Double Headed Mongolian Buddhism, by Lhagvademchig J Shastri (Visiting researcher, University of Shiga)

In this article, I explore the emergence of two heads of Mongolian Buddhism: first, Hamba Lama (Abbot) of Gandantegchenling monastery, a religious authority created during the socialist period, and second, the late Ninth Jebtsundamba Khutugtu (1932-2012), whose previous reincarnation pre-dated the socialist religious authority in Mongolia.[1]

I explore the subject matter from the point of view of an insider, as I was myself a Mongolian Buddhist monk for fifteen years, but also as outsider, as a researcher in the academic field of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist studies and anthropology. I draw on nine years of participant observation (1993-2002) while I was studying and living together with my fellow Tibetan Buddhist monks and Tibetan exiled communities in India, and from further field work in Mongolia in a capacity of both insider and outsider for my doctoral study, in addition to short-term fieldwork in Inner Mongolia, Buryatia and India.[2] I employed both historical and anthropological methods in this research.

Mongolia borders with the Inner Mongolian Autonomous Region, the Republic of Buryatia and the Republic of Tuva with which Mongolia shares Buddhist and Mongol ethnic bonds. (Source:

Before I discuss the emergence of two heads of Mongolian Buddhism in post-socialist Mongolia, I may need to briefly describe how the Mongolian socialist government created socialist Mongolian Buddhism, headed by Hamba Lama (Abbot) of Gandantegchenling monastery, after totally demolishing pre-socialist Mongolian Buddhism headed by Bogd Jebtsundamba Khutugtu, who was the Mongolian equivalent of the Dalai Lama. The last Eighth Bogd Jebtsundamba Khutugtu (1870-1924) was a theocratic monarch. He was the last Mongolian Khaan despite the fact that he was an ethnic Tibetan.

The Eighth Bogd Jebtsundamba Khutugtu (1870-1924).  (Photo courtesy of Bogd Khaan Palace Museum)

After the demise of the Eighth Bogd Jebtsundamba Khutugtu in 1924, the People’s Government of Mongolia banned the search for his next reincarnation. Eventually, the government destroyed Mongolian Buddhist institution by the end of 1930s: around fourteen thousand Buddhist monks were executed and over seven hundred monasteries were destroyed. Then, towards the end of the Second World War, in 1944, the government re-opened the Gandantegchenling monastery under the instruction received from Moscow to re-open Buddhist monastery in Mongolia.

The socialist government of Mongolia appointed former monk N.Erdenepel (1887-1960), who was seen as trustworthy monk by the government, as an abbot of Gandantegchenling monastery; and he was further promoted as the Head of Buddhists of the Peoples’ Republic of Mongolia when the Central Religious Administration was established at Gandantegchenling monastery in 1947. In this way, the abbot of Gandantegchenling monastery took up the position of the Eighth Bogd Jebtsundamba Khutugtu (the search for whose next reincarnation was banned), as the Head of Mongolian Buddhism. In other words, socialist Mongolian government created socialist Mongolian Buddhism which means the government created Hamba Lama (Abbot) institution in the place of the pre-socialist Buddhist institution which was Jebtsundamba institution that was headed by the Jebtsundamba Khutugtu.

After collapse of socialism in 1990, Gandantegchenling monastery retained its former dominant position as the Central Religious Administration. At the first ever Conference of Mongolian Buddhists organised in 1991, delegates of the newly re-opened monasteries decided that Gandantegchenling monastery was to be the Centre of Mongolian Buddhism, and that the abbot of Gandantegchenling monastery was to become the Head of Mongolian Buddhism. The Conference thereby enabled the Gandantegchenling monastery to retain and strengthen its position as it enjoyed during the socialist period.

Two weeks after the Mongolian monks elected the Head of Mongolian Buddhism at Gandantegchenling monastery in Ulaanbaatar, another Head of Mongolian Buddhism emerged in India. On September 20, 1991, the Fourteenth Dalai Lama officially recognised the fifty-nine-year-old former Tibetan monk Jamphel Namdrol Chokyi Gyeltsen as the true reincarnation of the Eighth Jebtsundamba Bogd Khutugtu (1870-1924), whose next reincarnation had been banned by socialist Mongolian government in 1929.

