Mongolia Project

Gaden Relief’s Mongolia Project was started immediately after Ven. Zasep Rinpoche’s first visit to Mongolia in 2003. The first project, completed in 2004, was in setting up a potable water system for the monks at the old monastery of Amarbayasgalant in the northern part of the country. Soon after, GRP raised funds for the restoration and institution of Delgruun Choira Monastery in the Gobi desert. Another project supported was the local charity Geralt Mur that does the worthy work of purchasing yurts for poor families and single mothers in the capital.

In 2011, students of Ven. Zasep Rinpoche set up their own local charity, Manlha Tus, to serve as a contact, agent and partner for GRP in Mongolia. One of our first projects co-authored with Manlha Tus was in 2013, where we supported Buddhist education at Tsongkhapa Lam Rim center in the capital Ulaanbatar. Tugsbayasgalant Nunnery in Ulaanbatar has been another Buddhist community that received GRP funds, this time for the purchase of an air conditioning system, kitchen equipment and washing machines totally over $10,000. In 2015, GRP donations helped the Omnodelger health care clinic and community for the elderly. Several of Ven. Zasep Rinpoche’s provided medicine and medical services in this rural setting. Another charity we worked with over the last few years was the orphanage Khek Sonsoglin Berkhsheeltel that takes care of deaf and disabled children. Rinpoche made a couple of personal visits to the orphanage and in 2016, delivered $4000 to help them with their services. GRP has recently instituted a scholarship project for the education of poor and needy students and is currently funding a young lady in her dentistry studies. GRP is also now raising money for the education of the young Mongolia Lama, Tendar Rinpoche and helping his personal Temple.

Project Assessment Visit to Mongolia

By Matthew Richards

It has been a personal wish of Zasep Rinpoche to visit Outer Mongolia for some time. Rinpoche has a personal connection to this country and culture through friends and teachers.

Since the 1960s, he has been very close to a Lama friend of his, the incomparable Jetsun Pakshe Losang Tenzin Rinpoche. Jetsun Rinpoche, originally from Inner Mongolia, came to Tibet in the early part of the 20th century and became a student of the greatest Lamas in the Gelugpa, New Translation School of Tibetan Buddhism. With the Chinese military crackdown in 1959 and subsequent exile of thousands of Tibetans in India, through great personal effort, uncanny resourcefulness and selfless service, Jetsun Rinpoche was instrumental in the preservation of Dharma and reestablishment of numerous Gelugpa institutions. In the early 1990s, when his former homeland of Mongolia began its transition from Soviet satellite to modern democracy, Jetsun Rinpoche decided to return home and aid with the country’s resurrection of its Tibetan Buddhist past. Though Rinpoche is now quite elderly, he is 96 years old; this fact has not slowed his dedication to supporting and spreading the Dharma. Ven. Zasep Rinpoche felt that this past fall was a good time to once more visit his dear friend.

In the mid 1990s, Zasep Rinpoche also became very close to renowned Buddhist master, H.H. the 9th Khalka Jetsun Dampa Rinpoche. The Jetsun Dampas or Bogd Khaans are the equivalent of the Dalai Lamas for the Mongolian people. Though their incarnations are usually found in their spiritual homeland of Tibet, they assumed the temporal power of their institution in Mongolia. The Jetsun Dampas were considered “Living Buddhas” by the Mongolian people and were all unsurpassed yogis, scholars and leaders. The 8th Bogd Khaan died in 1924 and swiftly afterward, Mongolia’s Buddhist society was overthrown by a military coup staged by the country’s Communists. His Holiness The 9th Jetsun Dampa was only officially recognized by H.H. Dalai Lama after the Soviet regime had collapsed in Mongolia for fear that an earlier such announcement his life would have placed his life in danger from this Junta. His Holiness was able to make several visits to Canada, teaching and giving empowerments at several of Zasep Rinpoche’s dharma centers, coast to coast. Through this connection to H. Jetsun Dampa, many of Rinpoche’s students developed a bond with Mongolia and felt a responsibility to revive Mongolia’s newly awakened Buddhist faith in whatever way possible.

