The Life of Zanabazar — The First Bogd Gegen of Mongolia

Don Croner, Explorer at Large
Author of Travels In Northern Mongolia
(Unedited: Work in Progress. Last Updated September 10, 2005)

Chapter 2 - Avtai Khan Introduces Buddhism into Mongolia

The tomb of Gombodorj, Avtai's grandson and the father of Zanabazar. Heavily damaged in 1937, it has recently been restored.

As mentioned earlier, upon Dayan Khan's death in 1543 his next-to youngest son Geresandza Ochigin had been given much of what is now eastern and central Mongolia as part of his inheritance. This area, which became known collectively as Khalkha Mongolia, was later divided up between his descendants into three semi-autonomous regions: the khanate of the Tüsheet Khan, centered around the valley of the Tuul River, including the area now occupied by the capital of Ulaan Baatar; the khanate of the Setsen Khan, in the drainage of the Kherlen River, to the east of the Tuul; and the Khanate of the Zasagt Khan, in the western Khangai Mountains and the desert regions to the south. A fourth khanate, that of Sain Noyan, on the middle Selenge, upper Orkhon, and the Ongkin River, south of the Khangai Mountains, was until 1724 considered subordinate to the Tüsheet Khan.

Although the three khanates enjoyed quasi-independent status the Tüsheet Khanate was probably the strongest, and its leader Avtai Khan, the grandson of Geresandza Ochigin, regarded as the first among equals. "He was a man of great courage and wealth," the Rosary of White Lotuses tells us. Indeed, he is well remembered in Mongolia to this day. The people of the upper Kherlen River, where the river debouches from the southern foothills of the Khentii Mountains, still tell of the time when Avtai and his entourage came here on a hunting expedition. Avtai was an avid hunter and succeeded in killing many elk. That night Avtai dreamed that a bear came into his ger and tried to maul him. The next morning he said, "I had a bad dream that a bear tried to kill me. The spirits of the mountains must be angry with me because I killed so many animals." Hoping to appease the mountain spirits he had a statue of a horse made and gilded it with silver. This statue, supposedly life-sized, was placed on the summit of a 7328' mountain about fifteen miles west of the Kherlen River. This peak became known as Möngönmort (möngön=silver; mort=horse) and is so-identified on government-issued maps today. A nearby town in the valley of the Kherlen is also known as Möngönmort. Local people claim that the statue stood on the mountain until the end of the last century and that some old people in Möngönmort still have pieces of it.

At some point in the late 1570s word filtered back to Mongolia that Altan Khan had met with Sonam Gyatso near Khökh Nuur and that the Tümed Mongols had converted to Buddhism. Avtai decided that he must met this great religious figure from Tibet. Then he would decide for himself what he thought of the Dalai Lama and his teachings. "If he is acceptable we shall recognize each other. If not we shall fight," declared Avtai. Thereupon Avtai set out on horseback from of his homelands on the upper Tuul to the court of the Dalai Lama.

Details of this trip are sparse, and it is difficult to say where Avtai finally met the Dalai Lama. Charles Bawden, in The Modern History of Mongolia, says that the two met in Khökh Khot in 1577, but as we have seen Sonam Gyatso did not leave Tibet until late 1577 and then proceeded directly to Khökh Nuur, arriving there in May. There are no time for a lengthy detour to Khökh Khot far to the east, nor do the available accounts suggest such a trip. Other sources suggest that Avtai Khan, accompanied by his brother, met the Dalai Lama in 1580 but do not say where. The Rosary of White Lotuses states simply that while Sonam Gyatso was somewhere in Sog-roughly speaking, current-day Inner Mongolia, Gansu, and Qinghai provinces-"Ochir Opatai", as he calls Avtai, had an audience with him.

After the May 1578 meeting between Altan Khan and Sonam Gyatso Altan himself had gone to Khökh Khot and established a monastery there. Khökh Khot, according to Bawden the "first permanent Mongol city of modern times"-i.e., after the fall the Yüan Empire-had been founded sometime in the mid-sixteenth-century by Altan Khan and built with the help of Chinese laborers. In 1579 Altan Khan ordered the construction of the Dazhao Temple and around the same time the Xilituzhao Temple, not far away. Both of these temples still exist in Hohhot, as Khökh Khot is now called, and in addition to serving the city's diminishing population of Mongolian Buddhists both are marginally famous tourist attractions. Altan Khan also initiated at Khökh Khot an extensive program of translating Tibetan Buddhist texts into Mongolian. This project was still in progress when Altan Khan died in 1582.

