Tibet Foundation

Revisiting Mongolia

Nov 19, 2014

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A Personal Observation by Phuntsog Wangyal

Phuntsog with the monks of Sain Nomun Monastery
Phuntsog with the monks of Sain Nomun Monastery 

Mongolia and Tibet have a long and rich cultural relationship, sharing the same Buddhist tradition for centuries.. Phuntsog Wangyal met two Buddhist abbots of Mongolia and Russia during their first ever meeting with His Holiness the Dalai Lama at the 3rd Asian Buddhist Conference in Delhi in 1973. Following this in July 1974, Phuntsog visited Mongolia, then a Soviet Communist state. In 1991 he returned to Mongolia, which coincided with a visit by His Holiness the Dalai Lama who advised him to do whatever the Foundation could do to help Mongolians in reviving their Buddhist tradition. In 1993 Tibet Foundation set up their programme, 'Buddhism in Mongolia' to assist the Mongolians in their effort to revive their Buddhist tradition. Subsequently greater dialogue and a reconnection to their Buddhist roots has ensured, and flourished, as well as warm reception of Mongolian friends to the UK.

Since 1992 Tibet Foundation has supported Mongolians with some 37 different projects, ranging from translating Buddhist texts into Mongolian language, to rebuilding libraries and medical clinics. The Foundation also published the first Buddhist texts as subjects for secondary schools in Mongolia, and the first comprehensive catalogue of Buddhist paintings and appliqué from the five major national museums of the country. The Foundation has worked mainly but not exclusively with the Mongolian ministry of education, universities, monasteries and other educational centres, and it was the Foundation who initiated a 15-year programme of sending hundreds of Mongolians to study Buddhism in Tibetan monasteries in India. This programme has achieved its goal of helping hundreds of Mongolians from both Mongolia and Russia to learn Buddhism and return to their own countries in order to help others in reviving their rich Buddhist tradition. 

This autumn I was able to revisit Mongolia and found positive changes in both the revival of their Buddhist tradition, as well as the economic development of their country. I was very pleased to meet some of those with whom the Foundation has worked over the years, and some monks who have returned from India after completing their studies, now engaging in very major roles in the education of the youth of Mongolia. 

 Phuntsog in Ulaanbaatar Square, Mongolia
Phuntsog in Ulaanbaatar Square, Mongolia

Mongolian Buddhism once suffered great destruction from the communist revolution in 1911. Except for just one - Gandan Tegchenling - thousands of Buddhist temples and monasteries were destroyed. It was at Gandan that the Foundation first assisted and helped in rebuilding its library and training its monks. Over the years Gandan monastery has rebuilt a number of its colleges, with an expanding number of monks, and eager to fulfill religious activities. Geshe Luvsanjamts, now an administrative board member of the monastery was one of the first monks the Foundation sent to India. I was very pleased to meet him, and was inspired by his ideas and plans of development of Buddhist studies and the reconstruction of monastic rules in Mongolia. 

Another monk I met, whom the Foundation sent to India and who has now returned to Mongolia, is Dr Nergui Sainbuyan, an individual who built a beautiful monastery called Sain Nomun from scratch, and is currently the abbot. The monastery has seven senior Tibetan monks from Drepung Gomang monastery in south India, who provide training to some 50 young Mongolian novices. The students have learnt not only Buddhist prayers, but also ritual dances and music – an impressive feat at such a young age. Dr Sainbuyan is also the Citizen’s Representative Khural of Ulaanbaatar City. Lama Otgonbaatar, who received a scholarship and support from Tibet Foundation, is yet another monk who has used the education given to him to help others and revive Buddhism in his homeland, establishing a Sakya Pandita Dharmachakra monastery in the centre of Ulaanbaatar city. The monastery has a senior Tibetan monk from Sakya College of Dehradun in north India to train the young Mongolian novices. They are expecting another Tibetan lama from India to help the training of Mongolian students across the country, with the hope of training Mongolian students in the country rather than sending them so far away from their homes. 

Young Buddhist Monks at Sain Nomun Monastery, Mongolia
Young Buddhist Monks at Sain Nomun Monastery, Mongolia

The former (19th) Bakula Rinpche, the Indian ambassador to Mongolia for 20 years, established Pethub Monastery in Ulaanbaatar. The Foundation was able to assist the monastery to send some of their monks to study in India. Today this is one of a very few monasteries that has strict rules for their monks to remain celibate. It now has its own Mongolian abbot trained in India who returned to serve the monastery. The Foundation also helped them setting in up a Tibetan medicine hospital, which even today continues to benefit local people. 

Tashicholing was another monastery that the Foundation has helped to rebuild and to train many of their monks. Visiting the monastery and meeting its abbot Lama Dampajav reminded me of the difficult history of monasteries in the past. During communist rule this monastery was used as a circus, keeping animals behind its walls, which thus saved it from destruction. Today however it has become an active, thriving monastery, and Lama Dampajav travels widely representing Mongolian Buddhists in conferences across the world.

