Religious Traditions among Mongols


There was a pre-Buddhist tradition in Mongolia of respecting the environment through recognizing specific mountains, rivers, or other landscape features as being sacred and decreeing that they were therefore forbidden for activities such as hunting or logging. As in Tibet, Mongolian Buddhism incorporated some of these indigenous faith traditions, some of which are still practiced. In early times, many legends, prayers, and stories in Mongolia dealt specifically with humanity’s correct relationship with nature. All elements of nature were viewed as part of a unified structure. So the blue sky was the father of the Mongolians while the earth was their mother. Each natural element had its own Lus or spiritual master, and in order to co-exist harmoniously with the Lus, certain offerings were made and rules respected. This included many ecologically sound practices such as avoiding digging the earth in certain places, defiling rivers, cutting trees, destroying the roots of grasses, disturbing the nests of animals, or, generally killing animals unnecessarily. It was considered that breaking these taboos would bring great misfortune to the concerned person as well as his family and community. Many of these practices have been continued with Buddhism, where the nature spirits are called nagas.

While Buddhism in Mongolia codified previous ecologically sound practices, it also brought its own customs. Buddhist monks are traditionally taught to love and protect wildlife and use their environment in an appropriate manner; even if this has not always been an active part of their actual practice, they have often passively practiced care for nature. Mahayana Buddhism emphasizes respect not only for all sentient beings but also for their living spaces. According to the Buddhist belief in reincarnation, humans can be reborn as any animal, including insects - or as trees or water. Therefore we mustn’t pollute, harm, or kill any of these elements of life.

Put simply, each and every sentient being may have been our mother in one of our numerous previous lives, and therefore we do not want to hurt any of them. Buddhists, however, take a pragmatic approach to life, and in the pastoral Mongolian society meat and dairy products are often the only staples, and therefore often abound in the monastic diet. Mongolian Buddhism emphasizes the interconnectedness of all elements of nature - both in the visible and the invisible worlds.  According to Buddhist beliefs, environmental issues and problems in the organic world are due to impurities in the internal or non-organic world. Also, human greed is unlimited - but the environment is limited – and Buddhist teachings try to regulate this. “Buddhism says one must not kill the mother of young animals or cut down young trees. It provides very practical environmental advice.” Buddhism focuses on the consequences of human activity on the environment through its teachings on the laws of logic and of karma - or cause and effect.


The White Old Man "Tsagaan Uvgun" is the Mongolian mythology, often depicted surrounded by the six traditional symbols of longevity. These are the divine peach tree, the conch-shaped rock, the crane, the crystal rosary, the pure stream welling up from a sacred rock, and the deer – which are said to be the only creatures able to locate the plants of immortality. In Tibetan, he is called “Tsering Tuk”, or the Bodhisattva of Longevity. But wherever he is, whatever he is called, he is a supreme example of how to live in harmony with nature. What use is living for a long time, if we are not living in a beautiful place? For example, the Purification, Offering, and Auspicious Rain Maker sutra were composed by the Fourth Panchen Lama at the request of his Mongolian student Undur Gegeen Zanabazar. The request was for a rite to protect Mongolia from various dangers and disasters by making offerings to Buddhas, protector deities, and "Savdag" spirits. 

The Painting, Tsagaan Uvgun is at the center: an old white-haired man with a flowing beard, living in a tranquil among beautiful nature. Close to him are the deer, cranes, and the other traditional symbols of longevity. But also around him - helping create, perpetuate, and protect the perfect landscape - are monks and laypeople. They are doing a sacred sand offering to a stream and pouring it sweetly. Others are worshipping a sacred ovoo to protect the mountains – with the support of lay devotees. Others are going out into the landscape to do an animal liberating ceremony by reciting the appropriate sacred sutras for this event so that the animal can go with no fear from humans. In another scene, monks are performing prayers and pleading with the nagas of the trees to forgive those who cut them down. The tree-cutters themselves are shown making confessions: they have suffered unhappiness because the nagas have been angry. Deer, like holy mendicants, are traditionally believed to sleep in a different place each night. In this painting, the deer and the cranes are reminders of how human beings should respect the lives of animals and birds, in order to ensure a landscape and life that is in harmony. They can’t live to be old unless we allow them to do so by refraining from hunting them and destroying their habitats.


  • Peaches said to be the fruits of everlasting life / represent the abundance of the natural world
  • A pine tree, which being evergreen, is also a sign of a long life / it represents how we need vegetation
  • The water of longevity, with the eight precious qualities of being clear, cool, healing, odorless, soothing, delicious, light, and soft / represents the importance of pure, unpolluted water both for drinking and for sustaining the earth and its creatures / It comes from a rock that is in the shape of a conch
  • The rock of longevity, which does not change / its fissures are often curved like the bends of a conch shell / Mongolians and Tibetans see it as a holy mountain, which must be prayed for and respected / This reminds us of the grandeur of nature and emphasizes that humans are only a part of something greater
  • Cranes, which are believed to be the most long-lived birds
  • Deer, which is the vehicle of Tsagaan Uvgun – who is sometimes shown riding a stag


Many mountains, rivers are revered as sacred by nomads for thousands of years. Because they are the residing place of a deity or because they are viewed as a deity in themselves. These natural sites were historically treated with the utmost respect and protected by taboos. For example, trees should not be cut within their vicinity nor wild animals hunted. Some sacred sites are believed to house spirit masters – who often take a strikingly similar physical form to that of the mountain. So the spiritual master of the bird-shaped Bogd Khaan Mountain to the south of Ulaanbaatar, for example, is in the shape of a garuda (a huge and powerful mythical legend bird); to the west of Ulaanbaatar is a mountain with a spiritual master in the form of an old, blue man. Some of these spirit masters were thought to be wrathful and therefore liable to punish those people who broke the taboos while others were thought to be benevolent, protecting people from natural disasters for example, and therefore deserving to be thanked. Some deities are female.



