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Mongolian Buddhism in the Democratic Period  

Saskia Abrahms-Kavunenko

During the socialist period in Mongolia (1921–1990), the public practice of Buddhism, along with other religious practices, was restricted. Since the Democratic Revolution of 1989–1990, the practice of Buddhism has been permitted in public. Today Buddhism is the main religion of Mongolia, following the Vajrayāna tradition of Buddhism. As well as having strong ties to international Buddhist lineages and organizations, Buddhism in Mongolia has unique characteristics. In the early 1990s old lamas from the presocialist period reinhabited old temples, built new temples, and took on students. They reinvigorated old practices and rituals that they had practiced in secret during the socialist period, or those they had remembered from the presocialist era as young lamas. In addition to this local reinvigoration of Buddhist practice, in the 1990s translocal Buddhist organizations came to Mongolia with the hope of helping to rebuild Buddhism. They brought with them their own expectations about education, religious practice, and monastic discipline. Along with these transnational Buddhist ideas and practices, other local religious practices, such as shamanism, and translocal religious practices, such as Christianity and new religious movements, established themselves in the country. These local and translocal forms of religion generated the proliferation of a wide range of unique ideas and practices that have characterized Mongolian Buddhism since 1990. As Buddhism in the democratic period is the main religion in Mongolia, it has become a source of geopolitical significance. The strong ties between Mongolian Buddhist institutions and Tibetan Buddhist organizations in diaspora have been a cause of diplomatic friction between Mongolia and China. These ties with Tibetans in diaspora have also affected power dynamics internally within Mongolian Buddhist organizations. Mongolian Buddhism in the democratic era is an important local religious practice, a source of translocal connections and transformations, and has geopolitical significance.


Jebtsundamba Khutugtus of Mongolia  

Agata Bareja-Starzyńska

Buddhist reincarnations, stemming from the Tibetan term rJe btsun dam pa (“Holy Precious Master”) in the 17th century after fourteen previous rebirths in India and Tibet, appeared in Khalkha Mongolia. Their significance results from both religious and political activity. They became central to Khalkha Mongolian identity. The First Khalkha Jebtsundampa (1635–1723)—in Tibetan Blo bzang bstan pa’i rgyal mtshan, in Mongolian Zanabazar and referred to as Ȯndür Gegen (“High Serenity”)—was the son of the Khalkha Tüśiyetü Khan Ġombodorji. As a child he was recognized as the reincarnation of Tāranātha Künga nyingpo (Kun dga’ snying po; 1575–1634), the great master of the Tibetan Jonangpa school. However, he was educated by the Gélukpa teachers, also in Tibet, and treated by this school as the reincarnation of yet another master, Jamyang chöjé (’Jam dbyangs chos rje; 1379–1449), an important Gélukpa teacher. His recognition was confirmed by the Fifth Dalai Lama and the Fourth Panchen Lama. Political plans of influential Tibetan clergy probably shaped this unusual situation. The position of the khan’s son, economic support given by his father, knowledge of Tibetan Buddhism, and his own charisma led Zanabazar to play a decisive role in disseminating Gélukpa Buddhist traditions in Khalkha Mongolia. He was also a gifted artist who cast in bronze superb religious sculptures. Due to political conflicts between Western and Eastern Mongols, the Khalkha lands were attacked by the Oirat Ġaldan Bośuġtu (1644–1697), and the Jebtsundamba fled to Southern (Inner) Mongolia. Khalkha Mongols and the Jebtsundamba allied with the Manchu Emperor Kangxi (r. 1662–1720). Upon Ġaldan Bośuġtu’s defeat and the Jebtsundamba’s return to his homeland, he was regarded as the main religious and political figure of the Khalkha Mongols. After the death of the second Jebtsundamba, who was engaged in anti-Manchu activity, in order to prevent merging of religion and secular power of the Mongols, Manchu authorities forbade searching for the Jebtsundamba incarnations in Mongolia. All subsequent seven incarnations were recognized among the Tibetans. The importance of the Jebtsundampa incarnations as religious and political leaders of Khalkha Mongolia (otherwise called Northern Mongolia or Outer Mongolia) resulted in elevating the Eighth Jebtsundampa or Boġda Gegen (1871–1924) to the position of a hierocratic monarch, Boġda Khaġan, similarly to the Tibetan Dalai Lamas, when Mongolia gained independence in 1911. His rule was interrupted by the Chinese in 1919 and again in 1921 by the communists. After his death the communist authorities forbade searching for the next incarnation. Nevertheless, the Ninth Jebtsundamba (1933–2013) was found in Tibet and raised in a monastery. In 1959 he fled to India where he lived as a lay Tibetan refugee. With democratization in Mongolia his recognition as Jebtsundamba was reconfirmed by the Dalai Lama in 1991 with a task of preserving the religious legacy of the Jebtsundambas and the Jonangpa tradition. In 2011 he was enthroned as the head of Mongolian Buddhists. After his passing the process of searching for the tenth incarnation has begun.