Buddhism in Mongolia during the Communist Period

During the communist period, after a period of gradual suppression in several waves starting from 1921 and the mass executions and demolitions of monasteries in 1936/37, the repression of Buddhism and all other religious activities in Mongolia lasted for about 50 years. The only temple partly functioning was Gandantegchenlin (Gandan for short), reopened in 1944. Only minor improvement in the religious activities occurred during the ensuing decades, but they remained under strict supervision with restricted activities until the 1990 Democratic Revolution. The Gandan lamas of this period who have passed away are well-remembered, and those still active are highly valued in the monastic community.
Other languages

The Start of the Suppression of Buddhism

After the fall of the Manchu Qing dynasty (1691–1911), the Eighth Jebtsundampa Khutugtu (Khal. jewzündamba khutagt, Mong. ǰibǰundamba qutuγtu) (1869–1924) declared independence for Mongolia and thus became the religious and political leader of Mongolia, bearing the title of Bogdo Khan (Khal. bogd khaan, Mong. boγda qan, Masterly Khan). Later, after a period of different interventions, also of foreign powers, a communist government friendly to the Russian Bolshevik revolutionaries came to power in 1921. Up to that time, Buddhism had been flourishing greatly in Mongolia. Before the gradual suppression of religion began, one-third of the male population lived in the almost 1,000 monasteries and temple assemblies. That meant that more than 100,000 men were lamas or novices. 

Gandan monastery before 1990. In: Tsültem, N., Mongolian Architecture. Ulaanbaatar, 1988, Picture No. 83.

The new communist government viewed the Buddhist monasteries and institutions as wielding an important feudal position of power at that time, and thus they represented a great risk. Therefore, in the 1920s, the government gradually began suppressing religion in several waves of growing scale, taking increasingly severe measures against the Buddhist monasteries and lamas. The targets of the suppressions included shamanism and any other practice of folk religion as well, but as these were not institutionalized, that meant only placing a ban on their practices. The tensions between the government and the Buddhist institutions across the country escalated gradually in the 1920s and 30s, reaching their nadir toward the end of the 1930s with the events that are often called the “Mongolian Purges,” or the “Mongolian Repressions” (Khal. khelmegdüülelt, Mong. kelmegdegülelt), or the “Great Mongolian Purges” (Khal. ikh khelmegdüülelt, Mong. yeke kelmegdegülelt). The events of this period were similar to the Stalinist purges unfolding across the Soviet Union at about the same time.

The Mongolian Buddhist “Purges,” or Stalinist Repressions in Mongolia

Khorloogiin Choibalsan (commander-in-chief of the Mongolian People’s Army from 1937, head of the Ministry of Internal Affairs 1937–1939, chairman of the Council of Ministers (equivalent to prime minister) 1939–1952) consolidated his power in Mongolia and launched a reign of terror against the monasteries and lamas. It was the decision of the Central Commission of the Revolutionary Party issued on December 27, 1937 at the Party’s Seventh Congress that resulted in the mass executions of the monastics. It is estimated that around 14,000 members of the lama community were executed in the well-planned violent events that followed. Many others also fell victim in the broader campaign of this period against “counterrevolutionaries” (Khal. khuw’sgalyn esergüü nar / esergüüchüüd, Mong. qubisqal-un esergü-nar / esergüčüd). Intellectuals, such as politicians, writers, thinkers, scientists, and teachers, were similarly persecuted. All were perceived as threats to the Mongolian revolution and the growing Soviet influence. Lamas were similarly labelled as “counterrevolutionaries,” and several show trials of high-ranking lamas were held with these charges. These were, however, only in exceptional cases. Countless others were arrested and shot without any trial. 

Site of a ruined monastery. Documentation of Mongolian Monasteries project, https://www.mongoliantemples.org/en/, picture taken by the research group of the author in 2007.

