The Revival of Mongolian Buddhism: a Brief Report By David Urubshurow

The following article is from the Spring, 1993 issue of the Snow Lion Newsletter and is for historical reference only. You can see this in context of the original newsletter here.

Washington, DC, Oct. 19-Mongolia is an ancient land which has always held a special interest for me. This is mostly due to the feet that my ancestors emigrated from its western region in the beginning of the 17th Century and settled on the steppes of the Volga River during one of the last great migrations in Central Asian history. Therefore, when I first had the opportunity to visit Mongolia in 1990 at the invitation of the Prime Minister I was very excited and curious about what I would find.

I was particularly interested in determining how the recent democracy movement had affected the spiritual life in Mongolia and whether the Buddhist revrtfST I had heard of was genuine. On the morning of my first full day I took a ride to Gandan Monastery which sits on a slight rise on the western edge of Ulaanbaatar, the capital.

Along with other worshippers, tourists and the numerous artists arriving to hawk their works, I entered the gates of the monastery's compound and was immediately impressed by the architecture of the few surviving buildings that only hinted at the former beauty and glory that this monastery had known. The main prayer hall was packed with monks chanting the prayers I had once recited as a young novice and disciple of Geshe Wangyal in suburban New Jersey.

The prayer boards outside were being used by young and old alike despite the light frost that still covered them. Dozens of people were circumambulating the main temple pausing only to spin the prayer wheels ringing the building. Monks in their red, orange and maroon colored robes were evident everywhere busily scurrying from one end of the compound to the other, talking with worshippers and feeding the numerous pigeons that covered the courtyard like a carpet.

My impression from this cursory inspection was quite favorable in that everything appeared normal. That is, no one, monk or worshipper, seemed the least bit self-conscious or guarded in their actions and despite the presence of so many tourists (the Monastery is still being used as a museum); there was an atmosphere of easy coexistence and tolerance. I had heard so much about the Communist repression of Buddhism not only in Mongolia but in the Soviet Union that I was expecting somewhat less of a public display of religious practice, especially among the worshippers.

At that time Mongolia was just breaking loose from the economic, intellectual and political shackles of Communist ideology that had bound it for nearly 70 years. Along with the notoriety of having been only the second country after Russia to adopt Communism in 1924, Mongolia had experienced a vicious and unprecedented wave of persecution of religion in the 1930's, which meant, for the most part, the persecution of Buddhism and Buddhists. The practical effect of this campaign was the near total destruction of all centers of worship and the forced renunciation of monastic vews of the clergy and slaughter of those refusing to do so. In the more remote areas of Mongolia temples and monasteries were completely razed and all obvious vestiges of religion obliterated.

The two main exceptions to this eradication campaign were Gandan Monastery and, to a lesser extent, the Erdene Zuu Monastery. Gandan was spared physical destruction but its monks were scattered and forbidden to practice their religion. In the case of the latter, a religious center originally founded in the 16th Century, destruction was nearly total except for a few buildings and shrines. Also, it appears that a greater number of monks were killed at Erdene Zuu during the repression, perhaps due to its more remote location. Both of these surviving religious centers, long famous in Mongolian history, were converted to museums in the 1960's and a few token monks were reinstalled to add some authenticity and local color for the thousands of East Bloc tourists who visited Mongolia during the height of the communist era.

Now that communism had departed Mongolia in the same manner it did in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, there is a genuine resurgence of religious feeling and interest among the populace. This was quite evident from the public response to a visit there by His Holiness the Dalai Lama in late September 1991 despite the lack of advance notice of the visit. The feelings of admiration, respect and reverence for the Dalai Lama are still quite strong throughout Mongolia and His Holiness's picture adorns many family altars in even the most remote areas of the country.

In April of 1991 I was part of a delegation that visited Mongolia to discuss His Holiness's planned visit for later that summer. At that time I met the Rev. Choijamts, Deputy Abbot of Gandan Monastery. I was very impressed with this robust, easygoing cleric who had studied in Dharamsala and spoke Tibetan. We have maintained a cordial and friendly relationship during my subsequent visits to Mongolia. Thus, on my sixth and meet recent visit in August I was delighted to learn that Choijamts had been elected Abbot of Gandan. I paid a courtesy call to offer my congratulations and hopes for his success in assisting the revival of Buddha Dharma in Mongolia.

