How to work with the Mongolian Buddhist Sangha
||Gandan Tegchenling Monastery. Photograph courtesy of the Tributary Fund.
The following information has been extracted from the
Mongolian Buddhists Protecting Nature Handbook which can be downloaded in English and in Mongolian.
Making First Contact
In the Mongolian Buddhists and the Environment handbook (link
here), we include a list of the main monasteries in each of the aimags
(provinces) in Mongolia, with a list of their environmental activities, lists of whom to
contact, and historical background. If there is an area that is not on that list, a good
first step would be to enquire at the Gandan Monastery in Ulaanbaatar, or through
the local authorities in the region in which you are operating, about active monastic
communities in the area. Most monasteries in aimag centres will have a phone or fax,
and the abbot might even have a mobile phone. In some cases there is a lay person
closely tied to the monastery who might be easier to reach. Some monasteries have
no access to phone and are instead reached by faxing to the closest post office, or
by a personal visit.
Higher ranking lamas generally have a secretary who can be contacted to arrange
meetings. At the Gandan Monastery, for example, the Khamba lama, the principal
of the University and the administrator all have secretaries. The Officer in Charge of
Foreign Affairs at Gandan Monastery is Ven. B. Munkhbaatar, who speaks English
and can arrange initial contact.
Titles and personnel
High lamas can be addressed as ‘Venerable’, while high-ranking lamas, like
Venerable Choijamts Demberel of Gandan Monastery, should be addressed as
The foremost abbot in a larger monastery is always called the Khamba Lama;
Gandan Monastery’s Khamba Lama’s is the most senior in Mongolia. His full title is
“the Head of Mongolian Buddhists, the Abbot of Gandan Tegchenling Monastery,
His Eminence Gavj Choijamts”.
The second highest-ranking monk in a monastery is called the Ikh Khamba, or Ded
Khamba, while the third-highest-ranking monk is usually the administrator, and is
known as the Da Lama (not to be confused with the Dalai Lama). He is usually the
administrator, while the monk in charge of economic affairs in a monastery is called
Where there is an abbot, the monk in charge of religious affairs is the Tsorj Lama
– and where there is no abbot, the Tsorj Lam is the head monk.
If you visit a dratsang, or college of Buddhist philosophy, the head monk is called
the Shunlaiv, and it is useful to know that the highest title of study within the Gelugpa
tradition is that of Gavj.
Lamas in Mongolia are commonly referred to as “Lama”, preceded by any title, while
if you refer to the Dalai Lama in speech or in documents, it is polite to use the term
“His Holiness the Dalai Lama”, or simply “His Holiness”.
Monks and nuns will usually greet you with both hands together in front of their chests
and with a light bow of their head. They can in turn be greeted in the same manner.
Shaking hands is not required unless a hand is extended by the other party. If you do
shake hands, your sleeves should always be unrolled to show respect.
If you are a guest, you should begin by handing over a khadag, or blue ceremonial
scarf. Use two hands with the palms towards the sky and take the khadag between
your thumb and the palm of your hand. This is a traditional greeting in order to pay
respect to the host. Your host may, as a sign of respect, hand back the khadag,
hanging it over your head onto your shoulders. Receiving a khadag from a lama is
considered a form of blessing.
The khadag is folded three times width-wise, and should always be presented with
the opening towards the receiver. To hold it in the opposite direction is traditionally
considered a great offence, implying an intention to harm the other person.
Holding Meetings with Monks and Nuns
Dress in modest clothing when meeting with members of the sangha, or when visiting
a monastery or temple. Although casual dress is accepted, shoulders and knees
should be covered. When arranging a meeting or the start date for a project it
is best to consult a lunar calendar or contact monasteries regarding the date of
special ceremonies – partly because lamas will be largely unavailable, and partly
because certain days are also considered more auspicious for starting projects than
others. Certain times are more appropriate for meetings than others – for example,
monasteries generally conduct prayers in the mornings.
While in the past people were seated according to status – with the highest- ranking
person furthest from the door - these rules have now been somewhat relaxed.
However, when receiving a lama, stand up as he enters and show him his seat
respectfully extending the whole hand. And when a meeting with a high lama is
concluding, he may well hand over a khadag placing it over your head onto your
Specific monks are in charge of the financial dealings of a monastery. All financial
matters are decided by a committee that usually consists of the Khamba or most
senior lama as well as the administrator and accountant. These decisions are then
officially accepted in writing and executed by specific monks, such as the accountant.
Most monks participating in any project will have very limited personal funds. Some
dedicated individuals will be able to pay for any travel or other expenses incurred
by a project or by attending a meeting. However in order to ensure continued
attendance and participation, it is highly recommended that any project-related
expenses be reimbursed.
What makes a Successful Project?
