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– History – Buddhism – Lamaismus in Mongolia

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P & C December 1998
- Face Music / Albi

- last update 03-2016

Text in German

The word "buddhism" comes from the Sanskrit word "buddha," which means "the awakened one." buddhism, or buddhadharma, is the proclamation of, and journey toward, an awakening of human potential.

Lamaism, a form of Northern Buddhism, spread in Tibet in the 7th century. It has never succeeded in substituting the old Bon forms.
At the end of the 14th century, the Tibetan church experienced a schism, initiated by the monk Tsongkhapa, a reformer who objected to the dissolute way of life the monks had established. He founded the "Sect of Virtue" (Yellow Church, we know it as the Yellow hats), and he introduced the colour yellow for the habit of the religious order. The main area of distribution of the "Yellow Church" was especially the monasteries in Northern Tibet and later on in Mongolia.

- The Eastern Mongols are living, from a political point of view, on Chinese territory, on the frontier of North-Eastern Tibet, in part in East Sinkiang and on the territory of the Blue Lake (Köke Nuur).
- The Northern Mongols live in the South of Central Siberia, and the Burjates live mainly in the area around the Lake Baikal. The people from Western Baikal are still prone to shamanism. The people from Southern Baikal and the Burjates in the Trans-Baikal area have adopted the Lamaistic faith with reformed influences.
Such as the Burmanese, the Chinese, the Japanese, the people from Cambodia, Corea, Siam, the Sinhalese, the Tibetan and other peoples in Asia, the Mongols belong to the religious group of Indian-Buddhism. Chinese culture and art have created commonly adopted traditions in the course of various centuries, traditions that still establish a relationship between these peoples.
The Mongols are Lamaists. The "Yellow Church" here determines the area of influence. In Mongolian monasteries Buddhist art, before its destruction in the 1930ies, had been very highly developed, and there could been found real masters of their art among painters, sculptors, architects, and especially skilled craftsmen.
- Nomadism excerted influence on the entire life of the shepherds and hunters, on their traditions, their virtues and vice, which the Mongols have in common with the neighbouring Turk peoples.
- The exotic and in a way adapted: This is the Indo-Tibetan, by means of which there was introduced also a new religion, Buddhism with its sublime teaching and its scientific encyclopedia (especially medicine).
- The Chinese, which enriched the Mongolian language with a rather important terminology and is associated with the system of administration introduced during the Manchu dynasty and the Chinese works on philosophical and ethical matters.
- Recently, also the European has gained some amount of influence.


The first contact of the Mongols with Buddhism goes back to the 4th century AD. Before that time the Topa Turks and the Wei Dynasty had had some influence on the Juan Juan Empire which dominated Mongolia at that time. A later Buddhist influence is that of the Kitan in the 10th century, to which time a stupa in Kerulen Bars Khota and the remainings of the Buddha statue at the Khalkhin Gol (river) date back to. In 1125 the Kitan dynasty falls and Mongolia reverts to a disorganized collection of warring tribes in which Nestorianism, Manicheism and Shamanism are the main religions.

Contacts between Mongolians from the area North of the Gobi and Buddhism occurred in 1219 when the Mongolian general Mukali overran the city of Lan Ch'eng in the Shansi province and captured a monk by the name of Hai-yün, a follower of the Ch'an sect which was then popular in China. The Ch'an School of Buddhists was soon supported by Tibetans.
Tibetan Buddhism was at that time still greatly influenced by the ancient shamanism and animism of Tibet, and thus may have been more compatible with the belief systems of the Mongols, many of whom remained faithful to shamanism and nature worship of their own ancestors.

In 1239 Ögedei's son Koden, having occupied the Sichuan province in China, decided to invade neighbouring Tibet. Quickly deciding to sue for peace, the Tibetans sent So-pan, the abbot of the Sakya Monastery, the headquarters of the Sakya sect of Tibetan Buddhism, to Koden. So-pan - Sakya Pandita - was a renowned scholar who had written numerous learned treatises, including the Treasury of Good Advice (now in printed form).

