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In order to explore the development of Buddhism as Mongolia’s predominant religion and its significance in the country’s cultural and political history, it is important to understand some of the geographical characteristics of this country that are largely unknown to Westerners. It is also important to understand how these traits of physical territory and land boundaries have influenced Mongolia’s political, social, cultural, and religious history. Mongolia is typically considered an Asian nation; however, it shares geographical borders with China on the south and the east, and Russia on the north (Central Intelligence Agency n.p.). Both of these borders are incredibly extensive; the border between Mongolia and China is almost 3,000 miles long, and the border between Mongolia and Russia is 2,200 miles long (Central Intelligence Agency n.p.).
Mongolia also shares a much smaller border with Kazakhstan, which is its neighbor to the west. Mongolia’s geographical position, then, has placed it in contact with at least two diverse cultural influences, and its history has been shaped by the tensions it has experienced as it negotiates being a veritable middle kingdom between the large and politically important countries of China and Russia (Kaplonski 17). In other words, the religion and general society, more so than in many other nations and regions, is significantly impacted by geographical location and the important historical, political, territorial, and other issues caused by the paradox of both this possibility of extreme isolation and long-term contact with other cultures and ideas.
Geographical Conditions and the Historical Antecedents of Mongolian Buddhism
The landmass of Mongolia is impressive, totaling approximately 1,564,116 square kilometers; it is the second largest landlocked country in the world, another fact that has influenced its history in important ways (Central Intelligence Agency n.p.). The vast territory that Mongolia currently occupies was captured in the 13th century by the famous warrior Genghis Khan, as he is known to Westerners, or Chinggis Khan, as he is known to Mongolians (Central Intelligency Agency n.p.). Chinggis Khan was a significant figure in Mongolian history, for he united disparate bands of Mongols, began to lay the foundation for the development of a cultural identity, and, among other political achievements, facilitated the introduction of Buddhism to Mongolia (Amitai & Biran 245). As Amitai and Biran explain, Chinggis Khan’s insatiable quest for developing a Mongolian empire in the Eurasian region brought him and his supporters into direct contact with people from a diverse array of cultures and religious backgrounds (245). Part of Chinggis Khan’s political strategy was to “exploit the religious allegiances of [his] unsubued enemies” (Amitai & Biran 245), but also, perhaps largely unconsciously, to begin developing a religious identity for the Mongols based on a pastiche of the beliefs that he observed and acquired in his travels.
Prior to Chinggis Khan’s return to his Mongol kingdom, when he brought Buddhism back as a sort of religious souvenir, Amitai and Biran indicate that many Mongols practiced various forms of shamanic religious beliefs, drawn from a wide range of spiritual traditions (246). Christianity was not unknown to the Mongols either, however, as a relatively strong European expeditionary movement brought its religion along with it (Amitai & Biran 248). A large number of people who identified as Mongols who had come from what is now modern-day Iran also practiced Islam, so until the moment of Khan’s rule, Mongolia sustained a variety of religious beliefs and practices that were as diverse as the backgrounds of its people (Amitai & Biran 247; Fagan 35). As Amitai and Biran conclude, “There is no doubt that the Mongols did rely upon servitors from a wide range of geographical and confessional backgrounds….” (247).
These seemingly disparate groups of religious adherents did not, as some observers might assume erroneously, generate profound conflict or a lack of identity among the Mongols. On the contrary, write Amitai and Biran, “the frontiers between different faiths were not impermeable,” (254), and it is most likely that rather than any single one of the groups practicing a “pure” version of its denomination’s beliefs there was an “amalgam” that was uniquely Mongolian (Amitai & Biran 254). This can be explained, in large part, to the psychological and social attributes of a nomadic population, which the Mongols were (Amitai & Biran 254). Yet this comfortable interplay of religions was largely due to the policies and practices of the 13th century leader, Chinggis Khan, who “invited Muslims, Christians, Buddhists and Daoists here, [according to] Mongolian member of Parliament, Sendenjav Dulam…. ” (Fagan 34). Parliament member Dulam continues by saying that Mongolians have inherited a legacy of religious tolerance that is rare in the world. He goes on to say that “Mongolians are very tolerant in the religious sphere- I’ve never come across anything like it anywhere else” (in Fagan 34). As will be discussed later in this paper, the trend of religious tolerance that was established so many centuries ago is still a prominent feature of contemporary life in Mongolia, despite emergent concerns.