Tibet Archaeology

and all things Tibetan

Flight of the Khyung

September 2008

John Vincent Bellezza

The Flight of the Khyung masterfully returns to Mongolia this month; such is the power of this great mythic bird! Let us have another look at the contemporary scene in this fascinating country. During my June to August sojourn, I was struck by the colorful and dynamic religious mix that has developed in post-Soviet times. Protestant evangelicals, Orthodox mendicants, shaman revivalists, and Vajrayana Buddhists vie for control of the hearts and minds of the Mongols. In this hothouse religious environment the gloves are off as rivals jockey for a dominant stake in the business of faith.

Religion, Your Personal Choice?
In a lesser country this monumental religious struggle with its geopolitical undertones could prove highly destabilizing, but Mongolia is no stranger to those who want to save souls or liberate minds. During the Uighur ascendancy (750s to circa 925 CE), Buddhists, Manicheans, Gnostic Christians, Muslims, and shamans all had representatives in Mongolia. Similarly, under Chinggis Khaan (1162–1227) and his great khaan successors there was a cosmopolitan mix of religionists in Mongolia including, Buddhists, Christians, Nestorians, Jews, Confucians, Muslims, and the ubiquitous shamans. Historically speaking, the genius of the Mongol leadership is the highly skillful way in which it has juggled contending faiths, harnessing them for the good of the nation at large. The great khaans of the Middle Ages readily understood that religious tolerance was a must in a multicultural empire. As long as those subjected to Mongol rule were perfectly loyal to the State, they could worship as they saw fit. In the interests of a strong regime, as well as reflecting his personal convictions, the renowned Khubilai Khaan, observed the celebrations of many different religions. That in a word sums up the pluralistic attitude Mongols have developed towards religion in their golden periods of development.

Of all the religions now practiced in Mongolia, Vajrayana Buddhism is the most widely accepted. It is believed that the Hunnus (third century BCE to 1st century CE) first introduced Buddhism to Mongolia, but more vibrant encounters came later with the Turks, Uighurs and Kidans. In the 13th century, the rulers Ugedei Khaan and Munkh Khaan became great patrons of Tibetan Buddhism. In the 16th century there was a third great Buddhist revival ushered in by celebrated figures such as Altan Khaan and the polymath Gegeen Zanabazar. Later, under Manchu rule (18th and 19th centuries), Buddhism (Gelukpa sect) flourished to become the most influential faith in Mongolia. Under the Soviet yoke, however, Buddhism and other religions were nearly extirpated in Mongolia, leading to the great loss of human life. With the rise of democratic Mongolia in the early 1990s, Buddhism as a living faith had to be reintroduced almost from scratch.

Seventy years of Communist rule had virtually wiped out the memory of Buddhist practices in Mongolia. Fortunately, the Tibetan Buddhists once again came to the aid of the Mongolians, just as they had done in the 13th century, helping them reestablish their own brand of Vajrayana Buddhism. India’s ambassador to Mongolia, the late Bakula Rinpoche played a formative role in the reawakening of the faith. Many other Buddhist teachers came as well, some staying long enough to master the Mongolian language. Probably the most revered among them is Ritsong Rinpoche, an 82 year old lama from Ladakh. Ritsong Rinpoche, a very impressive individual by any standard, teaches almost non-stop. Other notable figures include Chado Rinpoche (aged 54, former abbot of Namgyal Monastery in Dharamsala), an extremely knowledgeable but unassuming figure, and Dorje Tashi Rinpoche (in his late 60s), a warm and urbane lama, who is also dedicating much time to spreading the Buddha’s teachings in Mongolia.

In 1991, there was a move to make Buddhism the state religion of Mongolia, but this attempt failed. It is rumored that this initiative was scuttled with the help of certain individuals in the US diplomatic mission who wanted Christian missionaries to have a free hand in Mongolia.

Buddhism is deeply rooted in Mongolia and cherished by many of her people. Yet, despite this, the reintroduction of Buddhism into Mongolia has been slow and spotty. It must be said that a good deal of the population has no real interest in religion, caught up as it is in the secular tide of post-modern times. The legacy of Communism and its persecution of religion also remain behind. There are those Mongolians who have no desire to see Buddhist monasteries and hierarchs regain anything like 15% of the wealth of the country (their estimated share of the GDP in Manchu times). The well-funded and skillfully organized Christian evangelicals are also wooing people away from their traditional faith. Make no mistake; this is not Asian Christianity in the mold of the ancient Nestorians or Gnostics: this is the modern American or Korean brand of religion, much of which has a charismatic and fundamentalist bent. Interestingly, among the most successful crusading groups in Mongolia are the heterodoxic Christian denominations: Mormons, Jehovah’s Witness and the Seventh-day Adventists.

