June 21, 2010

Buddhism in Mongolia

This post was written by Travis for the Mongolia Travel Guide 
which is currently being written by Leslie, Nathan and friends

For many of us in the western world, we have watched our religious traditions grow unimpeded for the last few centuries. Especially in America, our history of freedom of religion goes back to our very founding documents and our first years as a new nation. Although Chinggis Khaan was one of the first world leaders to encourage religious tolerance, his homeland of Mongolia has seen many changes in its religious landscape over the last century.

By all accounts in the early 1930’s Mongolia was estimated to have over 800 Buddhist monastery centers, more than 3,000 temples and at least 100,000 monks and lamas (teachers) across the country. By 1990, only 1 monastery remained standing and only a small community of 100 monks was allowed to practice Buddhism in Mongolia. With the fall of communism that year, the long period of communist control on religious practice ended and Mongolia’s modern spiritual history started being written. This recent rebirth of spiritual and religious traditions in Mongolia, following the establishment of a democratic form of government, has offered a unique opportunity for visitors in Mongolia to watch a culture in transformation. Dozens of monasteries have been rebuild, the number of monks and lamas continues to rise and a national identity and pride in religious traditions is taking hold as more and more people openly discuss, join together and share in their daily and yearly practices.

There are several “auspicious” or special days every month and a few very special days every year which are recognized throughout the entire country based on the ancient Tibetan calendar, which you can find tucked away in almost every home in Mongolia. These days are favorites for wedding celebrations, trips to the local monastery and candle lighting ceremonies in large squares around the country in cities large and small. Mongolian people are very open to sharing information with you about these events and allowing you to be as involved as you want. Since the dates change all the time, if you want to learn more ask a Mongolian friend or travel agency about upcoming events and how you can be involved. These are a great opportunity to engage in a deep and proud tradition that many hold very dear to their hearts.

In addition to these special days and ceremonies, there are also other opportunities to learn more about Mongolian spiritual traditions year round. Especially in Mongolian homes, and in particular throughout the countryside (outside the capital city of Ulaanbaatar), most families mix together long-held shamanistic traditions - which were still allowed to be practiced during the communist period - together with Tibetan Buddhist traditions. These may involve a morning ritual of stepping outside to toss spoonfuls of fresh milk to the sky, spinning of small prayer wheels on family altars upon entering home for the first time, or lighting small candles on special days during the month and year. Some of these traditions have been practiced within families for dozens of generations and again, if you have the chance or wish to learn more, Mongolian people are very excited to share their thoughts and traditions with you if you are kind enough to ask about them.

Lastly, especially in the last decade, several famous monasteries and sacred sites within Mongolia have either been renovated or completely rebuild. Whether you are passing through the capital city, the Gobi Desert, the eastern steppe, or the central north, visiting these special sites offers a wonderful view into the re-emerging spiritual landscape of Mongolia during this very exciting time in their history.

By visiting, listening, and learning about Mongolian spiritual traditions you have a chance to do more than just observe Mongolia’s spiritual rebirth and transformation – you are participating in it. It's not just a story of the past; it's a story that's being written. It's a story that you can be part of.

Interesting Fact
The title of Dalai Lama can be traced back to roots in the Mongolian language with Dalai meaning “ocean.” Altan Khan, meeting Sonam Gyatso (the 3rd Dalai Lama) for the first time in 1578, addressed him as Dalai Lama since Gyatso means “ocean” in Tibetan. As the history of Tibet and Mongolia continued to intertwine, the name stuck. The famous Tibetan spiritual leader and 1989 Nobel Peace Prize winner Tenzin Gyatso is currently the 14th Dalai Lama.