"Treasures of the Sand" © — The Legacy of Danzan Ravjaa
Konchog Norbu
Ordained Buddhist Monk, Kunzang Palyul Chöling, Tibetan Nyingma Tradition

The Scorpion, Sand and Five-sided Crown

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An antique crown from a Padmasambhava statue, discovered by remarkable, timely coincidence on the grounds of Khamariin Khiid. Note the tarnish line showing how much protruded above the surface of the sand. Photo by Konchog Norbu.

While the re-installation of the Statue of 10,000 Knives at Khamariin Khiid provided deep satisfaction for the people of Dornogov, it was incomplete. Somewhere on its 45-year journey, the statue had lost its metal crown.

People fashioned a temporary hat out of silk brocade and Sharavdorj, the Parliament Member who had effected the statue's release, offered to sponsor the creation of a new crown. There was just one hitch. Statues of Padmasambhava are very rare in Mongolia. No one knew exactly what such a crown should look like, and there were no extant photographs of the Statue of 10,000 Knives. Sharavdorj, Altangerel and others pondered this problem during the summer of 2004, with no ready solutions coming to mind.

One day late that summer, a mason took a break during some work at Khamariin Khiid, lying down on the sand to rest. Just as he was dozing off, he felt a sharp sting on his hand. Angry from the pain and the interrupted nap, he was about to squash the culprit, a small scorpion, when he thought, "Well, I'm working on Buddhist temple grounds, and Buddhists never harm living things, so I suppose I shouldn't kill this scorpion." And then he reflected further, "The scorpion is also well-known as Danzan Ravjaa's wisdom symbol. I think I should really be careful."

So the mason gently scooped the scorpion into his hat and moved it to the edge of his worksite. Just where he shook the scorpion out, he saw something odd poking out of the sand. Gingerly digging it out, he brought it to Altangerel, who was flabbergasted. Before him was a five-sided crown, and he instinctively knew it was from a Padmasambhava statue, tarnished but fully intact.

The following February, Altangerel, Sharavdorj and several other Mongolian Buddhists undertook a pilgrimage to India. They focused on sacred locations associated with Padmasambhava, such as Tso Pema in the Himalayan foothills. Sharavdorj took many photographs of the Padmasambhava statues he found there. Using a combination of the photographs and the unearthed crown, he had metalsmiths render a design for the one he would sponsor. It was to be fashioned from pure silver covered in gold plate and studded with precious and semi-precious stones from India, Tibet, and the Gobi, including ones taken from Danzan Ravjaa's own collection. Many faithful Dornogov residents contributed small pieces of silver and gold to be used in the crown.

But before work began, Sharavdorj and Altangerel took some time to collect special elements, mindful of the statue's original purpose – the suppression of anger and violence – and its composition of 10,000 melted-down knives. They themselves collected several knives. One they procured at a local slaughterhouse; one had been confiscated after its use in fights at a Dornogov prison; and one was obtained from a military base near the Chinese border where there had been a strange spate of violent conflicts among the soldiers. They had these melted down and blended with the silver when the crown was forged.

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Sharavdorj, accompanied by Altangerel, bears the new crown into the Red Temple at Khamariin Khiid to complete the re-installment of the Statue of 10,000 Knives. Photo by Konchog Norbu.

The ceremony for placing the crown on the statue took place on an auspicious day in August of 2005. The air redolent with clouds of incense and the sounds of cymbals and conch shells, Sharavdorj bore the crown on a cushion into the Red Temple, where he humbly offered it to Dush Lama, Khamariin Khiid's abbot. Dush Lama then handed it to Altangerel, who must have felt profound satisfaction amid memories of his determined grandfather. He gingerly placed the crown, completing the return of the holy Statue of 10,000 Knives, enshrined again in its rightful place. It fit perfectly and the assembly rejoiced, making offerings and prayers of dedication for the rest of the morning.

