History of Buddhism in Mongolia

The Influence of Tibetan Culture

Tibetan culture, along with its religion, language, art, medicine and astrology, has been one of the main civilizations in Central Asia, playing a role similar to the one Roman culture and language played in the West. In Asia, Tibetan culture has influenced the following peoples, regions and countries:

  • The Himalayan regions of Ladakh, Lahaul, Spiti, Kinnaur, Nepal, Sikkim, Bhutan and Arunachal.
  • The Mongols:
    • Central Mongols of Outer and Inner Mongolia and Amdo
    • Western Mongols of Kalmykia (Volga River), Xinjiang, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan
    • Buryats
  • The Manchus
  • Northern China
  • The Turks of Tuva
  • The Yellow Uighurs of Gansu.

Historically, Tibetan culture has also had a large influence on:

  • The Uighurs in Xinjiang
  • The Tanguts in the area between Amdo and Inner Mongolia.

Here, we shall focus on the Central Mongols, as they are the largest group of all of the above. Since Tibetan Buddhism was transmitted to them and other non-Tibetan groups long before it came to the West, there are many lessons we can learn from their experiences.

The First Transmission

Traditionally, in relation to the transmission of Buddhism into Mongolia, Mongol historians speak of three separate waves. The first spread of Buddhism occurred before the mid-13th century, prior to the reign of Kublai Khan.

Through the Sogdians, Kucheans, and Khotanese, both the Hinayana and Mahayana forms of Buddhism had spread into Central Asia as early as the 1st century CE, and from there it also spread to China. Although some scholars maintain that some Buddhism was already introduced into Mongolia with the Xiongnu Empire, this would have been very minor during this early period. During the Turkic Khaganate (552-744 CE), Chinese and Indian monks translated both Hinayana and Mahayana texts into Old Turkic from Sogdian, Kuchean and Chinese. Access to these however would have been limited to the court, not to the Mongols themselves. During the Uighur Empire (from the mid-9th to the mid-13th centuries CE), there were also translations into Uighur of mostly Mahayana texts from the Sogdian, Chinese and Tibetan languages. Again, Buddhism was mostly limited to the Uighur nobility, although the Uighur translations influenced the development of Mongolian Buddhism.

This first transmission of Buddhism into Mongolia came from Central Asia, and although it may have started as early as the 1st century CE, the most important source of this transmission was the Turkic Uighur Empire, which ruled Mongolia from the mid-9th century until they were overthrown by Chinggis Khan (1162-1227), who succeeded in unifying the Mongols in the early 13th century.

The Second Transmission

The second transmission of Buddhism into Mongolia occurred during the time of the Mongolian Empire established by the sons and grandsons of Chinggis Khan.

Chinggis Khan was tolerant of all religions as long as they prayed for his military success, and throughout his life is it known that he consulted with Buddhist and Taoist monks, Muslims, and Nestorian Christian missionaries. Chinggis Khan only destroyed those civilizations that were opposed to him, and the Uighurs and Tibetans made no attempt to fight back. Chinggis Khan decreed the adoption of the Uighur script, borrowed his administrative structure from the Uighurs, and also used Uighurs themselves as administrators. Thus, the first exposure to Buddhism that actually reached the Mongol rulers and nobility themselves was from the Uighur tradition. This therefore influenced the style of translating Buddhist texts into Mongolian, which is also related to Turkic languages.

The sons and grandsons of Chinggis Khan invited Tibetan lamas, mostly from the Sakya, Karma and Drikung Kagyu, and Nyingma traditions to their courts. Most active at the Mongol court were the Second Karmapa (Karma Pakshi, 1204-1283) and Sakya Pandita (1182-1251). Karma Pakshi declined Kublai Khan’s (1215-1294) request to reside permanently at the Mongol court, and instead sided with his brother, Möngke Khan (1209-1259). Möngke and Kublai later engaged in a succession struggle, which was won by Kublai, who went on to become the Grand Khan of the Mongols and the founding Emperor of the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) of China. Kublai ordered Karma Pakshi to be arrested and sent into exile, while he invited Sakya Pandita to give teachings at the court.

There is much debate as to why Kublai Khan chose Tibetan Buddhism as the official state religion, and the exact reasons behind giving Sakya Pandita political administrative rule over Tibet. In deciding the state religion for the new Mongol Khanates, debates were held between Chinese Daoists and Tibetan Buddhists, but it is hard to imagine that the militaristic Mongols were merely won over by the logic and philosophical sophistication of the Sakyas. The most plausible reasoning is that the Mongols were impressed by the power of the protector, Mahakala. Mahakala was the main protective deity of the Tanguts, who had defeated and killed Chinggis Khan in battle, and thus the Mongols were deeply impressed by the deity. Karma Pakshi himself was noted for supernatural powers and he was a practitioner of Mahakala, as well as a teacher of the Tanguts. Karma Pakshi had however backed the losing Mongol side, and since the Sakyas themselves also had a strong Mahakala tradition, it seems that Kublai Khan wished for the support of Mahakala through supporting Sakya Pandita, especially with his aim of invading Southern China.

