Forging New Traditions for the Future


I use the term “shamanism,” even though these ideas are held by many Buryats and Mongols who practice Buddhism as well. The ideas, however, originate in the nature religion practiced by the pre-Buddhist Buryats, Mongols, and Tibetans as well. In short, I define shamanism as the aboriginal religion of the Buryat Mongols and their Siberian neighbors, which reveres the forces of the natural and spirit worlds and which is observed by customs to honor and at times placate these forces. The shaman is not central to the practice of this religion (in shamanism the word “religion” itself is not really an appropriate term), and for this reason some Russian scholars have taken to referring to traditional Siberian worship as “tengrianstvo” (Tengrism), after the name of the chief deity Tenger, Father Heaven. Buryat and Siberian spirituality has many parallels with native spiritualities around the world, especially those of Native Americans, as detailed in my paper “A Comparison of the Traditional Religions of the Mongols and Dene,” presented in Ulan-Ude in 1997. In the next few sections I will describe the various ideas connected with Buryat Mongolian shamanism and suggest how they may be used to help create new philosophies and strategies for the new millennium.

Applications for the 21st Century
When you have fixed yourself
Fix your community,
When you have fixed your community
Fix the world.
When you have fixed the world,
Adjust your sash.
If you are afraid,
Don’t do it.
If you do it,
Do not be afraid of the outcome
Old Mongolian proverbs

The beginning of a new millennium and a new century is in reality only a conception of the human mind since time is circular, but yet this point in history does present opportunities for change in the way humankind takes care of its environment and in the behavior of the individual and society. Many Mongols and Buryats have a strong conviction that the vision of the world and the customs passed down from the ancestors bear an important message for the human future. In fact certain popular prophecies which will be mentioned later in this article convey the idea that the adoption of this message is most urgent. Here I will present some of these ideas for your contemplation. By meditating on these ideas you will be reminded of the relationship between native peoples and the world and you may find that over time you will discover new ideas coming into your mind and new visions for the future.


The Individual

1.Father Heaven – Spirit
2.Mother Earth – Physical Being
3.The Ancestors – Wisdom
The spiritual aspect of an individual’s nature is associated with Father Heaven, from whom originates windhorse, spiritual power, and blessing. From Mother Earth we draw the nurturance of our physical being, and from our connection with her alone can we continue to survive as human beings. From the ancestors we gain the wisdom, from the memories of our suns and ami souls, as well as from the guidance and assistance of the ancestral suld souls which reside in natural places, in ongons, and who are the helper spirits of shamans. Furthermore the individual must relate himself to being in the context of nature and society. There are three principles involved with this:
1. Know Oneself
2. The key relationship is mother and child
3. Nature is the teacher
These three principles are very powerful. How many of us truly know ourselves? This goes beyond knowing where we were born or what our names are. Knowing oneself is knowing one’s purpose is in life, free of delusions and the demands of other people who try to impose control. When a person knows their life purpose all other things in life become very balanced and clear. A life purpose is a touchstone, when confronted with a problem, a demand, or a major decision it is necessary to take one’s life purpose into consideration before making a decision. This will also inspire vision and wisdom in how to best apply oneself for the betterment of society and the world.
The key relationship of mother and child does not only mean the relationship between the individual and his or her birth mother, but also the relationship between humankind and Mother Earth. Mothers provide us with life, and so the earth is the origin of physical life as well. Practically no society in human history has ever condoned disrespect of mothers by their children. Why is it that human society has so wantonly abused Mother Earth and forgotten this fundamental connection between our life and the nurturing earth on which we all stand? As stated in the Buryat dallaga prayer, we all draw milk from the breast of Mother Earth, why should we poison our own milk? This thought, if truly understood and taken to heart, will transform an individual’s relationship with the environment. If this idea spreads, it can transform the human race’s relationship with our planet and improve our prospects for the future.
Why is nature a teacher? This may not be so apparent in the Western/European world since there has been an arbitrary separation between human society and nature. From the Mongolian perspective, however, there is no separation. Nature is a teacher because everything happens along natural processes, whether it is in the natural environment or in human society. Politics, social movements, social interaction, religion, mathematics, science, technology, and all other human creations are still all the products of natural processes. We do not “play God,” we have never been able to truly change any process of nature, only apply these processes in ways that are useful. Even this computer with which I wrote there words is powered by the sun, which has shone on the Sayan Mountains, melting the snow which flows into the Angara River and powers the dam that provides electricity for our city here in Siberia. The knowledge that I impart has been passed down by tradition, something that all sentient beings do. We are not so far away from our origins as we think. Only a few days living in the Mongolian steppe or in the Siberian forest will make that clear. If we do not learn from nature, whether on the level of subsistence, as native peoples do, or even in the most advanced scientific research, we will fail to understand our world and therefore waste our energies on mistakes, some of which may be quite costly. What is the lesson that is too often ignored? Technological society has chosen to ignore the effects of its harnessing of certain natural processes on the rest of nature. Nature is in a state of balance, for everything that is done to it there is a reaction, and some of these results may present a danger to the future of humankind if we do not pay more attention to them. In social context we must also look at the natural processes affecting human society, in a local as well as on the global level. This requires us to seriously address the problems of poverty and overpopulation; it is well known that when this occurs in animal communities it ultimately leads to hardship, disorder, and death


