Yungdrung Bön in Mongolia
By David Peteler
In May 2019, His Holiness the 34th sMenri Trizin Rinpoche asked Latri Khenpo Nyima Dakpa Rinpoche to visit Sog Yungdrung Rinchen Ling Monastery in Mongolia. The purpose of the trip is to meet with Lama Gabju Choijamts Demberel, the abbot of Gandantegchinlen Monastery, the main Gelugpa Monastery in Ulaan Baatar. The goal was to make contact with the Abbot, and to request his support to make this new Bön monastery in Mongolia a success, so it can be of service to the local people of the region.
Rinpoche mentioned to me that he needed to make this trip, and as an international corporate attorney, I jumped at the chance to join Rinpoche for this task. But there was always some sort of delay. Late Thursday night, September 12, somewhere over the North Pacific between Seattle and Seoul, it hit me: Rinpoche and I were actually going to Mongolia! We had a twelve-hour flight from Minneapolis to Seoul, and 8-hour layover in Seoul (just enough time to finish some work and send off e-mails from the lounge in Seoul that had good wi-fi). A three-hour, post-midnight flight from Seoul to Ulaan Baatar put us in Chinggis Khaan Airport about 4 am. on Saturday morning, September 14. After clearing customs and immigration, we were met by Geshe Zoedpa Rinpoche, the young abbot of Sog Yungkrung Rinchen Ling Monastery, not far from Ulaan Baatar. After tea (for the Rinpoches) and double espresso (for me) at the airport coffee shop, we set off about 5:00 am on the 45-minute drive to the monastery.
We arrived in the dark and were shown to our rooms. Rinpoche occupied the guest room in the temple, and I had a room in the monastery living quarters, a two-story building that provided clean, comfortable, modest rooms. Later that morning, we were invited to one of the two yurts that housed the people working on the monastery, and the kitchen and dining room as well. There we had a simple but satisfying breakfast of bread, butter, jam and tea, our staple breakfast for our trip. I discovered that Mongolians do not eat tsampa. Here, we met Geshe Monlam Wangyal, a senior geshe from Triten Norbutse Monastery. We also met Geshe Zoedpa Rinpoche’s mother, sister, nieces and nephews, and younger brother, all of whom help with work at the monastery, cooking, cleaning and managing the small work force.
Some background on this monastery: Some years ago, a group of Mongolian boys was brought to sMenri to study. Of this group, only one finished his Geshe degree, that being Geshe Zoedpa, who was made the Abbot of Sog Yundrung Rinchen Ling monastery. I learned that there is effectively no indigenous Bön community in Mongolia. The point of this monastery is not to provide spiritual help to other Bönpos. One goal of the monastery is to provide spiritual education to the local people, and perhaps some may become interested in Bön; but equally importantly, a goal is to build a Tibetan medicine clinic to serve the local population.
Saturday the 14th was spent inspecting the monastery and temple, with a short trip for supplies to the local town. The monastery is in its third year of construction. The temple is completed, and the main living quarters is completed as well. Several buildings, as well as the ceremonial entrance gate, were being worked on during our visit.
The food at the monastery was simple but hearty. Breakfast was bread, butter, jam and tea, with occasional hard-boiled eggs. Lunch was usually a hearty meal of meat and vegetables. Dinner was Mongolian soup with vegetables and pasta noodles. One day our host served us horse milk, which has a unique, somewhat sour taste. Geshe Monlam Wangyal explained that the nomads lived largely on horse milk, which has great nutritional value.
The rooms were simple and humble. The heating in the building did not operate, but we were given two warm blankets each, and were quite warm in bed.
