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. …