Visions for the 21st Century from the Buryat Mongolian Perspective
The Mongolian Buryat intellectual Gongorjav Boshigt has termed the three principles described above as “eco-humanism”. At this time he heads a movement in Mongolia, the Negdsen Hudelguun (United Movement), which advocates the application of traditional Mongolian principles to the reform of Mongolian society rather than following the philosophy and economics of the colonialist powers which had formerly tried to impose their views from outside. It is his vision, as well as the vision of many other Mongolian and Siberian leaders, that a new society based on these traditional principles can create a prototype for a new social order for the new millennium.
Many of the most dynamic leaders among Mongols and Siberians have come from traditionally shamanist regions. For example, in Inner Mongolia the leaders of the struggle for independence from China included several leaders from the traditionally shamanist Dagurs (2). In Mongolia, both in the revolution of 1921 and in the democratic movement of 1990 a notably large number of leaders came from the Buryats and Urianhai, both of whom were traditionally shamanist. In Buryatia shamans and intellectuals from traditionally shamanist regions are highly respected and very influential in the revival of Buryat Mongolian culture. In former times people such as they suffered the brunt of the harsh repression of Mongolian nationalism in Buryatia during Stalin’s rule. The ideas of social responsibility as well as the principles described in the previous section are so much an integral part of Mongolian shamanist thought that it is no surprise that the regions of Mongolian lands where shamanism survived the strongest has produced people inspired to political action and leadership. A person with a sense of life purpose will be impelled to improve not only his own life, but the lives of those around him.
The Buryat writer Erbaktanov has observed that Mongols have twice played key roles in world history. The first time was when the Huns, the ancestors of the Mongols living in southern Siberia and Mongolia, migrated westward into Europe. The Huns’ invasion dealt the final blow to Roman power and set the stage for the evolution of a new European society. Then again, in the 13th century, Chinggis Khan created a new world order, opening up trade and the exchange of ideas between Europe and Asia; a process which over time spurred European society into the Renaissance and the development of modern European society. In Asia the legacy of the Mongols was no less strong, for they united China, made several important reforms in Chinese society, and then later also united much of India ( in the Mogul Empire).
In the opinion of Erbaktanov, however, the Mongols have a third opportunity in the new millennium to once again shape human history. In his own dramatic and prophetic words, Siberia will the the “pole of the new world culture.” Why does he believe that the Mongols have such an important destiny? Mongolia/Siberia is one of the few places left in the world where traditional values and practices honoring earth and nature have survived relatively pure up to the present time. For this reason Erbaktanov believes that Buryats and Siberians will lead a movement to establish a new relationship with the biosphere.
In a more mythological and apocalyptic vein there are other beliefs and prophecies which are part of current oral tradition in Buryatia and Mongolia. For one, some Buryats believe that the spirit of Bukhe Beligte Tenger could be re-awakened. Bukhe Beligte, according to Mongolian mythology, had been sent down to earth as the hero Geser after a feud between some of the tenger(sky spirits) had resulted in disease and severe damage to the natural world. It is not a stretch of the imagination to believe that Bukhe Beligte Tenger may need to be called again to restore our world to balance, even though the damage to our environment in this time is the result of the ignorance and selfishness of humans, rather than that of the tenger.


