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   Date: 3/18/09 Bookmark and Share

On Mongolia, Buddhism, Exotic Hats

By Jamie Hubbard, Yehan Numata Professor of Buddhist Studies

Mongolia always fascinated me.

Reading about the rise of Chinggis Khan (known more commonly as Ghengis Khan), from a small, unknown tribe to founder of the largest empire in the world boggles my mind. His beloved horses watered from the Korean peninsula to Moscow, the northern parts of Vietnam, all of China, Central Asia, Persia, India, and on through Turkey to the Mediterranean. He could have conquered Europe but at that point in history, Europe was a useless addition to his empire. Japan barely escaped conquest when hurricanes and typhoons destroyed his grandson Kublai Khan’s invasion fleet.

In order to support his vast empire, Chinggis Khan and his descendents supported an array of scholars, scribes, civil servants, merchants, engineers and scientists. Religious sentiments of all stripes were tolerated, and huge numbers traveled freely and safely through this vast area we now call Eurasia. A widely cited cliché of this “Pax Mongolia” is that a virgin carrying a bag of gold could ride unmolested from one side of the empire to the other.

Now, 800 years or so later, my colleague Rick Taupier, Associate Director for International Research at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, suggested that, with the resurgence of Buddhism in post-Soviet Mongolia, we should hold a conference on this important topic. And it should take place at Smith, he added, given the strengths of Buddhist Studies here.

Not realizing what I was getting into, I agreed, and the conference, Buddhism in Mongolia: Rebirth and Transformation, was born. It will take place March 27-29 (see related press release).

Preparing for the conference during the year since has been a blur of some of the most fun and interesting times I have ever had. I began by traveling, in this case to St. Petersburg, Russia. There is a large Mongol population in Russia (such as in Kalmykia, the only Buddhist state in Europe), and an old Buddhist temple in St. Petersburg that had been restored in the years since the fall of the Soviet Union. Considering my goal of studying the Buddhist revival in post-Soviet Asia, this seemed a great place to start.

Okay, disclosure: the real reason for starting in Russia was that I was finally going to fulfill my long-held dream of taking the Trans Siberian Railway across Russia, connecting to the Trans Mongolian railway, and making my way to Mongolia. I love trains and riding in a first-class sleeper carriage for seven days (about $500) was a lot more attractive than the flight, which would altogether take about 35 hours cramped into the cattle section with surly flight attendants. The train—with blue Persian rugs on the floors, lace doilies on the tabletops, babushka selling dried fish on the train platform—was everything I hoped and more. The long, never-changing scenery of the steppes left little to do other than read, eat, drink, and sleep (occasionally slumming down to second class and hanging out with the backpacker world-traveler crowd), so it also was one of the more peaceful and restful travels I have had—barring a few hilarious and/or tense moments at various border crossings, but that’s another story.

And finally: Mongolia. My primary mission was to meet with the scholars and monks who would be attending and helping plan our conference. Together we began to structure the event.

One important theme, we agreed, would be to distinguish between Tibetan and Mongolian Buddhism. Because the Mongols follow Tibetan Buddhist lineages and study philosophical texts in Tibetan, the distinctions between the two are often blurred, something of an insult to Mongolians. It is often forgotten, for example, that the institution of the Dalai Lama was a creation of a Mongol Khan in return for Mongol political and military support. Mongolian Buddhist visual and performance art is another area of distinctive Mongolian contribution to Buddhist culture. So one track of the conference would be historical, following the development of distinctly Mongolian Buddhism. In this connection we are also fortunate to be able to host an exhibit of work by Soyolma, Mongolia’s 2008 Woman Artist of the Year, who will also be in residence at Smith for three weeks before and after the conference.

Another theme would be the modern period. Mongolia was the second Communist nation in the world and during its long period of Soviet domination Buddhism was destroyed. An estimated 113,000 monks and nearly 1,700 monasteries were entirely wiped out in a Stalinist purge during the 1930s. The political role of the monasteries, their resistance to the communism that threatened their power and role in society, and the eventual destruction and near disappearance of Buddhism will be another topic of the conference.

Finally, the contemporary period since the fall of the Soviet Union has seen heroic attempts to revitalize a Buddhist heritage that has all but faded away. During the long absence of an organized Buddhist church, most Mongolians have returned to an even more ancient, animistic or shamanist form of religious practice, celebrating their life under tengri, the “eternal blue sky.” Today Mongolia faces what can only be called globalized religious carpetbagging. Tibetans living in exile are concerned to rejuvenate their religious lineages and Mormons and Baptists alike are eager to begin theirs. In the face of all this are young, urban-dwelling Mongolians, who are encountering Buddhism for the first time much as a European or American might, and “converting” to a form of Buddhism much different than that practiced by their grandparents.

In some ways Mongolia today feels a bit like the Wild West of the imagination—new and fresh, with boundless opportunities for development and exploitation. What is not imagination, though, is that there is an excitement and exuberance among the people, a feeling that the future is indeed as wide open as the eternal blue sky, and a sense that history is being made.

Through this conference, the first of its kind in the U.S., we hope to highlight the Mongol contribution to Buddhist culture while focusing on the unique challenges and opportunities present for contemporary Mongolian Buddhists.

The speakers, from Mongolia, Russia, China, London, Switzerland, Tibet and the U.S., represent the “A” team of scholars and monks studying Buddhism in Mongolia. Plans are already in place to follow this conference with another at the National University of Mongolia in 2010, and a third at Emory University in 2011.

And last but not least, the conference will afford me an opportunity to wear some of the exotic hats I brought back from Mongolia. But those, like some of the border-crossing stories, are a subject for another time.


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