Meanwhile, the Third Dalai Lama had not returned to Lhasa after his 1578 meeting with Altan Khan but instead was spending his time teaching and building monasteries in what is now northern China and eastern Tibet. It is possible that in 1580 he was in Khökh Khot, where Altan Khan was in the process of establishing monasteries, but it is difficult to say for sure.

As for the meeting itself, we are told simply that Avtai found Sonam Gyatso-now the Dalai Lama-and to his liking. "Let a scarf be brought for me to make obeisance," he ordered. A black prayer scarf (khadag in Mongolian) was produced and Avtai offered it to the Dalai Lama. This was on the evening of the last day of the month. The next day, the first day of the new month, he again made obeisance to the Dalai Lama, offering him a white scarf. The Dalai Lama chose to interpret this in his own way: "When you first made obeisance to me, you offered a black scarf at the end of the month and bowed late at night. Now you have offered a white scarf at the beginning of the month and have made obeisance early in the morning. These are signs that the ten black sins which you have formerly committed are annihilated, and that from now on the ten white virtues will flourish." He gave Avtai a relic of Buddha and a statue which was supposedly impervious to fire and instructed him to built a temple to house these objects, adding, "There is in your territory an area with the name of Old and New Orqon [Orkhon]. You should select an auspicious site and build it [the temple] there."

The Dalai Lama was referring to the Orkhon River in central Mongolia. The 697 mile-long Orkhon begins in the eastern Khangai Mountains and after wending its way through the foothills of the Khangai debouches onto a vast plain near the present-day town of Kharkhorin. This plain and the surrounding foothills valley have been continually inhabited from at least the late Paleolithic 20,000 years ago down to the present day, and many of the great empires of the steppe were headquartered or had capitals here, including the Hsiung-nu (Hunni) from about the second century B.C. to the first century A.D.: the T'u-chüeh (Turks) from 552 to 734; the Uighurs from 745 to 840; and the Mongols in the thirteenth century. The grave mounds of Hsiung-nu; the imposing stone stele of the T'u-chüeh, inscribed with some of the very earliest examples of Turkic writing; the ruins of ancient cities like Karabalgasun, the capital of old the Uighur kingdom where white-robed Manicheans once chanted their prayers, are all mute reminders of the people and civilizations who flourished here and then vanished.

Chingis Khan himself apparently decided in 1220 to built a capital for his empire where the Orkhon emerges from the foothills of the Khangai, although little seems to have been done at the site by the time he died in 1227. It was his son Ögedai who started construction of the capital and by 1235 had placed a wall around it, and it was here in 1235 the Ögedai held a great khural at which it was decided that the Mongols would attack the Sung Dynasty in southern China. By then the capital was known as Kharkhorum. It remained the capital of the Mongol Empire until the early 1270s, when Khubilai founded the Yüan Dynasty and shifted the headquarters of the empire to Beijing. Henceforth Kharkhorum became a provincial capital. As noted earlier, after the fall the Yüan Dynasty the Mongols regrouped in Kharkhorum, but the city was almost completely destroyed by the Ming invasion of 1380.

It was on the ruins of Kharkhorum that Avtai finally decided to built a temple to hold the relics which the Dalai Lama had given him. In 1585-the five-year delay is not explained-he sent to Khökh Khot for a lama to help him with the construction of the temple in the Orkhon Valley. This lama happened to belong to the Sakya sect and not the Gelugpa sect of the Dalai Lama. It will be remembered that Sakya Pandita and Sakya Pakpa, who had first introduced Buddhism to the Mongols during the reigns of Great Khans, were Sakyas, and perhaps members of the sect still felt an affinity with Mongolia. Through the offices of the Sakya lama invited by Avtai they now gained foothold in Khalkha Mongolia.

