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The making of Mongolian Buddhism

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This review was also published in The Newsletter #73

As I was reading through A Monastery in Time, it occurred to me how the publication of this book, and the more recent volume Mongolian Buddhism in History, Culture and Society,[1] suggests that Mongolian Buddhism is slowly becoming a meaningful academic study, quite distinct from the Tibetan Buddhism from which it initially developed. Scholars of religion and history, as well as individuals and organizations involved in cultural preservation, are ever more focused on understanding how Buddhism in the Mongolian ethnic region (including areas that are nowadays considered politically part of Russia and China, in addition to Mongolia itself) has morphed, over the centuries and under many diverse influences, into what it is today. Such scholarship, moreover, contributes to an enrichment, not only of our understanding of the past, but of our involvement in the contemporary development of Inner Asia.
Caroline Humphrey and Hürelbaatar Ujeed’s book seeks to answer a fundamental question: “What does it mean to be a Buddhist in a Mongolian way?” (p1) Their site of enquiry is the monastery at Mergen, in the southwestern region of Inner Mongolia. The book traces multiple trajectories through time and history, mapping the lived experience of Mergen’s community of monks and their relationship with the complex spiritual and cultural meanings of Buddhism, within the personal and social contexts of religious practice. The authors’ study is based upon two decades of fieldwork, and its value lies squarely in their intimate relationship with the community and in the profound reach of their ethnography.
The ideas that unfold over the course of the book’s ten chapters are presented through an approach which, while personal, allows the subjects to speak directly to the reader. Thus we have a cast of characters – people, deities and spirits, religious texts and artifacts – through whose stories the greater story and key questions surrounding the monastery’s historical and religious development are explored.
The expression of time in the title relates not only to the unfolding of history, but also to its collapse in day-to-day terms in the lives of these characters. The immanence in the ongoing experience of the monks today of religious leaders such as the Mergen Gegen (1717-1766), who was closely associated with the Mergen monastery, and whose Mongolian-language history of Buddhism Altan Tobchi is central to the monastery’s self-aware preservation of Buddhist rituals in Mongolian, renders time – and so history, and so manifestation itself – a somewhat slippery study. Indeed, in their discussion of the concept of sülde (the ‘spirit of invincibility’ – see also the discussion of the translation of this term on pp.185-186), the authors show how this one word not only signifies several ideas – it “is associated with a radical vision of military power, with light and air, and with the aristocracy as the integrating skeleton of society” (p199) – but that it is also in some sense the verbal manifestation of relationships with entities such as the local deity Muna Khan or Mergen Gegen himself, and thereby (through the use of ritual) with the individual’s sense of self. Through the telling of local legends and personal anecdotes, the authors are able to trace the development of several such disparate ideas, and so present a beautifully structured yet necessarily incomplete understanding of how Mongolian culture (including its pre-Buddhist shamanic culture) has framed and shaped Mongolian Buddhism. In this understanding, moreover, is revealed the significance of the conceptual and social distance that exists between the Tibetan and Mongolian manifestations of Buddhism.
The recent history, however, of both Tibet and Inner Mongolia has placed them equally and together at the center of the Chinese government’s ongoing campaign against the Dalai Lama. Humphrey and Ujeed’s treatment of the political difficulties faced by the Mergen community, both during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) and latterly amid the adapted strictures against religion in general and the Dalai Lama in particular, highlights the ways in which everyone involved with the monastery has been taking part in a process of cultural and spiritual negotiation. The two lamas whose stories are central to the book’s narrative, Sengge Lama and the current Chorji Lama Mönghebatu, had both severely “struggled” during the Cultural Revolution, and both now keenly grasp their places in relation to the complex nexus of history, religious practice and culture that is Mergen Monastery’s ongoing experience. Sengge Lama in particular offers a striking commentary on this experience when he says, “A person who becomes old must place his history in safekeeping” (p286). This realization of the importance of preserving history, of preserving local and cultural knowledge for future generations (just as, Sengge Lama implies, Mergen Gegen himself had) appears as the intellectual bedrock upon which the book was originally conceived. Nonetheless, while the existence of this book cannot make up for the dearth of knowledgeable lamas of which Sengge Lama speaks (p286), its publication is at least a small step towards the awareness of western scholarship of Mergen Monastery’s unique heritage.
But there is another aspect to this urge to “place..history in safekeeping”. Right at the book’s close, the authors point out that even those aspects of the culture of Mergen Monastery that might have seemed central to them, and which are indeed central to their book – “such as the great morality-infused structure at the center of Mergen Gegen’s Altan Tobci, the nobles’ cult of sülde, the mausoleums of heroic ancestors, or the relics of the 8th Mergen Gegen” (p385), or even the primacy of the Mongolian language at the monastery as a medium for religion – nonetheless change, and are transformed over time by the currents and fashions of history. So the urge to preserve culture is itself recognized as an aspect of culture, and the wish of devout and culturally-aware practitioners and scholars to “safeguard” what they regard as significant should properly, I believe Humphrey and Ujeed subtly to be saying, be seen as ephemeral, like the illusory play of water bubbles or rainbows mentioned in Buddhist teaching, and as ultimately representing the “creative tension between dispersion and centralizing acts of concentration” (p386).
This book seems destined to be a key text in the discussion of Mongolian Buddhism, and of the cultural history of Inner Mongolia during the present century. I would have welcomed more pictures to complement the vivid and descriptive writing style, and a more extensive and more topic-specific index, but such cavils should not detract from the fact that this is a most important and exciting contribution to the field of Mongolian Studies.

Simon Wickhamsmith, Rutgers University (swickhamsmith@gmail.com)

citation: Wickhamsmith, S. 2016. "Review of Humphrey, C. & H. Ujeed. 2013. A Monastery in Time: The Making of Mongolian Buddhism", The Newsletter #73, p.25, Leiden: International Institute for Asian Studies; www.iias.asia/the-newsletter/article/mongolian-buddhism

 

[1] Wallace, V.A. (ed.) 2015. Mongolian Buddhism in History, Culture and Society, New York: OUP. For full disclosure, I should admit here that I have a paper in this collection (“A Literary History of Buddhism in Mongolia”). The reader’s attention should also be drawn to Christopher Kaplonski’s important study The Lama Question: Violence, Sovereignity, and Exception in Early Socialist Mongolia (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2014).

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