History and Influence of Buddhism in Mongolian Society by Urangua Jamsran and Sharaa Munkhtsag

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History and Influence of Buddhism in Mongolian Society

Urangua Jamsran
Dr., prof. National University of Mongolia
Sharaa Munkhtsag
General manager of Intourtrade Co.Ltd.,

Mongolia is the 18th largest country in the world with the size of 1.5 million square meters and with a population of only 3 million people. It is one of the most scarcely populated countries in the world. According to the survey conducted in 2010, 61.4% of the 15 years and older population is religious. By far the most dominant religion in the current Mongolia is Buddhism with nearly 53% of the religious demographic identifying themselves as Buddhists.

Prior to reaching this point, the Buddhism in Mongolia went through millennia of challenges starting from the 2nd century BC. It went through ups and downs. It went through horror and tragedy but never stopped bringing light and hope to the believers.

Four distinct eras can be identified in the history of Buddhism in Mongolia. First, the era of introduction to Buddhism – a period dating back to the third century BC until fifteen hundreds during which 2 major inflows of Buddhism occurred. Second, the era of Buddhist prosperity where the traditional shamanist religion was completely replaced by Buddhism. Third, the era of repression during the socialism in Mongolia when religion was banned and believers were persecuted. And finally, the current era – the era of democracy and religious freedom that started with the democratic revolution of 1990.

The first era: era of introduction to Buddhism

In total there were three main spreads of Buddhism in Mongolia. The first two spreads belong to this introduction era. We call this era to be an “introduction era” as the spread of Buddhism was very limited and was not widely accepted.

The 1st spread (2nd – 3rd centuries BC)

The very first introduction of Buddhism to Mongolia started in 3rd-2nd centuries B.C. during the Hunnu State (known by Atilla Khan). According to Chinese historic sources, this in-flow of Buddhism came straight from India. There is also evidence in historic Chinese sources that the following state, the state of Ksyanbi, worshipped Buddhism.

The 2nd spread (13th – 14th centuries)

The second spread of Buddhism occurred during the reign of Khubilai Khan (grandson of Chinggis Khan) during the Mongolian Great Yuan Empire (1260-1310) from Tibet. Khubilai Khan invited Pagva lama from Tibet to receive his blessing and become his follower. However, the Buddhist belief was limited only to the royal family. The translation of written works of Buddhist teachings into Mongolian language started between 1182 and 1270.[1]

After Mongol rule over China ended in 1368 the practice of Buddhism diminished among the Mongols, deteriorating into mere superstition or giving way once again to the indigenous religious conceptions of the Mongols and to shamanism. It was not until the sixteenth century when a third wave of Buddhist conversion began.

The second era: era of Buddhist Prosperity (16th – 20th century)

The strongest spread of Buddhism was brought by the military expeditions of Altan Khan of the Tumet (1507-1583) into the eastern border districts of Tibet, which resulted in contacts with lamaist clerics. Altan Khan of Tumed was the direct linear descendant of Chinggis (Genghis) Khan (1507-1582) and the founder of Khukh Khot, the capital city of the current Inner Mongolia. This third spread was the spread of the Yellow Sect (Gelugpa) founded by Tsong Khapa (1357-1419).

Within the short period of fifty years, beginning with the visit of the third Dalai Lama to Altan Khan's newly built residence, Khoh Khot, in 1578, practically all of the Mongolian nobility was converted to Buddhism by the missionary work of many devoted lamaist priests. The most famous of these were Neyici Toyin (1557-1653), who converted the eastern Mongols, and Zaya Pandita, who converted the western and northern Mongols.

