Buddhism and religious pluralism in Mongolia

By Sükhbaatar DEMBEREL, Lecturer, Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies, National University of Mongolia

Civil society and the legal right to religious freedom

The Preamble of the 1992 democratic Constitution begins by saying that “We, the people of Mongolia … shall aspire to the supreme goal of building and developing a humane, civic and democratic society in our motherland, and since, many social transformations have been made and movements had been launched in the country. Democracy will not continue to exist without the involvement and participation of public and civil societies. The structural and functional definition of a civil society has many forms, and is described as follows:
•    Complex of non-governmental organizations,
•    Correlation between NGO’s in society,
•    Correspondence of free citizens.
In this context, religious organizations constitute a part of the non-governmental organizations (NGOs).
Following the collapse of the communist regime, a multi-party political system, a free market economy and a free-market religion were introduced in the country. The democratic transformation introduced new thinking about the role of religion in society as well.
The Marxist paradigm of the sociology of religion in the socialist regime needs to change into a new paradigm of the sociology of religion suited to democratic transition. The old paradigm considered religion as ‘false and harmful’, while the new paradigm sees it as physically, mentally, and socially beneficial (Stark, R and Finke, R 2000).
Article 18 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights proclaims that “Everyone has the right of freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public and private, to manifest his religion or belief, in worship, teaching, practice and observance.” This provision from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights has found its due reflection in the Mongolian legislation of religious institutions, including the Constitution and the Law on State and Religious Institutions.
People expected that Buddhist practices would help them resolve the uncertainties and insecurities they encountered during the social transformation. In March 1990, the “Association of Mongolian Lay Buddhists” was established, which demanded religious freedom from the then communist government. Their struggle for religious freedom did not go in vain when the deputies of the Great People’s Khural – the National Assembly, acknowledged religious freedom as fundamental human rights and freedom, incorporating it in the new democratic Constitution as follows:
• No person shall be discriminated against on the basis of ethnic origin, language, race, age, sex [gender], social origin and status, property and assets, employment occupation and official position, religion and conscience, conviction and opinion, and education. Every human being shall be a legal person. (Article 14.2, Constitution of Mongolia).
• Article 16.15 of the Constitution proclaims “The citizens of Mongolia shall be guaranteed to exercise the following rights and freedoms: Freedom of conscience and religion.
• Furthermore, the Constitution Article 9 clarifies the relationship between the state and religion as follows, underlining the separation of state and church:
1. The State shall respect the religion, whereas the religion shall honor the State in Mongolia.
2. The organs of State shall not engage in religious activities, and the religious organizations or monasteries shall not conduct political activities.
3. The relationship between the State and religious organizations or monasteries shall be regulated by law.
• The previous two articles prohibit discrimination on grounds of religion and belief, and endorses the right to freedom of conscience and religion. The last article in the Constitution signifies that Mongolia is a secular state, and no religion has been declared as the state religion.
The population and housing census carried in 2010 shows how Mongolia is becoming a religiously diverse country.

The census survey shows that Buddhism is the status quo religion in the country. However, it indicates 6 religious traditions, which include 20 denominations and more than 800 temples, monasteries, churches and religious groups.
As Jean Bauberot has written, it is impossible to govern religious and cultural pluralism without deciding to remain within the three sides of the triangle representing the values of freedom, equality and separation, respectively.
Followers of Buddhism, a status quo religion in the country, tend to practice pluralism only with respect to freedom in this triangle.
While followers of Christianity, Islam, Shamanism and new religious movements, minority religion in the country, tend to practice pluralism only with respect to equality, they are always critical of the status quo religion.
Agnostics, atheists, non-religious humanists, on the other hand, tend to concentrate only on separation which quite rightly separates the Church and the State, but which does not separate the State from the society in which the religious choices of individuals and groups are made, that is to say, the public dimension of these choices, which is not the same as the State.

