Tibetan Buddhism among Xinjiang Kalmyk Mongols 1994

A Brief History of the Kalmyk Mongols in Xinjiang

The­re are approximately 140,000 Kal­myk Mongols in Xinjiang 新疆, or East Turkistan, about the same number as in Kalmykia, Rus­sia. 5,000 of them live in Ürümqi 乌鲁木齐, the capital. Often referred to as the East Turkistan Oirats, they call themselves the Xinjiang Kalmyks and live around the rim of the Dzun­garian Basin in the north­ern half of the province. They divide them­selves into two groups, the northern and the southern Xinjiang Kalmyks. Those in the south, living in the Tianshan Mountains 天山, form the majority.

Unlike the Inner Mongolians, whose land has been so flood­ed with Chin­ese set­tlers for several centuries that they have mostly lost their culture and language, the Xinjiang Kalmyks have managed to keep their traditions more intact. This is perhaps because they themselves were immigrants into East Turkistan when they return­ed from central Russia 220 years ago, and therefore have always been a tiny minori­ty.

Furthermore, the Xinjiang Kalmyks seem to have retained more of their cul­ture and language than their Russian brothers and sisters. Un­like in the former USSR, which forced all minori­ties to be­come Soviets (not specifical­ly Russians) and to adopt the Cyrillic alpha­bet, the Chinese have a­llowed their min­or­i­ties to keep their cultures and writ­ten scripts. Thus, Xinjiang is the only place left where the Kalmyk script, a variant of the Mongol alpha­bet, is still used.

Buddhism and the Xinjiang Kalmyks

The Xinjiang Kalmyks built more than 50 Gelug monas­teries after their re­turn from Russia. Originally, these Kalmyk monas­teries of East Turkistan were associ­ated with Sera Je Monastery and used the Jetsunpa textbooks for debate, but now, two young monks from this region have gone to Drepung Go­mang Monastery to study but have not yet returned.

At the end of the nine­teenth century, Buddhism spread from the Kalmyk monasteries that were in the very north of East Turkistan to the Altai mountain region across the border in Siberia. Buddhism combined there with shamanism and a local cult to form an amalgam known as Bur­khan­ism. Burkhan is the Uighur and Mongolian word for “Buddha.” In East Turkis­tan, however, Kalmyk Buddhism remained more pure. Unlike the Outer Mongolians and Buryats, the Kal­myks and Inner Mongolians never began a tradition of married monks.

The Present Situation

Most of the Xinjiang Kalmyk monas­teries were de­stroyed during the Cultural Revolution. So far, the Kalmyks have re­built about 35 of them, with, at pres­ent, about 400 monks. Th­ey have start­ed three main monas­tic schoo­ls, one for the northern Xinjiang Kalmyks at Hoboksar 和布克赛尔, near the bor­der with Siberia, and two for the sou­thern Xin­jiang Kalmyks at Balkhun­ta and Khoshut (Heshuo 和硕), south of the Tianshan Mountains to the south­east of Ürümqi. There are gov­ern­ment rest­rictions on becoming monks, but, as in Tibet, these are mostly ig­nored. No one older than a young teen­ager, however, en­ters the monas­teries, since the Kalmyks think it is a Buddhist cus­tom that adults cannot join. Also, middle-aged Kalmyks have been too much influenced by communist pro­paganda to be interested. As in Tibet, there are now no re­stric­tions on rebuild­ing monasteries.

In Hoboksar, there is the monastic school at Arabten Chobel (Tib.: Rab-brtan chos-’phel) Monastery. There had originally been five Kalmyk monaste­ries in the area with 2,000 monks. This is the only one left, and only two small mud and stone buildings are standing. It has about 80 monks, all of whom are old. Previ­ously, it had had 550 monks. A few small monaster­ies have been rebuilt in the area, in­cluding Rashi Chokorl­ing (Tib.: bKra-shis chos-’khor gling), the home monastery of Shel­way Gegen (Tib.: Zha-lu-ba Rinpoche), the Head Lama of Xinjiang who lives in Ürümqi.

The monas­tic school in Hoboksar was started in 1984 with 40 young students. It lasted for only three months. Only five completed the three months study. The others left, because either they were not interested or they found it too difficult to learn to read Tibetan and clas­sical Mongoli­an, neces­sary for being able to chant the ritu­als. The five have stayed on as pre-getsuls, and are stu­dying in­formally with Baldan Lama. The biggest problem ­is that they lack skillful teach­ers who would attract stu­dents.

The main mona­stic school is at Balkhunta, at Shar Sum (Tib.: Ser dGon-pa). Apparently, several of the Xinjiang Kalmyk monas­ter­ies had this name, but this was the main one. Prior to 1969, Shar Sum had 2,000 monks studying in four Datsang divisions: Tsen-nyi for debate, Gyu-pa for tantra, Menba for medicine and Du-khor for Kalachakra and astrology. It now has thirteen older monks and 20–25 new young novice­s. There is one three-year-old Tulku, Kunmin Gege­n. Two older Kalmyk monks, who had stud­ied respec­tively at Gomang and Tashi­lhunpo, are teach­ing Tibe­tan, tan­tric rituals and a lit­tle bit of debate. There are three classes.

At Kho­shut, about 100 km from Balkhu­nta, there are seventeen older monks and 20 young ones. Previously this monastery had two Datsang divisions: Tsen-nyi for debate and Menba for medicine. At present, there are four classes in which the young novic­es study medi­cine, Tibetan and some debate. An old Kalmyk doctor teaches trad­ition­al Tibe­to-Mon­golian medicine.