Since Altan Khan and until the last emperor of Mongolia, Ligden (1588-1634), the shamanism was gradually replaced by Buddhism with the aid of Buddhist-favoring laws and regulations. The shamanism was subjected to strict limitations - such as fines based on the number of shamans invited and shamanistic rituals carried out by each Mongolian household. A noble man was fined by 5 horses while a humble man was fined by 2 horses and other properties.[2]

In addition to the strict legal regulations, there were numerous other reasons behind this strong spread of Buddhism among which the political reasons played a key role. At the time, Mongolia was suffering from mutiple political issues. On one hand, Mongolia was on the verge of falling under the Manchurian rule and, on the other, the fight between Khalkha and Oirad ethnicities created an internal struggle within Mongolia. Buddhist philosophy served as an extinguisher for these issues and a common cause for unification and peace within the country. At the same time, it was beneficial for the local nobilities to use the religion to maintain their position and privileges.

Strong advertisement activity of Buddhism and Buddhist teachings was also one of the reasons for the vast spread of the religion. Religious scripts such as Kanjur (Kangyur) and Tanjur (Tengyur) were translated and printed in large numbers and placed in newly constructed monasteries along with images and sculptures of Buddha. Moreover, activities such as construction of stupas and ensuring obedience to the ceremonies and conduct within monasteries were largely carried out.

As a result of these efforts, the shamanistic rituals of sacrificial killings were banned. After years of oppression, war and violence, the people were pleased with the newly introduced Buddhist philosophy of peace, virtue, kindness and the teaching of cessation of violence and sin. However, the process of replacing the old belief with a new one continued for years. Darkhad, a distant area in Mongolia, continues to worship shamanism despite the centuries of challenges.

The religious struggle in Mongolia continued for centuries before it could subside. The Buddhists called the shamanism “a teaching without a book”, while in turn the shamans expressed their hatred by stating “their god is nothing but paint and the lamas are nothing but bald head.”[3] This struggle was eventually appeased and these two religions became heavily mixed. A creation of title “Choijin” for Buddhist lamas who practiced shamanism brought a rise to new practice of lamas conducting both Buddhist and shamanistic rituals. This resulted in the intermingling of religious symbols and elements of offerings, worshiping and fortunetelling.

Cultural Achievements

A religion served as a strong driving force in the history of humanity. Thanks to religion the world’s finest works of art were created. This was no exception for Mongolia during this era.

The contributions of Bogdo Zanabazar /1635-1723/, Oirad’s Zaya Bandid Namkhaijamts /1599-1662/, Lamyn Gegeen Luvsandanzanjantsan /1639-1704/, Zaya Bandid Luvsanperenlei /1642-1715/, Nomyn Khaan Norovsharav /1701-1768/ and many other lamas in the spread of the Yellow Sect and the establishment of schools, monasteries is invaluable. However, their contribution to the art and culture is even more significant. Bogdo Zanabazar is especially known for his inestimable contributions to the development of Mongolian fine arts.

Bogdo Zanabazar, also known as Öndör Gegeen Zanabazar and Bogd Jivzundamba (1635-1723), was the First Resplendent Saint of Mongolia. He was the grandson of Avtai Sain Khan and a direct descendant of Chinggis Khan. He was proclaimed as the First Bogdo Khan. Mongolia had total of 8 Bogdo Khans and the last one ruled our country until the revolution of the 1920. The title Bogdo Khan allows its beholder to be the leader of both Religion and State.

Zanabazar produced a series of sculptures classified today as belonging to the style of the “Zanabazar school”, characterized as hollow yet seamless brass castings expressing the ideals of philosophy, beauty and mercy. Examples of such works include “Dhyani Buddhas”, “White Tara”, and “Bodhi Stupa”.

Zanabazar created the ideogram “Svayambhu”, meaning ‘self-sprung’ in 1686, from which Mongolia’s first script was derived. Today the state symbol of Mongolia was intended to express the idea “may the Mongol nation exist by its own right”. Zanabazar earned his place in art history by innovating the static artistic model of eastern and Buddhist works through combining religious and traditional folk arts by replicating the human figure, enriched by the traditional Mongol concept of beauty in his representations of deities.

