Life among the ruins
Murdered monks, an epidemic of a fatal illness, a communist revolution, extraordinarily high taxes — all this and more wiped out a community. Will it arise again? VEN THUBTEN GYATSO tells the story of a man with the determination and vision to restore Baldan Baraivan, and his own sojourn in a glade of flowers.
At the turn of last century, the Gelug monastery of Baldan Baraivan, 300km east of Ulaan Baatar, housed nearly three thousand monks with another two to three thousand lay practitioners living nearby. First, an epidemic of what sounds like smallpox decimated the inhabitants, then the communist revolution occurred. With no capitalist system to attack in this country of nomads, the communists turned their blind hatred towards the monasteries. First they taxed the lamas at a ridiculous level and then, on the pretext of not paying their taxes, over three years in the 1930s they took all the older monks and leaders of the monasteries away and murdered them. Witnesses tell of a line of yellow lama hats along the top of a ditch dug to receive their bodies — the hats fell off as communist bullets entered the back of their heads. The physically strong monks were sent to work camps in Siberia, and were not heard from again. And the young novice monks were sent home to look after the animals. The communists then removed all usable building materials from the monastery site, which was like a small village, destroyed the holy objects, and burned everything else.
Today, the roofless shell of the main gompa remains, and little else. Granite foundations show where the monks and lay people lived in their wooden and felt gers and shacks, the ground is littered with broken domestic and religious artifacts, and conifers and silver birch have crept down from the surrounding granite ridges to reclaim their valley. The people have gone and, in early summer, only the sound of cuckoos can be heard in this valley of magnificent rock formations. Clearly, however, the Dharma needs more than auspicious rocks to remain alive.
A ray of hope for this tragic scene lies in the enthusiasm of Mark Hintzke, founder of the Cultural Restoration Tourism Project, to rebuild the main gompa and turn the valley once again into a place of Buddhist study and practice. Mark provides the basic requirements for people from all over the world to come and help the Mongolian people with restoration work. Cultural tourists perform light manual work, and their fees finance the project, along with donations from individuals and clear-sighted organizations. There is also plenty of time to explore the magnificent surroundings — the entire valley was once part of Genghis Khan’s home territory.
I arrived at Baldan Baraivan in mid-June to give some Dharma talks to the local people and to a group of volunteers working on the restoration. For one week, a group of lamas from a main town in the province came to lead the lay people in a mani retreat. Some of these lamas, now in their eighties and nineties, had been among the young novices expelled from the monastery before it was destroyed. They had lived as herders and returned to the religious life once freedom was regained from the communists. People arrived on horseback from many miles away and the valley assumed the classic appearance of the generic Mongolian painting. Gers and tents mushroomed, and everywhere there were cooking fires, wood-gatherers, horses, dogs, sheep, goats, cattle, and children at play …