History of Buddhism
Andrew Skilton
08/03/2010 05:37 (GMT+7)
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Andrew Skilton



THERE IS LITTLE DOUBT THAT BUDDHISM was initially introduced in Mongolia from Central Asia and China as early as the 4th century, although its later development there was almost entirely dominated by representatives of the Tibetan Buddhist orders. Indigenous Mongol religion was shamanistic, although also reflecting Persian religious ideas through its contact with the Manichaean Uighurs of Central Asia. Very little is known of the nature of Buddhism in Mongolia at this time.

The first place of the transmission of Buddhism to Mongolia occurred as a result of the Mongol expansion of the 13th century, in which Mongol emperors secured vast territories throughout Asia. This expansion was accompanied by a policy of encouraging foreign statesmen and religious to attend the Mongol court (as hostages). As a result a large number of Tibetan Buddhists, mainly of the Sa-skya Order, gained influential footholds at court, where they stimulated general interest in their forms of Buddhism. Most notable among these was ‘Phags-pa (pronounced pak pa; 1235-80), who managed to engage the interest of Kublai Khan (1260-94) who became a Buddhist himself, receiving initiation from the Hevjra Tantra. At this time the entire Mongolian court was converted to late Vajrayana Buddhism, and one can speculate that the shamanic character of Tantric Buddhism had considerable appeal for the Mongols. By the time of the last Mongol emperor, several monasteries had been founded and a part of the Tibetan canon translated. However, Buddhism was still largely the interest of the Mongolian ruling class, and suffered a decline until the second phase of transmission.  

The second and farther reaching phase of the transmission of Buddhism to Mongolia began with new contacts with Tibet resulting from military expeditions led into the eastern part of the country by Altan Khan (1507-83). The dGe-lugs Order, seeking political support in its struggle against the Sa-skya Order within Tibet, made overtures of friendship to the Altan Khan, and as a result of this the title of Dalai Lama, ‘Great Ocean (of Wisdom) Lama’, was conferred on the dGe-lugs, lama, or teacher, bSod-nams-rgya-mtsho. Posthumous conferral of the same title upon two predecessors meant that bSod-nams was therefore the third Dalai Lama. Thereafter the success of the dGe-lugs in Mongolia was unchecked. The fourth Dalai Lama was himself a Mongolian, thus cementing the new religio-political link between the dGe-lugs Order and Mongolia. After their conquest of Tibet in 1641, the Mongols installed the dGe-lugs Dalai Lama as the secular authority in Lhasa.

The Ch’ing emperors of China (1662-1911), who were Buddhists themselves, also found Buddhism to be a suitable mechanism of control of their territories in Inner Mongolia. For this reason they heavily patronized Buddhist monasteries and temples in the region. By 1629 the Tibetan bKa’’gyur had been translated into Mongolian. A translation of the bsTan’gyur was completed in 1749. By the end of the 18th century the fortunes of Buddhism in Inner Mongolia took a downturn with the restriction of patronage from the Ch’ing emperors of China, although in the same period Buddhism began to spread for the first time from Outer Mongolia into the northern region of Buryat Mongolia, which had remained fully shamanistic until the 19th century.

Source: Andrew Skilton (1994), A Concise History of Buddhism, British Library, England.


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