Essay on Buddha in Mongolia

It is known that Buddhism is one of the greatest world religions. Buddhism was originated in India and today it is the leading religion in a number of countries, including Sri Lanka, Thailand, Bhutan, Cambodia, Vietnam and Myanmar. Moreover, many Buddhists can be found in other countries of the world, such as China, Japan, the USA, Korea, Mongolia, etc. The main characteristic feature of Buddhism is that Buddhists do not believe in God the creator, but follow the teaching of the Buddha , “an enlightened one”. It is found that the major goal of all Buddhists is “to become enlightened like the Buddha.”1 However, it is interesting to notice that Buddhism in one country is not the same as in another country. Although the religious practices are different, “the basic Buddhist teachings, or Dhamma, are practically the same.”2 In Mongolia, Buddhism practice is close to Tibetan Buddhism.Traditionally, the people of Mongolia followed the practices of shamanism, and worshiped their ancestors. The spread of Buddhism in Mongolia changed the values, beliefs and lives of many Mongols. Today there are two types of Buddhism in Mongolia: the national Buddhism and the modern transitional form of Buddhism. Although many people follow the modern form of Buddhism, the majority of contemporary Mongols prefer to follow the traditional national Buddhism.

The major goal of this paper is to discuss the spread of Buddhism in Mongolia, paying special attention to Buddhism in contemporary Mongolia, and to the unique understanding and practice of Buddhism among the people of Mongolia, and to various methods of


  1. Geoff Teece, Buddhism. (Mankato: Black Rabbit Books, 2004), 4.
  2. Klaus Sagaster, “The History of Buddhism among the Mongols,” in The Spread of Buddhism, ed. by Ann Heirman and Stephan Peter Bumbacher. (Leiden: BRILL, 2007): 379.

Buddhism practice in Mongolia.


It is found that the history of Buddhism in Mongolia was established when in 1206 Chinggis Khan united two great tribes: the Mongolian tribe and Turkic tribe in order to form the Mongolian state, which became one of the powerful empires in the world. According to Klaus Sagaster, “Buddhism reached the Mongols from four different directions: the Uighurs, the Tanguts, Tibet and China.”3

According to Guek-Cheng Pang, Buddhism came to Mongolia from Uighur people who belong to one of the oldest civilizations in Central Asia. Although for the majority of poor people in Mongolia, shamanism was the most influential religion, the aristocracy of Mongolian society “was sympathetic to Buddhism.”4 Only in 13-th century, Buddhism became the most influential religion in Mongolia. Phagspa Lama, a Tibetan monk, became a spiritual leader of Mongolia. All Buddhist priests, or lamas, were given special privileges: they were excused from military service and taxes. However, the historical facts prove that Buddhism was not a widely spread religion, because it was a religion of the ruling class. In accordance with Guek-Cheng Pang, “with the collapse of Kublai Khan’s Yuan dunasty, Buddhism has lost its influence in Mongolia.” 5

However, in 16-th century, Buddhism in Mongolia became widespread again. Although Mongolia had slowing economy and political instability, and many leaders of


  1. Klaus Sagaster, “The History of Buddhism among the Mongols”, in The Spread of Buddhism, ed. by Ann Heirman and Stephan Peter Bumbacher, (Leiden: BRILL, 2007): 380.
  2. Guek-Cheng Pang, Mongolia. (New York: Marshall Cavendish, 2010): 84.
  3. Ibid.

Mongolian society were involved in the struggle for power, the rulers of Mongolian state believed the religion could “strengthen their leadership roles, and provide the people with moral fiber.”6

In 1578, the spiritual links between Mongolia and Tibet were reestablished because the Mongolian ruler Atlan Khan conferred the title of Dalai Lama to Sonam Gyastsho, the religious leader of Tibet.  In addition, he banned shamanism and other religions in Mongolia. In order to ease the spread of Buddhism in Mongolia, many shamanism rituals were adapted to Buddhist ones. Moreover, the translations of the sacred texts from Tibetan into Mongolian helped to spread Buddhism in different social groups. A large number of monasteries which were built in different parts of the country attracted more and more people. Monasteries became the major educational centers. They were very popular because “the chief priests were often local princes and other people with wide authority in society.” 7 Among lamas, or spiritual Buddhist leaders, there were the people of different professions, such as historians and artists, philosophers and scientists, and, of course, craftspeople. One of the outstanding reincarnate lamas, Gombordorji Zanabazar, was the head of Buddhism in Mongolia. He built many monasteries and translated many Buddhism texts into Mongolian. Seven other spiritual leaders were from Tibet because the Chinese emperors did not want Mongolia fight for its independence, but the eighth ruler declared independence of Mongolia from China. In 1924, the communist rulers “stopped the search for a successor.”8 In 1932, the communist political leaders of Mongolia took repressive actions against Buddhist monks. More than 17,000 monks were repressed, more than 700 monasteries were destroyed, and religious rituals were


  1. Ibid.
  2. Ibid., 85.
  3. Ibid.


forbidden. Gandantegchenling Monastery was the only functioning monastery during the Сommunist period.  In the 1990s, religious practices in Mongolia were allowed again and the people obtained freedom of religion. By 1992, a number of new monasteries were built in order to revive traditional religion. In 1997, the number of monasteries increased from 90 to 143. The rapid increase in religious practices was connected with to active functioning of Gandantegchenling Monastery, the major center of Mongolian Buddhists and the Association of Mongolian Believers. Although Tibet-Mongolian Buddhism suffered during the Communist period, and the people of Mongolia practically lost their Buddhist practices and traditions, culture and beliefs, today Mongolian Buddhists are ready to revive traditional Buddhism in Mongolia. Of course, they face many challenges in their activity, including serious financial problems, the lack of highly qualified Buddhist teachers who have enough knowledge and experience to share with others and rapid growth of Christianity and some other religions in Mongolia.

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