The earliest religion of the Mongols was shamanism, a set of beliefs practiced across North Asia for millennia and still practiced today in many communities, including peoples in Mongolia, Korea, Siberia, China, Tibet, etc. Mongolian shamanism conceived of the universe as an organic whole, as a living entity of which humans were simply one part. This organic conception of the universe included the sky (worshiped as the “clear blue sky,” “the great blue heaven” by such famous Mongols as Genghis Khan), the stars and the planets, as well as the earth and the underworld of the dead. All these parts of the universe are connected by the symbol of the World Tree; and the person who connects these worlds, the Shaman, traverses this tree in order to do so. The other living beings on earth--the trees, plants, animals, birds and fish, as well as non living parts of the earth-the rives and lakes, the rocks and mountains, were all considered to have powers and thus to be in some way “sacred” or at least, imbued with powers of their own.
Shamanism is an orientation to the world which recognizes the interconnectedness of all things, the powers that govern both human beings and the natural world. In this system, all problems which humans encounter in their lives, from loss of possessions to illness are caused by these powers which inhabit the world. In order to connect with the powers, some of which are named gods and many of which are simply unnamed spirits, there arose a class of shamans who had special ability to connect with spirits and to persuade them to aid, rather than harm people; over time, many of these shamans also became healers.
A shaman, thus, is a person who has the ability to contact the spirit world. This is recognized by his or her ability to enter quickly into trances and, while in these trances, speak and move in ways foreign to her/her ways when out of trance. Most shamans are chosen by circumstances rather than seeking to become shamans; in fact, many resist the call and try to find other solutions to the problems of dreams, trances, and experiences which they are having. It is usually another shaman who recognizes that the oddities of a particular individual are actually signs of a shamanic calling. The shaman is both a revered (feared) member of society and an outcast (since he/she is considered to be abnormal, and to have abnormal powers, most people feel uncomfortable around a shaman).
Shamans have distinctive clothing and use a variety of ritual implements, many of which are ordinary objects, imbued with special significance. The nature and color or the clothes has varied over the centuries and from place to place. Often, the shaman inherits parts of his/her clothing and implements from a previous shaman; this increases the sanctity of these items. Common types of shamanic clothing among Mongols include white dresses, a variety of aprons and lots of metal. Metal hung around their bodies is an essential feature of Mongol shamanism; with some shamans carrying up to forty pounds of iron, silver, and other implements. The overcoat, called a caftan and usually made of sheepskin, was decorated little bells and bits of metal, from each of which dangled a piece of cloth or leather; this represents bird’s feathers or “spirit flight,” one of the ecstatic techniques used by the shamans in rituals. An apron, either hung with mirrors or with tapering cotton strips, (or both) was worn over the caftan; both the strips and the mirrors have symbolic meanings. For example, the mirror turns away evil spirits, contains the “spirit horse” upon which the shaman engages in “spirit flight” and offers protection to the shaman who is in contact with powerful spiritual forces. Shamans were a variety of headdresses, some with horns, many red in color, and at times they wear masks during rituals.
While shamans use a variety of ritual implements, the most universal and the most important is the shamanic drum. Ritual drumming is a means of entering trance, calling the spirits, communicating with them, etc. There is a great variety of drums, some round ones, some with rattles inside or attached as rings to the handles of the drums. Equally important are the drumsticks used by the shamans; these have symbolic names, representing flying horses or scaly snakes, etc. Drumming is an integral part of all shamanic rituals.
Since shamanistic people believe in the interconnectedness of the human and animal worlds, they feel special kinship with particular animals. Each shaman has an animal with which her/he identifies; the bear is common but the chosen animal may be a bird, a horse, a wolf, or any other animal. The shaman enters into ritual trance which is evident by shaking, ecstatic seizures, superhuman strength, and other abnormal manifestations. While in these trances, the shamans are believed to go on spirit journeys, travels in which the shamans’ spirit leaves his or her body to connect with the troublesome spirits. In shamanistic traditions, the spirits of deceased ancestors are believed to return and cause misfortune, illness, and abnormal psychological states. It is the shaman’s job to expel these spirits and restore harmony to the person and the society. While shamanism was largely taken over by Buddhism, many of the shamanic practices still remain in modern Mongolia, some mixed with Buddhist ones and others independent. The type of Buddhism which became popular in Mongolia, is the Tibetan, Tantric type which has close connections with Shamanic ideas and rituals.