Classification of religion and changes of religious belief among Mongolians

According to the religious diversity survey of Pew Research Center, Mongolia became a religiously diverse country in the region after the democratic revolution .  Since many religions are being practiced in the Mongolian society such as Shamanism, Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, local researchers classify them as traditional and nontraditional religions. (Samdan Tsedendamba, 2014).  Due to their strong ties with the local culture and tradition, Shamanism, Buddhism and Islam are considered as the traditional religions in the society. Christianity (Catholic church, Eastern Orthodox and Protestant denominations) and other new religious movements are deemed as non-traditional religions, because of their recent inception in the country. In the Mongolian context, researchers can also apply classification of religions categorized by Bruce Lincoln’s (2003) and by Catherine L. Albanese (2013) into religions in the society.
The religions classified above have started to establish their influence in the Mongolian society, and the religious beliefs of people have dramatically changed over the last 25 odd years.

The following changes in religious beliefs of the public had had an impact on the social and spiritual life of the Mongolians. First, the reductionist approach and ideology of the most of the Mongolians’ on religion has changed from reductionist into a positive and idealist viewpoint. They see in religion the only path to resolve their problems of uncertainty in the profane world. Second, division on religious beliefs and groups has gained in scale and scope in the society. Third, denominations have broken out from the mainstream religion. Fourth, diversity of feature (based on age, race, tradition, social value, ideology etc.) is increasing within religion.

Religions in the Mongolian society

Shamanism has been the native religion of Mongolians throughout their history. 2.9% of all Mongolian individuals aged 15 and above were adherents of Shamanism according to a population census conducted in 2010. Mongolians believe that shamanism is the only alternative to maintaining the nomadic lifestyle, preserving the identity of Mongolians in this era of modernization and globalization. Shamanism has left an indelible mark on Mongolian religious culture, and it continues to be practiced even today. Shamanism is practiced individually and within family circles. The process of institutionalizing shamanism in the country is extremely slow because its worshiping object is related to a particular individual.
Mongolian Shamanism is divided into two shamanistic practices. First, there is the so-called black or cursor shamans related with 44 black spirits, which reside in the western heavenly realm. They perform curse rituals against others on behalf of their adherents, thus removing obstacles their adherents may be encountering. Second, the white or the saviour shamans related with 55 white spirits of ancestors, which inhabit in the eastern heavenly realm, performing rituals for removing curses and defilement of the followers.
Shamanism is playing certain positive role in the Mongolian society, such as preserving and disseminating culture, encouraging people to protect Mother Nature, dealing with social insecurities and uncertainties (Manduhai Buyandelgeryin 2007), and guiding principles of moral. However, the media has been reporting of negative influence of shamanism on the society, especially at the early stage of its revival after the democratic transition in the country. For example, the number of imposter shamans multiplied who were bent on using shamanism as a tool for making money, and they also carried out rituals harmful to the physical and mental health of the people, and these shamans were accused of lacking morality  and misbehavior.

Buddhism is the dominant religion in Mongolia. According to the 2010 National Census, among religious affiliated individual Mongolians aged 15 and above, 53% were Buddhists. There are four main Tibetan Buddhist denominations existing in the country, such as the Nyingma, Sakya, Kagyu and Gelug. Among them Gelug pa is the most influential denomination in Mongolia. However, in the recent decade, followers of the Gelug school have been divided and are grappled in the Dorje Shudgen controversy. The diversity of Mongolian Buddhism is thriving into conservative Buddhist group and progressive one.

