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The Impact of Buddhism on Mongolia


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Source: http://userpage.fu-berlin.de/corff/im/Texte/redi.unx




                       The Impact of Buddhism on Mongolia


                A News Group Discussion in soc.culture.mongolian




                                 Kaa Byington,
                                Sambu Dakuginow,
                             Christopher Kaplonski
                                 Kathy Petrie

                            (in chronological order)






          (This  discussion took place in July/August 1994. Only mini-
          mal editing took place.)


          O.C., August 25th, 1994

          A  heated  debate  was  launched  by  Kaa  Byington's casual


          [...]  I was in Mongolia as a tourist for two weeks in 1989,
          and  was fascinated. Stayed in a yurt (gehr) in the Gobi for
          a  week,  among  other things. Decided, along with Owen Lat-
          timore,  who  was  much admired there, that Buddhism was the
          worst thing that ever happened to the Mongols. Would love to
          discuss this with someone who knows more than I do. I have a
          few references on it--in German.


          Sambu Dakuginow rejects this:


          I  don't  recall Lattimore ever saying that Buddhism was the
          worst  thing  that ever happened to Mongols. Please point me
          to  the  reference saying so! I happen to be a member of the
          Mongolian  immigrants  to the US that Lattimore interviewed.
          We're all Buddhists.


          Kaa Byington replies:


          Sambu:   check  out  Encyclopedia  Britannica,  article  on
          Mongolia  by  Owen Lattimore. Also see: _Prschewaksi, Reisen
          in der Mongolei im Gebiet der Tanguten und den Wuesten Nord-
          Tibets  in den Jahren 1870-73_. "China has a plainly ruinous
          effect on the nomads. It exterminates them in a silent war."
          Tibetan  Buddhism  was  imposed  on  the  Mongols.  It  is a
          religion  developed  by  a  sedentary people, peasants, on a
          nomadic  people.  It nearly destroyed them. The khans should
          have chosen Islam, instead. It fit the circumstances. Sorry,
          but  that's  a  fact  of  life.  The  Chinese, who hated the
          Mongols,  did  everything  they could to promote Buddism. It
          was totally destructive to Mongol society.


          Christopher Kaplonski enters the discussion:


          I  think  a  few  points need clarifying here. First, a note
          about Lattimore. He was a talented scholar for his time, but
          he is not infallible. Also, he had a tendency to play up the
          nomad as an embodiment of the Noble Savage.


          Kaa replies:


          Noble  savage or not, the only way to survive in the Gobi is
          as  a nomad. In the 1500s, nobody had the technology to sur-
          vive   otherwise.  Deserts  do  not  support  cities without
          enormous  engineering works the Mongols were not capable of.
          There  is  still no agriculture in the Gobi. The majority of
          Mongols now are nomads.




          Second, what is your evidence for claiming "Tibetan Buddhism
          was  imposed  on  the  Mongols"? There is clear evidence for
          Buddhism among the Mongols as far back as Khubilai. It was a
          conscious  decision  on  his  part to introduce Buddhism, in
          part  for political/legitimacy purposes. Altan Khan also re-
          established  links  with  Buddhism  for  (at  least in part)
          political  reasons,  drawing definite linkages to the custom
          of the "two principles".




          Yes,  Buddhism  was  imposed  on  the  Mongols, by their own
          leaders. They deliberately chose Tibetan Buddhism because it
          was   specifically  not  Chinese  They  needed  a  unifying
          religion,  and  they  wanted one that would provide literate
          monks,  who could help them in the administration of govern-
          ment. They had no one litereate in Mongolian. The Dalai lama
          was  brought  in  from  Tibet  to  organize  the religion in
          Mongolia,  and  he  found  a  reincarnated  lama,  left some
          Tibetans  monks  behind,  and  returned  to Tibet. (Dalai, I
          hear, is a Mongol word.)




