The Spread and Domestication of Buddhism in Mongolia by Dugarjav Naran

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The earliest indigenous religious beliefs amongst Mongols consisted of various localized forms of shamanism, which focused specifically on rituals and nature deities. With the establishment of early political unity and its own statehood Mongols converted to Buddhism.

In this paper the author tried to explore the development of Buddhism as Mongolia’s predominant religion and its significance in the country’s cultural and political history, to give evaluation on every stages of Buddhism’s spread to Mongolia, the reasons why did Mongols converted to Tibetan Buddhism, role of polities in introducing this religion amongst Mongols. The paper also aims to illustrate Buddhism’s influence on the Mongolian culture, tradition and customs.

With establishment of pro-Soviet communist regime in Mongolia, the country looked back at the ultimately fruitless attempt to erase all religion from the Mongolian landscape, the indigenous religion as well as Buddhism. During the 1930s nearly all the monasteries and temples were destroyed or secularized; the monks were either killed or forced to marry. Laymen and monks succeeded in hiding some of the religious books and cult objects from the government and its catchpole, but most of the Buddhist literature and religious objects were destroyed during the years of the communist purges. In May 1938, the 724 temples of the whole 767 lamasery were completely destroyed. The ruling circles also imposed a ban to all other religions. The shaking off of communist regime in 1990’s brought about a resurgence of Mongolian religious traditions. Buddhism has experienced a massive renaissance.

Key words: religion, Buddhism, Khubilai, Mongolia, spread, Phag-ba, lama, Ganjur

The first introduction of Buddhism in Mongolia

The three major religions of mankind are Buddhism, Christianity and Islam. The oldest one, Buddhism which was born at the end of the sixth century B.C on the middle Ganges in India, could become a religion of universal salvation open to everyone, produced a lot of influence in the process of civilization in vast areas of Asia.[1]

According to the scholars’ research the Buddhism was first introduced into Mongolia in the 3rd century BC, during the reign of Hun’s khan, Modun, in the years of 209-174 BC.

Scholars share common idea that Buddhism has experienced three stages in its introduction among the Mongols. Mongolian lama from 17th century, Sumbe Hamba Ishbaljir, in his work "Pagsam Chonsom" and other prominent lama, Java Damdin in his essays "Altan Devter" (Golden Book) stressed that the first, early stage lasted from 3rd century BC to the XIII century . For example the khan of proto-mongol’s Nirun state (in Chinese Rouran), Shelun, once proclaimed the Buddhism to be the state religion instead of the fact that general belief of population was still Shamanism. According to the records in “Jiu Tang Shu”, during the times of Turkic khanates there had been built some Buddhist temples in Mongolian lands.

Buddhism made its stepe to the the greater part of the Asiatic continent, by traveling along the commercial routes, carried with the great flow of trade. One path was the chain of oases connecting the oases of the Amu-Darya valley with Kansu; the other consisted in the maritime routes followed by the trade between the Indian Ocean and South-East Asia.

By the words of academician, doctor Sh. Bira, the Budddhism on his early stage of spread entered Mongolia through the chain of oases, crossing other Central Asian countries. Particularly sogdians and uigurs introduced mongol tribes with their letters and Buddhist literature[2]. From the 10th century to the 12th century, Khitan khans and nobles paid great attention in spreading of Buddhism, Khitans built also many Buddhist temples. But at this early stage of spread the Buddhism did not leave a profound impact on the beliefs of population, produced limited influence in the ruling cirles.

The second introduction of Buddhism -The spread of Lamaism

The second stage covers period of 13th and 14th centuries. This time as Walther Heissig mentioned “the Buddhist conversion of the Mongols took its origin in a remarkable manner from China. “[3] The fourth great Khan, Munkhe tried to establish good relations with Chinese Buddhists, relying on their prominent monk Hai Yun, putting him in charge of Buddhist affairs in China. Prior to this event main development occurred which should be stressed in this paper. In 1240 the son of Ugedei Khan, Godan, with his forces entered Tibet. Later in 1244, The Tibetan Buddhist master Sakya Pandita Kunga Gyaltsen, with his nephew Phagpa( Phags-pa Lama) met with Prince Godan. On this occasion the lama could discuss Buddhism with Prince Godan who was further impressed by its thoughts.