A religious Tsam dance performance at the Dashchoilin Buddhist Monastery in Ulaanbaatar. Photo©TMO

After 1990, new monasteries and temples were re-built in the cities and rural areas of the country, but the former monastic structure and functionality have changed. Given the fact there was a lengthy interruption of old Buddhist monastic education, actions are being taken to train lamas of all ages: monasteries in the country are training novices, and monks are being sent to Buddhist monasteries in India for higher level Buddhist education. Increasing spiritual demand and need of the people is underestimating the spiritual role of the Buddhist monks, because people expect higher spiritual guidance and satisfaction from the monks. A public survey conducted by Mongolian researchers in 2013 shows that 62.3% of the participants did not have faith in the monks, and 37.7% of respondents said they had trust in the monks .
Scepticism of Buddhism is gaining ground in the society because Buddhist practises are mainly based on rituals and idol worship, almost all Buddhist texts and prayers are in Tibetan, there is a lack of interpretation of Buddhist teachings, the slack involvement of Buddhist monks in humanitarian activities and the slack practice of moral precepts by the monks themselves. The confidence of a majority of young generation in Buddhist monks is waning and some of them have even established new lay Buddhist movements and organizations. The new lay Buddhist organizations, adapting the method of humanitarian activities of Christians, are carrying out humanitarian projects in the society. Buddhist monks, acknowledging public criticism levelled against then are beginning to support and engage with the new lay Buddhist organizations in providing services to the local communities.
The latest trend in Mongolian Buddhism is the revival of the tradition of reincarnating the Khuvilgaan Khutagts (Living Buddhas). Current study shows that some 20 of Mongolian Khuvilgaans have been reincarnated; they have been celebrated among the local population. These reincarnated Living Buddhas will be the future leaders of Mongolian Buddhism. They have been trained in India in higher Buddhist education. However, this practice has its fallacy too. Some researchers maintain that sending young Mongolian for Buddhist training in India at an early age could alienate them from Mongolian culture and traditions.

Following are some challenges and risks for Buddhism in modern Mongolia society in this era of globalization.
• Distortion of the image and reputation of Buddhism by political and Christian propaganda over the last 90 years;
• Competition with other religions in the religious market;
• Engaging in social activities;
• Low engagement in religious dialogue with other religious communities;
• The decline of its status quo;
• Absence of a central religious authority over the Buddhist communities;
• The ongoing struggle to win the interest of young people, and its adherents are aging;
• There is no legal framework for reincarnating High Lamas, who are the spiritual leaders of people;
• If  the 10th Bogdo Jebtsundamba Khutagt is reincarnated, there is no establishment of his institute
•    The declining number of the monk community;
•    Deserting of Buddhist temples in the rural countryside;
•    Buddhist pilgrimage network and its infrastructure have not developed over the years since the beginning of the transition, and,
•    Free market economy’s contribution to the loss of invaluable Buddhist art pieces.
Christianity is the fastest spreading religion and is posing challenge to Buddhism. According to the 2010 National Census, among religious affiliated Mongolian individuals aged 15 and above, 2.1 % were Christians. The number of adherents of Christianity in Mongolia will increase gradually, since the majority of Christian followers are adolescents and young people. The Christian community in the country is becoming increasingly diverse based on their denominations. The main three denominations of Christianity have established their own churches in the country after 1990.

A Sunday prayer at the Russian Orthodox Church in Ulaanbaatar. Photo©TMO

A survey conducted by a Christian organization states that the number of Christian population is growing in Mongolia. According to a Christian missionary group the Barnabas Fund, the number of Christians has multiplied from just four in 1989 to around 40,000 as of 2008. As of 2003, there were some 1000 Catholics, and their number gradually growing because of the active engagement of Catholics in humanitarian and social activities.
There is one Russian Orthodox Church in Mongolia’s capital city of Ulaanbaatar. Most of church goers are Russian settlers in the country. A few Mongolians, who were educated in Russia have been converted into Russian Orthodox church.
The Protestant community is the largest group in the Mongolian Christian society. Many protestant denominations and sects (such as Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, Lutheran) have all established their own churches. Protestants have become the most influential religious group within the Mongolian Christian community.
In May 2013, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS), also known as the Mormons, held a cultural program to celebrate 20 years of LDS Church in Mongolia, with 10,900 members, and 6 church buildings in the capital city. The humanitarian aid of Christian churches is highly appreciated by the public, but their exclusive view of winning new adherents is creating friction and tension between other Christian denominations as well and other religions. The exclusive view of Christian churches is distorting the image of other religions in a civil society.
The Kazakh ethnic group, living in the western part of the country, some Mongolians and other Turkic peoples /Khoton/ in the country traditionally adhere to Islam. According to the 2010 National Census, among religious affiliated Mongolian individuals aged 15 and above, 3% were Muslims. According to a 2014 data from the State Statistical Office, there were 4 mosques in Ulaanbaatar and around 12 mosques in the rural countryside.

