ULAN BATOR, MONGOLIA
Kushok Bakula walks a fine line between politics and religion.
For six years, he has been India's ambassador to Mongolia, two countries often at odds with neighboring giant China. A close ally of the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan Buddhist leader exiled in India, Ambassador Bakula shuttles frequently between Mongolia and Beijing for talks with Chinese leaders.
The elderly Bakula, a monk who is considered to be a reincarnated Buddhist saint, is also helping lead a revival of Tibetan-style Buddhism on the Mongolian steppe and, to Beijing's dismay, on China's doorstep. "Mongolian culture is directly related to Buddhism. To keep Buddhism alive is to keep their culture alive," says Bakula, who wears red and saffron robes and meets weekly with devotees to give religious counseling. "If you are not Buddhist, then what are you? You lose your identity," says the monk. "How different are you then from Chinese or Russians?"
Buddhism, silenced for 70 years by communism and Soviet domination, is making a slow comeback in Mongolia. In 1937, Khorloin Choibalsan, the country's Stalin-like dictator, burned most of Mongolia's 700 monasteries and executed one-sixth of its 110,000 monks.
Today, six years after Mongolians threw off the mantle of communism, their religious revival has become a worry for China and a factor in the restive Chinese-controlled region of Tibet. Western analysts say Mongolia's religious reawakening has emerged as a new source of strength for Tibetan Buddhism - now under siege because of China's control of the former Himalayan kingdom - and its revered god-king, the Dalai Lama.
Mongolia has long had cultural, religious, and political ties to Tibet. Mongolians are followers of the Dalai Lama, the revered spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism, and the Panchen Lama, Tibetan Buddhism's second-most important religious leader. Earlier this century, Mongolia even recognized Tibet's independence from China.
For the first time since he fled an unsuccessful Tibetan uprising against China in 1959, the Tibetan leader can visit a country where Tibetan Buddhism is the major religion. As China has tried to diminish his stature, the Dalai Lama has visited Mongolia four times since 1990, each time drawing huge crowds and Chinese protests. Beijing's objections have done little to quiet the Tibetan leader's growing popularity in Mongolia as well as in Mongolian areas of Russia, which border sensitive regions of northwest China. "With the revival of Buddhism in Mongolia, the Dalai Lama has a new ally," says a Western diplomat in Beijing.
Still, Mongolia's Buddhist renaissance remains in its infancy. In the ancient capital of Karakorum in central Mongolia, the Erdene Zuu Monastery, once a famous center for Buddhist learning, is but a shadow of the once-sprawling complex. Since 1990, only three reconstructed temples stand and a few old monks live where there were once 60 temples and thousands of resident clergy.
Almost 60 years ago, Gombochir was a young monk in the monastery when the religious crackdown began. Most of the elderly monks were dragged off and killed. Gombochir escaped execution but was forced to work in a factory and later married. After Mongolians overthrew their hard-line Communist leaders in 1990 and proclaimed a democracy, Gombochir only returned to the monastery after being assured repeatedly that all would be well. "I had had no hope of being able to return to the monastery," says the monk. "I was happy, but I also was afraid that it was a trap."
Only then did the daily chanting that breaks the early morning dawn of the steppe begin anew. In six years, almost 200 young monks have joined.
"I think Buddhism has a future here if we support the Dalai Lama....," says the monastery's head monk. "Then we Buddhists will be strong and united and cannot be defeated."
"There is now a generation gap. It is difficult to have the same kind of force," warns Ambassador Bakula. "This is a period of revival, but it will take time."
Elsewhere in Mongolia, other temples are rising again. Erdene Khambyn Monastery, also destroyed in 1937, is now being rebuilt by the granddaughter of one of the monks. Dawa, a devotee, has raised almost $20,000 in assistance from local people, pilgrims, and Bakula.
The temple's centerpiece is a small statue of the Maitreya Buddha handmade by Mongolia's first theocratic Buddhist leader three centuries ago. Similar to Tibet, Mongolia was also led by a king whom the people believed to be part god-king before the Communist revolution in 1921. Also, like Tibet, Buddhism took hold in Mongolia when it was integrated with the local folk religion. In Tibet and Mongolia, the religion developed into a theocracy supported by powerful and wealthy monasteries presided over by the god-king.
Dawa managed to save the valuable statue by hiding it for 60 years, not even revealing its existence to her children. Her temple prominently features pictures of the Dalai Lama, the late Panchen Lama, the boy designated by the Tibetans as his reincarnation, and Bakula, the Indian ambassador.
"We support the Dalai Lama as our religious leader. China can't change that," she says.