KARAKORUM, Mongolia — Two child monks climbed a tower outside the scripture-reading hall of Erdene Zuu Monastery, then blew long blasts on conch-shell horns in a call to prayer. The temple air, heavy with incense and smoke from butter lamps, soon filled with Tibetan Buddhist chants and the sound of cymbals, drums and horns as 50 lamas gathered in worship.
Erdene Zuu, once one of Asia's greatest centers of Buddhist learning, is alive again, thanks to the collapse of communism from Eastern Europe to the borders of China. Both the monastery, located outside the ancient Mongolian capital of Karakorum, about 200 miles west of the present capital, Ulan Bator, and the faith it symbolizes are struggling to revive themselves and ultimately to recover key roles in society.
But Erdene Zuu, like Buddhism itself in Mongolia, still suffers bitter wounds. The mostly desolate land within the monastery's outer walls--where 60 years ago more than 100 monastery buildings stood--reflects the devastation wreaked on Mongolian society by a 1930s wave of Stalinist terror and subsequent decades of repression.
In a milestone for the effort to heal this nation's collective psyche, the Dalai Lama, spiritual head of Tibetan Buddhism, visited Mongolia late last month, offering advice to religious leaders and reverent crowds. He said that with Mongolia's newly democratic government now allowing religious freedom, he hopes to visit more often and for longer stays.
Mongolia, a nation of 2.2 million, has a small Muslim minority and some Christian groups, as well as Communists who profess atheism. But an estimated 90% of the people are believed to be adherents of Tibetan-style Buddhism, at least in a passive way. At the beginning of last year, Mongolia had only one functioning monastery, and many Mongolians had few chances for active worship.
Thus, as head of a branch of Buddhism adhered to by most Mongols as well as Tibetans, the Dalai Lama can exert great influence here. But Mongolians themselves will determine just how Buddhist practice is to be reborn, and how broad will be its renewed role in society.
The answers are unfolding at Erdene Zuu, at more than 100 other newly re-established monasteries across the vast grasslands of the Central Asian steppe, in the round felt-tent homes of nomadic herdsmen and in the high-rise urban apartments of Ulan Bator.
At stake is the very identity of a historically great but now nearly forgotten people. The rebirth of Buddhism here may also be of geopolitical importance if, as seems likely, it helps smooth this nation's transition to a democratic, free-market system with close ties to Japan, the United States and Western Europe.
The losses under 60 years of repression--which ended only last year with Mongolia's transformation into a multi-party democracy--have been immense. Recovery will take years.
Tibetan-style Buddhism, in which lamas traditionally exercised great secular power, is unlikely ever to regain the theocratic role it played here in the years before this nation's 1921 Communist revolution. The Dalai Lama himself, who once held political as well as religious power in Tibet, opposes any such effort.
"There is a danger that when they try to revive Buddhism and the monasteries' life and institutions, they (may be) simply thinking of the old system," the Dalai Lama said in an interview during his visit. "This is impossible to adopt. And even if adopted, it will be harmful."
The Dalai Lama indicated that in Mongolia--and someday in Tibet, which is now under repressive Chinese control--he hopes to see a kind of reformed Buddhism in which monks and nuns are fewer in number than during pre-Communist days but better educated and more involved in social services.
For the monks, or lamas, of Erdene Zuu, such visions lie far in the future. The elderly men who lead this reborn monastery are concerned with the most basic matters of rebuilding a religious community and trying to regain control over the few historic temple buildings that survived Communist-ordered destruction in 1937.
"According to the government's statistics, there were about 740 monasteries destroyed (in the mid-1930s), and 8,000 lamas were killed," said Yondonsambuu, 79, the deputy head lama of Erdene Zuu, who like most Mongolians uses just one name. "But it's not the real number. We think it really was more."
Dendev, the head lama of Erdene Zuu, is a man in his mid-80s who entered nearby Shankh Monastery at the age of 10, spent about 20 years there, escaped death in the 1937 persecutions and spent 50 years as a carpenter. He returned to monastic life to lead the reopening of Erdene Zuu in March of last year.
Erdene Zuu, which had about 1,000 lamas in the early 1930s, now has 63, including 31 old men who entered monasteries before 1937, and 32 "student lamas" ranging in age from 8 to 41. Nanjid, 41, is one of the star pupils, a man Dendev said could someday be Erdene Zuu's leader.