The Abbot, a relatively young man in his 40's, asked me if there was a possibility to inform Westerners in general and Americans in particular about the situation in Mongolia with respect to the difficulties that Buddhism had experienced in the past and the challenges it faced in the future. I suggested that he could make an appeal and that I would try to have the same published in publications aimed at Dharma groups and practitioners. He also suggested that I give a brief recounting of the past troubles and an outline of the goals Mongolia's Buddhist community hopes to attain in the coming years. I reluctantly agreed.

I say reluctantly only because I strongly felt, and continue to feel, that the utter destruction of religious practice in Mongolia needs a far more knowledgeable voice than mine to impart to the audience the severity of the persecution. The only comparison that readily comes to mind is the period of Cultural Revolution in China and its impact on Tibet's religious institutions. The only real distinction between these two events seems to be that Mongolia went through the nightmare 30 years before the first Chinese Red Guard picked up his little red book.

It has been observed that the 20th Century's experiment with Communism has manifested itself in a Buddhist holocaust. If that premise is correct, then a strong argument can be made that the first theater of operations was in Mongolia and for that reason the destruction there was more thorough than in subsequent ones. This is evident from the historical record that shows the total saturation of Buddhism in Mongolian culture from the 14th Century until 1935. Then virtually overnight the very underpinnings of that culture were stripped away and sanitized of any religious reference other than the derogatory and defamatory ones. All artifacts and art depicting a religious theme were declared illegal other than the few preserved for their use in state museums and other tourist attractions. This cynical and mindless approach to dealing with a country's legacy of spiritual search and discovery was fully developed in the Mongolia of the 1930's and served as a paradigm for future materialist historians, philosophers and ideologues bent upon destroying and discrediting alternative world views.

However, like the Abbot himself who displays no rancor or ill-will when recounting the Mongolian Buddhist's plight, we must look toward the future and search for the bright spots on the horizon. The advent of democracy in Mongolia has presented a golden opportunity for the revival of Buddhism. Presently there is an ambitious effort by all believers to locate, restore and repopulate many of the destroyed religious centers throughout Mongolia. There are efforts underway to trace and reclaim the lost precious artifacts, such as the famous Chenrezi statue measuring 30 meters in height, believed to have been transported to the Soviet Union's museums and warehouses. Gandan Monastery is feverishly trying to complete construction of the Kalachakra Temple by 1993 in order to host His Holiness the Dalai Lama's anticipated visit to give the Kalachakra initiation and teachings. Funds are needed to bring other learned Tibetan lamas and scholars to Mongolia for long term intensive teachings and to send promising young monks to India and other Buddhist learning centers to obtain training in philosophy, language, medicine and astrology.

All of these projects are directed from Gandan and by Abbot Choijamts with very limited resources. Although the community of believers is expanding, access to hard currency is extremely limited for the religious community. Consequently, Abbot Choijamts personally appeals to all members of the US Buddhist community to assist their co-religionists in Mongolia in whatever manner you can. I join in the Abbot's appeal as one who has witnessed the difficulties and hard tasks facing Mongolian Buddhists. Moreover, these problems are doubly hampered by the dire economic situation the country finds itself in at present, fully attributable, according to World Bank and IMF experts, to the disintegration of the former Soviet Union. Therefore, there is little hope that meaningful assistance will be forthcoming from the Mongolian government in these projects. Mongolian Buddhists must rely on the generosity of the Buddhist community abroad to insure the continuation of their efforts on behalf of the survival of Buddhism in Mongolia.

Any assistance you can provide should be sent to: David Urubshurow, Attorney Trust Account, 1725 K Street NW, Suite 1114, Washington DC 20006. Please indicate Gandan Monastery Fund on all contributions.

David Urubshurow is a Mongolian-American attorney in Washington DC. He is Trustee of the Tibetan Buddhist Learning Center in Washington, NJ and a member of the Boards of the International Campaign for Tibet and the Institute for Asian Democracy. He is one of the founding members of the US-Mongolia Business Council. Mr. Urubshurow has traveled extensively in the past two years throughout the former Soviet Union and Mongolia and accompanied His Holiness the Dalai Lama to the Kalmyk Autonomous Republic of Russia in the summer of 1991. He is married to Victoria Kennick Urubshurow and they live in suburban Maryland with their son and daughter.

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