Faith in Motion: An introduction to Buddhism in Mongolia


There is no doubt Mongolia has a rich history of religion. Chinggis Khaan might be the inventor of interfaith gatherings, had only such a word existed. In spite of all the efforts in religious exchange and understanding in his time, the twentieth century brought Mongolia a period of forced religious marginalisation. But during the last fifteen years Buddhism has re-emerged from either hidden or controlled worship. This article discusses the roots and recent developments of a dynamic tradition, that like all faiths continuously needs to adapt to a changing world.


I have found westerners often are surprised to find traces of more native traditions in the current practise of Buddhism in Mongolia. But actually if we look at the main religion of the western world, we can see similar residues of times often long forgotten. Strictly speaking, there is nothing Christian about a Christmas tree, nor about the date of December 25th. These are elements deriving from so-called pagan traditions that were practised in Europe many centuries before Christianity. The Easter bunny, that will visit us soon again, is actually the “reincarnation” of the sacred hare of the Saxon goddess Ostara (Eastre), who also gave her name to this celebration.
In general, it seems most religions that have been successfully introduced outside there native land, have adapted to the local practises and believes. Once a religion is established, the capacity to constantly adjust is need to keep track of an equally dynamic society. Even more so, without the ability to adapt, Buddhism would have never reached Mongolia.


The Past

After several initial contacts, Buddhism became significant in Mongolia only when in the 13th century it was introduced from Tibet. On the “roof of the world” Padmansambava had before been able to find a common ground between Buddhism and the indigenous traditions, often referred to as Bon. Gods from this traditional Tibetan pantheon since then clarify Buddhist principles and their images were placed on the Buddhist altars. In the cause of history several secular leaders of the Mongols established a special relationship with the spiritual leaders of Tibet. One occasion made Khubilai Khaan turn Buddhism into the court religion of the empire, and another made Altan Khaan in the 17th century come up with the name for the most well-known Buddhist leader today: Dalai Lama. During this last period Buddhism was able to reach the more common people as well, and became the predominant religion of Mongolia.
And while by that time extinct in its Indian homelands, the ability of Buddhism to adapt was proven again when it incorporated the traditional beliefs of Mongolia. For example, the ancient worship of the Eternal Heaven is still reflected in the use of blue, rather than white or yellow khadags. These ceremonial scarves are now widely used, not only in Buddhist settings, and have even replaced the coloured threads that shamans originally used. Sacred places and their spirits were not discarded as being pagan, but were recognised as Buddhist Nagas and used to promote an environmental consciousness, long before NGO’s were invented to take care of that. Ovoos started to be worshipped in Buddhist ceremonies often being followed by a Nadaam sports festival.


The Present

Once more, Buddhism is currently proving to be adaptive. Surfacing after years of limited hidden practise, it has found a world that changed dramatically. Technology has provided means of communication and transportation that in a way seem to underline the Buddhist concept of interconnection. Rationalism has triggered a desire for understanding, rather than following; for asking, rather than just bowing. Not only the lay community has changed, but the Sangha as well. Monks go and study abroad, and receive teachings not limited to their own sect.
The environmental teachings, although more relevant than ever, have had trouble resurfacing but are slowly catching up. In June this year a hundred monks from all over the country will come and discuss ecology and development with the NGO’s that partly took their place.
Another dimension of understanding the faith is the initiative to recite sutras in Mongolian, rather than the clerical Tibetan language. It is an attempt to bring the faith closer to the people, but other schools argue that they are revealing holy texts that contain secret wisdom only intended for specialists that have the necessary knowledge for understanding.

Modernity does bring new opportunities as well as challenges. Increased communication enables Buddhist communities from all over the world to interact. The technologically advanced products advertised by our modern market economy ease our life and not just that of lay people. Monks and nuns are, of course, as much part of society as anyone of us and the Buddhist notion of non-attachment, although popular in the West, seems less important in the more ritualistic practise of Buddhism here.
Urbanisation is one other phenomena affecting the monastic communities and the way they are revived. In the 19th century thousands of monks were part of the large monasteries in all the different aimags. After the almost complete destruction of monasteries in the 1930’s, now the process of establishing new temples and communities in the countryside appears to often be a challenge. As seems to be a general trend, many monks have a preference for urban life. Additionally, the monasteries – even those in the countryside - hardly ever have the monastic community resident at the monastery grounds, with Amarbayasgalant Khiid as one of the big exceptions. Living in a secular home rather than in a religious community leads to a different lifestyle which holds a risk of worldly distractions, maybe even more so than by the products of modernity.

In this dynamic period in history, Buddhism in Mongolia is redefining itself, as it always has. We look forward to sharing some of these developments here with you.


Guido Verboom is a consultant working since 2000 on different cultural and Buddhist projects in Mongolia for organisations including the Alliance of Religions and Conservation.

IN Mongolia Consultancy Services Ltd. 

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