The Dalai Lama in Mongolia: ‘Tournament of Shadows’ Reborn

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The Dalai Lama in Mongolia: ‘Tournament of Shadows’ Reborn

Buddhism in Mongolia has always had a strong connection to geopolitics.

The Dalai Lama in Mongolia: ‘Tournament of Shadows’ Reborn

Tibet’s exiled spiritual leader the Dalai Lama (C) greets people gathered at the Gandan Tegchinlen monastery in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia (November 19, 2016).

Credit: REUTERS/B. Rentsendorj

On November 19, 2016, the Dalai Lama arrived in Ulaanbaatar for a five-day visit that was called a religious event by the Government of Mongolia.  In fact, the trip can be seen as the latest move in a geopolitical chess game that has been going on since the 16th century.

On his fourth day in Ulaanbaatar, the Dalai Lama held a press conference where he said that he is convinced of the recent rebirth of the Jebtsundampa Khatagt in Mongolia. The Jebtsundampa Khatagt, meaning the “Reverend Noble Incarnate Lama,” is the traditional title bestowed upon the patriarchs of Mongolian Buddhism, which, as an institution, follows the teachings of the “Yellow Hat” sect under the Dalai Lama’s leadership.

The newly born Tenth Patriarch is believed to be a reincarnation of a highly placed lama or tulku in a lineage that had nearly been extinguished in the early 20th century.  The announcement puts into play a geopolitical contest where the exiled Tibetan leader and the Governments of Mongolia, China, and India all have a stake in its outcome, to varying degrees.

The Buddhist Patriarchs of Mongolia 

Yellow Hat Buddhism arrived in northern Mongolia in 1586 when the Third Dalai Lama initiated the Abatai Khan, the ruler of a central province, into an esoteric ritual and philosophy called the Kalachakra. It is from this time that Buddhism firmly put down its roots in the region of what is today the sovereign state of Mongolia

Fifty years later, the ruling grandson of the Abatai Khan arranged for one of his sons to be inducted as a Yellow Hat monk with the Sanskrit name Zanabazar. In 1639, Zanabazar was recognized as the reincarnation of Taranatha, a revered Tibetan scholar and founder of the Jonangpa philosophical school of Tibetan Buddhism. In 1647, Zanabazar’s clan took him to Beijing as the Jebtsundampa Khatagt to pay homage to the recently installed Manchu emperor of China.

Zanabazar was the first of eight patriarchs officially recognized by the Qing Court as the ecclesiastical leaders of northern Mongolia. In their homeland, the patriarchs were the third most senior lamas after the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama. Zanabazar is remembered as both a distinguished polymath noted for his bronze artwork, religious texts, and scientific experiments as well as a shrewd political strategist who allied his clan’s interests with the rising Qing Empire. After Zanabazar’s death in 1723, the Second Patriarch was found in northern Mongolia in the person of the one of the great-grandsons of Zanabazar’s brother and duly enthroned with the support of the Manchu throne and the Yellow Hat clergy in Lhasa.

Manchu Imperial Intervention

By the middle of the 18th century, tensions had arisen between the Manchu court and the ruling elites in northern Mongolia. In 1756, a cousin of the Second Patriarch led an unsuccessful rebellion against Manchu rule, a disturbance that convinced the Qianlong Emperor of the need to break the potentially seditious relationship between the Mongolian elites and the leader of their Buddhist clergy. In 1758, the emperor declared that upon the death of the Second Patriarch, all subsequent reincarnations had to be found in Tibet and born of Tibetan parents in a process closely supervised by the Manchu court.

The Qianlong Emperor was able to command these changes since he was more than just a secular ruler in the view of the Buddhist clergy. The Dalai Lamas had declared the Qing emperors to be the reincarnations of Manjusri, the bodhisattva of wisdom. This brought about an unintended extension of secular power into the domain of the spiritual, a situation that continues to provoke unrest in Tibet to this day. The Tibetan-born nominees for the position of Mongolian Patriarch had to be approved by the emperor’s court in Beijing, then by the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama, and finally the name of the candidate had to be drawn from a golden urn in the Yonghegong temple in Beijing.

The final performance of this imperial ritual occurred in the 1870s for the Eighth Patriarch, the last Jebtsundampa Khatagt recognized by the Qing Empire. The Eighth Patriarch was brought to northern Mongolia at a time of decay for the Manchu court and rising imperialist aspirations for Mongolia’s neighbors. Despite his foreign birth and his persistent violations of his monastic vows, the Eighth Patriarch identified with Mongolian nationalism and became a rallying point for Mongolians seeking independence.