All high-ranking lamas, such as abbots of monasteries and other title holders, incarnate lamas or tulkus (Tib. sprul-sku), and those with high degrees in philosophical studies were specially targeted. They could hardly escape execution. All others below them in the monastic hierarchy, such as lamas with less important ranks or duties, were jailed for around ten years, taken to labor camps in Siberia, or drafted into the army. 

Younger lamas without any rank and young novices were forced to disrobe and find jobs as laypeople in the communist system. It was not rare that communal handicraft co-operatives (Khal. artel’) or agricultural co-operatives (Khal. negdel, Mong. nigedül) were especially established for groups of them. These handicraft cooperatives where they were forced to work were sometimes even called “handicraft co-operatives of lamas” (Khal. lam naryn artel’). Others who had already left their monasteries before 1937 during the difficult period since 1924 might have returned to their homelands and become herders or might have taken up other everyday occupations. Thus, in the end, all the lamas who escaped execution or imprisonment became ordinary citizens.

Site of a ruined monastery. Picture by the author, 2007.

Only an extremely few monastery buildings managed to survive the 1937/38 purges, and basically no monasteries were left in their entirety. Almost every monastery and temple in the country was totally destroyed or burned to the ground, but all of them were closed and emptied of artefacts. The few temple buildings that remained were only kept standing because they had been nationalized and become utilized for different purposes, such as prisons, hospitals, warehouses, fire stations, or museums. But even these were never the entire monastery, only individual temples of once large complexes. Monasteries and small assembly halls in far-away, uninhabited places became simply neglected and thus decayed into ruins in the following decades. 

Tibetan and Mongolian texts and a book by Stalin abandoned at a ruined monastery site. Documentation of Mongolian Monasteries project, https://www.mongoliantemples.org/en/, picture taken by the research group of the author in 2007.

Buddhist scriptures were burned, and numerous artifacts and sacred objects were destroyed. The most valuable items, such as golden, silver, copper, or bronze statues and precious stones, were taken to the Soviet Union. Less valuable statues were even melted down to be recast as bullets. Several sacred objects, artefacts and books, however, managed to survive after all the monasteries and temples had been emptied out. Many were collected and piled up in different storehouses in 1938 until their fate was decided. They were then either kept and brought to museums in Mongolia as exhibition objects, or they were destroyed, burned or transported to Russia for other uses. Some temple buildings managed to survive exactly due to their temporary usage as storehouses – for example, the wooden yurt temples in the old Züün Khüree (Mong. ǰegün küriyen / küriye) district of Ikh Khüree (Mong. yeke küriyen / küriye, the old name of Ulaanbaatar), where Züün Khüree Dashchoilin Monastery (Mong. ǰegün küriyen / küriye dašičoyiling, Tib. bkra-shis chos-gling) was later revived after the 1990 Democratic Revolution (Khal. 1990 ony ardchilsan khuw’sgal). 

Sacred objects left abandoned at a ruined monastery site. Documentation of Mongolian Monasteries project, https://www.mongoliantemples.org/en/, picture taken by the research group of the author in 2007.

In short, in this way, everything connected to religion was destroyed and cleared away. This included not only monastic life, rituals and connected traditions, but also the traditional economy based on the monastic system and state institutions of the past, as Mongolia was completely reorganized based on Soviet ideology. Soviet-type concrete housing estates appeared where once monastic complexes stood. Soviet schools were opened, and the Cyrillic script was introduced in place of the traditional Mongolian script to serve the purposes of Sovietized modern education. Concerning the supervision of any religious activities that were tolerated, religious representatives (Khal. Shashny tölöölögch, shahsny khereg erkhlekh tölöölögch) were appointed by the authorities with the duty of reporting to the Party and to participate in conferences and meetings in Moscow.

Site of a ruined monastery. Documentation of Mongolian Monasteries project, https://www.mongoliantemples.org/en/, picture taken by the research group of the author in 2007.