Sunday, September 15, was our first visit to Ulaan Baatar. I was impressed with the Soviet post-war look to the city, the design of the streets and buildings, the wide streets with green space along them, even the modified Cyrillic alphabet the Mongolians currently use; and then the modern overlay, a surprisingly modern city. It was Sunday, which meant several main streets were closed to traffic and pedestrians strolled at a leisurely pace on a sunny but cool autumn day. We visited the Dogdan Tov Monastery of the Jonang tradition in Ulaan Baatar. The Jonang tradition is a small sect of Tibetan Buddhism. Perhaps not surprisingly, Nyima Dakpa Rinpoche and the abbot of the Jonang monastery were old friends, as the abbot had spent many years in the Jonang temple at Simla, India, not far from Dolanji. We were well received, treated to Mongolian milk tea and baked goods, and were able to meet the young staff of monks who will soon take over the operation of the Jonang monastery. The group is small, and is facing some obstacles, but it seems that the monastery will go forward for at least another generation.
On Monday, September 16, we got down to business. The main goal of our visit was a goodwill meeting with Lama Gabju Choijamts Demberel, the abbot of Gandantegchinlen Monastery, the huge Gelug monastery in Ulaan Baatar. Gelug Buddhism is the official religion of Mongolia, although other religions, other Buddhist sects, and the single Bön monastery are allowed officially. Our hope was to meet with the Abbot so that Rinpoche could carry the message from sMenri that we hope the Gelug and the Bön can have good relations in Mongolia.
Geshe Zoedpa had had difficulties getting an appointment for us with the Abbot, as the Abbot has a busy schedule and was preparing for a trip abroad. Monday, it turned out, we would not be able to meet with him. We made the best use of our day, seeing some of the sights of Ulaan Baatar.
We toured the Gelug monastery, starting with the new, huge, modern temple with massive staircases, huge terraces, high ceilings, much glass and a very modern look. I noticed that Mongolian Buddhists wear robes that look more like Russian Cossack-style coats than the robes the Tibetan monks wear, and the Mongolian Buddhists wear knee-high leather boots, partly I assume because of the steppe culture and mostly because of cold winters with deep snow. We noticed that the monks don’t remove their boots when they enter the temples. In fact, the monks sit on long benches running perpendicular to the altar, as we are used to seeing, but the benches are taller and have essentially a long, low table running parallel to it, so the monks can sit with their boots on the floor under the table, not visible to others.
Just a few blocks away, we visited the old part of the temple, built in 1890, which was much more traditional in design. The monastery was peaceful, with many courtyards surrounding wooden buildings with carved entrances, gardens, sets of prayer wheels, and huge decorated iron pots burning incense. We visited one building that contained a huge (perhaps six stories tall) statue of Maitreya, the Buddha of the coming age. Rinpoche and I purchased butter lamps and lit them at the feet of the statue as an offering from Yeru Bön Center. Beautiful and very moving!
Tuesday, September 17, was the day! Nyima Dakpa Rinpoche, Geshe Zoedpa Rinpoche, Geshe Monlam Wangyal and I arrived at the main building of the older portion of the Gelug monastery mid-morning. After some waiting, we were taken through several halls to an antechamber where we waited with a dozen others hoping to see the Abbot. We were finally ushered into the Abbot’s office by an older, senior attendant in a saffron kaftan-style coat with tall black leather boots. The senior attendant didn’t want me to take pictures, but I was able to take several before and after the discussion.
Rinpoche presented the Abbot with gifts from sMenri, including the expected katak, a statue of Buddha Shakyamuni, a copy of the commemorative photo book of the life of His Holiness the 33rd sMenri Trizin, and a copy of Rinpoche’s book, The Inner Mirror. The rest of us presented gifts wrapped in kataks to the Abbot. A long conversation in Tibetan ensued.
The gist of the discussion, as I discovered, is that the Gelugpa, as the official religion of Mongolia, were requested by the Mongolian government to “vet” other religious groups active in Mongolia. Rinpoche had an opportunity to clarify certain points about Bön that were new to the Abbot. At the end of the discussion, the Abbot agreed that his staff would study Bön further, and he would work towards friendly relations with the Bön in Mongolia. This is a good place to start and leaves room for further conversations about Bön in Mongolia.
We then visited the Bogd Khaan Palace Museum in Ulaan Baatar. Bogd Khaan was the last khaan who ruled before Mongolia obtained its independence in 1906. The Palace Museum is a beautiful collection of buildings, dating back to the 1890s. It dawned on me that my grandmother was born at about the time these buildings were built, which was all prior to the Mongolian Revolution, World War I and the Russian Revolution. History seems to expand and collapse in Mongolia….
