Sunday, 8 November 2009

Mongolia - Hail to the Jewel in the Lotus

Mongolia is a country I've been fascinated by for a very long time. When I was a teenager, I was obsessed with learning languages, attempting Greek, Danish, Breton . . the more obscure the better. I think attempting to learn Mongolian in my first year of college was about as obscure as it got (and I'm pretty sure I didn't get past the first unit in the book).

Apart from this first foray into Mongolian culture, I might have ended up living in Mongolia. After my two years with the Soros Foundation in Uzbekistan, I had the option of doing a year in Mongolia, but chose the easier option and ended up in Thailand instead.

I'm sure that Mongolia and Thailand are worlds apart, but one thing they have in common is that they are both Buddhist nations. From my preliminary reading about Mongolia, one thing that has really struck me as a national 'psyche crisis' was the loss of religion. (I'm not sure what else to call it - in Kiribati it was the rising sea levels, Jamaica was a strong awareness of the past, Lesotho the tragically high levels of HIV infection).

My first experiences with Buddhism were in Thailand, a country that takes religion very seriously. Thailand follows the Theravada form of Buddhism prevalent in South Asia and this was the form of Buddhism that I became most familiar with. Despite not being religious myself, I used to love visiting the temples and sitting in contemplation of the Buddhist statues and the smells of incense. The temples were always open on all sides and sanctuaries of cool stone and shade in the sweltering heat of Bangkok.

Mongolia follows the Mahayana (the Great Wheel) form of Buddhism, due to its close links with Tibet. Even the meaning seems to be different from Theravada Buddhism, the turning of the great wheel of time suggesting something more forceful than the languid contemplation of the steamy tropics. My partner is from a Western Mongolian tribe called the Kalmyks and I have visited their 'Khurul' or temple and begun to understand the differences in the Mahayana tradition with its prayer flags, monks wrapped up in robes, enclosed temples and more than a hint of shamanism in the background.

Mongolia and Tibet share a lot of traditions and, although seemingly quite distant from each other, are culturally close, no doubt helped by the continuum of Tibetan people through the Chinese province of Qinghai, reaching towards the Mongolian border.

In fact, the 'Dalai' bit of 'Dalai Lama' is from the Mongolian word for 'ocean' - a common theme in Mongolia, Chingis Khan is also thought to mean 'Great Oceanic Khan' - I guess the Ocean was the edge of the Earth for a medieval Mongolian. Mongolians used to make once in a life-time trips to the Tibetan capital, Lhasa, the fourth Dalai Lama was Mongolian and, when the British (no blog would be complete without them) invaded Tibet in 1903, the Dalai Lama fled to Mongolia for safety.

By all accounts the Chinese were relieved when the Mongolians finally adopted Buddhism, as it chilled them out and stopped them constantly invading China! When the Soviets came to power in the 1920's, an estimated 1/3 of the adult male population in the capital Ulaan Baator were monks. With such large numbers and incredible influence, the revolution didn't dare tackle Buddhism straight away but waited until the 1930's under the Stalinist Choibalsan (a former Buddhist monk!) to purge the Buddhist population, murdering an estimated 17,000 lamas and religious leaders. It would seem that having 1/3 of your male population remaining celibate, and contemplative, flew in the face of Soviet policies of increasing the number of workers available for five-year plans and the exploration of Siberia's wealth of natural resources.

Reading about Mongolia, it's this great loss of the 1930's that strikes me most. I guess every country has its 'psyche crisis' (the Irish equivalent would be the Great Famine), when the very essence of the nation is challenged and changed irrevocably.
Image Credits:
The image of the Mongolian flag is from the website
The two photographic images were both taken by me. The first one is Buddha and the Wheel of Law, which I took in Thailand. The second one is the biggest Buddhist statue in Europe, which is in the Great Khurul (Temple) in Elista, Kalmykia.

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