Disrupting the Faith?

“Newsweek Magazine” Interview with Dr. Alexander Berzin

Mongolian Buddhism barely survived under decades of Stalinist repression. Now, more than five years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Mongolia's religious traditions could be facing another threat: an invasion of Christian missionaries. Or so says Dr. Alexander Berzin, 52, a prominent American Buddhist and a research fellow originally from Harvard University. He recently toured Mongolia to deliver a series of lectures on the country's ancient faith, a journey that he says allowed him to witness the impact of foreign evangelists. Berzin shared his observations with Newsweek's George Wehrfritz in Beijing. Excerpts:

Newsweek: What prompted your latest visit?

Dr. Berzin: I was invited by the National State University of Mongolia to deliver a series of lectures on Buddhism. The background is that since the fall of the communist regime, there has been a very large influx of American Christian missionaries to Mongolia from various denominations. They are exerting tremendous pressure on the population, particularly the young people, to convert to Christianity. This is extremely disruptive to the process of trying to re-establish Mongolia's traditional culture and religion.

How are missionaries disruptive?

For Mongolia to adapt to a new market economy and democracy, it is very important that people feel self-confident. This sense of self-worth comes from being rooted in one's own culture. So if you take away the former Soviet culture, and in addition take away Mongolia's traditional culture and values, which the missionaries are trying to undermine, people are left with nothing. They feel they are not worthwhile, that everything they've spent their lives on is garbage.

How, specifically, do missionaries undermine Mongolia's traditional values?

They come and say that Mongolia's poverty and backwardness are due to Buddhism. This is simply preposterous when one looks at the development of Buddhist societies in Southeast Asia, Taiwan, South Korea, Japan and Hong Kong. But many Mongolians believe it because they don't have much information about the outside world. Also, the missionaries come in the guise of English teachers. They print free Christian literature in colloquial Mongolian and in English, which attracts language students. They give money, computers to universities, scholarships to children of influential officials. They buy their way in. The Buddhists can't compete.

Why not?

They are still trying to re-establish themselves. Their monasteries were destroyed, some 700 during the Stalin period. The communist government allowed only one monastery to stay open. Now they have restarted 155 monasteries. But the old monks who survive are only able to teach the young monks rituals. They don't have money for printing or translation to colloquial Mongolian. And then, of course, the missionaries have parties for young people, with music and free food – and a heavy hit of proselytizing.

What are they trying to accomplish?

The missionaries sincerely believe that they are saving the souls of these people and bringing them to heaven. In the long run, they could destroy Mongolian society.

How might the Buddhist community respond?

There are various steps. I am involved in a project to translate texts from either Tibetan, English or classical Mongolian into the colloquial language. The other thing which is being done is that His Holiness the Dalai Lama has been sending teachers from India to help re-establish a Buddhist educational system. Mongolia received its form of Buddhism from Tibet, starting in the 13th century. So there is a very long relationship.

Another strategy is to send in American Buddhists like yourself, right?

The missionaries are American, so Mongolian youth get the impression that their Christian zeal is the backbone of Western culture. It isn't as effective for Mongolian or Tibetan Buddhist teachers to challenge this. But as an American, my presence sends another message: that not every American has this missionary zeal, that there are many other religions in the United States and that we draw our strength from many factors besides Christianity.

Is there a place for Christianity in Mongolia?

I'll give an example. The Dalai Lama and the Pope have had a great deal of contact over the years. One of the things they arranged was an exchange of monastics. A number of Catholic monks came to Tibetan Buddhist monasteries in India to learn meditation techniques, in particular how to improve concentration. Likewise, the Dalai Lama sent monks to Christian monasteries to study how they set up orphanages, old-age homes, schools and hospitals. In Tibet, the village and family traditionally took care of these things. But, in exile in India, you don't have the structure anymore, so monasteries need to do this. The Christian monks who went to India certainly did not become Buddhists, nor did the Buddhist monks become Christians. But they were able to learn from each other to enhance their own religions and societies. This type of exchange on the basis of mutual respect has a place in Mongolia.