Buddhism in Communist Mongolia

(alternatehistory.com, 9 December 2014)

“On earth there were two great geniuses–Buddha and Lenin.”
Peljidiin Genden (future Premier of Mongolia), 1924

During the 1920’s some Buddhist intellectuals in the Soviet Union (and its “satellites” of Mongolia and Tannu Tuva) argued that Soviet anti-religious policies should not apply to Buddhism, not only because it was supposedly egalitarian in its “pure,” “original” form–other religions could make the same claim–but also because it was atheistic (a claim that even the most radical or “reform-minded” Christians and Muslims could not make about their own religion). An important figure here was the Buryat lama Agvan Dorzhiev (1853-1938).

Hans Bräker in his chapter on “Buddhism” in Eugene B. Shirley, Jr. and Michael Rowe, Candle in the Wind: Religion in the Soviet Union (Washington DC: Ethics and Public Policy Center, 1989, pp. 176-7) provides some background:

“The encounter with Christianity and other Western thought systems made possible by Russia’s 1905 Edict of Toleration resulted in the development of a movement in Buddhism generally called Lamaistic modernism. Comparable change did not occur in Lamaistic Buddhism in Tibet until the confrontation with Chinese Communism in 1949.
“Lamaistic modernism in Russia was closely linked to Lama Agvan Dorzhiev, leader of the Buryat clergy, born in 1853. Educated in Tibet, Dorzhiev became a friend and advisor of the thirteenth Dalai Lama in Lhasa, the Tibetan capital. In 1901 he was granted an audience with the tsar, whose inclination for the mysticism of the Orient was known. Dorzhiev suggested to the tsar that Russia should declare itself the liberator of Asia and defender of Buddhism, then mount a campaign southward over the Himalayas to ‘liberate the oppressed peoples.’
“After the October Revolution, Dorzhiev tried to develop Lamaistic modernism further by teaching the compatibility of Buddhism with Communism. The point of departure for this could only have been. of course, the atheism of Buddhist doctrine[*]. Leading Russian Orientalists joined in the effort to develop a modern version of Buddhism acceptable for the Soviet Union. For them, as for Lamaism itself, it was a matter of survival.
“The new Soviet leadership took advantage of Buddhist modernism and vigorously attempted to associate Soviet authority with the messianic expectations of the Lamaistic world. The first edition of the Great Soviet Encyclopedia, in a volume published in 1927. characterized Buddhism as a kind of declaration of the rights of mankind, and of the rights of the citizens in the East. This interpretation derived not from any sympathy with Buddhism but from hard-headed political pragmatism. In the interest of internal consolidation of power, the new Bolshevik leadership had to avoid all conflict with non-Marxist spiritual or religious forces…”

As Bräker notes, this pragmatic policy was in tension with the 1918 Decree on the Separation of Church From State and of School from Church:

“For Buddhism, the monastery is of central importance. The religious practice of the Buddhist laity as well as the lamas is centered in the monastery. When this institution was suppressed, Buddhism was deprived of its main foundation.
“The 1918 decree was very cautiously applied until the end of the 1920s, and for a time the Soviet leaders had to accept a marked revival of Buddhist religious life. The number of lamas increased substantially. The monastic educational system blossomed. Even the Young Communist movement of Central Asia recruited its cadres from monastery schools. According to the Great Soviet Encyclopedia (first edition), in 1916 there were 34 monasteries with 15,000 lamas in Buryat Mongolia; by 1923 some new monasteries had been founded (the number is not known), and the number of lamas had risen to about 16,000. In 1928 there were still 73 monastic schools alongside 119 government schools. In the region of the Kalmyks there were 70 monasteries and 1,600 lamas in 1916; by 1923 the number of lamas had increased to 2,840. In Tannu-Tuva, Lamaism was able to develop relatively undisturbed until 1929. At that time there were 22 monasteries and approximately 2,000 lamas in a population of 60,000.
“At the height of this development, in the winter of 1926-27, a congress of Soviet Buddhists took place in Buryat Mongolia under the direction of Dorzhiev. It gained a quasi-international status through the participation of numerous Buddhists from other central and east Asian countries and was therefore instrumental in disseminating the thesis of the compatibility of Buddhism and Communism. The message of allegiance that the congress sent to the Dalai Lama in Lhasa, however, must have provocatively demonstrated to the party and state leadership the dangerous internationalist orientation of Buddhism in the Soviet Union.
“The consolidation of Soviet power amid Stalin’s seizure of leadership led to a radical change in Soviet religious policy. The Law on Religious Associations of April 1929 led to the nearly complete annihilation of Buddhist practices in the Soviet Union by the second half of the 1930s.
“To begin with, anti-Buddhist articles appeared in the party press. The ideas that Marxism-Leninism and Buddhism were compatible and that, because of its atheism, Buddhism had a special position among the religions of the Soviet Union were labeled dangerous heresies. In the second edition of the Great Soviet Encyclopedia, Buddhism is seen as nothing more than an instrument created by the feudal masters to exploit the working masses.
“In 1929 a branch of the League of Militant Godless was organized in Buryat Mongolia. Its mission was to eradicate religious consciousness through ideological influence, i.e., atheistic propaganda. This policy was totally ineffectual, however, because many Buddhists, considering themselves atheists, joined the League. Party and state confronted them
with the argument that Buddhist atheism was not related to the militant atheism that is based on the Marxist-materialist understanding of the laws of nature and society.
“As ideological tactics against Buddhism proved ineffective administrative steps were taken. High taxes were imposed upon the monasteries supported by the populace. In 1929 numerous monasteries were forcibly closed, and many lamas were arrested and sent into exile…The Japanese expansion (1937-39) into China, as far as the border of Outer Mongolia, served as a pretext for increased persecution. Using the unfounded allegation that the lamas were agents of Japanese imperialism, the Soviet government closed the few remaining monasteries. In 1936 Foreign Minister Molotov could report at a reception in Moscow for a ‘delegation of workers’ from the Buryat ASSR that ‘the Buryat Mongolians had forever put an end to the many-thousand-headed class of lamas, which had like leeches sucked the blood from the body of the people of Buryat Mongolia.'” (pp. 178-9)

Christopher P. Atwood in his article on Dorzhiev in Encyclopedia of Mongolia and the Mongol Empire (pp. 151-2) notes that

“Dorzhiev advocated the elimination of lamas’ private property on both Buddhist and Communist grounds and participated actively in the first All-Union Buddhist Congress in January 1927 in Leningrad, which supported this policy. At the same time, he argued publicly that unlike Christianity, Buddhism supported the Soviet regime. He also defended the reputation of Buddhist medicine.
“In 1931 with increasing anti-religious persecution, Dorzhiev was confined to Leningrad. On May 30, 1935, the lamas of the Leningrad datsang were arrested. Dorzhiev was deported in January 1937 to the Atsagat medical datsang, where he was arrested on November 13 on the fabricated charge of being a leader of a Japanese spy ring doing ‘wrecking work’ in the collectives and preparing an armed insurrection. He died of heart failure in prison on January 29, 1938.” 

Suppose Stalin without otherwise modifying his anti-religious and “leftist” drive of 1929 and subsequent years decides to make an exception for Buddhism on the grounds of its alleged egalitarianism and atheism? We can make the proof of delivery that during his Siberian exile before the 1917 revolutions, Stalin had become acquainted with some Buryat intellectuals and was impressed by their accounts of how Buddhism was different from religions like Christianity and Islam. By the 1930’s Stalin had become so powerful that a personal quirk on his part could decisively change Soviet policy.

The consequences of such a privileged role for Buddhism would not be confined to the USSR but would also affect Mongolia and Tannu Tuva. The Mongolian People’s Republic had of course been formed under heavy Soviet influence. The ruling party, the Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party, in the 1920’s generally pursued a tolerant attitude toward Buddhism, despite some conflict; indeed, many lamas were Party members. Tseren-Ochiryn Dambadorj, then Chairman of the MPRP’s Central Committee, told the American left-wing journalist Anna Louise Strong in 1926:

“Our present slogan is ‘For a purer Buddhism.’ We could not possibly attack the Buddhist religion. We aim rather to weaken the influence of the lamas by going to the original teachings of Buddha which do not recognize property or monasteries, or all these embroideries of ceremony and power that the lamas have built. We deprive the lamas of political rights, denying them the vote since they do not work. We also tax them like other citizens. But it is a hard problem. For three hundred years the people have learned to reverence lamas. They will not unlearn in six years.”