A question came up: given these circumstances, who is the head of Mongolian Buddhism? The Abbot of Gandantegchenling monastery, a Mongolian citizen, in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia or the Ninth Bogd Jebtsundamba Khutugtu, a Tibetan refugee, at Dharmasala, India? The question also pertained to whether the Centre of Mongolian Buddhism should be located within the territory of Mongolia or outside of Mongolia, depending on who would be accepted and recognised as the Head of Mongolian Buddhism.

Those Mongolian monks who saw the Ninth Bogd Jebtsundamba Khutugtu as ‘the true Lord and Head of Mongolian Buddhism’ welcomed the Dharmasala decision and tried to invite and enthrone him as the Head of Mongolian Buddhism in Mongolia. However, the government of Mongolia considered the Dharmasala decision as interference in Mongolian internal religious matters. In 1995, the National Security Council of Mongolia issued a resolution that resolved not to issue a Mongolian visa to the Ninth Jebtsundamba.[3]

Despite the resolution of the National Security Council of Mongolia, the Ninth Bogd Jebtsundamba Khutugtu managed to get Mongolian tourist visa and made a sudden visit to Mongolia on July 13, 1999. Just two days after the Ninth Jebtsundamba’s arrival in Mongolia, Chinese President Jiang Zemin made an official visit to Mongolia on July 15, 1999.

Mongolia received the Ninth Bogd Jebtsundamba Khutugtu, who was seen by China as a refugee who fled from his ‘motherland China’ and who was being recognised by the ‘motherland splitist’ Dalai Lama and Chinese President at the same time. Obviously, the Ninth Bogd Jebtsundamba Khutugtu was an unexpected guest for both the government of Mongolia and for the Gandantegchenling monastery.

Mongolian monks welcomed the Ninth Bogd Jebtsundamba Khutugtu, re-incarnation of the last Mongolian Khaan, at Buyant-Uhaa international airport, July 13, 1999. (Source: O.Batsaihan 2015:714)

Mongolian President N.Bagabandi receives Chinese President Jiang Zemin in Sühbaatar Square, July 15, 1999. (Source: Mei 2009:83)

Those Mongolian monks who welcomed the Ninth Bogd Jebtsundamba Khutugtu also managed to enthrone him as the Head of Mongolian Buddhism at Erdene Zuu monastery, over three hundred sixty kilometres west of Ulaanbaatar, the capital city of Mongolia. The abbot of Gandantegchenling monastery did not attend the enthronement ceremony, and the government of Mongolia gave its official disapproval.

Why did the government disapprove of him as the Head of Mongolian Buddhism? First, for the government, the Head of Mongolian Buddhism should be Mongolian not Tibetan; second, the government calculated potential Tibetan influence and interference to Mongolian Buddhism. Third, the government was still holding the policy of prohibiting the recognition of reincarnated lamas, which had been in effect since 1928, and fourth, the government avoided conflict with China by welcoming the Tibetan who was recognised by the Dalai Lama as the Head of Mongolian Buddhism.

By September 1999, the Ninth Jebtsundamba had already overstayed his one-month tourist visa by one month; and he left for India on September 17, 1999 and he could not visit Mongolia again for ten years. However, the situation changed in 2009, when Ts.Elbegdorj, a presidential candidate from the Democratic Party, was elected as the President of Mongolia. Five months after the Mongolian presidential election, the Ninth Bogd Jebtsundamba Khutugtu visited Mongolia for the second time in October 2009.

One may ask that how the presidential election enabled the Ninth Bogd Jebtsundamba Khutugtu visit Mongolia again. Under the Law on Relationship between the State and the Monastery (1992), Mongolian President has the right to ‘regulate relations between state and monasteries and inter-religious relations’. The President is also the head of the National Security Council of Mongolia. On the basis of this legal framework, the issue of the Ninth Bogd Jebtsundamba Khutugtu to be accepted or rejected had been decided by subsequent Mongolian presidents starting from the first Mongolian President P.Ochirbat (served as the president from 1990-1997) until the President Ts.Elbegdorj (2009-2017).

