Home > History of Buddhism in Mongolia

Buddhism in Mongolia: Three or Five Waves of Cultural Blossoming

By Glenn Mullin

According to the Origins of Dharma in the Hor Regions by the great Mongolian scholar Lobsang Tamdrin, Buddhism came to the Hor region in three waves.

1.The first Mongolian Buddhist wave began in the third century B.C., during the time of the Indian Emperor Ashoka, three centuries before Buddhism took root in China, and some eight centuries before it became firmly established in Tibet. Traditionally Mongolians recognize their second highest incarnate lama, Zaya Pandita, as being an emanation of Emperor Ashoka, perhaps in honor of this early connection.

According to Lobsang Tamdrin, Ashoka extended his empire northward all the way to the Silk Road, and eventually captured the city of Khotan. Khotan was the westernmost region of Hor, and thus in Lobsang Tamdrin’s eyes was part of Mongolia. Emperor Ashoka was a strong Buddhist, and actively promoted Buddhism as the national religion of all lands under his rule.

From Khotan Buddhism gradually spread eastward to the Mongolian Gobi kingdoms along the Silk Road. Lobsang Tamdrin comments that Hor supported a population of over 100,000 Buddhist monks even in these ancient days.

Cave paintings along the Hor section of the Silk Road certainly bear witness to an early Mongol enthusiasm for Buddhism. The cave paintings in Dung Huang of modern-day China are an excellent example. Dung Huang at the time was part of the Mongolian patchwork of kingdoms. It was conquered by the Tibetan emperor Songtsen Gampo in the seventh century A.D., reverted to Mongolia under Chinggis Khan.

Chogyal Pakpa

2.The second great wave of Mongolian Buddhism began with Chinggis Khan and his sons, and the special relationship that Chinggis established with the Sakya School of Tibetan Buddhism. Indeed, Chinggis’ grandson Kublai went so far as to have his Tibetan guru Chogyal Pakpa (known to Mongols today as Pakpa Lama) create a special form of the Tibetan Buddhist script for use in all territories under his rule.

This script, known as the Pakyig, continued as the formal script of choice by the Mongol emperors who came thereafter, and was in common use for Mongol Buddhist literature until the Third Wave took hold some three centuries later.

In fact, one theory holds that Kublai intended to use this script for all purposes throughout his empire, and replace the Chinese and Uighar scripts with it. Only the bubonic plague brought this vision to a close.

Khublai Khan

Kublai Khan’s strong dedication to Lama Chogyal Pakpa and his brand of Tibetan Buddhism is strongly documented in The Journals of Marco Polo. Marco Polo had been charged by the Vatican Pope with the task of converting Kublai to Christianity. However, although Kublai was happy to sponsor Christians in his court and to retain them as advisors, he personally remained strongly Buddhist. Marco Polo laments this fact in his Journals, attributing his failure to convert the Khan to the superior skills in paranormal activities such as telekinesis demonstrated by Chogyal Pakpa.

Chogyal Pakpa’s biography (still not available in English translation) records the many Buddhist Tantric lineages and teachings that this great lama gave to Kublai Khan and his inner circle, a testament to the dedication that this great khan held for the enlightenment tradition.

Marco Polo

Of note, Dr. Gene Smith, the director of the Tibetan Buddhist Research Center in NY, whose institute to date has digitized almost ten million pages of Tibetan and Mongolian texts, recently wrote to me stating that the oldest surviving manuscript in the TBRC database is a Buddhist text on the Kalachakra Tantra that was published on the occasion of Kublai Khan’s passing in 1294, to ensure the great emperor’s rebirth in the Kalachakra pure land of Shambhala.

The fall of Mongolian rule in China, and the according rise of the Ming from Nanking, saw the retreat of the Mongols to their original territories north of the White Wall. Eventually a lack of strong Mongol leadership, and the division of the remaining regions of the empire among the princely khans, also saw a decline of the Buddhist movement, and accordingly of Buddhist art.

Altan Khan

3.Mongolia’s Third Buddhist wave, as outlined by Lobsang Tamdrin in The Origins of Dharma in the Hor Regions, refers to the coming of the Dalai Lama School of Tibetan Buddhism to Mongolia in the 1570s, and its adoption by Altan Khan as the national religion of the country.

