The Situation of Buddhism in Mongolia 1994

A Brief History of Buddhism in Mongolia

The Mongol­ians have restarted about 120 monasteries, and now there are many young novices studying. The most important ones are Gan­den Thekcho­ling, Tashi Choling, Erdene Zuu (Tib.: Rinchen Jowo), Shankh and Amar­bayasgalan (Tib.: Dewar Gawa). Their histories are as follows.

After Altan Khan adopted Tibetan Buddhism, he bestowed upon Sonam Gyatso the title Dalai Lama, with “dalai” being the Mongolian translation of “gyatso,” meaning “ocean.” Thus, Sonam Gyatso became the Third Dalai Lama. Together with Altan Khan, he founded Ikh Khure (Chin. Dazhao Si 大召寺) in 1579 in Hohhot (Mong. Köke Khota), the first Gelug monaste­ry in what would later become known as “Inner Mongolia” under the Manchus. Altan Khan then died in 1583.

Shortly afterwards, Abdai (A­ftasain) Khan of the Khalkhas r­equested the Third Dalai Lama to come to Khalkha (present Outer Mongo­lia) and es­tablish a temple/mo­nastery there as well. The Third Dalai Lama sent a Sakya Lama and in 1586, Abdai Khan built Erdene Zuu at the site of the ancient capital Karak­orum (Mong. Kharkhorum). Kara­korum had been the capital of the Mongol Empire in the thir­teenth cen­tury, from the time of the rule of Chinggis Khan’s son Ogedei until it was destroyed by Khubilai (Kublai) Khan and the capital shift­ed to Shangdu (Mong. Šandu) in Inner Mongolia, near the border of China close to Beijing. At first, Erdene Zuu had mere­ly a temple and a stupa, and was not an active monastery with monks.

The First Jetsundamba, known in Mongolia by his Mongolian name, Zanabazar, was born near Erdene Zuu in 1635. He was the great-grand­son of Abdai Khan, parallel to the Fourth Dalai Lama having been born in 1589 as the great-grand­son of Altan Khan. In 1648, the First Jetsundamba organized his first pray­ers at the site of present-day Shankh Monastery, 22 km from Erdene Zuu. He founded Baruun (West, Right) Khure there, which was the first active Gelug monastery in Khalkha with monks. Short­ly afterwards, monks began to live at Erdene Zuu as well.

Baruun Khure eventually had 1,500 monks in seven datsang divi­sio­ns: Chora for debate, Gyu-pa for tantra, Men-pa for medi­cine, Du-­khor for Kalachakra, Zolkhai for astrology, Aivid for Amita­bha and Maitrin for Maitreya. It had four major temples for monks from four provinces (Mong.: Aimak). Erdene Zuu eventu­ally had 1,000 monks, with four datsang divi­sions: Tsen-nyi for de­bate, Gyu-pa for tantra, Du-khor for Kalachakra and Zolkhai for as­tro­logy. It had six major temples for monks from six provin­ces.

In 1654, after he returned from Tibet, the First Jetsun­damba founded Dzuun (East, Left) Khure, also known as Ikh (Great) Khure, as a mobile structure on carts, but this was subsequently des­troyed in 1688 by the invading Dzungar troops. After he then submitted to the Manchu Kangxi Emperor in 1694 at Dolo­nor, 30 km from Khublai Khan's capital Shangdu, Kangxi built Dolonor Monastery there, parallel to Erdene Zuu having been built next to the older capital Karakorum. Dzuun Khure was reconstructed in 1706, also as a mobile structure.

The First Jetsundamba died in Beijing in 1723, and the Kangxi Emperor wished to build a stationary, permanent monastery in Khalkha for his re­mains, which had been housed in the mobile Dzuun Khure. The next Manchu emperor, Yongzheng, built Amar­bayas­galant for this very purpose. It was completed in 1736, the first year of the reign of the Manchu Qianlong Emperor. In 1778, Dzuun Khure was settled permanently in what became known as Urga, present-day Ulaan Baatar, and in that same year the re­mains of the First Jetsundamba were moved to Amarbayasgalant.

At first, Dzuun Khure in Urga was both a monastery and town togeth­er, but soon the monastery was separated from the town since there had been too much commerce surrounding it. Later, in the mid-nineteenth century, because the Fifth Jetsundamba felt there was again too much commerce around the monastery, he moved slightly further away five of the thirteen Datsangs of Dzuun Khure, namely the three Tsen-nyi Datsangs for debate according to the three main Gelug textbook traditions, as well as the Kalachakra and Chenrezig Datsangs, and called it Ganden Thekchol­ing.

All of these monasteries were either partially or totally destroyed in 1937. In 1946, Ganden Thekcholing was re-opened as a token symbol, and in the early 1970s a Lamas’ Training College for monks was opened there. Erdene Zuu was repaired in the 1960s and 70s, and reopened as a monastery in 1990. Baruun Khure was also reopened in 1990 on the grounds of the smaller Phuntsog Dhargyeling Monastery that had been establish­ed by the Fifth Jetsundampa to perform certain Nyingma ritu­als that most likely derived from the Fifth Dalai Lama. It was re­named Shankh Soma. Dzuun Khure was restarted in 1991 and re­named Tashi Choling. Amarbayasgalant was also re­cently re­novated and reopened.

The Present Situation 1994

(1) Ganden Thek­cho­ling now has about 300 monks, only a few of whom are celibate. Here, as at the other monas­teries in Mongo­lia, the majority of monks still go home to their wives and chil­dren at night, and drink vodka. They receive a govern­ment salary and pension, and so re­gard being a monk and doing rituals as merely a job.