The museum contains several galleries of beautiful thangkas, all essentially Gelugpa thangkas done of course in the Mongolian style. Several old musical instruments were on display, as well as a wonderful collection of statutes of deities, ranging from about 12’ in height to approximately 3 feet. Beautiful work, with an interesting Mongolian character.
Driving back from Ulaan Baatar on Tuesday evening, Geshe Zoedpa took us to a monument just to the south of the city on a high hill. The monument was built by the Soviets in the 1980s, to commemorate Soviet-Mongolian friendship and being comrades in arms from the time of the Mongolian revolution to the Soviet space era. On the steps up to the monument, and just outside the main portion, were the vendors you’d expect… and also one young man with a huge falcon, characteristic of the Mongolian steppe culture. Both Nyima Dakpa Rinpoche and I took turns holding this beautiful, powerful bird on our right hands, sheathed in a heavy leather glove, as the bird alternately sat on our hand and hovered over us. It was a humbling display of the awesome power of this wonderful creature.
Wednesday the 18th was spent at Sog Yundgrung Ling monastery. Geshe Zoedpa consulted with Geshe Monlam and Nyima Dakpa Rinpoche on certain aspects of building the gate, particularly the design of the structure to go above the gate. Nyima Dakpa Rinpoche and I hiked up to the top of the hill behind the monastery. There, on a windy ridge of sparse grass and rocks, we found a series of rock cairns that local people had built as offerings to deities and local spirits. Checking the other ridges in view, we could see there were many cairns built on the ridgelines. We had seen several on the trip to Ulaan Baatar, including some with tall poles covered with prayer flags. Rinpoche made offerings at the cairns above the monastery and said prayers to the protectors for the benefit of the monastery.
Thursday and Friday, September 19 and 20, the four of us drove through the countryside, exploring the area. We visited the monument to Chinggis Khaan, which is mentioned in the Guinness Book of World Records as the tallest statute of a figure mounted on a horse in the world. Near the monument, I had a chance to ride a Mongolian horse. They are smaller than horses we are used to in the West, with a short, choppy trot and saddles that are, well, a bit uncomfortable. Rinpoche took a turn riding a camel. We decided that a trek on camels across the steppe was not in the cards. We visited a rock formation known as the Stone Turtle, where tradition says a wealthy khaan stopped while escaping from enemies and reportedly buried his treasure of silver to lighten his load as he escaped. Much like the Lost Dutchman gold mine, no one has found the treasure since.
We spend Thursday night in yurts in a beautiful camp tucked up in a mountainous region. The yurts were beautifully made, and almost luxurious. In the center of the yurt is an iron wood-burning stove that heated the yurt very nicely against the cold evening. We enjoyed a wonderful dinner and all slept very well.
In the morning as we went to breakfast, we could see below us herds of apparently wild horses. We watched a group of horsemen riding on a horse trek through the beautiful green valley. This was another moment when the past blurred into the present in the way it seems to in Mongolia.
As we left the yurt camp in the morning, one of the Mongolian staff women introduced us to a wonderful Mongolian tradition. She dressed up in traditional costume and came to see us off holding a bowl of milk and a sort of long wooden spoon. She repeatedly spooned small amounts of milk and tossed them into the air in a smooth and graceful gesture to wish us good luck on our trip. Nyima Dakpa Rinpoche and Geshe Monlam took turns offering milk and chanting Bön prayers for protection and good luck for the yurt camp.
We returned to the monastery in the afternoon. That evening we packed for our 5:00 am Saturday morning departure. Geshe Zoedpa and Geshe Monlam accompanied us to the airport and saw us off. Luckily, again we were able to fortify ourselves with tea and double espresso for the three-hour flight to Seoul. Another eight-hour layover in Seoul, which was again enough time to put a small dent in accumulated e-mails. Then another twelve-hour flight brought us back to Minneapolis, jet lagged but successful and very happy to be home.