KushokBakula Rinpoche – India’s Monk Ambassador to Mongolia

“It was due to our Buddhist heritage and KushokBakula Rinpoche’s presence in the
country that the transition to democracy in Mongolia, unlike in other socialist countries,
was so peaceful. Rinpoche was an integral part of this great transformation”

N. Ekhbayar, the President of Mongolian Peoples Revolutionary party and Minister of Culture

If one thinks of India’s linkages with Mongolia, one name that readily comes to mind is KushokBakula Rinpoche. He was an Arcadian lama, reluctant politician, “the Architect of Modern Ladakh” to Indians and “ElchinBagsh” to Mongolians, meaning Ambassador Teacher. He was a champion revivalist and the 19th incarnation of ArhatBakula, considered as one of the 16 direct disciples of Lord Buddha who took a vow to reincarnate in order to preserve Buddhism till the coming of Maitreya. The birth centenary of the 19thKushokBakula Rinpoche was celebrated in 2017. He was not just an Ambassador of India to Mongolia but a teacher who played a great role in reviving and restructuring Buddhism in Mongolia.

KushokBakula Rinpoche was born into Matho cadet branch of the Ladakhi royal family in 1917. He studied at the Great DrepungMonastry in Lhasa. By the age of 23, he was awarded the highest degree, and achieved one of the highest levels in Buddhist metaphysics and philosophy.

Following his education, he held many official positions during his lifetime including being a minister in Jammu and Kashmir Government, two-term Member of Parliament (LokSabha), a Member of the National Commission on Minorities and India’s Ambassador to Mongolia for a decade.

Rinpoche played a definitive role in all the responsibilities he took up. It was at the insistence of the Ladakhis that he decided to represent them in the Indian political landscape. He himself was a reluctant politician. The Forties were a time of great change for the country and Ladakhis were in a fortunate position to have a visionary leader like Rinpoche. In 1948, when tribal raiders from Pakistan attacked Jammu and Kashmir, he successfully coordinated Indian efforts to protect Ladakh. The enemy was only 13 kms away. He made a detailed case for Ladakh to remain a part of India. Though he was a Monk, he called for Ladakhis to join the Indian Army even though it was against his essence of a monk. Rinpoche even allowed the Indian troops to convert a section of his Pethub Monastery into a makeshift military hospital. When a section of people in Kashmir demanded plebiscite, Rinpoche categorically stated that Ladakh would never go to Pakistan and would remain with India. He believed that Buddhism could not have flourished in Pakistan the way it could in India.

He also planted the seeds for the demand of Union Territory (UT) status for Ladakh following frustrating stints in the Jammu and Kashmir administration where he felt that the region’s concerns were being ignored and the focus of the administration was only on the Kashmir valley. The establishment of the current Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council is a direct legacy of the initial demands he made for UT status in the 1960s.

Rinpoche also worked hard to preserve the Ladakhi identity and religion. Even though the Moravian Church was set up in Leh in 1885 by Moravian missionaries from Saxony, they managed to have barely any impact on the local population. When Rinpoche finished his education he realised the tactics of the missionaries to convert was through imparting education, therefore he strengthened the local schools in the region. He also set up a school in North India and enabled Ladakhi students to integrate with mainstream India. He was a true patriot, Indian nationalist and visionary who believed that the future of all the states in India was centred in complete integration.

He was awarded the Padma Bhushan in 1988. The late KushokBakula Rinpoche remains the most prominent Buddhist leader of Independent India. However, it was his contribution to the revival of Buddhism in Mongolia that genuinely stands out.

Rinpoche’s first contact with Mongolians was with his fellow monks at the great DrepungMonastry in the 1930s. He was aware of the situation of Monks in Mongolia and by the late 1960s when the trend amongst Tibetan Lamas living in India was to travel to the US and Europe, where Buddhism had gained popularity, he decided to journey to northern and northeastern parts of Asia where Buddhism had once flourished but was later destroyed by the Communists. He wanted to fulfill the spiritual needs of people who had been forcefully deprived of this intrinsic fulfillment.

In 1968, he started travelling to the Soviet Union, Mongolia, China and Vietnam. He was the first Buddhist Monk of his stature to do so. This lifted the spirits of Buddhists in the region. He also visited the Buryatia as well as Kalmykia. These regions had considerable Mongol and Buddhist populations. He travelled often to give sermons in private and to make contact with the Soviet Authorities. On one of his visits he began dialogues with the Soviet authorities to return the Buddhist Temple, GunzechoineiDatsan, in St. Petersburg which had been vandalized by the Red Army. Soon after this contact the first service in 50 years was held there by KushokBakula Rinpoche himself. In 1989, he also consecrated a place for the building of a temple on the outskirts of Elista. He saw the new movements of Perestroika (restructuring) and Glasnost (openness) as an opportunity to mobilize the Buddhist community in Russia and he did so along with other brave Buddhist leaders. By 1989, the Buddhist community in Russia was officially recognised.

In January 1990, he assumed his office as Ambassador of India to Mongolia. It is interesting that 1917 the year in which he was born was an year of horse and also the year in which Russian revolution had taken place. 1990, the year Rinpoche assumed office as Ambassador was also the year of the horse. There is an ancient legend in Mongolia which says it is predicted that in the 20th century Buddhism in Mongolia would come under attack, but KushokBakula Rinpoche would restore the lost glory of Buddhism in Mongolia.  And as it turns out within months after Rinpoche assumed his assignment as Ambassador in January 1990, the political situation peaked in Mongolia and by March 1990 Mongolia had become a free and democratic country.