Gers or yurts visited on a day trip to a resort in the National Park, Terelj. Terelj is one hour north of Ulaan Baator and is a popular tourist destination. A Mongolian friend took Ven. Zasep Rinpoche and his student there for a visit. In this park, there are steep hills, sparse forests, grassy plains and unique “spirit” rock formations. There are many places to hike with spectacular vistas and open spaces with only wildlife for company. At several resort areas here, you can rent horses and Bactrian camels for a day’s trek.

In the Fall 2003, causes and conditions came together and Zasep Rinpoche was finally able to make this trip. His student, Matthew Richards was asked to accompany him. Ven. Zasep Rinpoche visited Mongolia for quick 10 days at the end of September, flying from Vancouver to Beijing and then on to the capital, Ulaan Baatar or “UB”.

While in Ulaan Baatar, Rinpoche and Matthew stayed in the hospitable Nassan Guest House with a very sweet Mongolian family. Rinpoche was able to spend a lot of time visiting with his dear friend, Jetsun Rinpoche and his household. This Lama’s condo was like old Tibetan Temple with life-sized statues of Lama Tsongkhapa and his two heart students. The travelers also visited the families of members of Vancouver’s Mongolian community, who greeted them with uncommon warmth and kindness.

Ven. Zasep Rinpoche spent a couple of days visiting Ulaan Baatar’s famed Gadantegchinlen Khiid or Ganden Monastery. The monastery is a complex of several old temples with newer buildings being presently built. There are many new monks studying Buddhist theory and practice at several colleges there. The highlight of any visit to Ganden, is certainly the incredible 25m, 27 tonne statue of standing “Janraisig” or “Chenrezig”, the Buddha of Compassion; tucked into a beautiful Tibetan style cathedral on the grounds. Pilgrims from all over the country come to spin Ganden’s large prayer wheels, circle the stupas and consult with Lamas. Many lay people would consult with the local monks about personal matters, in an almost business fashion, in a small temple: being received at large conference tables by monks who accepted donations for advice, therapy or prayers. Seeing this direct, helpful contact between the lay and ordained community made Rinpoche happy.

Ven. Zasep Rinpoche’s student, Matthew Richards, enjoying Mongolian “buuz” or mutton dumplings in the ger of the abbot of Amarbayasgalant monastery, the young Ven. Zava Damdin Rinpoche.

Ven. Zasep Rinpoche, Matthew and friends also did a day-trip South West of UB to visit Mongolia’s first monastery, Erdene Zuu, near the country’s ancient capital, Kharkhorin or “Karakorum”. The trip down was a veritable odyssey: both dreamlike and jarring due to the poor condition of the highway and reckless local drivers. Kharkhorin is bordering the Gobi desert and the landscape does indeed differ from that seen in parts of Central Mongolia. It is sparse, dry and framed with the kind of rocky hills you’d see in a place like New Mexico. Initially built in 1586 and blessed by visiting high Tibetan Lamas, Erdene Zuu is a masterpiece of Buddhist architecture. It took an unbelievable 300 years to complete the construction of the temple complex. It was once home to 1000 monks living in up to 100 temple buildings. Now, after the Stalinist Red Terror of the 1930s, only a handful remain. There is now an ongoing state effort to rebuild Erdene Zuu and this itself is an inspiration. New temples are going up, tourists and locals are visiting and helping out and a small Sangha of monks has taken up residence in the grounds. The highlight of any visit to Erdene Zuu is to walk along and experience the incredible temple courtyard. A well-preserved wall of 108 stupas, ring the monastery. In the afternoon sun, the play of light and shadow on these chortens is otherworldly. Erdene Zuu also has a collection of Buddhist statues, tanghkas, paintings and altar implements whose nature and craft are breathtaking even sublime. Zasep Rinpoche said he had never seen anything like it! A short walk away from the monastery puts you in an open plain. There you’ll find a “turtle rock” statue used in old fertility rites. A true lesson in impermanence, this rock is all that remains of Ogedei Khan’s mighty imperial of Kharkhorin after falling prey to sacking Manchurian soldiery.