          While  the  Manchus  may have promoted Lamaism (I don't have
          the  time  right now to check this) they were also very wary
          of  it.  To go back to Prejevalsky: "They [the Chinese] have
          indeed  good  cause  to  be  watchful,  for  if  a talented,
          energetic  person  were to appear on the throne of the Dalai
          Lama, he might with one word, like the voice of a god, cause
          a  rising of the nomads from the Himalayas to Siberia. " The
          same  held  for  the Javzandamba Khutagt -- the Manchu court
          was  eager  to keep him under their control for fear that he
          could  provide a rallying point to the Mongols. And finally,
          the main point. The idea that Buddhism caused the Mongols to
          become  pacifistic  is  an old one, but much disputed. David
          Morgon  writes  "it  is  not  easy  to  demonstrate that the
          Mongols, except for the increasingly large proportion of the
          population  that  became  monks, were much less warlike than
          their   ancestors.  They  were  certainly  less  effective
          militarily,  but this probably has more to do with political
          developments  and  changes  in military technology than with
          religion. " (P. 205)




          Please  note that "except for the increasingly large propor-
          tion  that became monks" statement. by the 1800s, 50 percent
          of  the  adult male population was in the temples, chanting.
          Every  chanting  monk  was  one  less fierce fighting man on
          horseback.  The Chinese must have felt 50% safer. Plus, they
          had  loaned  the  Mongols, via their puppet emperor, tons of
          money  to  build very elegant temples--at very high interest
          rates.  Meanwhile,  since  50 percent of the male population
          was  not  working,  but  chanting  in temples encrusted with
          gold, that left the aged, the women, the children, producing
          the,  er,  GNP, to pay back the loans. The Mongols sank into
          utter  misery and poverty, victims of the landlords who took
          their  herds  to  pay  the  Chinese loans that supported the
          temples. Finally, what happened was that the population died
          off  to  the  point  where it could not reproduce itself. By
          1920 it was appraoching extinction.




          It should be remembered that just because a large portion of
          the male population became monks, it does not mean they were
          effectively removed from daily life. Many of them lived with
          their families on the steppe, and often married.




          Not  from  what  I  read,  heard,  and saw. Monks in Tibetan
          Buddhism  in  Mongolia  spend  their lives in the temple. In
          1920, Urgha consisted of 400 temples full of chanting monks,
          and  one  pitiful  imperial  palace.  There were a few other
          temples  clustered  in odd places, but Tibetan Buddhism is a
          sedenary  religion.  Monks  do  not go in and out, or travel
          around  with  their families. This is what I learned while I
          was  there,  what  I read in every reference I can find, and
          what  every  traveller up to 1920 said: due to the thousands
          of  monks chanting their lives away in the temples, Mongolia
          was a dying country.




          Bawden  also  supports  this argument. He further notes that
          the  evidence  indicates  most  of  the  Buddhist texts were
          published at the request of Mongol nobles, not Manchus. And,
          still  on this point, does it need to be further pointed out
          how  long  it  took  the Manchus to subdue the Jungar empire
          (also Buddhist)? They were a real threat to Manchu power for
          quite  some  time.  In short, there is no real evidence that
          the  introduction  of  Buddhism caused the Mongols to become
          less war-like.


          Kathy Petrie enters the discussion:


