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 Mey, 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.