Tsyben Zhamtsarano (or Jamtsarano or Jamsrangiin), a Buryat intellectual who was influential in Mongolia during the 1920’s (because the Buryats had been ruled by Russia for three centuries, they were convenient intermediaries between Soviet Russia and Mongolia during the 1920’s; indeed, for much of the decade they virtually ran Mongolia) strongly defended Buddhism in 1926:

“Seeing that the basic aims of our Party and of Buddhism are both the welfare of the people, there is no conflict between the two of them…It is a special case that in Russia religion is the opium of the people. What our lord Buddha taught cannot be equated with aggressive religions like Mohammedanism and Christianity, and though the communist party rejects religion and the priesthood, this has nothing to do with our Buddhist Faith. Our Party wants to see the Buddhist Faith flourishing in a pure form, and approves of lamas who stay in their lamaseries, reciting the scriptures and faithfully observing their vows.” (Quoted in C. R. Bawden, The Modern History of Mongolia, p. 286)

An example of the sophistication of the MPRP in dealing was Buddhism was the question of the incarnation of a ninth Jebtsundamba Khutuktu, when the eighth one (Bogd Khan, the only monarch of modern Mongolia, though merely a figurehead after the Soviet-sponsored “People’s Revolution” of 1921) died in 1924. The Party leaders were of course aware of the advantage of having no spiritual head of the Church as a rival. Nevertheless they did not dare forbid outright the search for a ninth incarnation. Instead, they temporized, and when (almost immediately after Bogd Khan’s death) a ninth incarnation was found in northern Mongolia, the Party merely declared that there was not sufficient evidence to accept this particular child as an incarnation. The Party’s Central Committee decided that the government should take up the general question of an incarnation with the Dalai Lama–a procedure which could be dragged out indefinitely. When in 1926 the high lamas requested to be allowed to find a ninth incarnation, the Party and government (after praising the late eighth incarnation for his role in freeing Mongolia from Chinese rule in 1911) replied that there was a tradition that there would be no further incarnations after the eighth, and that the whole matter should be taken up with the Dalai Lama. There was actually no Church teaching that the line of Khutuktus would come to an end with the eighth. But it had become almost a tradition after the death of each Khutuktu that there would be anxious rumors among the people that he would not be born again, and that the line of Khutuktus would die out with him. So instead of directly challenging Church dogma, the Party and government were cleverly playing on doubts and anxieties which were already vaguely familiar to the public in order to push through their intended policies without arousing too much popular resentment. One should remember that even under the Qing Dynasty, the installation of a new incarnation was never a matter for the Church alone to decide.

In late 1928, however, the Comintern decided that the leftward turn in the USSR must be applied to Mongolia as well; Dambadorj was ousted as a “right opportunist”; Zhamtsarano was denounced as a “pan-Mongol nationalist” and restricted to academic work. In 1932 he returned to the Soviet Union, where he was arrested in the 1937 purges, and accused of being a “pan-Mongol Japanese agent.” He died in a labor camp near Orenburg in 1942.

From 1929-1932 came Mongolia’s “Leftist Period” marked by attempts at forced collectivization and by open attacks on religion, spearheaded by an Anti-Buddhist League modeled on the Soviet League of the Militant Godless. In February 1929, with all “right wing” leaders ousted, the authorities finally felt secure enough to issue a decree categorically prohibiting the installation of the Jebtsundamba Khutuktu or any lesser incarnation. These policies led to a virtual civil war which could only be quelled by Soviet troops. Rebels assured the people that the Panchen Lama would come to their rescue, summoning the Japanese Army, which was identified with the hosts of the mythical Shambala.

The “New Turn Policy” of 1934 promised to reverse the “leftist” mistakes of the recent past. The “New Turn” Premier, Genden [also transliterated as Gendun] had been “a disciple of the lama Puntsugtering in his home banner, and in 1924 he exclaimed that the Buddha and Lenin were the world’s greatest geniuses.” (Atwood, Encyclopedia of Mongolia and the Mongol Empire, p. 196). However, the offensive against Buddhism resumed, the regime resorting first to heavy taxation and attempts to divide the poorer lamas from the richer ones, and eventually (under the leadership of Choybalsan [Choiblsan, Choibalsang], who purged Genden and all other opponents in Stalinist style) to forced secularization of the poorer lamas and the killing or imprisonment of the wealthier ones. By 1940 the Church had been virtually destroyed.

