Bringing a monastery back to life

Erdene Zuu, Mongolia’s oldest surviving Buddhist monastery, is a sprawling, windswept complex nestled in the Orkhon Valley, the ancient cultural crossroads where Genghis Khan chose to locate the capital of his empire, Karakorum, back in 1220. The monastery – which dates to 1586 and was built with stones from the ruined capital – once had 60 temples and 1,000 monks who lived in hundreds of gers dotted throughout the swaying grass. Now it has just 54 monks, none of whom live on the site, and 13 temples, only one of which – the Lama Temple – can be used for worship.

By Sheila Melvin

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Published: Sun 23 Jan 2011, 9:04 PM

Last updated: Tue 7 Apr 2015, 9:48 AM

The Lama Temple is a sturdy Tibetan-style structure, white-washed with upturned eaves and flapping prayer flags. It is presided over by Baasansuren Handsuren, a charismatic, English-speaking monk who entered the monastery in 1991 at the age of 14 and has served as its head lama for seven years. He is preparing to publish his first book, “Erdene Zuu: The Jewel of Enlightenment,” a photographic record of his monastery’s tumultuous 20th-century history that he was inspired to compile after chancing on a few old photos. Researching intermittently over four years, Baasansuren tracked down nearly 200 photographs for which he wrote captions and commentary. “There used to be 100,000 monks in Mongolia,” he explained, a figure that Vesna Wallace, a professor of Buddhist Studies at the University of California at Santa Barbara, notes was roughly 10 per cent of the population. Photos covering this era date from the 1900s to the 1930s and are grouped into chapters on monastic life and the Tsam ritual masked dances for which Erdene Zuu was famous.

The Tsam dancing rituals at Erdene Zuu included 120 or more dancers, all dressed in Mongolian military costumes of yore. But, the last dance was performed in 1936, marking the end of Mongolian Buddhism’s age of prosperity and the start of its near-destruction in the Stalin era, when Mongolia became a Soviet satellite. “Our monastery was destroyed very badly. More than 1,200 monasteries in Mongolia were destroyed.”

The destruction of the monasteries, in 1938 and ’39, was accompanied by the murder, jailing, and forced secularisation of Mongolia’s monks. By 1941, according to Wallace, there were only 241 monks left in the entire country, and Buddhism as an institutional religion had effectively been wiped out. Erdene Zuu, however, was saved from complete physical ruin because Mongolian government officials – apparently pressured by Stalin himself – decided to retain one or two monasteries to show foreign visitors.

The other was Gandantengchilin Monastery in Ulan Bator. This decision was also sparked, Baasansuren explained, by the 1944 visit to Mongolia of the American vice president Henry Wallace, at the end of a 27,000-mile, or 43,000 kilometer, trip through China, Siberia and Central Asia.

Baasansuren documents this period with photos from the 1990s, concentrating as much on the revival of the ceremonies that give Erdene Zuu life as on the reconstruction of its physical infrastructure. Indeed, he believes that the focus on fixing buildings should shift to recruitment, education and service.

It is to this end that he has established the school, a cozy low-ceilinged structure, built with local donations and support from the Himalaya Foundation, that currently has 30 students between the ages of 9 and 16. To this end, the young monks receive both Buddhist and secular education.

Baasansuren would like to extend his monastery’s capacity for education and service to the Karakorum community at large through a community center that will have a library, soup kitchen, and classrooms for coursework in Buddhist teachings and meditation.

The local government has provided land for the centre, with the stipulation that it is built within the next year. But since construction is slated to cost $60,000 double the $30,000 annual budget on which Baasansuren must run the monastery and feed and pay all his monks – this plan may be hard to realise.


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