In Ulaan Baatar proper, Ven. Zasep Rinpoche and Matthew spent time in several museums experiencing Mongolia’s rich Buddhist cultural heritage. Zanabazar’s Museum of Fine Art in UB holds a collection of some of the greatest Buddhist religious art in Asia. Zanabazar or “Jnana (Wisdom) Vajra”, 1635-1723, was the First Jetsun Dampa of Mongolia. An outstanding Lama, yogi, scholar, statesman, artist and creator of Mongolia’s national emblem, the “Soyombo” and reformer of its script, his bronze statues of various Buddhas are literally without equal. The oracle monastery of Choijin Lama, built in 1904, while run by faithful staff, is now more of a museum. Stepping foot on its grounds is akin to stepping into Mongolia’s past. Most of the temple’s finery is well preserved. Rinpoche also visited the 8th Jetsun Dampa, Bogd Khan’s Winter Palace. Communist troops destroyed the larger Summer Palace in the 1930s. His Holiness’ palace had many beautiful temples and includes Zanabazar’s famous statues of the 21 Taras. His residential building had many of his personal effects and also included items from his many eccentric hobbies: for instance, he bought dozens of stuffed European songbirds on a trip to Germany at the turn of the 20th century. Also included was the full ornamental costume of an elephant bought in India and made to walk all the way to Mongolia to lead the annual parade of Ulaan Baatar’s famous Tsam Dance Festival. The elephant died from a cold soon after arriving in Mongolia.

Ven. Zasep Rinpoche and Matthew also spent some time in Mongolia’s breathtaking countryside. A friend took them one hour north of UB to the famous national park, Terelj. A favorite destination for both locals and tourists, it is a hilly nature-preserve whose landscape is similar to that found in Canada’s province of Alberta. It possesses many interesting rock formations, no doubt seen as special by traditional shamans and is home to moose, bear and many different species of birds. Several hotels and campsites there offer horse and camel rides.

This ger is where Ven. Zasep Rinpoche stayed while visiting Sangha at Amarbayasgalant. The ger is inside the wall of the temple complex and dawn is breaking with the sun rising just over the rolling hills of the secluded valley.

Another beautiful destination, close to the capital as well, is the ruins of the famous monastery, Manzshir Khiid, named after the Buddha of Wisdom, “Manjushri”. Founded in 1773, the ruins and partially reconstructed main temple are located in the cul-de-sac of secluded valley in a national park originally created by the 8th Bogd Khaan. There was once a thriving community of 350 monks living in a complex of 20 buildings all reduced to rubble by the Communist crackdown. The grounds Manzshir Khiid are dotted with cliff faces, caves, large granite boulders, small streams and forests of pine, birch and cedar trees. Rinpoche and Matthew enjoyed this visit very much. The monastery grounds were so beautiful and still. One bizarre fact about this place is that, like out of a scene from a 1930s French Surrealist piece, you can buy ice cream here in these abandoned ruins. On the steps to the main temple, there is a small fridge with a very long extension cord plugged into a generator in a small nearby ger. You can sit down, open the door and with only the wind, leaves and birds for company, help yourself to some Russian-made ice cream bars.

A definitive highlight of Ven. Zasep Rinpoche’s and Matthew’s trip was the visit to the famed Amarbayasgalant monastery in the northern Mongolian province of Selenge: 120 km from the border with the Siberian republic of Buryatia. Perhaps the second most important monastery in Mongolia, Amarbayasgalant is a five-hour drive North West of Ulaan Baatar. The road is in particularly good condition and the landscape viewed from your car is that which is most familiar to those who have seen travel logs on this country: steppes, rolling hills and an infinite expanse of blue sky. The last hour or so of the drive is along a dirt road through the valley leading up to the monastery. Along this patch of road, one sees many nomadic families leading a more traditional lifestyle of living in gers and tending their livestock such as herds of sheep or their beloved horses.

