Buddhism during the Yuan Dynasty

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The Yuan Dynasty

Buddhism in Mongolia (1271 to 1368)

From: Buddhism in Mongolia (Historical Survey), Ulaanbaatar 1981
By: Section of Studies of Gandantegchenlin Monastery

Khubilai Khan, the founder of the Mongolian Yuan Dynasty in China, continued the policy of the Mongolian Great Khans and vigorously supported the development of Buddhism. In 1260, he invited Pagpa Lama Lodoigyalsan, Sakya sect of Tibet, and in 1264 when he was in Shangdu (Kai-pin), he proclaimed in his “Suvdan jarlig” edict the Lama as the religious leader of the Yuan Dynasty, gave him the seal of Purocita (state teacher) and freed Lamas who served the Mongolian Khans from horse post service and other taxes. He also decreed that the land and property of the monasteries should be protected by law.

Khubilai Khan promoted the policy of unity of state and religion – the two principles, inherited from Monkhe Khan. Pagpa Lama wrote many letters to promote the spread of Buddhism in Mongolia and China and also his book “Shes-bya Rab-gsal”, which was written in 1278 at the request of Chinghim Taizi, a son of Khubilai Khan, dignified Chinghis Khan and other khans with the titles of great khans who were “chakravarti” – Turners of the wheel of Dharma, like ancient Indian and Tibetan Monarch.

The square letter alphabet compiled by Pagpa Lama on the basis of the Tibetan script was proclaimed in 1269 the state script of the Mongolian Yuan Dynasty. The policy on religion pursued by the Yuan Dynasty was not only aimed at maintaining domination over the occupied territory of China, but also at keeping control over Tibet and other countries. For example, Khubilai Khan repeatedly invited the Khambo Lama of the Tsan Guntan Monastery to his palace, and apart from nominating him a sacrificer also appointed him chief of “Tumetu” (ten thousand people).

The Decree of Mangal of 1276, the Buyant Khan Decree of 1314, and the Decree of Darmapala Khan of 1321, indicate that the Mongolian khans resumed the policy of Khubilai Khan in support of religion (and of the successors to Khubilai Khan) and invited Dharmapala (1268-1283), Choigi-Odser (1214-1294), Sodnamgyalsan, Ishrinchen, Kunga-lodoi of the Sakya sect and Lama Urjinpa (1230-1296) of Sanjabal Brugba sect and Ranjundorje (1284-1327), Rolbidorje (1340-1383) of karmapa sect and granted them the traditional title of “state preacher” or “Purohito”.

The Khans of the Mongolian Yuan Dynasty restored old temples and monasteries, built new ones in Peking and other cities. Khubilai Khan erected several temples and monasteries in Peking named after Chinghis, Ogodei, Guyug, Monkhe Khan, Ësugei, the father of Chinghis Khan, Zuchi, Tsagaadai and Tului, the sons of Chinghis Khan.

One significant effort in the field of dissemination of Buddhism in the Yuan Dynasty was the translation of books on Buddhism from the Tibetan, Sanskrit and Uighur into the Mongolian language and printing them. In the beginning of the 14th century, almost all books on Buddha’s Teachings were translated into the Mongolian language. Choiji-Odser, a Mongolian scholar, philosopher and poet, accomplished an important work on translating books on Buddhism, disseminating them among the believers and providing his own commentaries to those books.

In 1305 Choiji-Odser translated “Bodhicaryavatara” (7th century) by Santideva, an ancient Indian philosopher, in 1308 translated “Panca raksa” from Sanskrit and also translated “Saddharma Pundarika Sutra” in a poetic form.

One of the remarkable stages in history of dissemination of Buddhism in Mongolia began, according to reliable sources, from the 14th century. At that stage the Mongolians translated Buddhist books into their own language, made commentaries to them, wrote many books of their own and printed them. It can be said that the Buddhist thought started to develop among the Mongols from this period. Choiji-Odser was one of the founders of the Buddhist thought in Mongolia. In 1312 he wrote 300 pages of commentaries to “Bodhicaryavatara” and printed this work in 1000 copies, wrote a long verse for “Pancaraksa Maliaknla nama stuti”, or praise of four-handed Lhamo in the Indian poetic style, and “Twelve deeds of Buddha” in Indian writers “Jatak Style” . The famous translator, Ses-rab Sen-ge, translated “Altangerel” (Subarnaprabhasa sutra) before 1328, and he also translated “Manjusri Nama Samghiti”.

In the beginning of the 14th century, such works as “Shirnen” Maha prajna-paramita-hrdaya, a philosophical book, “Sanjodmonlam” – (Ariya Samantabhadra caryapranidhana) work by Samantabhadra, one of eight disciples of Buddha, also “Jagun uilti” (a hundred causes and effects) which deals with the laws for monks and priests, compared with the ancient fairy tales and legends, related with the Vinaya, were translated and printed.
Books on Buddhism were also translated into foreign languages. In 1328, Übgen-ü odon-u sudar” (Sme-bdun-skar-mai-mdo), which was printed in 1000 copies by xylograph, was translated from Mongolian into Uighur and Tibetan. At the beginning of the 14th century principal works of Buddha were translated, and printed in 1000-2000 copies. Over 20 pages of a book, written in Mongolian were found among the well-known “Turphan collections” unearthed in Eastern Turkestan at the beginning of the 20th century. All this proves that Buddhism spread not only among the nobility of Mongolia, but that it exerted its influence on peoples in the remote region controlled by the Yuan Dynasty.

In the 14th century, Budon Rinchendub, a Tibetan scholar, collected into separate volumes the great “Kanjur” and “Tanjur”, and at the time of Ligden Khan (1592-1636), Kanjur was completely translated into Mongolian.

However, “Jambaltsanjod” (Manjushri-jnanas sattvasya Paramartha nama-sangitih, “Shirnen”- (Bhagvati-prajnapramitahridaya, “Sanjod Monlam” – (Samandabhadracarya-pranidhanaraja “Doloon urgen-u odun-u sudar” (Sme-bdun-skar-mai-mdo), which had been translated at the beginning of the 14th century, were included into volumes 89, 92, 108 “Kanjur” Tsahar (one of the Mongolian national minorities) and kings were still worshipping as an amulet “Gombo Gur-u” (Mahakala) introduced by Phag-pa Lama by 1629.

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