The Soviet era saw monks murdered and monasteries destroyed. Now religious revival is threatened by new regional superpower
On a barren patch of land outside Mongolia’s capital, a former herder guards a half-finished pedestal and abandoned golden Buddha’s head – testament to the money problems keeping Buddhism from flourishing in the country.
When 68-year-old Tsegmid Lunduv, a nomad, was hired to patrol the spot in 2013, the project seemed full of promise: a proposed sprawling complex of meditation centres and spiritual retreats, tucked into the rolling steppes outside Ulan Bator and under the spiritual guidance of the Dalai Lama.
But two years ago, construction was suspended pending additional funding, leaving two legs, the unattached head and a hand with fingers curled into the gesture for teaching and understanding.
Only Lunduv, his wife, grandson and their yellow puppy were standing sentry on a recent visit to the holy site-to-be.
“Once the project comes to fruition, all of Mongolia’s troubles will go away,” says Lunduv, a portly man with a tattered white tunic and gap-toothed smile.
“It will usher in a new era,” he adds.
One of the project’s main financial backers, the Genco group, is owned by new Mongolian President Khaltmaa Battulga, who took office in July and must now navigate the country out of its maze of debt with a $5.5-billion International Monetary Fund-led bailout.
Buddhism has returned to prominence after being quashed by years of Soviet control, with over half of the population now identifying as Buddhist, according to official figures.
But the debt-laden country’s money troubles have severely limited the infrastructure needed for the religion to fully flourish, with monasteries lacking proper residential facilities for monks.
Buddhist traditions in Mongolia predate the rule of Genghis Khan, who established close ties with a Tibetan Buddhist school.
Even under Tibetan Buddhism’s heavy influence, however, Mongolians gave the religion their own cultural touch: inspired by shamanistic invocations using vodka, Mongolian Buddhists consider the Russian liquor sacred just as wine is to Christians.
And because the Mongolian Empire suffered from a population shortage, the Dalai Lama at the time permitted Mongolian monks to marry and have children – though mistresses remained strictly forbidden.
The biggest challenge to Mongolian Buddhism came during the country’s years as a Soviet satellite state, from 1924 to the early 1990s, when the Arts Council of Mongolia estimates that more than 1,250 monasteries and temples were demolished and countless religious artefacts lost.
Monks, if they were not killed, were forced to marry.
“After 60 years of oppression, [Mongolia’s] monkhood was pretty much destroyed,” says Glen Mullin, an expert on Tibetan Buddhism.
Only one monastery, Ulan Bator’s Gandan monastery, was permitted to stay open to support the Soviets’ claims of religious tolerance.
In 1996, in a newly democratic Mongolia, 18-year-old Batchunuun Munkhbaatar left his rural home to join the monastery in the capital.
Gandan was home to just 25 monks then, but Munkhbaatar stayed and immersed himself in the Buddhist practice. Now 800 monks belong to the monastery, the country’s largest.
“During the Soviet era, the party controlled the faith of the people, but they couldn’t control their inner devotion,” Munkhbaatar says, recalling that his grandfather “didn’t quit his chanting or prayers”.
“He would do all these things behind locked doors. If someone approached the house, the dog would bark and he’d put away his scriptures and images of Buddha.”
‘A Buddhist country’
The revival of Buddhism has been a sticky issue for the Mongolian government, which pledged not to extend any more invitations to the Dalai Lama after his visit to Ulan Bator last November angered China, its neighbour and biggest trade partner.
There are now 3,500 monks across the country, says Munkhbaatar, who handles Gandan’s foreign relations.
Mullin expects these numbers to swell as the first wave of young Mongolian Buddhists return from studying in India and Tibet.
Back in their homeland, they will face a tough financial reality.
“Most Mongolian monasteries do not offer the proper conditions for monks to actually live in them,” explains Vesna Wallace, a Buddhism expert at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
“Monasteries receive funding only when they are building something, not for their day-to-day operations. They rely on donations, so many monks are quite poor and have had to marry because they can’t live off their own income.”
At the site of the Grand Maitreya project, Lunduv has faith the money will come.
The project says the first building phase will be completed by the end of this summer if $25,000 in donations is raised.
Every morning, Lunduv pours a freshly brewed cup of tea onto the construction area as a prayer to the gods.
“It will be finished,” Lunduv says. “The government will support us because our country is a Buddhist country. Our history is tied to our religion.”