Friday, August 25, 2006

A Long Way from Shangri-La

China’s expressions of disapproval at the Dalia Lama’s seventh visit to Mongolia have been relatively muted, apparently limited to a sullen statement of objection and delaying one flight to Ulaan Baatur on the pretext of bad weather.

It’s good thinking for China to keep a low profile, since Buddhism in Mongolia is struggling with difficulties of its own, and would perhaps welcome the distraction of being able to blame the profoundly unpopular Chinese for picking on them.

A monk blogging the visit on Mongolia Web, evocatively titling his post Dalai Lama drops bomb on Mongolia’s monastic community, provides a picture of a religious movement wrestling with serious internal problems--and a long way from Shangri La:

The post-independence discipline of the Mongolian monastics is in many ways mixed, and His Holiness used this opportunity to finally draw the line. During the Communist era, Gandan was the only monastery permitted to function, though under tight scrutiny (including monastic spies) and constant interference. The few who were allowed to serve there were constantly 'encouraged' to marry and maintain households.

Precious few were able to resist and it is these 'married monks' who became the teachers of the post-independence generation. As a result, there is a pervasive idea that 'Mongolian Buddhism is different' and that it is really not unusual to have a secret girlfriend, or even a wife and family, and still maintain the appearance of a monk.

His Holiness exposed this thinking today to the bright glare of the Vinaya, the Buddha's teachings on a monk's discipline. He began by remarking that during his 1997 visit, there were about 150 monks, but now there were hundreds more in robes. He said that the number of monks is not at all important, however, it's the purity of their lives that matters. In fact, if they're not keeping their precepts, the number of monks is pointless. Then he said it straight out:

"If you have girlfriends or wives or are not keeping the precepts of a monk in other ways, you should disrobe. Do it 100% or don't do it. Period. Stop wearing the clothing of a monk altogether and confusing people and staining the lineage. Try to be a good lay Buddhist but stop pretending to be a monk. Before 1990, there was some excuse. For those who chose a monastic life after 1990, there's no excuse."

Interestingly, the author subsequently deleted the post, possibly in response to criticism that Mongolian Buddhist dirty linen was being aired in public. The lone commenter on the now vanished article objected:

The language used in this report is as harsh as communist propaganda. Although truth is bitter. The way of reporting should be better than this. Since the audience is mongolian community.

Respect should be there for the religion even the evil deeds are being done by unhealthy people'

However, the piece had already been picked up on Tyson William’s Buddhist Journal, where I rediscovered it.

Mongolian Buddhism labors under some unique historical burdens.

The religion has alien roots, with its services conducted in the Tibetan language.

More importantly, in recent history, Mongolian Buddhism has frequently served as a vehicle for foreign interference in Mongolia affairs.

Significant elements of the Buddhist establishment in Mongolia were sponsored by China’s Manchu Qing dynasty in an effort to extend Chinese control.

In 1924, with the death of the Bogd Khan—the reincarnation of Jebtsundampa, head of the Buddhist religion in Mongolia, and Mongolia’s absolute ruler prior to 1921--the Buddhist church in Mongolia lost its grasp on temporal power through the efforts of an indigenous progressive movement that, although it was apparently operating under Comintern direction, is still respected in Mongolia as the vanguard of the Mongolian struggle for self determination.

Under the new constitution, Mongolia became the world’s second socialist state after the USSR and the special political position of the Jebtsundampa was abolished.

Over the next few years the regime made efforts to foreclose potential avenues for a resurgence of Buddhist political power.

According to Alexander Berzin’s authoritative account:

...the Mongolian Communist Party Congress of 1925 announced that the Jebtsundampa would not incarnate again with the same religious and political status as before. Rather, he would be reborn as General Hanumant in Shambhala. For verification of their claim, they said they would consult with the Dalai Lama, though it is doubtful that they ever did. .. In 1929, the Seventh Party Congress … formally forbade the installation of a ninth Jebtsundampa, although the reincarnation had been found in Tibet.

The mystical kingdom of Shambhala is supposed to exist on a remote, spiritual plane—a convenient realm of exile for an inconvenient, perpetually reincarnating political force.

Nevertheless, its physical manifestation was sought for by Western mystics (it was the inspiration for Shangri La), and Japanese militarists even asserted its location in Japan, as part of their scheme to create a new Japan-centric Asian military, political, and spiritual order, according to Berzin.

Not surprisingly, Buddhism remained a destabilizing element in Mongolian politics.

In 1932, rebellious elements in Mongolia called on the Panchen Lama to invade Mongolia (supported by Chiang Kai-shek as a counterweight to the Dalia Lama’s political and military strength in Tibet—yes, it gets complicated) to overthrow the Communist regime.

During its aggression in Northeast Asia, the Japanese empire attempted to peel Mongolia away from the Soviet Union by promoting Pan-Mongolianism based on Buddhist revival.

In the 1930s, at Stalin’s command—and to curtail Mongolia’s not unenthusiastic flirtation with Japan--the Mongolian regime was purged of its pro-Buddhist elements, including its Prime Minister, Genden, who had stated that “on earth there were two great geniuses—Buddha and Lenin”.

His successor, the pliant Choibalsan, orchestrated the wholesale destruction of the Mongolian Buddhist temples and murder of monks in order to transform Mongolian society into an obedient and reliable instrument of Soviet policy.

In a melancholy exhibit in Ulaan Baatur’s Genden Museum for the Victims of Political Repression you can reach out and touch the skulls of monks exhumed from a recently discovered mass grave, each with a neat bullet hole near the top of the head. They were some of the victims of a mass campaign of terror in 1937 that claimed nearly 30,000 victims.