The Controlled, Partial Reopening of Gandan Monastery after 1944 

Before the purge, there had been special monastic schools in the Western monastic district of the old capital, Ikh Khüree. This district was called “Gandan” or “Baruun Khüree” (Mong. baraγun küriyen / küriye). After the purge, it still had a few buildings that remained standing. Only the Tsogchin Temple (Tib. tshogs-chen), which was the main assembly hall, some other temples in the main courtyard, and the Migjid Janraiseg Temple (Mong. ǰanrayisig, Tib. mig-’byed spyan-ras-gzigs, Skt. avalokiteśvara) remained, while none of the monastic schools survived. These were rebuilt here much later, only after the 1990 Democratic Revolution. It was here that the first, strictly controlled revival of any Buddhist activities took place in the country. 

Some sculptures kept at Gandan (before 1990). In: Tsültem, N., Mongolian Architecture. Ulaanbaatar, 1988, Picture No. 87.

In 1944, the American vice president Henry Wallace visited Mongolia. Being completely uninformed about the actual conditions, he had expressed a wish to see monasteries and temples during his visit. Therefore, before his visit, N. Erdenepel and other ex-lamas submitted a petition to the Parliament requesting the reopening of Gandan or, more fully, Gandantegchenlin Monastery (Mong. γangdangtegčenling, Tib. dga’-ldan thegs-chen gling). However, the reopening, in fact, was thanks not to their petition but to the request of the US delegation of President Roosevelt. Due to their request, the reopening was forced upon Choibalsan by Stalin. 

Gandan was reopened under the name “Temple of Worship” (Khal. mörgöliin süm, Mong. mörgül-ün süme). For a long time, however, it remained totally controlled by the state, with its functions carried out under the strict supervision of the communist government. It had only a few lamas and performed only short rituals. Visits by the public were restricted, with control easing only with the passing decades. Gandan was exempt from taxes but had to be maintained exclusively by donations from devotees as there was no state funding. Until the 1990 Democratic Revolution, it remained the only functioning monastery in Mongolia.

After the reopening of Gandan, Gawj N. Erdenepel (1887–1960) became the first abbot (Khal. khamba, Mong. qambu, Tib. mkhan-po). “Gawj” (Mong. γabǰu / γabǰi, Tib. dka’-bcu), literally “Ten Difficults,” is the Khalkha rendition of a title awarded to those who have passed an exam on the “ten difficult” Buddhist texts. Gawj T. Gombodoo became the disciplinarian master (Khal. gesgüi, Mong. gesgüi, Tib. dge-bskyos), R. Garamsed became the master or chief teacher (Khal. lowon, Mong. lobon, Tib. slob-dpon, Skt. ācārya), and Angi Gewsh G. Bat-Ochir and Luwsansüren became the chanting masters (Khal. unzad, Mong. umǰad, Tib. dbu-mdzad, lead chanter). “Angi Gewsh,” or “Gewsh” (Mong. gebši, Tib. dge-bshes, virtuous friend) is the Khalkha rendition of the Tibetan title “Geshe,” a high academic degree granted at the completion of the monastic studies. From 1950, other lamas joined, such as Gawj T. Danigai, Gawj G. Osor, Gewsh Sh. Ishtawkhai, Rawjambaa Danzan Odser, Gewsh G. Dontor, and the artist D. Danzan. “Rawjambaa” (Mong. rabǰamb-a, Tib. rab-’byams-pa, universally learned person) is the Khalkha rendition of the Tibetan title “Rabjampa,” the equivalent of a Geshe degree granted from Kumbum Monastery (Khal. Gumbum, Tib. sku-’bum) in Tibet. Even if this period afforded limited possibilities, many of these lamas are still remembered for their activities today.

As one of the conditions for the partial reopening of Gandan, Parliament decreed that the prayers and texts should be recited in Mongolian and not in Tibetan as they had traditionally been done. Thus, the first text was recited in Mongolian in 1947 and, by 1951, more than ten texts that were part of the daily chanting were recited in Mongolian. However, after the full revival of the monasteries in 1990, Tibetan regained its role as the ceremonial language in Mongolia’s monasteries.