Later after suppressing his rival, younger brother Arig Bugh, Kublai Khan came to the throne. During that period dramatic change took place in the nature of Mongol Empire. The political center, capital of the Empire, was moved to nowadays northern China, Khubilai proclaimed the establishment of Yuan Empire. With the continues southern campaign and final annex of former southern Song territory and its population new questions of cultural and political origins had been arisen. In such a new environment emperor Khubilai decided to use Tibetan Buddhism as a tool to prevent cinicization of spiritual life, not to allow the traditional Chinese Confucians and Dao sects to grow their influences.[4]

In 1260, when Khubilai became grand Khan, he conferred upon Phag-ba (1235 ~ 1280), the rank of Guoshi, the State Tutor, after lama’s death promoted him as Dishi, Imperial Tutor. The influence of Phag-ba particularly affected Khubilai Khan’s ideas about the state, of the connection between the religion and state, and of the position of the emperor. 1267 Kublai Khan sent troops into Tibet in order to suppress the power of resistance Pagba. The emperor established the institution of Xuanzhengyuan which governed all the religious affairs in the empire and military civil affairs in Tibet.[5] But during the Yuan Mongolian ruling class converted to Tibetan Buddhism but the broad nomadic public remained outside of this religion abiding traditional shamanism. Now the question arises as to why Mongolian Khubilai Khan choose Tibet as “spiritual neighbor”? Professor Jahchid Setsen considering historical and cultural factors provided some explanation stressing on similarities in their geographic circumstances as a major factor in the formation of the similar economy and cultural background. Tibetans before Buddhism followed Bon. Tibetan Bon and Mongolia Boe (Shamanism) is a similar belief. It was thus easier for the Mongols to mingle with semi nomadic Tibetans than with purely agricultural Chinese, who were distinct in social and cultural heritages.

Crown Prince, Ayurshiridara said, "A Chinese scholar taught me the Confucian classics for years but the meaning is still not too clear to me. Now I am hearing the Law of the Buddha from Tibetan monk, and I am enlightened after only one night.”[6] These words suggest how the Mongols' acceptance or rejection of outside cultural elements depended largely upon the cultural affinities of the Mongols to the Tibetans. There is considerable evidence that emotionally and psychologically the Mongols and the Tibetans had much in common. Buddhism espoused by Khublai Khan and Phagpa, The Great Master of Sakya, flourished only among the Mongolian ruling class, failing to profoundly affect the masses. Consequently, following the collapse of the Yuan Dynasty (1368) and the isolation of Mongolian lands, Buddhism faded away along with other foreign religions, giving way to the revival of the old shamanistic religion.

The third introduction-The spread of yellow sect

The third period covers the period between16-16th centuries. Fundamental changes occurred in the destiny of Mongolian people. The nation experienced reunification under leadership of Chinghis Khan’s 15th generation descendant Batmunkhe, Dayan Khan, after then faced disunity and Manchu conquest. The grandson of Batmunkhe Altan (born in 1506) became the founder of the Tümed Khanate.[7] Military raids in the Kokonor region brought Altan Khan into closer contact with Tibetan lamas. His nephew Hutuhtai Secen Hongtaiji of Ordos and his two brothers invaded Tibet in 1566. He sent an ultimatum to some of the ruling clergy of Tibet stating: "If you surrender, we'll develop the Dharma with you. If you don't surrender, we'll conquer you." The Tibetan supreme monks decided to surrender and Hutuhtai Secen Hongtaiji returned to Ordos with 3 high ranking monks.