Sakya Pandita brought with him his nephew, Drogon Chogyal Phagpa (1235-1280), and became the main teacher of Kublai Khan, even bestowing upon him the initiations of Hevajra and Chakrasamvara. He built several monasteries and began the translation of the Kangyur and some Indian and Tibetan texts from Tibetan into Mongolian. The first text to be translated was Shantideva’s Bodhisattvacaryavatara. Meanwhile, Phagpa developed a second script for writing Mongolian that became known as the Phagpa script, and was easier to use than the Uighur one for transliterating Sanskrit and Tibetan. The Mongols were already well acquainted with Uighur Buddhism and because their Uighur translations included many transliterated Sanskrit terms, as other Central Asian languages had done, the Mongols translated many of the Tibetan terms back into Sanskrit, keeping some Tibetan transliterated terms. This can teach us a lesson about using some Sanskrit and Tibetan terms in Western languages, since in the West we are already familiar with many terms from the first spread of Theravada Pali Buddhism to the West.

The Third Transmission

With the fall of the Yuan dynasty in the mid-15th century, the Mongols became divided and weak, and since Buddhism had only been practiced among the aristocracy, Buddhism too became weak, although it did not disappear.

In the mid-16th century, Altan Khan (1507-1582) of the Southern branch of Central Mongols, a descendent of Kublai Khan, tried to revive Mongol strength and unification. In order to establish his legitimacy, he invited the most prominent lama of the day, Sonam Gyatso (1543-1588), to be their main teacher. He declared himself to be the reincarnation of Kublai Khan, and Sonam Gyatso the reincarnation of Phagpa, bestowing upon him the title of Dalai Lama (the third, in order to legitimize a reincarnation lineage). The Third Dalai Lama founded several monasteries south of the Gobi dessert, in an area that is now the western part of Inner Mongolia, and in Amdo, which had a mixed Mongol and Tibetan population. He was also requested to found a monastery north of the Gobi (now outer Mongolia), and he sent a representative who did so. After his passing, the great grandson of Altan Khan was named the Fourth Dalai Lama, Yontan Gyatso (1589-1617), with Losang Chokyi Gyaltsen (1570-1662) as his tutor.

The Manchus

The rise of the Manchus as a power began in the early 17th century, and they came into contact with Buddhism through the Mongols and Tibetans. After conquering parts of Mongolia, they created Inner Mongolia as a base for conquering China. They adopted the Mongolian alphabet for writing Manchu, which is a related language.

Meanwhile, an almost century-long civil war had been raging in Central Tibet, between U and Tsang. The Karma Kagyupas (the Shamarpas) and the Jonangpas (a branch of the Sakyas) acted as advisors to the kings of Tsang, while Gelugpas were advisors to the kings of U. At the end of the first quarter of the 17th century, Losang Chokyi Gyaltsen, who after the death of the Fourth Dalai Lama in 1617 continued as the tutor of the Fifth Dalai Lama (1617-1682), recognized in north Mongolia the great grandson of Abdai Khan (1554-1588), a descendent of Chinggis Khan, as a Gelug reincarnation of Taranatha (head of the Jonangpa school). This was a political move that neutralized the power of the Jonangpas in Tsang, by no longer having the head of the Jonangpas acting as advisors to the king of Tsang. By this time, southern Mongolia, the power base of the Altan Khan family, was under Manchu control and so by choosing a boy in the family of Abdai Khan of northern Mongolia, U also arranged a close political allegiance for themselves. Losang Chokyi Gyaltsen and the Fifth Dalai Lama brought the boy to Tibet for studies. In the mid-17th century, Gushri Khan (1582-1655) of the Khoshut Mongols in Amdo defeated the King of Tsang and set up the Fifth Dalai Lama as the administrative and spiritual head of Tibet, while around the same time, the Manchus conquered China and established the Qing dynasty (1644-1912). The Fifth Dalai Lama conferred the title Panchen on his tutor, Losang Chokyi Gyaltsen, and on his three previous incarnations, thus making him the Fourth Panchen Lama.

