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 May 19, 2005)

Chapter 5 - Zanabazar Founds Gelugpa Monasteries in Mongolia

Tovkhon, Zanabazar's retreat and workshop in Ovorkhangai Aimag

Zanabazar returned to Mongolia as a newly converted member of Gelugpa sect and armed with a brief to convert his fellow Mongolian to the same Yellow Hat beliefs. He forthwith announced that he would now longer live in any monastery connected with the Sakya sect which had hitherto been dominant in Mongolia. Thus his first course of action was to establish a new Gelugpa monastery near the confluence of the Tuul and Selbi rivers, in the large basin surrounded by the four mountains now called Chingeltei Uul, Bayanzurkh Uul, Songino Uul , and Bogd Khan Uul. Although it is not precisely clear from the record what the original name of this monastery was it soon became known as Örgöö, meaning "palace" or "camp" of an important person." Later this word would be corrupted into "Urga", which would become the name used by foreigners for the capital of Mongolia before it was changed in 1924 to Ulaan Baatar.

According to the Mongolian chronicle Erdeni-yin-erike the new monastery consisted of seven aimags, or divisions, each of which had it own assigned duties. The aimag known as Amduunar, made up of Tibetan lamas from the Amdo Region (roughly modern-day Qinghai province of China) who had come back from Tibet with the Bogd Gegen, was invested with task of instructing and educating lay people in Buddhism and specifically, we may assume, in the Gelugpa doctrines. Three aimags (Jisa, Sangai, and Dzoogai) were assigned to look over the personal needs of the Bodgo Gegen, prepare meals for the entire monastery, guard the monastery's supplies and treasury, and maintain order in the community. The remaining aimaks (Khüükhen noyan, Darkhan emchi, and Urliuud) were temples for worship maintained at the expense of followers of the Bogd Gegen. According to traditional accounts, upon his return to Mongolia Zanabazar also constructed two the temples of Vajradhara and Tabun-idzaagurtu; whether these were connected with Örgöö it is not quite clear."

Apart from establishing Gelugpa monasteries, little is known about Zanabazar's attempts to instill the Gelugpa doctrines in Mongolia. Pozdneev, surveying the traditional Mongolian accounts available in the 1890s, exclaimed,

"What is remarkable is the total absence of testimony concerning the manner in which the Gegen, having become a worshipper of the Dalai Lama and a follower of the Ge-lug-bas, forced out the rites and theories of the Sakya sect, which up to that time had been accepted in Khalkha. In all probability, the Ge-lug-ba lamas who accompanied the Gegen, seeing that the theoretical knowledge was but slightly developed in Khalkha, decided that the Khalkas might be converted without any struggle and that all that would be necessary would be to conduct the matter steadfastly and to introduce every innovation gradually, and then the people would not even notice the transition from one sect to another."

Thus is would appear-keeping in mind that most subsequent histories were written by Gelugpa monks-that Mongolia was spared the sectarian strife which had plagued Tibet in the 1630s and early 1640s and resulted in the forceful suppression of the Jonangpa sect to which Zanabazar's previous incarnation belonged.

Zanabazar apparently spent much of 1652 establishing his new monastery at the confluence of the Tuul and the Selbi. In early 1653, according to the Rosary of White Lotuses, but mentioned in no other biography of Zanabazar, he traveled south across the Gobi Desert to Inner Mongolia for yet another meeting with the 5th Dalai Lama, who at that time was just returning from a visit to the Qing emperor Shunzhi in Beijing.

The Ming Dynasty had been overthrown and the Qing Dynasty established eight years earlier in 1644. The nominal founder of the Qing Dynasty, Abahai, had died a year before and left the throne to his five year old son Shunzhi. Thus the emperor was only fourteen or fifteen years old when he met the Dalai Lama-a detail omitted by the Rosary of White Lotuses-and was no doubt heavily under the influence of his regents. Nevertheless, "His faith in the Gelugpa teaching and its holders was unshakable," according to the Rosary.

Shunzhi, or his Qing advisors, had sent a delegation to Lhasa to invite the Dalai Lama to Beijing back on 1650, but the Great Fifth was initially reluctant to go, fearing both the smallpox then raging in China and the political implications of appearing as a supplicant in the Qing court. After a period of meditation at the Oracle Lake he decided that the Qing Emperor could not be ignored and that he would have to make the lengthy journey to China.

The young emperor Shunzhi personally rode out outside of Beijing to met the Dalai Lama and escorted him into the capital, where the so-called the Golden Palace had been specially built at the cost of 90,000 silver sangs to house the Tibetan religious leader. Shunzhi showered the Dalai Lama with a vast array of gifts-golden tea-churners, thousands of rolls of brocade and silk, golden saddles, skins of tigers, leopards, and various other fauna, pearls, silver ingots, and much else-and gave him the honorific of "Precious Glory of the West, Sovereign of the World, Possessor of All Wisdom, All-Knowing One, Talai Lama Vajradhara." The Dalai Lama reciprocated by anointing Shunzhi the "Lordly Emperor Melodiously Wise Bodhisattva Sky Divinity".

Dalai Lama biographer Glenn Mullin, surveying the literature on the subject, provides an explanation for this love-fest:

Some modern historians suggest that the emperor's motives in inviting the Dalai Lama to Beijing and showing him such respect was to gain his peace-keeping influence with the tribal groups that lived along his western and northwestern borders. As the highest reincarnate lama in the Tibetan Buddhist world, the Great Fifth was held in great standing by the Tibetan and Mongolian tribes that lived in these regions. A good word from him would go a long way in mitigating conflicts.