While in the 16th century Buddhist philosophy was used to ensure submission and obedience of the general mass, in 1911 it also served as the moving force for the liberation of Mongolia from the Manchurian oppression. The National Liberation Movement of Mongolia under motto “Pure Recrudescence of Religion” unified the nation and resulted in overturning Manchurian rule in Mongolia. Unfortunately, only a couple of decades later, when the country chose to follow the footsteps of communism this driving force that unified the people was forcefully buried for nearly a century.

The third era: era of Persecution (1921-1990)

Historically, Mongolia was a nation that was tolerant to different religions. However, this tolerance was lost during the socialistic period between 1921 and 1990. After the second national revolution of 1921 under the influence of Communist International (Comintern) and the USSR a policy of weakening Mongolian monasteries and lamas and eventually eradicating religion was taken. In order to part Mongolians from the religion that amounted to a national value and creating a non-religious generation in the name of “new civilization”, over 17 thousand Buddhist monks were persecuted. Majority of the monks were executed, while others were imprisoned or forced into leaving their ordain. Numerous monasteries were destroyed also.

Starting from January 1938 until June 1944 for a period of 6 years and 5 months there were no active monasteries left for the believers to pray at. On June 1st, 1944 a single prayer monastery, Gandan Monastery, was suddenly opened with few monks in Ulaanbaatar. Until now it is still not clear why this monastery was suddenly opened. However, it was clear that the people who came to pray to this monastery were carefully watched and surveilled. The precise description of offerings brought by the believers was carefully recorded, as was indicated in archive documents. A report stated that on the day of the monastery opening MNT 9,887 were collected by the monastery. At the time an average monthly salary was MNT 400-700.

Within 7 months of opening a total of 4.636 individuals provided offerings. In other words, an average of 22 persons a day visited the monastery. However, from 1945 this number increased to an average of 33 persons a day. In 1946 this number increased by 60.45%, showing the positive reception of the religious freedom by the public.

This prayer hall remained to be the only active monastery in the country until 1990 and despite the various surveillance and monitoring, remained to serve the Buddhist followers. This monastery was later expanded and in 1970 established a school within its premises for the purposes of preparing monks from Buriyatiya and Mongolia. This was a major step in granting religious freedom to people.

Despite the belief that socialism and religion cannot go hand-in-hand and the society must stay free from religion, not all Mongolians were influenced by such belief.

The fourth era: era of Religious Freedom (1990 - present)

After the democratic revolution of 1991, Mongolians received an opportunity to exercise a right to religious freedom. The first democratic constitution of Mongolia adopted in the same year granted such right with only one limitation - one may exercise freedom of religion without breaching the rights of others or interfering with the national security and public safety.

The Constitution of Mongolia states:

  • in Mongolia the state shall respect the religion and the religion shall honor the state
  • State institutions shall not engage in religious activities and the Church shall not carry out political activities.
  • The relationship between the State and the Church shall be regulated by law

The Law on Relations of the State and the Church adopted in 1993 states that the State in honor of the historic tradition of unity and civilization of the country shall respect the Buddhist religion as the majority’s belief. This, however, shall not interfere with citizens’ belief in any other religion.

Mongolia abides by the resolutions on religion and religious freedom of the United Nations Council on Human Rights. It is prohibited in Mongolia to force any religion to any citizen, or to force to abandon their religion under the threat of criminal punishment.

During the census conducted in 2010 in Mongolia a survey was also made into the religious belief of individuals. As of 2010, 38.6% of the population identified themselves as non-religious, while 61.4% responded that they were religious. This is almost 18% decrease in the religious population of the country since the 2003 census. Since the democratic revolution of 1990, the growth of religious population was steadily increasing with 72.8% in 1994 and 79.5% in 2003. This decrease in 2010 may be attributed to two factors. First, it is possible that the people became more occupied by the fast developing science and technology of the 21st century. Second, it is possible that the religious curiosity of the public after the declaration of religious freedom subsided and left only the true believers.[4]

Not only there were changes in the recent years among the religious and non-religious demographics, there were also shifts among the religious groups. The table below compares the religious demographics of 2003 and 2010 across different religions.[5]


















As shown above, there is a significant decrease in Buddhism and Christianity. It is likely that over the years the true believers were sifted to remain with their religion. At the same time, there is a tendency for growth in the traditional shamanism. Nevertheless, at this point it is unpredictable how will the demography change in the future.

