Karl Tõnisson, also known as Karlis Tennisons, Karlis Tennison, Brother Vahindra, Barefooted Tõnisson, The Baltic Mahatma and Dharmaduta was born 20 August 1873 in Odratsi farm, Umbusi village near Põltsamaa in Estonia.

Estonian buddhism has been directly linked Buryatia and its buddhists traditions. Tõnisson taught of the Dharma in Estonia,Latvia and Lithuania. Tõnisson was in connection both with Dorzijev and Baron Roman Ungern von Strenberg so there were already two religious heroes whose origins are in Estonia. All these persons shared the same idea of pan-mongolism that they tried to popularise and put into life.

In Estonia Karl Tõnisson gave lectures, published books and held lamamistic services in Kloostri Street, Tartu. In Riga he had a small temple-like building in one rented department, where he once a week held a buddhist service. Most of the audience were local thesophists.

Agvan Dorzijev, Ja Lama, Ungern von Sternberg and Karl Tõnisson were sharing the same ideas and they tried to put them into life. Tõnisson came to Estonia to hide from Bolsheviks, and later moved to Asia where he spent the rest of his life. Agvan Dorzijev, Ja lama and Roman Ungern von Sternberg were executed by commissars and were trampled in the works of soviet historians.

Years in Russia

  • 1892 Tõnisson started his studies in the department of philosophy in Sankt-Peterburg University and he lived in the house of E. E. Uhtomski as the head of the house and Tõnisson's father had been good friends for years.
  • 1898 Dorzijev visited for the first time Sankt-Peterburg. He travelled in the company of Mongols, buryats and tibetians.
  • 1903 from April till August Tõnisson stayed in Kamchatka and on 1 September he travelled to Vladivostok by steamship.Then moved Karl Tõnisson to Manchuria where he met Russian officer whose life he saved. Lustig mentions that this officer was prince Vorontsov who later participated actively in the activities of Sankt-Peterburg´ datsan. Karl had a longer communication with Russian explorer and geographer Kozlov at that time.

Tõnisson knew many important and powerful person of that time personally, including some members of the government and the reprsentatives of Buddhism.

  • 1905 Tõnisson was spending his time around Gobi and he was also often in Urgaa.

Karl spent the New Year's Eve in Erdene Zuu monastery where he met Dorzijev and Ja lama. They discussed how to reform buddhist church, whether it was possible to build buddhist temple in Sankt-Peterburg. They also talked about reforms in buddhist education and schools that should be introduced in the monasteries as well .

  • 1906 there were over 3000 munks in Erdene Zuu and most of them lived in yurtas.

In Urga Karl Tõnisson stayed with his Holiness Djebtsung Damba Hutukhta, who was the head of Mongolian buddhist.

Tõnisson had many guardians in high places in Mongolia as well as in Buryatia and Kalmykia. The name of Dorzijev opened for him every buddhist door from Astrahan to Lhasa and this helped Karl a lot in his journeys.

From Urgaa Karl travelled through Altai and Sayaans visiting every temple and holy place that were on his way, In February Tõnisson rushed from Tuva to Orenburg where he arrived in March. Karl Tõnisson held a course of lections on Buddhism to the local peolple From Orenburg Karl travelled to the town of Samaara near Volga river where he tried to raise interest towards Buddha teachings among local people, . Disappointed Tõnisson continued his journey and travelled to Saraatov.

From Saraatov Tõnisson travelled to Astrahan where the stepps were full of kalmyk buddhist monasteries and temples and he was once again among buddhists and the local head lama welcomed him warmly.

  • 1909 Tõnisson published his first book in Russian "Teaching about how a human becomes immortal", in Riga by G. Budberg's Printhouse.
  • 1910 Roman Ungern von Sternberg stayed in Tsitaa. In February he was sent to serve in Asia.
  • 1911 Ungern von Sternberg came from Transbaikalia to visit his relatives in Tallinn and he stayed three months in Estonia.
  • On 26 April 1912 (according to the new calendar) Voldemar Friedrich Lustig was born, the second Estonian buddhist.
  • 1912 Tõnisson stayed in Tartu and published his buddhist verses in a book where he also presented for the first time his version of Pan-Baltoonia inspired by Pan-Mongolia.
  • 1914 Karlis Tõnisson was called to army and he served in the Fourth Caucasian regiment, participating in the battles in East Prussia.
  • On 2 May 1914 Tsar Nikolas II affirmed the staff of Saint Petersburg temple, which at first it consisted of 9 munks, of which five had to be gelongs.

From that moment on Tõnisson was officially in the list of staff of Sankt-Peterburg temple and he served his time in the army as a buddhist cleric taking care of soldiers who were buddhists, like kalmyks, buryats and tuvas. It seems that from the beginning of the building of the temple Dorzijev took care that Vahindra would be officially connected to the temple. Aleksander Andrejev who studied the history of the Sankt-Peterburg temple describes in his study how Tõnisson arrived from Buryatia to revolutionary Petrograd in 1920 and found the temple to be despoiled by bolsheviki and how he met academician Sthserbatski who was in charge of guarding the buildings and treasure of the temple. Karl himself was very fanatic about Sankt-Peterburg temple. All his life he carried with himself piles of papers and documents that proved his long tenure as a lama and temporary head of Sankt-Peterburg temple.

