The Sarvabuddha Dakini (Narkahajid)
Ink and colors on cotton; Late 18th Century
Museum of Fine Arts, Ulaan Baatar

The Red, or Sarvabuddha Dakini is the female embodiment of Supreme Knowledge and hte magic powers of all Buddhas.

Buddhism, one of the world’s oldest and most widespread religions, derives from the Buddha, who was born a prince named Siddhartha Gautama in what is now Nepal in 563 B.C.E. As a young man, Siddhartha renounced his princely life and set out to find the cause of human suffering. After years of searching, he attained enlightenment and began to teach others. The doctrine he taught emphasized that suffering can be transcended by adherence to a moral code and by the achievement of wisdom through meditation. After Buddha’s death, his teachings were spread by followers and an organized religion took form. With the passage of time, a new branch of the religion emerged called Mahayana. An important element in Mahayana belief is the worship of bodhisattvas, who like the Buddha are spiritually advanced, but choose to remain on earth to help others in their quest to attain enlightenment.

A version of Mahayana Buddhism that emphasized the importance of rites and ceremonies to help in this quest toward enlightenment became popular in Tibet. This Esoteric Buddhism, or Lamaism (from the Tibetan name for religious teachers, lamas, or superior ones), derived much of its inspiration from Indian tantric practices but also drew on the ancient shamanism and sorcery of Bon, a primitive animistic religion of Tibet.

When the Mongol emperor Kubilai Khan (reigned 1260-94) chose Lamaism as his state religion, his considerations were probably manifold. While some historians claim that his motives were purely political, others believe that the decisive factor may have been that the lamas had a more potent arsenal of magic formulas at their disposal than their adversaries, the shamans. Buddhism, with its all-inclusive, systematic vision of the world and its well-administered hierarchical structure had many points in its favor to make it more practical and attractive in the eyes of conquerors than the unstructured shamanism in which they were raised.

Moreover, the vast pantheon of Lamaism with its august Buddhas, its peaceful gods, its charming goddesses, and its colorful and gruesome Protectors of the Law had the capacity to absorb local deities and to make their power and influence subordinate to the Buddhist law. It is likely that the prime importance that Lamaism accorded to the authority of the spiritual leader also appealed very strongly to Mongolian sentiment.

Mongolian Buddhism was at this time was a religion imposed from above by the court and was probably restricted to elite strata of Mongol society. Indeed, the legacy of this first phase of Mongolian Lamaism is seen more in China than in Mongolia. The Tibetan monk ‘Phagspa (1235-1280), who had originally come to the Mongol imperial court not as a missionary but as a hostage to ensure the good behavior of his unruly compatriots, had considerable success in conducting his missionary activities in court circles. During the rule of the Mongols, a number of important Lamaist monuments were built in China, including the White Pagoda of Beijing and the Juyongguan Gate just inside the Great Wall near Beijing. In Mongolia proper, on the other hand, hardly anything has been preserved to remind us of early Buddhism.

With the breakup of the Mongolian empire and the return of many Mongols after their expulsion from China in 1368, Lamaism virtually disappeared in Mongolia, although it continued to flourish in China. The second conversion of Mongolia to Buddhism was a more gradual process and more far reaching. The key event was the meeting in 1576 between Altan Khan, leader of the Tümed Mongols, and Sonam Gyatso, patriarch of the reformed Gelug order, or Yellow Hat Sect, of Tibetan Buddhism. At this meeting Altan Kahn conferred the title of third Dalai (Ocean, or Boundless) Lama on the patriarch and pronounced his two predecessors to be the first and second in the lineage. In turn, Sonam Gyatso pronounced Altan Khan to be the reincarnation of Khubilai Khan, thus beginning a long and close relationship between the Mongol Khans and the Tibetan theocracy.

The strength of this relationship was underlined in the mid-seventeenth century when the Fifth Dalai Lama recognized Jebtsundamba Khutuktu (Mongolian: Undur Gegen) Zanabazar as the reincarnation of the Tibetan patriarch and historian Taranatha. Zanabazar was an enormously important spiritual figure who helped unite Mongolia’s chiefs under Buddhism, built monasteries, and preached the faith. He was also a pioneer in such widely diverse fields as medicine, literature, philosophy, art, and architecture. It was Zanabazar who, in 1656, introduced the Maitreya festival into Mongolia.

Although the Tibetan church continued to dictate doctrinal orthodoxy, such doctrinal differences between Tibetan and Mongolian Buddhism that exist are more a matter of nuance than of dogmatic divergence. Buddhist practices and iconography in Mongolia, nevertheless, exchanged many elements with shamanism. Over time, Buddhist expressions and ideas were inserted in the exorcist formulas with which the shaman chased away evil spirits. For example, on house altars in the ger (circular tent), the shamanistic onggon (ancestral figure) were replaced by Buddhist images of Mahakala, the Protector of the Law. Likewise, Buddhism was obliged to adopt many concepts and practices of its adversaries. In Mongolia the Tsam festival, known throughout the world of Tibetan Buddhism, would seem to have preserved much more of its excorcistic aspects fundamental to shamanism than in other regions.

So successful was this adaptation that Lamaism became a popular religion. It is said that during the nineteenth century, forty-five percent of the male population of Mongolia were lamas. During the 1930s, this remarkable flourishing of Buddhism came to an abrupt and tragic end. More than 700 monasteries were razed, high-ranking ecclesiastics were killed, and lamas of lower ranks were obliged to return to secular life.