Working with monasteries is in general a great pleasure. Monasteries are usually
vibrant places of worship where there is an active community atmosphere. However
it is good to realize that a lot of the vocabulary used in the development world is not
always appropriate for the monastery. It is crucial to explain all the different steps
and necessities very well, including how to deal with finance, receipts etc. It can be
helpful to work with a team rather than an individual and assign clear tasks to all
When visiting a Buddhist temple or monastery it is best to call ahead to ensure that
the appropriate person is present.
Many Buddhist centres have a set time that they are open to the public. It is generally
fine to enter a college or monastery while the monks are performing prayers or
debating when the doors are open – although it is always a good idea to first seek
approval from monks inside the compound.
When you go inside, remove your hat, and while shoes are not always removed,
due to the cold weather, follow the example of others. If in doubt it is best to start
removing your shoes at the risk of being told you can keep them on. Do not stand
at the doorpost, and always walk in a clockwise direction when walking around
either the inside or outside of a monastery, temple or other sacred structures such
Remain quiet and avoid speaking loudly. Also turn off your cell phone.
Many Mongolians make prostrations when they enter a temple. If you do not wish to
do the same, either bow your head slightly with the palms of your hands together at
the chest or simply stand quietly until others have finished.
If you enter a monastery or shrine you may be led to the main statue where you
can pay respect to the Buddha or deity by laying down a khadag in front of the
Buddha in the same way as you would present it to a lama - with two palms of the
hand facing towards the sky. Lighting a candle is another way of paying respect; this
should be done facing towards the central Buddha or deity statue.
When teachers, monks and nuns enter and leave the main shrine room, visitors
should stand to show respect. Otherwise, it is good manners to bow down low when
walking directly in front of people, in particular monks, who may be sitting against
the walls of the temple.
Sit with your feet folded cross-legged or folded under yourself. If you feel the need to
stretch your legs while in a temple, do so in such a way so as not to point your feet
directly at the teacher or altar.
When receiving a blessing from the lama or presenting a khadag, monks and nuns
are generally asked to go first, in order of seniority. In Buddhist cultures, monks go
before nuns. You approach the lama holding out a khadag; he may then touch your
head with his hands as a blessing, and then either he or his assistant will give you
a red blessing cord with a small knot on it. The cord should be treated with respect
and in no case dropped. Mongolians tie the cords around their necks or place them
in their shrines.
If you wish to take pictures, verify beforehand that it is acceptable to do so, and find
out when a good time would be so as not to disturb any ceremonies.
Every element of Buddhist temples, other Buddhist structures, and natural sacred sites
is considered holy. Avoid sitting on the lower part of built structures or touching these
with your feet.
Suvrag, also called stupas or chortens in Tibetan, are religious monuments containing
prayer books and sometimes relics of high lamas and may also house a Buddha
statue or image. They should be treated with respect, and walked around in a
Regular books containing Buddhist teachings, or those of grouped separate sheets
wrapped in a yellow or red cloth, should be treated with respect and not placed
on the floor or stepped over; other objects should not be casually placed on top of
Prayer wheels, which are metal cylinders containing prayers and frequently found on
the circumambulation walks around temples - can be spun in a clockwise direction.
It is believed that this releases the prayers into the air for the benefit of other sentient
beings and the world at large.
General Etiquette in Mongolia
When indicating an object or person, always do so with your whole hand, palm facing
upwards. Pointing is considered particularly offensive in Mongolia. When given food
or drink, you should always accept the offering. Even if you don’t wish to consume
them, it is considered good manners to take a small sip or mouthful, or break off a
small piece to eat and then place the remainder on the table in front of you.
Other links to Mongolian Buddhism and the Environment handbook information
Link here to access the news story about the launch of the Mongolian Buddhist Handbook.
here to download the Mongolian Buddhist Handbook in English. (Please note this file is 1.15MB)
here to download the Mongolian version of the Handbook.(A 2MB file.)
Link here to download the guide to the Mongolian Buddhists’ Eight Year Plan (this file is 4.13MB).
To download the A3 poster of a new thangka about Buddhists protecting Nature, link
here for an overview of Mongolian Case Studies.
For full contact and address details of Mongolian Busddhist Monasteries, please see page 57 of
Mongolian Buddhists' Handbook and see pages 58-59 for details of local development and environmental NGOs.
ARC at a glance
ARC is a secular body that helps the major religions of the world to develop their own environmental programmes, based on their own core teachings, beliefs and practices.
Buddhist Faith Statement
A formal statement of Buddhist beliefs about creation and ecology: "The trees are like our mother and father, they feed us, nourish us, and provide us with everything"
Last updated: September 24, 2009 :
Latest news on the Long Term Commitments
A sample of some of the faith groups around the world that are creating Five, Seven, Eight and Nine Year Plans to protect the natural environment, through the UNDP-ARC framework.