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
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
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.
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
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.