It was in the time of the Great Khans that the Tibetan form of Buddhism gains more influence in Mongolia. At the beginning of the 13th century Ghengis Khan conquers Tibet. The leader of the biggest empire ever was known for his religious tolerance, having Nestorians, Christians, Moslems, Manicheïsts and Shamans within his realm. When after his death trouble arises in Tibet, his grandson is sent there to settle things. Although doing this with a trail of destruction, he makes friends with Sakya (Sa skya) Pandita, the patriarch of the Sa skya sect. With these two men the special Tibetan lama-patron relationship has its beginning. Godan's successor, Khubilai Khan, continued this relation with Sakya Pandita's nephew Phags-pa. He was kept at the Mongolian court, but more for political than spiritual reasons. By giving home to a representative from the ruling Sa skya pa, Khubilai hoped to win a friendly attitude on the side of the Tibetans. While being at the Mongolian court, Phags-pa converted great parts of the ruling class, even including Khubilai. So for the first time Mongolia came under major Buddhist influence, although this seems to mainly have been limited to the upper class.

Then in 1307, upon the death of Khubilai's grandson Temür, another of his grandsons, Ananda, attempted to seize the throne of the Y üan Dynasty. While serving as viceroy of the Tangut land of Xia (centered around the current-day Chinese province of Ningxia), Ananda converted to Islam. He studied the Arabic language, learned the Koran by heart, and apparently dreamed of turning all of China into an Islamic country. His cousin Khaishan intervened, had Ananda put to death and mounted the throne himself. Khaishan, despite his treatment of his cousin, was a devout Buddhist. He invited the famous translator Chokyi Ozer to Beijing and initiated an extensive program of translating Buddhism texts from Tibetan into Mongolian. "By the merits [of Khaishan's works] human and animal diseases vanished from the land, and there were neither floods nor draughts; the rains were timely and good for crops, and happiness flourished. The monastic centres of studies and meditation competed with each other in their wealth and importance.

After the death of Khubilai in 1294, his successors kept up outward observances of Tibetan Buddhism, but there are indications that the actual practice, at least in court circles, became increasingly corrupted by non-Buddhist influences. There are given references to black magic, animal sacrifices, and sex cults based on incorrect interpretations of certain esoteric tantric texts.
At the end of 16th century Altan Khan is in power. He meets with Sonam Gyatso, a Tibetan Buddhist leader whom he gives the title of Dalai Lama. Dalai is a Mongolian word meaning "vast" or "oceanic"; it is also a direct Mongolian translation of the Tibetan word gyatso and thus a particularly fitting title for Sonam Gyatso. From that period on Buddhism becomes the predominant religion in the Mongolian territories and establishes a big clergy.

In the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, the sculptor par excellence among the Buddhist countries of Asia was the Undur Gegeen Zanabazar (1635-1723), the first Jebtsundamba Khutuktu, or Bogdo Gegeen (King Bogd), and the greatest sculptor of Mongolia. He was the founder of our art school "Zanabazar“.
Since Zanabazar, this highest-ranking representative of the Buddhists in the 17th century, the title Khan Bogd (King Bogd) has been established. Khans were simultaneously highest-ranking Buddhist as well as profane leaders. The last Mongolian Khan Bogd died in 1924. He was the last religious and profane ruler of the Mongols who resided in the Khan Bogd Palace. The place of residence was called Ulaanbaatar, i.e. 'Red Warriors' or 'Red Heroes'.

At the end of the nineteenth century there were 583 monasteries and temple complexes and 243 incarnate lamas would be living in the Mongolian territories, of which 157 resided in Inner Mongolia. The Buddhist clergy controlled about 20 percent of the country’s wealth, and in the 1920s there were about 110'000 monks, making up one-third of the male population.


