Traditional Mongols worshipped heaven (the "clear blue sky") and their ancestors, and they followed ancient northern Asian practices of shamanism, in which human intermediaries went into trance and spoke to and for some of the numberless infinities of spirits responsible for human luck or misfortune. In 1578 Altan Khan, a Mongol military leader Abatai Sain Khan with ambitions to unite the Mongols and to emulate the career of Chinggis invited the head of the rising Yellow Sect of Tibetan Buddhism to a summit. They formed an alliance that gave Altan legitimacy and religious sanction for his imperial pretensions and that provided the Buddhist sect with protection and patronage. Altan gave the Tibetan leader the title of Dalai Lama, which his successors still hold. Altan died soon after, but in the next century, the Yellow Sect spread throughout Mongolia, aided in part by the efforts of contending Mongol aristocrats to win religious sanction and mass support for their ultimately unsuccessful efforts to unite all Mongols in a single state. Monasteries were built across Mongolia, often sited at the juncture of trade and migration routes or at summer pastures, where large numbers of herders would congregate for shamanistic rituals and sacrifices. Buddhist monks carried out a protracted struggle with the indigenous shamans and succeeded, to some extent, in taking over their functions and fees as healers and diviners, and in pushing the shamans to the religious and cultural fringes of Mongolian culture. 

Tibetan Buddhism, which combines elements of the Mahayana and the Tantric schools of Buddhism with traditional Tibetan rituals of curing and exorcism, shares the common Buddhist goal of individual release from suffering and the cycles of rebirth. The religion holds that salvation, in the sense of release from the cycle of rebirth, can be achieved through the intercession of compassionate buddhas (enlightened ones) who have delayed their own entry to the state of selfless bliss (nirvana) to save others. Such buddhas, who are many, are in practice treated more as deities than as enlightened humans and occupy the center of a richly polytheistic universe of subordinate deities, opposing demons, converted and reformed demons, wandering ghosts, and saintly humans that reflects the folk religions of the regions into which Buddhism expanded. Tantrism contributed esoteric techniques of meditation and a repertoire of sacred icons, phrases, and gestures that easily lent themselves to pragmatic (rather than transcendental) and magical interpretation. The religion posits progressive stages of enlightenment and comprehension of the reality underlying the illusions that hamper the understanding and perceptions of those not trained in meditation or Buddhist doctrine, with sacred symbols interpreted in increasingly abstract terms. Thus, a ritual that appears to a common yak herder as a straightforward exorcism of disease demons will be interpreted by a senior monk as a representation of conflicting tendencies in the mind of a meditating ascetic.

In Tibet Buddhism thus became an amalgam, combining colorful popular ceremonies and curing rituals for the masses with the study of esoteric doctrine for the monastic elite. The Yellow Sect, in contrast to competing sects, stressed monastic discipline and the use of logic and formal debates as aids to enlightenment. The basic Buddhist tenet of reincarnation was combined with the Tantric idea that Buddhahood could be achieved within a person's lifetime to produce a category of leaders who were considered to have achieved Buddhahood and to be the reincarnations of previous leaders. These leaders, referred to as incarnate or living buddhas, held secular power and supervised a body of ordinary monks, or lamas (from a Tibetan title bla-ma, meaning "the revered one)". The monks were supported by the laity, who thereby gained merit and who received from the monk's instructions in the rudiments of the faith and monastic services in healing, divination, and funerals.

Buddhism and the Buddhist monkhood always have played significant political roles in Central and Southeast Asia, and the Buddhist church in Mongolia was no exception. Church and state-supported each other, and the doctrine of reincarnation made it possible for the reincarnations of living buddhas to be discovered conveniently in the families of powerful Mongol nobles.

Tibetan Buddhism is monastic. By the beginning of the twentieth century, Outer Mongolia had 583 monasteries and temple complexes, which controlled an estimated 20 percent of the country's wealth. Almost all Mongolian cities have grown up on the sites of monasteries. Yihe Huree, as Ulaanbaatar was then known, was the seat of the preeminent living Buddha of Mongolia (the Jebtsundamba Khutuktu, also known as the Bogdo Gegen and later as Bogdo Khan), who ranked third in the ecclesiastical hierarchy, after the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama. Two monasteries there contained approximately 13,000 and 7,000 monks, and the prerevolutionary Mongol name of the settlement known to outsiders as Urga, Ikh Huree, means big monastery.

