Now a mere handful of former monks were left to keep the religion alive
through secret meetings that, if discovered, would have meant almost certain
death. And then, as all things must, Mongolias fate came full circle when
in 1987 Mikhail Gorbachev announced the withdrawal of the last Soviet troops
stationed in the country. 1
Mongolia has practised Tibetan Lamanistic Buddhism since the 16th century.
At that time Shamanism was practised and absorbed into the Mongolian form
of Buddhism as well as co-existing as a religion in its own right. 2
Mongolia had been ruled by the Chinese for 200 years when, after a brief
spell of independence, the Mongolian Peoples Republic was founded in 1924.
The countrys first leader was assassinated and Genden became Prime Minister.
He increasingly came into conflict with Stalin and refused to carry out
the Soviets leaders demands to persecute the lamas and destroy the monasteries.
In 1936 Genden was exiled to the Crimea and in 1937, he was executed.
During the 1930s, leader of the Mongolian Communists, Marshall Choibalsan,
presided over the Stalinist purges in Mongolia when over 20,000 monks were
murdered and more than 800 monasteries destroyed. 3 Gendens
name was banned and not resurrected until 1990. In 1998, in his former
home, his daughter Tserendulom opened the Memorial Museum of Victims of
Political Persecutions to commemorate, not only her father but, the victims
of political genocide - 14% of the population. 4
From Museum Monasteries to Places of Worship
In 1990, all barriers to religion broke down, and opportunities to
practice Buddhism were allowed throughout Mongolia. Numerous religious
centres in rural areas opened and the number of practising Buddhists increased
Lay people have been returning to worship in the monasteries and nunneries
since religious freedom was allowed in 1990. Whether in the larger monasteries
such as Gandan or the smaller ones, the scenes are the same: monks and
nuns chanting prayers and the lay people coming to pray and ask for blessings
from the monks. Gandan, for so long a museum monastery, has now become
a vibrant place of worship once again serving not only inhabitants in Ulaanbaatar
but visitors from all over Mongolia and from other countries. Outside people
waft incense at the Boiphor before entering the temple. Inside they queue
to circle the temples clockwise, prayers are requested and paid for and
blessings received then, as they exit, they turn the prayer drums sometimes
prostrating themselves on bed-like couches. Regardless of the weather the
temples performing prayers are usually full.
Buddhism is spreading after the demise of the Communist regime, a continuity
with the old traditions. The same scenes can be observed amongst the lay
people that can also be seen amongst the monks where the young learn by
copying the older members of their community. A large part of the revival
- the building of new temples, the training of monks is being achieved
through the donations from these people.
Building and Restoration
The Mongols have an innate aversion from fixed buildings, and in many
places in Mongolia - in the principality of Dondurgun for example - it
is still forbidden to all, including the Chinese traders, to erect permanent
masonry. The free steppe is not to be bound by heavy buildings, and the
nomads are never to forget their first duty, that of following the herds
of cattle on their eternal wanderings to new grazing-grounds and new watering-places.
But to monastery and temple these rules do not apply, for these form the
dwellings of gods and their servants the lamas, and for such human considerations
do not come into question. 6
During the time of the Stalinist purges over 800 temples and monasteries
were destroyed. 7 Since 1990, building work on a small
and grander scale has been developing all over Mongolia.
Erdene Zuu Monastery at Kharakhorin in Ovorhangai province has
received a grant of Tg 32 million from Unesco and Tg 19 million from the
Mongolian Government, 8 altogether about £60,000.
Erdene Zuu is one of the oldest Buddhist monasteries built in 1586 on the
remains of the 13th century capital Khar-Khorum. 9
Recently the United Nations has given special protection to a phallic symbol
located within its walls. 10
Gandan Monastery, Mongolias largest monastery, has been busy
with restoration work to its temples, building new temples and a hostel
to sleep young monks and the restoration of the Magjid Janraiseg Buddha,
the original of which was destroyed and melted down and used for bullets
during the Communist purges.
Dashchoilin Monastery was originally founded in 1764. It is
now flourishing and the second largest monastery in Mongolia. Like Gandan
it attracts funding not only from the lay people who visit but also from
major organisations from outside Mongolia. Dambajav, the head Lama is Vice
President of the World Buddhist Federation and represents the North Asian
Pethub Monastery was initiated by the Indian Ambassador to Mongolia,
Kushok Bakula who is also a Buddhist monk. Unlike at other monasteries
in Mongolia, monks at this new monastery are celibate. Mongolian Buddhist
art also benefited from this project as Phurbat, head of the art department,
at Gandan Monastery was commissioned to decorate the temple within the
The building of small monasteries and nunneries can been seen throughout
Mongolia; examples of nunneries in Ulaanbaatar are Tugs Bayasgalant and
Narkhajid. Their funding mainly comes from people who form the congregation.