The Fourth Panchen Lama and Fifth Dalai Lama, with Gushri Khan’s backing, made the Jonangpa monastery in Tsang into a Gelug monastery, and made the Taranatha incarnation the first Bogdo Khan (Jebtsundampa, 1635-1723), the spiritual and administrative head of Mongolia, sending him back to northern Mongolia. The first Bogdo Khan (Bogdo Gegen, Zanabazar) was a renowned statue-maker and innovator. He changed the monk’s robes to long-sleeved maroon chubas (deel), which is just like the lay chuba, but the inside of the rolled up sleeves are blue. This shows us a precedent for the adaptation of the monastic robes for the West. By this time, most of the Kangyur had been translated into Mongolian, and the Mongols were chanting some rituals in the Mongolian language, which was very crucial for the transmission of Buddhism to the larger public.

The Manchus were continually afraid that the Mongols would unite and overthrow them and so, although on the outside they stated that the Manchus, Tibetans and Mongols were brothers in a form of Buddhism that is different from that of the Chinese, they still worked to sabotage any Mongol power and to separate Buddhism from Mongol nationalism.

At the end of the 17th century, the Manchus invaded northern Mongolia and Bogdo Khan surrendered. In order to weaken the Mongols and to prevent their reunification, the Manchus decided to create and maintain two separate Mongol states – Outer and Inner Mongolia. As an alternative center from Outer Mongolia, which was the seat of the Bogdo Khans, the Manchus established a monastery at Dolon Nor in Inner Mongolia as the spiritual center, where Bogdo Khan had surrendered. Changkya Rinpoche (1717-1786) was appointed as the spiritual head of Inner Mongolia in order to weaken the power of the Bogdo Khans, and he spent half his time in Beijing. All Mongol lamas from both Outer and Inner Mongolia had to be trained at Dolon Nor. Just as Bogdo Khan’s first monastery was outside the capital of Chinggis Khan, Dolon Nor also lay just outside Shangdu (Xanadu), the capital of Kublai Khan when he had ruled China. Furthermore, the Manchus established Jehol (modern day Chengde) in southern Manchuria as an alternative to Lhasa, complete with replicas of the Potala Palace and so forth.

From the Third Bogdo Khan (1758-1773) onwards, the Manchus forbade the Bogdo Khan from being found from within a Mongol family, especially since the first two had been in the family of Chinggis Khan; they allowed the reincarnation to be found among Tibetans only. While the Manchus did sponsor a translation of the Kangyur and Tengyur into Mongolian, they encouraged the use of Tibetan in rituals, in order to promote ‘unity’ among the Mongols, Tibetans and Manchus. The Manchus also created a Manchu version of the Kangyur, which had titles listed as if they had been translated from Tibetan, whereas they’d actually been translated from Chinese. There were also two token Manchu monasteries, even if the Manchus were not allowed to adopt Buddhism for fear of them aligning themselves with the Mongols.

The monasteries in Amdo and Inner and Outer Mongolia had tulkus, which were often given the title of Khutugtu by the Manchus, to mark them as administrative heads to collect taxes. Each year, they would visit Beijing, and the term ‘living Buddha’ was coined so that people would readily obey them and pay their taxes.

20th Century

Tibet and Mongolia maintained a close relationship, and in the beginning of the 20th century, when the Manchus/Chinese invaded Tibet due to a conflict of interest there between the British, Russian and Manchu Chinese empires, the Thirteenth Dalai Lama (1876-1933) fled into exile for several years in Mongolia. With the Chinese Nationalist Revolution of 1911, and the fall of the Qing Dynasty, the Mongols became free of Manchu interference. While Inner Mongolia was taken over by the Nationalist Chinese under Sun Yat-sen (1866-1925), Outer Mongolia remained under the rule of the Eighth Bogdo Khan (1869-1924), who was married and had many consorts, until 1921. Later, Outer Mongolian monks used his example as an excuse for marrying while still calling themselves monks. Henceforth the discussion will be limited to Outer Mongolia.

Almost all of the monasteries in Outer Mongolia were Gelug, although some Sakya, Kagyu and Nyingma monasteries survived. At that time, there were more than 300 monasteries and in excess of 70,000 monks. Gelug monks who visited Tibet for advanced studies usually went to Gomang at Drepung, though some went to special khamtsan (houses) at Ganden Jangtse, Sera Je and Tashilhunpo. Although there existed a few women practitioners who carried on the Chöd tradition of Machig Drolma, there was no tradition of nuns, not even the novice nuns that Tibet had.

