Mongolian Buddhism, Nature, and Conservation
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.
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.