After the death of Choibalsan in 1952, Yumjaagiin Tsedenbal followed as chairman of the Council of Ministers (equivalent to prime minister) up to 1974, and as chairman of the Presidium of the People’s Great Khural (head of state) from 1974 to 1984. It was only after Stalin’s death that, by the mid 1960s, Mongolia had relative peace, but this did not yet include religious freedom or democracy. In 1960, Gawj Sh. Gombojaw (1901–1980), known as “Old Abbot” (Khal. öwgön khamba), or “Wise Knowledgeable Abbot” (Khal. nomch mergen khamba), became the new Gandan abbot and held the position until 1980. 

Choijin Lama Temple, 1975. Picture by Árpád Majer.

At first, the few lamas of Gandan worked under poor conditions. As already mentioned, after the demolition of the monasteries and temples during the purges, old artefacts and statues that had not been ruined were piled up and kept, among other places, in the Temple of the Choijin Lama (Khal. Choijin lamyn süm) – one of the temples of the old Ikh Khüree whose surviving buildings were later turned into a museum. They were now taken to Gandan. Some other sacred objects arrived in Gandan in a more interesting way. By the 1950s and 60s, there were a few Buddhist assemblies in the countryside that had managed to operate in yurts by constantly moving them. These assemblies of lamas had escaped from Inner Mongolia after 1945. In the 1960s, six of them were affiliated to Gandan Monastery, partly to enable unified control over them. They represented different Buddhist schools and moved their own sacred objects to Gandan.

Apart from the preservation of sacred objects, another important issue for the revival of Buddhism was the education of lamas, even if within the given controlled circumstances. The first ordinations after the partial revival took place in this period to ensure more lamas had the full monastic vows. The abbot of the Barga territory, Dooromboo Luwsangetsog, and Garamsed Lama gave full monastic ordination (Khal. gelen, Mong. gelung, Tib. dge slong, Skt. bhikṣu) to eight lamas and novice monk ordination (Khal. getsel, Mong. gečel, Tib. dge-tshul, Skt. ṡramaṇera) to many other lamas. “Dooromboo” (Mong. dooramb-a, Tib. mdo-rams-pa) is the Khalkha rendition of the Tibetan title given to those who receive the Geshe degree from Labrang Monastery (Khal. lawran, Tib. bla-brang) in Tibet. 

Due to the growing need for religious education, The Union of Dharma (Khal. nomyn niileg, Mong. nom-un neyileg) was established in the 1960s to train young lamas and prepare them for exams in philosophical studies. There is no information on what the curriculum was. Its first teachers were Gawj Damdinsüren, Gawj O. Dagwajamtsan, Jigmed-Osor, D. Nawaandorj, Gewsh Kh. Baldorj, J. Pürewjamts, and Chogjaw. Later, D. Tsermaa, Ö. Gündsambuu, Sh. Soninbayar, T. Bulgan and Yo. Amgalan joined the faculty. Many of these teachers had passed away by 2023, but some still actively teach or contribute to the upkeeping of Dharma in other ways, mainly still at Gandan. 

A related activity in the revival of Buddhism was the participation of the Gandan lamas in scientific and translation activities, as these were one of the ways in which the lamas, often including ex-lamas outside Gandan, could, to a certain extent, more freely utilize their knowledge during this period. At the beginning of the 1950s, the Department of Science and Culture (Khal. erdem soyolyn angi) was established at Gandan with the aim of translating texts and carrying out research projects. 

Inside the library of Gandan Monastery (before 1990). In: Tsültem, N., Mongolian Architecture. Ulaanbaatar, 1988, Picture No. 88.