If a family did not want that its son attended the school of the Manchurian ruler (the Manchurian-Chinese emperors ruled some 200 years in Mongolia) and ended as a civil servant in the administration and thus as a servant of this master, the family sent its son to a monastic school. The fact that many pupils wanted to be eduacted in these well-organized schools guaranted the survival of these monasteries. The families supplied them with enough food, clothes and other raw materials, and in this way they also hoped to court the deities' favour.
After having completed this form of education, the novices could either leave the monastery and live as cattle breeders and nomads and also found a family; or they could stay in the monastery forever and start to being taught in the arts and crafts.
This is the reason why five eighth of the male Mongolian population had been educated at this point of time, until the monasteries were destroyed in the 1930ies.
- Lama's today
One of the main characteristics of Mongolian Buddhism are the many independent lamas. These lamas do not belong to any kind of monastery. Their income is partly constituted of gifts or payments from people consulting them. These consults might concern religious, spiritual, or medical issues. Lamas can also be asked to ensure the positive ending of a certain project, i.e. when someone wants to build a house, he needs a lama to come to bless the ground.
These independent lamas have, in most cases, not taken (all) the monks' vows. The independent lamas might have bonds with a monastery, or even work for it, as for instance as librarian.

Tibetan Medicine

Mongolian traditional medicine is very much based on the Tibetan Buddhist practice. There are some differences in handling physical problems and in acupuncture, for example the treatment with needles.
In several monasteries, it is possible to get medical consultation. Also there are independent lamas who offer these consultations.

Tibetan Calendar

In the Tibetan calendar years are named after one of the animals of the Tibetan zodiac (horse, sheep, monkey, bird, dog, pig, rat/mouse, cow/ox, tiger, hare, dragon, snake). Apart from this cycle of twelve years, there is a cycle of ten years in which two subsequent years are indicated with one of five elements (iron, water, wood, fire, earth). These cycles combined give a sixty (12x5) year period of unique combinations of an animal with an element. Every year is divided into lunar months which in principal consist of thirty days but might be shorter because unlucky days are not counted and some holy days are counted twice. Then every month has four special days of worship: the 8th, 10th, 15th and 25th. And every year has its special holy days. The birthday of Buddha was celebrated in 2002 on May 26.
In Mongolia the lunar new year is called Tsagaan sar, meaning the white month (sar = moon / month), which is celebrated during a few days at the end of the 81 days winter period. Nomads divide the year into periods of nine days, and winter thus consists of nine of these periods. The periods have names like: `Lambs must be covered´ and `Not cold enough to freeze the soup´. The main shamanistic ritual called the Great Sacrifice is held on the third day of Tsagaan sar.


One of the distinct features is the ovoo worship. At these sites, rituals are executed by Buddhist lamas.
Ovoo, heap or cairn, is the Lamaist equivalent of a shamanist shrine. This is a heap of bones formed on the stone altar by the remains of sacrificed animals at the tailgan. They would be inhabited by local spirits, the local deities (nibdagh and shiddagh) of Mongolian people.


A ceremonial scarf, in Mongolia often blue. It is used to tie sacred objects or to offer gifts to people or deities.

Five pure lands

In Mongolian Buddhism there are five pure lands or paradises:
1. sain amgalant oron (mon), divaajin (tib), sukhavati (san) = supreme heaven, paradise (The white lotus sutra is about this land)
2. shambala (san)
3. urgenkhando (tib)
4. utaishan kumbum
5. gandan

Throughout history, men and women have aspired to create societies that enable them to express the dignity of human existence and to lead meaningful lives within a flourishing culture. This is the vision of Shambhala.

Mentioned in the Kalachakra tantra. A heavenly nation. There will be 25 kings. Presently, the 17th king is in power. The 25th King Rigden Dagva will attack the Islamic world in 2227. After this event buddhism will be all over the world.

At the heart of this wisdom tradition is the view that a dignified life based on meditative understanding can be led by everyone and can blossom into an enlightened society. Contemplative practices bring into our ordinary lives a natural sense of goodness, fearlessness, and humor.

In the Buddhist legends one can find references to a sacred mountain Sümeru which is located elsewhere unknown in Central Asia but constitutes this promised land "paradise" (also known as Shambhala or Shangri-la).

© Albi - Face Music - February 2006 – English revised by Hermelinde Steiner