A religion revived

A three-story gold Buddha stands todayin the capital of Mongolia. It is a year-old symbol of rebirth, decades after communism crushed Bhddhism and thousands of believers

Originally published on Dec. 1, 1997.

With much of its 604,000 square miles covered by Gobi Desert or wind-blown steppe, and almost half of its human population still leading a nomadic life, Mongolia can appear a deceptively tranquil place, forgotten by time and bypassed by politics.

But like so many countries now emerging from the oppressive blanket of a Communist state, this giant central Asian country has many dark secrets to reveal.

Some of the most shocking revolve around the systematic and often brutal efforts to banish Buddhism from a nation that once embraced the faith as its state religion. With Mongolia free of communism for seven years, those stories are coming out as Buddhism experiences a rapid revival.

Janchibiin, who, like most Mongolians, uses only one name, has experienced both the horror of religious persecution and the joy of religious restoration. A retired carpenter and herdsman who is now 88, Janchibiin was a young monk in training in 1938 when Russian and Mongolian security forces invaded and occupied his monastery in Renche Lumle in north-central Mongolia.

"In those days there were more than 1,000 monks living in and around the monastery," he recalled. "It was a great center of learning, and had been for more than a century." When the troops arrived, Janchibiin's cloistered world was shattered. The youngest monks were terrorized and sent home to their families. Those in their teens and early 20s were conscripted into the army. The rest were taken away for "re-education," said Janchibiin.

"We never saw or heard from them again.”

It is now generally accepted that most, if not all, were killed.

Janchibiin spoke of the past over refreshments in the felt ger, or yurt, in which he and his wife live.

At first he was hesitant to discuss his experiences as a young monk or to describe the monastery that once stood within sight of his yurt, as any show of interest in, or reverence for, the "old way" had been dangerous for more than half a century. But after sharing a silver bowl of airag - fermented mare's milk - he warmed to the topic and, for the first time to anyone beyond his immediate family, revealed a long-held secret.

"I want to show you something," he whispered. Beneath his spare, metal-frame bed, from a wooden box, he retrieved a yellowing school notebook. In it he had recorded every detail of monastic life, including long lists of the executed monks, and drawings of each of the 19 temples that once stood within the monastic compound.

Such written and visual records are extremely rare. The Soviet and Mongolian KGB were ruthless in destroying all traces of the religious organization their leaders so despised. "Now we can talk about such things," said Janchibiin with a broad smile. "Our past and future are united again.”

During the Communist purges of the 1930s, tens of thousands of Mongolia's monks and lamas were executed or sent to prisons in Siberia.

Through decades of Communist rule, Janchibiin kept his Buddhist beliefs to himself, and his memories hidden in the notebook beneath his bed. He now delights in Mongolia's religious revival. In the last seven years, 140 Buddhist temples have been rebuilt, many older people, like Janchibiin, have begun to practice again the faith of their youth, and a new generation of believers is taking up the religion.

The center of Mongolia's Buddhist revival is at Gandan Hiid Monastery in Ulan Bator. Once a vibrant educational center with about 10,000 resident monks, it was reduced to a lifeless "museum" in the 1920s. For the next 60 years it served as a Communist government showpiece to counter criticisms of human-rights abuses. Today, under the direction of its widely respected abbot, Choi-jamts, it is again a center of Buddhist life. The monastery boasts a secondary school, a theological seminary, and about 400 monks.

Each morning the courtyards inside the compound are thronged with laypeople turning large brass and copper prayer wheels, prostrating themselves on stone prayer slabs, or filing into the candlelit temples.

Since October 1996, faithful Buddhists have been able to add another point of veneration to their Gandan pilgrimage: a three-story, 90-ton gold Buddha called Megjed Janraiseg, the Deity of Infinite Compassion. The enormous standing figure replaces an identical statue that once stood on the spot.

The mysterious disappearance of the original statue in the 1940s is one of the stranger incidents of Mongolia's recent history. Some believe it was given to the Soviet Union and that it still exists, hidden in the bowels of an unidentified Russian museum. Others say it was stolen and melted down or carried away piecemeal by Soviet troops after World War II. Whatever happened, its removal from Gandan reflected both the final dismantling of Buddhism in Mongolia and the simultaneous loss of Mongolian autonomy to the Soviet Union.

It was, therefore, cause for great celebration when, after six years of work and contributions from 2 million of Mongolia's 2.5 million people, the new sculpture of Megjed Janraiseg was unveiled last year.

The next major construction project planned for Gandan Hiid will be less showy than the revered gold Buddha, but no less symbolic. "We will build a residence for monks in training here at Gandan," explained Baatar, 32, a monk and a member of the monastery's administrative board. "It will be a happy day when we can provide food and shelter as well as spiritual and educational training to a new generation of monks."