There were several other organizations where some of the lamas could also contribute their knowledge – for example, the Institute of Texts and Literature (Khal. sudar bichgiin khüreelen, Mong. sudar bičig-un küriyeleng), established in 1921 and renamed in 1930 as the Institute of Sciences (Khal. shinjelkh ukhaany khüreelen, Mong. sinǰileqü uqaγan-u küriyeleng). In 1961, it became the Mongolian Academy of Sciences (Khal. shinjlekh ukhaany akademi, Mong. šinǰileqü uqaγan-u akademi). It was here where such translation activities were initiated by Professor B. Rinchen, a scholar of linguistics and literature and translator of many literary works to Mongolian from different languages who became a member of the Mongolian Academy of Sciences (from 1961–1977). The aim was to publish Tibetan-Mongolian dictionaries, chronicles, and Buddhist source texts.

The Establishment of the Buddhist College at Gandan

The next important advance in the educational possibilities for the lamas came in 1970 when, upon the initiative of the Gandan abbot Gombojaw and the Buryat abbot Gomboyev, the establishment of the Mongolian Buddhist College (Khal. Shashny Deed Surguul’, literally “Religious College,” short for Burkhany Sashny Deed Surguul’, Buddhist College) was permitted in Ulaanbaatar at Gandan. Preparations for establishing a Religious Institute (Khal. Shahny Institut) had already begun in the 1950s. It later became the University (Khal. Shashny Ikh Surguul’) and its name was changed several times. It even bore the name Religious Academy (Khal. Shashny Akademi) for a while after its establishment. From 1995, it became called Öndör Gegen Zanabazar University of Mongolian Buddhists (Khal. Öndör gegeen Zanabazaryn neremjit mongolyn Burkhany Shashny Ikh Surguul’), and from 2017, again Buddhist College (Khal. Burkhany Shashny Deed Surguul’). 

The aim of the Buddhist College was to educate the next generation of lamas not only from Mongolia but also from the Buddhist Russian autonomous regions. This was much needed at this point so that Mongolian and Buryat young men who had completed secondary school could start their Buddhist studies after their selection for monkhood. They were given the Barma Rabjung (Khal. barma rawjün, Tib. bar-ma rab-’byung, “intermediate renunciate”) pre-novice monk vows by the Dharma master (Khal. tsorj, Mong. čorǰi, Tib. chos-rje) Gawj Jam’yanchoimbel. However, both the monastery, its Buddhist College, and later the University remained under strict communist governmental supervision. The University was not yet able to provide a traditional Buddhist education within its six-year curriculum.

The vice abbot (Khal. ded khamba) S. Dagwadorj became the College’s first director (zakhiral); the English teacher S. Nyamsüren became the first dean of education (Khal. khecheeliin erkhlegch). Later, from 1971 to 1972, Tsültem became both the dean of education and the deputy director (Khal. orlogch zakhiral), and then the director from 1973. D. Damba held the position of dean of education between 1974 and 1986. As for the first teachers, T. Danzan-Odser was the Tibetan language and translation teacher; Angi Gewsh Sh. Lkhamaajaw, Ts. Jamts, and Gewsh Kh. Baldorj were the teachers of textual reading and recitation (Khal. unshalga). From the second semester of 1970/71, Gewsh D. Nawaandorj and, from 1971, Gewsh Z. Pürewjamts and Gewsh Dagnajantsan also joined as teachers. In the following decades, other teachers from Gandan, teachers from Mongolian universities, mainly the National University of Mongolia (MUIS, Khal. Mongol Ulsyn Ikh Surguul’) as well as from the Mongolian Academy of Sciences (Khal. Mongolyn Shinjlekh Ukhaany Akademi) also taught there.

Two students from the first class, including D. Choijamts, later studied in Dharamsala, India at the Institute of Buddhist Dialetics (Khal. Buddyn gün ukhaany surguul’). Others were sent to study English in Buryat Colleges, while three students, including Ch. Dambajaw to Sri Lanka. Between 1985 and 1988, Ch. Dambajaw also studied in Dharamsala. Even under these restrictions, the new graduates were able to contribute to the revival and reintroduction of Buddhism in Mongolia and Buryatia. 