Following the advice of his nephew, Hutuhtai Secen Hongtaiji, Altan Khan invited the head of Gelug school ( Yellow Sect), that is the reformed sect of Tsong kha pa, Sonam Gyatso (bSod nams rgya mtsho) to his domain. Upon their meeting in 1576, Altan Khan recognised Sonam Gyatso lama a reincarnation of Phag-ba lama and bestowed title of Dalai Lama. Sonam Gyatso, in turn, recognised Altan a reincarnation of Khubilai Khan. Altan Khan also bestowed title Ochir Dara (Vajra Dara, Очир Дар) to Sonam Gyatso. At the same time ruler of Khalkha Abtai rushed to Tumet to meet the Dalai Lama. He requested title Khan from Dalai Lama. Although he had already recognised Altan as a Khan besides the Mongolian Khan Tumen Jasaghtu, Dalai Lama in this case rejected the request under an excuse that "there cannot be two Khans (or Khaans) at the same time". After some hesitation however, he did bestow Abtai the title Khan. Abtai Khan established Erdene Zuu monastery in 1585 at the site of the former city Karakorum. Thus, eventually most of the Mongolian rulers became Buddhists.

Following this meeting mass conversion of the Tumet and Ordos Mongols into Yellow Sect occurred. These tribes adopted a series of new laws which ensured the spread of Lamaism among the Mongols, and placed obstacles in the practice of shamanism. The killing of women, slaves and animals as funerary offerings were abandoned. All bloody flesh offerings and all blood offerings were forbidden. The possession of Ongghot was also forbidden and were burned by order. In their place images of seven-armed Mahakala, the protective lord of lamaism, were worshipped in every family.[8]

Altan Khan built first monasteries in his residence of Köke Khota, which became a leading centre of lamaism. When the Buddhist conversion of Mongolia was actively promoted in the late sixteenth century, the complete Tibetan Buddhist canon, Ganjur as well as Danjur, was translated into Mongolian. Prior this event, in 1578, a grandson of Altan Khan, had made a translation of the Suvarnaprabhasa Sutra, one of the fundamental works of Lamaism. Northern Mongolian Abtai Khan seeing in Lamaism a boost to his political prestige in 1586 built the monastery of Erdeni Juu. The Dalai Lama sent Sa skya lama Lobsang Zangpo as his representative. The lama requested prohibitions on shamanism which had been introduces earlier among southern Mongolian tribes. Altan Khan died in l583, and in 1585 the Third Dalai Lama came to Koke-khota to pray for him and to propogate the Law of Buddha in the Ordos and other parts of Western lnner Mongolia. This made Koke-Khota the first centre of Buddhism in Mongolia. Abtai Khani, the leader of the Khalka Mongols of the north of the Gobi, also proceeded to the city to accept the Law from the Great Master.

Tibetan Buddhism and its ties with Mongilian “Golden descendants”

The Third Dalai Lama died in Inner Mongolia in 1588, and the Fourth Dalai Lama was reborn in the family of Altan Khan’s grandson, prince Sümer.[9] Thus, the "Golden descendants" (altan uragh) of Chinggis Khan were joined with the dominant orthodox line of Tibetan Buddhism. This newly born head of entire Lamaist church was soon taken to Köke Khota for religious training.

In 1635 a son was born to the Khalkha prince Gombodorji who, as the Jebzundamba Khutukhtu, was to become the spiritual leader of the church for Northern Mongolia in Erdeni Juu. He was direct descendant of Batmunkhe Dayan Khaan’s son, Gersenje.

After Manchu’s conquest of Mongolia Qing court in order to prevent any undesirable results or anti Qing activities halted the incarnation of Dalai Lama and Jebzundamba Khutuktu among the Mongolians.

The translation of Buddhist canons

The first translation of Buddhist canon into Mongolian was initiated by Saskya Pandita Gungga –jalsang). He pioneered the first translation of Makhayana into Mongolian. In 13-14th centuries Choiji-Odsar, Darmabala, Sodnomgalsan participated in this work. Choiji-Odsar made remarks in 8th century Buddhist philosophical “Boddhicaryavatara.” It is said that the book has 300 pages, printed number reached 1000 book. Yuan emperor Temur(1294-1307) bestowed Choiji-Odsar title of State Tutor for his achivement in translation of parts of Ganjur and Danjur.[10]

Sesrev Senge succefully finished the translation of “Mahakala Namo Stuti“and ”Manzushri Namo Samghiti.” In 14th century Budon Renchindev brought all volumes of Ganjur and Danjur to Mongolia. Between 1628-1629 in the territory controlled by Chakhar Ligdan Khan, all the translations of Ganjur was finished. [11]The texts which had been made since 1580, the begginning of conversion, as well as translations from the Yuan dynasty, were corrected and revised, those which were missing were translated in the Mongolian language in 113 volumes under [12] Ligdan Khan’s counsellor Shar ba Pandida (who identfied as Ananda) personally led this work.