Amarbayasgalant was founded in 1727 and completed roughly 10 years later. The Manchurian emperor, Enkh- Amgalan Khaan, built it as an offering to the recently deceased, unequalled Zanabazar, the First Bogd Khaan. Because of its remote location in a quiet secluded valley, it became a retreat place for the subsequent Jetsun Dampas. What is unique about Amarbayasgalant is its stunning architecture. Rather than the familiar, indeed traditional, Tibetan style of temple building, this monastery is fashioned in Manchurian motif with the pagodas, curved roofs, mystical gargoyles, Manchurian/Mandarin inscriptions, imperial colours one is used to seeing in China not some deserted valley in far away Mongolia. In 1936, 2000 monks studying at this institution and it appears that the temple grounds were extensive, with living quarters, halls, shrines and debating courtyards. The mummies of many of the previous Jetsun Dampas were entombed here over the centuries. With the advent of the Communist takeover of Mongolia in the mid 1920s and culminating with the Stalinist Red-Terror purges of the 1930s under junta-leader, Choibalsan, Mongolia’s traditional Buddhist culture was systematically extinguished. Thousands of Lamas, monks and nuns were murdered, often being forced to dig their own graves before being shot, and Mongolia’s rich religious heritage was looted, ransacked and destroyed. Amarbayasgalant was partially destroyed by the Red Army in the 1930s. A walk in its valley can easily turn up masonry and pillaged items from this sad time. Some historians believe that “sympathetic” Communist officials who conducted a mere half-hearted sacking saved the monastery from total oblivion. Indeed, unlike their Maoist compatriots in China, the Mongolian Soviets did not enact a “Cultural Revolution” and a significant amount of religious-cultural material was preserved for display in museums. So it is with Amarbayasgalant. Unesco began working on this world-heritage site in the mid 1970s and Jetsun Rinpoche accomplished the lion’s share of restoration and re-consecration when he returned to Mongolia in the early 1990s.

The main temple of Gandantegchinlen Khiid, “Ganden monastery” in Ulaan Baatar. This monastery has a number of Tibetan style temples, now filled with new monks studying Buddhist thought and practice. This particular showpiece temple houses a 25 m, 27 tonne gold gilded statue of standing Avalokiteshvara or “Migjid Janraisig” (Chenrezig in Tibetan), the Buddha of Compassion in the pose of “The Lord Who Looks In Every Direction”. The previous statue was looted by Soviet troops and purportedly melted down to make bullets. The new statue was erected in Oct.1997 and consecrated by H.H. Dalai Lama. It is covered by 500 m of silk, is filled with 27 tonnes of Tibetan medicine and in its base, houses an entire ger!

Driven up to Amarbayasgalant by a friend of Jetsun Rinpoche, Ven. Zasep Rinpoche and his student were welcomed warmly and graciously. Given a grand tour, they were invited to stay in a ger on temple grounds. Cozy with the stove on, the night cold eventually seeped through and gave them a taste of what it is really like to live near Siberia! In the morning, the dawn’s soft light enveloping the valley and casting shadows on Amarbayasgalant’s many Manchurian pagodas, filled with crying blackbirds, was a sight to behold.

The abbot, Zava Damdin Rinpoche, runs the monastery, under the spiritual direction of Jetsun Rinpoche. A young man in his twenties, Rinpoche is the newest tulku or reincarnated Lama, in Mongolia. Rinpoche and his family made their way to the monastery in the early 1990s, by walking and camping by the road a trek that took them a week. There are now 60 young monks living there and many more wish to join. One of Ven. Zasep Rinpoche’s old Geshe friends from India, comes to teach Buddhist thought and practice to the monks every Summer. It is the wish of Jetsun Rinpoche and Zava Damdin Rinpoche to bring Amarbayasgalant back to its former glory to re-establish it in Mongolia, as a traditional center of monastic life and culture. For instance, with great expectation, expense and preparation, the community was recently able to put on the traditional “Tsam” Lama dances or “mystery plays” that were a pride of Amarbayasgalant and not performed since the Stalinist purges. Amarbayasgalant is slowly and joyously coming back to life but under very simple and trying conditions.

