Monday, December 23

Sakyamuni on the Steppe

My great city of Dadu (Beijing)! adorned with varied splendor; Shangdu (Xanadu), my delectable cool summer retreat! and those yellowing plains, the delight and refreshment of my divine ancestors! What evil have I committed to lose my empire thus!

This lament is the last recorded words of Toghon Temür, the 10th descendant of Kublai, and the last Yuan Emperor. Kublai had originally named his eldest son, Zhenjin (Chinese: 真金) as Crown Prince but he pre-deceased Kublai in 1285. Zhenjin's third son, with the intrigue of his mother Kökejin, succeeded to the throne and ruled as Temür Khan or Emperor Chengzong following Kublai's death. In the century after Kublai, the Yüan Dynasty, led by ever-more-Sinicized rulers of ever-diminishing capability, more and more corrupted by the indulgences of courtly life, started to teeter. In 1368, Toghon Temür fled his capital in the face of advancing Chinese rebels who would go on to establish the Ming Dynasty; the Mongols lost China, and were forced to retreat to their original homelands to the north of the Gobi. Toghon Temür died shortly after. The irony of Chingis Khan's descendant lamenting the loss of urban comfort will not be lost on the gentle reader.

Toghon Temür's son Prince Ayurshiridhara attempted to rally the Mongols around their old capital of Karakorum, dreaming of eventually recovering the empire his father had lost; but the army of the Ming pursued the Mongol into his homeland, and finally in 1388 dealt him a devastating blow in Dornod. In the disarray that followed, the descendants of Kublai could no longer claim hegemony over much of anything. Oirat tribes rose in the west and claimed overlordship of the Mongol.

The descendants of Chingis Khan were reduced to their traditional homelands around the Tuul. After the death of Manduul Khan in 1467 at the hands of his own advisor Eslem (spy and agent of Ming China), in a battle with his own grand-nephew Bolko. Bolko was in turn assassinated in 1470, and the throne was left vacant.  At this time, a minor Mongol Khatun, Mandukhai the Wise, brought out from hiding and adopted the seven year old orphan Batumunkh, son of the late Bayan Mongkhe Jonon, a direct descendant of Genghis Khan. As Batumunkh was the last living descendant of Genghis Khan, Queen Mandukhai had him proclaimed Khan with name Dayan (and subsequently wed him.)

When Dayan Khan died in 1543, as was tradition the 'hearth' land around the Three Rivers Region around the Kherlen, Tuul and Onon rivers went to his youngest son Geresandza Ochigin. His group of Mongols eventually became the Khalkha. The title of Great Khan, however, went to Dayan's grandson Bodi, who built a base around Dolonuur in what is now Inner Mongolia in China. Bodi's third son Barsa-bolod and grandson Gün Biliktü occupied the Ordos Desert in the great loop of the Yellow River. Gün Biliktü's younger brother, Altan Khan, became leader of yet another group, the Tümed Mongols, who were centered around present-day Hohhot, the current capital of Inner Mongolia. Altan Khan played a decisive role in introducing, or, more properly, re-introducing, Buddhism to Mongolia.

[Above: Cover of the book on Buddhist Art from Mongolia edited by Carmen Meinart.]

Chingis Khan himself had met with some Tibetan Buddhists as early as 1205, a year before the founding of the Mongol Empire, and had been impressed by their doctrine. He had sent a message to the Sakya Lama So-Pan, stating, 'I have not finished the wars of my reign yet, but as soon as these are over, please come to Hor with your disciples and spread the Teachings of the Buddha.' And we have seen Kublai Khan open to the teachings of both Daoists and Buddhists in China. In 1566, while on an expedition (or raid) to Tibet,  Sechen Khongtaiji (Altan Khan's grand-nephew) met some monks who he brought back to the Khan's camp near Ulaanbaatar. It is not clear whether these monks came as prisoners or as teachers; in any case, they introduced Sechen Khongtaiji to the teachings of Buddha and finally managed to convert him to Vajrayana Buddhism. Sechen Khongtaiji then converted his uncle:

Defeat the Oirat . . . take into your hands the power of the State. The wise and learned say that divine teaching is important for this and for the next two lives that will follow. Would not it be a wonder if the Buddha . . . of the Land of Snows . . . comes here and a State Religion is created?

According to other accounts it was Altan Khan himself who had captured the Buddhist monks, who then introduced him to the doctrines of the Sakyamuni. Yet another account claims that while on a raid into the Uighur regions of Xinjiang Altan Khan captured two Uighur chiefs and three Uighur Buddhist monks; and so on.

