Lama Zopa Rinpoche first started getting invitations to Mongolia from Bakula Rinpoche five or six years ago. Bakula Rinpoche is the Indian Ambassador to Mongolia and is a very high lama. He is actually a born prince of Ladakh in north India. He is considered to be an incarnation of one of the Sixteen Arhats.
Now in his eighties, Rinpoche was a member of the Indian parliament for a number of years for Ladakh; he also has four monasteries in Ladakh. Bakula Rinpoche’s monasteries are renowned for their strictness in upholding the vinaya, Buddha’s rules of discipline. His nephew is Rigdzong Rinpoche, who is next in line for Ganden Tri Rinpoche, the throne holder of Lama Tsongkhapa’s lineage.
Another interesting member of his family is his brother, an Indian saddhu in his nineties. For the last 50 years he has been wandering in Ladakh and Kashmir and doesn’t own a thing. He’s Hindu and Buddhist – outwardly he roams and dresses like a Hindu and stays in Hindu and Sikh ashrams. Bakula Rinpoche said he doesn’t speak much, but when he does, it’s mostly about emptiness. He knows a lot about different religions and says they’re the same because they’re empty.
Bakula Rinpoche has been in Mongolia since 1989, which is when it became a democracy. Mongolia is 17 hours west of the United States by plane. Outer Mongolia is directly north of China, in between China and Russia; the part of Russia it borders is Siberia. It takes about five hours by plane to get from New Delhi to the capital, Ulaanbaatar.
Recently Bakula Rinpoche sent Lama Zopa Rinpoche another invitation, this time for the opening of a new monastery and school he had built. However, the main inspiration for Rinpoche’s visit was an invitation from a small group of lay people. The main person in the group, a journalist named Batbold Baast, explained to Rinpoche in his letter that it’s very important for lamas like Rinpoche to come because many young Mongolians – literally thousands of them – have been converted to Christianity by missionaries, many of them American Mormons.
Batbold explained how sad it is that in this naturally Buddhist country these Christians are working so aggressively to write Buddhism off as an ancient, outdated and superstitious religion. At the same time the Christians are bringing a lot of money into the country and even sponsor the CNN news channel on the television; the commercials are all about Christianity.
The missionaries give a lot of material help – they even pay Mongolians to come to church! They pay them about $5 per person; the average Mongolian makes about $1 a day. And the church also has a television where people can come hang out and watch it. The Christians also teach English, and everything they teach is focused on making the young people learn about Christianity.
Rinpoche felt this was quite sad – not because there’s anything wrong with Christianity, but because Mongolia is a traditionally Buddhist country. He feels that young people don’t have the wisdom to analyze what they’re being taught. Rinpoche made up his mind that he would start an FPMT center in Mongolia before he even went there, and Batbold also asked Rinpoche that their group be part of the FPMT. Before leaving for Mongolia, Rinpoche met with His Holiness the Dalai Lama. His Holiness was very happy to hear Rinpoche was going to help and was keen for him to go.
The city is soviet-style – cold, square, austere, and everything is small; people are stuffed into apartments. Ulaanbaatar has about half a million people. There aren’t many cars because Russia was the only source of petrol and now very few people can afford petrol. The cars look like a parody of the 1950s. The young people are all dressed in the latest American style. Everyone has these high platform shoes, and they try to emulate the latest styles they see on CNN.
Mongolians as a people are very nice. When you walk around town no one stares – it’s more of a subdued feeling. There aren’t many shops. You can go into a good restaurant and buy a big meal of sheep and potatoes for a dollar – of course, that’s a whole day’s wages here. The petrol costs double what it is in the United States. When you want to get a taxi, you go into the road and start waving, and whoever wants to make a couple extra dollars will stop. There are no meters; it’s just an easy way to make extra money.
Another strange thing is that when we have been walking on the streets with Rinpoche, the Mongolians will come up to the Westerners, not to Rinpoche, to get blessings. They will take off their hats and bow right in front of you and Rinpoche is standing right next to you! In teachings it’s very different – they’re very humble and respectful of him.
There are a lot of nomads in this very large country who live far out in the country and who graze livestock. In a country of 2 million people they have 30 million livestock: horses, sheep, camels, yaks. When you come across a yurt (the traditional tent-like homes) in the middle of nowhere, they are surrounded by this amazing mixture of animals – like a huge bunch of friends.
