In a way, the death of a lama who barely spent any time in Mongolia and is almost unknown globally is a small story even in Mongolia, and has relatively little relevance to China. In another way, this story is a continuation of the centuries-old power struggles between Tibet, Mongolia, and China- a struggle which is coming to have more and more relevance as Mongolia seeks to find a balance with China, and as China continues to try to eliminate the power of the Dalai Lama and other senior Tibetan leadership.
First, via Phayul, the obituary:
His Eminence the Ninth Khalkha Jetsun Dhampa Dorjee Chang Jampel Namdrol Choekyi Gyaltsen, the spiritual head of the Jonang tradition of Tibetan Buddhism and the spiritual head of Mongolia, passed away earlier today at 5.58am (IST) in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. He was 80.
The Central Tibetan Administration expressed deep sadness at the demise of Khalkha Jetsun Dhampa and convened a special prayer service to pray for his speedy reincarnation. As a mark of respect, offices of the CTA remained closed following the prayer service.
At seven, the Late Khalkha Jetsun Dhampa entered Gomang college of Drepung Monastery in Tibet and received Rabjung vows from Reting Rinpoche, following which he studied philosophy for the next fourteen years.
At the age of 21, the Late Khalkha Jetsun Dhampa left Gomang to engage in a series of Chod meditations, living the life of a yogi, while on pilgrimage to the holy sites of Tibet.
After the Chinese armed occupation of Tibet in 1959, the Late Khalkha Jetsun Dhampa left Tibet and escaped into exile in India.
After the collapse of Soviet Union and the new-found religious freedom in Mongolia, His Holiness the Dalai Lama gave an official recognition and acknowledgement to the Ninth Khalkha Jetsun Dhampa as the spiritual head of Buddhism in Mongolia through the Department of Religious Affairs (now the Department of Religion and Culture), CTA in 1991.
Only last fall did he return to Mongolia, which is certainly an interesting timing. Did he go specifically so that there’s a recent precedent for the Bogd Khan to live in Ulaan Baatar, so that his successor will go straight there and serve to strengthen ties between Mongolia and Tibet, much to China’s displeasure?
Alicia Campi has a story in The Jamestown Foundation about the bigger picture:
The mid-November 2011 surprise four-day visit to Mongolia of the 14th Dalai Lama reignited simmering Chinese worries about how the Tibetan Buddhist spiritual leader is using and is being used by its northern neighbor and important mineral trade partner. From China’s perspective, the Dalai Lama’s Mongolian visit, appearing in the guise of a purely private matter to promote his teachings, actually is intertwined with Northeast Asian mineral resources politics as well as interference in Tibetan affairs—thus a deliberate ratcheting up of anti-Chinese sentiment along its borders. From the Dalai Lama’s perspective, who has made eight trips to Mongolia (the last in 2006), that nation increasingly is seen as an answer to how to handle the sticky question of his own succession and how to wrest it from the control of the Chinese government.
Last year saw a quiet series of chess moves involving the Dalai Lama and Mongolia leading up to his November visit. First, there were many months of speculation in the Mongolian popular press—which were never officially denied by the Mongolian Government—that the Dalai Lama would be visiting the country to discuss his permanent move there upon his retirement from public office in March of last year. Next, His Holiness appeared surrounded by some 30 Mongolian lamas, who had specially flown in from Ulaanbaatar, at his July 6, 2011 birthday celebration at the Verizon Center in Washington, DC and at his July 9th public talk about world peace on the West Capitol Lawn.
The gamesmanship surrounding the Mongolian visit is obvious. The Office of the Mongolian President secretly drafted the invitation to the Dalai Lama and authorized the issuance of his visa by its Delhi Embassy. The Mongolian trip, however, was not announced publicly by the Dalai Lama Office’s spokesman until November 6th, on the eve of his arrival. It is clear that the Japanese Government was involved in maintaining the secrecy by facilitating the air travel of the Tibetan religious leader on a special Mongolian Airlines (MIAT) plane from Tokyo to Ulaanbaatar. The Chinese learned about the visit only after His Holiness’ November 7th arrival in Mongolia was carried by the Mongolian TV channels and welcoming billboards in Mongolian and English had sprung up in the capital.
At a concluding press conference, it was stressed that the visit was purely religious and without any political agenda. The head abbot of Gandan monastery Demberel Choijamtsa said, “Mongols revered and worshiped His Holiness for a long time. Buddhist believers and monks and nuns were waiting for his arrival… Faith and religion in democratic society is free, this is why His Holiness, the 14th Dalai Lama, has been invited to visit our country two-three months earlier.”
With the end of Mongolia’s communist era in 1990, the 9th Bogd returned several times to the country, but only obtained Mongolian citizenship and the right to live in Mongolia in 2010, because of the support of Mongolian President Elbegdorj, a committed Buddhist. His enthronement prompted wide public attention and controversy in Mongolia, resulting in a lawsuit against Gandan monastery in the Supreme Court. The Dalai Lama’s presence in Ulaanbaatar so soon after the enthronement was a clear indication of his religious approval for the 9th Bogd, whose primary duties are to act as the spiritual head of Mongolian Buddhism and to continue with the preservation and revival of Mongolian customs and traditions. The 9th Bogd’s position also was openly supported by the Mongolian Government.
With China now the main foreign investor for Mongolia’s booming, mining-dependent economy and some 90 percent of its exports going to China in 2011, some expected that Ulaanbaatar would be an even riper target for Chinese retaliation this time.
The Mongolian political and national security establishment calculated that the economics of the issue was not so simple, since the majority of bilateral trade now involves Mongolian rich mineral deposits in copper, coal and gold that flow to northern Chinese factories for refining and use in the booming Chinese economy. When deliberating the risks involved in allowing the Dalai Lama’s visit, Mongolia guessed correctly that any disruption to the flow of these raw materials would be considered more destructive to China than to Mongolia and so, in all likelihood, would not happen. Mongolian mining companies based near the Chinese border in fact did not report any disruptions to border transport connected with the visit.
If the Dalai Lama decides to “retire” to Mongolia for long religious retreats as he has suggested he might, or if his next reincarnation is discovered on Mongolian soil, the Mongols may now believe their booming mineral-based economy will continue to protect them from serious Chinese retaliation. Concurrently, the Dalai Lama himself has been able to use his relationship with the Mongols to promote confusion and concern in Beijing over how to manage the situation without causing major self-inflicting wounds.
The entire thing is intriguing, and I’m sure this isn’t going to be the last we hear of Sino-Tibetan-Mongolian relations. We’ll probably start to hear about the beginning of efforts to identify the next Bogd Khan in a few months, and a child will likely be chosen within two or so years.
It’s also nice to see that the government of Mongolia, a country dwarfed in nearly every way by neighboring China, is less afraid to embrace the Dalai Lama than nearly every Western country, despite their greater clout and distance.