev (Head of Russian Buddhists) - Ivolga monastery 1983

Since it was forbidden by the law to build cult objects (stupas, temples etc) and copy Buddhist books. The activities of translating and copying were very risky business and those who participated risked punishment. The same was true to practical Buddhism, which they were in to. Väärtnõu spread Buddhist teaching to the Brotherhood and conducted the first Buddhist rituals in Estonia, planned and leaded Taolas life and activities personally during the six years.


“Taola members were outlaws in communist lead occupation called Estonia, since officially no one recognized Taola. On the other hand the constant presence of KGB cars in front of the house and other surveillance by the authorities hinted that official system was keenly following every step and word made by Taola. Now the ex communists are saying that they did all this to restore independent Estonia”.
Buryat lamas arriving Tallinn

An example of unmerciful behaviour of the authorities for propagating Buddhism was Bidia Dandaron, who died in prison and whose disciples had to spend years in institutions because of Buddhist activities.

In these times a developing interest in Senge Dongma cult and practices could be noticed in Väärtnõu`s field of studies, which was followed by interest in the biography and person of the poet and Taoist 6th Dalai Lama. In the centre of his interest during these years was Mahakala, which gave him basis to say that according to traditions, Estonian Buddhism already has personal embodiment of wrathful deity – namely religious hero baron Roman Ungern von Sternberg, a claim that was confirmed by further studies about baron's life in Buryatia.

In that time the lamas from Ivolga monastery started to visit Estonia regularly. Since in the conditions of Soviet times these Buddhist activities were best kept secret, the wider public of Estonia never heard of the activities of Taola. Even inside the community lot of his activities with the monastery remained unknown. If authorities had learned about this, they would also have suffered many repressions. This period of mutual visits lasted until 1988 – the year when KGB deported Väärtnõu from Soviet Union.

Building the first stupas in Northern Europe

The first stupa built by V.Väärtnõu and Brotherhood - 1982

Accordingly to the Buddhist tradition activities began with the building of first stupa that was erected in 1983 in the summerhouse of artist Jüri Arrak in Pangarehe. Participants of the building were Jüri Arrak, Urve Arrak, Jaan Arrak and literati Jaanus Tamm. The upper part, which symbolizes the heavens of Brahma, were made by Vigala Sass alias Aleksander Heintalu, who is know in wider public as healer and believer in natural religion. Estonian first Buddhist Brotherhood started to live and act together in Tallinn, Kadrioru and was known as Taola (meaning something like “tao’s place”). Its members were called taolane (a member of Tao’s place, in Estonian not the same word as Taoist) and Väärtnõu as the spiritual leader and teacher – Vanemtaolane (the Elder Tao).

V.Väärtnõu making Buddha statue

The first taolane was Arno Arrak,who had known Väärtnõu already for years. Later Jüri Saard and Tõnis Promet joined them. Each of them had their own living space and specialized area of Buddhism. In different times different members lived in Taola – Boris Saabas, Peep Paasian, Peeter Kaasik and others. With their work they have helped to establish Nyingma tradition in Estonia, which starts from the Samye monastery in Tibet.

Lot of others gathered around Taola for help – Tiina Hallik, Anu Rootalu, Enn Jaanson, Eve Pärnaste were engaged with translation works and also Ants Luik and others gave their helping hands in many things. Taola was very popular place during the whole active time with Buddhists, but also with other literates and culture people. Taola was visited by other folk from all over Estonia and often from Russia and Siberia.

Taola was self-sufficient, self-paying, self-educating institution. Most of them worked as stokers, which was not unusual among Soviet Estonian literati. Work was for money, which was for materials for painting and printing silk thangkas, hadaks, Buddha statues and incense zhansee. Väärtnõus gift in art was put to use in Buddhist thangkas and statues, which were made by Taola dwellers under his guidance in their Kadrioru apartment.

Part of the products went to Buryatia, where they were expected and held in high honor, because they did not make those things for themselves. All this was given to the monastery for free, because one of Väärtnõus principles has always been not to take money for work done in the name of Teachings. This is something he follows until today.

Translation and publishing of Buddhist books and texts

The Brotherhood and faith-followers translated 20 books, and bound and copied more than 40 books into hundreds of exemplars. Also a remarkable library was founded, in which most of the texts were from Buriatya. As it was impossible to publish religious literature officially, they bound and copied books by hand-typing them. All this tremendous work was done for free.

All the ritual objects in Taola were brought from Ivolga and prayer drums made locally in Estonia. One can say that the lamas in Ivolga monastery have done enormous favor to Buddhism in Estonia and all Soviet Union. While in Ivolga they copied manuscripts, texts and photographed great amount of thangkas and burhans. Unfortunately KGB took all this precious material of slides and microfilms, so the fate and place of these is unknown until today. To get literature from western countries, help was received from foreign friends, who brought suitcases full of books giving their part to establishing basis of Estonian Buddhism. Finnish writer Harri Sirola, who was the frequest visitor in Taola, wrote about the Brotherhood and its leader in Finnish newspapers and later published a novel “Two Cities”.

