The Life of Zanabazar

The First Bogd Gegen of Mongolia

Chapter 1

Altan Khan and the Dalai Lama

(Unedited: Work in Progress. Last Updated January 3, 2007)

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Qinghai Lake, near where Altan Khan and the Dalai Lama first met

The great empire founded by Chingis Khan was basically a family enterprise, and like many family enterprises it did not survive the third generation. After Chingis's death in 1227 the empire remained united under Ögedai, Chingis's second son and successor, who ruled from 1228 to 1241, then under his son Güyük (r.1246-48), and finally under Möngke, son of Ögedai's youngest brother Tolui. Upon Möngke's death in 1259 a war of succession broke out in Mongolia between Möngke's two younger brothers-Chingis's grandsons-Khubilai and Ariq Böke.

Ariq Böke represented the "traditionalist" faction who believed that the Mongol Empire should remain centered in Mongol and that the Mongols should retain their traditional nomadic ways. As far back as the reign of Ögedai the more extreme exponents of this view had favored the extermination of north China's peasants and the reversion of their cultivated fields into pasture for Mongol horses. Khubilai entertained the view that the civilized life of the Chinese was ultimately preferable to the crude ways of his steppe ancestors and that the Mongol Empire if it truly aspired to greatness must ultimately be ruled from China. As for those millions of Chinese peasants which the traditionalist faction had wanted to eliminate, his advisors were quick to point out that they could be made to pay taxes which would result in unfathomable wealth for the Mongol rulers.

Ariq Böke was defeated by Khubilai in 1264, and Khubilai went on to found the Yüan Dynasty, with a capital in what is now Beijing. Chingis's great-grandson Qaidu-the grandson of Ögedai-who ruled a khanate of the empire which included western Mongolia and much of what is now the Chinese province of Xinjiang, had sided with Ariq Böke, and he had not been defeated. Qaidu managed to carve out an independent khanate in Central Asia and continued to battle Khubilai and Y üan Dynasty until his death in 1304. In Persia and Iraq, Hulegü, younger brother of Khubilai, and his descendants created the Ilkhanate, which by 1295 had become an Islamic realm divorced from the Mongol homeland and the Yüan Dynasty centered in China. Beyond Central Asia, on the steppes of what is now Kazakhstan and southern Russia, was the domain of Chingis's grandson Batu, who by the time of his death in 1255 had founded the Golden Horde. Under Batu's successor Berke the Golden Horde became an increasingly autonomous entity, no longer subservient to the great Mongol Khan in Beijing. Thus by 1300 the empire founded by Chingis had fragmented into at least four parts.

It was the Yüan Dynasty, with its capital in what is now Beijing, which still controlled the homeland of Mongolia. The great Khubilai had ten successors, each of whom to varying degrees became sinicized. By the 1360s the Yüan Dynasty, led by rulers of ever-diminishing capabilities corrupted by the excesses of court life, was tottering, and finally in 1368 the last Yüan emperor, Toghan Temür, fled the capital in the face of advancing Chinese rebels who would establish the Ming Dynasty. The Mongols had lost China and were forced to retreat to their original homeland to the north of the Gobi Desert.

Toghan Temür died in 1370, bewailing the immense disaster that had overtaken the descendants of Chingis, the so-called Chingisids: "My great city of Tatu [Beijing], adorned with varied splendor; Shangtuho, my delectable cool summer retreat; and those yellowing plains, the delight and refreshment of my divine ancestors! What evil have I committed to lose my empire thus!"

His son and successor, Prince Ayurshiridhara, attempted to rally the Mongols around their old capital of Kharkhorum, near the present-day town of Kharkhorin, and dreamed of eventually recovering the empire his father had lost. But armies of the new Ming Dynasty pursued the Mongols into their homeland in 1372 and 1380 and finally in 1388 dealt them a devastating defeat south of Buir Nuur (Buir Lake) in what is now the eastern aimag (province) of Dornod. In the disarray that followed the descendants of Khubilai could no longer claim hegemony over the Mongol tribes of eastern Mongolia. Many of them reclaimed their autonomy and were soon quarreling and fighting with each other.

