BUDDHISM IN MONGOLIA
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
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.