A Monastery in Time: The Making of Mongolian Buddhism

A Monastery in Time: The Making of Mongolian Buddhism

by Caroline Humphrey, Hurelbaatar Ujeed

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A Monastery in Time is the first book to describe the life of a Mongolian Buddhist monastery—the Mergen Monastery in Inner Mongolia—from inside its walls. From the Qing occupation of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries through the Cultural Revolution, Caroline Humphrey and Hürelbaatar Ujeed tell a story of religious formation, suppression, and survival over a history that spans three centuries.
Often overlooked in Buddhist studies, Mongolian Buddhism is an impressively self-sustaining tradition whose founding lama, the Third Mergen Gegen, transformed Tibetan Buddhism into an authentic counterpart using the Mongolian language. Drawing on fifteen years of fieldwork, Humphrey and Ujeed show how lamas have struggled to keep Mergen Gegen’s vision alive through tremendous political upheaval, and how such upheaval has inextricably fastened politics to religion for many of today’s practicing monks. Exploring the various ways Mongolian Buddhists have attempted to link the past, present, and future, Humphrey and Ujeed offer a compelling study of the interplay between the individual and the state, tradition and history.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226031903
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 07/15/2013
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 440
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Caroline Humphrey is professor emerita and director of the Mongolian and Inner Asia Studies Unit at Cambridge University. She is the author or coauthor of twenty previous books, most recently Urban Life in Post-Soviet Central Asia. Hürelbaatar Ujeed founded the Hürelbaatar Institute for Mongolian Studies at the Inner Mongolia Normal University and is a senior research associate in the Mongolian and Inner Asia Studies Unit at Cambridge University.  

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A Monastery in Time

The Making of Mongolian Buddhism



Copyright © 2013 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-03187-3



Buddhist Life at Mergen

Let us now meet our main characters, the lamas who bear the Mergen tradition, in the midst of a rite-cum- festivity they held in summer 1995. This event revealed far-branching temporal and spatial networks in which the lamas were involved. If a tradition is a recursive assemblage of people, ideas, and objects, each element of which has myriad links elsewhere, it will be appreciated that these elements are in fact more complex than the single "whole" (the tradition), to which people only ever lend, temporarily, some facets of themselves (Latour 2010, 7). The chapter broaches in this way its main goals: first of all to present certain individual people and through them begin to indicate some of the complexity of the contemporary monks' lives, the variety of ties they each maintain, and what holds them together as a group. Second, to provide the minimal historical information about the Urad Mongols and Buddhism in Mongolia necessary for readers to understand the major ideas and practices called on by lamas today.

The ceremony in 1995 brought home to us how mistaken would be a description of Mergen as an inward-looking community dwelling in its landscape, even if the lamas often promote that very impression. Doreen Massey's idea of place as meeting place, which she developed into the concept of sites as open and changeable "happenings"—of place as provocation—is far more apt here (2006, 34–36; see also Massey 1999, 262).

1995–A Multiple Celebration

Soon after we arrived that year, a crowd of monks and laypeople poured out of the main temple and followed an elderly lama up the hill to the perimeter wall. A boy lama, his face grave and angelic, handed a bow and arrow to the old monk. His trembling hands barely managed to draw back the string—he was aiming at an unlit bonfire below the army wall. The crowd pressed forward on all sides, some praying and some with cameras at the ready. A tall, ill-shaven lama in a crested hat rudely pushed them back. Now the elderly lama stirred himself into a strained hopping dance, his face raised to the sky and his eyes obscured by the black fringe of his headgear. He drew back his arm, but the arrow plopped disappointingly short. No matter—other ochre-robed lamas now rushed forward, lit the fire and threw onto it a large pyramidal wooden structure carved as tongues of flame. Inside we caught sight of an unidentifiable glistening red pointed object. With smiles and laughter, and without waiting to see whether these things burned properly or not, the whole crowd rapidly dispersed and clambered down the hill back to the monastery.

The occasion was the casting out of the sins of the previous year, these having been transferred into the pyramid (M. sor, T. zor). Earlier that day we had seen the pyramid taken out of the temple and held aloft by four lamas while hundreds of people pushed and shoved into a queue that ducked under it. As with the Maidar circumambulation described in the Introduction, they were making silent vow-wishes, on this occasion for the expulsion into the sor of their own particular misfortunes and ill consequences of bad deeds. We knew by now that the frail old lama was the Western Great (Baragun [pron. Baruun] Da) Reincarnation, and that the scowling tall lama was Jongrai, the manager of the monastery's practical affairs. Soon we learned that the small boy had come with his older brother from far away in Horchin, in northeast Inner Mongolia, to become pupil lamas at Mergen.