People having their picture taken at Gandan monastery, 1975. Picture by Árpád Majer.

D. Choijamts, the current head abbot of Gandan Monastery, and Ch. Dambajaw, the current abbot of Züün Khüree Dashchoilin Monastery, the second biggest in Ulaanbaatar, and the Buryat Jamiyan Shagdarov, who became later the abbot of Ivolginskii Datsan in Ulan Ude, were among the first twenty Mongolians and six Buryats graduating from the Buddhist College after six years of study and defending their theses. D. Choijamts, G. Tseweendorj, and the Buryat M. Dorjjaw stood for the examination in philosophical studies for gaining the Gawj degree (Khal. gawjiin damjaa) – namely, the examination on the ten difficult texts (Mong. γabǰu / γabǰi-yin damǰiya, Tib. dka’-bcu’i dam-bca’), which were on the five major subjects of Buddhist philosophy and their commentaries.

The second entrance exam was held in 1974, with eight Mongolians and seven Buryats enrolling, and twelve of them graduating later. The curriculum was changed to five years from this second class on. Students received their monastic vows from the Tsorj Dharma Master of that time, Güüsh Yondonjamts, and thus it became the tradition that it was the Tsorj lama who conferred monastic vows on the new students. Güüsh (Chin. guó shì), meaning “State Preceptor,” is a title originally conferred by the Mongol emperors of China during the Yuan Dynasty. 

From among the students in this second class, Ö. Gündsambuu studied also in Dharamsala at the Institute of Buddhist Dialetics and, later, also did D. Tsermaa and Sh. Soninbayar in the 1980’s. In 1989, Ö. Gündsambuu, D. Tsermaa, and Sh. Soninbayar took the examination for the Gawj degree. In 2001, Ö. Gündsambuu became the head of Güngaachoilin datsan (Tib. kun-dga’ chos gling grwa-tshang), one of the monastic colleges of Gandan to be reopened later. He still holds this position in 2023. Sh. Soninbayar, who passed away in 2021, became a teacher and later also the director at the College (at this point, the University). D. Tsermaa also became a teacher there and is still active in 2023.

The next, third class of 1977 included ten Mongolian and seven Buryat students. Seven students from the Academy of Sciences were also accepted in this class. This was the first time that lay students were enrolled. Later, from 1995, it became not only possible but also usual. Some students of this class later studied International Relations and English in Ulan Ude, while T. Bulgan also studied in London. In 2003 T. Bulgan and Ts. Günchin-Ish stood for the Gawj examination. T. Bulgan became a teacher and currently (2023) teaches the Philosophy and Buddhist Studies major and PhD courses (Khal. Filosofi, shahsin sudlal) at the National University of Mongolia.

Choijin Lama Temple, 1975. Picture by Árpád Majer.

The first curriculum at the Buddhist College combined different Buddhist subjects with topics from modern secular education as well as some courses on Marxism and similar topics. It included the following subjects:

