Guest Post: The Jetsun Dampa in Contemporary Mongolia

This continues a first post that focused on the historical context of the identification of a reincarnation of the Jebtsundamba.

By Tsering Shakya

The Jetsun Dampa and Post-Soviet Concerns

It was not until the collapse of the Soviet Union that Mongolia, although it had been an independent state for several decades, escaped from the shadow of Soviet rule and re-emerged on the international stage.  The early campaigners for a democratic Mongolia were secularists and did not resort to past Buddhist tradition as a rallying point. They sought to create a western-inspired secular society rather than relying on past Buddhist identity. The framers of the new constitution in 1992 did not declare Buddhism as the state religion, and thus avoided conferring official recognition to Buddhist institutions. Article 9 of that constitution forbade religious institutions from intervening in political affairs and subjected religious matters to state governance, unlike former Soviet satellite states in Eastern Europe, where the Church had played an important role in the overthrow of Soviet regime and establishment of democratic rule. In Mongolia, the Buddhist community therefore did not play a significant role in the new state. Nevertheless, the period saw Buddhism re-emerge in Mongolia.

In 1989, India appointed Bakula Rinpoche, a leading Buddhist lama from Ladakh, as the ambassador of India to Mongolia.  He had been a member of parliament for Ladakh in the Indian parliament and had been recognized as a reincarnate lama by the 13th Dalai Lama. From his time in Tibet, he had established good connections with Mongolian lamas. He had been India’s representative to the Asian Buddhist Conference For Peace and had made frequent visits to Mongolia, during which he is said to have given religious teachings secretly to Mongolian monks and lay devotees. In his role as ambassador, he came to represent the Tibetan tradition of Buddhism in Mongolia and played a critical role in establishing contact between Mongols and exile Tibetan lamas and monastic institutions in India, arranging for Mongolian monks to attend Tibetan monasteries in India. He facilitated the Dalai Lama’s several visits to Mongolia and, in 1995, when the Dalai Lama visited Mongolia for the second time, he was allowed to give religious sermons and to carry out the Kalachakra ceremony, considered as especially important among his followers. Thousands of Mongolians flocked to the teachings. He visited again twice in 2002 and most recently in 2016. During that last visit, there was great expectation that he would announce the reincarnation of the Jetsun Dampa and it was rumoured that a child was presented to the Dalia Lama as a possible candidate as the 10th Jetsun Dampa. That child, it was widely said, happened to be a son of a leading Mongol politician, and some even claimed that he was the son of the then Prime Minister. The Dalai Lama politely declined the recognition and avoided possible political repercussions, saying only that he was sure the rebirth of the Jetsun Dampa had taken place.

The Reception of the Jetsun Dampa

Seven years later, the reception of the news of the Dalai Lama’s public identification of the 10th Jetsun Dampa in Dharamasla, and his implicit recognition of him, has been mixed in Mongolia. Rather than a massive celebration of good news, many have taken to social media to voice scepticism or bewilderment. The 8-year-old boy was born in the US and holds US citizenship (Mongolia does not allow dual citizenship). His father, Altannar Chinchulun, is an Associate Professor at the National University of Mongolia and the author of several books on Game Theory. The mother, Monkhnasan Narmandakh, is well-known figure in Mongolia as the owner and chairman of one of the biggest companies in the country, Monpolymet Group, which has interests in Mongolia’s mining and construction industries. The grandmother is Garamjav Tseden founder of the company was a member of parliament from 2016-20. But, although sectors of the public may express scepticism, the members of the former Jetsun Dampa’s entourage who would have carried out the search for the reincarnation have done well by selecting a wealthy family. The institution of the Jetsun Dampa may have some historical prestige and precedent, but it is today an impoverished institution lacking resources; to find a wealthy family who can invest in the institution and ensure the boy’s success will be seen by others as a invaluable move.

The question of the child’s family is of least concern to the devotees. However, reviving the lineage and glory of the Jetsun Dampa lineage is challenging. The Mongolia of today is not the Mongolia of the past; Buddhism’s hold on contemporary Mongolia is diminishing. In the 2010 census 53% of the population identified themselves as Buddhist, and ten years later, in 2020, the figure had dropped to 51.7%. In the 2010 census 38.6% defined themselves as non-believers in any religion and by 2020 that figure had risen to 40.6%.  There are no signs that this trend will be reversed. If we gauge the trend from the reaction on social media, the return of the Jetsun Dampa in a wealthy family heightens public distrust. The resurrection of the religious office of the Jetsun Dampa is not a simple question of continuing a smooth transition and re-establishing continuity with the past. The socialist era from 1924-1990 devastated Buddhism in Mongolia. Without a large diasporic Mongolian community to preserve their tradition, the seven decades of socialist education destroyed Buddhism; only after 1990 was re-identification with Buddhism able to take place, leading to the revival of Buddhists practices in daily lives and also the re-building of temples and monasteries. More importantly, Mongolia renewed contact with Tibetan monasteries established in India and began sending students to study there.

Because of these decades of disruption and persecution, most Mongolians were left with only rudimentary knowledge of Buddhism. The problem of Buddhist knowledge and learning are compounded by the fact that Mongolian Buddhist literature is written in Tibetan or in old Mongol script, which most Mongolians in Mongolia (unlike those in Inner Mongolia where the old script is still in use) cannot read. Of course, knowledge of the literature and text is not essential; being Buddhist is a matter of identity, practice and tradition, and many Mongolians may continue to identify as Buddhists despite lacking access to the texts.

