Mon­go­lia Bud­dhism sees set­backs

The Phnom Penh Post - - WORLD - Yanan Wang

ON A bar­ren patch of land out­side Mon­go­lia’s cap­i­tal, a for­mer herder guards a half-fin­ished pedestal and aban­doned golden Bud­dha’s head – tes­ta­ment to the money prob­lems keep­ing Bud­dhism from flour­ish­ing in the coun­try.

When 68-year-old Tseg­mid Lun­duv, a long­time no­mad, was hired to pa­trol the spot in 2013, the pro­ject seemed full of prom­ise: a pro­posed sprawl­ing com­plex of med­i­ta­tion cen­tres and spir­i­tual re­treats, tucked into the rolling steppes out­side Ulan Ba­tor and un­der the spir­i­tual guid­ance of the Dalai Lama.

But two years ago, con­struc­tion was sus­pended pend­ing ad­di­tional fund­ing, leav­ing two par­tially built legs, the un­at­tached head and a hand with fin­gers curled into the ges­ture for teach­ing and un­der­stand­ing.

Only Lun­duv, his wife, grandson and their yel­low puppy were stand­ing sen­try on a re­cent visit to the holy site-to-be.

“Once the pro­ject comes to fruition, all of Mon­go­lia’s trou­bles will go away,” said Lun­duv, a portly man with a tat­tered white tu­nic and a gap-toothed smile. He added: “It will usher in a new era.” One of the pro­ject’s main fi­nan­cial back­ers, the Genco group, is owned by new Mon­go­lian President Khalt­maa Bat­tulga, who took of­fice in July and must now nav­i­gate the coun­try out of its maze of debt with a $5.5 bil­lion In­ter­na­tional Mone­tary Fund-led bailout.

Bud­dhism has re­turned to promi­nence af­ter be­ing quashed over years of Soviet con­trol, with over half of the pop­u­la­tion now iden­ti­fy­ing as Bud­dhist, ac­cord­ing to of­fi­cial fig­ures.

But the debt-laden coun­try’s money trou­bles have se­verely lim­ited the in­fra­struc­ture needed for the re­li­gion to fully flour­ish, with monas­ter­ies lack­ing proper res­i­den­tial fa­cil­i­ties for monks.

Bud­dhist tra­di­tions in Mon­go­lia pre­date the rule of Genghis Khan, who es- tab­lished close ties with a Ti­betan Bud­dhist school. Khan’s grandson, Kublai Khan, even com­mis­sioned his spir­i­tual guru to cre­ate an eas­ier form of the Ti­betan script to be used in the ter­ri­to­ries un­der his com­mand.

Even un­der Ti­betan Bud­dhism’s heavy in­flu­ence, how­ever, Mon­go­lians gave the re­li­gion their own cul­tural touch: in­spired by shaman­is­tic in­vo­ca­tions us­ing vodka, Mon­go­lian Bud­dhists con­sider the Rus­sian liquor sa­cred just as wine is to Chris­tians.

And be­cause the Mon­go­lian Em­pire suf­fered from a pop­u­la­tion short­age, the Dalai Lama at the time per­mit­ted Mon­go­lian monks to marry and have chil­dren – though mis­tresses re­mained strictly for­bid­den.

The big­gest chal­lenge to Mon­go­lian Bud­dhism came dur­ing the coun­try’s years as a Soviet satel­lite state, from 1924 to the early 1990s, when the Arts Coun­cil of Mon­go­lia es­ti­mates that more than 1,250 monas­ter­ies and tem- ples were de­mol­ished and count­less re­li­gious ar­ti­facts lost.

Monks, if they were not killed, were forced to marry.

“Af­ter 60 years of op­pres­sion, [Mon­go­lia’s] monk­hood was pretty much de­stroyed,” said Glen Mullin, an expert on Ti­betan Bud­dhism.

Only one monastery, Ulan Ba­tor’s Gan­dan monastery, was per­mit­ted to stay open dur­ing that pe­riod to sup­port the Sovi­ets’ claims of re­li­gious tol­er­ance.

In 1996, in a newly demo­cratic Mon­go­lia, 18-year-old Batchunuun Munkhbaatar left his coun­try­side home in cen­tral Tuv prov­ince to join the monastery in the cap­i­tal.

Gan­dan was home to just 25 monks then, but Munkhbaatar stayed and im­mersed him­self in the Bud­dhist prac­tice. Now 800 monks be­long to the monastery, the coun­try’s largest.

“Dur­ing the [Soviet era], the party con­trolled the faith of the peo­ple, but they couldn’t con­trol their in­ner de­vo­tion,” Munkhbaatar said, re­call­ing his grand­fa­ther “didn’t quit his chant­ing or prayers, even dur­ing the com­mu­nist time”.

“He would do all these things be­hind locked doors. If some­one ap­proached the house, the dog would bark and he’d put away his scriptures and images of Bud­dha.”

The re­vival of Bud­dhism has been a sticky is­sue for the Mon­go­lian gov­ern­ment, which pledged not to ex­tend any more in­vi­ta­tions to the Dalai Lama af­ter his visit to Ulan Ba­tor last Novem­ber an­gered China, its neigh­bour and big­gest trade part­ner.

There are now 3,500 monks across the coun­try, said Munkhbaatar, who han­dles Gan­dan’s for­eign re­la­tions.

Mullin ex­pects these num­bers to swell as the first wave of young Mon­go­lian Bud­dhists re­turn from study­ing in In­dia and Ti­bet.

Back in their home­land, they will face a tough fi­nan­cial re­al­ity.

“Most Mon­go­lian monas­ter­ies do not of­fer the proper con­di­tions for monks to ac­tu­ally live in them,” said Vesna Wal­lace, a re­li­gious stud­ies scholar at the Uni­ver­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, Santa Bar­bara.

“Monas­ter­ies re­ceive fund­ing only when they are build­ing some­thing, not for their day-to-day op­er­a­tions. They rely on do­na­tions, so many monks are quite poor and have had to marry be­cause they can’t live off their own in­come.”

At the site of the Grand Maitreya pro­ject, Lun­duv has faith the money will come.

The pro­ject’s of­fi­cial Face­book page said in March that the first build­ing phase would be com­pleted by the end of this sum­mer if $25,000 in do­na­tions was raised.

Every morn­ing, Lun­duv pours a freshly brewed cup of tea out onto the field around the con­struc­tion area as a prayer to the gods.

“It will be fin­ished,” Lun­duv says. “The gov­ern­ment will sup­port us be­cause our coun­try is a Bud­dhist coun­try. Our his­tory is tied to our re­li­gion.”


A boy plays in the con­struc­tion site of the Grand Maitreya Spir­i­tual Cen­tre on the out­skirts of Ulan Ba­tor on June 25.

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