But it took some time before we began to think that the description above should perhaps be phrased in a different way. Were these people "lamas" or could it be more accurate to call them "people acting as lamas"?

For only eight years earlier Mergen Monastery had been closed and empty, its remaining temples and ruins inhabited by bats, snakes, and scorpions, the lamas sent away in the 1960s to prison or hard-labor jobs in the communist economy. Even now the busy monastic scene we observed was episodic. For periods of the year most of the thirty or so lamas who gathered for important ceremonies would scatter back to their homes in surrounding villages. Only a few lived at Mergen permanently, and these lamas invariably had wives and families living nearby. In other words, all of the lamas had renounced their vows and led radically different lives before they returned to the monastery when it reopened in 1987. When they decided to come back and retake their vows, this did not mean forsaking those lay ties, though certain vows—notably celibacy— would mean changing the character of the relationships. What kind of monk did this history make them?

Martin Mills has argued that even in regions of Asia with unbroken monastic traditions, such as Ladakh, most Buddhist monks continue to be supported economically and emotionally by households, while older family members tend toward religious goals and take simple vows. Thus monastic inmates should be seen on a scale of Buddhist virtue—they are "incomplete renouncers" (2003, 69). Rather than entirely eradicating all domestic ties and local spirit agencies, they work religiously to overmaster them. Human wealth and fertility, and the chthonic forces in the landscape become objects of ritual attention: they become "'fuel for the fire'" of Buddhist self-transformation (2003, 258–62). In our case most Mergen lamas took only ubashi vows when they returned to the monastery, i.e., those earlier regarded as those suitable for devout laypeople, and although a few took the stricter getsül vows, there were no monks who aspired to full gelüng vows. Yet unlike in their youth, when they had been sent to the monastery as young children by their families, now they had consciously decided to return. In this wider context it is fair to conclude that the Mergen clergy were monks, but they were post-communist monks, people marked and colored by experiences not only outside religion but antithetical to Buddhist beliefs.

On the day after the expulsion of sins, a different throng took over the square in front of the main temple. Sitting behind a long table on the temple veranda were government officials and professors, dapper in suits and ties. On the table were piles of newly printed books. Above stretched a banner celebrating in Mongolian and Chinese "the achievements of Mergen Gegen Studies." Mergen Gegen is the famous eighteenth-century reincarnation mentioned in the Introduction, and the studies a corpus of books published on his work, its influence, and its relation to the local Urad culture. Some of yesterday's lay worshippers had returned dressed in festive Mongolian national dress, which, unlike in 1992, was now deemed appropriate for such a public occasion. There were also numerous newly arrived journalists, writers, publishers, teachers, artists, and students. Naranbatu, an Urad Mongol who had been a lama in his youth and was now a university professor in the capital H?hot, was senior among these intellectuals. Meanwhile, the Western Great Reincarnation, Jongrai, and the solemn boy were nowhere to be seen. Indeed, few lamas were present, but one now took center stage. This was a strongly built man of middle age, wearing an open-necked shirt, dark glasses and a straw fedora hat. He was the Chorji Lama, a reincarnation at least as senior as the Western Great Lama, but he was presenting himself today as Mönghebatu (his lay name), one of the lay officials. As host to the assembled dignitaries, he wielded the microphone with aplomb in a welcoming speech. The orations told us that the Mergen Monastery was home to a special and wonderful Buddhist tradition, with its own cultural history, something that makes it worthy of academic study. But the whole occasion said something more, for the officials, it was whispered, were no mere locals, but included the vice chairman of the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region (IMAR), the vice chairman of the Regional Political Consultative Committee, and the director of the Inner Mongolia Cultural Press. The IMAR forms a vast swathe of northern China. What could have brought such important people to this obscure monastery? The names of the officials were all Mongolian, so the conclusion was inescapable. The Mergen tradition, whatever that was, must be of national as well as Urad ethnic importance and it must be something approved by the Chinese authorities at a high level.

