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Home > Approaching Buddhism > Modern Adaptation of Buddhism > Meeting the Challenge of Modernization in Mongolia

Meeting the Challenge of Modernization in Mongolia

Alexander Berzin
prepared at the request of the Mongolian Press
Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, August 1997

I have come to Mongolia to continue work in two areas that I had begun during my last visit in November 1996. I have been asked by the Richard Gere Foundation to establish and organize a large project in Mongolia to help with the revival of Buddhism. The main focus of this project is to translate basic books on Buddhism from English into modern colloquial Mongolian, and then to publish and distribute them throughout the country. This visit has been specifically to establish the administrative infrastructure for the project and to make the printing arrangements. The second purpose of my visit has been to continue lecturing on Buddhism at the request of the National University of Mongolia and Gandan Monastery.

The Spread of Buddhism in the West

Buddhism first came to Europe with the Kalmyk Mongols in the Volga River region of Russia at the beginning of the seventeenth century. Scholarly translations of Buddhist texts into European languages was begun at the end of the eighteenth century. Although Buddhist meditation teachers began teaching in Western Europe and the United States at the start of the twentieth century, Western interest in Buddhism grew strong only after the Second World War as a result of the soldiers' contact with Asian cultures. The Zen and Theravada traditions were the first to spread in the West, but since the exile of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan refugees to India in 1959, the Vajrayana tradition has become the most widespread and popular form of Buddhism in the West. There are more than ten thousand Buddhist centers now in more than a hundred non-traditionally Buddhist countries throughout the world – North and South America, Western and Eastern Europe, the former Soviet Union, Africa, Asia, Australia and the South Pacific. Almost all traditions of Buddhism are represented.

The Appeal of Buddhism to the Modern West

Buddhism is attractive to modern people, not only Western, for several reasons. Of all the world's religions, Buddhism is the most compatible with modern science, for example concerning its explanation of the origin of the universe, and the principles of relativity. Furthermore, Buddha said not to believe what he taught simply because of faith and respect for him, but to test and analyze everything like when buying gold. Therefore, the basic Buddhist approach is to be critical and to investigate the teachings with logic and personal experimentation. Only if the teachings make sense and work to bring about their stated goals are they to be accepted. Modern people, especially Westerners, do not like to be told to be quiet and accept something without testing it or asking questions.

Also Buddhism offers the clearest explanation for how the mind and emotions work, and gives very clear and effective methods for overcoming emotional problems and for gaining concentration, compassion and wisdom. All religions instruct their followers to be patient, loving and wise, but Buddhism teaches in an extremely practical manner how actually to reach these goals. Moreover, Buddhism acknowledges personal differences and therefore does not teach that there is only one correct way to develop these positive qualities. Buddha taught a wide variety of methods to suit people of all backgrounds, talents and dispositions. Western people like to be individuals and therefore appreciate greatly being given a wide choice of techniques to use for personal and social advancement.

Western people value freedom, which means freedom of choice. Buddhism never pressures people into converting, but treats everyone with respect. Buddhism offers its insights and techniques for the world to share. If people can benefit from Buddha's teachings, they are welcome to adopt them into their own lives. They are not told that their native religions are stupid and inferior, and that they must give them up. The only things Buddhism asks us to give up are our greed, anger, selfishness and confusion. Western people like to be treated with respect as adults, and not like naughty and ignorant children. In this sense, Westerners find the Buddhist approach very mature, not arrogant, and therefore they are attracted.

The Benefits of Buddhism for the Modernization of Mongolia

Rather than being detrimental to Mongolia's progress, I would say that the revival of Buddhism is the key for progress. In order for Mongolia to advance and compete in the world market economy, it is essential that the Mongolian people have a deep sense of self-worth and cultural identity. Only if people feel proud of their heritage can they have the self-confidence to compete in the world. If the Mongols are made to feel that everything their country has accomplished, not only under the Communist regime, but throughout its history, was of no value, they gain a very low and negative image of themselves. This is disastrous since it leaves them with no emotional foundation upon which to stand and face the difficulties of the modern world. When people are robbed of their dignity and made to feel that everything about them is backward, they naturally turn to alcohol to try to lose themselves in a drunken stupor. This leads to crime, violence and a degeneration of society, which hamper all progress.

The Mongolian people are not like bad and useless children who have gone astray and have to be converted to a foreign religion by a morally superior adult in order to advance. The Mongolian people are adults themselves and can only advance on the basis of being adults, with a cultural and religious heritage equal in value to any other in the world. If foreign groups convince Mongols that they are stupid, bad children, how can stupid bad children ever successfully compete in a world of adults?

The Communist regime tried to rob Mongolia of its religion and culture, and to make its people lose their identity and become Soviet comrades. Everyone knows the disastrous effects of such a policy. The Manchu rulers of China had previously tried to do the same and make all Mongols into Chinese. Many Westerners now seem to be following a similar policy of cultural imperialism, by trying to rob Mongols of their traditional religion, to pressure them into religious conversion and to make Mongols into Westerners. The Communists used brute force to make people change, the Westerners use economic force to seduce people with money and opportunities for foreign travel. Both distort history to blame all evils on traditional Mongolian ways, and both accomplish the same goal of cultural destruction and foreign domination. If the Mongol people were able to stand up against their Manchu overlords and then against Communism, they must also stand up to other foreign forces that would try to rob them of their heritage.