The Dalai Lama left Beijing on the 20th day of the 2nd Hor month of 1653, according to the Rosary, having been given one final gift by the Emperor-a rosary made of pearls each the size of the tip of a thumb. After journeying ten days from Beijing, apparently in what is now Inner Mongolia, the Dalai Lama had the meeting with Zanabazar mentioned in the Rosary. Unfortunately more details are lacking. Ten days later, on the 10th of the third month, we are told that the Dalai Lama arrived at Taika Monastery (apparently in current-day Inner Mongolia; exact location unknown) where he met with a large assemblage of Mongols and Tibetans. Whether Zanabazar accompanied the Dalai Lama to Taika-assuming that he was in Inner Mongolia in the first place- and was present at this gathering is not clear. If he was he must have surely been impressed: "The faithful from all over Hor and Sog assembled there. . . To all of them, he [the Dalai Lama] gave a great and uninterrupted stream of the Dharma nectar. He was offered gold, silver, horses, cattle, etc., in amounts difficult for the mind to comprehend," the Rosary of White Lotuses tells us, adding somewhat enigmatically, "which was posing understandable problems every now and then."

We do know that later in 1653 Zanabazar traveled to Erdene Zuu, founded by his great-grandfather, and appeared before a convocation of Khalkh nobility. It is not quite clear if Erdene Zuu was at that time still a Sakya stronghold-it had been consecrated by Sakya monks-or if Zanabazar actually stayed within the confines of the monastery. In any case, at this time he prevailed upon his followers to build him a new retreat in the mountains about 50 miles southwest of Erdene Zuu, at a place Shireet Ulaan Uul.

In 1648, about the time he had founded Baruun Monastery on the Shariyn Gol, between Erdene Zuu and Shireet Ulaan Uul, Zanabazar had noticed a flat-topped peak among the ridges west of the Orkhon River and apparently decided it was an auspicious spot. Upon his return from Tibet in 1561 he had a small stone-walled mediation hut built here. Then in 1653, while at Erdene Zuu, he asked that a temple and retreat be built here for his personal use. Later it also became a workshop where many of his most famous artworks were created. After his death it became known as Tövkhon Monastery, the name by which it is known today.

In 1654 we find Zanabazar in the Baga Khentii Mountains, part of the Khentii Range in what now T öv Aimag. Above the valley of a small tributary of the Tuul River known as the Khiidiyn Gol, about five miles southeast of 8717' Khiidiyn Sardag Uul, Zanabazar established yet another Gelugpa monastery. Its official name was Ribo-gejai-gandan-shadublin (The Rosary of White Lotus's Riwo-Gerjay Gandan Shendrup Ling), but like Zanabazar's residences at Shireet Tsagaan Nuur and at the monastery founded at the confluence of the Tuul and the Selbi three years earlier, it also became known as Örgöö. Thus it would seem that by this time the tradition had been established that wherever the Bogd Gegen was in residence was called Örgöö. Mongolian sources indicate that this monastery on the upper Tuul was also known as Ikh Khuree, the name by which the monastery on at the Shargiyn Gol-now known as Shankh-near Erdene Zuu was also originally called. Thus Örgöö and Ikh Khuree apparently became synonymous for the residence of the Bogd Gegen, wherever it may have been at the time. Not until much later, in 1779, was a permanent, official residence for the Bogd Gegen established near the confluence of the Tuul and the Selbi rivers, finally ending the peripatetic wanderings of Örgöö and Ikh Khuree. As noted earlier it was this Örgöö at the Tuul and the Selbi that would eventually become known by the name Urga to non-Mongolians.

Apparently Zanabazar planned to make the monastery on the upper Tuul-in what is now a very remote area sixty-three miles north of current-day Ulaan Baatar-the new center of Buddhism in Mongolia. On the lower slope of Bukh Yan Mountain, at an elevation of about 6000' a naturally occurring terrace was built up and enlarged into a flat area measuring some 650 by 575 feet. Here eventually were to be built seven large temples, three big stupas, and attendant buildings. Perhaps influenced by what he had seen in Tibet and by the Tibetan monks and artisans in his entourage, Zanabazar employed Tibetan designs in the construction of the temples. This was an extensive project and Zanabazar was only able to initiate it in 1654. An Amdo Aimag, presumably in large part made up of Tibetan lamas from Amdo who had accompanied Zanabazar back from Tibet, was eventually established, along with several other aimags and a Tantric College. The entire complex was not completed until 1680. The monastery did not survive long; as we shall see, it was completely destroyed in the internal upheavals of the late 1680s.

Having established at least three monasteries and well on his way to his goal of solidifying the position of the Gelugpa sect in Mongolia, in 1655 Zanabazar apparently decided to enlarge his sphere of influence even further by sending an embassy to the Qing emperor Shunzhi. Perhaps he had been influenced by the Dalai Lama's spectacular reception in Beijing and now thought that he himself should make the acquaintance of the Qing potentate. He therefore dispatched messengers to Beijing with gifts of various Buddhist paintings and statues. If he hoped for an invitation to Beijing he was disappointed.

"In return," Pozdneev, who was famously proficient in both Mongolian and Manchu written languages and thus presumably had access to the relevant source materials, tells us, Zanabazar "is honored with flattering eulogies; but there are absolutely no indications whatsoever to the effect that Shun Chih [Shunzhi] recognized in any way the Gegen's hegemony at the that time or had any intention of making him an instrument for influencing the Mongols."

As we shall see, a later Qing emperor would be all to ready to use Zanabazar as a means of influencing the Khalkha Mongols.
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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