Above: Zanabazar's White Tara.
At some point in the 1570s, word filtered back to Mongolia that Altan Khan had met with a new power called the Dalai Lama and that the Tümed Mongols of Inner Mongolia had subsequently converted to Buddhism. Avtai, then Khan of the Khalkha, decided that he must met this great character from Tibet, and then he would decide for himself what he thought of the Dalai Lama and his teachings. "If he is acceptable we shall recognize each other. If not we shall fight," declared Avtai. Thereupon the Khan of the Khalkha set off on horseback from of his homelands on the upper Tuul to the court of the Dalai Lama in Lhasa.
The meetings went well, and Avtai Khan came back, impressed, with Buddhist relics. Monasteries and stupas started appearing the Mongol heartland. In 1635, forty-eight years after Avtai Khan's death, his grandson Gombo Dorje, now the ruler of the Mongol Khanate in the East, was traveling by Yesön Zuul when he noticed a handsome lama sitting nearby the shrine built by his grandfather. When asked what he was doing there the lama replied, "I am honoring this place with sacrifices." Then the lama disappeared, and the sky was filled with rainbows. Shortly thereafter both Gombo Dorje and his wife Khandu Jamtso started having dreams filled with omens and portents. Subsequently, a little boy was born to the Khan. He was named Yeshe Dorje (Eshidorji.) This boy was destined to be called the Michelangelo of Asia for bringing to the entire region a renaissance in theology, religion, language, art, architecture, medicine and astronomy, even as the Manchu gained suzerainty over outer Mongolia.
Soon, little Yeshe Dorje was building small replicas of temples, fashioning statuettes of the Buddha, and sketching lamas. By tradition the son of a Khan was supposed to be surrounded by robust playmates from other noble families; but Yeshe Dorje chose to hang out in temples with monks. Before the end of his third year, in early 1638, his father, by then convinced that the boy was destined for the lamasery, arranged for a monk named Jambaling to give the him his first vows. Accompanying this came a new name - Jnana-vajra - Knowledge-Thunderbolt in Sanskrit - a formulation soon vernacularized to Zanabazar.
Above: Zanabazar pictured in a tangkha.
It apparently did not take long for stories of Gombo Dorje Khan's remarkable little boy to spread throughout Mongolia. The boy's extraordinary utterances and prodigy; his taking of his first monastic vows at age three; his skill in drawing, painting, and sculpting - all would have been deeply impressive to people and celebrated in a land where folk thought naught of riding a hundred miles to simply hear an interesting bit of news. By the time Zanabazar was four, not only the Buddhist lamas of Mongolia but also the ruling khans and khatuns had realized that he was destined to play a unique role in their country. In 1639, a great convention was held to anoint him as head of the Sakya sect of Tibetan Buddhism in all of Khalkha Mongolia, and to establish for him his very own monastery. It is said:
From as far away as Buir Nuur to the east and the shores of huge salt lakes in the Great Depression in the west, and from the edge of the Siberian taiga in the north and the depths of the Gobi Desert in the south, the khans and their entourages of the khanates of Khalkha Mongolia converged on the territory of the Zanabazar's father the Tüsheet Khan Gombodorj. They all met about forty-eight miles north of Yesön Zuil, at a small lake surrounded on three sides by hills covered with the sand dunes of the so-called Mongol Els-a belt of dunes up to five miles wide and trending north-south for over fifty miles. On the fourth side loomed, like a backdrop of the huge natural amphitheater, the 5477 foot-high massif of Ikh Mongol Uul. This spot, thought to be very near the geographic center of ancient Khalka Mongolia, and just eighteen miles northeast of the geographical center of the current country of Mongolia, was known as the khüis-"navel"-of the Mongol realm ... On a high grass-covered knoll between the shore of the lake and base of Ikh Mongol Uul a ger had been erected. Because the ger was draped outside with yellow cloth it became known as the Shar Bösiyn Ord, or "Yellow Sash Palace". Lama Bürilegüü carried the little boy up the hill and placed him on a throne in the ger, signifying that the boy was now the head of the Buddhist faith in Mongolia. The ger itself was sanctified as the first temple of what eventually became Zanabazar's own monastery. The assembled Mongols then appeared before Zanabazar, offering obeisance and making offerings. He received several dozen gers from each of the Mongol khans, the basis of what became his personal estate. Then began the games, feasts, and celebrations.