For a site with information about Shamanism click on:
Shamanism in Mongolia and Tibet or
Juulchin Tourism Corporation of Mongolia
(click on shaman heritage—this site also contains information and picture on the ger, festivals, and nomads)
Today, in spite of the difficulties and persecution experienced by the Buddhist establishment under Communist rule, 90% of the Mongol people claim to be Buddhists. Buddhism was first introduced into Mongolia during the fourth century, A.D., from the west by monks traveling the Silk Road and from the east by Chinese missionary monks. Buddhist monks from India traveled with the Silk Road caravans and established flourishing Buddhist communities across the Silk Road oases towns from present day Afghanistan to communities in the eastern part of China. Scattered Mongolian communities were among those converted to Buddhism, although native shamanism continued to be practiced and little is known of this early Buddhism.
For a website about the transmission of Buddhism along the Silk Road, visit Buddhism and Its Spread Along the Silk Road
The second major transmission of Buddhism to Mongolia came during the 13 and 14th centuries with the creation of the Mongol Empire by Genghis Khan and the establishment of the Yuan dynasty in China. Mongol conquerors entered and took over control of Tibet and it was the Tantric Buddhism of Tibet, with its shamanistic associations and leanings, that intrigued the Mongols. During the Yuan dynasty, many of the Mongols converted to the Tibetan form of Buddhism and many high Tibetan monks (lamas) lived in the Mongol capital of Dadu (present day Beijing). Perhaps the most important event leading to conversions was the invention in 1269, of a block script in which to write Mongolian, by the lama, ‘Phags pa. This resulted in the translation of many Buddhist scriptures into Mongolian and the greater accessibility of these scriptures to Mongolian monks and nuns. In spite of these translations, Buddhist conversion was mainly limited to the nobility and the ruling families; the ordinary people, mostly nomads, continued to practice their traditional shamanism.
After the overthrow of Mongol rule in China in 1368, the practice of Buddhism lessened among the Mongols and shamanism reasserted itself. Buddhism re-established itself in the 16th century with the rise to power of the military genius Altan Khan, a leader of the Tumet tribe who desired to emulate the career of Genghis Khan and unite the Mongols. His successful military incursions into what is now the Chinese province of Xinjiang and into Tibet resulted in close connections with the newly formed reformist sect in Tibet, the Gelukpa or Yellow Hat Buddhists. This sect was seeking allies in its struggle with the older sects of Tibet for control of the Buddhist establishment and the country. In 1578, the leader of this Yellow Hat sect visited the Mongol capital and was given the title Dalai Lama (Great Ocean Lama); most of the Mongolian nobility then converted to this form of Buddhism. This strategic alliance favored both parties: Altan Khan provided protection and military assistance to the Gelukpa Sect; they in return provided religious legitimacy to his imperial ambitions. The following century saw this alliance bear fruit for both parties: The Gelukpa Sect became predominant over the other sects in Tibet and this form of Buddhism spread throughout Mongolia. The Mongol aristocrats converted to Yellow Hat Buddhism and spread it throughout the country in an attempt to unite all Mongols. While this attempt at union was ultimately unsuccessful, the conversion of the populace, by desire or force, succeeded in marginalizing shamanism and making Buddhist the national religion. In the process of conversion, the Mongol aristocrats built temples at major trading crossroads, sponsored translations from the Tibetan Buddhist scriptures (the Kanjur) into Mongolian, and forcibly outlawed shamans, destroying their idols and ritual implements. In this struggle the Buddhist monks took over many of the functions of the shamans as healers and diviners and the Buddhist establishment became a powerful force in Mongolia as in Tibet.
