Mongolian Buddhism, Nature, and Conservation

June 20 - July 7, 2022

18 Days  ◦  2 Instructors

This course will focus on the intersect between Mongolian Buddhism, Shamanism, nature ethics and environmental conservation. It will provide an overview of the history and philosophy of Mongolian Buddhism, tracing its flow from the Silk Route to the twentieth century religious purges to its modern-day renaissance. The course will visit a restored Buddhist Monastery in a remote area of northern Mongolia, and meet with local conservationists to understand how religious beliefs and practices are being applied to the preservation of the environment in the region, such as an effort to save the iconic salmonid Taimen, one of the largest freshwater fish in the world.

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Course Overview

This course will focus on the intersection between Mongolian Buddhism, Shamanism, nature ethics and environmental conservation. We’ll cover the history and philosophy of Mongolian Buddhism, tracing its flow from the Silk Route to the twentieth century religious purges to its modern-day renaissance. The class will explore Buddhist influences upon current directions in ecological thought and practice in Mongolia (with ramifications elsewhere), especially in confronting wildlife poaching, climate change and sustainability. The goal of the course is to familiarize participants with Mongolian Buddhism’s unique narrative as well as its role in current ecological crises.

We will visit Mongolia’s oldest monasteries, Erdene Zuu (1585) and Amarbaysgalant (1726), and discuss the course of Buddhism as it moved from Tibet and became embedded in Mongolia. We will also look at a more modern monastery, Choijin Lam (1904), that survived the religious purges of the 1930s and was then used by political leaders as an example of corruption within Buddhist leadership at the turn of the twentieth century.

 

We’ll head to the gorgeous Eg-Uur Valley, where we are spending most of the course, examining Buddhism, its teachings, and its role in modern conservation practices. Here we will hear about the preservation of the taimen (Hucho taimen), a magnificently large and endangered species of salmonid (salmon family) fish.  The taimen, already lost from most of its range in north Asia, holds a special place in the Buddhist beliefs of the Eg-Uur valley, and its story vividly exemplifies the Buddhist vision of nature and its spiritual dimensions. Our days here will be full—meeting with local nomadic families, learning about local beliefs and practices, and visiting sacred sights.

 

We’ll stay in cozy gers (yurts) beside the wide and lovely Uur River. The Dayan Derkh Monastery, also on the bank of the Uur, and recently rebuilt after it was destroyed during the communist era, is the perfect focal point for our work on Buddhism and nature. Its restoration came about through a collaboration between the local monk community, scientists, and international anglers, who together worked to protect the regional watershed and its resident taimen population. Rebuilding the Dayan Derkh Monastery allowed local people to restore their place of religious practice and became a symbol in Buddhist conservation practice. Monks from Gandan Monastery helped in the effort by revealing a sutra (Buddhist scripture) that read the “death of one taimen equals the souls of 999 people suffering.”

 

This made an impression on the local community, and poaching decreased considerably.  Dayan Derkh Monastery is named after a “wicked” shaman who, according to legend, converted to Buddhism and became a hero. This legend demonstrates anti-Shamanic propaganda spread during the long-ago Buddhist missionary campaigns, as well as a regional syncretism between Buddhism and Shamanism that is so common in the province. Our camp site is surrounded by Buddhist and Shamanic sacred sites, which we will visit by horseback and boat. The hiking in the area is also exquisite.

 

We will also discuss the role of Buddhism in conservation issues on a global scale and learn about the activism campaigns tied to “engaged Buddhism.” This trip will give participants the opportunity to experience some of the best things Mongolia has to offer: the beautiful countryside, Buddhist culture, nomadic pastoralism and great adventure.

Anticipated Course Activities

Day 1-4

Ulaanbaatar. Photo by Marco Fieber

Ulaanbaatar - Program and course orientation

 Classes at Gandan Monastery and a visit to Choijin Lam. Participants will be introduced to Mongolian culture, language, history and contemporary issues. Students will meet their instructors and classmates, and begin to engage in course related discussions and explorations such as classes at Gandan Monastery and a visit to Choijin Lam Monastery. Discussions with experts from the Mongolian government, local NGOs and religious organizations.

Day 5-7

Amarbayasgalant Monastery in Erdenet

Drive to Erdenet. Tour Amarbayasgalant Monastery. Night at a ger camp.

This is one of the most significant sites in Mongolia. Night at a ger camp.

Day 8

people sitting outside

Drive to Erdenbulgan. Arrive at Upper Uur Camp.

Arrive at Upper Uur Camp.

Day 9-13

Buddhist site in Mongolia

Classes in Mongolian Buddhism and Central Asian History.

We’ll visit Dayan Derkh Monastery and learn about their unique conservation work; meet with local nomadic families; and visit Javsomdolum, a local shaman woman. We’ll ride on horseback trip to sacred cave and explore the unmatched beauty of the Eg-Uur River valley.

Day 14-16

Walls at the ancient Mongolian capital of Kharkhorin

Drive to Karakorum. Tour of the Erdene Zuu Monastery.

Tour of the Erdene Zuu Monastery to meet with local officials from the monastery and community to discuss the intersection of nature and religion.

Day 17

Travel on the road

Returning to Ulaanbaatar

The trip distance between Kharkhorin and Ulaanbaatar is 225 miles.

Day 18

Ulaanbaatar. Photo by Marco Fieber

Conclusion in Ulaanbaatar

Course debriefing and a chance to browse in Ulaanbaatar, and plan for further research and explorations in Mongolia and beyond.

Instructor

Dr. Betsy Gaines Quammen

Dr. Betsy Gaines Quammen

Montana State University
Betsy Gaines Quammen is an environmental historian. She received a PhD from Montana State University, where she focused on how religious beliefs influence perspectives on landscape. She has studied Asian religions and practices Buddhism. Wildlife protection is her passion, having over the years helped establish conservation projects in Mongolia, Bhutan and throughout the American West. She has a BA in English from Colorado College and a MS in Environmental Studies from University of Montana.
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Rebecca Watters

Wolverine Foundation
Rebecca Watters is a wildlife biologist and writer based in Bozeman, Montana. She is the executive director of the Wolverine Foundation. She spent two years in Mongolia doing environmental work as a Peace Corps volunteer, and started the Mongolian Wolverine Project in 2009 to assess and monitor climate-sensitive mountain wildlife in Mongolia. The Mongolian Wolverine Project has expanded beyond wolverines and works with three large protected areas in northern Mongolia to monitor wildlife and to build conservation capacity. She has a BA in anthropology from St. Lawrence University and a MESc from the Yale School of the Environment.

Testimonials

Liz-SQ600

"Attending the renewable energy field school was the best decision I made in 2019! I was already attending a fulltime graduate program in Canada, but the field school added rich value to my learning. As the world is becoming more globalized, looking at how Mongolia is responding to the challenges of supplying cleaner energy was a valuable experience. Our instructors came with a vast amount of knowledge and a passion to teach.’’

Liz B.

Participant of Mongolia Field School 2019
Batkhuu SQ600

"As a sociology major student, this program was very helpful to explore urban issues and migration processes in contemporary Mongolia. Through this program, I sharpened my academic capabilities while refining soft skills essential for my future studies.’’

Batkhuu B.

Participant of Mongolia Field School 2019
Janis-Michael-SQ600

"The ACMS field school is a unique experience that has changed my life and teaching. In most programs, international participants are isolated from the country in which we are studying except for controlled visits to local people and sites. Not so with ACMS! Half of the participants in each field school are from Mongolia, ensuring that local and international participants have a chance to understand each other’s perspectives.’’

Janis M

Participant of Mongolia Field School 2019
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