Stupas in Estonia, built by V.Väärtnõu and Brotherhood in 1984-1985

In the years 1984–1985 three more stupas were built in West Estonia, near Haapsalu. All these 4 stupas built by Brotherhood, were the first stupas in Northern Europe and the only stupas that were built in the territory of Soviet Union in soviet times. Since that kind of activity was prohibited during those times, then only guarantee, as Väärtnõu said, was Buddhist rituals and finding astrologically correct timings to have maximum effect and duration in time for the stupas. All these religious buildings were untouched by Soviet authorities and are still standing.

The main interest of Brotherhood was still learning and self-educating. Vello Väärtnõu shared Buddhist knowledge and language studies were helped – developed by famous linguist Pent Nurmekund, who also founded oriental studies in Tartu University. Apart from all the other oriental studiers in Tartu, he was tolerant towards Buddhists, taught them Old-Mongolian language and got respective nickname “Professor”.

Väärtnõu about Pent Nurmekund:

„ About “Pent” I can say so much, that he visited Taola with bus from Tartu and this skinny 2-metre high Pent was wearing only thin blue jacket. Since Nurmekund refused to take any fee for his teachings, Taola decided to give him something as a gift. They bought nice warm winter jacket, so that language-Guru would not catch cold while visiting Tallinn. Next time he arrived to the lesson, they presented him with the gift. At first he refused to take it and if at last after great hirdum-dirdum from the students language-Guru put the jacket on. When he left he took the jacket with him, but next time arrived in his old jacket. When questioned, what had happened, he answered with great dignity that he had taken the jacket to a shop, sold it and brought books with the money received. Here one could add similar event from his past, where students in Tartu University gave him a radio or television set, which came to a similar fate. It travelled to a shop and with the money received Professor bought books again.“

Additionally to language courses that took place in Taola, they also studied in Tallinn language school. As Väärtnõu liked to say – self-reliant studies were always "obligatorily popular “.

A farmhouse was brought in West Estonia to build a monastery. Architect Leonhard Lapin made project for this future monastery, which was first of its kind in Estonia. The building was halted by later political actions and halted was also the publishing of first Estonian schoolbook on Tibetan language.

The creation of Estonian National Independent Party

Being forward looking and ahead of time, Vello Väärtnõu and 5-6 Buddhists opened the door to freedom and independence in Estonia.

In 1987, Vello Väärtnõu came up with the idea and program of creating Estonian National Independent Party with the aim of restoring a free and independent Estonia by working as an opposition party to the Communist Party.

On 7th of November in 1987 in a gathering in Pärnu Väärtnõu came out with the idea to establish Estonian National Independence Party. He said openly that it is a necessity to create our own party and take power from communists, because it is pointless to ask sausages and bread from them. These should be made by ourselves.

Väärtnõu: „When first the spontaneous stand-ups started, it was clear to me,that the idea to save the communist-trampled-on Estonia was possible only if an opposition party against the communists was openly and officially assembled . There was a gathering in Pärnu, were exited citizens talked about lack of sausages. I gave a speech about the necessity of organized opposition. I also offered preliminary program to be published. My talk in this massmeeting in Pärnu was held incomprehensible and provocative, because no one dared even to think about taking power from communists. I composed a project for the creation of party and offered participation for many people

There was much hesitation and denials. This was the first time in the history of Soviet Union, when the leaders in Moscow were faced with the proposal of the creation of an opposition party. Brotherhood’s house was the only place that printed, copied and spread leaflets.

Due to the collapse of the communist system, they were under constant control by the KGB – the Buddhist library was “cleaned” on several occasions and large amounts of Tibetan texts, thankgas, slides and reels of manuscripts were taken from Väärtnõu.

At the time of creating ENIP Väärtnõu was helped by the members of Brotherhood - Tiina Hallik, Anu Rootalu and Eve Pärnaste who was Buddhist at the time and acted as secretary in Taola.

On 21st of January in 1988 a proposal to create Estonian National Independence Party was signed by 14 Estonian Citizens under the leadership of Vello Väärtnõu. The propsal was signed by Vello Väärtnõu, Eke-Pärt Nõmm, Ärvi Orula, Eve Pärnaste, Heiki Ahonen, Erik Udam, Urmas Inno, Karin Inno, Endel Ratas, Mati Kiirend, Kalju Mätlik, Rein Arjukese, Mati Vilu, Arvo Pesti.