Over the centuries, the monasteries acquired riches and secular dependents; they gradually increased their wealth and power as those of the Mongol nobility declined. Some nobles donated a portion of their dependent families--people, rather than land, were the foundation of wealth and power in old Mongolia--to the monasteries; some herders dedicated themselves and their families to serve the monasteries either from piety or from the desire to escape the arbitrary exactions of the nobility. In some areas, the monasteries and their living buddhas (of whom there were a total of 140 in 1924) also were the secular authorities. In the 1920s, there were about 110,000 monks, including children, who made up about one-third of the male population, although many of these lived outside the monasteries and did not observe their vows. About 250,000 people, more than a third of the total population, either lived in territories administered by monasteries and living Buddhas or were hereditary dependents of the monasteries. With the end of Chinese rule in 1911, the Buddhist church and its clergy provided the only political structure available, and the autonomous state thus took the form of a weakly centralized theocracy, headed by the Jebtsundamba khutagt in Ikh Huree.

By the twentieth century, Buddhism had penetrated deeply into Mongolian culture, and the populace willingly supported the lamas and the monasteries. Foreign observers had a uniformly negative opinion of Mongolian monks, condemning them as lazy, ignorant, corrupt, and debauched, but the Mongolian people did not concur. Ordinary Mongolians apparently combined a cynical and realistic anticlericalism, sensitive to the faults and the human fallibility of individual monks or groups of monks, with a deep and unwavering concern for the transcendent values of the church.

Fall of Buddhism

When the revolutionaries--determined to modernize their country and to reform its society--took power, they confronted a massive ecclesiastical structure that enrolled a larger part of the population, monopolized education and medical services, administered justice in a large part of the country, and controlled a great deal of the national wealth. The Buddhist church, moreover, had no interest in reforming itself or in modernizing the country. The result was a protracted political struggle that absorbed the energies and attention of the party and its Soviet advisers for nearly twenty years. As late as 1934, the party counted 843 major Buddhist centers, about 3,000 temples of various sizes, and nearly 6,000 associated buildings, which usually were the only fixed structures in a world of felt tents. The annual income of the church was 31 million tugriks, while that of the state was 37.5 million tugriks. A party source claimed that, in 1935, monks constituted 48 percent of the adult male population. In a campaign marked by shifts of tactics, alternating between conciliation and persecution, and armed uprisings led by monks and abbots, the Buddhist church was removed progressively from public administration, was subjected to confiscatory taxes, was forbidden to teach children, and was prohibited from recruiting new monks or replacing living buddhas. The campaign's timing matched the phases of Josef Stalin's persecution of the Russian Orthodox Church. In 1938--amid official fears that the church and monasteries were likely to cooperate with the Japanese, who were promoting a pan-Mongol puppet state--the remaining monasteries were dissolved, their property was seized, and their monks were secularized. The monastic buildings were taken over to serve as local government offices or schools. Only then was the ruling party, which since 1921 gradually had built a cadre of politically reliable and secularly educated administrators, able to destroy the church and to mobilize the country's wealth and population for its program of modernization and social change.

Renaissance of Buddhism

In the early 1970s, the main Gandan Monastery, with a community of 100 monks, was open in Ulaanbaatar. A few of the old monasteries survived as museums, and the Gandan Monastery served as a living museum and a tourist attraction. Its monks included a few young men who had undergone a five-year training period, but whose motives and mode of selection was unknown to Western observers. The party apparently thought that Buddhism no longer posed a challenge to its dominance and that-- because Buddhism had played so large a part in the country's history, traditional arts, and culture, total extirpation of knowledge about the religion and its practices would cut modern Mongols off from much of their past to the detriment of their national identity. Tibetan Buddhism has returned with the collapse of communism and the establishment of democracy in Mongolia. More than 155 monasteries were reopened and rebuilt. The Dalai Lama sent teachers to re-establish the Buddhist educational system. The few old Lamas that remained did their best to teach new recruits. 

