Tibetan Buddhism

Tibetan Buddhism is often called “Lamaism”. To avoid confusing Tibetan Buddhism with other forms of Buddhism, Lamaism is a term that will be used here.

The history of Lamaism among the Mongols is long and sometimes violent. It is important to know this history so people can better understand the root of some sentiments between Shamanism and Lamaism. It is also important to remember this history so the atrocities do not repeat themselves.
Since the time of Chinggis Khaan, only people who were of his royal lineage were allowed to rule Mongolia. This frustrated many would-be rulers who were not of this line. Altan khan was the most destructive of these usurpers. He perceived that through the Buddhist faith he could gain legitimacy by claiming to be a reincarnation of Khublai Khaan.

Altan khan chose the Gelug order of Tibetan Buddhism (founded by Tsongkhapa, 1357-1419). In 1577 he invited the leader of this order, Sonam Gyatsho, to come to Mongolia and teach his people.

Sonam Gyatsho proclaimed Altan Khan to be the reincarnation of Khublai Khan, and in return, Altan Khan gave the title Dalai Lama to Sonam Gyatsho. Altan Khan posthumously awarded the title to his two predecessors, making Sonam Gyatsho the 3rd Dalai Lama.

Altan khan then proceeded to convert the Mongols to Buddhism either by choice or force.
“The Mongolian government and Lamaist bodies of that period implemented a variety of measures intended to wipe out Mongolian shamanism. For example, Tumed’s Altan Khan passed a law in 1578 that banned shamanist ideological propaganda and traditional rituals. Shamanist ceremonies, including burial-services that involved the burning of animal meat were forbidden by this law. In contrast, Buddhist annual and monthly fasting was strictly enforced. Laws protected inviolable rights of Lamaist officials as officers of the state according to their rank and positions respectively. The four main ranks of Lama priests became exempt from military and fiscal dues. Lavish gifts were given to incoming Lamas according to special codes. For example, a Lama should receive at least 100 horses or equivalent, if he were a learned priest, an unlearned one no less than 20, and even a servant or coachman should be given at least 10. Moreover, images and appurtenances of ongons were burned down and replaced with idols of Mahagal-Burhan. These were to be worshipped with sacrifices of the three kinds of animal flesh (mutton, beef, and horse), and all kinds of milk products. Households were forbidden to carry out shamanist worship at home. Culprits were to pay a fine in horses related to the number of offenses. These laws on one hand gave Lamaism legal, political and economic privileges, while on the other they persecuted shamans and severely restricted the practice of their customs.

Thanks mainly to the investment, assistance, and support of the Ming Dynasty, many Lamaist monasteries were built and many Buddhist texts were published in Beijing to be sent to Mongolia. It is evident that this zeal on the part of the Ming and Qing dynasties to spread the red and yellow Buddhist sects in Mongolia was primarily in order to undermine the heroic warrior traditions of the Mongols. Encouraging Lamaism or Yellow Buddhism in Mongolia subverted the Mongol traditional values. In this regard the distinguished scholar Roy Chapman Andrews wrote “There were several contributory causes of the decay of the Mongol race, but the primal factor was the introduction of Lamaism. Before this they were shamanists, worshipping the spirits of nature...in rocks, trees and mountains.”

Until the 1940’s there were a total of approximately 941 Buddhist monasteries, about 70% of which were not established until the 19th century.

The Manchurian Emperors [Qing Dynasty] instigated a number of aggressive and brutal measures against shamanism during the 17th century, including the humiliation of Oirad’s official Neij (1557-1653) and Zayar Bandid Namhayjamts (1575-1662). The teachings of Maydar Hutagt, sent to Mongolia for the intensification of Lamaism, spread in Mongolia. Shamans were killed, murdered, burnt with dog droppings, and subjected to many fines paid in livestock. Between the 1860’s and 1904, there were three mass burnings at campfires around Horchin, at which it was said, “The ones who have real powers will emerge unscathed, but the remainders shall die.”
Another such burning occurred in the 19th century in Besud Yost Zasagt Hoshuu.
Excerpt from Mongolian Shamanism by Purev Otgony


Besides the killing of shamans, the campaign to wipe out shamanism had many strategies.

First, Lamaist ideology spread by targeting shamans, their family, and their children by telling them they were reincarnations of great Lamas. They would then be encouraged to go to the monastery or send their children there, where they would be “reeducated” in Lamaist dogma. If the shaman was considered powerful or important, Lamaists would target their entire family.

Second, shaman prayers were rewritten with Lamaist influences and dogma. People were forced to recite the new prayers.

Third, Shaman ancestor spirits were “reincarnated” as Lamas or “converted” to Lamaism.

Fourth, Lamaists labeled all shamans “Black shamans”, no matter what their tradition. From the 17th to the 19th century, this label was used to create confusion, spread mistrust, and break down the different shaman traditions. (See “Types of Shamans”).

Fifth, Mongolian protector spirits were “converted” into Lamaism and were incorporated into what is called the Tsam dance.

Sixth, sacred shamanic sites were taken over and monasteries and stupas built over them.

In 1644 the Qing dynasty in China came to power. Unlike previous dynasties, the Qing dynasty was very involved with Mongolia, Tibet, and Central Asia. Through both military and diplomatic means, the Qing first overtook the Chahar Mongols and the territory of Inner Mongolia.

The Khalkha Mongols of outer Mongolia needed to unite. Tusheet Khan wanted to unite the Khalkhas. He believed that Lamaism could help unify the Mongols if they had their own Living Buddha. With a Living Buddha- a Bogdo Gegen- of Mongolian descent, he could unite the Mongols, and get out from under the over-lordship of the Dalai Lamas in Tibet. He nominated his son, Zanabazar (1635-1723) to be this living Buddha and sent him to Tibet to be recognized and schooled.

The political unity that Tusheet Khan sought was not successful. However, the tradition of a Bogdo Gegen of Mongolia had been born. Zanabazar returned from Tibet and was the first of many Bogdo Gegens.

In 1691, Mongolia was submitted to Qing ruler ship. The Qing government wanted to encourage Mongols to become pacifist-Lamaists and allowed the continuation of the Bogdo Gegen line. They did place many limitations on the Living Buddhas, however. A decree was made that reincarnations of Mongolia’s Living Buddha had to be found in Tibet and may not be related to any Mongolian nobility. These incarnations were also educated in Tibet before their “reign” in Mongolia. These puppet rulers of Mongolia could only engage in Lamaist religious pursuits and could not even travel without permission from the Qing government.

The series of Bogdo Gegens solidified Lamaism’s role through the region. More and more monasteries were built and people were expected to support them. Lamaist monasteries drained the wealth of the people and changed Mongolian society. My the mid 1800’s, 45% of Mongol males had taken monastic vows.

Many people were forced to serve as bondsmen to the monasteries. Bogdo Gegen had 22,000 monks and 28,000 bondsmen. There were many complaints of children being abused by monks. The monks themselves spread syphilis all over the countryside. The people began to feel unrest. In 1921, requests for assistance to the Soviet Communist government were made. In 1924, when the last Bogdo Gegen died with syphilis, the Mongolian People’s Republic was born.


Today Mongolia is a democracy with freedom of religion.

Shamanism has reemerged in Mongolia and is growing strong. The tribes that had lost shamanic traditions during the period of persecution have been able to look to their cousins who retained their shared indigenous beliefs. Peoples such as the Darhad, Western Buryats, and Urianhay, who were out of the reach of Lamaist rule, had staunchly kept their shamanist traditions. Now, all work in solidarity to bring balance back to our world.