New York Times about the foundation of ENIP 10.Febuary.1988

A sensational press conference in Moscow followed. Western countries learned that the castle of communism – Soviet Union is falling and behind this process is a small company of Estonian Buddhists. On 30th of January in 1988 Väärtnõu organized press conference for accredited western journalists in Moscow. New York Times, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune and many other newspapers were present, as well as US TV company ABC. Väärtnõu announced to the international media the proposal of creating opposition party – Estonian National Independence Party.

That was sensational event in the world at that time, but not a word was said in local press, although news spread around Estonia very fast . Apart from the press in Estonia at the time, this idea found a lot of responses throughout west and east, finding mentioning in foreign media. For example in the front page of New York times Philip Taubman writes about the handwritten document signed by 14 citizens that calls people to form the first independent political party in Soviet Union.The proposal of forming ENIP was read on the same day on American Voice and Free Europe Estonian radio.

Not much of these news was released in Estonia. Since Väärtnõu had no access to the local mass communication – radio, TV, newspapers, he used skillfully western media to deliver the message of freedom and independence to people.

Due to the demolishing of communist system, Taola was under constant surveillance by KGB, also Militia was used in repressions against Taola. The limit of KGB tolerance cup was filled with the press conference and events evolved very fast after that. Väärtnõu had organized the printing and distribution of leaflets before the 71st anniversary of Estonian Republic and also printing of anniversary cards.

On the 6th of February KGB searched Väärtnõus home and on 13th of February he was deported from Soviet Union to Sweden.


„I flew to Sweden with the flight from Moscow to Stockholm. Few dozen foreign Estonians were in Arlanda airport to greet me. They waived the blue-black-white flags happily and felt pity for me – see a repressed man and they have shaved his head as well. I had to disappoint them – I am hairless for a long time and because of Buddhism, not because of being the enemy of the state…“

Recent writings about Buddhists (Taola) in the late era of Soviet Estonia, talk about them hiding behind Buddhism from atrocities of Soviet life. At that time Taola was the only society in Estonia who followed their program and demolished the foundation of red communist powers – they printed, copied and distributed leaflets, pamphlets, posters and conducted other activities that destroyed soviet power. It should be mentioned that many commoners helped with the distribution and suffered for that at the hands of KGB. Somehow nowadays these names are not even mentioned in Estonia, even though they could very well be the new personal pensioners of our times.

KGB killed some of the members of Taola – Tiina Hallik and Enn Jaanson. Unfortunately the first victims of new independent Estonia were Nyingma Buddhists in the ranks of Estonian Buddhist Brotherhood – of these people the history of our pink republic is silent for some reasons.

It was common at the time that any kind of opposition movement tried to avoid political form, which would have lead to open conflict with the autocratic communist party and its repressive organ – KGB. Many of today’s parliament members refused to sign the application in that time, saying that Estonian people will be murdered, because the party openly declared the making of first opposition party in the Soviet history, which goal was to establish independent Estonia. Estonian authorities have tried to ignore Väärtnõus national actions, since mostly the state power is in the hands of the same communists, who had the power 20 years ago.

So the Estonian Buddhist Brotherhood and Buddhist way of thinking can be considered a part of Estonian fight for independence, they were the first in soviet times to openly attack the foundations of the communist country giving the direction of independence fight in the future. This was the end of active movements of Estonian Buddhist Brotherhood in Estonian soil in 1988.

V.Väärtnõu and Khenpo Namgyal from Bhutanese monastery - Kathmandu 1992

Within 6 years Taola had built touchable, visible body of Buddhism in Estonia. Under the Väärtnõu's guidance they built first Buddhist stupas, manufactured thangkas and statues, translated tens of books and articles into Estonian language, and copied, bound and multiplied more than 40 Buddhist books, which most of Estonians have used in guiding them to Buddha’s teachings. Today these translations and books are preserved in private libraries only and were presented to public at Tallinn City Museum in 2009

After deportation Väärtnõu lived years in the Himalayas, studied many years with Khenpo Namgyal from Bhutanese monastery and also in Kathmandu University. Later he lived in Sweden and spent 8 years in solitary retreat.

Today the members of Estonian Buddhist Brotherhood and new Nyingmapas operate under the guidance of Vello Väärtnõu and are publicly known as Estonian Nyingma.

From 2000- 2010 V.Väärtnõu developed extensive educative work in Estonia. Under his guidance Estonian Nyingma has organized conferences, seminars, exhibitions, published informative materials, built Buddhist sacral architecture, and organized cooperation with universities and Buddhist organisations.

Encyclopaedia of Buddhism

In 2005 the new Internet project was started by Vello Väärtnõu. He created the first web portal, the Encyclopaedia of Buddhism in Estonian language that contains scientific works, terminology, explanations, articles, travelogues etc. about the eastern culture and Buddhism.