  • Daily recitations, eulogies, prayers and their translation (Khal. tsogchin magtaal orchuulgyn khamt / tsogchin unshlaga, magtaal yerööl). The term tsogchin (Tib. tshogs-chen) refers to the daily chanting in the main assembly hall, magtaal (Tib. bstod-pa) to eulogy, and yerööl (Tib. smon-lam) to aspirational prayer.
  • Texts of the Dharma Protectors (Khal. khangal, Tib. drag-po)
  • Tibetan language and scripts (Khal. Tüwd khel, bichig)
  • Buddhist logic, the collected topics (dura) of Buddhist logic (Khal. Buddin logik / Buddyn gün ukhaany düiraa / Duira, Tib. bsdus-grwa), the collected topics for the study of set theory using logic and debate, the first class in the traditional Tibetan monastic education program for studying to become a Geshe
  • Prajnaparamita (The Perfection of Wisdom) (Khal. Parchin / ikh (bilig) baramid, Tib. phar-phyin / shes-rab-kyi pha-rol-tu phyin-pa, Skt. Prajñāpāramitā)
  • Madhyamaka, or the Middle Way (Khal. Um / Uma or Töw üzel, Tib. dbu-ma, Skt. Madhyamaka)
  • The tantric Chö system (Khal. Zod, Mong. ǰod, Tib. gcod, “cutting through” ego-clinging)
  • Monastic discipline (Vinaya) (Khal. Dülwaa, Tib. ’dul-ba, Skt. Vinaya)
  • Lam-rim (the graded stages of the path) (Khal. Lamrim, Tib. lam-rim)
  • The basics of astrology (Khal. Zurkhain ankhny medegdehüün, Tib. (skar)-rtsis) – mathematics, astronomy, calendar-making, and astrology
  • Traditional medicine (Khal. Ündesnii emnelegiin toim, Tib. gso-rig)
  • The basics of the Buddhist fine arts (Khal. Buddyn urlagiin ankhny medegdekhüün
  • The history of Buddhism in India, Tibet and Mongolia, or the history of Buddhism (Khal. Enetkheg, Tüwd, Mongolyn shashny tüükh / Burkhany shashny tüükh). The abbot Gombojaw taught the history of Buddhism in Mongolia based on Zawa Damdin’s (Mong. ǰaba damdin, Tib. rtsa-ba blo-bzang rta-mgrin, 1867-1937) text, History of Mongolian Buddhism (Khal. Khorchoijün, Tib. hor chos-’byung).
  • World Buddhist studies (Khal. Delkhiin Buddyn sudlal)
  • Contemporary Buddhism (Khal. Orchin üyein buddizm)
  • English language
  • Russian language
  • The history of the Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party (Khal. MAKHN-yn (mongol ardyn khuw’sgalt nam-yn) tüükh)
  • Marxist philosophy (Khal. Marksist filosofi).

The Buddhist University of Gandan. Courtesy of the university: https://www.zbu.mn

From 1980, Choijalsüren, Luwsandorj, and R. Otgonbaatar taught the Classical Mongolian script (Khal. Mongol bichig); Dr. Ch. Jügder, Delikov, and Dagwadorj taught Western philosophy (Khal. örnin filosofi); and Khüükhenbaatar and Chimedtseren, both from the National University of Mongolia taught Mongolian history (Khal. Mongolyn tüükh); the academic Luwsantseren as well as Dr. Sodnomdargia and Ch. Baawgai taught the history of Buddhist philosophy (Khal. buddyn filosofiin tüükh), Lorig (ways of knowing) (Khal. lorig, Tib. blo-rig) and debate (Khal. uchir shaltgaany ukhaan, Tib. rgyu-mtshan); and the academics Ch. Dalai, Sh. Bira, Dr. G. Sükhbaatar, and Ishjamts taught the early history of Mongolia (Khal. mongolyn ertnii tüükh). Later the curriculum changed many times, and here only that of the first period after the opening could be included.

Starting in the 1970s, the restrictions were gradually loosened, and more lamas were allowed to join Gandan. Thanks to this, by 1990 the number of lamas reached around a hundred or more. However, in the 1970s and 80s, the old ex-lamas were forbidden to join, except for perhaps a handful of them after going through various examinations and inspections. Religious freedom, despite all these positive improvements and steps, was still only to come. 

