Buddhism in Inner Mongolia


Buddhism in Inner Mongolia
Since 1978, as a minority, the Inner Mongols have enjoyed a more favourable religious policy than the Han (see state policies on minority cultures). In the 1980s, the state financed the first large restoration of Buddhist temples to promote tourism and conceal the destruction of Mongolian culture. But in the 1990s, fearing Tibetan Buddhism’s potential as an expression of nationalism, it limited authorizations for re-opening monasteries, and promoted non-Buddhist ‘ethnic markers’, such as the symbol of Gengis Khan. The current Buddhist revival is threatened by the generation gap within the clergy, the superficial training of young monks, the ‘mummification’ of the monasteries, and the impoverishment of rural Mongols.
Buddhism is tolerated within the restricted framework of an ‘orthodoxy’ defined by the state, and controlled by local branches of the ‘patriotic’ Buddhist association. There are more than 5,000 registered monks (1984 census), 3,854 of whom are old monks who took their vows again, but often live at home. Since 1987, 120 young monks have been educated in the official Buddhist school (located near Hohhot), which organizes a three-year training including lectures on socialism, basic Buddhism and management. Many more novices receive a minimum education from old monks, or are ordained outside Inner Mongolia, in the monasteries of Wutaishan, Beijing and in Kumbum (Qinghai). However, Mongol monks cannot go to the Buddhist Institute of Lhasa, which delivers the highest academic degree (geshe). A quota of monks is fixed per monastery. In theory one has to be eighteen years old to enter the monkhood, but there is a tolerance for younger novices (twelve to thirteen years old). In the poorest areas, their status is enviable: in 1999, novices received a government pay of 300 yuan per month, and ordained monks received 900 yuan per month.
The institution of reincarnated monks is disappearing. About fifty ‘patriotic’ reincarnations played an important role in the modern revival, but when they die, the state does not ‘authorize their rebirth’, except for a few who are trained in Beijing’s Yellow Temple. The most important religious personality of Inner Mongolia is the Eleventh Siregetü qutu-tu, the head of the Buddhist association of Hohhot. The recent reincarnation abroad of the Sixth lCang-skya qutu-tu, recognized by the Dalai Lama, does not pose a serious problem to the Chinese state because of the past unpopularity of this figure in Inner Mongolia.
During the 1980s, monks and worshippers took private initiatives, organized fundraising and worked together to re-open or rebuild monasteries. More than a hundred monasteries, plus unofficial ones, are active (with generally fewer than ten monks, and a maximum of forty): there are, on average, two monasteries per banner, compared with twenty per banner in the nineteenth century. The official monasteries, even when reconstructed above ruins, are protected as ‘cultural heritage’ (wenwu) and sometimes turned into museums with an entrance fee. In the few tourist areas (Hohhot, Wudang zhao, Xilinhot), monks seem to be part of the ethnic folklore on display in mummified monasteries. The new urban Mongol identity, facing sinicization, does not seem to include Buddhism any more.
By contrast with institutional Buddhism, manifestations of a popular Buddhism which survived underground in the countryside are difficult to measure but seem more genuine. The Mongols used to gather during festivals in rural temples and regularly perform Buddhist and non-Buddhist practices (prostration, circumambulation, donations, pilgrimage to Wutaishan, ovoo worship). In the domestic sphere, Buddhist icons and photographs of the Panchen Lama are seen on family altars. The clergy remains exclusively male, but some older women take vows and shave their heads, though they continue to live in their family. Han devotees also participate in festivals, because they have very few temples of their own.
Hurelbaatar, A. (1996). ‘Grass-Roots Buddhist Practices in Inner Mongolia’. MPhil thesis, Department of Social Anthropology, University of Cambridge.
Mackerras, Colin (1994). ‘Religion, Politics and the Economy in Inner Mongolia and Ningxia’. In H.Kaplan and Donald W.Whisenhunt (eds), Opuscula Altaica: Essays Presented in Honour of Henry Schwarz. Bellingham: Centre for East Asian Studies, Western Washington University.
Sneath, David (2000). Changing Inner Mongolia. Pastoral Mongolian Society and the Chinese State. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
ISABELLE CHARLEUX

Encyclopedia of contemporary Chinese culture. . 2011.

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