The Foundation has also contributed towards helping Mongolian women in Buddhist studies and practice. We supported the first ever graduation of women in Buddhist philosophy in Mongolia, and sent a number of young women to study Buddhism in India. I remember meeting Khandroma Gantumur in the 1970s in a small rented tent with a few young women practicing chanting Buddhist prayers. Today her Women’s Buddhist Centre has become one of the best women’s centres in Mongolia to learning and practicing Buddha Dharma. It has a number of women that the Foundation has sent to India, who are now taking a leading role in the centre’s activities. 

Khandroma Gantumur in the women's centre in Ulanbattar, Mongolia
Khandroma Gantumur in the women's centre in Ulanbattar, Mongolia

In 2007 Tibet Foundation published in collaboration with the Mongolian Ministry of Education Buddhist Textbooks known as Wisdom Books that the Foundation has worked on for many years. These textbooks were adopted by the government as an optional subject for secondary schools all over Mongolia. It was well received by teachers, students and the general public. His Holiness the Dalai Lama was very pleased to see the project successfully completed and he said to the Mongolian Minister of Education, Dr Tumur Ochir, “The work that you have done is important and very valuable. You, Mongolians are free and you have a great responsibility to carry the work further.” 

The idea was that this book would be upgraded as a compulsory subject included in the national curriculum of the schools, though this has not yet happened, and discussed this during meetings with the current Education Minister Luvsannyam Gantumur, and the Head of the President’s Office Mrs Banszzrai Nergui. Both of them expressed their appreciation of the Foundation’s active and continuous support to Mongolia in the development of its traditions and culture. Due to many changes, including the political situation, in Mongolia, many matters including the Foundation’s textbooks for Mongolian schools did not develop as fast as it should have. However, a number of subjects from the textbooks have already been incorporated into the Moral Education section of courses for secondary schools. 

The Education Minister however raised the question that the system of education in monastery solely as the study of religion may not be appropriate in modern society, and that monasteries should adopt a system that includes modern education as a part of the overall curriculum. Similar questions were raised in Tibetan monasteries in India. There was no agreed consensus on this issue both in India and in Mongolia, however I did mention the existence of some monasteries in India that have adopted modern subjects along with Buddhist studies for young monks below the age of 18 years. This requires governments to recognize such schools in monasteries in the same way as other schools, and to provide funds for teachers to teach modern subjects that the monasteries may not have the capacity to do. 

In collaboration with the Cultural Heritage Centre, then a part of the Ministry of Education, and now part of Ministry of Culture, the Foundation has published Mongolian Buddhist Art, the first comprehensive catalogue of Buddhist paintings and appliqué from five major national museums in the country.  I met Mr G. Enkhbat, the director of the Cultural Heritage Centre, and was delighted to learn that the Centre has distributed free some 426 copies to museums, libraries, universities and research institutes in Mongolia. They have another 74 copies remained to be distributed. Additionally, Tibet Foundation has distributed for free a number of copies to main British libraries in the UK. 

I was also very encouraged to learn that the Cultural Heritage Centre together with the Ministry of Culture plan to publish the next volume of the Mongolian Buddhist Art book, consisting of religious objects from museums in Mongolia. The Centre is also working on a video documentation of Mongolian Buddhist Arts, especially unique cast sculptures by Zanabazar  (Jetsundampa in Tibetan). The Foundation has agreed to forward any royalties that we might receive from Serindia Publication, who has taken the responsibility of distribution of the Mongolian Buddhist Art books in the west to the Cultural Heritage Centre.

Mr Purevkhuu Munkhjin, Phuntsog, Narengerel   and Chulung Tsetseg
Mr Purevkhuu Munkhjin, Phuntsog, Narengerel and Chulung Tsetseg 


Tumen Ekh, based in the centre of Ulaanbaater, is a famous company of Mongolian music, dance and songs. This was the company from which the Foundation brought groups to perform in Europe on two occasions, in 1993 and again in 1994. I was very pleased to meet again Mr Purevkhuu Munkhjin and his family, is now a master instrumentalist of the Morin Khuur -The Horse Head Fiddle - a unique Mongolian musical instrument, and now head of the Centre of Mongolian Culture in the capital.  He very kindly arranged for me a performance at the auditorium of the Tumen Ekh Company. Chulung Tsetseg and Narengerel two female musicians from the original group are still in the company. It was such a wonderful and pleasant reunion since their last visit to London in 1993.  

I found that the Mongolians have remained very religious and committed to their tradition. They have tremendous faith in Buddhism and the Dalai Lama. I was very pleased to see that they have recovered from the suffering of the past and have entered into a new era of confidence and strength in managing their affairs and preserving their Buddhist tradition.