Many Mongolian mountains were named after animals because they looked like animals. The ecological significance of this is still important: there is frequently a specific taboo on the hunting or trapping of this animal on the sites, and where these taboos are not apparent today, any ecological initiative can benefit from reminding the local people of the ancient beliefs, through working with the local clergy. Besides their association with certain natural sites, some animals were considered sacred in their own right. The wolf and deer are the most obvious examples, while snakes and fish were considered animals of the nagas, or nature spirits. The hunting, harming, trapping or eating of any of these animals - as well as antelope, argali sheep, mountain goats, migratory birds, and other rare species - was considered sinful. There are also ancient beliefs that casting one’s shadow on, or touching, the nest or eggs of any bird is taboo, and that killing certain birds would enrage the heavens. As a result of these beliefs, some internationally endangered birds live comparatively unharmed in Mongolia, although this situation has begun to change. 


It is generally an impressive, high feature on the landscape, often with an unusual shape and supporting an abundance of wildlife and fresh-water sources. And, because it has been worshipped for centuries, it almost certainly has an “ovoo” at its summit. Ovoos are piles of stones that traditionally indicate sacred sites. They can be found on the top of mountains or hills, at water sources, and on the edge of rivers and lakes that have a sacred significance. When passing an ovoo, people traditionally circumambulate it three times while saying a prayer that translates as: “Greatness of ovoos to you; Greatness of gains to me; Greatness of glory to you; Greatness of spirit to me; Greatness of height to you; greatness of good fortune to me.” They then leave small offerings to bless their journey and the pleased spirits are believed to provide land fertility, good weather, health, and prevent disasters in return. They are particularly believed to be critical in helping the regeneration of land that has been developed by humans. Ovoo worship is a very common activity in Mongolia and most laypeople, as well as monks, know the practices well. Many monasteries view ovoo worship to be one of their central responsibilities - from both a religious and (increasingly) an environmental perspective. For example, Gandan and Dashchoilin - environmentally active monasteries - are responsible for the worship of ovoos all over Mongolia and in particular the five main government ovoos: Otgon Tenger, Burkhan Khaldun, Altan Khokhii, Tsetsee Gun (Bogd Khaan), and Altan Ovoo. Nomads go along with the monks and shamans to worship the mountains. According to the tradition of worshiping the states protected mountains where the President and Minister used to attend during its ceremony. 


The role of sacred texts, or sutras, in protecting the environment is a very special part of Mongolian Buddhism - and is an important consideration for anyone wanting to work on environmental protection with faith bodies. After Buddhism became Mongolia’s state religion in the 13th century, Mongolian scholars codified and incorporated core components of ancient pre-Buddhist traditions into the new faith, embracing among other things the worship of natural sacred sites. So, of the 600 or more venerated mountains and sacred sites in Mongolia, at least 280 have their own associated sutras honoring the local environment. More might once have had such references, but the texts were most likely lost in the purges. These texts have helped preserve ancient ecological practices over the ages: some through describing rituals that would protect Mongolia from ecological dangers4; others through offering prayers to the nature spirits to bring blessings and purify past misdeeds that disrupt nature; others through inviting Buddhas and deities to clear obstacles such as natural disasters or incursions of evil; some asking for the increase of sacred animals such as the snow leopard; and finally some – critically for today’s ecological initiatives – describing taboos and outlining punishment. For example, in one area the sutra described how the local goddess would flood a village if the trees on the mountain were cut down. “The veneration of mountains is one of the most popular methods of traditional nature conservation among Mongolians. Mountain-sutras are not only religious books for ritual ceremonies, but they are also an invaluable repository of wisdom derived from Mongolian culture.”


The ancient and more recent laws closely echo the rules set down in Buddhism and ancient legends. Regulations dating back as far as Chinggis Khaan’s “Secret History of the Mongols” from 1240 safeguard animals and other forms of wildlife. By the 18th century, official protection was extended to sacred mountains and bodies of water. Laws forbade the pollution of land and rivers and protected animals from hunting during mating seasons. It is uncertain as to what extent these protective laws evolved from Buddhist legends and sutras or to what extent they preceded them and were then adapted. 

Both processes are plausible given the Mongols’ traditionally strong respect for the laws of both the state and the faith.7 There have been recent efforts to formalize the protection of natural sacred sites in Mongolia. In 1996, the Mongolian Ministry of Culture proposed three of the country’s 16 major and many other minor sacred mountains for inclusion in UNESCO’s World Heritage list. They include the Bogd Khaan Mountain near Ulaanbaatar – the world’s oldest official protected area, protected since 1778 when the Manchu Emperor of China passed a resolution to provide for official protection of the site, which also includes archaeological sites and cave paintings from some 3000 years ago. On the south side of the protected area, monks have begun the process of rebuilding the Manzushiri monastery, which dates from 1750. The other two mountains are the Burkhan Khaldun (designated as sacred by Chingis Khaan) which is located within the 1.2 million hectare Khan Khentii Strict Protected Area in the Khentii Aimag bordering Russia, and the 95,500-hectare Otgon Tenger mountain area in the center of the country, which was included in the laws of “Khalkh Juram” as a protected mountain, where logging and hunting were prohibited.

Source by A Handbook on Faiths, Environment, and Development, Mongolian Buddhists Protecting Nature