Another factor in the less than stellar reintegration of Buddhism into the fabric of Mongol society is cultural in nature. Although Buddhism was once politically and economically dominant in Mongolia, it was never able to fully displace shamanism. So-called black shamanism went underground, while other shamans adopted Buddhist practices and came to be known as ‘yellow’ shamans. At the grassroots level, shamans always remained influential, as they catered to the everyday needs of people.

A Shot in the Arm for Buddhism
If Buddhism in Mongolia is not to be overtaken by Christian fundamentalism and other religious movements, those who champion its cause must rethink their strategy. As useful as it is to have revered Tibetan Buddhist clerics traveling around the country giving teachings to monks and other devotees, this traditional approach to disseminating the Dharma is woefully inadequate. First of all, the monastic culture that Buddhist clerics represent has limited appeal in a growing secular environment. Also, the top-down, hierarchical nature of Tibetan and Mongolian religion is not conducive to spreading Buddhism’s appeal among the masses. A much more vigorous grass-roots approach is demanded, necessitating the creation of social outreach structures. Lay organizers working closely with monks should consider instituting a system of Buddhist organizations all throughout Mongolia, lay organizations that attempt to tackle the growing ills of alcoholism, domestic violence, corruption, alienation, and other practical problems. The training of a corps of Buddhist teachers is also urgently needed, a non-monastic fraternity that can minister to the spiritual needs (meditation, ethical training, devotional practice, philosophical understanding, etc.) of Mongolians directly and informally.

Buddhism must reach out beyond the monastery to the homes, schools and workplaces, squarely addressing the issues and conditions that ordinary people face in Mongolia. Charity work is a critical component of this approach. Buddhist philanthropists (many more are needed from wealthy Japan and Korea) should consider funding charitable schools, clinics, orphanages, and other social institutions. The construction of lavish new temples and monasteries and other prestige projects must take a back seat to this form of engaged Buddhism. This is not to say that Buddhists should ignore their core traditions and values, to the contrary, but that these must be effectively wedded to the realities of modern life. The Christian missionaries have been very savvy in their approach to conversions in Mongolia, realizing that the way to the heart and soul is often through the stomach and pocketbook. In this regard, Buddhists should take a page out of the book of the evangelicals and look for innovative ways to get their message across to the population, one person and one community at a time. And they should better exploit the mass media to get their voice across in a daily barrage of teachings and entertainment. The small Bonpo community in Mongolia may also want to consider instituting similar programs for the enhancement of their religious traditions.

Chinggis Khaan’s Shamanism as Today’s National Religion
The origins and early character of shamanism in Mongolia is a complex and highly controversial subject. Some specialists see it as emerging out of the mists of the Stone Age, while others believe that shamanism can be traced to the Hunnus, Turks and Kidans. What is generally agreed upon is that Chinggis Khan went some way to standardizing shamanism through his preference for the cult of the blue sky. Referred to as Tengrism, the worship of the eternal sky or heaven as the supreme force and source of life was given precedence over other cults, which stressed localized deities and cosmogonies. However, other varieties of shamanism never died out and after the era of the great khaans, these traditions reverted to being divided along clan and regional lines.

Now, confronted with a bewildering array of localized shamanist traditions, a move is afoot to resurrect the ‘State Religion’ of the great khaans, as the proponents of a national shamanism would see it. Efforts are underway to codify basic shamanist beliefs and traditions, in essence, to create a canon where one never existed before. These Mongol patriots see shamanism as the most authentic faith in Mongolia, while other religions belong to foreign lands and cultures. The formation of the so-called State Religion is hampered by the fact that relatively little is known about religious practices during the time of Chinggis Khaan. The coherence of ritual, ethical and epistemological systems in that period in Mongolian history is not well understood. Another big problem for the shamanists is that no one with the intellectual breadth, moral clout and charisma to effectively see through such an ambitious project has appeared on the national stage. At this nascent stage in the evolution of the ‘State Religion’, prayer books are being published and distributed. In one such published liturgy entitled “Prayer to the Sun”, with its decidedly nationalistic outlook, we read: “To Chinggis, the Lord of Men at our head, to the shamanic spirit of all our ancestors.”

