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Mongolia: Buddhists | Mongolia | Sacred Environmental Texts | Restoring Geser Sum | Mongolia report 2004 | A Brief History of Buddhism in Mongolia | Environmental protection | Key Meetings | Women in Buddhism | Key Mongolian Buddhist Figures | The Lord of Nature | Buddhists and Development | Traditional Mongolian Environmental Laws | Sacred Sites list | Places, creatures and ovoos | How to work with the Sangha | The lost sutras | A new thangka protecting nature

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 “Your Eminence”.

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 the Daamal.

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 shoulders.

Money-related Issues

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 the members.

Temple Etiquette

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 as ovoos.

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.

Buddhist Objects

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 clockwise direction.

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 them.

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.

Link here to download the Mongolian Buddhist Handbook in English. (Please note this file is 1.15MB)

Link 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 (5.61MB).

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.

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