Monasteries in Ulaanbaatar

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Text based on my research in Ulaanbaatar in 2006 and 2007.

Temples in the Gandantegchinlen monastery in Ulaanbaatar.

Temples in the Gandantegchinlen monastery in Ulaanbaatar.

In Ulaanbaatar there was until bloody cleansings in the late thirties approximately 100 partly independent monasteries. Now (2007) is 36 buddhist monasteries in Ulaanbaatar, most of them belongs to Gelugpa sect, but you can find also a few Nyingmapa sect monasteries. New for Mongolia and very interesting are buddhist nunneries.

The biggest monastery in Ulaanbaatar (just like in the whole Mongolia) and the center of Mongolian Buddhism is the monastery complex of Gandantegchinlin in the center of Ulaanbaatar. Gandan was the only buddhist monastery in operation until the fall of communist era in the early nineties.

The newly founded monasteries are often trying to build on the monastery / temple from the period before the purges in 1937. Some are associated with their predecessors more other links with them just the same name. Often, however, are monasteries constructed entirely new.

The only “building” of new monasteries, are often only a yurt with decorated wooden entrance and with several prayer wheels on the garden. Other building is being built at a later date according to the financial possibilities. Inside the yurt is usually an altar, library, place for prayer and corner for private interviews with lama.

Most of the Buddhist monasteries in Ulaanbaatar subscribes to the so-called “yellow sect” of Tibetan Buddhism – the Gelugpa. Smaller number of monasteries subscribes to the “red sect” – the Nyingmapa. You can even find monasteries, which are considered to be mixed.

Main temple in Gandantegchinlen monastery in which is 26.5m high statue of Megjid Janraiseg (Avalokitesvara).

Main temple in Gandantegchinlen
monastery in which is 26.5m high
statue of Megjid Janraiseg
(Avalokitesvara). Main temple in Gandantegchinlen
monastery in which is 26.5m high
statue of Megjid Janraiseg
(Avalokitesvara).

The ceremonial language in the monasteries is practically everywhere the Tibetan and even though the entire Buddhist canon Kanjur and Tanjur is well translated into Mongolian (the Kanjur was translated in the years 1628-1629, the Tanjur in 1741-1749). So the believers (and sometimes even the monks themselves) don’t understand the prayer texts and sutras. This situation is trying to change the monks from a small monastery of Mongolin unshladag töv. They are translate, rewrite and expand the Mongolian translation of Buddhist texts. But during my visiting the monastery (2007) it was only really small temple only in one yurt, with small group of monks.

In addition to traditional Buddhist temples in Ulaanbaatar there are several centers for the public, led by monks or devout laymen. It hosts various lectures, meditation courses and ceremonies. It is worth mentioning definitely Stupa café in the center of UB. As the name suggests, can be found here except the lecture hall also a cafe where you can sit, eat something good or borrow a book or magazine.

During the years 2006 and 2007, I visited in Ulaanbaatar a total of 36 monasteries and temples. Each of the monasteries, I photographed and made short interviews with the monks. Most of them were small monasteries with young monks. There were very few Elder monks and have big respect for them – not only for their wisdom but also because they represent a kind of link between now and the distant glorious past of Buddhism in Mongolia. In most of the monasteries were about 20 to 30 monks or nuns (sometimes less). Among the largest are Gandantegchinlen (with about 500 monks – the center of Buddhism in Mongolia) and Dashchoilin hiid (about 160 monks).

The level of education of the monks are very different. Due to the low average of age, monks often don’t know the Tibetan language properly, so they are not able to understand the texts which are recited. The meaning of texts is explained to young monks by the older and more experienced lamas. It is obviously very difficult to continue to the ancient Buddhist wisdom which was practically destroyed during 70 years of communist rule. According to the financial possibilities, the monks leaving to study Buddhism abroad – mostly to India. But it seems that those monks who are sincerely dedicated to their mission can catch up everything they need, and the level of education in the Mongolian Buddhist monasteries will improve.

Every monastery has a clear hierarchical structure. The main Lama is frequently titled Terguun or rarely Hamba (Terguun means just “the head” while Hamba is high buddhist vow). After them follows lamas with various titles or vows. The lowest status have the young monks, who are responsible for various things needed to run the monastery – cleaning, cooking, tea, etc. The older monks gradually hand down their knowledge to those younger. They usualy starts with learning of the Tibetan alphabet and shorter texts by heart. Some monasteries as Gandantegchinlen, Dashchoilin or Pethub have their own schools, various forms of instruction, however, take place in all the monasteries. Most of the monks are not give up secular things and do not live in monasteries, but in homes with their families. Accommodation for the monks are only in large monasteries, but often even in those small several monks lives – for example in the yurt on the estate of the monastery. For the celibate monks may decide in its sole discretion, it required only if they have a higher vow and only in monasteries with stricter discipline.

Dashchoilin monastery - the second largest monastery in Ulaanbaatar.

Dashchoilin monastery – the second largest monastery
in Ulaanbaatar.

Monasteries have a various focus. Some are devoted only to classical reading of Sutras, Tantras, and prayers for the faithful (who of course pay for them), but others have their own “specialization”. So we can find such as temples like Nar hajid sum, in which deal with the invocation and exorcism of ghosts, Manba datsan – monastery with a focus on Tibetan and Mongolian medicine, or Pethub, where they have medical clinic and organizes meditation courses for the public.

Dashchoilin monastery - the second largest monastery in Ulaanbaatar.

Dashchoilin monastery – the second largest monastery
in Ulaanbaatar.

The center of Mongolian Buddhism is the largest monastery in the country – Gandantegchinlen. The head of the monastery (Chamba Lama Choijamts / чойжамц) is also the main representative of the Buddhist church in Mongolia. But official head of Mongolian Buddhism it is the Ninth Khalkha Jetsun Dhampa living in India. He unfortunately does not speak Mongolian and rarely goes to Mongolia. So his position in Mongolian Buddhist hierarchy is not too accepted and many people and monks did not even know him.

Overall, the larger and better known monasteries prospered relatively well, while the little ones have existential problems. Salvation for them cab be material assistance from abroad. The most important role is played by South Korean Buddhist Church, which greatly supports Mongolian monasteries and Buddhism not just financially.

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