The Communists used to take care of the nomads and take their milk, yogurt and cheese to sell in the communities. In return they gave the nomads what they need, including putting their kids in schools. With democracy, the nomads have to find buyers and sell their own things, look after themselves, and find schools for their kids. These people might be several hundred miles from the city – it’s very difficult to get all their goods to the nearest town, village or city, and they have no money to educate their kids.
The new monastery of Bakula Rinpoche is a private project, not associated with his duty as ambassador. A few other lamas came to the opening, including Gelek Rinpoche from Michigan, as well as the vice-president of India. All the main lamas of the Mongolian monasteries attended; it was a very nice occasion. There were about 40 monks in the monastery, and some came from Ladakh to help with religious entertainment. We were introduced to mare’s milk there – that’s an interesting experience!
Bakula Rinpoche’s main intention is to have a monastery where monks would live purely by vinaya rules. They would live in their vows as novices and fully-ordained monks, not be married and living at home. He has done a lot to help the revival of Buddhism in Mongolia – he has traveled all over the country teaching and has sent Mongolian monks to India and Tibet for proper training.
The first day of the opening ceremonies consisted of a ribbon-cutting ceremony and traditional music and dancing. The next day everyone was invited to the main stadium in the city for an afternoon of Mongolian culture. The stadium was full of people; singers, dancers, a group from Japan, many of whom were benefactors or government people. It was a nice mixture of dance, singing and music.
There were also two girls, both about 12, who were such amazing contortionists. It was like they had no bones in their bodies, and no one could believe they could twist or bend the way they did. It was certainly the highlight, except for the final performance, which was a display of Mongolia’s national sport: wrestling.
Ritual is an important part of Mongolian wrestling: they pair off and there are about 40 wrestling matches happening in the arena at the same time. The first one knocked to their knees is the loser. When they finish they do this slow movement like a dance with their arms soaring in the sky like eagles. The winner goes and carries a post like an eagle to show he was best. There were about 100 bouts and no one got upset because the ritual keeps it together. The wrestlers are strong, agile and fierce; it’s completely opposite to sensational American wrestling.
So whoever wins one match next wrestles the winner of another match until only two are left. This time everyone was cheering because one of the final two was the national champion for 10 years running; he was like a mountain, solid stone moving. The other was a popular and innovative young rising star, very untraditional. The young guy lost and was thrown to the ground. After the match both of them came up to Lama Zopa Rinpoche and Gelek Rinpoche, who gave a prize to each.
While Rinpoche was there he gave teachings in a rented hall. He didn’t come with a teaching program, and no one had any money to pay for the hall, so Rinpoche paid for it and any other costs. He taught on a Thursday and Friday, and over the weekend gave a Great Chenrezig initiation. Two hundred people showed up.
Most of the older people had books and pens and took notes constantly. Rinpoche said “their hands never stopped moving – they couldn’t write fast enough. It was very different from teaching in Lawudo, where they aren’t so educated.” You could tell they were very interested.
He taught on guru devotion and when he told them about the disadvantages of not devoting oneself to a guru, and how even one negative thought toward the guru would cause so many eons in the hell realms with intense suffering, the women would actually put their hands up to their mouths, turn to the one sitting next to them, and “tsk, tsk” and “oh, oh,” to each other. They had a lot of reactions. People generally think about the teachings, but these people were physically moved. Their gasping at the results of one moment of anger was audible. People literally took it to heart – I’ve never seen it like that before.
They were so obviously interested that if they didn’t understand what the translator was saying they would stand up and have them repeat it. The Communists were strict about education – there is 98 percent literacy in Mongolia. Many of them go to Russia for their educations.
Rinpoche taught at and visited different monasteries; the main one is Ganden. Within this monastery one room represents Sera and another Drepung. Ganden is on 5 acres right in the middle of Ulaanbaatar; the abbot is the main abbot in Mongolia. This abbot had taken his monk’s vows in Dharamsala and was one of a few who was ordained. Now there is a mix of lay lamas who have families and a new generation who are trying to live in accordance with the vinaya – this is causing some difficulties.
One Tibetan geshe in his late thirties was sent from India to teach monks. He explained that the situation of the monks is not very good. They have about 200 monks; about 60 of they are from Drepung Loseling, but they practice the protector. There are still a number of Mongolians who practice the protector.
The abbot and geshe explained that the monks go home to their families at night and during the day receive teachings and study. They have no money for food, so they have nothing to eat during the whole day. They have no shelter, so they have to go back to their families and risk degenerating their vows. Rinpoche accepted to build shelter for 140 monks and to offer them lunch, but not to the other 60. He feels uncomfortable that they are going against His Holiness’ wishes, but said if they changed their ways he would offer to them, too.
