Religion in Mongolia

Aspects of Mongolian Buddhism

Also see:  Buddhist persons and terminology

Mongolian Buddhism is often described as a part of Tibetan Buddhism, which is in many ways true. However, there are enough distinct features to refer to the practice as Mongolian Buddhism.  Here I will briefly introduce some aspects of Buddhism in Mongolia


History (taken from The history of religion in Mongolia)
It is in the time of the Great Khans that the Tibetan form of Buddhism gains influence in Mongolia. In the beginning of the 13th century Chinggis Khan conquers Tibet. The leader of what became the largest empire ever, was known for his religious tolerance, having Nestorian Christians, Moslems, Manicheďsts and shamans within his realm. When after his death trouble arises in Tibet his grandson is send to settle things. Although doing this with a trail of destruction he makes friends with Sakya (Sa skya) Pandita, the patriarch of the Sa skya sect. With these two the special Tibetan lama-patron relationship starts. Godan´s successor Khubilai Kahn continued this relation with Sakya Pandita´s nephew Phags-pa. He was kept at the Mongolian court, but more for political than spiritual reasons. By holding a representative from the ruling Sa skya pa, Khubilai hoped to realise a friendly attitude of the Tibetans. While being at the Mongolian court Phags-pa converted great parts of the ruling class including Khubilai. So for the first time Mongolia came under major Buddhist influence, although it seems to mainly have been limited to the upper class.
At the end of 16th century Altan Khan is in power. He meets with Sonam Gyatso, a Tibetan Buddhist leader whom he gives the title of Dalai Lama. This meeting means a revival of Buddhism in Mongolia. Later great-grandson of Altan Khan will pointed as an incarnation of the Dalai Lama, strengthening the ties between Mongolia and Tibetan Buddhism. From that period on Buddhism becomes the predominant religion in the Mongolian territories and establishes a big clergy. At the end of the nineteenth century there were 583 monasteries and temple complexes and 243 incarnate lama's would be living in the Mongolian territories, of which 157 resided in Inner Mongolia. The Buddhist clergy controlled about 20 percent of the country’s wealth and in the 1920s there were about 110.000 monks, making up one-third of the male population . Moses especially emphasis the negative impact of this clergy:

“…[T]he evils of the monastic system; the greedy and corrupt lamas; the ignorance, poverty and disease perpetuated by an unresponsive, untutored clergy; and …the crushing economic burden of an unproductive and acquisitive clerical hierarchy.” (Moses 1977: 3-4)


One of the characteristics of Mongolian Buddhism are the many independent lama's. These lama's don’t belong to any kind of monastery. There income is partly derived of gifts or payments from people consulting them. These consults might concern religious, spiritual or medical issues. Also lama's can be asked to ensure the wellbeing of a certain project/for special occasions.

These independent lama's in most cases have not taken (all) the vows. The independent lama's might have bonds with a monastery, or even work for them.


Mongolian traditional medicine is very much based on the Tibetan Buddhist practice. There are some differences however. According to Lama Baatar, working at the Medical college in the Dornogobi aimag, Mongolian medicine would be much better in handling physical problems caused of the weather, diseases related to food and taking blood from the body. Furthermore in the Mongolian tradition there is an acupuncture like treatment with needles.
At several monasteries, like Dashchoilon Khiid, Geser Sum and Mamba Datsun it is possible to get medical consults. Also there are independent lama´s who offer these consults.


In the Tibetan calendar years are named after one of the animals of the Tibetan zodiac (horse, sheep, monkey, bird, dog, pig, rat/mouse, cow/ox, tiger, hare, dragon, snake). Together with this cycle of twelve years is a cycle of ten years in which two subsequent years are indicated with one of five elements (iron, water, wood, fire, earth). These cycles combined give a sixty (12x5) year period of unique combinations of an animal with an element[*]. Every year is divided into lunar months which in principal consist of thirty days but might be shorter because unlucky days are not counted and some holy days are counted twice. Than every month has four special days of worship: the 8th, 10th, 15th and 25th And every year has it’s special holy days. The birthday of Buddha was celebrated in 2002 on May 26.
In Mongolia the lunar new year is called Tsagaan sar, meaning the white month, which is celebrated during a few days at the end of the 81 days winter period. Nomads divide the year in periods of nine days and the winter thus is nine of these periods. The periods have names like: `Lambs must be covered´ and `Not cold enough to freeze the soup´. The main shamanistic ritual called the Great sacrifice is held on the third day of Tsagaan sar.


Ovoo worship
One of the distinct features is the ovoo worship. At these sites rituals are executed by Buddhist lama's.


Five pure lands

In Mongolian Buddhism there five pure lands or paradises:

  1. sain amgalant oron (mon), divaajin (tib), sukhavati (san)  = supreme heaven, paradise (The white lotus sutra is about this land)
  2. shambala (san)
  3. urgenkhando (tib)
  4. utaishan kumbum
  5. gandan 


[*] Example of the combinations:

  1. dragon – iron;
  2. snake – iron;
  3. horse – water;
  4. sheep – water;
  5. monkey – wood;
  6. bird – wood.



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