          Just  a  few comments to support what Chris has said. On the
          one  side,  there  is  plenty  of evidence that Buddhism was
          known  to  the  Mongols  during  the  late 12th and the 13th
          centuries  when Chinggis Khan and his descendents were lead-
          ing  the  Mongols on a world tour. The various Mongol tribes
          and  individuals followed a range of religions. Mo:ngke, the
          4th KhaKhan, was reported by William of Rubruck to have paid
          attention  to  religious  observances  of  several different
          beliefs.  (This  may  have  had as much to do with political
          wisdom  & even- handedness as religious curiosity) Neverthe-
          less,  Rubruck  counted  12  Buddhist  temples in Karakorum.
          Khublai,   Mo:ngke's  younger  brother,  was  attracted  to
          Buddhism,  and  his  chief  wife  Chabi  was a Buddhist. The
          Mongols  also had plenty of opportunity to view Islam close-
          up,  including in Mongolia, where a number of Moslems filled
          administrative  posts  in  the empire's government. However,
          IMHO  there are several more compelling reasons for explain-
          ing the decline of the Mongols' political and -shall we say-
          aggressive prowess than that they somehow picked the "wrong"
          religion.  First,  there  was  the difficulty of holding the
          enormous territory of the Empire together: they had the most
          state-of-the-art  communication  system  in the 13th century
          world, yet what they really needed wouldn't be available for
          another  750  years.  Second,  Thomas  Allsen estimates that
          there  were 700, 000 Mongols in the 1250's. The Mongols were
          in no position to force their much more numerous subjects to
          adopt  Mongol  ways  even  if  they  hadn't  had a policy of
          toleration.  However,  that inevitably leads to cultural as-
          similation  with  one's subjects' culture - which also drove
          cracks  into  Mongol  unity.  You don't have to look further
          than  Berke,  Batu  Khan's  brother  and  heir to the Golden
          Horde. Having adopted Islam, he sided with the Arabs against
          his  cousin  Hulegu.  (Would  he  have done so for political
          reasons  anyway?  Maybe.) [Going off on a tangent: Islam was
          adopted  as  the  state religion of the Il-Khanate, the Per-
          sian/central  Asian territory Hulegu founded. From what I've
          read,  it  didn't  appear  to have much effect in reviving a
          world-conquesting  spirit  in either the Golden Horde or Il-
          Khanate.  Then  again,  I  don't know much about how the Il-
          Khanate got to be the Mughals in India. ] Third, advances in
          the  art  of warfare eventually neutralized the power of the
          Mongols'  best  weapon, the horse cavalry. As the technology
          of  war  became more sophisticated and machine-oriented, the
          basic  Mongolian  economy's  limited purchasing power doomed
          its  ability  to  keep  up.  But  fundamentally  I think the
          problem lay with the Mongols' tribal focus. This is probably
          a  natural function of the steppe economy: harsh conditions,
          limited grazing lands and resources like convenient watering
          places. Survival was a family or clan affair, with continual
          jockeying  for  control  of  the  best  terrain.  A Mongol's
          identity  was  a  clan  identity; Chinggis Khan succeeded in
          overlaying  a  Mongol  identity along with the famous world-
          conquerors  vision.  There were problems keeping the Mongols
          together  even  *with* that: witness the tug-of-war over the
          successions  after  Chinggis  died.  Eventually, as the wars
          became  more  remote  and  the empire strained under its own
          weight,   the  tribal  identities  re-asserted  themselves.
          However,  (probably even before the end of the Yuan dynasty)
          the  Chinese  and  then  the Russians were growing stronger,
          more  cohesive,  and with better war machines. Now, when the
          Mongol  tribes fought among themselves and appealed for out-
          side aid, it was a lot harder to get back out from under the
          aid-givers  than it used to be in the times before Chinggis.
          Sorry  for the length of this! I'm not a historian, so these
          opinions   could  all  collapse  under  close  professional
          scrutiny :^)