  • 1915 Tõnisson participated in the besieging and conquering of Przemysli castle as buddhist cleric. He was awarded with Georg Cross.
  • March 1915 Karl Tõnisson left the army.
  • On 10 August 1915 Kalachakra temple in Sankt-Peterburg was officially and finally opened. A grand ceremony took place.
  • 1915 after opening celebrations Karl Tõnisson hurried to Buryatia and from there to Mongolia and he returned only after two years.
  • In summer 1917 Agvan Dorzijev left Petrograd and travelled to Buryatia, leaving Brother Vahindra to guard the temple. Dorzijev went to Tamtshinsk's datsan where all important lamas had gathered from all over Buryatia to discuss the future of Buddhism in Russia and Asia. As the Czar of Russia was overthrown, Buryats and Mongols were worried about their future and quite many of them hoped to establish an independent state. Dorzijev had a project that proposed an idea and program for uniting Mongolia as well as to declare Kalachakra's datsan in Sankt-Peterburg the property of Buryat, Mongol and Kalmyk buddhists. Uniting Mongolia had been a subject of a meeting that took place years earlier in Erden Dzuu monastery, where also Dzaa lama and Karl Tõnisson had participated.
  • In summer 1917 Agvan Dorzijev left Sankt-Peterburg and a couple of weeks later left baron Ungern.

These were difficult times in Sankt-Peterburg's datsan as lamas who lived there received many letters that threatened to bomb the temple. In spring lamas started to plan to leave the capital.

  • 1922 Estonian Embassy refused to give visa and permission to Karl Tõnisson for coming to Estonia.

Estonian period

  • 1923 Tõnisson left from Sankt-Peterburg's datsan after receiving a letter from Dorzijev who asked him to leave the town as staying in Sankt-Peterburg would have been dangerous.

  • 1923 Vahindra arrived from Russia to Tartu, but this time with Latvian citizenship.
  • 1924 Karlis moved from Tartu to Riga where he organized the first Latvian buddhist congregation.
  • 1924 the first Estonian buddhist bishopric was also founded by Karlis, but Estonian authorities refused to register it.
  • 1926 Tõnisson participated in marathon organized by sports society "Kalev" and he came in third place. It took for him 3 hours, 31 minutes and 26 seconds to finish, which was a very good time for a person at his age.
  • 1927 Tõnisson personally met Latvian president Gustavs Zemgals.
  • 1928 Vahindra published his book ”Future great power Pan-Baltoonia”.
  • 1930 Karlis published his book ”Me and my disciples believe” (Eduard Bergmann Sprinthouse in Tartu).
  • In summer 1930 while giving lectures on Buddhism in Narva Tõnisson first met Friedrich Voldemar Lustig who became his disciple and companion till the end of his life.
  • On 27 November 1930 Lustig became buddhist munk.

Leaving Estonia

  • 1931 Tennissons and Lustig started their journey through Europe to Asia, hoping to go to Tibet. During the Second World War they stayed in monasteries in Siam.
  • In November 1933, the 13th Dalai lama died and from that time on the doors of many buddhist temples were closed for decades in soviet Russia and Mongolia.
  • 1935 still alive buddhists all over soviet Russia, Mongolia, Kalmõkkia, Tuva and Burjaatia were prosecuted and prisoned. First to fall under attack was Sankt-Peterburg's datsan.

Asian period

  • 1935-1936 Tõnisson and Lustig spent year and a half in China.
  • 1941 Tõnisson and Lustig criticed openly in local newspapers politics of Thai government that was in favour of Japan and the renaming of Siam to Thai which they took as backing away from buddhist cultural inheritance.
  • 1942 radiostation that belonged to datsan army was located to Leningrad and it was in air until 60ties.
  • 1949 Thai government sends the Estonian monks out of the country to Burma's border. They are given asylum by the Burmese premier, U Nu
  • 1956 Vahindra and Lustig participated in the IV International Buddhist Conference in Khatmandu in Nepal and they came into contact with lamas from Buryatia who were for the first time outside of Buryatia.

In Burma Lustig became the librarian of Rangoon monastery. He became famous for translating Burmian poetry into English. Teacher and his disciple spent their last days in Rangoon among buddhist and monks who belonged to Hinayana tradition, although they both belonged to Mahayana tradition.

  • On 9 May 1962 Tõnisson died and he was nuncupated as Boddhisattva in Hinayana tradition - an occasion that rarely occurred in a Theravada Buddhist country.

Until their death they were officially recognized as representatives of buddhism in the Baltics.


  • Mait Talts, "The First Buddhist Priest on the Baltic Coast": Karlis Tennison and the Introduction of Buddhism in Estonia], Folklore: Electronic Journal of Folklore, Issue: 38/2008, pp. 67-112 [1]

External links

Template:Buddhism in Europe

et:Vend Vahindra

ru:Тыниссон, Карл

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