On August 17, 2010, the former Mongolian President Ts. Elbegdorj granted Mongolian citizenship to the Ninth Bogd Jebtsundamba Khutugtu. The following year, on November 2, 2011, the Ninth Jebtsundamba was enthroned as the Head of Mongolian Buddhism for the second time at Gandantegchenling monastery, Ulaanbaatar. Ven.D.Choijamts, the abbot of Gandantegchenling monastery, who has been holding the abbotship since 1992 until the present day, attended the enthronement ceremony and he himself proclaimed the Ninth Jebtsundamba as the Head of Mongolian Buddhism.

Former President Ts.Elbegdorj flanked by the Ninth Bogd Jebtsundamba Khutugtu and Ven.D.Choijamts, Abbot of Gandantegchenling monastery, 2010. (Source: Batsaihan 2015:623)

Finally, the question of who was the true Head of Mongolian Buddhism which was started in 1991 was solved. At the age of seventy-nine, the Ninth Bogd Jebtsundamba Khutugtu, Jamphel Namdrol Chokyi Gyeltsen, now a citizen of Mongolia, was enthroned as the Head of Mongolian Buddhism. Five days after the enthronement, the Fourteenth Dalai Lama visited Mongolia. In the next year, on March 1, 2012, the Ninth Jebtsundamba passed away at the age of eighty.

Before passing away, the Ninth Bogd Jebtsundamba issued his testament titled the Word for All the Faithful (Tibetan: dad ris kun la gtam) when he was at the hospital. His testament clearly specified two primary conditions: first, that he will be born in Mongolia, and second, that his reincarnation will be recognised only by the Dalai Lama ‘who is my root guru in all my births.’[4]

The Fourteenth Dalai Lama visited Mongolia in November 2016, and in the morning of November 23 at a press conference, the Dalai Lama publicly announced that the Tenth Jebtsundamba was born in Mongolia. The Dalai Lama said ‘since the child is now an infant, it is not necessary to hurriedly make public announcement…It is very clear that the reincarnation is now in Mongolia.’

The Fourteenth Dalai Lama at the press conference, November 2016.  (Source: The Office of Dalai Lama)

It can be said that the Jebtsundamba institution, which celebrated almost four hundred years history since the First Jebtsundamba, Öndör Gegeen Zanabazar (1635-1723), manifested its existence just for four months in post-socialist Mongolia from the official enthronement (November 2, 2011) to the demise of the Ninth Bogd Jebtsundamba Khutugtu (March 1, 2012). Meanwhile, the Hamba Lama (Abbot) institution, ‘a heritage’ of socialism, has been dominant for twenty-eight years since collapse of socialism.

The First Bogd Jebtsundamba Öndör Gegeen Zanabazar (1635-1723). (Photo courtesy of the Fine Arts Zanabazar Museum)

As the Dalai Lama indicated that the Tenth Jebtsundamba Khutugtu is now an ‘infant’, in the same way, the Jebtsundamba institution is now an infant too, despite its almost four hundred years of history and tradition. At the present, it is not certain when the actual identity of the Tenth Jebtsundamba Khutugtu will be revealed and whether the Jebtsundamba institution will be established in the place of socialist Hamba Lama (Abbot) institution at that time.

Before concluding the article, I would like to answer the questions of why the former President Ts.Elbegdorj (who served as the president from 2009-2017) approved the Ninth Bogd Jebtsundamba Khutugtu: did he change the course of the religious policy of the former presidents on the Jebtsundamba issue?

My answer is that the National Security Council of Mongolia headed by the Mongolian President did not change the religious policy of the former presidents on preventing outside influence and interference in Mongolian Buddhism. The National Security Council did not see that it was an effective preventive measure by means of pushing away the Jebtsundamba and keeping Hamba Lama. The effective defence strategy for Mongolia was to elevate the Jebtsundamba as the Head of Mongolian Buddhism against two future potential reincarnations of the Dalai Lama-one chosen by Dharmasala another by Beijing and Beijing-based Panchen Lama.