Temples and Monasteries of Mongolia

Prior to the era of Persecution, over 1,250 temples and monasteries and 100,000 lamas were recorded in Mongolia. After the socialistic era, only few of these monasteries survived. Currently there are over 170 temples with over 5,000 lamas are serving the needs of believers. The below are the most important monasteries of Mongolia that encompass the vast history and culture of the Mongolian people

The Erdene Zuu Monastery

Erdenezuu is one of the first Buddhist monasteries built in Mongolia. It was built on the ruins of Karakorum city (the capital of Great Mongolian Empire of XIII-XIV C) in 1586 by Abtai Sain Khan, descendant of Chinggis Khan. Building materials, especially stone, were taken from the city of Karakorum to construct the massive pillars, walls and pedestals. Architectural style is a combination of Mongolian, Tibetan, and Chinese traditions. Not a single nail was used in the construction of the monastery temples. Joints were made only through intricate junctions and joining of carved wood. The monastery is surrounded by a massive wall of 402 by 402 meters. There are four gates at the each side and walls consist of 108 stupas, 25 on each side and 2 at every corner.

At that time, the monastery consisted of 100 temples with 10000 monks. Arabic, Mongolian Tibetan and Chinese inscriptions inside the Monastery remain visible until today.

The temples contain excellent collections of idol statues, sculpture of Bogdo Zanabazar, paintings, appliques, embroideries, carvings, masks, bells, musical instruments and many other treasures of 16th- 18th century.

Erdenezuu Monastery museum is a wonder of the history of Mongolian culture and religion.

The Government has begun an implementation of the project on Preservation and Protection of the Foundation of Karakorum with UNESCO.

Shankh Monastery

Shankh Monastery, once known as the West Monastery, and Erdene Zuu are the only monasteries in the region to have survived the 1937 purge. Shankh was founded by the great Zanabazar in 1648 and is said to have once housed Chinggis Khaan’s black military banner. At one time the monastery was home to more than 1500 monks. As elsewhere, the monastery was closed in 1937, temples were burnt and many monks were shipped off to Siberia. Some of those that survived helped to reopen the place in the early 1990s.

Tuvkhun Temple

Tuvkhun temple is located on the peak of the Tuvkhun Mountain. In 1648, Zanabazar (who was proclaimed as a First Bogdo Khan), when he was about 10 years old was impressed by the beauty of this site. He ordered to build a small stone-walled house, where he could study teachings and read books. As soon as the dome was erected, he started to spend his time in a calm atmosphere making paintings & sculptures. From 1688 the temple-dome of Zanabazar was forgotten. In 1773 people decided to restore the sacred place of Zanabazar and had built more temples. Now we have a first temple – Buteeliin Sum or Temple of Creativity (1654) and ruins and fundament signs of different other buildings.

Manzushir Monastery

The ruins of the monastery is located in Zuunmod Valley. The monastery, dedicated to Manjusri (Tib: Jampelyang - the Bodhisattva of Wisdom), was first established by the sainted monk Luvsanjambaldanzan in 1733 as the permanent residence of the Reincarnation of the Bodhisattva of Wisdom. It came under the personal administration of Mongolia’s religious leader Bogd Gegeen in 1750. Over time, the monastery expanded became one of the country's largest and most important monastic centers with 20 temples and more than 300 monks. Religious ceremonies often involved more than 1000 monks. The lamasery housed a collection of valuable and rare Buddhist scriptures, including golden script on silver leaf.

