Mongolian Buddhism in the Early 20th Century
- Matthew W. KingMatthew W. KingUniversity of California, Riverside
Mongol lands were bastions of Mahāyāna (Mon. yeke kölgen) and Vajrayāna (Mon. vačir kölgen) Buddhist life from the seventeenth to the early twentieth centuries, vast territories of the Buddhadharma deeply twinned with Tibetan traditions but always of local variation and distinct cultural content and purpose. Mongol contact with the Dharma reached its apex in the early decades of the 20th century, a flourishing of Buddhist knowledge, craft, and institutionalism that would soon face the blunt tool of brutal state violence. As the great Eurasian Empires came undone with tectonic force and consequence, Mongol lands along the frontiers of the Qing and Tsarist formations had the highest per capita rate of monastic ordination in the history of Buddhism (up to one in three adult men holding some monastic affiliation). Decades into the revolutionary aftermath of imperial collapse, at the interface of Republican China and Soviet Russia, Mongolian monastic complexes were hubs of cultural, economic, and intellectual life that continued to circulate and shape anew classical Indian and Tibetan fields of knowledge like medicine and astrology, esoteric and exoteric exegesis, material culture, and performance traditions between the Western Himalaya; the northern foothills of the British Raj; the Tibetan plateau; North China; Beijing; all Mongol regions; and Siberia, right to St. Petersburg. In addition to being dynamic centers of production, Mongolian Buddhist communities in the early 20th century provided zones of contact and routes of circulation for persons, ideas, objects, and patronage. Pilgrims, pupils, merchants, diplomats and patrons (and those that were all of these) moved from Mongol hubs such as Urga, Alashan, or Kökeqota to monastic colleges, markets, holy sites (and at this time, universities, parliaments, and People’s Congresses) in Lhasa, Beijing, Wutaishan, France, and St. Petersburg.
In the ruins of the Qing and Tsarist empires, to whatever uneven degree these had been felt in local administrative units, Buddhist frames of references, institutions, and technologies of self- and community formation were central in the reimagination of Mongol and Siberian communities. In the decades this article considers, such imperial-era communal and religious references were foundational to new rubrics associated first with the national subject and then the first experiments with state socialism in Asia. In many Mongol regions, Buddhism was at first considered “the very spirit” of revolutionary developments, as the Buryat progressive and pan-Mongolist Ts. Jamsrano once put it. By the late 1930s, however, the economic, social, and political capital of monks (especially monastic officials and khutuγtu “living buddhas”) and their monastic estates were at odds with new waves of socialist development rhetoric. Buddhist clerics and their networks (though not “Buddhism” as such) were tried en masse as counterrevolutionary elements. Able only to speak their crimes under interrogation and in court, monks fell to firing squads by the tens of thousands. All monastic institutions save three were razed to the steppe grasses and desert sands. Any continuity of public religiosity, other than minimal displays of state-sponsored propaganda, was discontinued until the democratic revolution of 1990. Mongol lands and its Buddhism was thus an early exemplar of a pattern that would repeat itself across socialist Asia in the 20th century. From China to Cambodia, Tibet to Vietnam and Korea, counter-imperial and colonial nationalist and socialist movements who were at first aligned with Buddhist institutions would later enact profound state violence against monastics and their sympathizers. Understanding Buddhism in early 20th century Mongolia is thus a key case study to thinking about the broad processes of nationalization, reform, violence, Europeanization, state violence, and globalization that has shaped Buddhism and Buddhists in much of Asia in the recent past.