"Is the heart of Asia beating? Or has it been suffocated by the sands?"
—Nicholas Roerich

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Portrait of Tudev, the takhilch , or caretaker of Danzan Ravjaa's legacy, who preserved what he could during the Communist purges of the late 30's and trained the current takhilch , Altangerel. Displayed in the Danzan Ravjaa Museum, Sainshand, Mongolia. Photo by Konchog Norbu.
While all of us affect our worlds to one degree or another, in any given generation rise figures who ultimately tower above the rest, and whose force of charisma and visionary activity inalterably shift the entire flow of their culture. Their legacy permeates the imaginations of their people long after they have physically passed from this world, to the point where their memory shades into myth. Though little known in the West, in early 19th c. Mongolia one light blazed brightest of all – Danzan Ravjaa. Poet, dramatist, painter, songsmith, healer, museum curator, educator, architect, scholar, raconteur and Tantric Buddhist master, this renaissance lama continues to inspire Mongols everywhere, but especially the people of the Gobi Desert.

When just 19-years old, Danzan Ravjaa established his seat at Khamariin Khiid ("The Monastery by the Place Shaped like a Nose") in Dornogov (Eastern Gobi), at a spring-fed creek near volcanic ravines with natural caves for meditation. By then, great intrigue and drama had already marked his life, and his story circulated in the Gobi nomads' gossip mill.

Danzan Ravjaa (the Mongol version of the Tibetan "Tenzin Rabgye") was officially titled the Fifth Gobiin Dogshin Noyon Khutagt - the Great Wrathful Dharma Lord of the Gobi. His predecessor, Jamyan Oidav Jampts, was well-loved and did much for Mongolian Buddhism. At age 31, however, he killed a man. Different versions of the story present the incident as everything from a drunken fight gone bad to a deliberate tantric liberation. Whatever the case, it was a capital offense in the Manchu empire. Jamyan Oidav Jampts was brought to Peking, tried, executed, and an edict was issued forbidding the discovery of further incarnations.

Shortly thereafter, in 1803, a seemingly unremarkable boy was born into poverty. As he grew up on the begging circuit, however, he began to display a gift for the spontaneous composition of subtly meaningful songs and poems based on whatever was going on around him - one of the gifts for which the Fourth Noyon Khutagt was renowned. The boy had occasionally displayed other strange indications of being a special incarnation, but it wasn't until his encounter with the Fourth Noyon Khutagt's former attendant, Jintu Gonchig, that his life as the Fifth Noyon Khutagt was to begin. The boy correctly identified belongings of the previous Noyon Khutagt among similar items, and revealed his knowledge of other things only the previous incarnation could have known.

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The Mongolian elders preserved the spark of the Buddhist faith and are now helping to encourage it in the youngest generation. Photo by Konchog Norbu.

Excelling in his studies, Danzan Ravjaa left at age 19, feeling he had but a short time to be of benefit in the world. Before his passing in 1856, he would found 11 institutions for monastic study and meditation retreat across the Gobi, including one in what is now Inner Mongolia. The full scope of Danzan Ravjaa's creative genius, however, could only be truly appreciated at Khamariin Khiid.

At the time, the oasis supported 500 monks and a substantial lay community. Many were drawn by the exceptional educational opportunities Danzan Ravjaa established. It was there that he built Mongolia's first theater, along with schools and workshops for acting, song and dance; dramaturgy; set and costume design; and choreography. Each year the ensemble would stage elaborate dramatic spectacles, with specially crafted masks and costumes imbued with religious meaning as well as contemporary satire. Afterward, they loaded everything onto camel carts and toured the show across the desert. At Khamariin Khiid, Danzan Ravjaa also established Mongolia's first secular secondary school with a special emphasis on visual and literary arts, the first lending library, and the first public museum. Danzan Ravjaa was also an accomplished natural physician with an encyclopedic knowledge of the medicinal properties of the local plants and minerals. He employed that knowledge in a busy clinic and pharmacy while teaching the healing arts. All this while presiding over the religious education of the monks, all the way to the most esoteric meditation techniques of the inner tantra. And, in what was a radical notion at the time, Danzan Ravjaa firmly insisted that women be afforded absolutely equal access to all of these opportunities. Needless to say, they flocked to be a part of this new-found freedom.

By all accounts, Khamariin Khiid thrived as a progressive, harmonious community, infused with a contagious atmosphere of creative, enlightened energy. But then a crime occurred which shattered the peace and set into motion events which would resonate right up to the present time. It seems a dispute in the camps escalated, resulting in the stabbing death of a Chinese man. Such violence was almost unheard-of there and the residents were greatly upset. Danzan Ravjaa acted quickly, sending out a message that any family that had faith in him should come and bring a knife from its household as an offering. So great was the response that Danzan Ravjaa eventually collected more than 10,000 knives.

