Tibetan Buddhism, The Mongolian Religion

 By Professor Sechin Jagchid

Originally published in Common Voice, Volume 1

Regardless of what explanation monks or clergymen may give regarding religion, it is a phenomenon of human culture and society. As for the reasons why nations adopt a particular foreign religion, they may explain it as a destiny set by God, as the will of Heaven, or due to other affinities. Nevertheless, there are historical and cultural factors. These factors provide some explanation as to why the Mongols, at the peak of their power, adopted Tibetan Buddhism as their religious faith.

The Mongolian Khan's choice of this religion seems to have been based on cultural similarities between the Mongols and the Tibetans, and their mutual distance-geographical and cultural--from the Chinese. Both Mongolia and Tibet are high plateaus of Inner Asia, and their open steppes and cold, arid climate make them well-suited to nomadism. On account of similarities in their geographic circumstances, both Tibet and Mongolia developed a similar cultural style: Nomadic pastoralism. It was thus, easier for the Mongols to mingle with seminomadic Tibetans than with purely agricultural Chinese, who were far different in their social and cultural institutions. 

Before the Tibetans were converted to Buddhism, their original religious belief was known as Bon, a faith similar to Boe of the Mongols. This historical background may also indicate that Tibetan Buddhism, that fit so naturally into the culture of the "!and of Snows", was also more easily accepted by the Mongols than Sinicised Buddhism, which had naturally accommodated itself to an agricultural civilisation.

In 1240, the contingent of the Mongol Forces commanded by Prince Koton (1) entered Tibet, and later in the year 1244, the Tibetan Buddhist master Sakya Pandita Kunga Gyaltsen, together with his nephew, Phagpa, came to the camp of Koton. Although they came to the Mongolian camp under pressure, the Pandita was able to discuss Buddhism with these high Mongolian authorities. Thereafter, Prince Khublai was on his way on a campaign against the Kingdom of Ta-li, in present-day Yunnan Province of China, when the young Phagpa was able to meet him and persuade this powerful Prince--later the Khan of the Mongol Empire--to take a sympathetic view of Buddhism. From then on Phagpa acted as a sort of court priest at Khublai's headquarters. These factors combined to further the spread of Tibetan Buddhism among the Mongolian nobles. In 1260, when Khublai became Khan, he conferred upon Phagpa the rank of Kuo-shin, the State Instructor. Later, after his nirvana he was promoted to the rank of Ti-shih, the Imperial Tutor. Although at that time Tibetan Buddhism was only the religious faith of the Mongolian imperial clan and the people of the higher class, it had begun to greatly influence the thought of many Mongols. After the Mongolian Yuan Dynasty had been established in China for almost a century, the 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 Hsifan (Tibetan) monk, and I am enlightened after only one night.(2) These works 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. Be that as it may, as already mentioned, the 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. This period came to be known as the "dark-ages" in most Mongolian historical materials. And yet, when Buddhism flourished during the Yuan period, it subtly influenced Mongolia's traditional faith and culture, and consequently sowed the seeds for an eventual revival. 

The decline of Mongolian power and the Buddhist religion did not last long. The Mongols were soon able to re-establish their position as a powerful nation against the Chinese Ming Dynasty. In the mid-sixteenth century, Altan Khan of the Tumed tribe on the south of the Gobi carried out a military campaign in Tibetan territory and re-established intimate ties between Mongolia and Tibet. 

Altan Khan sent an emissary to Tibet in 1577 to pay respects to the Great Master of the Gelug sect, Sonam Gyatso. The following year a group of Mongolian patrons and this Tibetan master met on the bank of Lake Kokonor (Chinghai) to enact a ceremony for the promulgation of the Law of the Buddha. Altan Khan conferred on the master the title "Wachir-dara Dalai Lama" (commonly known as the Third Dalai Lama), the master conferred on Altan Khan the title "Tsadrawar Sechen Khan." Consequently, with the support of a powerfuI Mongolian Patron, the Gelug sect, centred in the Dalai Lama, achieved eminence above all others in Tibet. In addition, Altan Khan's prestige in Mongolia increased because of the blessings of the exalted religious leader of the "Land of Snows." Altan Khan's conversion hastened the spread of Buddhism in Mongolia, and Tumen, the Great Khan, whose headquarters was then in the eastern part of Inner Mongolia, also accepted Buddhism as his faith. Both of these conversions had far-reaching influence, bringing about the conversion even of the leader of the Central Asian--Oirad Mongols, who were enemies of both the Great Khan and Altan. 

After Altan Khan and other Mongolian nobles accepted Buddhism, the Third Dalai Lama appointed Dongkhar-Manjushiri Khutughtu as his representative and stationed him at Koke-Khota, the capital city of Altan Khan, there to expound the Law of the Buddha among the Mongols. 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. Abadai taiji, 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. The Third Dalai Lama died in Inner Mongolia in 1588, and the Fourth Dalai Lama was born in the family of Altan Khan. Thus, the "Golden descendants" (altan uragh) of Chinggis Khan were joined with the dominant orthodox line of Tibetan Buddhism.

During this period, those who went to Mongolia to spread Buddhism came not only from the Yellow Sect but also from others; the main one usually mistakenly known as the "Red Sect." The preaching of Tibetan Buddhism soon spread all over Mongolia, even reaching Manchuria, where eventually the Manchu imperial household was converted. 

Buddhism mainly developed among the Khalkha Mongols on the north of the Gobi because of the knowledge of Buddhism there and its political links--that is the prestige it had among the household of the First Jebtsundamba Khutughru, who were members of the "Golden descendants" of Chinggis Khan. As a result, a unified system of leadership was established in the ecclesiastical world of Outer Mongolia. The dynamics of religious and political unification was very important to the history of Mongolia. 