Because of the strong influence of the Fourth Panchen Lama, the Mongol monasteries throughout the Mongol regions and Amdo had a structure similar to that at Tashilhunpo. The monasteries had separate colleges for debate and for tantric rituals. Later, the temples in the monasteries dedicated to specific deity practices inspired the founding of whole colleges devoted specifically to medicine, and to Kalachakra and astrology. Kalachakra was especially popular as Shambhala is said to be located in the north, and since astrology and medicine are so closely related to the Kalachakra practice, there was much more emphasis on their study than in Central Tibet. The Sixth Panchen Lama, following the Amdo and Inner Mongolia models, then founded a Kalachakra college at Tashilhunpo monastery. In the mid-19th century, Sumpa Khenpo Yeshe Paljor, a Mongol scholar in Amdo, had already adapted Tibetan medicine and astrology to the plants and time zone of Mongolia, and thus developed a unique Mongolian variation of these two Tibetan Buddhist sciences. The Mongols were noted for their scholarship, and they wrote a huge number of scholarly commentaries, mostly in Tibetan, although some commentarial texts like to Tsongkhapa’s Lam-rims were written in Mongolian.

Their style of debate relied totally on logical arguments, and unlike the Tibetans, they did not allow scriptural quotation as a valid argument for proving a point. Initially, debate was conducted in Mongolian, but as more and more monks studied in Tibet, the use of Tibetan for debating came into favor. Since the Mongols lacked some Tibetan sounds in their own language, they often pronounced many of the Tibetan phonemes in exactly the same way, and so their debates in Tibetan often became unintelligible and confusing. Therefore, when debating they began to intersperse Mongolian words into a basic Tibetan language framework, while they chanted some of their rituals and prayers in Mongolian, and some they left in Tibetan. This also suggests lessons for how to proceed with our Western languages.


In 1921, the Mongolian Communist Revolution led by Sükhbaatar (1893-1923) overthrew the Bogdo Khan, who then died of syphilis in 1924. After his death, no more reincarnations were searched for in Mongolia, although the Ninth Bogdo Khan (1932-2012) was recognized in Tibet and studied at Drepung. He later disrobed and moved to Dharamsala.

As Stalinist Russia took an increasingly tighter grip over Mongolia, the leaders dropped the traditional Mongolian script and replaced it with the Cyrillic alphabet. Between 1937 and 1939, Stalinists destroyed almost all of the monasteries in Outer Mongolia, and at the end of the Second World War, when the Russians liberated Inner Mongolia and northern China from the Japanese, they also destroyed most of the monasteries in Inner Mongolia. Thus, well before the Chinese Communist Cultural Revolution destroyed the monasteries in Tibet in the late 1960s, the Buddhist monastic system in Mongolia had been destroyed.

In Outer Mongolia, some monasteries remained open as museums, and in 1946 the government opened Gandantehchinlen Monastery in Ulaanbaatar as a showpiece, with a few state-approved married monks, just as Stalin did in Buryatia, the Mongol region of Siberia north of the central and eastern parts of Mongolia. By the 1970s, the government started a 5-year Lamas’ Training College, with the study of dura, lorig and tarig (Collected Topics, Mind and Awareness, and Signs and Reasons), and from the five Geshe subjects, only Prajnaparamita. The monks also studied some Lam-rim, and Russian, Tibetan, Classical Mongolian, a little English, and Marxism. They practiced some debate and rituals, but the so-called monks were married, drank vodka, and wore a Mongol deel at the monastery and normal clothes at home. Some Buryats came for training, but no one from Inner Mongolia.

Since the Fall of Communism

Since the fall of communism in 1990, many monasteries have been reopened and have new monks. While some of them have become celibate, many remain married. The problem is that despite being married, they still perform the sojong vow ritual.

Bakula Rinpoche, who was the Indian ambassador to Mongolia from 1990, opened a strict monastery and sent young monks for training in India. He also opened several nunneries. His Holiness the Dalai Lama has visited Mongolia on several occasions, when he gave the Kalachakra initiation in 1996, opened a small branch of Namgyal monastery, and restarted Kalachakra rituals. He has encouraged stricter adherence to the vinaya (monastic discipline) in Mongolia.

In 2010, the Ninth Bogdo Khan, whose identity had been kept secret due to ongoing persecution of Buddhism in Mongolia, was invited to Mongolia by Gandantegchinlin Monastery and received Mongolian citizenship, and in 2011 he was enthroned as the head of Buddhists in Mongolia, a position he held until his death the following year.

There are also several lay Buddhist associations in Mongolia. The Asian Classics Institute has started cataloguing the huge Mongolian and Tibetan text collections with the State Library. In 1999, Lama Zopa opened an FPMT (Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition) center in Ulaanbaatar.

There is competition with Mormon, Seventh Day Adventist, and Jehovah Witness missionaries. Mongols, because of Russian education and influence over the last 80 years, are now much more Western than they are Tibetan.