The monastery’s fortunes changed after the Outer Mongolian Revolution of 1921. After the death of Bogd Khan in 1924, the monastery and its inhabitants suffered waves of persecution as the socialist regime sought to eliminate the influence of institutional Buddhism within the country. In February 1937, the monastery’s last remaining 53 lamas (most older than 50–60 years) were arrested and many were later shot. All 20 temples of the monastery were then destroyed. The valuable Buddhist scriptures were moved to the Mongolian National Library. Restoration of the individual buildings began in 1990 shortly after the 1990 Democratic Revolution and in 1992 the executed monks were officially rehabilitated. In 1998 the ruins of the monastery were protected by the state. To date, only the main building has been rebuilt and is now a museum.

In the cliff above the monastery are several 18th Century Buddhist cave paintings and reliefs, as well as Buddhist inscriptions in Tibetan language, which escaped destruction in 1937.

Not far from that is a 2-ton bronze cauldron created in 1726 by Mongolian craftsman Jalbuu. It was used to provide food to the pilgrims and could boil up to 10 sheep and 2 cattle at a time.

Amarbayasgalant Monastery

Amarbayasgalant or the "Monastery of Tranquil Felicity", is one of the three largest Buddhist monastic centers in Mongolia. The monastery complex is located in the Iven Valley near the Selenge River, at the foot of Mount Büren-Khan in northern Mongolia.

Construction took place between 1727 and 1736 and Zanabazar's remains were transferred there in 1779.

Amarbayasgalant monastery is dedicated to Zanabazar’s main tutelary deity, Maitreya. Unlike Erdene Zuu Monastery, which is an ensemble of temple halls of different styles, Amarbayasgalant shows great stylistic unity. The overriding style is Chinese, with some Mongol and Tibetan influence. Originally consisting of over 40 temples, the monastery was laid out in a symmetrical pattern, with the main buildings succeeding one another along a North-South axis, while the secondary buildings are laid out on parallel sides.

Amarbayasgalant was one of the very few monasteries to have partly escaped destruction during the Stalinist purges of 1937, after which only the buildings of the central section remained. Many of the monks were executed by the country's Communist regime and the monastery's artifacts, including thangkas, statues, and manuscripts were looted, although some were hidden until more fortunate times.

Today, only 28 temples remain. Restoration work began in 1988 with funds provided by UNESCO and private sources and some of the new statuary was commissioned in New Delhi, India.

Baldan Bereeven monastery

The Baldan Bereeven Monastery and its associated landscape is situated in the long and deep valley of the Baruun Jargalant River and within several picturesque sacred mountains in Khentii mountain range.

The Monastery served as the main religious center in Eastern Mongolia registered with about 5000-7000 lamas during its higher developed period. The main Tsogchin Temple was built during 1813.

The Baldan Bereeven Monastery was built taking into consideration its distant observation, the direction of wind and the sunshine. The phenomenon of this Monastery was conceived with the intention of creating in Mongolia the similar Buddhist monastic places as in Lumbini, the birthplace of the Lord Buddha to which access for pilgrims was difficult and far away from Mongolia.

According to the traditional Mongolian planning for buildings and temples, a monastery must to be situated at the most picturesque place, but not defiling its pristine view and environment. In addition to symbolic spiritual and religious values the monastery is skillfully integrated into the surrounding natural landscape of mountains, rocks, forests and lake. It also houses much important artistic material in the form of rock art, paintings and statue. The Monastery complex includes now three restored temples and nearly 50 remains of temples, stupas and other religious structures. There are also many cliff carvings, stone carvings with different images of Buddhist gods, inscriptions of religious mantras and Mongolian symbol ‘’Soyombo’’, stone sculptures of gods, and other religious and art works along the over 1000 m of pilgrimage route. They provide invaluable physical and historical materials for the research of spread of Tibetan Buddhism into Mongolia. They not only form a major religious and sacred landscape but also provide the vivid evidence of traditional affection of Mongolian people for the sacred mountain.

