In the late 12th and early 13th centuries, a confederation of Mongol tribes rose up in Outer and Inner Mongolia under the leadership of Genghis Khan (1162 -1227).
Though the Mongols had certainly had contact with Buddhist neighbours (Jurchen, Tanguts, and Chinese), Genghis continued to support indigenous shamanist practices.
However, following his death in 1227 and the subsequent conquest of China and much of Central and Western Asia by his sons and grandsons,
Buddhism - specifically Tibetan Buddhism - began to have a significant impact on Mongolian concepts of rulership and Empire.
Genghis’s son Ogodei (r. 1229-1241) established a Mongol empire that stretched from Korea (occupied in 1238) to present-day Poland and Hungary (1241).
Ogodei’s second son, Godan Khan (1206 – 1251), invaded Tibet several times and in 1244 brought 3 prominent Tibetan Sakya lamas as guests (or hostages) to his court in Liangzhou (modern Gansu province):
They were Sakya Paṇḍita, 1182-1251), head of the Sakya School, and his 2 nephews, Drogon Chogyal Phagpa (1235-1280) and Chakna Dorje (1239-1267).
Under duress, Sakya Paṇḍita wrote a letter to Tibet’s great nobles and lamas praising Godan Khan, but he also initiated him into Tibetan Buddhist practice, thereby trading political control of Tibet for spiritual authority over the Mongol khan.
Mongol rule over Tibet was formally achieved in 1252 by Ogodei’s nephew, Mongke (r. 1251-1259), whose guru was the Kagyu master, miracle worker, and eventual 2nd Karmapa, Karma Pakshi (1204-1283).
Mongke’s successor and brother, Kublai Khan (r. 1260-1294) followed Godan Khan’s example when he proclaimed himself Emperor of the Chinese Yuan dynasty in 1260.
Urged by his wife Chabi, Kublai allowed Drogon Chogyal Phagpa to initiate him into the Hevajra Tantra on the promise that he would gain the intelligence and compassion of the great protector Mahākāla.
Tibetan Vajrayāna Buddhism offered worldly benefits to the Emperor as well:
By naming “National Preceptor” and, 10 years later, “Imperial Preceptor”, the 2 reigned side- by-side as “Sun and Moon” in an ostensibly balanced patron-lama relationship.
Drogon Chogyal Phagpa acted as the Mongols’ agent in Tibet and as head of their court of the general administration of Buddhism, the office in charge of religious institutions throughout the empire.
Kublai’s protection and patronage of the Tibetan Sakyapa signalled his auspicious status as a world-ruling Buddhist Cakravartin (wheel-turning king),
though he also encouraged an atmosphere of religious tolerance, even sponsoring debates at court between Buddhists and Taoists.
In 1345 Kublai was posthumously celebrated at the Juyong Pass, a grand stone Stūpa-gate constructed northeast of the Mongol capital at Dadu (modern Beijing), where a multilingual inscription asserted his identity as “benevolent king” and “Mañjuśrī-emperor.”
Kublai’s representation as an emanation of Mañjuśrī, the Bodhisattva of wisdom, who, it was believed, dwelled in China’s Wutaishan (Five Terrace Mountains in modern Shanxi province), was a strategic move designed to solidify waning Mongol control over north China.
The Mongol Yuan dynasty was not long able to rule China effectively after Kublai’s death, however:
By the middle of the 14th century, they had lost control of southern China and,
in 1368 the Yuan was toppled by a former Chinese Buddhist monk, Zhu Yuanzhang (Hongwu Emperor, 1328 - 1398), who founded the Ming dynasty.
With the collapse of their East Asian empire, the Mongols retreated beyond the Great Wall.
Evidence of their continued devotion to Buddhism is sparse in the centuries following the end of the Yuan.
Buddhist practice was mainly limited to the Genghisid aristocracy, who retained limited political control in the Chahar region of eastern Inner Mongolia as the Northern Yuan.
In the late 16th century, however, as the Ming dynasty began to decay, a number of khans moved to rebuild the Mongol Empire:
Among them was a Western Mongol of the Tumed tribe, Altan (the Golden) Khan (r. 1543-1582):
Altan drove the Northern Yuan east to Liaodong Peninsula, captured Ogodei’s old Outer Mongolian capital, Kharakhorum, and forged an alliance with the Ming.
Altan was not a blood descendant of Genghis Khan, however, which proved to be an obstacle in his attempts to forge a new Mongolian confederation:
Following an initiation into Tibetan Buddhism presaged in a dream, in 1577 he arranged to meet the Gelug lama Sonam Gyatso (1543-1588) at Kokonor, in modern Qinghai province.
Sonam Gyatso was in the direct lineage of Tsongkhapa (1357-1419), the founder of the Gelug order: At Kokonor the two exchanged titles:
Sonam Gyatso recognized Altan as Kublai Khan’s incarnation, and Altan gave Sonam Gyatso a new title, Dalai (meaning “ocean” in Mongolian) Lama:
Sonam Gyatso became the 3rd in the Dalai Lama lineage, with 2 of his predecessors posthumously named as the first and second.
