Buddhism in the Mongol Empire

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The Mongolian United State

Buddhism in Mongolia (1206 to 1270)

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

After the Kitans, there appeared on the territory of Mongolia a number of Khanates, which were all united by Genghis Khan.

In 1206, Genghis Khan sent a letter to the Tibetan Khambo Lama of Sakja saying “I want to invite you to my country, but my state affairs have not been finished yet, so pray for my victory”. Genghis Khan mentioned in one of his letters that he freed the Tibetan religious leader from tax duty.

Mongolian conquerors headed by Genghis Khan intended to use religion to promote their political objectives. It seems that some of the top military leaders and consultants were familiar with Buddhism. Prince Gombojav, a well-known Mongolian scholar of the late 17th century and the beginning of 18th century, in his work on the history of the Buddhist religion in China wrote that Tsu, the wise adviser of Genghis Khan, a Kitan of Mongol origin, had a deep knowledge of Buddhism. The second great Khan Ögödei, the son of Genghis Khan (1229-1241), also supported Buddhism and began to build Buddhist temples and a big stupa in the city of Kara-Korum, which was proclaimed by Genghis Khan the capital of Mongolia in 1220. The big stupa was completed in 1256, in the time of Monkhe Khan (1251-1258). Later, in 1311, 1342-1346, it was restored and redecorated. It was a five-story stupa. On the ground floor, at each corner there was a room, and Buddhist statues and pictures were displayed in proper orders in each room.

William of Rubruck a Minorite monk and an envoy of Louis the 9th, the King of France, who visited Mongolia in 1253-1255, wrote: “In a big temple there were many lamas sitting in two rows, holding beads in their hands, wearing yellow gowns. Their hair and beards were close cut and they were reciting Buddhist books chanting “Om mani padme hum” (May happiness prevail). In Mongolian literary sources about monument erected in the second half of the 14th Century in Kara-Korum, the “Tsogt the Great Temple”, the temple of praying, or Chitayan temple, and others were mentioned, and it was also reported that 120 temples were built for lamas.

All these facts show that Kara-Korum, starting from the beginning of the 13th Century and to 1380, for over 100 years, was a big administrative and religious centre on the territory of the Mongolia. In 1380, Chinese troops invaded Mongolia and captured Kara-Korum, burned it down and looted its treasures. Since then the city was never restored. The emergence of Kara-Korum as a major centre of Buddhism was closely connected with the internal and external policy of the Mongolian Khans of that time who wanted to strengthen their rule and to consolidate the independence of their country. Godon, a minister of the Great Khan who lived in Khukhe Nor, invited head Khambo Lama Sakja Pandita Kungagyaltsan (1182-1251) of the Sakya sect in 1257 and met him in 1251 asking him to teach the Mahayana Buddhism which he himself adopted.

Monkhe Khan (1251-1258) had no less important role to play in the propagation of Buddhism in the Mongolian United State. In 1251 he became khan and invited Maniba Lama of the Karmapa sect of Buddhism and Choigyon, who was famous as Karma-the Teacher, and set up the Lhadin temple. Later on the Karma-the Teacher in the time of Khubilai Khan, was equally respected as Pag-pa Lama. According to Chinese sources, Monkhe Khan promoted a Lama named “Guru” as a “state teacher” and he probably was the above mentioned Maniba. So, “the two principles” used in the time of the Lou-Lans-an authentic Mongol tribe, were revised in the period of the Mongolian United State, and although during the Manchurian colonization their use was discontinued, they were observed in fact, until the beginning of the 20th century in the traditional Mongolian system of government. Mongolian Buddhists praying for the long life of Monkhe Khan, erected in 1257 a stone monument on the bank of the Ider River in the Khövsgöl aimak. The Great Khans of Mongolia who supported Buddhism, making it state religion, also took interest in the Indian and Tibetan cultures.

Idi-dan Muhammed a Persian scholar and a tutor of Monkhe Khan, translating the tales of Calila and Dimna, a part of the Indian Pancatantra, from Persian into Mongolian and made Monkhe read them.

Sonom-Gara a well-known translator, long before 1269 translated a philosophical and moral book “Subashid” or “Subhasitaratnanidhi” by Sakya Pandita Kunga-gyaltsan from Tibet.

Having spread among Mongolian rulers and nobilities at the time of the United Mongolian State, Buddhism developed further during the Mongolian Yuan Dynasty.

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