A god-king returns to his people

Sun Journal

Buddha: The ninth Bogd Lama makes his first visit to Mongolia after more than 60 years in exile.

August 02, 1999|By Michael Kohn | Michael Kohn,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

ULAANBAATAR, Mongolia -- Storm clouds roll over the city and suddenly rip open to pour rain over this sprawling, dusty outpost. A crowd of Buddhists crane their necks heavenward and weep.

It is more than relief from the blazing central Asian sky that prompts the tears. These people believe they are witnessing a miracle. Mongolians wipe the sweat off winning racehorses for good luck, and these believers rub and lather the rain into their hands and faces.

"A gift from the gods," someone says.

"The heavens are rejoicing with him," wails another. "They say `Good, good! Give your teaching!' This is a present from our heavenly parents."

The drenched thousands on the concrete lot before the Ganden Monastery welcome the rain as sent by the Bogd Lama, their prodigious god-king.

Moments later a black limousine speeds up to the temple and out steps the Bogd Lama himself. The crowd hushes. Earlier today, during his first-ever public appearance, a riot erupted and police beat the masses back with rubber batons as Buddhists fought to touch their god.

The Bogd Lama is to Mongolia as the Dalai Lama is to Tibet, but never in his 67 years had he set foot in this country until last month. Born Sonom Dargia in Tibet in 1932, he was recognized by Tibetan high lamas at the age of 4 as the ninth Jebtzun Damba (living Buddha). He is believed to be an incarnation of Vajrapani, one of the three great saviors that controls the Buddha's power. The Dalai Lama -- who embodies the Buddha's compassion -- is a close counterpart.

All but two previous Bogd Lamas have been found in Tibet. After recognition by priests and oracles, the little Buddhas were shipped off to Mongolia to serve as the highest religious figure in that country. Mongolians considered them Khans, or kings, and indeed the first and eighth Bogds ruled as monarchs. But Manchu warlords, who governed Mongolia from 1691 to 1911, never recognized the Bogds as political leaders.

When Mongolia became the world's second communist country in 1921, and the eighth Bogd died in 1924, it seemed as if the Bogd Khans would rule no more. Buddhist culture in Mongolia was stifled. By 1939, 17,000 of 110,000 monks had been slaughtered, and all but four of the 700 monasteries were reduced to ashes. Buddhists were prevented from finding their own Bogd Lama, and Tibetans knew that sending young Sonom Dargia to Mongolia would have been a death sentence.

So the young monk remained in Tibet and lived in relative obscurity until he fled to Dharamsala, India, in 1990, where he was officially recognized by the Dalai Lama.

In 1989, Mongolia stepped out of the shadow of a crumbling Soviet Union. Democratic elections were held in 1990; a new constitution was adopted, and freedom of religion was allowed.

Buddhism awoke from its long slumber. Young monks were appointed, ramshackle monasteries built, and worshipers flocked to temples for long-awaited blessings.

Sonom Dargia watched from the sidelines in India. He desperately wanted to go to Mongolia, but despite dozens of requests, he was never invited by the government.

Possibly, Mongolia's powerful Communist neighbor, China, pressured Ulaanbaatar to keep high lamas from spreading their influence. Mongolia has canceled planned visits by the Dalai Lama, without explanation. Another possibility is that the government was not prepared to invite a man who could challenge its fledgling democracy.

"There was a policy not to invite him until the time was right," says Bayasgalan, the president of the Three Jewels Buddhist Society. "He is viewed as a threat. But the reality is that 90 percent of Mongolians wanted him to come for a long time."

Helped by Mongolian monks, the Bogd Lama sidestepped formalities and acquired a 30-day tourist visa to enter Mongolia. The government seemed just as surprised as anyone to find him here.

"We didn't know he was coming, no one did," a government spokesman says. "But this is considered purely a religious matter, there are no meetings planned with officials."

Ordinary Mongolians were equally caught off guard. Few knew a Bogd Lama even existed. Others thought he was a child. Some were skeptical -- the eighth Bogd Lama left a bad impression in the history books.

The last king was noted for alcoholism and debauchery. Visitors to the Mongolian capital (then called Urga) chronicled his life of luxury amid destitution and poverty. Reviled as a sex offender and rapist, he died of syphilis.

One story reported that the Bogd hooked a rope to the battery of his car and left the cord hanging over a palace wall for believers to touch. The ensuing electric shock sent the peasants stumbling away with awe at the god-king's power.

But listeners to the ninth Bogd Lama's sermons seem convinced of his good intentions. Sonom Dargia avoids politics entirely, focusing on the teaching of sutras, or scriptural narratives.

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