Sunday, September 12, 2010

Buddhism continues to flower in Mongolia

Nomi Morris (Special to the Los Angeles Times)

Erdene Zuu, Mongolia’s oldest Buddhist monastery, was built in 1585 in the ancient capital of Kaakorum, once home to 67 temples and 1,500 monks.

The practice of Buddhism, suppressed for decades by the Communist Party, is being reclaimed by Mongolians as an integral part of their national identity.

SHAND KHIID, Mongolia — In the crimson-painted interior of a monastery in central Mongolia, boys as young as 6 face one another cross-legged on benches and chant Tibetan Buddhist prayers that they barely understand.

Some fidget and get up every now and then to ladle bowls of fermented horse milk from a large metal vat. Their teachers occasionally call out directions.

The boys are at a three-month religious camp at the monastery, Shand Khiid. The oldest monk in residence is 97. A visiting sage from Tibet relaxes in a back room, watching sports on television.

According to a monk who showed a group of visitors around one recent day, the monastery guarded Genghis Khan's black flag of conquest until it was moved to Mongolia's National Museum of History in 1994. Four years earlier, the collapse of Soviet-bloc communism had led to the ouster of Mongolia's Communist Party. Today, Buddhism in Mongolia continues to emerge from a decades-long hiatus.

"During the Communist period, you had a devastation of Buddhism in terms of the material culture and the loss of knowledge," said Vesna Wallace, a professor of religious studies at UC Santa Barbara. "Now more people are coming to temples and visiting monasteries. There is also a new interest in meditation among the general public."

Wallace, an expert on Mongolian Buddhism, has spent the last 10 summers there and has seen Buddhist youth groups grow from three or four people to major gatherings. She says Mongolians have reclaimed Buddhism as an integral part of their national identity.

Couples who grew up with no religion are now choosing to be married in temples and by monks. The Gandan monastery in the capital, Ulan Bator, is the largest in the country and busier than it's been in decades.

Mourners across Mongolia are again consulting monks before deciding whether a loved one should be buried, cremated or left outside to the elements for what's known as a "sky burial."

And prayer piles, enormous cairns known as ovoos, have sprung up around the countryside. Truck drivers leave punctured tires to pray for safe travels and shepherds leave livestock skulls in hopes of a healthy herd. Blue scarves flutter in the wind, symbols of the blue sky that Mongols worshiped in the pre-Buddhist period.

Mongolian Buddhism is predominantly the Yellow Hat sect of Buddhism practiced in Tibet and China. But Wallace says it has evolved into its own version, having incorporated the pre-Buddhist religion of Tangarism as well as shamanistic influences.

"Tibetans prefer white scarves, Mongolians prefer blue," she said. "Even certain deities that are preferred by Mongolian Buddhism are the blue ones that represent eternity, spaciousness, and the comprehensiveness of the sky." More>>

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