Due to his close connection with Jetsun Rinpoche and a new love for this very special monastery, Ven. Zasep Rinpoche launched Gaden relief’s “Mongolia Project” as a way of educating people about this Sangha and raising money for the temple’s needs. Rinpoche wishes to work hand in hand with Amarbayasgalant’s charity-outreach organization in Ulaan Baatar, “Amar Mur”. Head by D. Gerelbayasgalan, Amar Mur has a number of functions: from educating people about Amarbayasgalant, to helping poor families in need in UB, to teaching Buddhist meditation. Ven. Zasep Rinpoche’s aim in working with Amar Mur is to set up projects that would help the community in practical ways. Gaden Relief’s Mongolia Project has already attracted a number of Rinpoche’s students who are eager to help. Future projects possibly include sending aid to poor families, helping restore Mongolia’s ancient art of religious painting and the rebuilding of Ven. Zava Damdin Rinpoche’s small monastic temple, Delgeruun Choira, in Delgertsogt, north of Mandalgovi, in the Gobi desert, which was destroyed in the 1930s.

At present, the Mongolia Project hopes to help Amarbayasgalant by trying to raise the funds necessary to build a potable water system for the monks. They currently have to walk over 2km to a field stream to get drinking water. Many are sick because of this practice, which is particularly difficult in the wintertime. Planning and organization are ongoing at this very moment (Feb. 2004) but a good estimate is that around $10,000.00 U.S. will be needed to complete this project. It is the Mongolia Project’s hope to have these funds available for the middle of the 2004 summer, such as the month of July, that the work is accomplished in favorable weather.

Please help us. Be a part of the Mongolia Project and help restore Amarbayasgalant monastery that the bright, healing light of Buddha’s teachings, shine once again in Mongolia. For more information about Gaden Relief’s Mongolia Project, please feel free to contact project coordinator Matthew Richards.

For more photos of Amarbayasgalant Monastery and area, click here.

Gaden Relief Launches Mongolia Project

December 6, 2003 – Gaden Relief Projects has started a new project to support the resurgence of buddhism in Mongolia.

Fifteen years after the fall of communism in Mongolia and the end of Soviet influence in Mongolia’s affairs, buddhism is reappearing as Mongolians rediscover a religious heritage lost since 1937 when the communists banned religion, jailed monks, and destroyed monasteries.

Slowly monasteries are being rebuilt and Mongolia’s youth are joining them to study the tantric style of Mahayana buddhism that is practiced in Tibet. Elderly monks and lamas from the 1930s are back in the monasteries teaching boys and young men, the way that it had been done for centuries before the communist take over.

Amarbayasgalant Monastery near Ulan Bator, Mongolia

Religious and political ties between Mongolia and Tibet go back centuries. Tibetans and Mongolians recognize the Dalai Lama as the highest spiritual authority. It was a Mongol king in the 16th century who is thought to have given the first Dalai Lama the ‘Dalai’ title meaning “Ocean of Wisdom.”

Following a visit to Mongolia in July by Gaden Relief’s spiritual director, the Venerable Zasep Rinpoche, a decision to start a new project to support the reestablishment of buddhism in Mongolia was taken. A teleconference was convened on Dec. 5 to form the inaugural committee that will launch the project. Matthew Richards who accompanied Zasep Rinpoche to Mongolia will be the project coordinator. Other members of the committee are: Lisa Farnsworth of Indiana University, Martha Foster of the University of Idaho, Chuck Damov, former president of Zuru Ling Buddhist centre in Vancouver, Andzrej Wrotek of Toronto, and Zasep Rinpoche. Evan Zaleschuk, coordinator of Gaden Relief’s Zadoh Project, and Conrad Richter, coordinator of Gaden Relief, will provide support to the committee as it gets established.

Initially the Mongolia Project committee will focus on Amarbayasgalant Monastery, a five hour drive from Mongolia’s capital, Ulan Bator. The monastery is already receiving financial support from Taiwan and Switzerland and many of the buildings have been rebuilt. But the 60 monks, mostly in their 20s and as young as 7 years old, have very limited resources to support their studies. There is no running water in the monastery, for example, and the monks have to collect water from a stream two kilometres away. The construction of a water pipe or a well will be one of the first items the Mongolia Project committee will tackle. A shipment of warm clothing and sleeping bags is already in the works for the Amarbayasgalant monks, from Gaden Relief supporter Ben Christian in Australia.

More project details will be posted on this website in the coming months. Donations will soon be accepted in support for the Mongolia Project. Like all Gaden Relief projects, donations to the Mongolia Project will qualify for Canadian tax receipts.