By the summer of 1586 the temple had been completed and a "minor dedication" performed by the Sakya lama This lama then said to Avtai, "He who is called my Dalai Lama, reincarnation of the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara, and who has his seat in the land of Ü in Tibet, is a holy Vajradhara lama and most marvelous." Of course, Avtai had already met the Dalai Lama when he had been given instructions to build the temple at Kharkhorum, but he apparently set out once again to have an audience with him.

This second meeting between Avtai and the Dalai Lama began less than auspiciously, according to the traditional accounts. Avtai rode ahead of his baggage train with forty-five armed escorts and as they passed by a place known as Black Tamarisk Head he and his men got into a battle with some local people. The leaders of these people went to the Dalai Lama and said, "The one called Avtai Qayan of the eastern Khalkha shot three times and inflicted wounds upon us. We have only just been able to come to you with our lives, O Lama." The Dalai Lama replied, "This one called Abudai [Avtai] Qayan is a reincarnation of Vajrapani. Therefore do not harm him." The Dalai Lama sent some men to met Avtai and his cohorts, but Avtai ignored them and rode straight away into his presence. "When I saw you being overwhelmed by the majesty of the Qayan [Avtai], even I was afraid," the Dalai Lama exclaimed to the abashed leader of the Tibetan escorts, at least according to the Mongolian version of this event.

Avtai quickly redeemed the situation, making obeisance to the Dalai Lama and proclaiming, "I your servant am [Avtai] Qayan of the people called the Khalkha of the North." He explained that he had built a temple in the land of the Khalkas, at Kharkhorum, and asked the Dalai Lama to come to Mongolia and perform a full inauguration of the new building. He presented the Dalai Lama with one hundred white prayer scarves with one hundred white gelded horses, another hundred white prayer scarves with a hundred bay gelded horses, one thousand assorted gelded horses, plus an assortment of jewels and fine cloths.

The Dalai Lama replied that he was not able come to Mongolia at that time-indeed he had very little time left to live-but that Avtai should return to Mongolia and fix a day for the inauguration of the new temple, and that he, the Dalai Lama, would inaugurate it from where he was at on that day.

It should be mentioned here that in 1586 the Dalai Lama is known to have been in Khökh Khot, where he gave a sermon before over 100,000 people. Intriguing, the Rosary of White Lotuses says that one "Dorje Gyalpo of Halha" was present at this event and presented the Dalai Lama with a number of precious gifts, including a tent made of sable skins. At another point, the Rosary refers to a "Halha Dorje Gyalpo" who built the Erdene Zuu Temple on the Orkhon. Was Dorje Gyalpo another name of Avtai, who elsewhere the Rosary calls Ochir Opatai? If so, then Avtai did in fact met the Dalai Lama at Khökh Khot in 1586?

In any event, Avtai had one more request of the Dalai Lama: "Moreover, I wish to invite a good lama, who will be of advantage to the faith which is revered forever, and to instal [sic] the most blessed shrines." Could the Dalai Lam please recommend such a monk and send him to Mongolia? The Dalai Lama told him to interview various monks and then chose one himself. Here again the record is extremely vague. According to one account, Avtai then proceeded to Lhasa to look for a teacher of the Dharma who could come back with him to Mongolia. The Dalai Lama, it is clear, did not accompany him on this trip. While visiting a temple in Lhasa Avtai noticed a monk sitting all by himself at the end of a row of seats and for some reason felt drawn to him. Avtai eventually asked this lama to come Mongolia and teach. The man replied, "I am unable to go in this incarnation, but later I will meet you."

Taranatha (1575-1634)

This lama was supposedly Taranatha (1575-1634), who later, in 1615, founded the Takten Phuntsok Ling Monastery in the Tsangpo Valley near Shigatse, and eventually achieved great renown as a teacher and historian (his famous History of Buddhism in India is still in print today) Admittedly, this story presents certain chronological problems. Taranatha was born in either 1573 or 1775, and thus would have had to have been very young indeed if and when Avtai met him in Tibet in mid-1580s. This is one of several inconsistencies in the account of Avtai's second trip to Tibet, a journey which over the years may have acquired some accretions of a purely mythical nature

Taranatha, however, eventually did go to Mongolia, where he reportedly founded several monasteries. Little more is known about his years in Mongolia, except for the fact that he died there in 1634. It is related that while still in Tibet, Taranatha, known as a great humorist, made a joke about where he would be reborn. A Mongolian student studying under him cried out, "Oh, please come to Mongolia next time!" Zanabazar, the first Bogd Gegen, who was believed to be Taranatha's reincarnation, fulfilled this request.

