Buddhism in Mongolia

Buddhism in Mongolia has been influenced by Tibetan Buddhism. Traditional Mongols worshiped heaven (the "clear blue sky") and their ancestors, and they followed ancient northern Asian practices of shamanism,
in which human intermediaries went into trance and spoke to and for
some of the numberless infinities of spirits responsible for human luck
or misfortune. In 1578 Altan Khan,
a Mongol military leader with ambitions to unite the Mongols and to
emulate the career of Chinggis, invited the head of the rising Yellow Sect
of Tibetan Buddhism to a summit. They formed an alliance that gave
Altan Khan legitimacy and religious sanction for his imperial
pretensions and that provided the Buddhist school with protection and
patronage. Altan khan gave the Tibetan leader the title of Dalai Lama
(Ocean Lama), which his successors still hold. Altan Khan died soon
after, but in the next century the Yellow Sect spread throughout
Mongolia, aided in part by the efforts of contending Mongol aristocrats to win religious sanction and mass support for their ultimately unsuccessful efforts to unite all Mongols in a single state. Monasteries (momg.datsan)
were built across Mongolia, often sited at the juncture of trade and
migration routes or at summer pastures, where large numbers of herders
would congregate for shamanistic rituals and sacrifices. Buddhist monks
carried out a protracted struggle with the indigenous shamans and
succeeded, to some extent, in taking over their functions and fees as
healers and diviners, and in pushing the shamans to the religious and
cultural fringes of Mongolian culture.

Tibetan Buddhism, which combines elements of the Mahayana and the Tantric schools of Buddhism with traditional Tibetan rituals of curing and exorcism,
shares the common Buddhist goal of individual release from suffering
and the cycles of rebirth. The religion holds that salvation, in the
sense of release from the cycle of rebirth, can be achieved through the
intercession of compassionate Buddhas (enlightened ones) who have
delayed their own entry to the state of selfless bliss (nirvana)
to save others. Such Buddhas, who are many, are in practice treated
more as deities than as enlightened humans and occupy the center of a
richly polytheistic
universe of subordinate deities, opposing demons, converted and
reformed demons, wandering ghosts, and saintly humans that reflects the
folk religions of the regions into which Buddhism expanded. Tantrism
contributed esoteric techniques of meditation and a repertoire of
sacred icons, phrases, and gestures that easily lent themselves to
pragmatic (rather than transcendental) and magical interpretation. The
religion posits progressive stages of enlightenment and comprehension
of the reality underlying the illusions that hamper the understanding
and perceptions of those not trained in meditation or Buddhist
doctrine, with sacred symbols interpreted in increasingly abstract
terms. Thus, a ritual that appears to a common yak herder as a
straightforward exorcism of disease demons will be interpreted by a
senior monk as a representation of conflicting tendencies in the mind
of a meditating ascetic.

In Tibet Buddhism thus became an amalgam, combining colorful popular
ceremonies and curing rituals for the masses with the study of esoteric
doctrine for the monastic elite. The Yellow Sect, in contrast to
competing sects, stressed monastic discipline and the use of logic and
formal debates as aids to enlightenment. The basic Buddhist tenet of
reincarnation was combined with the Tantric idea that buddhahood could
be achieved within a person's lifetime to produce a category of leaders
who were considered to have achieved buddhahood and to be the
reincarnations of previous leaders. These leaders, referred to as
incarnate or living buddhas (see Glossary), held secular power and
supervised a body of ordinary monks, or lamas (from a Tibetan title
bla-ma, meaning "the revered one)". The monks were supported by the
laity, who thereby gained merit and who received from the monks
instructions in the rudiments of the faith and monastic services in
healing, divination, and funerals.

Buddhism and the Buddhist monkhood always have played significant political roles in Central and Southeast Asia,
and the Buddhist church in Mongolia was no exception. Church and state
supported each other, and the doctrine of reincarnation made it
possible for the reincarnations of living Buddhas to be discovered
conveniently in the families of powerful Mongol nobles.

Tibetan Buddhism is monastic. By the beginning of the twentieth
century, Outer Mongolia had 583 monasteries and temple complexes, which
controlled an estimated 20 percent of the country's wealth. Almost all
Mongolian cities have grown up on the sites of monasteries. Yihe Huree
(see Glossary), as Ulaanbaatar was then known, was the seat of the
preeminent living Buddha of Mongolia (the Jebtsundamba Khutuktu, also
known as the Bogdo Gegen and later as Bogdo Khan), who ranked third in
the ecclesiastical hierarchy, after the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama.
Two monasteries there contained approximately 13,000 and 7,000 monks,
and the prerevolutionary Mongol name of the settlement known to
outsiders as Urga, Yihe Huree, means big monastery.

