The Adaptation of Tibetan Buddhism in Mongolia

Dr. Alexander Berzin, an American Buddhologist who resides now at Dharamsala, India, was in Mongolia recently at the invitation of the ABCP Secretary-General. He agreed to give the following interview for Buddhists for Peace.

What is your impression of visiting Mongolia and the Asian Buddhist Conference for Peace (ABCP) Headquarters?

I am very happy and honored to have had the opportunity to visit Mongolia and the ABCP Headquarters. I grew up in the United States, in New Jersey, not too far from the Kalmyk Mongolian community there. The first lama I ever met was the Mongolian Geshe Wangyal in 1967. Ever since then, I have had the great wish to come to Mongolia. In December 1985, I met the Ven. Khambo Lama Gaadan in Bodh Gaya, India, at the occasion of the Kalachakra initiation given by His Holiness the Dalai Lama. At that time, I expressed to him my wish to visit his country. Now this wish has come true.

How do you find Mongolia being as a Buddhist country?

I am deeply impressed with Mongolia. It is especially wonderful to see the Buddhist traditions being upheld so strongly. I have had the opportunity while here to visit not only Ulaanbaatar, but also Erdene Zu Monastery and the villages of Khujirt and Karakhorum. The faith and devotion of both the city and village people in Buddhism is very deep. The enthusiasm of the old, former monks to restart their traditions with the reopening of some of the old monasteries is very moving. I have met with several excellent, well-trained young monks and, based on my impressions of them, I think the future of Buddhism in Mongolia looks very hopeful.

Could you find something interesting for your research work from this visit?

I am deeply involved with the teaching and development of Buddhism around the world, especially with the problems of the translation of the Tibetan tradition and its adaptation to foreign countries and cultures. I have lectured in about thirty-seven countries in North and South America, Western and Eastern Europe, the Soviet Union, Africa, Asia and Australasia. My visit to Mongolia has been extremely helpful for my work. Mongolia was the first country to which the Tibetan tradition of Buddhism spread and was translated. There is a great deal that can be learned from the example of this experience. For instance, there is much discussion in foreign countries about whether Sanskrit terms should be used in translations, whether rituals should be chanted and debates held in Tibetan or in translation, whether the monks' robes can be modified, whether the medical and astrological systems can have further modern developments, and so on. The experiences of the Mongolians with these questions is invaluable for helping other cultures face the same issues. Also, on the level of my own personal research interests, I have been able to learn a great deal about the lineages and spread of the Kalachakra and astrology systems from Tibet into Mongolia.

What do you think of the perspectives for collaborating with ABCP in the future?

I plan to share what I have learned in Mongolia with the various Universities and research institutions, as well as Buddhist centers to which I travel and lecture around the world. The fact that Mongolian medicine has added its own tradition of massage to Tibetan medicine and adopted local herbs to the making of medicines, and the fact that Mongolian astrology has modified the Tibetan system to fit with local conditions will, I am sure, stimulate further research into these areas. Particularly useful will be the experiences of translating the Buddhist scriptures, the Kanjur and Tanjur, from Tibetan into Mongolian, and the traditional methods for teaching young Mongolians the classical Tibetan language. As more people around the world become aware of the Mongolian experience, I think this will stimulate further research. The ABCP plays a very important role in coordinating and making possible such research for the translation and development of Buddhism around the world. I hope that I will be able to continue participating in such projects.

Would you tell us a few words for the readers of BUDDHISTS FOR PEACE?

Buddhism is in a very vital position for being able to help bring about world peace. As His Holiness the Dalai Lama always says, the world needs both material as well as spiritual progress. If there are only material values, then if now we have a bomb that can destroy the world a hundred times and someone develops one that can destroy it a thousand times, that would be progress and would be considered good. But we must also take into consideration the human values. On the other hand, if there is only spiritual development and the people have nothing to eat, this also will not do. Therefore, if Buddhism and science can work hand in hand, there is real hope for lasting peace and happiness in the world.