20 century ‘s Mongolian Buddhism, decline and revival

In the beginning of 20th century Mongolian lamas took active part in national independent movement and people’s revolution. In 1911, when anti Manchu Xinhai revolution broke out in China the 8th Jebzundamba Khutuktu called with proclamation to resume Mongolian independence, encouraged the people to achieve freedom phrazing:”Manchu Qing’s end is coming, Mongolian state should renaissance. " In December 28, 1911, Mongolia declared its independence, the Jebzundamba Khutukhtu was promoted to the Mongolian emperor. In July 1921 the Mongolian people's revolutionary struggle got the 8th

Jebtsundamba Khutukht and many lama’s support or direct participation. Many lamas participated in the revolutionary activities for national freedom. Many prominent lamas participated in the government. For example, Prime Minister D. Bodoo, Interior minister Puntsagdorj, Prime Minister Damdinbazar (May 1922-July 1923).

In 1924, after the death of the religious leader, Jebzundamba Khutkhtu, a Mongolian People's Republic was proclaimed with support from the Soviet Union. During the 1930s great purge nearly all the monasteries and temples were destroyed or secularized; the monks were either killed or forced to marry. Laymen and monks succeeded in hiding some of the religious books and cult objects from the government and its catchpole, but most of the Buddhist literature and religious objects were destroyed during the years of the communist purges.

Since 1992 freedom of religion has been guaranteed in the constitution, and the separation of religious and secular institutions has been established. This new freedom of religion is observable everywhere in the country. People flock to the monasteries, making circumambulations, giving offering to the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas whose statues are either being restored or built anew. In 1996 a huge statue of the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara in the Maitreya temple in Ulaanbaatarr was installed. The yearly Mayidari festival, first introduced in 1657 at the Erdeni zuu monastery by the first Jebtsundamba Khutukhtu Zanabazar, was held again at Ulaanbaatar, in May of 2000 at the Gandanthegchinlin monastery. This monastery recently opened new colleges, structuring the monastic institution after the Tibetan Gelugpa model.

Impacts of Buddhism in Mongolian culture

Buddhism has integrated with the traditional culture of Mongolians during its transmission of nearly a thousand years in Mongolian area and was integrated into their daily lives and customs.
Many Tibetan or Sanskrit names of Buddhist literature spread among the people’s personal names. It is worth while to mention that some Sanskrit words have been Mongolized to such an extent that the Mongols do not event suspect their foreign origin:

Sanskrit Mongolian
Sansar (space)
Avyas (talent)
Buyan (good deeds)
Agshin (instant)
Tiv (continent)
Garig (planet)
Tsadig (tales, stories)
Shuleg (poems, verses)
Badag (strophe)
Arshan (mineral water, nectar)

The Mongols have a long tradition of having Sanskrit names:

Sanskrit Mongolian

From the beginning of Lamaism’s acceptance, practices and beliefs were adapted according to Mongolian context. The dresses of Mongolian lamas made of thick and warm materials, traditional Mongolian style gutuls (boots) prevent severe cold. The wide use of blue khadag, ceremonial scarves as opposed to yellow and white scarves used in Tibet refers back to the ancient shamanic worship of the Eternal heaven. A number of shamanic practices, like ovoo worshiping, have been incorporated into lamaist liturgy. Many monasteries view ovoo worships as one of their main responsibilities.

The Buddhist monastery architecture includes traditional Mongolian elements of yurts.

The lamaism also brought to Mongolia some elements of Tibetan cuisine, like zamba, manzi-tea etc. The elements of Buddhist worshipping also practised during the celebration of spring festival. For example the worshipping and offering to god,Lkham, ovoo offering etc. The mass worship of Gandan temple monasteries during the Spring festival became a new social habit of citizens of Ulaanbatar.