Gandan Monastery

The monastery was constructed by order of the 5th Bogdo Khan in 1809. The first temple was the Gungaachoilin Datsan. Only one wooden pillar remains from this temple. In 1838, the Gandantegchenlin Temple was built along with the private residence of the Bogdo Khan. The 13th Dalai Lama stayed in the residence in 1904. The following temples were built: in 1840 - the Vajradhara Temple, in 1869 - the Zuu Temple, in 1913 - the tall Avalokiteśvara temple. In 1925, the temple for keeping the remains of the 8th Bogdo Khan. It is now the monastery library.

In the 1930s, the Communist government of Mongolia under the influence of Joseph Stalin, destroyed all but a few monasteries and killed more than 15,000 lamas.

Gandantegchinlen Khiid monastery, having escaped this mass destruction, was closed in 1938, but then reopened in 1944 and was allowed to continue as the only functioning Buddhist monastery, under a few staff, as a token homage to traditional Mongolian culture and religion. With the end of Marxism in Mongolia in 1990, restrictions on worship were lifted.


Avalokiteśvara. This is the tallest indoor statue in the world with the height of 26.5 meters and built in 1996.

At the end of the main path of the Gandan Monastery complex is the magnificent white Migjid Janraisig Süm, the monastery’s main attraction. Lining the walls of the temple are hundreds of images of Ayush, the Buddha of Longevity, which stare through the gloom to the magnificent Migjid Janraisig statue.

The original statue was commissioned by the eighth Bogd Khan in 1911, in hopes that it might restore his eyesight – syphilis had blinded him; however, it was carted away by Russia in 1937 (it was allegedly melted down to make bullets). The new statue was dedicated in 1996 and built with donations from all Mongolian people. It is 26m high and made of copper with a gilt gold covering. The hollow statue contains 27 tonnes of medicinal herbs, 334 Sutras, two million bundles of mantras, plus an entire ger with furniture!

Choijin Lama museum

The Choijin Lama Temple (English: Compassion Perfection Temple) is a Buddhist monastery in Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia.

The complex consists of six temples originally occupied by the brother of the Eighth Bogd Khan, Choijin Lama. The complex was begun in 1904 and completed in 1908, in honor of the State Oracle Lama Lubsanhaidub /Losang Kedrup/, brother of the eighth Bogd Khan. The Choijin Lama Museum was originally a Buddhist temple complex, consisting of one main and five branch temples. Choijin Lama performed Oracle trance rituals in in Zankhang temple.

It was active until 1937, when it was closed during the height of Communist repression against Buddhism and other religious traditions. In 1938 the complex was re-established as museum due to skillful efforts of wise people. This was how it was saved throughout communism.


The influence of Buddhism in Mongolia is vast starting from the everyday rituals to public celebrations. We can still notice the traces of Buddhist history in the mentality of Mongolians even today. Buddhism taught peace and tranquility, as well as respect and love. Buddhism also induced Mongolians to create art treasures in forms of paintings, statues, buildings and monasteries. It helped shaping the current society by providing the first introduction to literacy, science and education in general. For many years Buddhist lamas combined the skills of mentors, scientists, doctors and psychologists, as they were the most educated and visionary people in the society.


  1. This includes translation works completed by Sakya Pandita Gungaajaltsan (1182-1251), as well as translations and commentaries of other scholars of the time to Kangyur and Tengyur that are still being subjects of study and research for our current generation.
  2. G. Buyanbat. The reasons of Mongolian shamanism. Inner Mongolian Printing Council. Khulunbuir 1984, p. 155
  3. Artangarudei B.D. Mongolian religions. Inner Mongolian Cultural Printing Council. 1995. P. 105.
  4. Religious change in Mongolia (Results of 2010 Consensus) http://www.toollogo2010.mn/index.php
  5. Mongolian religion study – J.Altaibaatar article