Meanwhile, in western Mongolia a group of Mongols known as the Oirat were rising to power. The Oirat were originally a forest-dwelling people from east of Lake Baikal in Siberia. At the time of Chingis Khan they were a relatively insignificant group who Chingis had incorporated into his army. Under a series of charismatic leaders the Oirat attempted to bring all the Mongol tribes under its control and entertained visions of reclaiming the throne of China lost by the descendants of Khubilai. By the 1440s the Oirat ruler Esen lorded over much of modern-day central and western Mongolia, including the old capital of Kharkhorum, and his influence extended west to Lake Balkash in Kazakhstan and south to the Great Wall of China. In 1449 Esen invaded China itself, managed to capture the Ming Emperor Ying-Tsung, who had foolishly ventured onto the field on battle, and was soon encamped with his army on the outskirts of Beijing. For a time it looked as if the Mongols, now longer controlled by the Chingisids but by the Oirat from the west, were actually going to retake the throne of China, but the generals of the Ming Dynasty soon rallied and managed to drive the invaders back across the Gobi into Mongolia.

With Esen's death in 1455 Oirat power in eastern Mongolia waned and the Qubilaids, the descendants of Khubilai who considered themselves the legitimate rulers of Mongolia, once again attempted to unite all the Mongol tribes under its control. But dissension and civil war raged even within the Chingisids. Khan Mandaghol, Chingis's twenty-seventh successor, was killed in a battle with his grand-nephew Bolko in 1467 and Bolko was in turn assassinated in 1470. At this point Mandaghol's widow, the legendary Khatun (Queen) Mandughai, stepped forward and proclaimed the five-year old boy Dayan-a legitimate descendant of Khubilai, and thus of Chingis himself-the new ruler of Mongolia, with herself as Regent. When he became old enough she even married him. She also took control of the Mongol army and in a series of battles in 1491-92 managed to defeat the Oirat. "It is to her," historian of the steppes René Grousset says of Mandughai, "that tradition gives credit for having overthrown Oirat supremacy in what is now Mongolia and restored the hegemony of the eastern Mongols."

Dayan died in 1543, and his domains were parceled out to his sons and grandsons. According to Mongol tradition, the Mongol homeland, the so-called Three Rivers Region centered around the sources of the Kherlen, Tuul, and Onon rivers and the steppe east to Buir Nuur, on the eastern border of what is now Mongolia, went to his youngest son Geresandza Ochigin. This group of Mongols eventually became known as the Khalkas. The title of Great Khan, however, went to his grandson Bodi, who made his base around Dolonuur in what is now Inner Mongolia, part of China. These were the Chahar Mongols. His third son Barsa-bolod and grandson G ün Biliktü occupied the Ordos Desert in the great loop of the Yellow River in Inner Mongolia. G ün Biliktü's younger brother, Altan Khan, became leader of yet another group, the Tümed Mongols, who were centered around Köke-Khoto (near present-day Hohhot, the current capital of Inner Mongolia), northeast of the Ordos. Since Altan Khan played a decisive role in introducing, or more properly re-introducing, Buddhism to Mongolians, including those who would spread Buddhism into the current-day territory of Mongolia, it is on him that we must now focus our attention.


Altan Khan reigned from 1543 until his death in 1583. He was cut from the old mold of his Mongol forefathers who had not been weakened by the corrupting influences of sinitic civilization. Even before the death of his grandfather he conducted a raid into Ming China in which he took 200,000 prisoners and seized over two million head of livestock. His raids into China became an almost a yearly exercise, and in 1550 he advanced as far as the outskirts of the Ming capital of Beijing, looting the suburbs before retreating to the fastnesses of his native steppe. Along with this iron-fisted approach Altan also favoring the establishment of frontier marts where Mongolian and Chinese goods could be exchanged, although of course always with the implicit threat that if trade was not forthcoming he would simply ride into China and take what he wanted.

