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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

Sacred Texts, Places, Creatures and Sacred Ovoos

The following information has been extracted from the Mongolian Buddhists Protecting Nature Handbook which can be downloaded in English and in Mongolian.

Sacred Texts

The role of sacred texts, or sutras, in protecting the environment is a very special part of Mongolian Buddhism - and is an important consideration for anyone wanting to work on environmental protection with faith bodies. After Buddhism became Mongolia’s state religion in the 13th century, Mongolian scholars codified and incorporated core components of ancient pre-Buddhist traditions into the new faith, embracing among other things the worship of natural sacred sites. So, of the 600 or more venerated mountains and sacred sites in Mongolia, at least 280 have their own associated sutras honouring the local environment. More might once have had such references, but the texts were most likely lost in the purges.

These texts have helped preserve ancient ecological practices over the ages: some through describing rituals that would protect Mongolia from ecological dangers4; others through offering prayers to the nature spirits to bring blessings and purify past misdeeds that disrupt nature; others through inviting Buddhas and deities to clear obstacles such as natural disasters or incursions of evil; some asking for the increase of sacred animals such as the snow leopard; and finally some – critically for today’s ecological initiatives – describing taboos and outlining punishment. For example, in one area the sutra described how the local goddess would flood a village if the trees on the mountain were cut down.

“The veneration of mountains is one of the most popular methods of traditional nature conservation among Mongolians. Mountain-sutras are not only religious books for ritual ceremonies, but they are also an invaluable repository of wisdom derived from Mongolian culture.”

Sacred Places

Many mountains, rivers and other natural spaces are revered as sacred - either because they are the residing place of a deity or because they are viewed as a deity in themselves.

These natural sites were historically treated with utmost respect, and protected by taboos. For example, trees should not be cut within their vicinity nor wild animals hunted. Some sacred sites are believed to house spirit masters – who often take a strikingly similar physical form to that of the mountain.

So the spirit master of the bird-shaped Bogd Khaan Mountain to the south of Ulaanbaatar for example, is in the shape of a garuda (a huge and powerful mythical bird); to the west of Ulaanbaatar is a mountain with a spirit master in the form of an old, blue man. Some of these spirit masters were thought to be wrathful and therefore liable to punish those people who broke the taboos while others were thought to be benevolent, protecting people from natural disasters for example, and therefore deserving to be thanked. Some deities are female.

Sacred Birds and Animals

Sometimes mountains were named after animals. The ecological significance of this is still important: there is frequently a specific taboo on the hunting or trapping of this animal on the sites, and where these taboos are not apparent today, any ecological initiative can benefit from reminding the local people of the ancient beliefs, through working with the local clergy. Besides their association with certain natural sites, some animals were considered sacred in their own right.

Ovoos are piles of stones that traditionally indicate sacred sites. Photo courtesy of the Tributary Fund.
The wolf and deer are the most obvious examples, while snakes and fish were considered animals of the nagas, or nature spirits. The hunting, harming, trapping or eating of any of these animals - as well as antelope, argali sheep, mountain goats, migratory birds and other rare species - was considered sinful.

There are also ancient beliefs that casting one’s shadow on, or touching, the nest or eggs of any bird is taboo, and that killing certain birds would enrage the heavens. As a result of these beliefs, some internationally endangered birds live comparatively unharmed in Mongolia, although this situation has begun to change.

Ovoo Worship

Even if you are not Mongolian, you can usually recognise a sacred Mongolian mountain. It is generally an impressive, high feature on the landscape, often with an unusual shape and supporting an abundance of wildlife and fresh-water sources. And, because it has been worshipped for centuries, it almost certainly has an “ovoo” at its summit.

Ovoos are piles of stones that traditionally indicate sacred sites. They can be found on the top of mountains or hills, at water sources and on the edge of rivers and lakes that have a sacred significance. When passing an ovoo, people traditionally circumambulate it three times while saying a prayer that translates as: “Greatness of ovoos to you; Greatness of gains to me; Greatness of glory to you; Greatness of spirit to me; Greatness of height to you; greatness of good fortune to me.” They then leave small offerings to bless their journey and the pleased spirits are believed to provide land fertility, good weather, health, and prevent disasters in return. They are particularly believed to be critical in helping the regeneration of land that has been developed by humans.

Ovoo worship is a very common activity in Mongolia and most laypeople as well as monks know the practices well. Many monasteries view ovoo worship to be one of their central responsibilities - from both a religious and (increasingly) an environmental perspective. For example, Gandan and Dashchoilin - environmentally active monasteries - are responsible for the worship of ovoos all over Mongolia and in particular the five main government ovoos: Otgon Tenger, Burkhan Khaldun, Altan Khokhii, Tsetsee Gun (Bogd Khaan) and Altan Ovoo. According to Dashchoilin monk N. Batsaikhan, worshipping these five main government mountains and their ovoos is the most important work in Mongolia. “People go along with the monks to worship the mountains. According to tradition, even the President and Minister must attend”. Mongolian Buddhists Protecting Nature.

Pages about Mongolian Environmental Wisdom, taken from the Handbook.

The Mongolian Lord of Nature.

Sacred texts, places and ovoos.

Sacred sites in Mongolia.

Traditional Environmental Law in Mongolia.

The work that the monks, in conjunction with ARC and the World Bank and others, are carrying out to rediscover the sutras about sacred land in Mongolia.

Do you want to support this?

For full contact and address details of Mongolian Buddhist Monasteries, please see page 57 of the Handbook. And for details of local Development, Environmental and Educational NGOs, please visit pages 58-59 of the Handbook.

Other links to Mongolian Buddhism and the Environment

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).

Link to Mongolian Case Studies.

And here on how to make contact with the Sangha.

To download the A3 poster of a new thangka about Buddhists protecting Nature, link here (5.61MB).

Brief History of Mongolian Buddhism.

Buddhism and the Environment.

Women in Buddhism in Mongolia.

Key Figures in Mongolian Buddhism.

Key Meetings in Mongolia.

Mongolian Buddhists and Development.

Mongolian Buddhists and Ecology.

Mongolian Buddhist Hunting Ban.

The Lost Sutras.

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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"
Sacred Mongolian Environmental Texts
The key to Mongolia's sacred landscapes lay hidden in ancient Buddhist texts
Last updated: September 24, 2009 :
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