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Book Review


Jerryson, Michael K. Mongolian Buddhism: The Rise and Fall of the Sangha (Chaing Mai, Thailand: Silkworm Books, 2007). 240 pp. $23.95.

     Outside of the Mongol Empire and perhaps the Xiongnu tribal confederation, Mongolia is usually not mentioned in world history textbooks or supplements. Nonetheless, Mongolia can be an interesting case study on a variety of topics, particularly Buddhism. Unfortunately, most of the monographs on this topic are very old, very expensive, or very specialized—or all three. Fortunately, University of California Santa Barbara Ph. D. candidate Michael K. Jerryson has produced a very readable and useful introduction to Buddhism in Mongolia, based on his Master's Thesis at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Although this review is based on the original thesis produced in Thailand, it is also being published in the United States in conjunction with the University of Washington.

     Mongolian Buddhism, as the title implies, discusses the origin and ultimate demise of the Buddhist religion in Mongolia. The book begins, after a couple of nice maps, with an introductory chapter that describes Mongolian Buddhism in a larger Buddhist context, particularly exploring the question of whether it was Mahayana or Vajrayana Buddhism.  Since it was derived from the Tibetan model, it is accurate to call it Vajrayana, or Diamond Vehicle.  In addition, is has been called Lamaism as the monks are known as lamas. The introduction is very useful, because Jerryson carefully takes the reader through views of Mongolian Buddhism in academia and in popular culture. It also contains a succinct review of the literature on the topic and an explanation of the transliteration.  The latter is especially important, as transliteration of Mongolian names has not been standardized. This is further complicated because two different scripts are used in the sources, the vertical, introduced in the time of Chinggis Khan, and the Cyrillic, imposed with encouragement by Josef Stalin.

     Chapter two focuses on the origins of Mongolian Buddhism, beginning in the Mongol Empire through 1691, when the Khalkha Mongols submitted to the Qing Empire with the Treaty of Dolon Nor rather than face the threat of the Zhungar Mongols (Western non-Chinggisid Mongols). In truth, this is the weakest chapter in the book, primarily because of some minor errors concerning the Mongol Empire such as spelling Ögödei Khan's son as Göten rather than Köten, though this is an understandable mistake for those not familiar with Middle Mongolian.  Nonetheless, the chapter serves as a lucid introduction to novices on the topic of Buddhism in the empire.  Jerryson then quickly moves through Mongolian ties to Buddhism in the Mongol Empire to the post-Empire period of civil wars, with a nicely detailed account of the encounter between Altan Khan and bSod-nams-rgya-mtsho—an encounter that produced the position of the Dalai Lama.  Students will probably express great interest in this, and teachers could stimulate a discussion of how Buddhism spread into a region where the dominant religion was shamanism.  Students in surveys often ask how one can abandon the religion in which one was raised for another.  Jerryson explains the process quite capably.

     Chapter three examines Buddhism under the Qing Empire.  Here Jerryson examines Qing methods of controlling the Sangha so that it cannot become a source of leadership or unity against Qing control. This was a key step, as many of the conflicts between the Zhungars and the Qing centered around the issue of who was the more legitimate Buddhist ruler—the Qing Emperor or the Zhungar Khan, the latter who received his title from the Dalai Lama.  A long held belief in China during both the Ming and the Qing periods was that that Buddhism would ultimately pacify the Mongols.  Thus the Qing encouraged the building of monasteries and the translation of religious texts. The key step in controlling the Sangha, however, was the decree in 1761 that ruled that future incarnations of the Bogd Gegeen or Jebtsundamba Qutuqtu (ranked third in the Tibetan Buddhist hierarchy after the Dalai Lama and Panchen Lama) could only be found in Tibet. This manipulation of the religion was in hope that an outsider would not gain the unswerving loyalty that the Bodg Gegeen normally held from the Mongolians.

     After the collapse of the Qing Empire, Mongolia emerged as independent and ruled as a theocracy by the Bogd Gegeen. This is the subject of chapter four. Unfortunately for this government, it appeared during the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia. White Russians fled into Mongolia, who drove out Chinese warlord forces but then attracted the attention of the Red Army. As Jerryson notes, this did not bode well for Mongolian Buddhism. Jerryson handles this chapter quite well, considering the anarchy of the period.

     Chapter five focuses on the beginnings of socialist rule in Mongolia and the slow yet growing government action against Buddhism. It is curious that neither the Mongolian People's Revolutionary Party nor the Soviets attempted to move against the Sangha until after the death of the Bogd Gegeen. Jerryson places his focus on the shift in the party from intellectual lamas and secular moderates to the ascendancy of radicals. Chapter six then moves into the reign of terror instigated by the Soviets and carried out under the leadership of Qorlogiin Choibalsin's, often called the Stalin of Mongolia. The reign of terror began due to revolts raised by lamas after the MPRP implemented economic policies to weaken the Sangha. The key instrument was the Dotood Yaam, commonly known as the Green Hats, the Mongolian equivalent to the NKVD and KGB. Jerryson again handles this chapter adroitly, particularly through his integration of artwork from the period to show government propaganda against the lamas and snippets of memoirs from the period.

     The final chapter, titled "Socialism to Democracy," discusses Mongolia after the destruction of the Sangha.  Most of the lamas were purged or reeducated. A few remained, essentially as show pieces. So effective was the suppression of religion that Buddhism had become irrelevant in Mongolia until 1990. This is a concept that is almost impossible to grasp for most American students. I try to explain it by asking my students (in the Bible Belt) to imagine no churches, services, youth groups, etc., in the South.  Again most cannot grasp it as it truly is a huge and unimaginable event, but at least they begin to get an inkling of the ramifications. The chapter itself is split between the last fifty years of socialist rule and then almost two decades of independence. A key issue here is the revival of Buddhism, but also the introduction of new religions such as evangelical Christianity. 

     The last half of the book is an appendix devoted to interviews conducted by Jerryson during his field work. These are valuable primary sources and come from a wide array of interviewees ranging from victims, relatives, and even a member of the dreaded Dotood Yaam. In total, there are fifteen personal narratives.

     Mongolian Buddhism is not the final word on the topic, but it is a good overview and introduction to a complex yet often overlooked episode of history. Jerryson's Mongolian Buddhism is a work that could be used in a variety of ways in the classroom. For general world history or world religions classes it might be used to discuss the spread of Buddhism and how syncretism adapts religions to cultures. It may also be used to discuss the methods of empire building and control in the Qing Empire.  For those seeking a book to deal with the repercussions of Soviet policies, Mongolian Buddhism does it quite well for the U. S. S. R.'s "sixteenth" republic. Religious revivalism in Mongolia has taken on many new forms, not only in Buddhism but with the arrival of Christian Evangelicals and even Mormon missionaries in their ubiquitous white shirts and black pants. Finally, a key theme to Mongolian Buddhism is identity.  Buddhism gave Mongolia a unique identity, and then with the fall of the sangha and the rise of communism, a new identity was forged. The old identity was not completely forgotten, but even seventeen years after the fall of communism, one must wonder how the Mongolia's new Buddhist identity will take shape.


Timothy May
North Georgia College & State University


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