While faith is very important and basic, says Bakula Rimpoche, the
Indian Ambassador to Mongolia, it is not enough; people must have knowledge.11
Schools for novice monks and nuns are an integral part of Buddhist religious
establishments. Tibetan language, Philosophy and Logic are on the curriculum
as well as religious ceremonial (including music and dance) education.
In some cases where numbers are very small and there may be only one or
two monks or nuns, they may attach themselves to a larger establishment
for the purposes of education.Two examples of this were one nun who was
at a small Ger temple with her mother but went to Pethub Monastery for
her teaching and a second nun who was at a nunnery on the outskirts of
Ulaanbaatar but went to Lamrim Monaster
Dashchoilin Monastery has one monk doing an MA at the University of
Hawaii, has brought a Ladake monk from India to teach Tibetan and Logic.
Similarly in the nunneries, Tibetan is being taught to the nuns and in
the Tugs Bayasgalant centre, Gantamur is teaching novice nuns the religious
Luugin ceremony. Often knowledge is passed on by a younger student being
attached to an older person experienced in the subject.
Mongolian Religious Art
Throughout most of the 13th and 14th centuries, the Mongols, a nomadic
and warlike people, ruled much of China and Central Asia. I had read about
the migration of artists under Genghis Khan and his successors, said
Mrs. Wardwell. They would capture whole cities, kill most of the people,
and save the craftsmen, shipping weavers from Iran to Central Asia and
Mongolia in some cases and those from China as far west as Samarkand in
Phurbat, the Head of the Art Department at the Gandan Monastery in Ulaanbaatar
studied Buddhist art at Dharamasala in Himachal Pradesh, North India, where
he trained with Tibetan master painters in exile. It was here that he also
met his Korean wife Kim who had trained in Western art in Korea and was
then studying Buddhist art. On his return to Mongolia he started the Buddhist
art school at Gandan where they are now reviving the art of Mongolian Buddhist
painting, Mongolian religious appliqued thangkas and sculpture and decorative
Art School: Each morning, before the days work begins, prayers
are said. In 1998 there were twenty students training for six years; some
are monks, others lay students. The students start their training by doing
300 paintings to develop their creativity. They then follow all the stages
of thangka painting step by step, after which they learn icon painting.
They also learn to make canvases using traditional methods which involves
using cotton and jessel made by glue and chalk.
Painting: Mongolian painting is noted for its fluid lines and
contrasting colours also for its use of dotted brush strokes. Because of
their nomadic lifestyle, Mongolians are very good at painting animals.
As well as Tibetan Deities, Mongolian deities are often included in their
work indicating a Shamanistic influence on Mongolian Buddhism.
Appliqued thangkas: These are pieced together using silk thread
with different types of silk and brocade but are like paintings. Semi-precious
gems are sometimes added to the work, a practice only found in Mongolia.
Sculpture: The most famous Buddhist sculptor was Zanabazar (1635-1723)
who trained in Tibet and it is in his tradition that sculpture in the department
is developing. 13
Mongolian Buddhist Medicine
Historical data shows that Mongolian doctors mastered pulse taking
more than two thousand years ago. In 634, the Khan Soronzongombo of Tibet
was gravely ill and summoned the best healers from many countries, including
India and China. After all had failed to diagnose the illness, a Mongolian
healer arrived in khans court and accurately discovered the cause of the
problem using the pulse. In 789, Khan Tesrondevzun of Tibet arranged a
competition among medics from India, China, Pakistan, Nepal, Persia, Khotan,
and Mongolia. The winner was a Mongolian healer. As a result the khan issued
an edict ordering the translation of the Mongolian medical treatises, Jadva
zaril (An Analysis of the Pulse) and Sotvo shashdag jug (A Special Method
Used by Mongolian Healers) into Tibetan. 14
The Manba Datsan clinic and training centre for Mongolian traditional
medicine was originally set up in Mongolia in 1760 and is now reviving
training for treatment by traditional medicine which was prohibited between
1937 and 1990. As part of the State policy to promote Mongolian national
religion, culture, customs and historic tradition, the Manba Clinic has
been licensed by the Government and is undertaking the following activities:
Religious services: The monks are mostly trained at the Buddhist
University before going to the Centre. Further training in the practice
of specific rituals and prayers relating to the medicine Buddha are then
undertaken. This enables the monks to bestow blessings and perform meditation.
They also make astrological calculations.
Clinical and medical treatment
Small medicine producing factory
Training and research activities
Traditional Medical Institute
Clinical and medical treatment: Diagnoses using traditional
methods are made and patients are treated with medicinal herbs, powder,
pills, precious healing ointment. Treatments can involve non-medicinal
therapy such as acupuncture, moxibustion, manipulation, massage, bloodletting,
scarifying treatment, exorcism, mantra and meditation.