The Tibetans have a naïve and chauvinistic attitude towards Mongolian Buddhism; their imagination of Buddhism among Mongolians is distorted by the lack of people-to-people contact and coloured by the few devotees from Mongolia who visit India for the Dalai Lama’s teachings. Very few Tibetans travel to Mongolia or know, for example, that almost all Mongolian lamas are married, and that most temples and monasteries are managed by a family rather than by a reincarnation lineage. They may also be unaware that many Mongolians are ambivalent about the link with Tibet and that since the beginning of the 20th  century, many Mongolian intellectuals have viewed Buddhism as a partner with the Manchus in the process of colonial oppression in Mongolia since the 17th century.

Return of the Bogd Khan?

The new Jetsun Dampa will not find a harmonious Buddhist environment in Mongolia; there are many competing factors, religious groupings and factions that need to be diplomatically  navigated. These include such influential Mongolian lamas as Zava Damdin Rinpoche, also known as Luvsandarjaa Lama, who sees the close connection with Tibetans as detrimental to Mongolians’ national and religious interest and openly advocates distancing Mongolians from Tibetans

Guru Deva and Shugden Propriation in Mongolia

The 9th  Jetsun Dampa’s return to Mongolia had symbolic value, but another lama, known as Sogpo Rinpoche by the Tibetans and more commonly as Guru Deva, entered Mongolia at around that time. Guru Deva was born in Hanchen Hoshuu in Ordos, Inner Mongolia. He travelled to Lhasa at the age of 20 to receive teachings from some of the leading Gelugpa teachers there, including from two of the Dalai Lama’s tutors. After the Chinese annexation of Tibet, Guru Deva moved to India and continued his religious life at the exile Drepung monastery in South India. Later he founded a publishing house in India reprinting Tibetan Buddhist texts written by Mongolian lamas. He also became a vocal critic of the Dalai Lama’s increasing insistence on an ecumenical approach to Buddhist practice, which led him to publicly condemn the propitiation of the controversial, sectarian deity, Dorje Shugden. Guru Deva’s arrival in Mongolia in the late 1990s immediately attracted a small but devoted following because he could converse in Mongolian, and he was able to reestablish the practice of Shugden propitiation. In 2006 he sponsored the construction of a 23-metre-high statue of the Buddha in Ulaanbaatar, while the Choijin Lama temple (a state museum) houses once again a statue of the Dorje Shugden deity commissioned by the Bogd Khan in 1904 (his brother is said to have been a medium for the Shugden deity). Guru Deva passed away in 2009, and his mummified body is enshrined at the Amarbayasgalant Monastery, one of the largest temple complexes in Mongolia and a UNESCO-protected site.  Today, Amarbayasgalant Monastery stands as the stronghold of the Shugden group and as the alternative seat of Buddhism in Mongolia.

The Jetsun Dampa and the Jonang School

Contemporary Tibetan diaspora accounts describe the Jetsun Dampa as the head of the Jonang school of Tibetan Buddhism. This representation is problematic. In the 17th century, under the 5th Dalai Lama, the Jonang school was declared heretical and banned from central Tibet, and the doctrinal teachings and printing of Jonang texts were prohibited. Recently there has been an attempt to revive the tradition among the Tibetan Diaspora. A few years ago, monks belonging to the Jonang school staged a hunger strike in Dharamsala, demanding recognition of the school as a legitimate and independent school of Tibetan Buddhism. Followers of the Jonang scholar, whether Tibetans or Mongolians, are uncomfortable with references to the Jetsun Dampa as the head of their school and are not likely be accept such a claim. Neither do lamas from the Jonang school seem to be involved in the search and investiture of the Jetsun Dampa.

Raising a Jetsun Dampa

The new Jetsun Dampa thus will face a wide range of challenges as he grows up and takes on his religious tasks; investiture is the easy part. In Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhist traditions, lamas’ reputation and prestige do not simply rest on recognition or the title that comes with the office – each lama must demonstrate his or her learning and spiritual accomplishment, and the mark of a lama’s greatness is the scriptural works and students they leave behind, thus establishing the teaching transmission for that lineage. The 4th was known for his new temples and specially for the creation of the Kalacakar Datsan, but, apart from the 1st Jetsun Dampa, the later incarnations are not renowned for learning or considered to have been spiritually highly realized; the sungbum or collected works of all the Jetsun Dampas since Zanabazar consist mostly of prayers rather than substantial philosophical or doctrinal works. The 10th holder of this title will have to carve out a reputation for himself through his own works and achievements.

There is, however, no indication so far that the boy has undergone the religious ceremony of hair-cutting pr taken the wows of a novice monk, which would mean that the boy will enter religious life. If no such ceremony has been conducted, it is perhaps a sign that the parents may have resisted such a commitment for their son, or that they and others may have a differing, perhaps more modern vision for the child’s future. Will the parents decide to have the young boy enter a Tibetan monastery (mostly likely in South India) and immerse himself in Tibetan Buddhist learning at an early age, or would they want him to have a more modern, secular education? The decision will not be an easy one, because, without a strong commitment to the rigours of intensive religious training, the investiture of the new Jetsun Dampa will confer only symbolic standing on the child, leaving the announcement of his discovery as merely a royalist crowning of a long-deposed monarch’s successor.

About Tsering Shakya

Tsering Shakya is a historian of Tibet and an Associate Professor at the Department of Asian Studies/ School of Public Policy and Global Affairs at the University of British Columbia, BC, Canada.

About Julian Dierkes

Julian Dierkes is a sociologist by training (PhD Princeton Univ) and a Mongolist by choice and passion since around 2005. He teaches in the Master of Public Policy and Global Affairs at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. He toots and tweets @jdierkes
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