          I  have  been  scanning  over a summary of Mongolian history
          from _Mongolia: A Country Study_. Frankly, I am hard-pressed
          to  see  that Buddhism did much to "water down" the Mongols'
          fighting  ways.  Tibetan  Buddhism  was  adopted  as a state
          religion  in  1586,  shortly  after Altan Khan was converted
          during raids into Tibet. After that time,
           * Ligdan Khan and his Chahan Mongols fought successfully to
             prevent  the  Manchu  from  expanding westward beyond the
             Ordos region in southern Mongolia (Ligdan died in 1634);
            *  the  Torgut, westernmost of the Oirad, fought their way
             through  the  Kirghiz  and Kazakhs, became renamed as the
             Kalmyks  and  raided  in  Russia for 20 years, until 1646
             before settling there;
           * The  Dzungar  Mongols  continued to raid in Tibet after
             Altan  Khan  died.  The  book  says  "by  1636,  they had
             established a virtual protectorate over the region."
           * Responding to Russian activity, the Torgut Mongols raided
             through western Siberia, over the Urals & Volga, and into
             Russia in 1672 - making peace later on their terms;
           * The Dzungar conquered additional western territory (Kash-
             gar,  Yarkand,  and  Khotan) as well as Kazakh lands in a
             bid  to re-unify the Mongol tribes. The Khalkh turned for
             help against them to the Manchus in 1688.
           * In  fact,  the  Dzungar  had  ongoing  clashes with other
             Mongol  tribes  and  with  the  Qing  dynasty in China up
             through  1757.  Even  during  Chinese  rule  in the later
             centuries, there were plenty of rebellions and uprisings.
             Again, my personal thesis is that the Mongols' real weak-
             ness  was  that their tribal identity was stronger than a
             "Mongol"  identity, which made it easy for growing powers
             like the Chinese, Russians, and Manchu to divide and con-




          I  think  this  is  an  important point. (Although I'm a bit
          leary  about  the  word  'tribal' -- It seems possible to me
          that  even pre-Chinggisid Mongolian social structure was (at
          least to some extent) more feudal-like than tribal. But this
          is  a  different  issue  entirely.) In fact, I'm not sure to
          what  degree we can speak of a "Mongol" identity during much
          of  this  period. Any reading back of a "Mongol" identity is
          much  more  plausibly  seen  as a project back of twentieth-
          century  nationalism. If you look at the Secret History, you
          see that Chinggis had 'unified the people of the felt-walled
          tents'  (sec.  202). Actually, looking at the Mongolian ver-
          sion, it doesn't even say that. It first says something more
          akin  to  having brought peace to them. It does later in the
          section  talk  of  uniting the Mongol people. But this was a
          document  written after the fact. The point is, 'Mongol uls'
          was  referring  to  a state, a political entity. There is no
          need  to assume a greater Mongolian identity. There probably
          was  some  more abstract nomad vs. sedentary opposition, but
          again,  the case for a pan-Mongol identity doesn't seem that
          strong.  Groups  have gone to war and conquered other groups
          without  the necessary belief in a group identity that some-
          how  encompasses  them all. In many cases, in the West, that
          was  left  for the Romantics to invent. And as Kathy pointed
          out,  such  intergroup  rivalries  continued  for quite some
          time.  So,  in  short,  I'm  not sure we can say there was a
          "Mongolian  identity"  that people owed allegiance to before
          the  end  of the nineteenth, start of the twentieth century.
          (Even  today,  in  Mongolia,  one finds a tendency to equate
          'Mongol' with 'Khalkha'.)


          (to  be read tongue in cheek:) "All other notions are unsup-
          ported  and  unrealistic delusions prompted by undisciplined
          souls. The facts of existence confirm our remarks."
                  -- Ibn Khaldun


          Sambu concludes:


          Mongolia  was a much divided country and the use of the term
          tribal  IS  justified.  Western  Mongols  often battled with
          groups  from  the North. There are many great tribal stories
          that  result  from  these wars. The greatest misfortune that
          fell upon the "Mongolians" was the fact they were so separa-
          ted  and  couldn't  unite  against  the  Chinese  storm. The
          Chinese  used  tactics like giving some of the Mongol tribes
          much  money  and  power  if  they  joined  forces. As an end
          results  many  Mongols  had to flee Mongolia (Kalmuks) while
          the remaining tribes from the North were termed the Khalkas.


          The  term  nationalism never applied to Mongolians, in large
          part due to their nomadic tendencies.

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I agree with avoiding unmeaningful conflict, but this article is about history, religion is just one of the indispensable parts of the history.
Maybe the last half of the article has been neglected, at least?
Extremists do exist, but not all, it depends on the way of how it gets to be mentioned.Anyway, I'll be a lot more cautious about it.

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