Post-Manchu Changes in a Tumultuous Time and the End of the Lineage

In December 1911, northern Mongolia declared its independence from the failing Manchu empire and established a theocracy with the Eighth Patriarch as its sovereign. The theocratic state soon fell prey to the intrigues among a Chinese warlord government in Beijing and the Tsarist government in Saint Petersburg as well as Japanese imperial ambitions. In 1919, the Beijing warlord government reoccupied Ulaanbaatar and forced the Eighth Patriarch to renounce Mongolian independence. As a virtual prisoner of the warlord army, the patriarch frantically searched for a powerful benefactor and invited the army of a White Russian adventurer, Baron Ungern von Sternberg, to come to his aid and force the warlord army from Mongolia. Ungern von Sternberg defeated the Chinese invaders but almost immediately embarked upon a psychotic campaign of murder in the capital. The Eighth Patriarch was forced to appeal for help once again by sending a group of Mongolian proto-revolutionaries to Irkutsk to discuss the crisis with the Bolsheviks.

In July 1921, Mongolian partisans retook the capital with the support of the Soviet Red Army. The new government slowly eased the Eighth Patriarch from any participation in political affairs. In May 1924, he passed away, but because of Buddhism’s popularity, the newly established government of the Mongolian People’s Republic had to tread slowly before declaring an end of the lineage in 1929 and prohibiting any attempt to locate the Ninth Patriarch. The Buddhist monastic community was all but destroyed during a Stalinist purge in 1937-8 but managed to be revived by a handful of monks in the later 1940s at the Gandan Tegchenling Monastery in Ulaanbaatar, which had been retained by the Communist government as a shallow Potemkin symbol of religious tolerance.

A Secret Revival of the Lineage

Despite the official line of the Communist authorities, the lineage did not die out. In 1936, the Reting Rinpoche, the ruling regent of Tibet for the interregnum between the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Dalai Lamas, recognized a boy named Jambal Namdo Choiji in Lhasa as the reincarnation of the Eighth Patriarch. The boy’s identity remained a carefully guarded secret because of possible assassination attempts by Communist Mongolian agents. Jambal Namdo was inducted incognito into Lhasa’s clergy without the financial support usually provided to important tulkus. In the 1940s, he left the clergy, started a family, and earned his living peacefully as a farmer. However, in the aftermath of the Tibetan Uprising in 1959, he fled to India with the Dalai Lama because of his fear of being discovered and used as a propaganda tool by the Chinese Communists. In the 1980s, he resumed his monastic vows and lived a quiet life in Karnataka.

In September 1991, the Dalai Lama publicly announced that the Ninth Patriarch was alive and a member of the monastic community in India. The announcement was reportedly made at the request of the leading clergy at the Gandan Tegchenling Monastery. The stage had been set for this unexpected development thanks to the efforts of the diplomatic representative of the Government of India in Ulaanbaatar.

India’s Role in the Revival of Mongolian Buddhism

Following a policy first laid down by Pandit Nehru, the Government of India has been consistently supportive of the Tibetan community within its borders since the Dalai Lama’s flight from Tibet.

A talented Indian politician played an important role as an intermediary for the Dalai Lama in foreign affairs. This politician was the Nineteenth Kushok Bakula Rinpoche, a practicing tulku from the province of Jammu-Kashmir who was born into a Ladkhaki noble family. The Bakula Rinpoche had entered government service in the Lok Sabha or Lower House and later in the National Parliament of the Republic of India. In the 1979, he assisted the Dalai Lama by arranging for his first official visit to Ulaanbaatar and subsequently helped arrange for further visits there and to the Buryat Buddhist community in the Soviet Union.

In 1990, the Government of India appointed the Bakula Rinpoche as its ambassador to the Mongolian People’s Republic. During his 10-year term, he played a significant role in supporting the revival of Yellow Hat Buddhism in post-Communist Mongolia and bringing the Dalai Lama to Mongolia to consecrate revived monastic colleges. In 1999, he helped the Ninth Holy One to come for his first visit to Mongolia, an event that touched off a brief political firestorm over allowing a potential political figure of foreign birth into the country. After two months of the controversy, the Ninth Patriarch returned to India. The Bakula Rinpoche retired as ambassador the following year.