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The Statue of 10,000 Knives, commissioned by Danzan Ravjaa and re-installed at Khamariin Khiid, his monastery in the eastern Gobi Desert, in January 2004. Photo by Konchog Norbu.
Summoning the most skilled sculptors and metalsmiths, Danzan Ravjaa had all the knives melted down and forged into an exquisite statue of the 8th c. lama Padmasambhava, the Nyingma lineage's progenitor who is commonly known as Guru Rinpoche. The figure sits about 2 ½ feet high on a large lotus base. Because of the unusual material employed, the body and base are pewter-colored, as opposed to the usual gilded bronze, with only the face and hands painted gold. Guru Rinpoche's expression is exceptionally intense and the details all suggest the suppression of evil, from the demon head upon which the figure sits, to the outstretched right hand holding a vajra in the gesture of the annihilation of obstacles. Once displayed, the figure became an object of pilgrimage known as the Statue of 10,000 Knives and peace prevailed at Khamariin Khiid for the rest of Danzan Ravjaa's life.

Ironically, Danzan Ravjaa's own death in 1856 was an act of murder. Danzan Ravjaa led the uncontrived life of an accomplished tantric yogi, enjoying without attachment the pleasures of this world, including the company of women. He also perpetuated his predecessor's fondness for composing hundreds of popular songs and poems which criticized the corrupt officials and other degenerate figures of his day. While the infuriated Manchu authorities could not overtly punish Danzan Ravjaa since he enjoyed the protection of the emperor, they contrived to bribe one of his Chinese girlfriends into visiting him with a gift of poisoned vodka. When she arrived, Danzan Ravjaa looked the woman straight in the eye and shamed her with his clairvoyance. He told her he knew the vodka she had brought was poisoned, and that furthermore, since he had completed the work of this life, he was going to drink it. He did so, and sat down to write a long final lament on the dissolute state of the world, the original of which is still preserved at the Danzan Ravjaa Museum.

With Danzan Ravjaa dead, the Manchus hastened to close all of his non-religious institutions, but they were stymied in their attempts to seize his body and precious belongings. Danzan Ravjaa's disciples had done their homework, and discovered that according to Manchu law, it was a capital offense to desecrate a tomb. With that in mind, they mummified Danzan Ravjaa's body and installed it in one of Khamariin Khiid's temples. Then they filled that temple and another with about 1500 crates containing all that had been created and collected during Danzan Ravjaa's lifetime. They declared the temples to be Danzan Ravjaa's tomb, reminded the authorities of their own laws, and thus cleverly rendered the contents inviolate.

Now, a curious institution with a mystical dimension had its genesis during Danzan Ravjaa's lifetime. His close disciple Balshinchoijoo was appointed to the position of takhilch, or caretaker of Danzan Ravjaa's belongings and legacy. He was the one who arranged for the careful entombment of Danzan Ravjaa's body and crates of possessions. Since his time, this position has continued as a strictly hereditary one. The person destined to be each takhilch's successor is born in their family with a particular birthmark at the base of the spine resembling a backwards "D." It is then the takhilch's responsibility to train the one with the mark in the special duties he must assume.

The role of the takhilch functioned smoothly enough with the Manchus in charge and Danzan Ravjaa's tomb protected by their own laws. But as the 20th century dawned, everything changed. Chinese nationalists forced the collapse of the Qing Dynasty and the Mongols kicked out their Manchu overlords and declared themselves an independent nation in 1911, ruled by their equivalent of Tibet's Dalai Lama, the 8th Bogd Khan.

This arrangement would prove remarkably short-lived, however, with pressure building from the rise and revolution of the Bolsheviks in Russia. Tsarist forces sought refuge in Mongolia but soon began to wreak havoc under the influence of the vicious Baron von Ungern-Sternberg. The Mongols appealed to Russia's Red Army to help them, and together they defeated the Baron and scattered his army. But then the Communists stayed.

With irresistible energy, the Red Army, in conjunction with a growing number of Mongol Communists, rapidly gained political power until in 1924 the Bogd Khan died and Mongolia declared itself to be the world's second Communist nation.

