Dalai Lama's Visit To Mongolia

The following article is from the Spring, 1992 issue of the Snow Lion Newsletter and is for historical reference only. You can see this in context of the original newsletter here.

by Celia Wright

Without the Mongols there might be no Dalai Lama today, in name at least. The lineage of the Dalai Lama has been linked with Mongolia for over four hundred years and the name Dalai (Great Ocean) is itself Mongolian. When the powerful Mongol chief Altan Khan converted to Tibetan Buddhism in 1578, he conferred the title on his teacher, Sonam Gyatso, who subsequently beame known as the Third Dalai Lama.

Although officially independent, Outer Mongolia was from 1921 until last year a protectorate of Soviet Russia. During those seventy years the practice of Tibetan Buddhism was brutally suppressed. Under Stalin's orders as many as 100,000 monks were executed and all but two of the hundreds of monasteries destroyed. Yet in 1990, in the wave of anti-communism that swept across Russia and Eastern Europe, Mongolia became a democratic country and the people were once again free to practice Buddhism.

In celebration of this new state of affairs, His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama was to visit Ulan Bator, the capital of the People's Republic of Mongolia, in June of 1991. For the people of this huge country, this was to be a historic moment marking their new freedom and the reconsecration of their practice of Buddhism.

But the Dalai Lama's visit was opposed by the Chinese government, which threatened to deny Mongolia the use of Chinese ports if the Dalai Lama was received in the capital. This was a crippling threat since the country is landlocked, and the Dalai Lama's proposed visit was finally cancelled by a nervous Mongolian government.

When we arrived in September we found a country close to starvation, the people desperate and demoralized. The withdrawal of Russia's support and the difficulty of changing to a market economy, which no one really understood, had led to severe shortages of everything. The shelves in the food stores were empty and the faces in the streets, red from cheap vodka, suggested hopelessness and apathy. The new 'democracy' which people had expected to solve all their problems had turned out to involve very hard work and a long-term commitment; the corruption of the old system was still in place barely beneath the surface.

At such a point of crisis in Mongolia's history, the revival of Tibetan Buddhism is clearly critical to bring back spirit and morale. But the surviving lamas are pitifully few, most of them in their eighties, with little time left to teach the new student monks before they die. Rebuilding the monasteries is another problem. The country has no money and produces very little. For now, many monasteries are functioning as they can in yurts, the traditional Mongol round tents made of felt or wood.

We found one such monastery being rebuilt amid the high-rise Russian-built apartments of the capital, Ulan Bator. Tashichoeling, or the Eastern Monastery, is literally being planted on top of what has been a childrens' playground since the original monastery was erased in the thirties.

Orange and yellow wooden yurts were being finished and decorated when we arrived. Sewing machines were whirring away inside the yurt-temple as monks and lay supporters lined the walls with orange and yellow materials and set up a throne. Fresh thangkas were being hung from the newly painted red beams, and a small modern Buddha had its place on the altar. Outside, the whole compound was alive with excited yellow-robed monks, most of them teenagers and some not more than seven or eight years old. Later they packed themselves into their temple and began chanting sutras with the familiar accompaniment of cymbals, drums and horns.

The Khambo Lama (the abbot), an intelligent middle-aged man with bright eyes and a warm manner, had spent time in Dharamsala and spoke some English. He had been one of the few Mongolians allowed to continue his practice of Buddhism. He had studied at a Buddhist college in Inner Mongolia (part of China), and Sri Lanka before returning to serve under the head lama of Ganden Monastery, the main monastery of Mongolia and one of the few to survive if only as a museum. Now he has been given Tashichoeling, the Eastern Monastery, to build up from scratch.

Buddhism had a very hard time under communism, he told us. The worst time was in the 1930s when the lamas were purged and the monasteries destroyed. But communism couldn't destroy Buddhism. It remained hidden in people's minds and hearts. The people continued practicing it, continued their devotion to the Buddha. Otherwise it would not have been possible to revive it in such a short time. Within one short year, about 120 monasteries have been opened and the number of monks has increased to about 2,000.