Ganden Thekcholing still maintains its Lamas’ Training College for the study of language and debate, but has renamed it the Ganden Religious Buddhist School. It has 100 stu­dents, including several from Buryatia. Several Tibetans from Dharam­sala, such as Yeshe Lodro Rinpo­che, had been teaching there, but none are there at pre­sent (in 1994). They have also started a Preliminary School (Tib.: Ngondro Lobdra) to teach young new monks to read Tibetan. They are presently re­building Tashi Chophel, the Tsen-­nyi Datsang for the Jamyang Zheypa text­books. They have plans to rebuild the other two debate da­tsangs, Yige Chodze­ling for the text­books of Jetsunpa and Kunga Choling for the Pan­chen textbooks.

Furthermore, they have built a new Du-khor (Kalachakra) Datsang and temple, and have three monks teach­ing there from Nam­gyal Monastery in Dhara­msala. They have opened a Men-pa Datsang for medicine, with fifteen monks, two doctors and two teachers. They are repairing the Chen­rezig Tem­ple and are hoping to restart the Chenrezig Datsang. With the help of the Mongolian Associ­ation of Belie­vers, they have built a Lam-rim Datsang, with 30 monks study­ing “Lam-rim chen-mo.” ­Later this year at this datsang, they are planning to start a class in Lam-rim for laypeopl­e, but they currently have serious financial problems for buying books and do not yet have a teacher who has time. Scholars at Ganden Thekcholing are translating “Lam-rim Ser-zhun-ma” (Lam-rim gser-zhun-ma, The Essence of Refined Gold) into colloquial Khalkha Mongolian, in preparation for His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s visit in September 1994 and teaching of this text.

(2) Tashi Choling has 100 monks who are mostly married, and who study Tibetan, English, rituals, Lam-rim and a little debate. The Abbot of Ganden Thekcho­ling is the organi­zational, al­though not administrative head of the 120 new monasteries in Mongolia. Tashi Choling, howev­er, remains separate from this umbrella. ­

(3) Erdene Zuu now has 40 monks, only five of whom are celi­bate, full monks. The rest are married, come for daily pujas and prayers from 11am to 3pm, and then go home to their families. The monks have only the Tibetan-style Labrang Dechen Yangtse (bLa-brang bDe-chen yang-rtse), while the three Chinese style temples are still run as museums. At present, the 31 year old Frenchman, Mili Rinpoche, who had been recognized as the reincarnation of Geshe Sherab Zangpo of Sera Me, is living at Erdene Zuu. As the monks do not seem to have any instruction other than in chanting ritu­als, he has started teaching them, beginning with the “Lama Nga-chupa” (bLa-ma lnga-bcu-pa, Fifty Stanzas on the Guru). The Mongol monks have respect for him and listen to his teachings because he is a Rinpoche, but he has studied very little him­self. His main Lama is Gangchen Rinpoche, who brought him to Mongolia and presented him as a Rinpoche. Gangchen Rinpoche is one of the main proponents of the controversial protector Shugden. Many new monasteries wanted Mili Rinpoche as their abbot, but he declined.

(4) Shankh has 53 monks, one old ruined temple and two new ones. The monks perform tantric rituals and recite pray­ers.

(5) Amarbayasgalant is currently being renova­ted. ­The previ­ous Gonsar Rinpo­che had been its abbot for 40 years. In 1993, the present Gonsar Rinpoche was again enthron­ed as the new abbot. He is also a major proponent of the protector Shugden. ­­

(6) Manjsheer Khiid, at Zomut outside Ulaan Baatar, has been reopened as a museum.

(7) Men-pa Datsang has about ten students and runs a medical clinic. They are building a facility that will house its tem­ple, medical school, clinic and offices.

(8) The Asian Buddhist Conference for Peace (ABCP), ­­­formerly a communist puppet organization, has lost most of its financing and is maintaining minimal programs on a small budget from its branch in Japan. They have almost no activi­ties.

(9) Bakula Rinpoche, the present Indian Ambassador to Mongolia, started the private Bakula Reli­gious School in 1992 at the Na­tsogdorj Munici­pal Library. This school has had 42 students, ten of whom have gone to India, with 20 others from the Mongo­lian monaste­ries, to continue their mona­stic study. The stu­dents, who are bet­ween the ages of 15 and 20, study Tibetan, classi­cal Mon­golian, English, handwriting and basic Dharma, in prepa­ra­tion for becoming monks. The boys all become Barma Rabjung (Intermediate Forsakers of the House­holders’ Life), the stage prior to becoming getsul novice monks, which Bakula Rin­poche began as a custom in Lad­akh with the permis­sion of His Holi­ness the Dalai Lama. Thus, the boys take full genyen layman’s vows, inclu­ding celibacy, the wearing of robes and the changing of their name. They forsake living at home, smoking and drinking alco­hol. Chagdo Rinpoche from India is presently teaching at this school.

(10) Bakula Rinpoche also founded the two Ani Gonpa nun­neries, for women from two different parts of the country, and the Genyenma Laywoman’s Center. Previously there had been no tradition of nuns in Mongo­lia. Now there are eleven getsulma novice nuns, four of whom are young.


Besides alcoholism and economic disaster, one of the biggest problems in Mongolia currently is the influx of aggressive American Mormon and Baptist missionaries. They initially come to teach English and then offer money and aid for people’s children to study in America if they convert. Beautifully printed, free booklets written in the colloquial Mongolian language on Jesus and Christianity are passed out, and they show films. The Buddhists simply cannot compete. As yet, there are no books on Buddhism in the colloquial language, only in the classical language, there is hardly anyone who could make such translations, and no money to print such books, even if they were made. Thus, young people and intellectuals are being drawn to Christianity, which they now associate with modernity. The efforts of the Ganden Abbot to have the Third Dalai Lama’s “Lam-rim ser-zhun-ma” translated into colloquial Mongolian is a beginning to meet this challenge.