Although a token revival of Buddhism was allowed under Choybalsan’s successor Tsedenbal, in part to win Mongolia support in Buddhist nations, the regime never really abandoned its anti-Buddhist ideology until the fall of Communism. One historian, Sh. Natsagdorj, (quoted in Bawden, pp. 269-70) gave a relatively moderate but still hostile view (at least with respect to Buddhism’s modern role):

“How are we to view the dissemination of Buddhism in Mongolia? In my opinion, Buddhism played a civilizing role in some respects in Mongol life in the sixteenth century. As well as replacing the coarse and primitive shamanist cult, it cherished and spread in the steppes of Mongolia some of the achievements of Indian and Tibetan culture. But it became a weapon for reinforcing the power of the exploiting classes and the exploitation of the working masses of the Mongol people, and in this respect caused enormous harm to the progress of Mongolia.”

It is certainly arguable that any modernizing regime in Mongolia, Communist or not, Soviet-dominated or not, would have to fight the Church’s influence. The wealth of the lamaseries in a very poor society, the financial corruption and sexual debauchery of many of the lamas, and the withdrawal of a huge percentage of the male population–estimates are as much as forty percent–from productive labor to idleness in the lamaseries were all denounced by Western observers like Douglas Carruthers in the early twentieth century. Carruthers pointed to the poverty of the Mongols in comparison with the nomads of the Moslem Kirei-Kirghiz, who followed a similar way of life but a different religion. On the other hand, as C. R. Bawden notes in The Modern History of Mongolia (p. 169) “a large number of lamas lived at home just like ordinary herdsmen” and worked to help their families. (The 1924 Constitution of the Mongolian People’s Republic recognized this distinction, and only disfranchised full-time monks).

Moreover, Bawden continues,

“Carruthers’s argument also stands in direct contradiction to the argument of Professor Natsadorj, that the Church offered, in the nineteenth century, the only alternative way of life for surplus manpower no longer needed in the cattle-rearing economy, where in any case much work was done by women. The church absorbed this surplus manpower; it did not create it. But in the conditions of the time it was an unproductive, economically stagnant, and inward-looking alternative, able to absorb the manpower but not to employ it usefully.”

However, even if one accepts the most negative view of the effects of Buddhism on early twentieth century Mongolia, combating the evils of the Church did not necessarily require the all-out war on Buddhism adopted in the 1930’s; instead the regime could have continued its 1920’s line of working with reformists in the Church (and there were many) for a “purer” Buddhism. There is no reason to think the Mongolian government would not have continued this policy if Stalin had allowed it to do so. Indeed, at a conference in Moscow in 1934, Stalin specifically instructed a reluctant Genden to step up repression of the lamas. By this time, Stalin had long since ceased dealing with Mongolia through the Comintern; instead, the Mongolian leaders had to travel to Moscow to get their orders from Stalin directly. Supposedly, at one of those meetings Genden was so angry and/or drunk that he broke Stalin’s pipe!

[*] Typical dilaectics from Dorzhiev in 1926: “Shakyamuni’s second great notion is his atheistical teaching, [in which he] demonstrates that there is no creator god. Instead he advances the concept of an infinite chain of cause-and-effect [Sanskrit ‘pratitya-samutpada’], from which it follows that the world is infinite in time and space, [that it] has neither beginning nor end, that nothing can arise from nothing, and that something existent cannot be utterly destroyed. Everything is in a constant state of flux–something that exists in a given moment ceases to be the same the next moment. In Europe it became possible to speak of such things only after the development of the exact sciences, which emerged as the result of a continuous struggle waged against the theistic ideologies by the European peoples, who are still, on the whole, under the influence of Biblical-Christian theism.” (Quoted in John Snelling, Buddhism in Russia: The Story of Agvan Dorzhiev, Lhasa’s Emissary to the Tsar, p. 226.) Dorzhiev also had a more pragmatic argument for the Soviets taking a liberal attitude toward Buddhism, which he expressed in a letter to Chicherin in 1925, and which Snelling parpahrases (p. 219) as being that whatever “paltry advantages to be derived from anti-religious propaganda among the Buryats and Kalmyks would…be more than offset by damage inflicted to the Soviet image in Tibet and Mongolia.”


Buddhismo e comunismo nella Mongolia sovietica

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