Below find Zasep Rinpoche’s Oct. 2003 fact finding mission report on Amarbayasgalant Monastery and Mongolia.

Mongolia Report - October 24, 2003

By Zasep Tulku Rinpoche

Dear friends,

Matthew [Richards] and I had wonderful visit in Mongolia. We had good time. It was too short but I would like to go to Mongolia again in the near future for sure. I am thinking of doing pilgrimage to different monasteries in Mongolia and we could ride horse and camels in the Gobi. I like Mongolian people, their cultural and the land of millions of horses and yurts in the steppe. I would say if you want go to another country very much like Tibet that is Mongolia. Tibetan Buddhism and culture is very much alive in Mongolia. Mongolians very proud of their past and present and they are hopeful, and most Mongolians love Tibetan Buddhism.

We enjoyed meeting with my old friend Jetsun Pakshe Losang Tenzin Rinpoche who is 96, still strong and rebuilding Gelug nunnery and monasteries. We traveled to Amarbayasgalant (Amar-bayas-galant) monastery, 120 km south of Russian Siberian border.

There are 60 young monks and a beautiful young reincarnated Rinpoche named Tsawa Tamden Rinpoche who speaks fluent Tibetan and English. This Rinpoche is the first Hutuktuk (Tulku) formally recognized in Mongolia since Russian communist banned this tradition in 1939. Most of the young monks at Amarbayasgalant are teenage boys and they are studying Dharma very hard. Great Geshe Thupten who lives in Switzerland travels to Mongolia every summer to teach these boys for three months. Geshela did 12 years’ retreat above Dharamasala under the direction of Geshe Rabten. My friend, Jetsun Rinpoche, has done lots of restoration for these monasteries and is helping poor and homeless Mongols. I am not sure how long Jetsun Rinpoche will be on this earth; he is 96 and he told me, “See you in Tsongkhapa’s pure land,” when we left Ulaan Bataar.

Historically and traditionally this monastery is very important for the Mongolia. Amarbayasgalant was built in 1736 by the Manchurian Khan and Emperor and was offered to First Kalkha Jetsun Dampa, the great one Zanabazar (Jahana Vajra in Sanskrit). I feel this monastery is very important one for the future of Buddha, Dharma, Sangha and root and foundation of pure Je Tsongkhapa’s tradition in Mongolia. One of the beauties of this monastery: it is specially located, very remote, far away from towns and cities and distractions of modern civilization, an ideal location for monastery. Amarbayasgalant is like Tashi Lhapug monastery in Tibet; far away from everyone except big mountains and nature. Tibetans believe that good monks are produced from the monastery that is located in a remote place far away from worldly temptations.

This monastery needs a water line or good wheel and pump system and other things, like donations for vitamins, medicine and clothings for the boys. Mongolians suffer summer heat from the Gobi desert, winter cold wind from Siberia. I would imagine the boys must be very cold and hungry in the winter; they sleep in the yurts, not much comfort. They eat noodles, mutton and drink horse milk.

I would like to ask Gaden Relief Projects to help Amarbayasgalant monastery. There is no problem sending money and goods to Mongolia. This monastery has city centre in Ulaan Bataar and I have its email address, phone number and bank account number. Mongols are very organized, moving fast forward. Amarbayasgalant city centre is raising money to buy yurts for single mothers and homeless people. They organize free English class and free Dharma class in English and Tibetan for young Mongols. They need Dharma books in English. I think we could get used books and vitamins to send to the centre in Ulaan Bataar.

I had good visit in Australia but it was sad. As you know Gerard Allan is dying. Gerard is real Bodhisattva. He cares for everyone; he always thinks about others. He has done so much for the Dharma and helped so many people ever since I met him 28 years ago. Gerard and Maxine started Sera Jhe health care Centre at Sera monastery 20 years ago. Gerard is peaceful, so much love, and forgiving and understanding, no fear, no confusion and no blames, accepting and letting go everything and his faith to Dharma is so strong, and he is good example for everyone. Gerard is great Dharma practitioner; he is going into clear light and bliss soon. I am very proud of Gerard and his wife Maxine and their two daughters, Sujhata and Jhana.

That is all for now


Zasep Rinpoche