To prepare for this paper the author read what she could on culture and history of Mongolia, read journals, saw documentaries, and spoke to key people to gain an insight on Rinpoche’s motivation and impact in Mongolia. In the process, she spoke to Shri SonamWangchukShakso who was aide to Rinpoche for over two decades. He told an interesting story. A few young men had come from the democratic forces that were agitating, to meet Rinpoche. Sonamji was worried as Rinpoche held an official position, it should not look like they were interfering in Mongolia’s internal affairs. So he told the boys to not talk about the political situation. But enthusiasm got the better of them and when they met Rinpoche they immediately asked for guidance. Rinpoche only said three things – i) never resort to violence, it was pointless; ii) remember the example of the Indian struggle for independence, iii) remember what happened in Tiananmen square in China.

He gave them jangyas, and one boy asked him for some more which later that evening Sonamji on TV saw was on the hands of all the young agitators on hunger strike. Sonamji was aware that by now everyone knew where these jangyas had come from. He thought they might have to leave Mongolia, and asked Rinpoche for guidance. Rinpoche was his calm and serene self and told him not to worry but to contact the Foreign office and relay the facts to them in order to avoid any confusion. The next morning, they woke up to very surprising news. The democratic forces and the government had negotiated through the night and had agreed on paving the way for a new Democratic Mongolia. It is also important to note here that Mongolia was the only country in transition where during its agitation not a single bullet was fired. This was owed to the people of Mongolia and to Rinpoche’s presence. After this incident, Rinpoche’s popularity soared. Every day there would be large lines of people outside the Indian Embassy waiting to meet Rinpoche and to take his blessings. Police forces had to manage the crowds and when they would walk by the embassy they would bow in reverence to Rinpoche knowing that it was his residence.

Rinpoche, without wasting a day started rebuilding Buddhism in Mongolia. He had noticed that Christian missionaries had already begun pouring into Mongolia, armed with ample funds, to convert Mongolians who had lost contact with Buddhism. He certainly was not against freedom of expression but did not accept the underhanded tactics used by Christian missionaries.

On 15 November, 1990, on the initiative of KushokBakula Rinpoche, an Assembly of Monks was held at the Gandan Monastery with nearly 200 senior monks from across Mongolia and government representatives in attendance. It was for the first time in 70 years that the Buddhist clergy were allowed to assemble in such a number. The Department of Religious Affairs which under the communist regime had been responsible for curbing religious activities in Mongolia now had a new role of working for its restoration and development. It was for the first time that monks could assemble in a free environment and discuss issues without fear of persecution. He also soon began travelling the length and breadth of the country. He took Buddhism to people in need of spiritual fulfilment who were in rural areas. He was already at an advanced age but that did not stop him from travelling in extreme climatic conditions and rugged terrains. He brought Buddhism to people and ordained monks in makeshift Ger temples. He gave sermons and blessings and observed the condition of the religion.

One of the most crucial things that KushokBakula Rinpoche noticed during his travels was the condition of the Buddhist Monasteries. After years of suppression there was no place that Monks could go to get proper training. Many Mongolian Monks at the time did not adhere to monastic regulations for a variety of reasons including the lack of monastic institutions that could house monks and provide them with daily necessities and adequate education. KushokBakula Rinpoche on the other hand often publicly pointed out the importance of upholding one’s monastic vows, which he saw as indispensable for the flourishing of Buddhism in Mongolia. So he set out to establish the PethubMonastry in Ulaanbaatar, named after his own Monastry in India. He brought qualified lamas from Sikkim and Tibet to teach at his monastery and obtained scholarships and visas for his best students to go to India.  He also recognised the spiritual needs of women. He opened the Lay Women Buddhist Organization and gave monastic ordination to women, the first ever in modern Mongolia.

In 2001, He was conferred with the ‘Polar Star’ one of the highest civilian orders in Mongolia for his role in reviving Buddhism.

However, he was not interested in culturally influencing the Mongolian monks. Rather, he was interested to equip them with the necessary tools to be able to revive and reform their own culture. He wanted them to have pride in their own identity. His initiative was not at all aimed at Indianising or Tibetanising the monks in Mongolia. He demonstrated his non-sectarian approach when he invited leaders from the Sakya Order of Buddhism to Mongolia. He was aware of the 13th century Kublai Khan connect to the Sakya Order and hoped for them to re-establish this relationship. Rinpoche was of the Gelug order. In 2009 at the invitation of Pethub Monastery the leadership of the Sakya Order was invited to lay the foundation of a new Sakya Monastery in Ulaanbaatar.

Despite his advanced age Rinpoche continued his travels and gave teachings. He retired as Ambassador in 2000 but he continued to travel to countries where he felt his teachings were required and people’s religious needs were supressed. He used to sit in hotel rooms and give teachings while one man kept a watch outside for suspicious activity and he would knock if he saw authorities. People would ask him if he was scared and he would say, as long as people wanted spiritual fulfilment he would travel where ever and whenever they needed it. He said he had nothing to fear.

When KushokBakula Rinpoche passed away in 2003, he was in India but thousands of people collected at the PethubMonastry in Ulaanbaatar. A year after his passing, a young boy was born in Ladakh and was identified by the 14th Dalai Lama as the reincarnation of ArhatKushokBakula Rinpoche in 2008.

(Rami Desai is the Director of iSTRAT CA, a company that deals in research,
communication and data management and skill development. Views expressed are personal.)

(This article is carried in the print edition of March April 2018 issue of India Foundation Journal.)

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