During his second meeting with the Dalai Lama Avtai apparently again asked the Dalai Lama to visit Mongolia. He replied,: "Although I cannot go now, later I will meet you at your own place." Avtai then returned to Mongolia and prepared for the full dedication of the new temple at Kharkhorum, making offerings and sacrificial cakes as the Dalai Lama had instructed him to do. According to tradition, "On that very day, when, offerings and cakes were there prepared, barley fell in showers, like scattered grain, from the direction of the west [where the Dalai Lama dwelled], and this is how the seeds of barley became widespread among the Khalka." According to another tradition, a shower of flowers fell, signaling that the Dalai Lama had indeed performed the inauguration from afar, as he had promised. When the famous Russian ethnographer A. M. Pozdneev visited here in the 1890s he was shown dried flowers on a temple altar which the monks maintained were the very flowers which had fallen during the long-ago inauguration.

Avtai would eventually build several temples on the old site of Kharkhorum. The first, however, was known as the Khun Temple. This temple formed the core of what was to become the vast Erdeni Zuu Monastery near the present-day town of Kharkhorin. It survived the large-scale trashing of Erdeni Zuu by the communists in the 1930s and can still be seen there today. It is quite small, inconspicuously located, and un-signposted, however, and many visitors to Erdeni Zuu, now one of Mongolia's premier tourist attractions, walk right by it unaware of its significance.

Not long after the temple inauguration Avtai was out hunting with his entourage on the steppes about 60 miles east of Kharkhorum. From the middle of a wide plain bounded on east by saw-toothed ridges Avtai saw a thin plume of a smoke rising from a fire of a lone camper. "Go and see what sort of man that is, whether a hunter or a mendicant," Avtai ordered one of his men. The man came back and reported that the stranger had wore a blue gown but had a shaved head. Avtai noted that the color of the gown made no difference, but since the stranger has a shaved head he must be a lama. "When formerly I made obeisance to the Dalai Lama I took an oath that I would make obeisance to the lamas I saw, since priests of the clergy are rare in our land," said Avtai. To the amazement of his entourage Avtai went up and bowed to the simply-dressed stranger. "What a fortunate qayan you are," said the man, "to be the only one to make obeisance when today so many men have not done so." He then offered some of his simple food that he had prepared to Avtai, who ate it with relish. He offered what was leftover in his own bowl to members of his entourage but they refused to eat it, shocked that their Khan should be consorting with such lowly man. Then the stranger said, "This place where we have met is possessed of great significance. Erect a monument here." A monument was built and the place was given the name Yëson Zuil. The traditional account of this meeting concludes with: "The mendicant took a most blessed object from his load and offered it to the Qayan, and this is how the Dalai Lama Sonam Gyatso, in accordance with his having said at an earlier date, 'I shall go later', met with him [Avtai] in the guise of a mendicant."

Of course it is highly improbable if not impossible that the Dalai Lama actually traveled to Mongolia in the guise of a mendicant, particularly in the last year or two of his life-he died in 1588. Some might dismiss this story as a simple legend, while others might suggest the possibility that an emanation of the Dalai Lama appeared before Avtai. The place Yëson Zuil exists by the same name today, however, and local people are quick to point out the exact spot where Avtai supposedly met the Third Dalai Lama, whatever form he may have appeared in.

Avtai himself died shortly after this alleged meeting, in 1587, a year before the Dalai Lama. Avtai's remains were eventually placed in stupa-like tomb in front of the three so-called Zuu Temples at Erdene Zuu, which are enclosed in a compound of their own. This tomb was damaged in the iconoclastic upheavals of the 1930s and it is not clear if Avtai's remains are still present, although the structure itself has been restored. Again, it is not sign-posted, and very few of the thousand of visitors who walk by give it a second glance. Such is the fate of Avtai, the khan who brought Buddhism to Mongolia.

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