In these tumultuous years, it was impossible to uncrate Danzan Ravjaa's treasures; the takhilch simply had to wait and see which way the political winds blew. Unfortunately, they went from bad to worse to catastrophic.

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The lamas and lay community at Khamariin Khiid welcome the new crown for the Statue of 10,000 Knives in an August, 2005 ceremony. Photo by Konchog Norbu.

The creation of the new crown for the Statue of 10,000 Knives was sponsored by Ts. Sharavdorj, one of the eastern Gobi's Members of Parliament. Here he offers it with the traditional scarves of five colors to Dush Lama, Khamariin Khiid's abbot. Photo by Konchog Norbu.


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During the years that the Communist regime consolidated power in a struggle with Mongolia's deeply influential religious hierarchy, Danzan Ravjaa's takhilch-in-training was a man named Tudev. As Stalin and his ways became dominant in Russia, they had increasing influence in Mongolia. Stalin's response to the power of the Russian church was to instigate a wave of ruthless purges throughout the land and he encouraged Mongolia to do the same. Thus, in the decade from 1929-39, and especially in the last three years, zealous Mongol and Soviet Communist forces plundered and demolished all but three of Mongolia's nearly 1000 monastic complexes. They also executed or condemned to forced labor tens of thousands of lamas, compelling the rest to take up ordinary lay life. For the remainder of the Communist regime, the practice of religion within the general population was strictly prohibited.

As news of the atrocities during the late 30's began to reach Tudev, he knew that it was to be his task alone to act to preserve what he could of Danzan Ravjaa's legacy or all would be lost. He assumed the takhilch responsibilities in 1938, at the height of the terrible purges.

But Tudev was a man of extraordinarily tough character. On his own and in total secrecy, he first cremated Danzan Ravjaa's body, taking care to preserve the ashes and carefully extract the odd crystalline nuggets, known to Tibetans as ringsel, the sacred relics often produced from the bodies of highly-accomplished meditators.

He then meticulously treated one crate at a time to prevent damage to the contents by the elements or vermin, and transported one per night into the remote desert to bury, often protecting it with a treacherous booby trap. Each time, he would memorize the location and contents; the discovery of any written record would obviously reveal the crates' hiding places, but also likely serve as evidence leading to his own execution.

Tudev labored for 64 nights, managing to conceal just 64 out of the 1500 crates before the Red Army stormed in to loot and destroy what remained. During the purges, Tudev maintained perfect silence about what he had done; the only life he risked was his own.

As time went on, Tudev lived the life of a humble herder and fathered two children, a boy and a girl. Neither had the birthmark.

His daughter grew up, married, moved to the capital Ulaan Baatar, and bore ten children. After the birth of one son in 1960, the family got word to Tudev that the boy had that same funny mark on his lower back. Tudev immediately boarded a train for the capital, told his daughter, "You have enough children. I'm taking this one," and spirited young Altangerel back to Dornogov.

Tudev raised Altangerel himself, living in a remote ger camp (ger is the Mongolian word for their round felt tents) and exerting the most severe discipline in training him to be the next takhilch. As Altangerel got older, he would go to school in Sainshand and reluctantly return to the camp on breaks. On moonlit summer nights, they would unbury the crates and expose the contents. Altangerel endured endless quizzing on what he had been taught regarding how to find the crates again and the history and function of each item they contained. The questions would erupt into beatings if Altangerel made the slightest mistake. (For a full account of the takhilch lineage and the training of Altangerel, see Peter Morrow's article "Preserving the Legacy of Danzanravjaa, Lord of the Gobi," reprinted on Mongolia Web.)

There was a special ger in the camp set up as a shrine and it was Altangerel's daily task to dust the statues and objects within. One of the figures he cleaned each day was the Statue of 10,000 Knives, the story and importance of which Tudev had explained to him in detail.

Then one day in 1969, Tudev and Altangerel returned to their camp to discover that the shrine had been robbed and all of the valuable objects were gone. Tudev exploded in helpless rage but then seemed strangely pacified, his attention arrested.

