I had no idea, when I agreed to help my friend Susan celebrate her 50th birthday by going with her to Mongolia, that I'd end up standing in a place that would make me feel some of what I felt in Auschwitz-Birkenau: the ruins of the Buddhist temple complexes of Ongiin Khiid in the Gobi Desert.
Susan and I had just finished a three-day horse trek to the lakes of Naiman Nuur so we were mostly focused on getting a hot shower and a restaurant meal -- the short walk to see the local sites was an afterthought. And it was a pretty raucous walk at that, what with peals of laughter from three small boys who kept sneaking up behind us and then running away again when we turned to look. I bother to tell you this to explain how blind-sided I was by my feelings as I began to understand what I was looking at -- and the scale of it.
Ongiin Khiid is now mostly just the smashed remnants of two enormous monastery complexes (Barlim Khiid and Khutagt Khiid) on either side of the only year-round river that runs through Dundgovi province in southern Mongolia. They were destroyed in 1938. What's left of the original buildings and the communities that supported them are the foundations of countless buildings, a few feet of wall here, some broken bits of adornment there.
In person, the ruins of Ongiin Khiid were devastating but, because the buildings were made of the earth at the site, the vast and overwhelming scope of the wreckage is difficult to convey in photographs. There were ruins as far as you could see. The wrecked altar alcove that once housed a Buddha icon overlooked it all.
I cannot explain the effect of this site on me. We'd already been to two other ruined and slightly rebuilt monastery sites, Erdene Zuu (pix here) and Tuvkhen.( pix here) They were a mix of sad and hopeful, touristy and sacred, run-down and beautiful. But the raw violence of the destruction at Ongiin Khiid was still visible, still palpable, even though it happened over seventy years ago.
Mongolian Buddhism had its roots in Tibetan Buddhism and, like Tibetan Buddhism, it incorporated some of the indigenous shamanistic traditions as it evolved.
In the first decade or so of the 20th century, Buddhism was at its height in Mongolia, with over 2000 temples, more than 700 of them resident monasteries, with something like 115,000 lamas. And it was then that its persecution by the Soviet-backed government began and escalated.
Mongolia is now an independent parliamentary republic but, in the early 1900s, it was fighting off Chinese control and even a brutal invasion by a renegade division of White Russian soldiers led by Roman von Ungern-Sternberg - the Mad Baron, so they turned to Russia for help. While the Mongolians we met believed that their country would not be independent today if it weren't for their long relationship with the Soviet Union, the Soviet-backed government all but wiped out Mongolian Buddhism for fifty years.
The attack on Buddhism began slowly, with requirements that all Buddhist lamas, temples and monasteries register. Then came the restrictions - on teaching, on replacing the Eighth Bogd Qaan (the national spiritual leader) when he died - and the propaganda campaigns with images of lamas as pillagers and parasites, the confiscation of property, the purges of Buddhists from government positions, etc. Sound familiar?
Not that anyone told us this while we were in Mongolia. The details were remarkably vague when we asked what happened and why. It never went beyond "it was part of the Stalinist purges." So, when I tried to read more about it when I came home, I felt like I felt when I walked through the horrific exhibit of orders and propaganda the Germans plastered all over Polish cities after they invaded -- the drip, drip, drip of one ordinary freedom after another stripped away, all of it the methodical and planned separation of one group from another, of individual human beings from their humanity. Then came the final orders to destroy and close all of the monasteries, remove all of the lamas, and outlaw Buddhism. By 1939, the work was complete.
The pretext the Stalin-puppet regime of Qorlogiin Choibalsan used for the final order in 1938 to do this was the threat of invasion by the Japanese: they were supposedly using the Buddhist infrastructure to infiltrate and undermine Mongolia.
Every one of the lamas who hadn't disrobed in the preceding years was either murdered or arrested, sent to labor camps or conscripted into the army. Some estimate that between three and four percent of the population was slaughtered, among them 18,000 lamas. There are accounts of lamas shot in the head at the edge of the graves they'd just dug.
Standing on the foundation of one of the ruined buildings at Ongiin Khiid, I felt I was looking at the dark heart of what's driving me to do this project, wanting answers. Again.
My parents know, with certainty I envy, that religion itself is the cause of things like this, of most wars, of group hatred, of the Auschwitzs and Ongiin Khiids throughout history. But is it? Maybe that's just the rotten figleaf of an excuse given by those who are really trying to grab land, money, power. If not, if faith is in some way the cause, is it faith itself or something that happens when belief and faith are misunderstood or misused? Or maybe it's just something that goes awry sometimes when groups of people get together and religion is just one of the reasons groups of people get together.
I know I am pathetically attached to getting my hands on a clear cut, defined story to tell myself, to find some way of ducking the stark facts of the Holocaust, of Rwanda, of 9/11, of the slaughter of Native American tribes, of early Christians, of Muslims during the Crusades, of Ongiin Khiid, etc because I no doubt believe that effects have causes so find the cause, find the cure, no? I mean if you can find the wheel spinning that tends to lead to suffering, wouldn't it be worth it at least to try to jam a stick in its spokes? I think that may be the unfortunate underpinnings of my drive to do this project: the desire to find something To Be Done.
I want to find The Reason, to assign Blame, to find The Cause as though that will mitigate the horror and give my story-telling brain the bedtime story it so craves. Were the lamas at the time too close to political power? Had they grown corrupt? No, even if any of that were true, it's no excuse for the murderous violence of what happened. Perhaps it wasn't faith that was to blame for the jagged walls and the broken buildings and all they signify, but an insane world in an insane time; Stalin was at work in the Soviet Union, Hitler in Germany, the second World War about the begin.
No, no I can't tell myself that either. I can't tell myself that it began and ended there.
After the deeds were done and Buddhism outlawed, the Choibalsan government used the few temples left standing as storage facilities, barracks for Russian soldiers, or prison camps. In 1944, one monastery just outside Ulaanbaatar, Gandan, was reopened, staffed by lamas who were specifically banned from teaching anyone or talking about Buddhism. The stories say this was staged, initially, for the benefit of a visit by United States Vice-President Henry Wallace in 1944.
That so few people know about these massacres is small wonder: before Choibalsan began getting rid of Buddhism in earnest, he threw foreign visitors and organizations out of Mongolia and then instituted laws that prevented Mongolians from talking about Buddhism or the massacres.
But Mongolia is open again. People became free to practice religion again after the democratic revolution in 1990 and Buddhism is on the rise. It is, once again, the most widely practiced religion, followed closely by shamanism. Many of the sites have a rebuilt structure or two and some, like Erdene Zuu and Tuvkhen have lamas living there. There didn't appear to be any lamas living at Ongiin Khiid but there was a rebuilt temple, a ger with some items recovered from the rubble, and a monument to the lamas who didn't survive the massacre.
I went back alone to the site again the next morning, long before the village boys were up. In the little time I've spent in the shallow beginning of learning about Buddhism, I keep hearing that everything is Buddha. Even this.
No Buddha is Buddha, too.
I don't know if that answer is good enough for me.
But it is better than making up some story to pretend that any of this makes sense.
|ruins of Ongiin Khiid, Dundgovi Province, Mongolia|