In 1552 Altan and his grand-nephew Sechen Khongtaiji, ruler of the Ordos, united forces to expel almost completely from the territory of modern-day Mongolia the Oirat who had held on in the western part of the country after the death of Esen and their defeat by the legendary Mongol Queen Mandughai. The Oirat regrouped south of the Mongol-Altai Mountains in Zungaria, what is now the Chinese province of Xinjiang, and in addition to advancing westward as far as Mogholistan (current-day Kyrgyzstan) continued to harass Khalka Mongolia itself.

It was during this resurgence of the Chingisid Mongols-those who traced their lineage back to Chingis Khan himself and not the Oirat usurpers-that the Mongol rulers turned their attention to Buddhism as practiced in Tibet. There are indications that Tibetan Buddhism was introduced to the Mongols of the Ordos Desert as early as 1566. While on an expedition to Tibet-it is not clear this was a predatory raid or a more benign mission-Sechen Khongtaiji, Altan Khan's grand-nephew, met some Tibetan monks whom he brought back to the Ordos with him. Again it is not clear whether these monks came of their own volition or as prisoners. In either case, they introduced Sechen Khongtaiji to the teachings of Buddha and finally managed to convert him to Buddhism as practiced in Tibet. He then attempted to convert his uncle Altan Khan. According to one account, Sechen Khongtaiji implored his uncle:

Defeat the Oirad [Oirat] . . . and take into your hands the power of the state. The wise and learned say that divine teaching is important for this and the next two lives that will follow. Would not it be a wonder if the Buddha . . . of the Land of Snows . . . comes here and a state religion is created?

Although Altan Khan may have been influenced by his nephew, according to most accounts it was he himself who captured Buddhist monks who introduced him to the doctrines of Shakyamuni. Even these accounts vary considerably. According to one, he was conducting pillaging raids in northern Tibet (probably present-day Qinghai province of China) when he met various Tibetan monks who had impressed him with their spiritual knowledge. According to another story, after a battle on the borderlands of Tibet he acquired two Tibetans monks as war booty and it was they who instructed him in Buddhism. Yet another account claims that while on a raid into the Uighur regions of East Turkestan (current day Xinjiang province of China) Altan Khan captured two Uighur chiefs and three Uighur Buddhist monks. The Uighurs, who had originated in Mongolia (the ruins of their ancient capital can still be seen north the present-day town of Kharkhorin) had in the 840s migrated southwest to East Turkestan and established an elaborate Buddhist culture centered around the cities of Beshbaliq, north of the Tian Shan Mountains (near of present-day Jimsar), and Qocho and Yar-khoto in the Turfan Depression. The Mongols had long looked to the Uighurs for intellectual guidance-the Mongol script, adopted during the days of Chingis Khan, was based on the Uighur form of writing-and Uighur monks and priests may also have provided spiritual guidance to Altan Khan.

The Rosary of White Lotuses, Being the Clear Account of How the Precious Teachings Of Buddha Appeared and Spread in the Hor Country, a massive history of the introduction of Buddhism into Mongolia written in 1880s by the Tibetan monk Damcho Gyatsho Dharmatala, relates, on the other hand, that in the Iron Sheep Year of the 10th Rabjung (1571) a wandering Tibetan lama named Aseng told Altan Khan about his teacher, a extremely learned man by the name of Sonam Gyatso who was then the head of Drepung Monastery in Lhasa. Intrigued by stories of this Buddhist prodigy, in 1571 the Altan Khan sent a delegation to Lhasa to met Sonam Gyatso and invite him to visit the Khan's court and conduct teachings. Although Sonam Gyatso did not make the journey until seven years later his eventual meeting with Altan Khan would have monumental consequences which continue to reverberate down to the present-day.

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