Religion sometimes has a more powerful influence on human life than does law. The conversion of a nation to a certain religion means that its people will accept that religion's principles as basic to their pattern of life. When the Mongolian-Yuan Khans were converted to Buddhism, the religion was common only among the upper class, and its influence was much weaker than in the late sixteenth century, when the whole Mongolian nation received Buddhism as its faith. After the collapse of the Yuan Dynasty, the Mongols suffered extensively from both foreign invasion and internal tribal wars. As a result, the people felt that life was vain and sorrowful. Following the second conversion of the Mongolian nobles, they began to regain hope for peace and gained a deep faith that provided them comfort. The desire of both nobles and the common people was to follow the law that would lead them to the realm of the Buddha. They changed their attitudes and behaviour, and worked for blessings. This psychological change brought peace and stability to Mongolia, but it also resulted in weakness and decline.

The Manchu rulers, as experts in the art of politics, did not neglect the potential power of Buddhism, and used it to manipulate the Mongols. Of this, Emperor Ch'ien-lung (r. 1736-1795) wrote openly in his work La-Ma-shuo (on Lamas): The Yellow Religion of the interior and the outside was generally governed by these two persons, the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Erdeni. All the Mongolian tribes whole-heartedly submit themselves. The development of the Yellow Religion is intended to pacify the Mongols. This matter is not insignificant and therefore should be protected but is not a policy similar to that of the Yuan Dynasty, which deviously flattered the Tibetan monks.(3)

The measures taken towards Tibetan Buddhism by the Manchu Court were, as we see, aimed at strengthening their control over the Mongols. Even at the end of the Ch'ing Dynasty, there still were those who openly praised the success of this Manchu policy to weaken Mongolia. 

At the turn of the twentieth century, rapid changes in the Asian situation posed serious problems to the existence of the Mongols as a nation. By this time, Tibetan Buddhism had mingled with traditional Mongolian culture and had become an integral part of the Mongolian national character. Some have even said it was one of the main reasons for the decline of the Mongols as a nation. When Outer Mongolia declared its independence from China in 1911, many were concerned about the fate of the religion.

In 1921, the territories of Mongolia on the north of the Gobi desert came under the influence of the Bolshevik Revolution, and in 1924, following the death of the Eighth Jibtsundanba hutugthu and the founding of the Mongolian People's Republic (MPR), the ruling Mongolian People's Revolutionary Party, under the direction of the Soviet Comintern started a so-called socialist revolution. Later in the Stalin era of the 1930's, except for the two famous temples of Gandan Keid and the Erderiin juu, most monasteries were destroyed and most of the lamas, accused as counter revolutionary elements, were dispersed and returned to a secular life. During World War II, following a change of the heavy-handed policy against religion in the Soviet Union, the government of the Mongolian People's Republic and the ruling party allowed the recovery of Buddhism although under official guidelines. Several years ago, when His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama was invited to Ulanbator, tens of thousands of people, both old and young, came to pay homage to this famous spiritual leader. Right now Gandan keid, the old centre of Buddhist faith in Mongolia, is opened to the people for worship and some monks are allowed to perform religious ceremonies. Even a college of Buddhism has been opened in Ulan-bator. All these suggest that the roots of the religion in the minds and hearts of the people and the Buddhist tradition, as part of the national culture, remains today, even after seven decades of severe persecution.

In Inner Mongolia the negative influence of the Manchu religious policy, the occurrence of the Autonomous Movement in the 1930's, and Japan's occupation stirred up a considerable anti-religious movement among the intellectuals. Even so, their criticisms were mainly concerning the lightening of the discipline of the monks in the monastic institutions. Following the end of World War II and the Chinese Communist occupation, and especially during the period of the Cultural Revolution, the fate of Buddhism in Inner Mongolia was even worse than that of Outer Mongolia in the 1930's. Although now the situation is somewhat improved, the controls and interference from outside is still very heavy. 

A world topic of the 1980's is human rights; however, both the peoples of Mongolia and Tibet are under alien regimes that dominated without the consent of the local people whose freedom of belief and speech are totally abused. Consequently, these two peoples of the same faith have no other choice but to cling to their national cultural tradition and their common faith to struggle together for the fulfillment of freedom from both physical and spiritual harassment from the enemies of their religion.


1.Koton was a son of Ogodei Khan, the successor of Chinggis Khan. He was assigned as the commanding Prince of the Mongol force in the area of present Kansu Province. In the 1240's, his contingent under General
Dordagh entered Tibet. The visit of Sakyapa to Koton's camp took place during the reign of Guyug Khan (1246-1243), the brother of Koton. However Prince Koton was usually recognised, mistakenly, as the Khan by most of Tibetan materials.

2.See Yuan-shih [History of the Yuan dynasty]46, 8b.

3.These words were carved on the style in Yung-ho Kung, the grand imperial lamasery in Peking. Also see Ho-ning(revised), Wei-tsang-tung-chih (rpt. Taipei, 1965), pp. 276- 28a.

Sechin Jagchid (Jagchid Sechin), a Mongol from Inner Mongolia, is a retired professor of Brigham Young University. His works in English includes Mongolia's Culture and Society (with Paul Hyer), A Mongolian Living Buddha: Biography of the Kanjurwa Khutughtu (with Paul Hyer), Peace, War, and Trade Along the Great Wall: Nomadic-Chinese Interaction Through Two Millennia (with  Van Jay Symons) and Essays in Mongolian Studies.