When Sonam Gyatso, the lama presiding over prayers in Lhasa, received his first invitation from Altan Khan in 1571 to come to the Khan's ordu, he made excuses, fearing for his safety on such a long hazardous journey to the court of faraway unruly barbarians. Altan Khan, whose curiosity on Buddhism had been whetted by the monks he had captured, issued more and more invitations till finally his summons could no longer be ignored. One never knew with the Mongols - if the Khan's requests continued to be ignored it was plausible that a horde turn up at Lhasa and seize the lama anyway.

Sonam Gyatso left Lhasa for the Khan's court in late 1577. A formidable entourage followed him to Reting, the monastery 95 miles north of Lhasa (founded in 1057 by Dron Tönpa, chief disciple of the great Atisa Dipankara.) Here Sonam Gyatso's followers again begged him to abandon this fool's errand of a journey to the court of the Mongols; but he ordered the entourage to turn back at Reting, and prepared to continue on his own - when the Tibetan King Tashi Rabten ran up and taking hold of the lama's stirrup, cried out loudly:

May your lotus feet proceed safely, o Lama who are the glory of the Buddha's Teachings! May the whole word fill with the Holders of this teaching!

This re-invigorated the resolve of all; they pressed on and eventually reached an Yangtze River in flood. According to the Rosary of White Lotuses, Sonam Gyatso only had to point at it with his finger and the river became quiet, allowing him to cross. The same occurred at the Yellow River crossing.  At the Khan's ordu:

Altan Khan himself arrived, dressed in white clothes, which meant he had whitened the boundless realms of darkness. He was accompanied by the retinue of about 10,000 men, his wife and many attendants.

The Mongols expected religious figures to perform feats and Sonam Gyatso could not disappoint. Asked by the Altan Khan to demonstrate his power:

He reached his arm into an enormous boulder lying near the Khan and from it extracted a huge conch shell, the matrix of which circled in reverse. He placed the conch to his lips and blew a sharp note, whereupon the earth shook.

Sonam Gyatso then delivered his first discourse to the Mongols. He asked them to give up the practice of human and animal sacrifices ( Ögedei had had forty "moon-faced virgins" scarified in honor of Chingis Khan) and told them to destroy their shamanic idols including Khan Tengri.  Instead of blood sacrifices, he requested that Mongols offer up part of the deceased's possessions to temples and monasteries. He also implored the Mongols not to conduct bloody raids on their neighbors but instead try to live in peaceful coexistence with their neighbors. Finally, he taught them the sutra on Avalokitesvara, the bodhisattva of compassion, the One who sees in all directions, and the accompanying mantra: Aum Manipadme Hum.

The Mongols were bowled over. Altan bestowed upon Sonam Gyatso the title of "Dalai Lama". Dalai is a Mongolian for "vast" or "oceanic"; it is also a direct Mongolian translation of the Tibetan word Gyatso. In return, Sonam Gyatso recognized Altan Khan as a reincarnation of Kublai Khan and therefore the legitimate wearer of the mantle of the Yüan Dynasty of China.

We are standing outside the Gandantegchinlen Monastery (Mongolian: Гандантэгчинлэн хийд, Gandantegchinlen Khiid) in Ulaanbaatar. This Tibetan-origin name translates to the 'Great Island of Perfect Rejoicing'. It houses a colossal statue of Migjid Janraisig, aka Avalokitesvara.

In the 1930s, the Communist government under Khorloogiin Choibalsan (and Joseph Stalin), destroyed all but a few monasteries in Mongolia and killed more than 15,000 lamas. 'Zaya's great grandfather was one of them.

Gandantegchinlen Khiid escaped this destruction, was closed in 1938, and then reopened in 1944 to continue as the only functioning token Buddhist monastery, under a skeleton staff, as homage to a postcard-representation of Mongolian culture under communism. The statue of Avalokitesvara was, it is said, melted down to make bullets for Soviet troops WWII.  Only with the end of communism in Mongolia in 1990 were restrictions on worship were lifted; 'Zaya recalls people crying in streets that day. The 26-m-high statue was rebuilt in 1996 funded by donations by ordinary Mongolian people. 'Zaya's family gave all the copper they possessed - pots, pans, old coins.

People are solemnly tying scarves to the pole in the compound, praying. Aum Manipadme Hum. As I step out of the sanctum, I stumble against the doorstep. 'Zaya comes running - No! No! That's bad luck. Go back in and come out again, step carefully over the threshold without touching it with your feet.


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