Both the Communists and the missionary groups in Mongolia are ignorant of Buddhism. If the Mongols themselves are also ignorant of Buddhism, they believe the distorted propaganda against their traditional religion. If the Mongols study and learn about their own culture and religion, they discover they have a great deal to be proud of. Buddhism was the principal force that promoted education in Mongolia. The study of medicine, mathematics, astronomy, grammar, poetry, philosophy, logic, psychology and so on was all undertaken within the context of the Buddhist training. This emphasis on both individual and social improvement on the basis of education is the foundation for modern advance. Furthermore, because Buddhism emphasizes thinking issues through for ourselves with logic and reason, and not just blindly accepting a party line, it provides an excellent framework for developing the intellectual flexibility and practical approach that are necessary for dealing with the complex issues of modern life.

Some people misunderstand the Buddhist teachings on patience to mean being utterly passive and letting everyone take advantage of us. This is not true. Being patient means not to become angry in difficult situations, but to keep calm emotionally so that we are able to see the best solution to a problem and implement that solution. If we become angry, we no longer think rationally and often do and say things that defeat our purpose and which we later regret. Patience is a sign of strength, not a sign of weakness. If we give in with anger to the slightest irritation, like a warrior giving in to a mosquito, we are weak. If we are patient in the face of difficulties, we do not become upset, but deal with them like a strong adult. If the Mongol horsemen had not been patient with the difficulties of riding long distances and being far from home, how could they have conquered more of the world than any other people on this earth. The same patience is required for gaining economic success.

Some people also misunderstand Buddhism to be a superstitious religion that calls on supernatural forces in pujas performed by monks to solve all our problems. This is also not the case. We have all built up the causes for success or failure by our previous actions. If we have acted in a dishonest manner, cheating others in order to make money, no one will trust us. We have built up the causes for customers not to come to us in the future and for others to cheat us in turn. If, on the other hand, we are honest in business, others will have confidence in us. We build up the causes for success. These are the laws of karma. The potentials we build ripen into success or failure when the appropriate circumstances are present.

Commissioning Buddhist ritual ceremonies is one way of providing the circumstances for our positive karma and potentials to ripen. If we have not planted any seeds, nothing will grow no matter how much we water the earth. Likewise, if we have not planted the karmic seeds for success by our behavior, no amount of pujas will cause success to miraculously appear. When we combine ethical behavior with traditional rituals, however, we have a correct formula for succeeding in the world. There is nothing superstitious about this approach.

In short, Mongolia has a glorious cultural and religious heritage that all Mongols can be proud of and which can provide the foundation for modern progress. Of course, it is a blind oversimplification to deny that there have ever been people who have abused Mongolia's traditions. Every culture has people who do not live up to its ethical ideals. Nevertheless, this is no reason to judge a tradition as completely bankrupt and useless. Although Western religions have made a certain number of converts in some traditionally Buddhist countries, it is incorrect to think that the majority of people in these countries have abandoned their traditional religions and cultures as primitive and backward, and that this is the reason for their economic success. The people of Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Japan, South Korea and Thailand have achieved economic prosperity through hard work and both national and self-pride. Mongolia can do the same.

Buddhist Advice on Hygiene

Buddha taught that it is very important to show respect for the Buddhas, their teachings and the monastic community. The reason for showing respect is not in order to please the Buddhas or monks, or for them to become wealthy, but rather to show respect for ourselves and for our goals in life. The goal of Buddhist practice is to become Buddhas ourselves. To become a Buddha means to overcome all our shortcomings and difficulties in dealing with life, and to realize all our talents and potentials so that we can be of maximum benefit to ourselves and others. We all have the ability to become a Buddha, because we all have the natural resources, or "Buddha-nature," that allows us to reach that goal. Whether we are a man or a woman, rich or poor, we all have a mind, a heart, a body and the ability to communicate. These are the working materials out of which we make ourselves Buddhas. Therefore, in showing respect for the Buddhas, we show respect for ourselves and all others.

One of the principal ways to show respect is through cleanliness. Buddhism instructs its followers to clean the temples and monasteries each day and to arrange clean and beautiful offerings, as if we were inviting a distinguished guest. Likewise, Buddhism instructs us to clean our bodies and homes each day as a way of showing respect to ourselves and to the people we meet. One of the Buddhist ethical precepts is not to do anything that would cause others to think badly of us or cause them to show us disrespect. Being dirty and smelly certainly makes others lose respect.

If we maintain personal hygiene, we feel good about ourselves and improve our self-image. Others are happy to be in our presence and gain a favorable impression of us. These are important factors for being successful in life. If, because of others telling us we are backward and ignorant, we believe their words, we lose our self-dignity. This loss of a feeling of self-worth leads not only to alcoholism, but also to not taking proper care of ourselves, our appearance, our homes and our temples. If others blindly show us respect even if we are dirty, we may not change our ways. We only improve our personal habits when we have respect for ourselves and for what we are doing in life. This comes from education about Buddhism and freedom from foreign pressure trying to convince everyone that we are primitive and backward. The issues of cleanliness and of progress in the modern world are interrelated.