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Buddhism in Mongolia

Submitted by Dr. Nilza Wangmo

India and Mongolia share warm and cordial bilateral relations with the year 2022 marking the 67th anniversary of diplomatic ties between India and Mongolia. The bilateral relationship was upgraded to a Strategic Partnership during the historic visit of Prime Minister in 2015. The 3 Ds – Democracy, Dharma and Development Partnership have emerged as the pillars of India Mongolia relationship. Historically, the two nations have connected through Buddhism that has developed, nurtured and promoted the friendship and spiritual bond.

Buddhism came to Mongolia in three phases. The first phase began during the time of the Indian Emperor Ashoka in third century BCE. Ashoka had extended his Buddhist influence northward all the way to the city of Khotan. Khotan was the westernmost region of Mongolia from where Buddhism gradually spread eastward to the Mongolian Gobi kingdoms along the Silk Route.

In 1206 CE under the ruler Genghis Khan, a united Mongolian state of nomadic tribes was formed, and his successors controlled a vast empire that included much of China, Russia, Central Asia, and the Middle East. During this the second phase of Buddhism began when Genghis Khan’s grandson Emperor Kublai Khan adopted Tibetan Buddhism and promoted Tibetan Guru Chogyal Pakpa/ Phagpa lama (known to Mongols today as Pakpa Lama). An easy form of the Tibetan script for use in all territories took place under his rule. This script, known as the Pakyig, continued as the script of choice by the Mongol emperors who came thereafter, and was in common use in Mongol Buddhism. The Mongolian Khans of Yuan dynasty adopted Tibetan Buddhism over other religions and honoured Skya-pa lamas as their supreme religious instructor.

Buddhist stupa in Mongolia
Buddhist stupa in Mongolia

The third phase referred as The Origins of Dharma in Mongolia, refers to the Yellow Hat School Movement that was inspired by the Third Dalai Lama’s travels in the Mongol regions from 1578 under the patronage of Altan Khan. Interestingly, the Dalai Lama was not known by the name “Dalai” at the time rather was known as Jey Tamchey Khyenpa, or “The Omniscient Master.” The Third carried the ordination name of Sonam Gyatso. When he arrived in Hohhot, the then southern capital of Mongolia, Altan Khan translated the “Gyatso” part of his name into Mongolian. Thus Gyatso became Dalai, and Jey Tamchey Khyenpa became “Dalai Lama Dorjechang.”

With the collapse and split of the Mongol empire, northern Mongolia was colonized by Qing (Manchu) China from 1691 onwards. With the fall of the Qing in 1911, control of Mongolia lay in the hands of Bogd Gegeen (or Javzandamba) or Bogd Khan (Mongolia’s religious leader) but only autonomy under China’s suzerainty was achieved. He became the Head of State and declared Mongolia’s independence. He is ranked third in the ecclesiastical hierarchy after the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama, From 1919, nationalist revolutionaries, with Soviet assistance, drove out Chinese troops attempting to reoccupy Mongolia, and in 1921 they expelled the invading White Russian cavalry. The Mongolian People’s Republic was proclaimed in November 1924, and the Mongolian capital, centred on the main monastery of the Bogd Gegeen was renamed Ulaanbaatar (“Red Hero”). During the 1930s the ruling revolutionary party, which espoused atheism, destroyed or closed monasteries, confiscated their livestock and landholdings, induced large numbers of monks (lamas) to renounce religious life, and killed those who resisted. Robert Rupen reports that in the 1920s there were over 112,000 Mongolian Buddhist monks, representing more than 13% of Mongolia’s overall population. By the 1940s, nearly every monk was either dead or had apostatized. The end of one-party rule in 1990 allowed for the popular resurgence of Tibetan Buddhism, the rebuilding of ruined monasteries and temples, and the rebirth of the religious vocation.

The contemporary phase of Buddhism in Mongolia that built strong ties between India and Mongolia was with the 19th Kushok Bakula Rinpoche, also known as Ngawang Lobzang Thupstan Chognor, a Buddhist Lama from Ladakh who was designated as Ambassador of India to Mongolia in 1990 until 2000. He was recognized by the 13th Dalai Lama as the reincarnation of Bakula Arhat, one of the 16 Arhats who, as per legend, were direct disciples of Gautama Buddha. During his stay in Mongolia he spread Buddha’s teaching extensively among the locals in Mongolia. During this period, Kushok Bakula also reinforced Buddhism in different autonomous Republics of Russia which are located close to the Mongolian border, such as Buryatia, Kalmykia and Tuva. In August 1993, under his initiative the Government of India brought the Holy Buddha Relics at National Museum in New Delhi to Ulaanbaatar for an exposition. A recipient of Padma Bhushan in 1988, the late Bakula Rinpoche remains the most prominent Buddhist leader in independent India. However, it was his contribution to the revival of Buddhism in Mongolia as an Indian diplomat following the collapse of the Soviet Union that genuinely stands out. President of Mongolia P. Ochirbat (1992-97) stated, “Bakula Rinpoche was indeed a statesman, a diplomat and a Buddhist clergy who carved out his niche in the history of Mongolia. Ambassador Rinpoche had recognized the historical necessity of developing Mongolia’s national culture to restore the glory of Buddhism, an inseparable part of its cultural heritage”.

Holy Relics of Buddha displayed at the Batsagaan Temple
Holy Relics of Buddha displayed at the Batsagaan Temple

On the auspicious occasion of the Buddha Purnima being observed in Mongolia on 14 June 2022, an 11-day exposition of the sacred Buddha Relics (Piprahwa relics) for the second time will take place in Mongolia. A  25-member delegation led by Indian Union Minister for Law and Justice, Shri Kiren Rijiju will take the Holy Buddha Relics will leave for Mongolia by a special Indian Air Force Aircraft. The Holy Buddha Relics will be displayed at the Batsagaan Temple within the premises of the Ganden Monastery. 

Today, Buddhism has been promoted by cultural and literary contacts between the people of India and Mongolia. This long-standing friendship between the two nations grounded on the teachings of the Buddha will grow stronger into the future.

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