This exalted title and Mongol support gave the Gelugpa an advantage in their on-going struggles with the Kagyupa, who were advisers to the Tibetan kings, and the Sakyapa. The Mongols had once again become an essential component in the power structure of Tibetan Buddhism.
To honour Sonam Gyatso, Altan Khan built a monastery, Da Zhao Temple, at his capital Kokeqota (modern Hohhot in Inner Mongolia):
There, following Altan’s decree prohibiting shamanist practices, the 3rd Dalai Lama used the fire Maṇḍala of Mahākāla to burn ongod, shamanist ancestral images.
By Altan Khan’s order, the deities of Tibetan Buddhism quickly replaced many of the spirits of shamanism, while in the following decades the shamanist spirits of important Mongolian mountains were incorporated whole into an expanding Buddhist pantheon.
The Gelugpa’s willingness to ally themselves with Mongol khans brought other candidates forward:
Among them was Genghis’s descendant, Abadai Khan of the Outer Mongolian Khalkha tribe, who met with Sonam Gyatso at Kokeqota in 1576 or 1577, where he was entitled as khan.
Abadai Khan returned to Khalkha to found the Tusheet khanate and to build Erdene Zuu, a monastery at Ogodei’s old capital of Kharakhorum modelled on Altan Khan’s monastery in Kokeqota.
After failing to recruit Gelugpa lamas to come to Khalkha for his monastery’s consecration, Abadai enlisted local Sakyapa lamas. As a result, Erdene Zuu continued to be allied with the Sakyapa, even long after the Khalkha khans solidly came to support the Gelugpa.
In 1588 the 3rd Dalai Lama died en route to Mongolia:
Altan Khan, sensing a brilliant opportunity, pushed to have his own great-grandson recognized as the 4th Dalai Lama, who was named Yonten Gyatso (1589-1617).
Despite this prestigious coup, through the first decades of the 17th century Inner Mongolia remained contested ground:
The Northern Yuan emperor, Ligdan Khan (r. 1605-1634), a devout Buddhist, patronized the Sakyapa and supported a complete Mongolian translation of the Kangyur (a project later emulated in a woodblock printed version by the Manchu Kangxi Emperor, (r. 1660-1723).
In 1617 Ligdan was given a golden image of Mahākāla that was said to have been made by Drogon Chogyal Phagpa and used in Kublai’s campaigns against south China:
Ligdan enshrined it at the centre of his capital in Chahar.
As he retreated west in the face of Manchu incursions in 1634, the Mahākāla and all the powers that accompanied it fell into Manchu hands. In 1636 they took the image and installed it in the centre of their ancestral capital, Mukden, later moving it to Beijing.
Meanwhile, in Tibet, the 5th Dalai Lama enlisted the support of Gushri Khan of the Khoshut, who had established himself in the Kokonor region:
In 1642 Khoshut troops defeated the rivals of the 5th Dalai Lama and the Gelug, most notably the king of Ü-Tsang. This year traditionally marks the beginning of the Dalai Lamas’ rule over Tibet.
However, it was only with the death of Gushri Khan in 1656 that the 5th Dalai Lama became the unrivalled ruler of Tibet.
Some years earlier, in 1639, Abadai’s son, the Tusheet Khan Gombodorji (1594-1655), had had his own young son, known as Zanabazar (1634-1723), initiated as a Buddhist monk at Erdene Zuu before convocation of Khalkha lords:
The boy travelled to Tibet with a large retinue in 1651, where the 5th Dalai Lama recognized him as an incarnation of the famous historian Tāranātha (1575-1634), a member of a rival order, the Jonangpa, who had spent years missionizing in Mongolia.
The Dalai Lama gave Zanabazar the title Jetsun Dampa and charged him with establishing the Gelugpa in Khalkha.
Zanabazar is credited with building numerous monasteries, the primary of which was a traveling collection of yurts, Urga (from Mongolian orgoo, “palace”) or Da Khuree (Great Circle), where he reigned as Jetsun Dampa Khutukhtu (Mongolian for Tulku, incarnate lama) of Urga.
He also designed rituals; established religious festivals, among them the annual Maitreya Festival; borrowed from the Panchen Lama’s monastery, Tashi Lhunpo Monastery; and produced brilliant paintings and sculptures.
In 1691, pressed by the onslaughts of Galdan khan of the Western Mongolian Dzungar tribe, Zanabazar led the Khalkha lords to Dolon Nor, Inner Mongolia, to seek the protection of the Qing Kangxi Emperor:
The Emperor and his lama subsequently spent considerable time together in Beijing and at Wutaishan.
In 1697, Qing forces decisively defeated Galdan at the Battle of Jao Modo.
At age 66, Zanabazar finally resettled in Khalkha Mongolia in 1701 to supervise restoration of the Erdene Zuu Monastery, destroyed in 1688 by Galdan's troops.
Over the next several years he oversaw the building of several more Buddhist monasteries in Mongolia while travelling to Beijing annually to meet with the Qing Emperor.
