Monks, Saints and Incarnations

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

In connection with the increase of the number of monasteries and temples in 18-19th cent., monks grew rapidly in number. In 1785 only in Great Shabi, monks at monasteries and temples numbered 15,000. In entire Khalkha Mongolia there were approximately 70,000 monks. In 1868 only in Ikh Khüree (Great Enclosure) there were over 10,000 monks.

Such rapid increase in the number of monks had some economic reasons besides their religious conviction of the need for becoming a monk and performing good deeds. If one took the vows of monkhood, he was freed from military service and also from official obligation and services of other ordinary subjects. Monks enjoyed certain privileges over laymen because they got alms and in society they held a more respected position.

By their position in society, property status and rank, monks were not equal. They were divided into the higher, middle and lower groups.

Saints, incarnations, khambos, dharrnasvamins, chief lamas, scholarly degree holders, lama-teachers, cantors and superintendents of temple ceremonies and other higher rank holders managed all affairs of monasteries and temples, supervised middle and lower group lamas, and controlled the incomes and treasury of monasteries and were in charge of alms.

Learned monks, stewards of middle and lower rank, business manager lamas (major-domo), secretary-lamas, physicians, religious ceremony performers were in a position between the higher and lower ranking of lamas. The overwhelming majority of lamas were lower group lamas who had no title and they were called disciples or monks. Lower lamas were subject to higher lamas and did all kinds of odd jobs at monasteries and temples and lived on money received for performing their religious ceremonies and on meals given by believers. 10 percent out of the entire monkhood were higher ranking lamas, the rest were middle and lower ranking lamas.

Higher ranking lamas were subdivided into several groups among which saints and incarnations enjoyed special rights. Saints and incarnations were considered Bodhisattvas that embodied on the earth in the form of human beings in order to save the living beings from sufferings. Saints and incarnations were also considered reborn ever since Buddhism was established in Mongolia. Saints and incarnations were very esteemed and authoritative people among believers. In particular the Holy Jebtsundamba, who was famed among Mongols as the Bogd, or living Buddha, was especially influential. In the book entitled “Source of the Highest” on the genealogical table of the Holy Jebtsundamba it is written that the previous incarnations of Tibetan Tarnata incarnation of the Holy Jebtsundamba of Khalkha were reborn five times in India, ten times in Tibet, twice in Mongolia and then later six times in Tibet. Totally he was incarnated 23 times. The last eight incarnations of the Jebtsundamba were at the top of the Mongolian Yellow Sect of Buddhism for about 300 years and revered as the Holy Bogd. Ninth Jebtsundamba lived in Tibet.

The first incarnation of the Bogd Jebtsundamba, the Öndör gegeen (High Holiness) Zanabazar, remained as the head of the Mongolian Yellow Sect of Buddhism even after Mongolia was conquered by the Manchus, and he was considered and revered as the Holiest of the Holy Lamas in Khalkha Mongolia.

In 1723, the Holy Jebtsundamba was conferred upon by the Manchu Emperor the title of “the promoter of Religion” and presented with a gold seal, a diploma on golden leaves. A special ministry was set up – Erdene shanzodba, to administer the Öndör Gegeen Jebtsundamba’s subjects. The Öndör Gegeen passed away in Peking in 1723 at the age of 88. Then the Manchu Emperor promoted to the second incarnation of Jebtsundamba son of Darkhan Ching Wang Dondubdorji, his son-in-law and close relative of Tuset Khan Gombodorj. All the titles, distinctions and privileges conferred upon His Holiness the Öndör Gegeen were passed to the Second Bogd so it became tradition that later incarnations inherited the titles, distinctions and privileges of the previous ones. Pretending to show their respect for the Second Bogd for his service in suppressing the national liberation movement of Mongols in 1755-1757, the Manchus conferred upon the Second Bogd the title “Promoter of Happiness for All Living Beings” in addition to the previous one “the Promoter of the Religion”.

However later on, in 1758, they had him murdered as soon as they knew that the Second Bogd was on the side of the national liberation movement.

The anti-Manchu national liberation movement of 1755-1757 was launched by the Mongols, and the Manchus were aware of the influence of the Bogd and others who could be able to attract others towards themselves and unite the forces of the Mongols to resist the Manchus. So all the later incarnations of Jebtsundamba were from Tibet.

As the Yellow Sect of Buddhism spread, there was observed a growing number of saints and incarnations. In the middle of the 18th cent., there were about 50 saints and incarnations, but in the middle of the 19th century the number reached 120 and by early 20th century it jumped up to 150. Out of them the most popular and influential were Zaya Pandit, Erdene Pandit, Ching Susegt, Nomun Khan, Nar Wangchen, Erdene Mergen Noyan Khutuktu, Naran Khutuktu, Khambo Nomun Khan – all from the Sain Noyan Khan aimak, Ilgagugsan Khutuktu, Zhalkhenze Khutuktu and Nomun Khan from the Zasagt Khan aimak, and Egzur Khutuktu of the Tsetsen Khan aimak.

All saints and incarnations possessed great amount of private property and enormous number of serfs – “shabi”. Shabis are serfs of saints and incarnations. Their origin is closely connected with the spread of Buddhism. In 1639 feudals presented the First Incarnation of Jebtsundamba the Öndör Gegeen 32 families out of their own subjects, and in this way the ecclesiastic serfs – shabi, emerged for the first time in Mongolia. Prior to that there was not serfdom in Mongolia. The shabis were divided into two categories – shabis of the Jebtsundamba Khutuktu and shabis of other incarnations and saints. So in order to distinguish the shabis of the Jebtsundamba Khutuktu from other shabis, the former shabis used to be called “Great shabis”.

As the Yellow Sect of Buddhism flourished, the authority of the incarnations and saints grew and more and more new incarnations and saints appeared. Shabis increased in number.

The number of people in Great shabi was 20,000 in 1764 and it grew to 110,000 in 1825.

In connection with the increase of the number of shabis, the number of incarnations with seals entitled to rule over shabis also grew. The seal of ruling the shabis was received by Zaya Pandit and Erdene Pandit in 1739 Ching Susegt Nomun Khan in 1751, Erdene Mergen Noyan Khutuktu in 1772, Ilgagugsan Khutuktu in 1821 and Zhalkhanze Khutuktu in 1824.

The Great shabis were supervised by Shanodba Ministry which had equal rights with the chairman of the aimak assembly, and shabis of other incarnations and saints with seals by Shanzodba who had equal rights with hereditary ruling prince or banner administrators under whose supervision there were functionaries such as chief lamas, chiefs of clans.

In their turn the shabis were divided into subgroups of tribe and bagh (administrative unit in Mongolia).

Since the end of the 17th century shabis were freed from state duty and they served only their masters. Shabis had to look after the cattle of their masters, to grow grain, to conduct caravan, to run horse-relay service, to prepare fuel, to erect and to repair temples and dwelling houses, and in one word to do every household odd work. Jebtsundamba, other incarnations, saints and high ranking monks possessed enormous property, serfs who were called “shabi”, and had their own special administration to rule over the serfs as well as fixed system of tax collection.

Manchus treated intimately Jebtsundamba and other influential saints, incarnations and high ranking monks, confirming upon them higher titles, and bestowing every kind of favour. In 1736, when Jebtsundamba Khutuktu visited Peking, the Manchu Emperor, showing great respect, personally paid a visit of courtesy to the residence of Jebtsundamba and presented him rich gifts.

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