Repository logo

Sanal Mukubenov, Buddhism: History, Monasteries, Sacred Places, and Monastic Dress



Change log


Churyumov, Anton 


Sanal is originally from the village of Ketchenery in Kalmykia. He is from the Bagshin Shevnr clan. In 2001 at the age of 17 he became a monk. He made this decision after reading extensively about Buddhism and long reflections. Sanal is not the first monk in his family. He had a famous ancestor on his maternal side – Geshe Vangyal (his secular name was Lidzhin Botya) who was a monk and lived in the village of Shin-Mer. In his youth Geshe Vangyal studied Buddhism at the Drepung Gomang monastery in Tibet. At the age of 18 Sanal decided to follow in the footsteps of his famous ancestors and went to study at the same monastery that is today relocated in India. At the time of this interview Sanal was on his summer holiday in Kalmykia from his studies in India. Schools of Buddhism and the spread of this religion among Mongolian groups. Sanal says that when Buddhism was introduced among the Kalmyks, it incorporated local shamanic beliefs. In Buddhism it is permitted to respect local deities in order to achieve certain goals, but Buddhists should seek refuge only in the Three Jewels of Buddhism (Buddha, Sangha and Dharma). In this sense, folk beliefs and Buddhism have co-existed in Kalmykia. Buddhism has a long tradition going back 2500 years. It has been deeply influenced by Indian culture. Later Buddhism spread south among the Mongols and Tibetans. The Oirats, ancestors of the Kalmyks, borrowed Buddhism directly from Tibet. Buddhism has two major branches: a southern branch (known as Mahayana) and a northern branch (known as Theravada). Mahayana is also described as a school of Great Vehicle. In the 8th century the philosopher Nagarjuna wrote a detailed commentary of the Prajnaparamita sutras. Mahayana takes its origin from that period. The main aim of the Mahayana school is not only about the attainment of personal salvation but the emancipation of all living beings from the circle of samsara. Mahayana was spread in southern India, and later was adopted by the Tibetans and Mongols. It is believed that prior to that the Mongols had been acquainted with Theravada, introduced to them by the Sogdians. The famous Oirta lama Zaya Pandida, who established the Tod (Clear) script, made translations of the most important Buddhist texts into Oirat and explained Buddhism to ordinary people. That is how Buddhism spread among the Oirats and Kalmyks. In Tibetan tradition of Buddhism there are four schools: (1) Nyingma – an ‘old school’ which was established by the guru Padmasambhava; (2) Kagyu – a 'line of oral instructions', originates in India from the yoga teachers Milarepa and Marpa; (3) Sakya – was established by Sakya Pandita; and (4) Gelug – came into being in the 15th century thanks to the teachings of Tsongkhapa. Historically speaking, the first school that the Mongols adopted was Sakya, then Kagyu and later during the times of Altan Khan and the Dalai Lama III Gelug became a dominant school. The lama Sonam Gyatso was given the name of Dalai Lama (Ocean Lama) by Altan Khan who was his spiritual disciple. The 4th Dalai Lama was an ethnic Mongol and a relative of Altan Khan himself. Although today it is Gelug school that dominates in Kalmykia, all other schools also enjoy representation. Buddhist temples. It was Buddha himself who established the first community of monks that received his first teachings. In the beginning the community was nomadic and the monks constantly moved from one place to another, leaving behind small monastic centres. During Buddha’s lifetime his teachings were transmitted orally. The Buddhist canon was written down on palm leafs only after the death of Buddha. Over time the first stupa was built to contain the remains of Buddha. The first image of Buddha was also drawn long after his death. The first monastery was called Nalanda where monks studied philosophy and various sciences, including medicine, astrology, etc. When Buddhism spread into Tibet, the Nalanda served as a template for other monasteries. Since the harsh climate was not conducive for monks to go out, in Tibet monks stayed indoors and the laity brought them food. By contrast, in Mongolia the first monasteries were housed in yurts and were transported from one place to another. Tantric practices and rituals were developed in Tibetan monasteries. Today in Kalmykia the temples also carry out rituals related to tantric practices. Holy sites. Mount Bogdo is regarded as a holy site among the Kalmyks. The Khosheutovsky Temple, dedicated to the victory of the Russian and Kalmyk troops over Napoleon, is the only temple that partly survived to this day. Also, Odinoky Topol’ (Lonely Tree) in the territory of the village of Khar-Buluk in Kalmykia, which was planted by Purdash bagsh, is another holy site. Recently several stupas were erected around that tree. Buddhist temples and symbols. Inside any temple the altar is placed on the southern part of the building. The entry to the temple is from its northern side. This tradition comes from India. The corners inside temples are decorated with umbrellas that symbolize victory over personal imperfections. Temples are also decorated with symbols of happiness. According to a legend, there is a stone called chindamani that fulfils wishes. The Three Jewels of Buddhism (Buddha, Sangha and Dharma) represent this wish-granting stone, for these three jewels fulfil our wishes to attain a better rebirth and free ourselves from suffering. The Vajra symbolizes a thunder lightening, and the bell – a wisdom. Some parts of Buddhist prayers are accompanied by musical instruments, including bells, tsimbala and drums. In other words, offerings can be also made in the form of music. Monastic dress code. When Buddha rejected a worldly life, his attire consisted of saffron, yellow and orange clothes. Yellow and orange were what the poor in India wore at that time. The wealthy, by contrast, wore white and black clothes. Therefore, these colors are not recommended for monks to wear. A monastic attire consists of two upper cloaks and an inner one that covers the lower part of the body of the monk. The left shoulder of the monk is covered with a cloak and the right shoulder is left naked symbolizing the poverty of the monks. Monks also carry a cup for alms, which originates from Buddha himself. In Tibet yellow and orange are expensive colours to produce. Instead Tibetans use deep red pigments, a cheaper alternative, to dye their robes. Since the climate in Tibet is colder than in India, Tibetan monks also wear vests. The Oirats adopted Buddhism from Tibet, including the monastic dress code. In Buddhism dogmatisms is not encouraged. Buddha himself said that some minor rules could be changed depending on the situation. The first monks did not wear shoes, although it was not forbidden. Tibetan and Mongolian monks wear boots.



Buddhism, history, monasteries, sacred places, monastic dress

Is Part Of


Publisher DOI

Publisher URL

Sponsored by Arcadia Fund, a charitable fund of Lisbet Rausing and Peter Baldwin.