Only Gandan Monastery survived and, as described above, the few remaining monks were encouraged to compromise their their vows and marry in order to decrease the moral authority of the church.

After the communist system collapsed in Mongolia in 1989, the Dalai Lama has sought to rejuvenate Buddhism in Mongolia through his visits, encouragement of new Buddhist establishments, dispatch of personnel, and the training of new monks in Dharmsala.

However, in addition to its historical difficulties, the Mongolian Buddhist church has struggled to accommodate itself to the new realities of Mongolian society.

The Mongolian Communist Party, reborn as the People’s Revolutionary Party, has survived as a potent political force in post-1989 Mongolia, and remains hostile to Buddhism.

Recent efforts to allow the current incarnation of Jebtsundampa--currently residing in Dharmsala—to return permanently (he has paid one brief visit without government invitation) have been blocked by invocation of the 1924 constitution.

Mongolian Buddhism also runs afoul of the burgeoning official cult of Chinggis Khan.

The great Khan is aggressively promoted by the government as a focus of Mongolian nationalism (and revered as the conqueror of China and Russia) as the modern alternative to “the lights that failed”—Communism and Buddhism.

In particular, Buddhism is blamed for diluting the innate martial valor of the Mongolian man. Mongolia has been the plaything of Russia, China and, to a lesser extent, Japan for the last few hundred years, and some blame this on the fact that up to half of Mongolia’s male population was cloistered in Buddhist monasteries during this unhappy period.

More importantly, Mongolia’s support of religious freedom has thrown the nation open to an influx of Christian missionaries. There are at least 17 Protestant sects active in Mongolia, and approximately 200 churches.

Ulaan Baatur boasts a high profile, professionally managed TV station, Eagle TV, invested in by American evangelicals, that combines Christian prostelization and non-religious news and entertainment programming.

The evaporation of Soviet financial support caused a crisis in Mongolia’s economy and society, and the Christian denominations have moved quickly to offer medical, technical, and social services. Many of their activities are managed through an umbrella organization, Joint Christian Services, with an impressive array of projects.

In what might be called the Christian religio-entertainment sphere, Ulaan Baatur’s sports stadiums have also played host to lavishly advertised faith-healing spectacles by the likes of Word of Faith’s Peter Youngren.

From zero in 1989, the number of Christian converts has grown in double digit rates to exceed 20,000, primarily in Mongolia’s urban centers. Mongolia’s population skews very young, with two-thirds of the population under 30 years of age.

The Fellowship of Christian Students website run by Tom and Nancy Lin provides an interesting snapshot of Christian religious activity in Mongolia, much of it centered on outreach to youth, as well as some highly detailed but unsourced statistics on the awareness and adoption of Christian belief inside the country.

The Church of Latter Day Saints has been especially active in its engagement with Mongolia and has registered precisely 6,346 converts as of 6 July 2006. Its sleek grey building next to the Chinggis Khan hotel is perhaps too small to be called “hulking”, and its cadre of suited, badged, and fluent Mongolian-speaking missionaries too young to be called overbearing, but the pervasiveness of the LDS presence in Ulaan Baator can be called remarkable.

The presence of the South Korean denominations in Mongolia are less obvious to Westerners, but may be the dominant force in Christian missionary work in Mongolia. Reverend Moon and his Unification Church have turned their attention to Mongolia, and are probably working both at the popular level through overtly religious activities, and at the political level through the Reverend Moon’s aggressive and well-funded NGOs.

20,000+ believers currently represents less than 1% of Mongolia’s population. However, Mongolia’s social and spiritual niches seem to resemble South Korea more than any other country in Asia, and it does not seem inconceivable that Christian denominations in Mongolia could achieve penetration similar to that in South Korea, where approximately 30%-40% of the population is Christian.

By Mongolian standards, the churches have access to significant financial resources and there are accusations that people join the church for material benefits, not just food and clothing but the chance to study abroad.

However, beyond these selfish motives it appears clear that many Mongolians are attracted to Christian churches because of the association in their minds between Christianity and the new spiritual vigor and potentialities that the dominant religion of Western capitalism and democracy seems to represent.

The Mongolian Buddhist church, on the other hand, is hampered by its miserable history and limited in the financial resources it can bring to the competition for the hearts and souls of Mongolians. It receives limited financial support from the cash-strapped government for reconstruction of temples but does not enjoy tax exemption for land or income. Well-heeled financial patrons are not abundant in Mongolia’s impoverished society.

Mongolian Buddhism itself is still trying with the assistance of Dharmsala, to work its way out of the human legacy of the Communist domination and corruption of the movement. But at the same time, factionalism seems to be harming the church, as one group of monks is pressing for a more national church with its scriptures translated into Mongolian, instead of read in the traditional Tibetan.

This is not merely a problem for the religion inside Mongolia.

Anecdotal information indicates that the Mongolian variation of Lama Buddhism has not been able to assert itself against the Christian sects even in Inner Mongolia, where Christian churches do not enjoy official tolerance and must organize and proselytize sub rosa.

An informant claimed that “in every town” in Inner Mongolia that he had visited the newest and finest building was always a Christian church, allegedly linked to South Korean evangelical support.

This implies that, contrary to the situation in the ethnic Tibetan regions of the Tibet Autonomous Region, Qinghai, and western Sichuan, Lama Buddhism in ethnic Mongolian areas has been unable to occupy a central position in the psyches of people looking for an alternative to Communism, commercialism, and Han Chinese rule.

From the Chinese point of view, then, Mongolian Buddhism is perhaps a welcome drain upon the energy, resources, and prestige of the Dalai Lama, and the more time he spends there the better.