The Tibetan form of Buddhism, combining as it does, Mahayana Buddhism and its savior Boddhisattvas with Tantric ideas focusing on rituals, exorcisms, demon control, and healing, was ideally suited to the shamanic heritage of Mongolia. This form of Buddhism, while sharing the original Buddhist conception that the goal of life is release from the wheel of rebirth (enlightenment), provides helpers along the path towards enlightenment in the form of compassionate deities (once human) who vow to help and save all beings, thus delaying their own entrance into Nirvana (enlightenment). In the view of most people, these beings are treated as savior deities and are part of a universe peopled with various subordinate deities, opposing demons, converted and reformed demons, hungry ghosts and saintly humans. Tantrism uses a series of special techniques, always with the aid of a teacher (a lama is a teaching monk) focusing on techniques of meditation, including the recitation of mantras (magical phrases), the use of mudras (magical movements, often using implements such as a bell and a thunderbolt-a vajra or dorje), and mandelas (magical diagrams symbolizing the universe). This form of Buddhism is called esoteric, meaning that everything has hidden meanings. Thus, a ceremony which a nomadic tribesman would consider to be an exorcism of demons, a senior monk would view as the overcoming of desires in the mind.
Tibetan Buddhism combined colorful popular ceremonies and curing rituals as services to the ordinary people with the study of complex and esoteric doctrines by the monastic elite. The basic idea of Tantrism is that, through the help of powerful deities, and the guidance of enlightened teachers, a person could achieve enlightenment, suddenly, in this lifetime, rather than undergoing many lifetimes of trial and struggle towards this goal. This emphasis on the aid of enlightened teachers, the prevalence of compassionate bodhisattvas, and the emphasis on magical techniques beyond the understanding of the unenlightened, led to a particular concept of reincarnated leaders. It came to be believed that certain high lamas had achieved enlightenment but then took the Bodhisattva vow to stay on earth to enlighten others and thus chose their means of reincarnation. Thus these leaders became incarnate or Living Buddhas, holding both secular and religious power. Each high lama was believed to leave signs as to where and in what person he would be reincarnated; the oracles and the other lamas then searched for this incarnation. These incarnations were called “Living Buddhas” and there were (are) hundreds of them in the different lineages in Tibet, Nepal, Sikkim, Laddakh, Mongolia and other places where the Tibetan form of Buddhism was practiced. The most well known of these Living Buddhas is, of course, the Dalai Lama (the current one is the 14 Dalai Lama and thus the 13th reincarnation of the first Dalai Lama). This doctrine of reincarnation made it possible for reincarnations of Living Buddhas to be discovered in the families of powerful Mongol tribes (it should be noted that the 4th Dalai Lama was a grandson of Altan Khan), and a number of such lineages grew up in Mongolia. The most famous and most powerful was the Jebtsundamba Khutuku, also known as Bogdo Khan or Bogdo Gegen, who was the living Buddha of the monastery in Yihe Huree (Ulan Bator), and who ranked third in the hierarchy after the Dalai and Panchen Lamas. As the monasteries grew in number and power, they often assumed responsibility for secular affairs as well and became wealthy landowners.
During the Qing dynasty in China, especially during the first 150 years (1644-1896), the Manchu emperors, who also supported Tibetan Buddhism, sponsored the printing of Buddhist scriptures in Mongolian as well as in Manchu. Mongol nobles also earned merit by donating money for carving printing blocks, copying scripture and printing Buddhist works. Works on medicine, philosophy and history were also published and distributed. One of the more significant publishing events was the compilation and publishing of a national liturgy composed entirely in Mongolian and incorporating elements of indigenous Mongolian mythology.