The Dalai Lama incarnation lineage was not, of course, known by the name “Dalai” at the time. Rather, both at home and abroad he was known as Jey Tamchey Khyenpa, or “The Omniscient Master.” The Third carried the ordination name of Sonam Gyatso. When he arrived in Hohhot, the then southern capital of Mongolia, the king Altan Khan translated the “Gyatso” part of his name in Mongolian. Thus Gyatso became Dalai, and Jey Tamchey Khyenpa became “The Dalai Lama Dorjechang.”

Although Hohhot is now no longer within Mongolian territory, having been stolen by China in the questionable treaty of 1921, the temple built by Altan Khaan for the Third Dalai Lama in Hohhot in 1580 still stands today.

Erdene Zuu

Moreover, the Erdene Zuu temple built for the Third Dalai Lama in Karakorum by Altai Sain Khan in 1584, had also largely survived, although it was badly damaged and the monks killed, sent to Russian gulags, or “re-educated” under instruction of the murderous Communist dictator Marshal Chobailsan in the 1930s. Later it was turned into a museum, which it remains today. The Dalai Lama Temple in Erdene Zuu is still the earliest Yellow School Temple in Mongolia.

The Third Dalai Lama passed away in Hor in 1588. Not long after his passing a Mongol child was born in the family of Prince Sechen Chokhor, one of Altan Khan’s grandsons. Although he and his wife had both been disciples of the great Third Dalai Lama, they were rather shocked when the State Oracle in Lhasa announced that the Third Dalai Lama’s rebirth had taken place in Mongolia. They were even more shocked a year later when the search team from Lhasa identified their son as that reincarnation. This was the first time that a Dalai Lama was reborn outside of Tibet.

Erdene Zuu

Eventually the child was enthroned as the official reincarnation, and was taken to Kumbum, the monastery in Kokonor that had been built a generation earlier by the Third Dalai Lama on Lama Tsongkhapa’s birthplace. Here the child spent some time learning the Tibetan language, as well as memorizing the basic Buddhist liturgies. He then continued on to Lhasa and his enthronement in Drepung Monastery.

Of note, at that time the Kumbum area belonged to Mongolia, and not to Tibet. The present Dalai Lama was born some twenty miles from the monastery, and the former Panchen Lama also somewhat nearby. The region is still predominantly Mongol, although these days it lies within the Chinese province of Qinghai. “Qinghai,” of course, is itself a Mongolian word, as is “Kokonor.”

The work of the Third and Fourth Dalai Lamas had a major impact on the enlightenment tradition of Mongolia. The Yellow School quickly became the dominant spiritual force in the country as a result of their inspiring deeds. This school remains the largest spiritual tradition in Mongolia today.

The Fourth Wave of Mongolian Buddhism

Lobsang Tamdrin’s Hor Chojung mentions hundreds of other Buddhist lineages that came to Mongolia over the centuries.

Tibetan Buddhism, for example, began its flow northward in the seventh century, when the Lhasa King Songtsen Gampo conquered large sections of west and southwestern Hor, including Khotan and Kokonor. The pace picked up with Padma Sambhava’s work in Tibet in the eighth century. Two of his twenty-five main disciples were Mongol (Sokpo Tamdrin and Sokpo Lhapel), and they carried their lineages back with them. Early traces of the Nyingma School can be found from this period.

Then, according to legend, after the Buddhist monk Pelgyi Dorje assassinated the Tibetan king Langdarma in 841, he fled to Mongolia for sanctuary, and built a monastery near Karakorum. Mongols today speak of this as Ogin Hrid, the ruins of which can still be seen.

However, the three waves listed by Lobsang Tamdrin certainly played the most dominant roles in defining the Mongol character as well as Mongolian history.It is relevant to speak of a fourth wave with the advent of Under Gegen, a Mongol lama who travelled to Tibet in the mid-seventeenth century, became a close friend of the Fifth Dalai Lama. The two were co-students of the great Fourth Panchen Lama, Lobsang Chokyi Gyaltsen.


Later Under Gegen became “lama king” of Mongolia, a role somewhat modeled on that of the Fifth Dalai Lama in Lhasa. Today he is popularly referred to as Zanabazar, a Mongolian mispronunciation of the Sanskrit form of his Tibetan monastic name, or Yeshe Dorje. Yeshe Dorje becomes Jnanavajra in Sanskrit, a name not easy to the Mongol tongue. It emerged as Zanabazar. Like the Fourth Dalai Lama, he also was a direct descendent of Chinggis Khaan.