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Some of the rebuilt temples and monuments of Khamariin Khiid at what used to be a thriving oasis. The Soviet Army cut down all the trees to build an army base in the 50's and the ground water dried up. There is still underground water, however, and an active reforestation project. Photo by Konchog Norbu

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A bust of Danzan Ravjaa adorning the Sainshand town square, created in honor of the 200th Anniversary of his birth in 2003. Photo by Konchog Norbu.   The current takhilch, Altangerel, with Sharavdorj and his wife Erka, expressing pleasure after placing the new crown on the Statue of 10,000 Knives. Photo by Konchog Norbu.

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Dush Lama at Shambhala Land, near Khamariin Khiid. Photo by Konchog Norbu.

  The first of the reconstructed stupas at Shambhala Land. One hundred more smaller ones will be finished in 2006. Photo by Thubten Rinchen Palzang.
"Look at this," he remarked to Altangerel. "The thieves took the Statue of 10,000 Knives but in their haste left the lotus base here." Altangerel fidgeted while a strange, thoughtful look passed over Tudev's face. Finally he spoke. "I feel this is a good sign. That the base remains with us indicates that some day the statue will be reunited with it. When this happens, it will be a sign that Buddhism will revive in Mongolia." The two carefully hid the base away and not another word was spoken of the incident.

The advent of perestroika to the north emboldened the people of Dornogov, who had never lost the spark of their faith in Buddhism. In 1988, they began building two temples at the Khamariin Khiid site, one dedicated to the Red Sect and one to the Yellow Sect (known in Tibet as the Gelugpa tradition). Tudev, however, would not see the fruit of the 50 years he had dedicated to the secret care of Danzan Ravjaa's legacy. He died in December of 1990, just as Mongolia was undergoing its peaceful revolution toward democracy and the reinstatement of basic human rights such as freedom of religion.

With Tudev's passing, Altangerel assumed the full responsibilities of takhilch and unearthed a portion of the crates. The contents provided sacred objects for the new temples and a museum dedicated to Danzan Ravjaa in a building given to him by Sainshand officials.

The work of overseeing the reconstruction of Khamariin Khiid and developing the museum fully occupied Altangerel's time over the next decade. Then one evening he was relaxing in his Sainshand home, watching TV. The station was showing a news feature on an exhibit in Ulaan Baatar of Mongolian Buddhist art treasures. The camera panned over the objects until Altangerel suddenly jumped forward in his chair. There it was – the Statue of 10,000 Knives.

Altangerel boarded a train for Ulaan Baatar. There, he appealed to the exhibit organizers, explaining the long-ago theft and that the statue rightfully belonged at Khamariin Khiid. The organizers explained that there was nothing they could do. The statue was registered as a National Treasure and besides, it technically belonged to the Mongol Bank. Someone had given it as collateral on a delinquent loan.

Altangerel took his case to Ts. Sharavdorj, one of Dornogov's two Members of Parliament and a trained lawyer. Sharavdorj felt moved by Altangerel's story and promised to help. He initiated a combination of government and legal pressure, as well as raising a one-time payment to the Mongol bank equaling about $26,000. This secured the temporary release of the statue from the bank, and Sharavdorj and Altangerel transported it back to Khamariin Khiid amidst great ceremony for a three-month tour of the region. Some say this was one of the main causes for Sharavdorj's re-election.

By agreement, however, the statue had to be returned to the National Treasury and it took three more years for the two to complete the Byzantine bureaucratic processes which finally resulted in its permanent release.

In January, 2004, Tudev's predictions came true. The Buddhist faithful of the eastern Gobi Desert enthroned the Statue of 10,000 Knives once again on its lotus seat (welding the two together this time), from which it had been separated for 45 years. They installed it as the central worship image on the altar of their Red Temple. A steady stream of pilgrims is now free to make offerings and renew their vows of non-violence before this statue. For them, it is a most potent symbol of the renaissance of Mongolia's ancient Buddhist traditions, for which Tudev and so many others had so patiently yearned.

Konchog Norbu is a member of Kunzang Palyul Chöling, a Buddhist temple in the Tibetan Nyingma tradition, where he has been an ordained monk since 1993. He serves as KPC's in-country staff for its Mongolian Buddhism Revival Project . In this capacity, he has made many trips to Khamariin Khiid in Dornogov, which he considers like a second spiritual home. Konchog maintains an online journal of his adventures in and out of Mongolia, Dreaming of Danzan Ravjaa.

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