Buddhism in Mongolia

by Tara Munch
(UB, Mongolia)

Buddhism in Mongolia

Buddhism in Mongolia

Javsung, my housekeeper is very worried about me and has been since I went to her home for Tsaggan Sar. Why is she so worried? Well, I was born in the year of the Rooster and Tsaggan Sar marks the beginning of the year of the Bull. According to her this is bad, bad, bad and needs to be fixed. Fixing my year (that is how she put it- although she isn’t very fluent in English so I could probably use my own phrase) involved going to one of the many Buddhist temples in Ulaanbaatar in order to have a lama give me advice.

About 70 to 80% of the people in Mongolia say that they are Buddhist. Buddhism in Mongolia is basically Tibetan Buddhism of the Gelugpa school. In the 1500’s a Mongol military invited the head of the “Yellow Sect” of Tibetan Buddhism to Mongolia. He gave the Tibetan leader the title of Dalai Lama, which the heads of Tibetan Buddhism still hold. My school's driver even now has a picture of the Dalai Lama glued to the windshield of the school van. In the twenties, about one third of the men in Mongolia were Buddhist monks although many of these lived outside the monasteries and did not observe their vows. Before communism there were about 750 monasteries throughout the country. After Communism was established the government repressed the religious practices of the Mongolians. The leader of Mongolia at the time Khorloogin Choibaisan obeyed orders from Stalin and destroyed most of the Monasteries and killed thousands of monks. In the 1990’s after the fall of communism here there was a Buddhist revival and many of them were rebuilt and reestablished.

The big temple is at the edge of town but there are a bunch of smaller temples around it and one of these is where Javsung goes with her family and where she took me. She likes the lama there. A Lama is a title for a Tibetan teacher of the Dharma. Lama can be used as an honorific title conferred on a monk, or may be part of a title such as Dalai Lama. It seems here that all the monks are called lamas but again Javsung’s English isn’t that fluent and my Mongolian is just embarrassing so I might have misunderstood.
I had never been to a Buddhist temple before so I found all the little things fascinating. The buildings inside and out are painted with bright reds, greens, yellows, and blues. I am used to a much more subdued place of worship and so the lights and colors were a bit jarring. The Eight auspicious symbols of Buddhism were painted all around the temple. In case you were wondering what the symbols are, I will tell you. There is a Lotus flower which represents purity and enlightenmen; An Endless knot, or, the Mandala that shows harmony; A Golden Fish pair is next and that represents married happiness and freedom. Is it me or is that just an oxymoron? There is also a Victory Banner which sort of speaks for itself and a Wheel of Dharma which represents knowledge; Inexhaustible treasure and wealth is shown by the treasure vase which is again strange as much of the point of Buddhism seems to be avoiding attachment to worldly goods.. Then there is the Parasol and this represents the crown, and protection from the elements. Which crown I am not sure of though… Last there is a Conch shell and inside the conch shell is where all the thoughts of Buddha are supposed to be.

Outside there were several prayer wheels. A prayer wheel is a cylindrical 'wheel' in this case made from metals. Traditionally, the mantra Om Mani Padme Hum is written in Sanskrit on the outside of the wheel. I wouldn’t have recognized the Sanskrit or what was written but there were people’s names on the wheels. They were put there by their families after the person dies so that others can pray for them. According to the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, spinning the wheels will have much the same effect as saying the prayers out loud. It was also sort of fun to walk around the whole building with Javsung spinning the wheels.

The temple was crowded. You had to wait in line but because the concept of line in Mongolia is a bit fluid, the waiting was a bit less placid than I had expected. The benches were tiny, only about two or three inches wide. We sat there while Javsung told the lama about me (or at least that is what I think she did) and then the Lama gave me his advice for fixing the year. He told me that it is a good thing to be open to Buddhism and that I would never forget Mongolia. He also told me not to forget my own roots and religion. I am supposed to carry a white handkerchief with me at all times. I should not swim in very cold water and avoid all Mongolian food. That last piece of advice is something I plan to shamelessly exploit in the next year. I am also not to make major purchases which I suppose will help me save money. The whole thing was interesting and felt almost as if I was having my fortune told.

After that we went to the incense man in the corner to buy incense and a bottle of oil that you are supposed to wash your face in. He was very interested in me and I am pretty sure that he would have talked my ear off if we could have found a common language. He very nicely let me take his picture. I then sat down with another monk who had the list of “books” that needed to be read for me to change my year. I sat there while he chanted them for me and this other woman who Javsung came to some sort of agreement about me sitting next to. I didn't really know what to do and was more than a little embarrassed that Javsung had to lean over my shoulder and put my hands in the right position. I am still not sure what language the books were in. Javsung didn’t know but I suppose that it was either Tibetan or Sanskrit. While he chanted he used a rope of beads to keep track of where he was in the prayer. Very similar, I suppose, to a rosary. These beads are called malas and there are108 beads in the string. One mala counts as 100 mantras. The 8 extra are meant to be dedicated to all people. He chanted for about half an hour which Javsung told me is fairly short. She told me that was because the first lama that I saw thought that I was basically a good and harmless person so recommended a short book. After the chanting a pile of incense was lighted and the monk smiled and basically indicated that I should go home and be good.

And that is why I can tell you with great authority that my year is now fixed. The lama told me so and Javsung is much more at ease.

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