Buddhism furthermore played a role in Mongolia's foreign policy by linking Mongolia with the communist and the noncommunist states of East and Southeast Asia. Ulaanbaatar was the headquarters of the Asian Buddhist Conference for Peace, which has held conferences for Buddhists from such countries as Japan, Vietnam, Cambodia, Sri Lanka, and Bhutan; published a journal for international circulation; and maintained contacts with such groups as the Christian Peace Conference, the Afro-Asian People's Solidarity Organization, and the Russian Orthodox Church. It sponsored the visits of the Dalai Lama to Mongolia in 1979 and 1982. The organization, headed by the abbot of the Gandan Monastery, advances the foreign policy goals of the Mongolian government, which are in accord with those of the Soviet Union.

Buddhism survives among the elderly, who pray and attend services at the Gandan Monastery; in the speech of the people, which is rich in Buddhist expressions and proverbs; and in the common practice of including statues or images of the Buddha on families' special shelves with photographs of relatives and other domestic memorabilia. Mongolian Buddhism, which restricted full participation in the ritual to monks and kept Tibetan as the language of ritual and sacred texts, was more vulnerable to persecution than a religion more widely dispersed among the populace would have been. Studies are done among the Buryat Mongols of Siberia by Soviet ethnographers in the 1960s and the 1970s found that elimination of the complex and conceptually sophisticated culture of Tibetan Buddhism had led to a growth of the decentralized and flexible folk practice of shamanism. Similar survival or adaptation of folk religion in Mongolia would be possible, although Mongolians have published no comparable studies of religion at the local level. Approximately 4 percent of Mongolians, primarily those living in the southwest, are Muslims, as are many of their kin across the border in China. Freedom of religion is guaranteed by the 1960 Constitution.
Source: U.S. Library of Congress


Mongols introduced Buddhism to their country on their own conditions and accepted Mahayana Buddhism as the main practice and belief. Nowadays the Buddhism practiced in Mongolia as a part of the Mahayana tradition and is well-known as Tibetan Buddhism. Although its practice is not limited to Tibet. 

The monks’ robes were made particularly thick and warm to compensate for the extreme winter cold while chanting and ceremonial protocol differed markedly from those found in Tibet. Something that many visitors notice very quickly is the use of a blue Khadag ceremonial silk scarf, as opposed to the yellow and white scarves used in Tibet. This refers back to the ancient shamanic worship of the Eternal Heaven, which was traditionally honored by making offerings of blue strings, and is very particular to Mongolian Buddhism. Similarly, the animistic practices surrounding sacred natural places and their spirits were not discarded but reinterpreted. Sacred sites were recognized as inhabited by Buddhist nagas, or nature spirits, and beliefs associated with these were, and are, used to promote environmental consciousness. Ovoos, sacred piles of stones, previously a shamanic tradition, started to be worshipped in Buddhist ceremonies often being followed by a Naadam sports festival. 

The Noble Eightfold Path

One of the central teachings in Mongolian Buddhism is that all beings are believed to have the potential to gain enlightenment (or “Buddha nature”) and that therefore all forms of life should be respected. Other central tenets are of compassion – an altruistic desire for other beings to be free of suffering – and of the recognition that suffering is the result of negative action in the past. The way to stop suffering in Buddhism is through following what is called the “Noble Eightfold Path”. This involves cultivating wisdom (through practicing right understanding and right motivation), ethical conduct (through right speech, right action, and right livelihood), and mental discipline (through right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration.) It is this eight-fold path that monks, nuns, and other members of the wider Buddhist community are attempting to follow when they take steps to help protect the environment, support justice, and promote education and good development initiatives.

The Bodhisattvas

The main exemplars of compassion are called Bodhisattvas. These are beings that have reached a state of enlightenment but decide to stay behind, and postpone entering nirvana in order to be an inspiration to others and use their merit to release all that genuinely pray to them for salvation. The main Bodhisattva in Mongolia is Avalokitesvara (also called Guan Yin and Chenrezig) and the teaching about Bodhisattvas and their compassion is core to all Mongolian Buddhist environmental initiatives.