The speeches were lengthy and no more interesting than such speeches usually are. As they wore on, an elderly and yet wirily muscular man in Buddhist robes came out of the temple. Curious locals detached themselves from the audience to see what he was doing. He was carrying a long blue silk scarf he had just been given by a herder, which he unwound and held up to show what he had written on it on behalf of the giver. The inscription started with a Sanskrit mantra and proceeded in Mongolian: Om–a-a-hum. Om-a–a-a-hum. Om–a-a-hum. Reliance. [I] bow down, raise thoughts, confess sins. Mention it happily and pray. However small the merit [I have] accumulated, I devote it to achieving bodhisattva-hood. May the life of my family and my own body be lengthened and may demons and ghosts be cleansed away.

This lama was Sengge, whose hard-bitten air and strikingly intense manner we would come to know well. The herder had given him the scarf to hang on a strange object of worship, the Urad ancestor Jirgal Bagatur's battle standard, which was kept in the Temple of Fierce Deities. This was puzzling enough, and the character of the prayer was also unfamiliar: it took the form called "reliance" (dagatgal, pron. daatgal), which we learned was an entrustment placed with a sacred power to fulfill the herder's wishes. The lay participants evidently took this Buddhist prayer to the spirit of a battle standard entirely for granted and, when it turned out that Sengge Lama was processing a heap of such scarves, we realized that what looked at first sight an odd unsanctioned activity was in fact the form taken by a mainstream popular religious activity (Chapter 5). The lay devotion to the battle standard was channeled almost entirely through Sengge Lama—and ignored by Mönghebatu.

Soon the officials and academics, including us but not the lamas or local people, were invited to a banquet. This introduced us to another contradictory aspect of what happens at Mergen: on occasion, the religious nature of the monastery is eclipsed and it is given the persona of institutional host-proprietor in an ongoing relation with the officials representing wider society. The feast was held in the palace of the reincarnation line of Mergen Gegens. In its lofty hall people were carefully seated according to rank, with the officials at a high table and the junior teachers around the walls. There was a long wait, during which alcohol was served in tiny glasses and cigarettes handed round. Sharp knives were issued to each person. Finally, steaming sides and haunches of boiled mutton were brought in on platters and carved into hunks. Each person then wielded his own knife, with officials courteously cutting off juicy and fatty pieces to offer one another. Toast followed toast, drunk in sharply powerful alcohol; replete, the diners sat back. A group of local people appeared and began to sing; the songs were from the "'eighty-one poems" of Mergen Gegen. These are lyrical and ethical pieces that have become folksongs handed down among Urad people. Singers, men and women, stationed themselves before each guest, offering a song, to which the correct response was drinking yet another cup of alcohol. The Chorji Lama Mönghebatu was the only lama present, and he was soon engaged in offering yellow silk scarves and bowls of drink to the singers. Each person took the proffered bowl and with an airy gesture flicked drops three times with the fourth finger of the right hand—these were offerings to the sky, the earth, and the ancestors—took a sip and then returned the bowl to Chorji to be filled once again to the brim. We were hazily aware that these drinking rituals followed the pattern of host-guest relations observed throughout Mongol lands in worldly situations—Chorji was offering respect to his guests; but, we wondered, would Mergen Gegen have been happy for his sacred poems to be used in this way? Coherent thought was now lost in a swelling of general singing. The high guests threw off their jackets and joined in. It grew darker outside as passionate songs filled the hall. Professor Naranbatu, doyen of Mergen Gegen studies, offered solos of wonderful precision and expression. Some lyrics were witty, with fast, syncopated rhythms. Other songs were a ragged, deeply felt, roaring of the whole hall. Eventually, everyone stumbled to the doors—rain was slashing into the mud outside, people sheltered by the red pillars of the veranda , wind tore at the branches of the trees. Rain! In parched Inner Mongolia, this was a sign that the occasion was blessed.

Different publics were "provoked" into existence and separated out by these various events: The Chinese journalists attending the "expulsion of sins" took notes in bemused curiosity, while locals and lamas were not invited to the main banquet and feasted separately. The city intellectuals had specially chosen the occasion of the ritual to celebrate the publication of their books, knowing that hundreds of local people would be present. The mass turnout then validated the appearance of the politicians. On all sides the wariness Hürelbaatar had sensed in 1992 was gone. There was a brief happy coincidence of diverse interests. Mongolian high officials, who are sidelined to a great extent from hard power spheres, have made the politics of culture their arena of expertise. What could be better than to celebrate a Mongolian cultural form of Buddhism, separated as it were by Mergen Gegen's use of the vernacular from the dangerous alignment with renegade Tibet? As for the Urad intellectuals now working in the capital city, they could safely promote the uniqueness of Mergen Gegen and his embracing of Urad cultural customs: academic employment, publications, research projects, students, all looked set to flow; nostalgic memories could be brought to life; and obsessions with identity explored. The lamas, furthermore, could bask in a new sense of their own importance as bearers of something now officially labeled a tradition (ulamjilal). This sense of pride also extended to some of the local inhabitants. Most turned up simply to worship, enjoy themselves, and exchange news, but some had participated in providing information for the books and could now see themselves as the carriers of a specific Urad culture. They included local party stalwarts such as Shirüngerel and Erhimbayar, both owners of large herds, who despite being loyal communists did not hesitate to take part zealously in the "expulsion of sins" rite.

