The Life of Zanabazar: The First Bogd Gegen of Mongolia
Altan Khan and the Dalai Lama
(Unedited: Work in Progress. Last Updated July 20, 2003)
The meetings of Altan Khan and his nephew with Tibetan and perhaps Uighur monks were not the first time Mongolians had encountered the teachings of Buddha. According to the Rosary of White Lotuses, Chingis Khan himself met with some Tibetan Buddhists as early as 1205, a year before the founding of the Mongol Empire, and had been impressed by their doctrines. He 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 Lord Buddha." Not everyone accepts this account, however, since So-pan, better known as the Sakya Pandita, would have been only twenty-three years old in 1205. In any case, the Rosary of White Lotuses goes on to claim that Chingis and Sakya Pandita eventually established between themselves the Preceptor-Protector relationship which would become a standard feature of later interactions between Tibetan religious leaders and secular rulers both Mongolian and Chinese. There is little evidence, however, that Chingis himself ever embraced Buddhist teachings. Although dabbling in various spiritual traditions, including Taoism, he apparently remained true to the shamanic beliefs of his ancestors to the end of his life.
More substantive contacts between Mongolians from north of the Gobi and Buddhism occurred in 1219 when the Mongol general Mukali overran the city of Lan Ch'eng in Shansi province and captured a monk by the name of Hai-yün, a follower of the Ch'an sect which was popular in China and not a Tibetan Buddhist. Impressed by the spiritual presence of Hai-yün, Mukali asked to met the monk's teacher, Chung-kuan. Mukali wrote a favorable report about the two men to Chingis Khan himself. The Great Khan replied:
Güyük Khan, grandson of Chingis who became Great Khan after the death of his father Ögedai, named Hai-yün chief of all monks in the Mongol realm, which by then included a large swath of China, and invited him to live in Kharkhorum. He held the same post under Möngke, Güyük's successor. Hai-yün may have converted Khubilai, Möngke's successor, to Buddhism as early as 1242, and he himself chose the name for Khubilai's oldest son, Chen-chin (Pure Gold). Hai-yün died in 1257, but his disciple Liu Ping-chung became an advisor of Khubilai when the latter became Great Khan, and he was instrumental in the creation of the new Mongol capital of the Yüan Dynasty at what is now Beijing.
The Ch'an School of Buddhists were soon interceded by Tibetans. In 1239 Ogedei's son Koden, having occupied Sichuan province in China, decided to invade neighboring Tibet. Quickly deciding to sue for peace, the Tibetans sent So-pan, the abbot of Sakya Monastery, the headquarters of the Sakya sect of Tibetan Buddhism, to negotiate with the Mongols. So-pan- Sakya Pandita-was a renowned scholar who written numerous learned treatises, including the Treasury of Good Advice (still in print today. ).
By 1247 an arrangement had been worked out whereby Sakya Pandita pledged the allegiance of Tibet to the Mongols while he himself retained political authority over all of Tibet. Justifying his actions, he wrote to the heads of other monasteries:
While Koden and the Mongols may have first favored the Buddhist hierarchy in Tibet as a political expediency they were soon attracted to Tibetan Buddhist teachings and doctrine. As the historian of Buddhism in China Kenneth Ch'en points out,
Other observers have pointed out the that Tibetan Buddhism was still at that time greatly influenced by the ancient shamanism and animism of Tibet, and thus may have been more compatible with the belief systems of the Mongols, many of whom remained faithful to the shamanism and nature worship of their own ancestors.
In 1253 Khubilai invited Sakya Pandita to his court but the Tibetan lama died before the invitation arrived. His nephew Sakya Pakpa (also known as Phags-pa, (b.1238?-1280) accepted the offer in Sakya Pandita 's stead and soon made his way to the Khan's presence. Khubilai was greatly impressed by the young Tibetan, then only in this twenties. When Khubilai assumed the title of Great Khan in 1260 he made Sakya Pakpa his ti-shih, or "imperial preceptor" and declared that henceforth the Tibetan form of Buddhism would be the official religion of the Mongols. Thus at this time the Tibetan variant superceded the Ch'an Buddhism which had been favored by Güyük and Möngke, Khubilai's predecessors as Great Khan.
