I was in Ulaanbatar, the capital of Mongolia, popularly called UB. I was conducting a training course for young persons with moderate-severe disabilities. Ebe (Enhbuyant), the president of the organisation responsible for this project, had invited us to his home for dinner.
I had been to Mongolia many times in the past, and often I had visited friends and acquaintances in their round-tent homes called Ger. I have known Ebe for a long time. Yet, it was the first time that he had invited me to his home. It became an opportunity to know about Buddhism in Mongolia.
This post is about the visit to Ebe’s home and about the renaissance of Buddhism in Mongolia, after its decline during the years of communism.
Traffic in Ulaanbaatar
I am staying near the Gandam monastery, the biggest Buddhist monastery in Mongolia. Ebe, lives to the south-west from here, in an apartment complex off the Narny Zam.
Ebe had come to my hotel to pick me up. It was a Thursday evening, the start of a long weekend in Mongolia because of a national holiday on Friday. The road was choked with traffic. To cover the 6-7 km to reach his home, it took us almost an hour.
UB is home to about 1.5 million people, about 50% of all the population of Mongolia, one of the most sparsely populated countries in the world. Many persons in UB have cars, especially the second-hand cars imported from S. Korea and Japan. Though the city has some wide roads, the number of cars is very high. Over-bridges are rare with frequent red lights and many undisciplined drivers. Thus, the traffic jams are common in UB, especially at peak hours.
The smaller streets face another problem – that of the limited parking places. Till a few years ago, when Mongolia had fewer cars, they had built a lot of apartment buildings but with few parking spaces.
Our dinner at Ebe’s home
Our friend had an apartment on the second floor (here they call it "third floor", as the ground floor is called "first floor"). He led us inside and proudly showed us his beautiful Buddhist altar, separated from the rest of the room by a glass wall.
While his wife served us the traditional salted milk tea (Suutei Tsai) along with some local bread (Boortsog) and cream cheese (Urum), the talk veered towards Mongolian politics.
Bayar, Ebe’s friend on a wheel chair, had joined us for the dinner along with his wife. Since the house does not have an elevator, he had been brought up in his wheel chair by two friends.
Some years ago, Bayar had been hit on his head by some drunken police academy students in the city’s central Sukhbataar square, leading to a paralysis of his legs. Initially he was very depressed. Fortunately a scholarship to Japan helped him to understand that his life could still have a meaning and joy. Today he is part of the Independent Living Centre in Mongolia.
After talking about politics, while his wife Ariunna served us huge bowls of Lavashaa, a soup made with meat and homemade pasta, Ebe explained to us about his Buddhist temple. Everything in the altar is placed according to an hierarchy, in which a picture of Buddha occupies the central and highest place of honour. He told us that alongside his work with disabled persons, he is now studying Buddhist theology.
Renaissance of Buddhism in Mongolia
“How did you become so interested in Buddhism?” I asked him.
Ebe's interest in Buddhism had started in his childhood. He had grown up with his maternal grandfather, who was a Buddhist lama. During the Stalinist purges of 1937, most Buddhist lamas in Mongolia were killed, but his grandfather had escaped by removing his religious clothes and becoming a soldier in the Mongolian army. When Ebe was a child, his grandfather had secretly taught him about Buddhism, as officially all religious practices were banned.
In 1990 after the pro-democracy demonstrations, the Russian influence on Mongolia waned and the communist regime was replaced by an open multi-party system. During the 1990s, slowly Buddhism came back. Only four of the original Buddhist monasteries and a handful of Buddhist monks of Mongolia had survived the communist regime.
Mongolians follow the Tibetan Mahayana branch of Buddhism and thus are the followers of Dalai Lama. India also helped the renaissance of Buddhism in Mongolia by sending Kushok Bakula Rinpoche, a Buddhist lama, as its ambassador in 1990. He established a Buddhist temple in UB. Some months later, after a gap of almost seventy years, an assembly of Buddhist monks was held in the Gandam monastery of Ulaanbataar. The Buddhist temple established by Rinpoche is located near the Gandam monastery.
Today Buddhism is back in the lives of Mongolians. Old forgotten Buddhist temples are being repaired and reopened. Gandam monastery in UB is the most important Buddhist temple in the country with an 86 feet high statue of Avalokiteshwara form of Buddha.
Ulaanbataar also has many smaller Buddhist temples while the beautiful 18th century monastery of Chojin Lama in the city centre, dating back to the time of the 8th Bodh king, has been made into a museum.
Ebe’s son is also studying Buddhist theology. Ebe hopes that in a few years, his son can go to Banaras university in India to study at the faculty of Pali and Buddhist studies. The picture below shows all of us at Ebe’s home including his wife Ariunna and his son Nyamjav.
I have seen the impact of communist regimes on the Buddhists in countries like China and Vietnam. While I understand that they were established to bring equality and demolish feudal oppressions, I think that in the end they substituted one kind of oppression with another, and in the process destroyed peoples' cultures and social practices. Like in Mongolia, even in China and Vietnam, Buddhism has had a renaissance though many important aspects of the culture have disappeared.
The final image of this post is of the students of the Tashichoinpel monastic datsan (university) originally established in 1756 at Dolon Nuur in Inner Mongolia and now active in Gandam monastery.
Personally, I feel that neither savage capitalism nor the communist regimes, serve the best interests of humanity. With all its imperfections, a democratic system which respects peoples’ individual and collect rights, is the better option for governing countries.
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