By the beginning of the 20th century, the religious and secular landscape of Mongolia had merged and the monasteries were more powerful than secular governments or the once powerful noble families. There were over 2000 monasteries in the combined areas of what are today China’s Inner Mongolian autonomous region and present day Mongolia and 140 of them had Living Buddhas as their reincarnated heads. There were about 110,000 monks, almost 1/3 of the male population of Mongolia and over one-third of the total population lived on monastery lands, worked for monasteries or in other ways were dependent upon the monasteries for their livelihoods. The monasteries had acquired this wealth of people as nobles had donated their dependents to the monasteries to escape taxes, just as individual herders had joined the establishments to escape exactions from landlords. By the 20th century, the monasteries were the most powerful force in Mongolia and often provided civil government as well as religious functions. With the collapse of the Chinese empire in 1911 and the ensuing warlord period of divided rule, a newly autonomous Mongolia was ruled by the Jebtsundamba in Yihe in a weakly centralized theocracy.
The twentieth century saw Mongolia achieve independence from China (It had been incorporated into the Chinese empire by the Qing dynasty (1644-1912) only to be taken over by the Soviet Union. With the collapse of the Chinese empire Mongolia first had a weak theocratic government. Political reformers, supported by the Russian communist party were determined to modernize their country and retain independence. In 1924, with the assistance of the Soviet Union and following the death of the 8th incarnate ruler, the Jebtsundamba, the Mongolian People’s Republic was formed and a socialist revolution begun. Caught between the warlords of China, fears of Japanese aggression, and the territorial designs of the Soviet Union, the country gradually fell under Soviet control, only achieving independence in 1989. During the years of Soviet occupation, the Buddhist establishment was virtually destroyed. At the beginning of the 20th Century, the Buddhist infra-structure controlled much of the population, monopolized education and medical services, administered justice in much of the country and controlled much of the total national wealth. A survey done by the Communist party of Mongolia revealed that, in the early 1930’s, Mongolia had 843 major Buddhist centers, about 3,000 temples and 6,000 associated buildings. The annual income of the Buddhist monastic establishment was 31 million tugriks while the state income was 37.5 million tugriks. The survey claimed that 48 % of the adult male population were monks and lay monastic workers.
The Party consolidated its power by systematically striping the Buddhist establishment of its wealth, people, and service industries during the 1930s. This protracted political struggle resulted in the removal of the Buddhist establishment from any role in public administration and education, the imposition of taxes and the confiscation of religious objects, and the prohibition of filling any of the incarnate lamas’ positions. In 1938, amid fears that the monasteries would cooperate with Japan which was then promoting its pan-Mongol puppet state, having annexed Manchuria in 1932 and conquered much of China by 1938, all monasteries were dissolved, their property seized, and the monks were laicized. The monasteries which were not destroyed were taken over to serve as local government offices or schools. This destruction of the monasteries was accompanied by the killing or jailing of an estimated 60,000 monks and was followed by years of propaganda against Buddhism.
Beginning in the 1970’s a more relaxed attitude was taken towards Buddhism as the Mongolian state became concerned with protecting the heritage of the Mongol people, much of which was related to Buddhism. One major monastery, the Gandan Monastery in Ulan Bator, was allowed to reopen with a community of 100 monks. Old monks were allowed to translate Tibetan books on medicine and herbs. Moreover, Buddhism played a role in Mongolia’s foreign policy by linking Mongolia with governments in East and Southeast Asia. Ulan Bator became the headquarters of the Asian Buddhist Conference for Peace and has held a number of conferences for Buddhist from Asian nations. The organization sponsored the visit of the Dalai Lama to Mongolia in 1979 and 1982.
Since Mongolia achieved impendence from the Soviet Union in 1989, barriers to religious practice have been broken down and Buddhism has been restoring itself throughout Mongolia. Monasteries are being rebuilt, monks and nuns are re-entering the monastic establishments, monastic schools have reopened and Buddhist art, medicine, astrology and divination are once again an important part of the Mongolian scene.
For sites on the restoration of Buddhism in present day Mongolia, please click on:
FPMT Mongolia: Re-igniting Buddhism in Central Asia
Ron Gluckman's Can't we Chant