Elevating the Jebtsundamba is more than a defence system but actually it could be a form of Mongolian Buddhist diplomacy working to exert its influence over Mongol ethnic people in Inner Mongolia, Buryatia and Kalmykia and Tuva, Russia and Chinese Tibet in his capacity of both Heads of Mongolian Buddhism and Tibetan Jonang school (the First Jebtsundamba Khutugtu is believed the immediate reincarnation of famous Tibetan Jonang master Jebtsun Taranatha (1575-1634) and the Fourteenth Dalai Lama appointed the Ninth Bogd Jebtsundamba Khutugtu as the Head of Jonang school in 1997.) [5]

It is apparent that anthropological and religious studies in Central Eurasia often centre on Islam, while studies about Mongolia more focus on shamanism (Buyandelger 2013, Shimamura 2014, Pedersen 2011). It is important to understand that Mongolia and Central Eurasia are also part of the global history of Buddhism, which is very much contested in the contemporary present, not unquestioned or rooted only in the past.

Another general tendency among scholars drawing conclusions about Buddhism in Mongolia during the socialist period —  that it had ‘disappeared’ or ‘was merely a show-case’ — actually overshadow an analysis of post-socialist Mongolian Buddhism in a full picture. I argue that Buddhism during the socialist period was actually alive not dead; more than that that socialist Mongolian Buddhism is actually now surviving in post-socialist Mongolia. As Humphrey (1998) pointed out that ‘Marx went away, but Karl stayed behind,’ a socialism-created Hamba Lama (Abbot) institution remained while the Jebtsundamba institution was denied until 2009. At the present, the fate of the Jebtsundamba institution is now still uncertain and is in the stage of its infancy.


Batsaihan, O. 2015. IX Bogd Javzandamba Hutagt: Amidral ba tsag hugatsaa [The IX Bogdo Jebtsundamba Khutukhtu: The Life and Times]. Ulaanbaatar: Mönhiin üseg.

Beri Rigpey Dorje. 2015. Skyabs mgon khal kha rje btsun dam pa sku pren dgu ba’i mdzad rnam ma bcos drang por brjod pa mtshan ldan bla ma’i zhal lung chog shes dang bag yod kyi mi tshe, vol 1. New Delhi: Norbu Graphics.

Buyandelger, Manduhai. 2013. Tragic Spirits: Shamanism, Memory, and Gender in Contemporary Mongolia. Chicago. University of Chicago Press.

Elverskog, Johan. 2006. Two Buddhisms in Contemporary Mongolia. Contemporary Buddhism 7 (1): 29-46.

Humphrey, Caroline. 1998. Marx went away but Karl stayed behind. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press.

Jadamba, Lkhagvademchig, and Bernhard Schittich. 2010. Negotiating Self And Other: Transnational Cultural Flows And The Reinvention Of Mongolian Buddhism. Internationales Asienforum 41.1/2 (2010): 83-102.

Jadamba, Lkhagvademchig. (forthcoming). Double Headed Mongolian Buddhism: A Historical and Anthropological Study on Identity Politics inside the Mongolian Buddhist Institution. PhD dissertation. The University of Shiga Prefecture.

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Shimamura, Ippei. 2014. The Roots Seekers: Shamanism and Ethnicity among the Mongol Buryats. Yokohama: Shumpusha.


[1] The term of Mongolian Buddhism is rather post-socialist term which came up in the contest of the term of Tibetan Buddhism. Both terms-Mongolian and Tibetan Buddhism, do not exist in Buddhist literature. See more the term of Mongolian Buddhism Elverskog 2006; Jadamba and Bernhard 2010; Jerryson 2007:1-3.

[2] This article is an extract from my PhD dissertation entitled Double Headed Mongolian Buddhism: A Historical and Anthropological Study on Identity Politics inside the Mongolian Buddhist Institution (Lhagvademchig forthcoming).

[3] An interview with R.Bold, secretary of the National Security Council of Mongolia, Ödriin sonin (Daily News) newspaper, September 17, 1999, Issue No.163. The interview is titled as ‘A refugee Tibetan who entered (Mongolia) at the individual invitation is enthroned as the Head of Mongolian Buddhism.’

[4] See the testament both in Tibetan and Mongolian Batsaihan 2015:645.

[5] See more for the appointment of the Ninth Bogd Jebtsundamba Khutugtu as the Head of Jonang school Beri Rigpey Dorje 2015, vol.1:298-299, 305-306.