Nuns are almost unheard of in Mongolia. Rinpoche heard of a small nunnery and is interested to help them out.
Buddhist books are badly needed in Mongolia because so many texts were destroyed by the Communists. They preserved more than two million in Ganden, many of them rare texts, but they are in disarray; they are in Tibetan, which most people can’t read, or they’re in another Mongolian language that most people can’t read. People really enjoy reading books because everyone is well educated. There is a Norbulingka Institute set up there and run by a Tibetan geshe, and Rinpoche accepted his offer to publish three books in Mongolian. One of them is the Essence of Refined Gold and another is Buddhist Tenets.
Rinpoche also visited the other main monastery, Lam-rim Gompa. He was invited to teach by a lama who had to give up being a monk but is still head of the monastery. He took Rinpoche out into the country to show him a retreat place he is building. We went about an hour and 15 minutes out of Ulaanbaatar. When you go out of the city, it’s just like Tibet: really wide open spaces and huge valleys. This retreat place was in a valley, high up in the mountains. It was like Lord of the Rings – very beautiful and magical.
This abbot is building the retreat slowly because money is difficult to come by. He has a good relationship with Rinpoche and came to all the teachings. Rinpoche asked him if he could build some retreat huts on the land so Westerners could do retreat. The abbot was very happy. The area is great but winter is quite harsh and you can only get in and out in the winter by horse.
A couple of other interesting things happened during the trip. During the opening ceremony, a girl of about 10 came up to Rinpoche and began to speak to him in Mongolian. A translator told him, “This young girl wants to wish Rinpoche a very long life and says she will always pray for his long life.” It was very out of the ordinary.
An old lady dressed all in red came during Rinpoche’s preparation for the Chenrezig initiation, even though it was private. She appeared out of nowhere, sat on her knees a few feet from Rinpoche and wouldn’t leave. Gradually, she blended in so comfortably that she helped me with preparations.
On the second day there was confusion because we were supposed to be there four to five hours before the initiation privately on stage. We arrived at about 2 o’clock and the initiation was set for 6. When we got there someone else was on stage. The altar and mandala were already set up, but there was a group of musicians on stage practicing full-on! They had electric guitars, synthesizers, drums and a very large Mongolian man was bellowing with a loud voice – it turns out he’s a famous Mongolian singer. The speakers were about 16 feet [5 meters] high and so loud they made everything vibrate.
They had double-booked. There was a room nearby but Rinpoche was not interested to do his preparation there. We had to do the preparation, so what to do?
So there was Rinpoche, sitting bolt upright in meditation on stage doing self-initiation, and then these musicians were to one side playing this blaring music. It was so bizarre – Rinpoche was sitting perfectly silently as if he was part of the band. And I didn’t even have my camera!
Rinpoche didn’t even blink an eye. Rinpoche was meditating in a band. When the band finished, one by one the members came over very humbly to get Rinpoche’s blessings. They were so inspired that someone would do this that they came to ask for blessings and a blessing string with their hands in the mudra of prostrating. They quietly left, and the lady in red was still there.
In the beginning we were in a hotel, which was expensive, so we moved to an apartment. American Ven. George Churinoff came so Rinpoche thought he could stay to teach. Ven. Dakme, Tony Simmons and Debbie Rayfield also came to help. We rented an apartment that is Soviet-style like the others – too small and on the austere side. We then got one on the larger side, which is a little unusual. Rinpoche asked Australian Ven. Thubten Gyatso to come afterwards to be resident teacher for a year.
Six years ago the average apartment cost 400 dollars to buy, and now the same one costs 8,000 dollars. As yet people can’t own land they build on – they only lease it from the government. If you have a lease on land and then have a permanent structure on it, the government will give you the land.
Rinpoche decided early on to buy some property for the center, so some friends of Sagaday, the husband of Renuka Singh’s late sister Ashma (Rinpoche calls him Saka Dawa), helped us find a large three-story building. One room on each level could fit 200 people. It’s right in the center of town next to a Christian church.
The idea for the center is to use one level for teaching Dharma and Dharma programs, another for teaching English using Buddhist-English books, and another for a publishing house. Batbold is very keen to publish books in modern Mongolian. Rinpoche already gave him a list of 14 books to translate, including books by His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Rinpoche and Lama Yeshe.