From 1962, Mongolian Buddhists had entered the World Buddhist Association (Khal. delkhiin buddyn kholboo), established in 1950. But in 1970, another important event took place from the point of view of Gandan’s evolving foreign relations. The Asian Buddhist Conference for Peace (ABCP) (Khal. aziin buddistuudyn enkh taiwany baga khural) was founded that year by several Asian Buddhist countries. The Gandan abbot Gombojaw, representing Mongolia, Bakula Rinpoche from India and the doctor Jügder took part in its founding, and Gombojaw became its first head. It was through this organization that Gandan was first able to establish foreign relations with Asian Buddhist countries such as India, Japan, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Malaysia, Singapore, and Thailand, although these relations were strictly controlled at that time. This advance was made possible by the loosening restrictions. The importance of these associations grew when the full revival came with the 1990 Democratic Revolution.  

Gandan monastery, main courtyard, 1975. Picture by Árpád Majer.

It was also well before the 1990 Democratic Revolution that His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama was first permitted to visit Mongolia in 1979. The revived connections between the Tibetans in exile and the Mongolians later allowed young Mongolian lamas to study in different Buddhist institutions and universities in India. Following his first visit in 1979, the Dalai Lama visited Mongolia nine times. The next one was in 1982, also before the 1990 Democratic Revolution and was followed by visits in 1991, 1994, 1995, 2002, 2006, 2011, and 2016. During these visits, His Holiness gave teachings and different empowerments (Khal. wan, Mong. wang, Tib. dbang, Skt. abhiṣeka). These occasions always attracted large masses of lamas and devotees.

After the death of Gombojaw in 1980, the vice abbot (Khal. ded khamba) Ch. Dambajaw took on the duties of abbot until Kh. Gaadan was installed as the new Gandan abbot in 1981/82. He held this position until the 1990 Democratic Revolution. Earlier in 1990, he and Bakula Rinpoche received the delegations attending the next meeting of the Asian Buddhist Conference for Peace, which took place in Ulaanbaatar. 

Secret Rituals, Hidden Texts and Sacred Objects

As seen from the above account, for decades Gandan was the only place where Buddhist rituals and the recitation of texts could be performed for the public. Even Gandan lamas were not allowed to perform any rituals outside of Gandan. Because of the limitations and strict control from the authorities even in this only partially functioning reopened temple, often ex-lamas secretly performed rituals or at least recited texts either in their homes or in people’s yurts. This was more widely practiced in the later decades with the further loosening of the restrictions and the lessening of the possible consequences. In addition, sacred objects including statues and thangka scroll paintings, ritual implements and Buddhist texts were kept and thus saved in hidden places wherever there was even a slight possibility for this at the time of the demolition of the monasteries and temples. These secret religious activities were crucial for the preservation and later revival of the old traditions and practices. This was especially important for the rituals and texts characteristic exclusively of Mongolia.  

The Fate of Other Remaining Temple Buildings during This Period

Some buildings of other monasteries that had partially survived the purges and demolitions were renovated during the communist era, as early as the 1960s or 70s. But in all cases, this happened only because they had been converted and used as museums or schools or had been utilized for other secular purposes. In the cases of some historic monasteries, or monasteries situated at spectacular sites, renovations were undertaken in order to show them to tourists. For example, there were such renovations at Erdene Zuu (Mong. Erdeni ǰuu) in Öwörkhangai province, Kharkhorin and at Amarbayasgalant (Mong. Amurbayasqulang-tu) in Selenge province, Baruunbüren.

Amarbayasgalant monastery still in an abandoned state (before 1990). In: Tsültem, N., Mongolian Architecture. Ulaanbaatar, 1988, Picture No. 116.

Note about People’s Names

Mongolian names are given in the form most often used in Mongolian publications. For example, in the name of N. Erdenepel, N. is the initial letter of the person’s patronymic – the initial of the father’s first name, as Mongolians do not have a family name but use this instead. In this example, Erdenepel is the first name of the given person himself. Sometimes the patronymic is given in full, in the genitive case, as in Naidangiin Erdenepel (“Erdenepel of Naidan (father)”) and only very rarely, following the Western pattern, as Erdenepel Naidan. However, most of the times the full father’s name is not given in publications and, therefore, sometimes it is difficult to find the full name of someone as it is more generally found in shortened form.