The Last Days of the Ninth Patriarch 

Toward the end of his life, the Ninth Patriarch told the Dalai Lama of his desire to return to Mongolia for his passing. In November 2011, the Ninth Patriarch, in poor health, took up residency at the Gandan Tegchenling Monastery. He died there in March 2012.

According to Buddhist tradition, the Ninth Patriarch’s wish to pass away in Mongolia was a significant indication that his next rebirth would be in Mongolia. By spending his last days at the Gandan Tegchenling Monastery, the Ninth Patriarch helped to set the stage for the discovery of the first Mongolian-born patriarch in nearly 300 years.

As if to remove potential objections to this plan, the Government of Mongolia granted citizenship to the Ninth Patriarch just before his death. This shrewdly lessened anxieties about a foreign ecclesiastical leader living in Mongolia’s foremost Buddhist monastery. Further, it also deflected criticisms by hyper-nationalist Mongolians about a non-Mongolian patriarch of Mongolian Buddhism.

Little discussion took place in the media about the possible reincarnation of the Tenth Patriarch in Mongolia until the Dalai Lama’s press team and the Government of Mongolia announced his ninth pastoral visit to Ulaanbaatar just before his departure from Japan on November 19, 2016.

Contesting Interests in Mongolian Buddhism

While Mongolia adopted a democratic system of government in 1992, the country’s elites have taken over the controls of politics and the economy through factions that are sometimes in a bitter rivalry. The existence of such battles is typically cloaked from the view of foreign observers. Moreover, the local press in Mongolia is beholden to the views of their corporate owners. Public discussion of shadowy private rivalries is discouraged. While speculation about cleavages in the power structure abounds, it is difficult to obtain confirmation, especially since factional alliances continually shift.

Buddhism has become one of many forums for rivalries, which are often motivated by the business relationships among the factions of the Mongolian power elite. A faction may organize its business activities, and its policies when in government, to seek support from politico-business interests in Russia, or China, or “third neighbors,” the generic term used to describe other nations that have the resources to play a role in the Mongolian economy. It appears that the use of Buddhism by factions is often unrelated to a genuine commitment to the faith’s underlying spiritual message. Rather it can be a tool for self-interest.

For instance, while the Dalai Lama was still in Ulaanbaatar, some of the local media queried whether the Tenth Patriarch had been born into a wealthy family, thus implying a monetary incentive or other unseemly motivation for the Dalai Lama’s announcement. The Dalai Lama resisted efforts to disclose the Tenth Patriarch’s identity, explaining, correctly, that the child needs to undergo several years of preparation before his elevation. This explanation has not dulled suspicions among some Mongolians, however.

Another example is how the Dorje Shugden controversy has played out in Mongolia. Starting in 1976, this theological controversy has descended into an acrimonious dispute between the Dalai Lama’s followers and the followers of a 17th century Tibetan deity called Dorje Shugden. The hub of the dispute is contrasting views on sectarianism and the correct path for Yellow Hat Buddhism. The Shugden followers insist upon an aggressive purge of heterodox forms of Tibetan Buddhism while the Dalai Lama has called for non-sectarian cooperation among all branches of Tibet’s religions. Accusations of assassinations, denial of civil liberties, and collusion with the Chinese government have caused the dispute to degenerate into vitriol during the past two decades. While it is strenuously denied, the sect appears to receive support from the Chinese government as a countermeasure against the Dalai Lama.

The Dalai Lama believes that aggressive sectarianism threatens Tibetan unity. He has decreed that while the followers of Dorje Shugden may continue to worship the deity, his own followers should not permit devotees of Shugden to be initiated into the Kalachakra. In Mongolia, all but one temple has heeded his call. Nevertheless, in 2014, the Trijang Rinpoche, a 32 year-old monk and a leader in the Shugden sect, visited Ulaanbaatar to perform rites to Dorje Shugden in a state museum that once was a temple associated with the deity.

Mongolian supporters of the Dalai Lama sometimes imply that the Shugden sect is a front for Chinese politico-business interests that pose a threat to Mongolian sovereignty. Devotees of the Shugden sect in Mongolia claim that the Dalai Lama’s supporters seek to derail economic cooperation between Ulaanbaatar and Beijing in furtherance of the interests of allies in Russia. Such views are mostly promoted through whispering campaigns rather than a full and open discussion of the issue.