Just how much Buddhist practice had been possible under such a repressive regime? Were they able to study the more advanced tantra, for instance? Oh yes, said the Khambo Lama, throughout the time of communism such practices as the Kalachakra Tantra and Highest Yoga Tantra continued, although secretly of course. Sutra was also practiced right through that time.''

And the revival of Buddhism nowwas it for the people as a whole or was it aimed at those seriously wishing to pursue enlightenment? It's really for spreading elementary Buddhist education among the people, he said. In a time when there are not enough trained lamas it is very difficult to concentrate on educating the tulkus. But Buddhism could be spread among the people again and I am optimistic because it has been the national religion.

What about the tulkus? I asked. Apart from the Jebtsun-damba Khutuktu (the reincarnate lama and political leader whose next incarnation was not searched for after he died in the 1920s), were there any other reincarnating lines of lamas in Mongolia? No, he said. There are no recognized tulkus in Mongolia at the moment. To review the reincarnation of tulkus there are certain rules, he explained, and when the time or opportunity is right, the Dalai Lama will be asked to do it.

And the Jebtsundamba Khutuktu himself? Was it true that his reincarnation was known? Did the abbot think he might return to Mongolia? Well, he said, his reincarnation is thought to be living in India. Some people believe it and some don't. Whether to accept certain tulkus back to Mongolia will be up to the people to decide.

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A Yuri Temple of the Eastern Monastery, Ulan Bator.

Two days later, on September 27th, 1991, the Dalai Lama himself arrived in Mongolia. The government found a formula they hoped would work, separating spiritual from secular, and allowing virtually no publicity of the visit within the country. But the people turned out in thousands, thronging the approach road to Ganden Monastery, and forcing the security police to smuggle His Holiness into the monastery by another route. When the Dalai Lama at last appeared on the platform high up on the wall of the monastery, the crowd was delirious with happiness.

The next morning before dawn he came again to Ganden to conduct a special ceremony. As he stepped into the temple the Dalai Lama gave a deep laugh at the sight of so many monks packed into every last inch of the colorful interior. Halfway to the front the yellow sea of lamas paused. His Holiness prostrated three times as aged lamas shook their heads at each other and wiped tears from their eyes. It had been only three days since they had feared he might never step on Mongolian soil in their lifetime. Now here he was prostrating himself where they walked every day. But he had come to be with the people too. Twice that day he sat in the hot sun of a huge sports stadium and spoke to the crowd through a translator. The crowd was huge, perhaps three or four hundred thousand, almost a quarter of the whole country's population. Some were close to the loudspeakers, some were not. It did not seem to matter. They drank him in. Some knelt on the ground holding traditional blue scarves above their heads as offerings. Many, both men and women, had newly shaven heads. Others had come with their children and relatives simply to be present at such a historic occasion.

Later, His Holiness spoke about his plan for the development of Buddhism. Because society has changed so completely, he said, Buddhism must change too. The general public used to be content to call themselves Buddhist when they had very little real knowledge. Now they should be more educated about Buddhism. He also envisaged a smaller number of monks and nuns in the future, but of greater knowledge and wisdom. And they should participate in more social programs such as education and health, he said.

It was the Khambo Lama of the Eastern Monastery who had told us that the Dalai Lama was about to visit. Just how important was such a visit for Mongolia? we asked. Well, he said, in every religious country the religious leaders bring a kind of blessing to the whole nation. The Dalai Lama's visit would be very important for the harmony and stablization of the whole national situation.

The Khambo Lama of the Eastern Monastery would like to be in touch with Buddhist groups or individuals in America and England for communication and support. He would also welcome visitors. His fledgling monastery also urgentiy needs funds, although he was far too polite to say so directly. If you would like to be in touch or help in any way, please contact the Ven. C. Dambajav, Khambo Lama, Tashichoeling Monastery, Ulan Bator, Mongolia. Phone 72800. (The mail to Mongolia is slow.)

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