One room is for handicapped people; one guy we met is 21 and was born with no legs and one arm, and said he’d had a very hard life. His parents were poor and he had nowhere to live, so he asked Rinpoche for his help. He knows other handicapped people, many of whom feel psychologically depressed and inferior, so he wants to learn Dharma and help them psychologically. They plan to make a school for handicapped people so they can learn English, computer skills, and feel their lives are useful and productive.
Through Batbold we found another building that is four stories that Rinpoche wants to buy. He will rent it out and use the rent to cover the costs of the center.
Rinpoche’s main focus in Mongolia is helping lay people. Monks have been taken care of already, so this is his primary interest. We met the leader of the opposition party through Sonam Wangchuk, so Rinpoche explained his purpose. He was very supportive when we explained we want to establish FPMT-Mongolia as a legal entity and promised Rinpoche they would process it in a week or two. FPMT will be a legal entity that will own property.
So the key activity is to focus on educating lay people in Buddhadharma in order to help revive Buddhism in Mongolia. People are very eager to learn. Rinpoche was gathering information on different habits to see what was really needed. We plan to do a weekly TV program on Buddhism, put together here with Richard Gere’s help. This would inspire the young in particular to preserve their natural culture – Buddhism.
Denma Lochö Rinpoche was supposed to come at the end of September, but they had no money for airfare or for him to teach. They had no space, either, so Rinpoche offered him use of our apartment.
After that they told Rinpoche that His Holiness had suggested that Rigdzong Rinpoche come to give the oral transmission of either the Kangyur or Tengyur, and the Ganden Tri Rinpoche was also supposed to come. They can’t afford any of it, so Rinpoche had the idea to build a very large gompa for 1,500 people. He feels it’s very important for these high lamas to bring back Dharma, pure Buddhism. He wants to build it in the center of town so people can get there easily.
Rinpoche was also thinking to have the Fourth Enlightened Experience Celebration there in the summer of 2001. That would bring Westerners there to receive teachings for two or three months. It would be so inspiring, and the young people would think again after seeing so many Westerners take teachings for so many months. It might inspire them to realize it’s not just some ancient superstitious thing. Young people think Christianity is the right way to go, that you’re on the progressive path to success, material success in particular. Anyhow, the EEC-4 isn’t confirmed, but the idea is to have the large gompa finished by then.
The other thing Rinpoche would like to build is a large Kalachakra stupa. His Holiness the Dalai Lama has been to Mongolia five times, the last time to give the Kalachakra initiation. They wouldn’t let him in the sixth time because of the Chinese. Most Mongolians don’t like the Chinese – they see the Chinese as being into the economy and too control-oriented.
The ninth Kalka Jetsün Dampa Rinpoche was in Mongolia before we arrived. He is like the Dalai Lama of Mongolia. The original Taranatha – a great lama from Tibet – passed away and his reincarnation became the first Jetsün Dampa Rinpoche. The first was highly renowned in Mongolia. This Jetsün Dampa was recognized by His Holiness many years ago.
It was difficult for him to get into Mongolia, but a couple of weeks before we came he came on the invitation of another monastery. He had a one-month visa, but the people wanted him to stay so much that they took his passport away. The government has put a lot of pressure on him since this happened and it all became very political. The Mongolians relate to him the same way Tibetans relate to His Holiness the Dalai Lama.
It was a complicated situation where he was illegally in the country but couldn’t get his passport back from the monastery – it was a stalemate. Rinpoche met with Jetsün Dampa Rinpoche and they talked for a while. Before we left he went to Buryat, a small country just inside the Russian border; the culture and people are just like Mongolia. They’re Buddhist there and the head lama is part of the Russian government. He’s like the boss of that small country and he invited Lama Zopa Rinpoche to teach there. He was very careful in checking on Rinpoche – he checked about him in Dharamsala and inquired about the FPMT in great detail. He made absolutely sure in Dharamsala that Rinpoche isn’t practicing the protector.
Rinpoche has also accepted to start an orphanage, as there are many orphans in the main cities. They would get Buddhist education as well.
Rinpoche is putting so much effort into Mongolia – he feels a very strong obligation to help revive Buddhism there. He is quite determined to get these projects up and running.
Feng-shui master Lillian Too gave Rinpoche $20,000 to start the Mongolian Fund, and Rinpoche has committed $40,000 to publish 17 books in the modern Mongolian language. If anyone is interested to help, it would be greatly appreciated.