When first the Emperor and then Zanabazar died in 1723, the latter’s remains were enshrined at imperial expense at a new, palatial Chinese-style monastery, Amarbayasgalant Monastery (“Monastery of Blessed Peace”). The nearest town is Erdenet which is about 60 km to the south-west
The Qing emperors, following the Mongols’ precedent, were recognized by the 5th Dalai Lama as emanations of Mañjuśrī. They maintained close diplomatic relations with the great lamas of Tibet and Mongolia.
During the 18-19th centuries, hundreds of Mongolian lamas flooded into the Qing capital at Beijing, where they were mainly housed at the Huangsi (Yellow Monastery) and the Yonghe Temple (Palace of Harmony).
The lineage that forged the closest ties to the Qing emperors was that of the Changkya Khutukhtus, who were granted primacy over the Gelugpa Buddhists of Inner Mongolia.
Particularly effective was the 3rd incarnation, Changkya Rolpe Dorje (1717-1786):
Born in Amdo of a Monguor (Tibetanized Mongol) family, Rolpe Dorje was brought to the Sōngzhu Monastery in Beijing as a child during the reign of the Yongzheng Emperor (r. 1723-1735) and raised with Yongzheng’s eventual heir, Hongli, who reigned as the Qianlong Emperor (r. 1736-1795).
Qianlong’s reign marks the height of Mongolian and Tibetan Buddhist prestige and power at the Qing court:
Rolpe Dorje initiated the emperor into the Cakrasaṁvara Tantra in 1745, taught him Tibetan and Sanskrit, and accompanied him on regular pilgrimages to Wutaishan.
Rolpe Dorje was also an invaluable adviser in the Emperor’s efforts to control the process of incarnation among the powerful lineages of Tibet and Mongolia, and in his many projects in Buddhist art, architecture, translation, and publishing in Beijing, Chengde (Jehol), Dolon Nor, and beyond.
The Mongolian lineages of the Jetsun Dampa Khutukhtus of Urga and the Changkya Khutukhtus of Beijing and Inner Mongolia, as well as many other Mongolian lineages, were perpetuated through incarnation into the 20th century:
The Qing closely controlled this process to the end of the dynasty and found all the Jetsun Dampa Khutukhtus after Zanabazar’s immediate successor in Tibet:
Few of Zanabazar’s incarnations (with the exception of the 4th) exhibited his spiritual or political brilliance; in fact, few lived to reach adulthood.
The 8th in the line (1870/1-1924) was brought to Urga from Tibet in 1876 and eventually found himself enthroned as Bogd Khan, a Mongolian title previously reserved for the Qing Emperors, upon the fall of the Qing Empire in 1912:
He played a dual role as leader of the Mongolian Gelugpa and head of the new (Outer) Mongolian state until his death from syphilis in 1924.
His incarnation, the 9th Bogd Gegen, was found shortly after, (b. 1933; from 1991, recognized by the Dalai Lama; in Tibet exile to 1959, then in India; died in 2012 in Ulan Bator),
but by then Mongolia was in the midst of political chaos and the new incarnation was forced into exile.
Through the 1930s and 1940s Buddhist themes were deployed as propaganda by various contending forces:
Among them were the Japanese, who during their occupation of Manchuria claimed Japan was Śambhala;
the Russians, who made the same claim about the Soviet Union, even as others hinted that V. I. Lenin was an incarnation of Langdarma, the apostate 9th century Tibetan king;
and the Chinese, who spread rumours that the Panchen Lama, then in exile in China, would invade Mongolia leading the armies of Śambhala.
Other would-be rulers, among them Jamtsarano (Jamsrangiin Tseveen, 1880 - 1942), a Buryat Mongol and a practicing Buddhist, urged a revitalization of Buddhism that would recapture the principles of Śākyamuni:
His renewal movement failed to convince the new communist-led government of the People’s Republic of Mongolia, however,
and, in 1937, following the precedent set by Joseph Stalin’s repression of the Russian Orthodox Church, Buddhism was banned:
The Mongolian government executed thousands of lamas, burned monasteries to the ground, and destroyed religious books and images.
Only a few rare small temples and Stūpas survived the initial onslaught and by 1944 Joseph Stalin pressured Mongolian Communist leadership to maintain a few monasteries
as a showpiece for international visitors, such as U.S. Vice President Henry Wallace, to prove that the Communist regime allowed freedom of religion.
Beginning with the collapse in 1991 of the Soviet Union, to which the People’s Republic of Mongolia was tied as an unofficial satellite,
Buddhism began to resurface in both Outer Mongolia and in Russian Buryatia:
Gandantegchinlen Monastery, the main monastery in Ulan Bator (located at the last site of Urga); Amarbayasgalant Monastery, where Zanabazar’s remains were once enshrined (and whence they were apparently stolen); Erdene Zuu; and other monasteries in Outer Mongolia began to rebuild their monastic populations, both through the return of former monks, by then elderly, and the entrance into monastic life of new initiates.
By contrast, in Inner Mongolia, an autonomous region of the People’s Republic of China, Buddhism has been submitted to the same Chinese state control as exists in Tibet.