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Buddhism continues to flower in Mongolia

September 14, 2010

The practice, suppressed for decades by the
Communist Party, is being reclaimed by Mongolians
as an integral part of their national identity.
By Nomi Morris,
Special to the Los Angeles Times
September 11, 2010

Reporting from Shand Khiid, Mongolia -- In the
crimson-painted interior of a monastery in
central Mongolia, boys as young as 6 face one
another cross-legged on benches and chant Tibetan
Buddhist prayers that they barely understand.

Some fidget and get up every now and then to
ladle bowls of fermented horse milk from a large
metal vat. Their teachers occasionally call out directions.

The boys are at a three-month religious camp at
the monastery, Shand Khiid. The oldest monk in
residence is 97. A visiting sage from Tibet
relaxes in a back room, watching sports on television.

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According to a monk who showed a group of
visitors around one recent day, the monastery
guarded Genghis Khan's black flag of conquest
until it was moved to Mongolia's National Museum
of History in 1994. Four years earlier, the
collapse of Soviet-bloc communism had led to the
ouster of Mongolia's Communist Party.

Today, Buddhism in Mongolia continues to emerge from a decades-long hiatus.

"During the Communist period, you had a
devastation of Buddhism in terms of the material
culture and the loss of knowledge," said Vesna
Wallace, a professor of religious studies at UC
Santa Barbara. "Now more people are coming to
temples and visiting monasteries. There is also a
new interest in meditation among the general public."

Wallace, an expert on Mongolian Buddhism, has
spent the last 10 summers there and has seen
Buddhist youth groups grow from three or four
people to major gatherings. She says Mongolians
have reclaimed Buddhism as an integral part of their national identity.

Couples who grew up with no religion are now
choosing to be married in temples and by monks.
The Gandan monastery in the capital, Ulan Bator,
is the largest in the country and busier than it's been in decades.

Mourners across Mongolia are again consulting
monks before deciding whether a loved one should
be buried, cremated or left outside to the
elements for what's known as a "sky burial."

And prayer piles, enormous cairns known as ovoos,
have sprung up around the countryside. Truck
drivers leave punctured tires to pray for safe
travels and shepherds leave livestock skulls in
hopes of a healthy herd. Blue scarves flutter in
the wind, symbols of the blue sky that Mongols
worshiped in the pre-Buddhist period.

Mongolian Buddhism is predominantly the Yellow
Hat sect of Buddhism practiced in Tibet and
China. But Wallace says it has evolved into its
own version, having incorporated the pre-Buddhist
religion of tangarism as well as shamanistic influences.

"Tibetans prefer white scarves, Mongolians prefer
blue," she said. "Even certain deities that are
preferred by Mongolian Buddhism are the blue ones
that represent eternity, spaciousness and the comprehensiveness of the sky."

Mongolia, with half of its 2.8 million people
living in Ulan Bator, is one of the most sparsely
populated countries in the world, with vast
tracts of open grassland. In 1578, Genghis Khan's
descendent Altan Khan made Buddhism the official
religion, installing the Tibetan Sonam Gyatso as
Dalai Lama and conscripting males to monasteries instead of into the army.

The country's oldest monastery, Erdene Zuu, was
built in 1585 in the ancient capital of
Karakorum, the ruins of which can still be seen
near the town of Kharkhorin. At its height,
Erdene Zuu was home to 67 temples and 1,500
monks. Today, 28 monks live on the site and 18
structures still stand. The monks use one temple
for study and chanting, while the other buildings are open to the public.

In 1937, the Soviet-allied Mongolian Communist
Party banned Buddhism and persecuted its
100,000-strong priestly class. The government
executed nearly 20,000 lamas, or Buddhist
teachers, and at least 10,000 educated monks.
Another 10,000 were sent to Siberian labor camps.
Most of the country's 2,000 monasteries were destroyed.

During decades of official atheism, some
Buddhists continued to practice their faith
privately in their homes. The devout would
pretend to play cards but instead discuss
Buddhism and pray. Children would act as guards
to make sure no officials were coming.

"My mother is a very strong Buddhist. Even in the
Communist time, when she had a problem and a
child was sick, she would visit a monk's home to
ask advice. It was so secret," said Enkhtuya, 40,
an elementary school teacher in Ulan Bator. Like
many Mongolians, she uses only one name.

Munkhbaatar Batchuluun was 11 when democracy
arrived in 1990. Elders in his village southwest
of Ulan Bator restored their small yurt-shaped
monastery and revived chanting ceremonies.

"It was very new. People were brainwashed against
religion. I was very curious and visited,"
recalled Munkhbaatar, now secretary of foreign
relations at the Gandan monastery. "I was so
impressed I went home and asked my parents if I
could join. At first they weren't happy; people
would laugh at monks and tease them as state
enemies. But eventually my father agreed."

Much has changed. Most Mongolians now identify
themselves as Buddhist. And the Dalai Lama has
made seven visits to Mongolia, five of them since 1990.

Still, it has been a struggle to re-educate the
public, especially since few sacred texts are
translated from Tibetan to Mongolian, and there still aren't enough teachers.

In recent years, a new competitor has arisen:
Christianity. Many Christian missionaries arrived
in Mongolia after the fall of communism, just as
they did in Eastern Europe. The largest groups
now converting Mongolians are American Mormons
and South Korean fundamentalists.

Still, as grandparents show their grandchildren
around monasteries explaining the prayer wheels,
altars and parchment books, it is clear that Buddhism runs deep in Mongolia.

"The Communists cleaned it from our body and from
our speech, but they couldn't remove it from our
souls," Munkhbaatar said. "The people may not
have a lot of Buddhist education and
understanding, but they have Buddhist faith."
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