The announcement of the birth of the Tenth Patriarch comes at a time of considerable uncertainty for Mongolians. Despite an impressive uptick in GDP growth and direct foreign investment in the late 2000s, the Government of Mongolia implemented disastrous economic policies in the aftermath of the general election of 2012. The collapse of the local currency, falling global commodities’ prices, and a dramatic decrease in the volume of direct foreign investment have contributed to a sharply declining economy. Next year, Mongolia must make repayment under an ill-conceived U.S. dollar sovereign bond issue while other needed infrastructure projects are moth-balled or struggle to find funding.

Prior to the Dalai Lama’s visit, China and Mongolia had been in negotiations for a $4.2 billion loan to assist Mongolia in meeting these repayment obligations. Unsurprisingly, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs condemned the visit by His Holiness, called off the loan negotiations, and canceled state-to-state meetings for the forthcoming year. For those Mongolians seeking to build closer ties with China, Beijing’s reaction was a considerable set-back.

But was Beijing truly blindsided by the Dalai Lama’s visit? Given the state of Mongolia’s cybersecurity, it is unlikely that Beijing had no forewarning. Further, in early November, a delegation of government officials from the Tibet Autonomous Region visited Ulaanbaatar for high-level talks. While no explicit information was forthcoming about the details of the meetings, it may very well have taken place because of Beijing’s concerns over the Dalai Lama’s trip and the prospect of his recognition of the Tenth Patriarch. Did China suspect that it had been cut out of a process that arguably impacts upon its national interests in a religious group that it regards as seditious? Moreover, Chinese negotiators, and any of their allies in Mongolia, may secretly welcome the disruption of negotiations as a way to extract more onerous concessions for any loan agreement with the Government of Mongolia.

China has another national interest triggered by the discovery of the Tenth Patriarch, one that relates to an obscure aspect of 17th century Tibetan history.

The Mongolian Patriarchs were believed to be successive reincarnations of Taranatha, a 17th century Tibet monastic leader whose order, the Jonongpa, was aggressively absorbed into mainstream Yellow Hat Buddhism by the Fifth Dalai Lama. It had been assumed that the Jonangpa had died out, but then, in the 1990s, Tibetan studies scholars discovered several communities of Jonangpa monks in remote parts of Qinghai and Western Sichuan province. The Dalai Lama appointed the Ninth Patriarch in India to be the leader of the lineage, a decision in keeping with reincarnation theory but in direct conflict with China’s laws requiring strict administrative control over the appointment of tulkus within its territory.  This “internal affair” for China may very well have been a topic of disputation between the TAR delegation and the Government of Mongolia.

India’s foreign policy objectives in this regard are more opaque but its support of Yellow Hat Buddhism can be seen as a part of a “Tibet card” to be played by New Delhi against China. Certainly, the Indian ambassador to Mongolia signaled his country’s interest in the visit by meeting His Holiness at Ulaanbaatar’s international airport and accompanying him.

It is a mistake to imbue the Dalai Lama’s visit to Mongolia with a solely political complexion, however. In terms of Dalai Lama’s objectives, this was an important pastoral visit for the promotion of a modern, reformed, and more participatory Buddhism in contrast to the ritualistic and superstitious practices that made the faith seem like a relic from the Dark Ages to early 20th century visitors to Mongolia. His Holiness exhorted Mongolians to cultivate a personal understanding of the tenets of the religion rather than simply seeking a “quick fix” cure or blessing from a lama in times of trouble. His modern Buddhist message is possibly at odds with the practices of some Mongolian monks who have come to regard Buddhism as an expeditious vehicle for raising funds in the free market world of post-Communist Mongolia.

Finally, while no information has been disclosed about the process of identifying the Tenth Patriarch, it is possible that the ritual is a “dry run” for the discovery of a Fifteenth Dalai Lama outside the territorial limits of China. This may be of critical importance for the mission of Yellow Hat Buddhism given the conflict that arose over the enthronement of the Panchen Lama in 1995.

Nineteenth century Russian strategists called the diplomatic maneuvers among hegemonic powers in Central Asia the “Tournament of Shadows.”  It is a name that has a renewed relevance for the 21s century version of this geopolitical chess game.

M.A. Aldrich is a lawyer, author and resident for nearly 30 years in East and Central Asia.  His book Ulaanbaatar: Beyond Water and Grass is due to be published by Hong Kong University Press next year.