As Imperial Preceptor Sakya Pakpa had considerable authority and prestige, sitting always at the Great Khan's side at court and received with great honors and ceremony wherever he traveled. In 1264 the office of Imperial Preceptor was enlarged to include all affairs connected with Tibet and Buddhism, secular and religious, giving Sakya Pakpa even more power. Sakya Pakpa was also a remarkable scholar who developed an elaborate Buddhist religio-political theory of world rule. In addition he spent five years developing a script for the Mongolian language based on the Tibetan script. This became the official writing system of the Mongol Empire in 1269, mandatory in all government documents, but although scholars still opine that it was the best script for the linguistic idiosyncrasies of the Mongolian language the Mongols later reverted back to the Uighur form of writing which had been adopted at the time of Chingis Khan. Sakya Pakpa remained in Mongolia until 1274, when he returned to Tibet, where he died in 1280, at the age of about forty-two, apparently worn out by his extensive labors on behalf of his Mongol masters and Buddhism.
Buddhism thrived in the Yüan Dynasty under Khubilai , and by 1291 there were 42,318 temples and 213,418 monks and nuns in Mongol-controlled China and Inner Mongolia (these figures apparently include both Tibetan and the various other sects of Buddhism). In Outer Mongolia Buddhism seemed not to have spread much beyond the environs of the old capital at Kharkhorum, where temples had existed from the time of Güyük and Möngke. In most of Mongolia the old ancestral shamanism, animism, and nature worship of the ancient Mongols still held sway
After the death of Khubilai in 1294 his successors kept up outward observances of Tibetan Buddhism, but there are indications that the actual practice, at least in court circles, became increasingly corrupted by non-Buddhist influences. Black magic, animal sacrifices, and sex cults based on incorrect interpretations of certain esoteric tantric texts are all hinted at.
Also, corruption and abuse of power by the clergy proved to be endemic. There were widespread reports of lamas in positions of power seizing money and property from people and forcing women to have sexual relations with them. This tendency reached perhaps its apogee with a lama named Chia-mu-lang-le-chih, who murdered family men and kidnapped their daughters, conducted a profitable business looting Sung Dynasty graves, and in 1295 seized for himself the tax revenues of 23,000 families.
Then in 1307, upon the death of Khubilai's grandson Temür, another of his grandsons, Ananda, attempted to seize the throne of the Y üan Dynasty. While serving as viceroy of the Tangut land of Xia (centered around the current-day Chinese province of Ningxia) Ananda had converted to Islam. He studied the Arabic language, learned the Koran by heart, and apparently dreamed of turning all of China into an Islamic country. His cousin Khaishan intervened, had Ananda put to death and mounted the throne himself. Khaishan, despite his treatment of his cousin, was a devout Buddhist. He invited the famous translator Chokyi Ozer to Beijing and initiated an extensive program of translating Buddhism texts from Tibetan into Mongolian. "By the merits [of Khaishan's works] human and animal diseases vanished from the land, and there were neither floods nor draughts; the rains were timely and good for crops, and happiness flourished. The monastic centres of studies and meditations competed with each other in their wealth and importance," the Rosary of White Lotuses assures us.
For a time it looked like Buddhism would prevail in the Mongol empire. But it was too late. The Mongols were on the wane in China. The last Mongol emperor Toghan Temür took the throne in 1333 and was soon faced with rebellion. Finally in 1368 the Yüan Dynasty fell and the Mongols were driven back across the Gobi Desert to their original homeland by the Chinese rebels who founded the Ming Dynasty. In a last attempt to retain relations with the Tibetan Buddhists Toghan Temür invited the Tibetan lama Rolpei Dorje to Mongolia and asked him to give teachings and initiations. But then in 1370 Toghan Temür, at the age of 55, "entered the essence of emptiness," as the Rosary of White Lotuses puts it. His successors attempted to rally the Mongols tribes around them but feuding among the various groups soon devolved into civil war. In these anarchical conditions the precepts of Buddhism seem to have been forgotten. Whatever temples at existed at Karakorum were destroyed when Ming armies trashed the city in 1380, and the Mongols themselves reverted to their shamanic beliefs, to the worship of the Blue Sky and ancient chthonic gods of Mongolia. As the historian of religion in Mongolia Walter Heissig points out:
Thus was the situation when Altan Khan, influenced by his grand-nephew and the Tibetan monks that he had encountered, invited the Tibetan monk Sonam Gyatso to his court.