For months I’ve been fretting that I couldn’t find a comprehensive history of Buddhism in Mongolia (don’t know what you fret about, but this is what I fret about). Well, on Saturday I began the project that had brought me to hitherto unknown levels of procrastination: sorting my belongings into Stuff That’s Going and Stuff That Ain’t. This involved sifting through stacks like a geologist; I could actually date the layers. The germane case in point being the discovery of two stapled, xeroxed sheaves made by my mother (a librarian) and handed to me, I can’t lie, on December 31. One of these was the five unread pages on, you guessed it, Mongolian Buddhist history from the Encyclopedia of Buddhism. Running through my head is my mother’s childhood refrain for me: “You know, for a smart kid, you’re pretty dumb.” The other sheaf was a very interesting snapshot of Mongolia provided by the folks at CultureGrams (turns out Mongolia’s having a presidential election this year – like I need to go through that again!).
So, here’s your Cereal Boxtop Version of Early Mongolian Buddhist History (we’ll do middle and later the rest of this week) as told by a monk who grew up in New Jersey:
Mongolians can’t have failed to have had significant contact with Buddhism via wandering monks and yogis, as well as converted traders, from at least the 7th c. CE. But the indigenous shamanistic beliefs and practices dominated the culture until the time of the Khans.
The empire built by Chinggis Khan (no Mongolian says “Genghis”) in the 12th and 13th centuries was expanded by his son Ogedei Khan until it stretched from Korea to present day Poland and Hungary (can you imagine?). Around 1240, Ogedei’s second son, Göden Khan, led a small army to penetrate Tibet and see about its annexation. Göden Khan compelled the great Tibetan lama Sakya Pandita and his two nephews to go to his court. Here’s an exchange I found in this fantastic book:
Namkha Bum (pronounced “boom” – don’t be funny) the Kadampa: Is there any beneficial reason for your going to the Mongols?
Sakya Pandita: These Mongols have told me that I must definitely come to serve as their “priest” and that if I don’t come, an army will arrive. My going was because I feared that harm might befall Tibet if an army turned up. Besides going in the hope that it will prove to be beneficial for beings, there is no assurance of benefit. Still, I know that I don’t completely lack the ability to give up my body and life if that will help beings.
Here’s the funny way I read this: the Mongols basically did the opposite of what usually happens. They showed up in Tibet in their usual fearsome display and said, “Convert us to your religion or we’ll kill you.” And that’s just what went down. Pretty astounding. (Quick Fact: In 2600 years, no war has ever been fought to advance the cause of Buddhism.)
Ogedei’s nephew Mongke established formal rule over Tibet in 1252 and took as his lama the second Karmapa, Karma Pakshi.
Mongke’s successor, the famed Qubilai Khan, assumed emperorhood of the Chinese Yuan dynasty, elevated Sakya Pandita’s nephew Phagpa to “Imperial Preceptor” (apparently he impressed the Khan by inventing a script with which to write the Mongolian language), and basically co-ruled.
Fortunes ebbed after this and the Yuan dynasty collapsed. Buddhism was relegated to an elite aristocracy in what is now Inner Mongolia. Then in the 16th c., as the Ming dynasty was getting ready to bite the dust, an upstart named Altan Khan recaptured much of Mongolia and scared its neighbors into alliances. It was he who met Sonam Gyatso, the head of the Tibetan Buddhist Gelug tradition, and bestowed the title of Dalai Lama (dalai means “ocean” in Mongolian and Sonam Gyatso is actually recognized as the third, with two others given the title posthumously).
Stuff That’s Not A History Lesson
On Friday night I finally saw The Story of the Weeping Camel. It’s a simple, lovely film set among a family of Mongolian nomads in the south Gobi Desert. To save you time and puzzlement, make sure to set up the DVD at the beginning for English subtitles. They’re not automatic because there are also options for French or German.
On the Dulaan Project front (the scheme my cousin Ryan and I cooked up to get knitters to make toasty clothing for Mongolians in need – dulaan means “warm”), mad love goes out to Janine of Feral Knitters fame, for hosting a smashingly successful Dulaan Knit-in in the Bay Area Friday. Also, I received a box at our Sedona center full of wonderful, warm items for the project. While this is deeply appreciated, please make sure to mail your knits to F.I.R.E.