As the boy grew older, it became clear to his handlers that if Zanabazar wished to advance, he would have to continue his studies in Tibet, the source of Buddhism as practiced in Mongolia, and the home of the Dalai Lama, So it was decided that the boy Zanabazar, then 14, would travel to Tibet:
Zanabazar left Mongolia late in 1649 ... There were several caravan tracks to Tibet, but if he took the traditional Shar Zam (Yellow Road) to Tibet he would have veered slightly west from Shankh through what is now Bayankhongor Aimag. Perhaps he stopped at the oasis of Ekhin Gol, then as now one of the main watering holes in south Bayankhongor, before crossing the last ridges of the Gobi-Altai Range just west of 8,755 foot Segs Saikhan Bogd Uul and starting across the dreaded Black Gobi, the most difficult part-mainly because of the lack of water-of the whole journey. From Ekhin Gol to Anhsi, the first sizable Chinese town on the southern edge of the Gobi usually took about twenty days by camel. Then the party would have turned southeast, crossing the Tulai Nan Shan and Datong Shan mountains and skirting the northern shore of Khökh Nuur before arriving at Kumbum Monastery, located in a narrow valley seventeen miles southwest of the present-day city of Xining. Here the party took a lengthy break.
Around 1650, Zanabazar met Ngawang Lobsang Gyatso, the 5th Dalai Lama. Lobsang Gyatso is credited with unifying Tibet after a protracted era of civil wars; he established diplomatic relations with China, met with early European explorers, wrote 24 volumes' of scholarly and religious works, and was the first of Dalai Lamas to wield effective temporal power over all of Tibet. He is usually referred to simply as the Great Fifth. When Zanabazar appeared in Tibet, the Great Fifth was busy building the Potala palace (the name comes from the hill on Cape Comorin believed to be sacred to the Avalokitesvara) overlooking Lhasa. The two hit it off.
Anxious to cement an alliance with the Mongol nobility, the Dalai Lama proclaimed that Zanabazar was a reincarnation of the famous Buddhist teacher and historian Taranatha. Taranatha was considered the 15th reincarnation of a sentient being known as the Jebtsun Dampa. The first incarnation of the Jebtsun Dampa was Lodoi-shindu-namdak, who appeared in Magadha and was one of the Buddha's original 500 disciples. The second incarnation was Barbizobo, the head of Nalanda during the time of Nagarjuna (probably in the first century AD). The next two were born in India, but other than their birthplace biographical information is lacking. The fifth Jebtsun Dampa, Ronsom-choi-san, was the first to appear in Tibet, during the lifetime of the famous Bengal-born sage Atisa (982-1054), who moved to Tibet and died at the Tara Temple 20 miles east of Lhasa. Zanabazar now became the 16th Jebtsun Dampa, a name and title which he would use for the rest of his life and pass on to his subsequent reincarnations. Thus was Zanabazar recognized as the latest in a long line of personages in the history of Buddhism, going back to the time of the Buddha himself.
In return, Zanabazar converted to the Gelugpa or Yellow Hat sect of the Dalai Lama, and proceeded to encourage his Mongols to adopt Yellow Hat beliefs. He announced that he would now longer live in any monastery connected with the Sakya sect of Mongolia. He established a new Gelugpa monastery near the confluence of the Tuul and Selbi rivers; this monastery became known as Örgöö, meaning palace or camp. Later, the word would be corrupted to Urga, the name used by foreigners for the capital of Mongolia before it was changed in 1924 by the Soviets to Ulaanbaatar (Red Hero.)
As part of Sakya-Gelugpa tussles, Zanabazar faced resurgent Oirats. The Oirat Khan Galdan decided to reunite the Mongol khanates, collaborating with Rus, the rising power on the north, and the Manchus, in the south. When Galdan Khan's army came to Ulaanbaatar, Zanabazar escaped to southern Mongolia. The Manchus were interested in defeating both Mongolian states; sensing opportunity, the Manchu army double-crossed Galdan Khan, and after the battle at Zuun Mod the Oirat were defeated. Zanabazar became a vassal of the Manchu, but allowed to retain Eastern Mongolia as the first Bogd Khan (from Bhaga = divine, plus Khan = king.)
Zanabazar has been called the Michelangelo of Asia. He brought an Indo-Tibetan style into bronze casting and painting in Mongolia. In a dream, he invented the Indic Soyombo (swayambhu - i.e. self-manifested or that which is created by its own accord) script in 1686, and this became the alphabet for Mongolian Buddhism. He instituted the Maitreya Ceremony in Mongolia - in which the Buddha Maitreya is raised and scriptures chanted in the hope of releasing souls of the deceased from suffering, as well as realizing a good harvest of crops with peace. Zanabazar personally directed the creation of tangkhas, sacred music, clothing design, astronomical measurements, and stupa construction. The monks of his school created many figures of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas well into the 20th century.
Below, the Zanabazar Museum in Ulaanbaatar.