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Introduction to Mongolia


Mongolia is one of the largest, landlocked countries about three times the size of France, located between China and Russia. It has a total area of 1,566,500 sq. km (604,830 sq. mi) and with a total population of just 2.8 million people, it is one of the world's least densely populated countries. The nation's economy is dominated by a rural, nomadic herding lifestyle and is ranked as the 113th poorest country in the world, with an average per capital income of approx. US$400 per year. Mongolia's environment has a large variety of features. The northern part of the country is covered by forest mountain ranges and the southern part by desert, desert steppe and steppe areas with low mountains. The western part is dominated by high snow-capped mountains and glaciers and the eastern part by vast plains and wild heaths.

Mongolia is one of the highest countries in the world, with an average elevation of 1,580m (5,180ft) and has comparatively high levels of surface and ground water resources. Mongolia has a sharply continental climate, with temperatures ranging between -15°C and -40°C in winter and +10°C and +30°C in summer. Winters are long and dry. The precipitation in summer seldom exceeds 380mm in the plains and mountains and 125mm in the desert.

Under the leadership of Chinggis Khan (Man of the Millennium) and his successors, Mongolia was the world power in the 12th and 13th centuries, controlling nearly all of Asia and Russia. From the 17th century on, however, Mongolia's fortunes became increasingly dependent on its two giant neighbours, China and Russia. The nation was a Chinese province from 1691 to 1911 and in 1924 the Mongolian People's Republic was established, modelled along Soviet lines. Although, nominally independent, the country was firmly entrenched as a supporter of the USSR.

Almost seventy years of communism (1924-1990) has put its mark on Mongolian society. The Soviet presence effectively ushered Mongolia into the industrial era. Cities were established with modern apartment buildings, hospitals and schools. Transportation was developed with the installation of railroads, automobile and airport facilities. Mongolians began to engage in industry and commerce with the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Nonetheless, many of the changes brought about during the Soviet period came at a great expense to Mongolian's traditional culture and way of life and religion was ruthlessly suppressed.

In 1990 Mongolia gained independence from Soviet domination and adopted a democratic government. Free elections took place for the first time ever and in 1992 a democratic constitution was developed. At this point Mongolia is seeking a new identity as a democratic state trying to be part of the global village.


How Buddhism Was Originally Established In Mongolia (13th Century)

Mongolia has ancient Buddhist roots and Buddhism was said to arrive in Mongolia as early as the third century B.C. with silk traders travelling from India. In the late 13th Century, Buddhism was made the state religion by the Emperor of Mongolia, Kublai Khan, who was the grandson of the great Chinggis Khan. This was due to influence of the visit of a Tibetan Lama called Sakya Pakpa, who was the grandson of Sakya Kunga Nyingpo, who founded the Sakya school of Tibetan Buddhism. In gratitude and recognisance of Sakya Pakpa’s status and spiritual power, Kublai Khan issued a decree giving Tibet its freedom from Mongol domination and occupation, installing Sakya Pakpa as its Dharma ruler.


Re-Establishment of Buddhism by 3rd Dalai Lama (16th century to 20th century)

Kublai Khan

After the death of Emperor Kublai Khan, Mongolia subsequently abandoned the Buddha Dharma and reverted to Shamanism. However in 1571, Emperor Altan Khan, a 17th generation descendant of Chinggis Khan, invited the Tibetan Lama Sonam Gyatso (1543-1588) to visit Mongolia from Tibet to give teachings on Buddha Dharma to Mongolians. Sonam Gyatso accepted and spent a number of years giving teachings and initiations in Mongolia. In 1578 the Emperor bestowed the title “Dalai Lama” (meaning ocean of wisdom) upon him, thus beginning the lineage of the Dalai Lamas. The whole of Mongolia was converted to Buddhism. It was again adopted as the state religion by the Emperor under this Tibetan master and remained the national religion of Mongolia until this very day, despite the ruthless efforts of the Russian communists to eradicate it in the 20th century.

The re-establishment of Buddhism in Mongolia under its Emperor Altan Khan and the 3rd Dalai Lama was further strengthened and reinforced by the 4th reincarnation of the Dalai Lama lineage in the person of Yonten Gyatso (1589-1617), who was born in Mongolia, as a Mongolian, to the grandson of Altan Khan himself, Prince Sechen Chokhor. This was the only one of the last fourteen Dalai Lama reincarnations who was not born into a Tibetan family.

For over the next three hundred years, Buddhism was the national religion in Mongolia and flourished, excelling in art, philosophy and science and producing many great Buddhist sages and masters. The Dalai Lamas of Tibet became the national guru of Mongolia as well as of Tibet. At the turn of last century, there were 110,000 Buddhist monks and almost 700 monasteries. In 1904, the 13th Dalai Lama visited Mongolia from Tibet, during the time of the invasion by the British. He spent an entire year there, based in Ulaanbaatar and visiting the countryside from there to give teachings and initiations. Within twenty years the communists had taken over in Mongolia and Buddhism was severely suppressed.

Buddhism under the Communist rule (20th Century)

In 1921, Communism was established in Mongolia and suffered violent purges in every aspect of the culture. For almost 70 years, Buddhism was all but obliterated, the worst persecutions being carried out during the late 1930s when tens of thousands of lamas and ordinary believers were executed, or forced into lay life, or worked to death. The vast majority of monasteries and temples were destroyed.  Laymen and monks succeeded in hiding some of the religious books and cult objects from the government and its catchpole, but most of the Buddhist literature and religious objects were destroyed during the years of the communist purges.

Mongolians were systematically conditioned to view the Buddhist Dharma as an undesirable remnant of their cultural history, something backward, superstitious and contrary to all ideals of “progress and modernity”.


Present Situation - Revival of Buddhism in Mongolian (1989 - Present)

In 1989 Mongolia gained independence from Soviet domination and adopted a democratic government. Despite the long period of Soviet communist control and the massacre of three generations of monks and scholars, Mongolia is now experiencing a revival of a spiritual way of life that has long defined its culture. Today nearly 200 monasteries and temples have been restored throughout the country. More than 3000 monks are registered and there is ongoing teaching activity, mostly carried out by Tibetan teachers from the Tibetan exile community in India.

However the decades of oppression and anti-religious propaganda have taken their toll. By the time of independence, Buddhism had been seriously weakened, as was the country which was thrown into severe economic, social and cultural crisis. There are now three generations of Mongolians who have had limited opportunities to practice Buddhism, and know little of their religion. Knowledge of the Buddhists scriptures, the liturgy, and the offering of ceremonies and rituals in general, is scarce. Today, most of the monastic teachers in Mongolia are very old, and teaching is consequently difficult. Each year their numbers dwindle due to their failing health. Buddhism in Mongolia now also faces new challenges as increasing numbers of young people and intellectuals are being drawn away from Buddhism.

Buddhism is in the heart of every aspect of Mongolian culture and the revival of this powerful Buddhist heritage is critical to the future peace and happiness of Mongolia.