Buddha Hidden Below the Sand: Youth, Identity and Narrative in the Revival of Mongolian Buddhism
Matthew King in J. Dierkes, ed. Change in Democratic Mongolia – Social Relations, Health, Mobile Pastoralism, and Mining Leiden: Brill.
Here, Matthew King reports on his on-going research that expands on this chapter:
Since exploring the Buddhist revivalist movements of contemporary Mongolia several years ago (in research that went into my chapter in Change in Democratic Mongolia), I have been focusing primarily on finishing my doctoral work at the University of Toronto. In many ways my doctoral project grew out of the research that went into that chapter, and some of the conversations that happened at the original conference at UBC. If nothing else, in my contribution I hoped to show just contested and multi-vocalic the ‘revival’ of Mongolia’s Buddhism today truly is. I was trying (as best I could at the time as a recently graduated MA student!) to show how the appeals for a timeless, ‘Mongol’ Buddhist identity were couched so completely in the rhetoric and ideology of the post-socialist period. I hoped to highlight what I felt was our scholarly challenge to account for the broader socio-cultural context within which the multiple Buddhist revivalist movements of contemporary Mongolia operate. I was pre-occupied then (as I am now!) with how Mongolian Buddhist revivalists drew so deeply from rhetorical strategies and educational initiatives of what was often identified as the primary threats to their tradition; “Westernization’, ‘secularism’, ‘capitalism’, and ‘Christianity’ being only a few examples. I was interested in exploring urban, middle-class youth as a particularly contentious site of these negotiations; a position that the young people at the ‘Buddhism for Young’ people camp I visited were certainly well aware.
My doctoral research examines the life and historiography of the previous Zava Damdin (whose incarnation ran the Buddhist camp I explored in this chapter), a prolific scholastic figure in the post-Qing and early socialist periods in Mongolia who was deeply embedded himself in the rather cosmopolitan, revolutionary milieu of Ikh Khüree (contemporary Ulaanbaatar). Indeed, many of the themes I began to touch upon in my chapter in the Change in Democratic Mongolia have become central pre-occupations in my doctoral research: for instance, how were extended appeals to the past by threatened Buddhist monastics framed by, and syncretic expressions of, the rhetorical and interpretative resources of antagonistic forces in Mongolian society at the time (for instance, epistemic violence associated with empiricism and hardline expressions of socialism)? How can we think holistically about the social scene of Buddhist historiography at this time (and other times besides)? These questions remain as exciting (and largely unresolved, admittedly!) today as I finish my doctoral dissertation as they did several years ago when this Brill volume began to come together.
Even though my research is now primarily historical, I have been lucky enough to return to Mongolia many times in the last few years, and have continued to write on the Buddhist revival movement. The Gobi monastic network community I described in the Change in Democratic Mongolia volume have gone through many changes. Soon after the visit described in my chapter, Zava Rinpoche was told to undertake a four-year meditation retreat by his centenarian lama, Guru Deva Rinpoche. Zava Damdin dutifully spent over four years in a small, fenced-off yurt doing his practice next to his monastery. While in retreat, Guru Deva Rinpoche died, and many of the young monks who had staffed the ‘Buddhism for Young People’ camp (who were now teenagers largely left to their own devices with their teacher and disciplinarian in an extended retreat), left the monastery. As of last summer, there was just three or four monks still in residence. Now out of retreat, Zava Damdin is a celebrity in Mongolia: his intense religious discipline has given him uncommon spiritual qualifications in Mongolia, even if his staunch nationalism and particular brand of charisma continue to position him in opposition to more mainstream, Tibetan affiliated, monasteries and Buddhist prelates. Despite a depleted monastic population, buildings continue to be erected at his Gobi desert facility, and Zava Damdin is a regular conversation topic on Mongolian nightly news and talk shows. His role in the Mongolian re-imagining of its past and present is far from over, and far from predictable.
Apart from this, I would say that in general most of the trends I endeavored to describe in my contribution to Change in Democratic Mongolia remain true today, and are all deserving of more sustained study. A particular demographic of urban youth continue to act as contentious sites for imagining Mongolia and Mongolia-ness (both a timeless entity and a nation profoundly challenged by the socio-economic challenges of the post-socialist period). The varieties of intruding discursive resources associated with the post-socialist period (environmentalism, religious multiplicity, global capitalism, a secular public sphere, etc.) continue to define (and be defined in turn by) the way that these ever-evolving qualities of Mongolia’s ‘timeless’ Buddhist identities are imagined. One important change that I noticed while on a research trip this past summer (2012) was a rather xenophobic turn in Mongolia politics. On the one had, this is manifested as an attempt to gain more control over the assets and foreign activity associated with the lucrative mining industry. It also is being expressed by changing visa requirements, a move that has effectively expelled Christian missionaries from Mongolia today. It also has a rather more nefarious expression in the growth of a self-styled ‘nazi’ movement, birthed in the slums of Ulaanbaatar by some of the hundreds of thousands of alienated Mongols whose have little share in the rapid growth of Mongolia’s economy, and who have sold their herds to move to the city. Just how the more radical nationalisms of groups such as these ‘nazis’, and the growing disparity between the rich and poor in contemporary Mongolia more generally, inform new Buddhist appeals and new historical imaginings is an open question.