In June, I attended a fascinating summer solstice ceremony in the lovely steppe forests of Terelj called “Offerings to the Great Red Sun”. This shamans’ gathering was a well catered and moving cultural experience. Some of Mongolia’s leading shamanist advocates were in attendance (such as D. Byambadorj and N. Nyam-Osor). According to shamanist belief, it is on the summer solstice that shamans are able to transfer the life-giving power of the sun to the people. On the eve of the longest day of the year, fire offerings were made to the spirit of fire and to Ursa Major, in order to prepare for the sun’s return. There was much shamanizing and the recital of traditional Mongolian poetry. Before dawn on the solstice itself, the shamans assembled on a hillside to make mare’s milk offerings to the 55 white skies and offerings of distilled spirits to the 44 black skies. Shamans in full regalia fell into trance and wildly danced playing their drums. Finally, all the participants in the ceremony made offerings to the eternal Blue Sky (Tengri) and the Mother Earth (Eje).

My Tour and the State of Archaeology in Mongolia
During my seven weeks in the Mongolia, I traveled extensively in regions west of Ulaan Baatar. Accompanying me on the longest single trip was my old expedition partner C. Ashley McAllen MD and Munkhu Bayarsaikhan, an affable archaeologist attached to the Mongolian Institute of Archaeology. We basically went on a cook’s tour visiting well known and not so well known archaeological sites in the provinces of Hovsgol, Arhangay, Uvs, Bayan Olgiy, and Hovd. As we covered so much ground, it was only possible to have a quick look at sites, but this was a quite valuable exercise all the same.

In Bayan Olgiy, I got to see rock art stereotypically attributed to the Upper Paleolithic, Neolithic, Bronze Age, and Iron Age. Sadly, unchecked access and graffiti are threatening the integrity of pictographs at the celebrated Ikh Oulyn site. These precious compositions of wild animals and other motifs are thought by many specialists to date to the Upper Paleolithic (I, however, question this dating as well as the species identification of some compositions, and will suggest a Neolithic periodization instead). It was also wonderful to see impressively carved deer stone pillars at famous places such as Uushigiin Uver and Ulaan Tolgoi, sites I only knew from books until this trip. Near Lake Dayan Nuur in the Altai Range, we came across a great variety of Turk sites (5th to 7th century CE). Seeing these sites made me better appreciate how much the lines of upright stones (bulbuls) have in common with those found in the pillar arrays I have documented in Upper Tibet over the years. The small tabular pillars in both regions typically have their broad sides oriented north and south.

My general impressions concerning Mongolian and Upper Tibetan archaeological monuments are as follows: Mongolia has a much higher density and a much larger variety of Metal Age funerary sites than Upper Tibet. This would appear to be due to the cultural crossroads status of Mongolia in ancient times and its lower elevation environment (more conducive to human settlement). Moreover, Mongolian funerary monuments are generally more massively constructed than their counterparts in Upper Tibet. The more congenial low elevation environment and possibly a larger more diverse workforce seem to be factors at play here. On the other hand, the Metal Age cultures occupying Mongolia did not master the construction of integral double-course walls used in the construction of buildings, because they pursued a largely nomadic existence. In Upper Tibet, with its extensive sedentary settlements, ancient builders perfected the construction of high elevation walls for use at funerary sites as early as circa 1000 BCE.

In the Darkhad depression we came across an unadorned pillar that appears to have been erected in an enclosure resembling those found in Upper Tibet. This type of monument has been hardly documented before. This situation was to be repeated quite a few times during our tour: there are still a number of undocumented or not well documented types of ancient funerary monuments in Mongolia. For example, pillars are found in a great variety of configurations and associations. At this juncture, no one knows how many cultures might be represented in this astounding diversity, let alone their individual life-spans and interactions with one another.

Seeing the sheer number of virtually unknown monument types made me realize how important it is for a comprehensive typological study of archaeological sites to be carried out in Mongolia. As for an exhaustive inventory of all individual sites in the country, that is a long way off, not least of all because of a lack of funds. There are literally thousands of Bronze Age and Iron Age sites alone, and they come in a great many guises. To catalogue them all would be an epic project, requiring the hard work and expertise of many archaeologists over a decade or more. Despite the logistical and financial challenges to such a project, it is absolutely necessary. Once all recognized archaeological sites are properly documented and registered with the authorities, opportunities for effective conservation will increase (absolutely crucial in this time of unprecedented vandalism and plunder).

A bird’s eye view of Mongolia’s archaeological wealth will also help native academic and governmental institutions decide where foreign expertise and funds are most needed. As it stands now, the proliferation of foreign archaeological teams carrying out excavations may not be best serving the needs of the country or of science. There seems to be too much of a race on, with various teams rushing to stake out their territory. This may in some cases be leading to a duplication of efforts and the unwarranted disturbance of certain sites. To avoid undue overlap and to set research and exploration priorities straight, more information about the general character of archaeological assets in Mongolia is called for. Perhaps some of the Western and East Asian scientific institutions working in Mongolia could help in this regard?

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