Over the centuries, the monasteries acquired riches and secular
dependents; they gradually increased their wealth and power as those of
the Mongol nobility declined. Some nobles donated a portion of their
dependent families--people, rather than land, were the foundation of
wealth and power in old Mongolia--to the monasteries; some herders
dedicated themselves and their families to serve the monasteries either
from piety or from the desire to escape the arbitrary exactions of the
nobility. In some areas, the monasteries and their living buddhas (of
whom there were a total of 140 in 1924) also were the secular
authorities. In the 1920s, there were about 110,000 monks, including
children, who made up about one-third of the male population, although
many of these lived outside the monasteries and did not observe their
vows. About 250,000 people, more than a third of the total population,
either lived in territories administered by monasteries and living
Buddhas or were hereditary dependents of the monasteries. With the end
of Chinese rule in 1911, the Buddhist church and its clergy provided
the only political structure available, and the autonomous state thus
took the form of a weakly centralized theocracy, headed by the
Jebtsundamba khutuktu in Yihe Huree.

By the twentieth century, Buddhism had penetrated deeply into
Mongolian culture, and the populace willingly supported the lamas and
the monasteries. Foreign observers had a uniformly negative opinion of
Mongolian monks, condemning them as lazy, ignorant, corrupt, and
debauched, but the Mongolian people did not concur. Ordinary Mongolians
apparently combined a cynical and realistic anticlericalism, sensitive
to the faults and the human fallibility of individual monks or groups
of monks, with a deep and unwavering concern for the transcendent
values of the church.

The suppression of Buddhism

When the revolutionaries--determined to modernize their country and
to reform its society--took power, they confronted a massive
ecclesiastical structure that enrolled a larger part of the population,
monopolized education and medical services, administered justice in a
large part of the country, and controlled a great deal of the national
wealth. The Buddhist church, moreover, had no interest in reforming
itself or in modernizing the country. The result was a protracted
political struggle that absorbed the energies and attention of the
party and its Soviet advisers for nearly twenty years. As late as 1934,
the party counted 843 major Buddhist centers, about 3,000 temples of
various sizes, and nearly 6,000 associated buildings, which usually
were the only fixed structures in a world of felt tents. The annual
income of the church was 31 million Tögrögs,
while that of the state was 37.5 million tögrögs. A party source
claimed that, in 1935, monks constituted 48 percent of the adult male
population. In a campaign marked by shifts of tactics, alternating
between conciliation and persecution, and armed uprisings led by monks
and abbots, the Buddhist church was removed progressively from public
administration, was subjected to confiscatory taxes, was forbidden to
teach children, and was prohibited from recruiting new monks or
replacing living Buddhas. The campaign's timing matched the phases of Josef Stalin's persecution of the Russian Orthodox Church.
In 1938--amid accusations that the church and monasteries were trying
to cooperate with the Japanese, who were promoting a pan-Mongol puppet
state--the remaining monasteries were dissolved, their property was
seized, and their monks were secularized, interned or executed. Those
monastic buildings that had not been destroyed were taken over to serve
as local government offices or schools. Only then was the ruling party,
which since 1921 gradually had built a cadre of politically reliable
and secularly educated administrators, able to destroy the church and
to mobilize the country's wealth and population for its program of
modernization and social change.

Uses of Buddhism

Since at least the early 1970s, one monastery, the Gandan Monastery,
with a community of 100 monks, was open in Ulaanbaatar. It was the
country's sole functioning monastery. A few of the old monasteries
survived as museums, and the Gandan Monastery served as a living museum
and a tourist attraction. Its monks included a few young men who had
undergone a five-year training period, but whose motives and mode of
selection were unknown to Western observers. The party apparently
thought that Buddhism no longer posed a challenge to its dominance and
that-- because Buddhism had played so large a part in the country's
history, traditional arts, and culture, total extirpation of knowledge
about the religion and its practices would cut modern Mongols off from
much of their past, to the detriment of their national identity. A few
aged former monks were employed to translate Tibetan-language handbooks
on herbs and traditional medicine. Government spokesmen described the
monks of the Gandan Monastery as doing useful work. Today the monastery
has been reinvigorated as the Gandantegchinlen Khiid Monastery by the post-Communist governments of the country.

Buddhism, furthermore played a role in Mongolia's foreign policy by
linking Mongolia with the communist and the noncommunist states of East
and Southeast Asia. Ulaanbaatar was the headquarters of the Asian
Buddhist Conference for Peace, which has held conferences for Buddhists
from such countries as Japan, Vietnam, Cambodia, Sri Lanka, and Bhutan;
published a journal for international circulation; and maintained
contacts with such groups as the Christian Peace Conference, the
Afro-Asian People's Solidarity Organization, and the Russian Orthodox
Church. It sponsored the visits of the Dalai Lama to Mongolia in 1979
and 1982. The organization, headed by the abbot of then-Gandan
Monastery, advanced the foreign policy goals of the Mongolian
government, which were in accord with those of the Soviet Union.

References

This article contains material from the Library of Congress Country Studies, which are United States government publications in the public domain.This page was last modified 10:15, 1 June 2007.All text is available under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License. (See Copyrights for details.) Wikipedia® is a registered trademark of the Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. Taken from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buddhism_in_Mongolia

 

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