Buddhism Bounces Back in Mongolia after Years of Communist Suppression, Monks Are Using Their New Freedom to Conduct Services at Restored Monasteries

Article excerpt

BUDDHISM is making a strong comeback in Mongolia, half a century after its temples were closed and thousands of monks killed during a period of bitter Communist suppression.

At the soaring hillside ruins of Mandshire Monastery, an hour's drive from Ulan Bator, services have been revived in two small ger (Mongolian-style felt tents). Elderly monks, joined by a number of young acolytes, recite sutras in unison while laymen and women crowd into the tent or peer in from the doorway. The scene, being repeated at many former temples throughout the country, is one aspect of the growing atmosphere of freedom and democracy in Mongolia.

"Religion is one of the symbols of democracy," says the Venerable Dambajav. "If you don't have democracy, you could not believe. We could not go into temples, we could not live in monasteries." Dambajav is the abbot of an old monastery in Ulan Bator that was reopened in July.

Buddhism reached Mongolia from Tibet hundreds of years ago. Many of the "Living Buddhas" who reigned as secular and religious monarchs in Urga (the former name of Ulan Bator) were Tibetan. The last ruler died in 1924, three years after the Communists came to power. In Gandan, Ulan Bator's main temple and until last year the only functioning place of worship in Mongolia, there is a throne reserved for the Dalai Lama.

For a while Communism from the Soviet Union coexisted with Buddhism. In the 1930s, however, Mongolia's dictator, Choibalsan, almost exterminated the outward manifestations of Buddhism. Monks were arrested, tortured, publicly tried, and either killed or forced to leave the priesthood.

"I remained a Buddhist in my heart," says Namsrai, a former monk at Mandshire who was a herdsman for 50 years and has just returned to the priesthood.

Estimates of monks killed during the persecutions vary widely, but most observers agree on the figure of 30,000. In an interview, the top government official for religious affairs, Adiya, said only that "more than 10,000 monks were repressed - yes, killed."

The revival of religion in Mongolia has been a gradual process that accelerated spectacularly in the past two years. Gandan Monastery was reopened in 1944, more as a propaganda ploy directed at other Asian nations than for the sake of Mongolia's own Buddhists. Today, nearly 40 of the more than 740 monasteries closed during the repression have been or are being revived. …