Until today it is the only encyclopaedia on Buddhism in Estonia, including more than 3200 articles. This Encyclopaedia is the result of Väärtnõu´s many years of work and he has done this remarkably capacious educative work for free. Also most of articles about Buddhism in Estonian Wikipedia are written by him.

The International Conferences “Buddhism and Nordland”

The idea and realization of the international conference “Buddhism and Nordland” originates from Vello Väärtnõu, who had the idea to organize the international conference on Buddhism in cooperation with other Nordic countries already many decades ago.

During the soviet occupation it was impossible to organize such a conference in Estonia because it was forbidden to propagate religion in every way and it was not possible to research Buddhism on an international cooperation level. It was also Väärtnõu’ s idea to bring scholars, scientists and Buddhists together who then would complete each other by revealing different aspects and materials on the subject of the history of Nordic Buddhism during the conference.

The first real step toward the realization of this idea was made in 2007 when the first conference “Buddhism and Nordland” took place.

(Nordland is a common synonym for the Nordic countries and which historically included Germany in addition to the traditional Nordic countries. In older translations from Estonian, Nordland was used instead of contemporary Nordic.)

Inspired by such a conference idea, the Russian and Finnish scholars, also some Buddhists and along with Estonian speakers, formed the so-called Guard of the first conference in February 21-22, 2007. The main subject of the conference was “Historical Connections of Buddhism in the Nordic countries” and the theme for 2007- Karl Tõnisson. A photo exhibition „The Buddhist Temple of St. Petersburg” (photographs by Erki Meister) was organized in connection to the conference to emphasize the importance of Estonian first Buddhist Karl Tõnisson. The Royal Ambassador of Thailand H.E. Apichart Chinwanno with his wife visited the exhibition (Estonians Karl Tõnisson and Friedrich Lustig lived as monks in the monasteries of Thailand for many years and were well-known monks-Buddhists in Thailand and Burma).

During the five years 2007-2011, the conference has grown into a three-day conference and increased in the number of participating countries and lectors. It has also geographically expanded – in addition to the Nordic countries there are scholars and Buddhists from the eastern countries. The idea and functionality of the conference has turned out to be of great vitality and proven itself excellent.

Participated scholars and scientists from different European universities – from the Latvian University, the Vilnius University, the Institute of Oriental Manuscripts RAS in St.Petersburg, Helsinki, Lund, Bergen and Oxford University, Stockholm Etnographic museum and also beyond – from the universities of Mongolia, Kathmandu and Jawaharlal Nehru University, The St. Petersburg Buddhist Temple, the International Buddhist College in Thailand, the Ivolga Monastery in Buriatya, the TaoZen Centre in Sweden, the Aro tradition in Italy, the Swedish-Tibetan Society, the Danakosha Centre and Finnish Buddhists, and the Cultural Society of Buriats in St Petersburg A-ja Ganga attended the conference.

Connected to conference several exhibitions and concerts as well traditional outgoings for the conference speakers were organised to introduce the Buddhist architecture in Estonia.


Vaiśravaṇa thangka by V.Vaartnou

V.Väärtnõu was known in Estonia as a talented artist already in 70's, he was accepted as member of Artist Union Organization and art scientist Sirje Helme wrote in the magazine “Noorus” (Youth) about him as landscape painter with great future. In 1980 Väärtnõus first paintings made it to Tokyo world exhibition and since then he has had exhibition in Europe, Asia and USA.

Today he is known as an excellent thangka master. He has created many thangkas while living in Sweden and his thangkas are highly valued there and beyond, for example the Stockholm Ethnographic Museum, Thailand Crown Princess HRH Srirasmi and Mahachulalongkornrajavidyalaya University has some of Väärtnõus latest thangkas.

Buddhist Architecture

The 5th stupa in Estonia, built by V.Väärtnõu in 2008

From 2007-2009 Estonian Nyingma has built under the guidance of V.Väärtnõu the new Buddhist architecture in Veltsa, at the centre of Estonian Nyingma. The 5th stupa in Estonia is 10m high, and is dedicated for the protection of all sentient beings, Also the big prayerwheels and Firetemple were built during these years.

In 2010 V. Väärtnõu started his activities in Australia and common to him began to deal with major projects - to develop international education projects and academic cooperation in the field of Buddhism and Oriental Studies.

He organized the international conference “Buddhism & Australia”, the first of a kind in Australia in 2-4 February 2012 in Murdoch university, Perth. In the conference V.Väärtnõu introduced also his future projects in Australia – an online History of Buddhist Australia, Exhibitions of Australian Buddhism, building the Monastery, Stupas and Prayer wheels in Western Australia.

Books Translated/Published by Taola


Dozens of Sutras:

Collection of Articles

Additional copies made