Small medicine producing factory: On the site of the Centre
is a small medicine factory where over 100 traditional products are produced.
these are made from imported and local ingredients, both animal and plant.
Photography was not permitted in the factory because of the sterile conditions
in which the work is undertaken.
Training and Research: The Centre is presently translating treatises
on traditional medicine from Tibetan into Mongolian. It is also compiling
data, for publication, of indigenous Mongolian herbs. Future plans involve
training doctors to run MA and PhD courses in traditional medicine.
Traditional Medical Institute: The Institutes aim is to restore
training in traditional medicine by training doctors, over a five year
period, in 70% traditional and 30% Western medicine. The teaching staff
are medical doctors, scientists and Buddhist monks. Entry is competitive
for students aged 18 -24 who take entrance examinations in Mathematics,
Chemistry and Physics. The Institute has international links with India,
China, Japan, USA, Switzerland, Austria and Russia.
Between 1990 and 1997, 44,000 people attended the Centre for medical
checks and treatment. 120,000 were prescribed either Mongolian or European
medicines available from the hospitals pharmacy. 15
Astrology and Fortune Telling
Then I followed my guide in through the tent door and set foot in the
dim temple of the tantra cult. The air was thick with incense, and the
dark mysticism of Central Asia closed in about me. In the restless light
from the fire and the oil lamps I caught glimpses, through misty veils
of smoke and incense, of the rooms astounding colours. In the middle of
the tent, behind the crackling fire, sat Seng Chen between the two lama
astrologers, and I was conducted to the place opposite to him, so that
the circle was completed." 16
Mongolia adheres to the lunar calendar and their New Year is called
Tsagaan Sar or White Month which symbolises happiness and holiness.
The date for New Year varies as it depends on the phase of the moon; in
2000, the Year of the Dragon fell on 6 February. Tsagaan Sar is an occasion
for giving gifts, visiting families, the presentation of Khadag (silk ribbons
symbolising prosperity and long life) and preparing Mongolian food such
as buuz (meat dumplings) and when plenty of Airag (fermented mares milk)
and vodka are drunk. In the countryside, in the gers, old customs are maintained:
each person starts the day by walking in the direction decreed by the lamas.
The environment is honoured by leaving trays of food and other offerings
at ovoos - roadside shrines, again showing the Shamanist influence -
and songs in praise and gratitude to nearby valleys and mountains are sung.
Originally a monastery for Chinese Buddhism, Geser Sum is now a working
monastery, training young monks. It also practices traditional Buddhist
medicine but is best known for astrology and fortune telling. From early
morning there are queues of people waiting for counselling. One lady,
who came with her son, was born in Arhangai province and had lived in Ulaanbaatar
for many years. She asked if she should return to Arhangai and the Lama
said prayers and chanted. Dates and venues were asked, calculations made,
the Lama consulted his scripts. The lady was told she should return to
Arhangai; she paid the Lama and left. The next people who were already
in the room waiting, sat down and asked their questions. The young woman
who came with an older lady asked if she should go to Korea or Germany
to study. After performing the same ritual as he had done with the previous
people, the Lama told her to go to Korea. She then asked if her uncle should
stay in America, again the calculations and scripts advised her that he
1 Cramer, M. 1997. Mongolia: The Buddha and the Khan.
2 Lamaistic Buddhism: A Revival and A Challenge.
1997. Skyland I-flight magazine of Miat Mongolian Airlines. p.10.
3 Rossabi, M. Mongolia in the 1990s: from Commissars
4 Kaye, L. 1998. Genocide on Display. Far Eastern
Economic Review. March 5. p.43.
5 Narantuya, D. 1998 Roller-coaster ride for Mongolian
Buddhists. The Mongol Messenger. 25 February. p.3.
6 Haslund, H. 1935. Men and Gods in Mongolia.
Adventures Unlimited Press. p.284.
7 Lamaistic Buddhism: A Revival and A Challenge.
8 Eredene Zuu due for a facelift. The Mongol
Messenger. 15 July 1998. p. 7.
9 Lhavgasuren, H. 1998. Withstanding the ravages
of time. The Mongol Messenger 8 July. p. 8.
10 Kharkhorin phallus impresses the UN. The
Mongol Messenger. 17 March 1999. p.2.
11 Cramer, M. ibid..
12 Reif, R. 1998. Where the Silk Road Took a Detour.
The New York Times. 22 March. p.47
13 Tsultem, N. 1986. Development of the Mongolian
National Style Painting Mongol Zurag in brief. State Publishing
14 The ancient healing powers of traditional Mongolian
medicine . The Mongol Messenger 13 May 1998. p. 8.
15 Leaflet on Manba Datsan, Clinic and Training Centre
for Mongolian Traditional Medicine.
16 Haslund, H. ibid.. p.312.
17 Amarbat, L. 1999. Happy New Year Mongolia.
The Mongol Messenger 16 February. p. 3.