The Revival of Buddhism in Mongolia


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, Mongolia’s fate came full circle when in 1987 Mikhail Gorbachev announced the withdrawal of the last Soviet troops stationed in the country.’

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 People’s Republic was founded in 1924. The country’s first leader was assassinated and Genden became Prime Minister. He increasingly came into conflict with Stalin and refused to carry out the Soviet’s leader’s 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 Genden’s 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 dramatically.’ 5

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, Mongolia’s 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 Region. 
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 monastery. 

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 others.” 12

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. 

Art School: Each morning, before the day’s 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 khan’s 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: 

  1. Religious services 
  2. Clinical and medical treatment 
  3. Small medicine producing factory 
  4. Training and research activities 
  5. Traditional Medical Institute 
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: 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 Institute’s 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 hospital’s 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 room’s 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 mare’s 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. 17

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 should. 


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 to Capitalists?
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. ibid..
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 House Ulaanbaatar.
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.

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