Another prophecy that many Buryats and Mongols are now talking about predicts a return of Chinggis Khan. In some variants of the prophecy his spirit will return as a guide and protector for the Mongols in the Sagaalgan of 1999 and some have suggested the creation of a great ongon (shamanist shrine) for his return. Others say that he will be reincarnated and that he will grow up to be a great leader. His role in human history, however, is not simply of re-creating an empire as it was in the Middle Ages. These stories say that he will bring a new vision and order to mankind that will be vital for human survival. Some variations of this prophecy also speak of invasion from outside of this world, but the key idea is reform of human society.
Since these visions of the future come from within Buryat and Mongolian culture, they need to be viewed from a larger perspective. These are the ideas of a native people, that like many native peoples throughout the world has struggled and succeeded in preserving the traditions passed down from the ancestors. In the larger picture, therefore, it conveys a message that is now coming from many places throughout the world where these traditions have survived. There are many parallel prophecies coming from Native American peoples such as the Hopi, Maya, and Inka, among others. Aboriginal peoples, people who have lived in intimate contact and interaction with the natural world for countless generations, hold the key to the future. The society of the future will be constructed using the ideas which the native peoples have in common, a wisdom that has evolved from thousands of years of intimate interaction with natural forces that affect us all.

The theme of respect for nature is a recurrent theme in my writing, as it is in many aspects of Buryat life and custom. If it seems that I repeat it much, it can never be repeated enough until it once again becomes a guiding principle for all mankind.
Renewable resources are the key to survival of native peoples. Take what you need, no more, and take what can replenish itself. This ancient wisdom is as relevant today as it ever was. Secondly, this means that waste should be minimized and things re-used as much as possible. For example, in most Western societies today people waste and throw away many useful things. In contrast, “dumpster diving,” foraging for re-usable trash, would be most difficult in Siberia or Mongolia, since people use things until they are absolutely worn out. This requires a re-thinking of what products one buys and how one uses them. What can be recycled, and what is the impact on the environment of the products we use and discard? Conscientious buying choices and disposal of our waste is a big step in the right direction. Furthermore, it is vital for us, wherever we are, to pressure industry and government to encourage the manufacture of goods from renewable raw materials and the use of industrial processes that minimize pollution. We all need to encourage the development of “appropriate technology,” technology which more efficiently uses natural raw materials and energy sources in a way as to have a lesser impact on the environment.
Thinking collectively is an important part of the philosophy of all native peoples. Buryats, like many other indigenous peoples, traditionally lived in extended family groups and clans, and while people still act as individuals, in general there is more consideration of the effects of one’s actions on others. This is not a mechanism of social control, but rather a necessity for survival when a people is living off the land. One person’s mistake can endanger not only himself but potentially the entire clan. Therefore no individual can think only of himself but must be aware of what he does affects the people around him. As the proverbs at the beginning of this section eloquently describe, individual responsibility is not selfishness, but only the beginning from which a person’s actions affects his community and the world. Furthermore, since we are connected to and responsible to those people who are around us, any new political philosophy must seriously address the problems of poverty and social inequality. While traditional societies like the Mongols and others may have had ruling families and some class differences, nevertheless it was and is intolerable for anyone to be left starving and impoverished while other members of the social group had food and shelter to share. Each of these ideas can be found in other places, but this is a Mongolian perspective on some of the things which need to be done to create a better society for the future.