True, at Mergen ruins were everywhere, the yards were full of weeds and the temples empty of ancient statues. But in 1995 this was also an institution resplendent in confident activity. The enthusiastic throngs of worshippers and sympathizers seemed to ensure support for the future. We had earlier visited other monasteries of Inner Mongolia, all of them using a Tibetan liturgy and, apart from the urban precincts of Yehe Juu in H?hot, the main monastery of the capital city, most of them were bereft. Their abandonment was eloquent evidence of the scorn in which religion was still mostly held in public life. Official attitudes were changing and Buddhism was coming to be acceptable as part of "ethnic culture," but religion per se was ignored, suspect, unvalued. Shiregetü Juu in Höhot was huge but empty; Usutu-yin Juu at the edge of the city was dank and ruined, with no monks in sight; Shira Mören in the mountains to the north was little more than a scenic adjunct to a tourist camp; Maidar Juu to the west was restored as a museum—its multistoried temples were impressive in their flourishing gardens—but not a single monk was there and hardly any visitors were prepared to pay the entrance fee; Höndülen was a gaunt shell inhabited by a handful of defensive monks, hemmed in by the smokestacks and factories of Baotou (M. Bogutu) city. Mergen in 1995 was an astonishing contrast to all this. At its prayer services two banks of lamas sat bent over their sutras, chanting squarely in unison, sounding their drums, wind-instruments, and bells with practiced ease.

Lamas' lives and the community of monks

The unity of the lamas, the sense that this was a community with its own order and spirit, was an ephemeral enchantment. Even after two days we knew that it could not be the whole story. Each of the monks had taken a decision to come here from some other place and another kind of life: all suffered traumatically, in different ways, during the Cultural Revolution, which pushed them apart. These different histories affected—were part of—what each of them was as a lama. Thus we could not write about Mergen Monastery in generalities as though there was a typical lama. The occasions when these people came together and formed a corpus would have to be explained; just as important, we would have to do justice to their individuality.

Excerpted from A Monastery in Time by CAROLINE HUMPHREY. Copyright © 2013 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments and a Note on the Writing of this Book


1. Buddhist Life at Mergen
2. Mergen Gegen and the Arts of Language
3. Mergen Monastery and Its Landscape
4. Duke Galdan, Perspectives on the Self in the Qing Era
5. Sülde: The “Spirit of Invincibility,” Its Multiplicity and Its Secrets
6. The Afterlife of the 8th Mergen Gegen
7. Sengge: A Lama’s Knowledge and Its Vicissitudes
8. The Chorji Lama: Inheriting from the Past in a New World
9. Regroupings of Laity
10. Tradition and Archivization

Epilogue: Dispersion and Creation


What People are Saying About This

Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies

“Humphrey and Ujeed’s captivating anthropological study of the Mergen Monastery and its tradition is a result of extensive and collaborative fieldwork located in the south-western region of Inner Mongolia, commonly known as Urad. It is an important contribution to Mongolian and Buddhist studies and is especially timely given the growing interest in Mongolian Buddhism. One of the merits of this book is the authors’ ability to integrate the anthropological method and perspective with historical and archaeological data and textual evidence. The project is multilayered and covers two temporal frameworks: a historical one that concerns the formation, renaissance, tribulations, demise, and revival of the Mergen tradition from the early eighteenth century to the present, and the one that covers nearly seventeen years of the authors’ field research. The book provides an excellent exploration of the socio-historical, economic, and religious underpinnings of the Mergen lineage of reincarnations, a nuanced discussion of the religious life of Mergen Monastery, its religious and political roles under the Qing, and the importance of the monastery in creating and maintaining Mongolian-language-based Buddhism.”

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