There is probably no place better to study enlightenment, impermanence and nirvana than in Mongolia. Here in the capital city of Ulaanbataar, we attend our Buddhism class in a quaint little monastery called LamRim. Professor Benard lectures over the chanting of the monks in the next room, which has become a typical background melody over the last month. Aside from studying in a monastery, every day we walk to class up what I like to call “Monk Avenue” as it is lined with men in crimson robes making their way to one of multiple monasteries on the street. Just up the road from LamRim is the Gandan monastery, the only Buddhist retreat that survived the Russian occupation. Gandan houses a 26.5 meter tall golden Buddha as well as multiple colleges and the temporary home of the 13th Dalai Lama, which Nima’s persistence and connections enabled us to enter during our class field trip to the complex.
Even before our Buddhism course began we were exposed to several important locations in Mongolian Buddhist history. During our Gobi trip, hours from any town, we witnessed several small monasteries and stupas being restored by extremely devout families following destruction from the Russian occupation. Based on Abbot Bayaansagaan of Lamrim’s recommendation, we also spent a day hiking up to Tuvhen Monastery, a Buddhist retreat made famous by Zanabazar, on top of a rocky mountain nestled within secluding cliffs. Some of us entered and even got stuck in the “mother’s womb” cave, a claustrophobia-inducing crevice that one crawls into, turns around in, and then climbs back out of to help experience spiritual rebirth. Additionally, we visited the country’s ancient capital, Khar Khorum, in which the only remaining remnants include Erdene Zuu Monastery, a giant stone turtle that marks the boundaries of the ancient city, and over one hundred stupas. After returning to Ulaanbaatar and officially commencing our Buddhism class, Professor Bernard organized field trips to the Bogd Khaan Palace Museum and Zanabazar Art Museum in order to visualize how Buddhism and culture interact here in Mongolia.