Buddhism in Mongolian History, Culture, and Society

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Vesna A. Wallace
  • New York, NY: 
    Oxford University Press
    , January
     352 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The past couple of decades have witnessed a resurgence in studies on the topic of indigenization of religions and localized practices. This edited volume makes an outstanding contribution to the field of Mongolian Buddhism and, more broadly, to the study of world religions. Collectively, the contributors render obsolete the idea that Buddhism in Mongolia is nothing more than a bastardized variation of Tibetan Buddhism. This multidisciplinary collection of essays establishes Mongolian Buddhism as its own category, on par with the Tibetan, Chinese, Japanese, or Korean traditions. The arguments that Mongolian Buddhism was shaped by the original work and ideas of prominent figures, mobilized to respond to imperatives dictated by various socio-political contexts, and attuned to pastoral livelihood, run as undercurrents throughout the book, and close attention is paid to gender in the making of Mongolian Buddhism. 

The fifteen chapters are divided into three parts supplemented by an introduction. The first section includes five essays that focus on important Mongolian Buddhist figures of the pre-revolutionary era, highlighting their original religious and political contributions. In chapter 1, Johan Elverskog demonstrates that the practice of levirate marriage, which enabled Queen Jönggen (1551-1612) to rise to prominence and exercise a deep influence on the second conversion to Buddhism, disappeared from the historical record as Buddhist discourse gained prominence. Chapters 2 and 3 bring to the fore the connections between religion and state-building by documenting the contributions of the two Oirat scholars Zaya Pandita and Shakur Lama to the making of a Dzungar Buddhist state (17th - 18th century). Chapter 4, penned by Matthew King, includes an impressive amount of original research on the intersection between modern scientific ideas and Buddhism in post-Qing Mongolia, as viewed by the Buddhist scholar Zawa Damdin (1867-1837). Vesna A. Wallace, who is also the editor of the volume, concludes this first section with an essay on the ineluctable Mongolian figure, Chinggis Khan (1162-1227), whose “Buddhification” (79) constituted a central element of the indigenization of Mongolian Buddhism. 

The second section is centered on the spread of Buddhism among the masses via artistic, literary, and monastic traditions. The contributors show that the use of Mongolian language epitomized the vernacularization of Mongolian Buddhism (chapter 6) as well as the intersection between religion and literature (chapter 9). Moreover, the careful selection and original representation of various deities served a panoply of purposes that were deeply anchored in the Mongolian socio-historical context: Tsultemin’s study of the masterpiece sculptures of the first Jebtsundamba Khutugtu Zanabazar (1635-1723), head of the Mongolian Buddhist church, reveals a nonsectarian process of representing deities, which contrasted with Tibetan traditions and spoke to the Jebsundamba’s concern of unifying the Khalkha Mongols (a major sub-ethnic group) by means of the popularization of Buddhism (chapters 7 and 8). In two complementary chapters on the naturalization of Buddhist deities (chapters 10 and 11), Wallace shows how Vajrapāni connected powerful Mongolian political and religious leaders. Among others, Chinggis Khan, Altan Khan (1502-1582), the First Jebtsundamba, and even Choilbasan (1895-1952), a communist leader known for the persecution of Buddhists, were said to be emanations of Vajrapāni. Situated in a broader Inner Asian context, this process was reminiscent of the association of the Dalai Lama with Avalokiteśvara, and the Manchu-Qing rulers to Mañjuśrī. Wallace concludes the second section with a fascinating essay on the dialectical relation between Mongolian Buddhism and the natural environment, where a “Buddhist semiotic of nature” (235) was developed to respond to the needs of pastoral nomads (chapter 12). She highlights how Buddhism gave agency to the natural world, not only through the association of deities to particular places, but also through the very physical features of the landscape that took on various meanings linked to pastoral migrations and rituals. 

The third and last section fits a bit incongruously with the rest of the volume. It covers far-ranging topics such as the political purges of the 1920s and 1930s (chapter 13), the contributions of Buryat women to modern Mongolian Buddhism (chapter 14), and a case study of the Khulustai Monastery, in Tongliao, Eastern Inner Mongolia (chapter 15). In this last chapter, Hürelbaatar Ujeed takes issue with the received view from 20th century scholars influenced by Marxist frameworks that lamas led unproductive lives and wasted economic resources. His well-documented study shows that lamas were well integrated in the economic and social life of Khulustai, performing tasks that ranged from accounting and herding to performing rituals. His essay resonates with the rest of the volume, insofar as it suggests that scholars should revisit outdated assumptions about the roles and forms of Buddhism in Mongolia. 

Overall, the contributors not only demonstrate the unique features of Mongolian Buddhism, but they also highlight the dynamic character of religious institutions that very much responded to and interacted with a variety of ideas and political currents. Far from an ossified foreign system of belief, Mongolian Buddhism served political purposes, helped formulate Mongolian nationalism in the 20th century, and played an important socio-economic role in the pre-revolutionary era. The organization of the chapters could have been better defined to illustrate these fundamental points. Sections 1 and 2 significantly overlap—chapter 6 and 7 on Zanabazar could have easily fit in the first or the second section—and the three essays in chapter 3 are hardly connected to each other or integrated with the whole. Also, the two chapters on the role of women in the making of Mongolian Buddhism significantly contribute to a much lesser known area of Mongolian history, and this could have been brought forward in the organization of the book. That being said, this excellent edited volume has broad and far-reaching implications not only for scholars in the fields of Mongolian studies or religious studies, but also for contemporary actors who are invested in the project of revitalizing Mongolian Buddhism in a post-socialist era. 

About the Reviewer(s): 

Anne-Sophie Pratte is a doctoral candidate in Inner Asian and Altaic Studies at Harvard University.

Date of Review: 
October 30, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Vesna A. Wallace is a Professor of Religious Studies in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Her areas of specialization include Indian and Mongolian Buddhist traditions. She has published extensively on Indian and Mongolian Buddhism, including four books and numerous articles.


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