Sunday Mass at the St. Paul and Peter Cathedral in the Mongolian Capital. Photo©TMO

Islam is synonymous to the identity of the Kazakhs in Mongolia. Mongolian Muslims primarily belong to the Sunni denomination of Islam. The age of Muslims in Mongolia is becoming younger. Young Kazakhs being sent to Egypt, Kazakhstan, and primarily Turkey for gaining Islamic education. The revival of Islam in the country promoted with financial help from Kazakhstan, Turkey and other Islamic countries. Muslim Kazakhs are casting as bridge between Islamic and Mongolian nomadic culture.
Islam is playing the following role in among the Kazakh society. First, Islam is a means to protect, preserve and disseminate the culture of the Kazakhs (language, literature, art). Second, Islam is a bond uniting the Kazakh community and it engages the followers in social activities. Third, Islam is a guiding principle of moral and morality. Fourth, Dealing with uncertainty.

Friday prayer and a Kazakh Imam conducting the prayer in Ulaanbaatar. Photo©TMO

New religious movements grow in the fertile environment of free spiritual market, globalization, transition period of social change, social and economic uncertainty, use of information technology in last 2 decades in the country. The survey shows there are around 50 new religious movement organizations are legally and illegally (registered or un-registered) operating in the country, primarily in the UB city.  Social media, an anti-cultist activist have raised public awareness of some negative features of new religious movement such as Moonies, New heaven and earth (Shincheonji) and Jehovah’s witnesses. The new religious movements, originating in South Korea and the United States, have been increasing their presence in the country.
Religions in Mongolia have their own doctrines, rituals and practices, but they are all based on one common value of kindness and morality. If religious pluralism is endorsed in the religious community of the country, the benefit from it will be reaped by the civil and democratic society.

Religious tolerance
Religious tolerance is weaved into the fabric of the Mongolian society, the source of which can be traced back to the times of Chinggis Khan, the founder of the Great Mongol Emperor. The very fact that the Constitution of Mongolia does not declare any one religion as a state religion is a striking evidence of religious tolerance, a guarantee of the freedom of conscience and religion.
Societal respect for religious freedom varies, but on the whole, it is on the positive although there are reports of discrimination and at times, even harassment. However, “Christian leaders reported the public viewed Christians in an increasingly positive light as their social and charitable works became more widely recognized. Some local authorities even sought out the services of Christian groups” according to the 2015 Mongolia Religion Report of the United States Department of State.
As part of status quo religion in Mongolia, some Buddhist monasteries such as Züün Khüree Dashichoilin monastery actively engages with other religious communities through different event, such as the World Religion day, World Peace Day, interfaith dialogue etc.

• Since Buddhism is the status quo religion in Mongolia, it is impending on it to play an active role in spreading the message of religious pluralism in the society.
• This article provides understanding of Religion and Society in Mongolia’s post-socialist era. Mongolia became a highly religious diverse country after the collapse of communism. The thought of religious pluralism, tolerance, interfaith dialogue should spread in various adherent levels in the religious community, and not only among the religious leaders.
In summary, I would like to suggest the following to iron out minor tensions between various religious communities.
• Since Mongolians are fostering a civil democratic society, religious pluralistic idea should be encouraged within diverse religious communities to resolve abuse of religious belief systems.
• Mongolians have different religious faiths today but are unanimous that all Mongolians should unite under the single spirit of Mongolian identity.  The state should promote religious pluralism and interfaith dialogue.
• “The Law on the Relationship between the Church and the State” must reflect the ideology of religious pluralism for building a benevolent society.

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