Zanabazar work could rightly be called a fourth wave of Mongolian Buddhism, because it came to pervade much of the Hor region. His vision of Mongolian Buddhism flourished for more than two and a quarter centuries, until the Communist takeover of 1921.

It continued until the Cultural Purges of 1928-1938, when most lamas and monks were killed, sent to gulags, or “re-educated.”

5.The Cultural Holocaust of 1928-1938

The Soviet-backed “Modern Mongolia” that emerged in 1921 proved to be a mixed blessing. Less than a decade later Stalin carried Russia into a path of unprecedented mass murder, social repression, and seemingly endless cultural purges, and Mongolia soon fell prey to the same evils. The Mongol regions directly under Russian occupation (Buryatia, Siberia and Tuva) suffered first, but this soon spread to independent Mongolia.

One rarely meets a Mongol who did not lose several relatives during that period. Known by the somewhat benign term as “The Cultural Purges,” the Communists systematically rounded up all representatives of Mongolia’s pre-Communist period.

Many were murdered with a single bullet through the head, as was done in the Soviet Union. Others suffered an even worse fate, being deported to Soviet concentration camps, where they became guinea pigs in Stalin’s program of chemical experimentation. Two of my best friends in Ulaanbaatar, today prominent members of the new democratic Mongolian government, spoke of how several of their ancestors were arrested, purged, deported and then murdered in these ways.

A small museum in Ulaanbaatar documents some of the most horrific events of these cultural purges, and Mongolians are only now coming to terms with what they lost during that period.

In the recent decade, the Arts Council of Mongolia has documented more than 1,250 monasteries and temples that were destroyed in this way, together with their libraries, art reserves, medical facilities and other treasures.

Nicholas Roerich

Then a rather curious event occurred in 1943. Rumors emerged that the American vice-president Henry Wallace would be visiting Moscow to discuss agricultural aid that the American government had given to the Soviet Union, and that he had requested to see Ulan Ude in Buryatia and Ulaanbaatar in Mongolia.

Wallace had been a friend and student of Nicholas Roerich, and through Roerich had developed an interest in Mongolia and Mongolian Buddhism.

Stalin, wanting to give the impression that there was religious freedom in the Mongol lands, and sent out the order that a monastery should be opened in each of these two cities. A few dozen surviving monks had to be found to fill them.


Thus it came to pass that two monasteries were re-opened in the Mongol territories during the Stalin /Choibalsan era. One of them was Gandan Monastery in Ulaanbaatar, and stayed open throughout the remaining five decades of the Communist era as Mongolia’s only monastery.

All other attempts to re-open temples or monasteries were quashed by the Ulaanbaatar government.

6.The Fall of Communism

The collapse of the Communist rule over the Soviet Union in 1989 resulted in rapid changes within Mongolia, and a democratic government quickly emerged. Things transformed almost overnight. By the mid-1990s the country had privatized most property and state assets, relaxed regulations on international travel, granted freedom of the press, and dismantled most of its state-owned monopolies.

Now, almost two decades later Mongolia is a different country altogether. Young Mongolians now study in universities all over the globe, where previously they had been restricted to institutions in Soviet-bloc countries.


Democracy also brought freedom of religion to Mongols. Whereas Ganden was the only monastery allowed during the Communist era, the people were now allowed to rebuild some of what had been destroyed. To date, small replicas of approximately 200 temples have been created across the country. All of them are tiny compared to the originals that were ravaged by the Communists almost seven decades ago, but it is nonetheless a proud beginning.

In addition, whereas during the Communist period the few monks permitted by the government were under the complete control of the secret police, especially in terms of education and travel, there are now somewhere between three and five hundred monks and nuns training in the great Tibetan monasteries of India.

Among the new monasteries there is Idgaa Choiziling college of Ganden Monastery in Ulaanbaatar, which was entirely rebuilt with the financial support of FPMT Mongolia.

Mongolians still face economic hardships and relentless religious challenges. However with the continual establishment of many Buddhist monasteries and centers, Mongolians can now face the future with the support and inspiration of the compassionate teaching of the Buddha. Buddhism is in the heart of every aspect of Mongolian culture. The revival of this powerful Buddhist heritage is critical to Mongolia’s future peace and happiness.

Glenn Mullin is the author of more than two dozen books on Tibeto-Mongolian Buddhism, including translations of many important works by the early Dalai Lamas, especially the First to Seventh in the line of reincarnations. Many of these have been translated into a half dozen languages around the world