After all, Buddhism has eventually become an important component of Mongolian nationalism. Mongolian nationalists of different periods tried to use it as their ideology. The leaders of the so-called People’s revolution in 1921 supported by communist Russia put forward a slogan to restore State and Religion in Mongolia. With the democratic reforms that started in 1990 in Mongolia people also requested restoration of religion. Conclusion

Buddhism has played a significant role in the destiny of Mongolian people, from generation to generation it was carried solemnly as a part of daily life and culture.

Warriors who had previously invaded remote countries on horseback with weapons in hand totally changed in order to bring peace in earth and became monks with beads in their hand, trying to restore peace by enlightening people’s minds free from suffering.

Buddhism which forcibly died down during socialism under Russian control has quickly revived since democracy took place. The temples have been restored and new ones built and the number of Buddhist practitioners increased.

Births, deaths, weddings, starting new business, lunar year celebration, etc in fact every event involves religion and rituals, which are becoming more of a necessity to ensure the proper practicing of religion.

A political stability and tolerance towards other religions and less violence between ethnic groups compared to some other nations is a reflection of the Buddhist philosophy to love every human being equally.

Buddhism in Mongolia although was introduced from Tibet it is not an appendix or reproduce of Buddhism in Tibetan area.


1. Jackues Gernet, A History of Chinese Civilization( Cambridge University Press, 1982)

2. Sh.Bira, K Voprosu Izucheniya Buddiiskogo Literaturnogo Naslediya Mongolov (Acta Mongolica, UB, 1973)

3. W.Heissig, The Religions of Mongolia,(University of Caligornia Press)

4. D. Naran, The History of Elite Education in Mongolia in 13-14th centuries, UB,2 001

5. Yuanshi (History of Yuan) 元史 卷87

6. Sechin Jagchid , Menggu Wenhua yu Shehui,(Mongolian Culture and Society) Taipei, 1992

7. Okada Hidehiro, Mongol Chronicles and Chingisid Genealogies, Journal of Asian and African Studies, No.17, 1984

8. Lubsandajin, Altan Tobchi , UB, 1990

9. Ч. Далай. Монголын түүх. (1260-1388).(Ch. Dalai, Mongolian History 126-1388),Volume 3, UB, 1992

Internet resources:

1. Sechin Jagchid, “ Tibetan Buddhism , The Mongolian Religion” (
2. Sh. Bira, “The Indo-Mongolian Relationship: A Retrospective Outlook On Buddhism”.


<references / >
  1. Jackues Gernet, A History of Chinese Civilization( Cambridge University Press, 1982), p.210-211
  2. Sh.Bira, K Voprosu Izucheniya Buddiiskogo Literaturnogo Naslediya Mongolov (Acta Mongolica, UB, 1973,)p.83
  3. W.Heissig, The Religions of Mongolia,(University of Caligornia Press), p.24
  4. D. Naran, The History of Elite Education in Mongolia in 13-14th centuries, UB, 2001 (Mongolin Töru Yosoni Bolovsrolin Tüükh), p.26
  5. Yuanshi (History of Yuan) 元史 卷87,p.2193。
  6. For best references please see Sechin Jagchid, “ Tibetan Buddhism , The Mongolian Religion” (, Sechin Jagchid , Menggu Wenhua yu Shehui,(Mongolian Culture and Society) Taipei,1992, p.159-169
  7. Okada Hidehiro, Mongol Chronicles and Chingisid Genealogies, Journal of asian and African Studies, No.17, 1984, p. 153
  8. W. Heissig, The Religions of Mongolia, ( University of California Press), p.26
  9. Lubsandajin, Altan Tobchi , UB, 1990,p.185
  10. Ч. Далай. Монголын түүх. (1260-1388).(Ch. Dalai, Mongolian History 126-1388),Volume 3, UB, 1992, p. 158
  11. Sh. Bira, Acta Mongolica, UB, 1973, p.64
  12. W. Heissig, The Religions of Mongolia, ( University of California Press), p.30