This book was originally an MA thesis in Languages and Cultures of Asia presented in 2000 at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Since then the author has obtained a Ph.D. (2008) in Religious Studies from the University of California, Santa Barbara, on “Sacred Fury, Sacred Duty: Buddhist Monks in Southern Thailand,” and co-edited with Mark Juergensmeyer a collection of articles (Buddhist Warfare, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010, 257 p.) intended to debunk the myth of non-violent Buddhism. This is apparently a late, and obviously disappointing, discovery for M. K. Jerryson while doing research in Thailand in 2003-4. He is presently Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Eckerd College, Florida, USA.
This earlier work on Mongolian Buddhism: The Rise and Fall of the Sangha, appears at first sight as a necessary and readable synthesis on Buddhism in Mongolia, a topic unfamiliar to a large public and eclipsed by Tibetan Buddhism. The author has made extensive use of books and general studies published in English, mainly from the end of the 1980s to 1999, when he completed his master’s thesis, and has added interviews related to his fieldwork in Mongolia in 1999. The language is unaffected; sentences are short and the style easy and lively. The title is misleading, though: First, the angle is exclusively political and the reader will find no description of the “Mongolian Sangha” (as the author calls the Buddhist institution) in Mongolia as such, of its organisation, rituals, culture, nor of its relations with the laity, but rather statements on the importance of its social, cultural and educative aspects. Second, as indicated by the respective number of pages devoted to the various parts of the book, the author focuses on the confrontation of the Buddhist establishment with the communist regime set up in 1921 under Soviet guidance and its following destruction in the 1930s: This occupies over half of the text itself (pp. 45-118) as well as the whole appendix made up of sixteenth interviews (“Mongolia’s Voices-Personal Narratives”, pp. 119-71). The first three chapters (pp. 11-44) are devoted to the historical context: Early Mongolian Buddhism, Mongolian Buddhism under the Qing Dynasty (1691-1911), Periods [sic] of Autonomy in Early-Twentieth-Century Mongolia (1911-21). Finally, the reader will find some fifty pages of notes at the end of the book, a bibliography (pp. 225-32) and an index (pp. 233-40).
M. K. Jerryson is certainly eager to bring new ideas and perspectives to the field, and is gifted in grasping issues of current debates such as the trend to identify the Tibetan (mainly Gelugpa) form of Buddhism that was spread in Mongolia as specifically Mongolian. He is also skilled at assembling disparate elements from various works into a well balanced and readable story. On the whole, the non-specialist readers will certainly be attracted by the possibility of getting a rapid and unfussy look into one little-known page of world history, to learn about the political uses of Buddhism as well as the heavy price Mongolia and its monks -mainly but not exclusively-had to pay to totalitarianism in order to prevent the invasion of Mongolia by the Chinese. In fact on a web page of the University of Santa Barbara’s alumni, M. K. Jerryson does emphasise his interest in global studies. And indeed it is from such a very broad and comparative angle that, maybe, this book can be said, to contribute “a much-needed religio-political perspective,” “trace the development and metamorphosis of Mongolian Buddhism” from the thirteenth century to its present revival, or to unfold Mongolia’s history and reveal “more particularly the convergence of the religious institution with Mongolian culture and identity (p. 7).”
As a “regional specialist” (p. 9), however, I have identified too many inaccuracies, approximations and incorrect arguments that bring about questionable interpretations of Mongolian history, to appreciate this book in a similar way. For example: the author’s confusion and erroneous analysis (pp. 21-23, 27-29) about the shabinar (plural form of shabi “disciple”), a category of lay subjects, offered by the Mongolian nobility to incarnate lamas, whom the author considers religious disciples, monks, when they are herding families serving the incarnate lama and his monastery; the author’s analogy between the mid-thirteenth-century policy of Mongolian imperial religious tolerance and today‘s religious growth in Mongolia, where the number of lamas and monasteries is growing, is far-fetched, as the two contexts are not comparable at all (p. 113). As to the idea that modernity has added to the prestige of the monks (p. 112), it is very disputable: Surveys have shown on the contrary that the Mongolian public was today quite aware of the low standards of Mongolian Buddhist monks after the socialist era, and of the necessity for the clergy and for the Buddhist institution to reform itself. The author also stresses the importance of ritual as specific to Mongolian traditional or shamanic context (p. 12), whilst ritual is also a very important feature in Tibetan Buddhism, and the adaptation of Buddhism to traditional Mongolian beliefs is but the repetition of a similar process in Tibet. Not to mention the anachronistic use today of the Qing appellation “Outer Mongolia” (cf. “what is now Outer Mongolia” p. 13 and 17), when Mongolia has been officially recognised as an independent state by the USSR and China after the Second World War and by the United Nations since 1961.
I was also somewhat taken aback to find that the author’s “interviews conducted, taped, and translated” by himself as is indicated in the bibliography, are very few and limited in scope. Most in fact had been translated with Y. Narangerel and were either made “assisted by” (sic) the historian of twentieth-century Mongolia C. Kaplonski or (for the longer interviews, pp. 136-71) they were interviews made by Mongolian archivist D. Ölziibaatar in 1988-92 as field notes. The author’s limited knowledge of local language is not in itself an insurmountable obstacle for producing a valuable study and it could have been compensated by more curiosity and by a more rigorous approach. If the text itself provides the necessary background that generally partakes to the works used by the author or is developed in the notes, the narratives in contrast lack any explanation, date or comment whatsoever, although in many cases the people and events mentioned are identified. Without going into erudite details, some background could have been easily supplied by looking up in Bawden’s Modern History of Mongolia, that the author had used, or in A. Sanders’ Historical Dictionary of Mongolia (Lanham: Scarecrow press, 1996, not cited by the author). But M. K. Jerryson is content with remarking (p. 9) that Mongolian personal names being “extremely common, it is therefore unclear from the limited interviews whether, for example, the Losol in the appendix is the same Losol as the revolutionary hero” (well, it is clearly the same D. Losol, who was arrested in 1939 and sent to Moscow where he died before any trial). As a consequence, the people cited in the narratives do not appear in the index, making their identification even more difficult. In the bibliography and the citations the author of a book and its translator are not properly distinguished (“Bira and Krueger”, “Baabar and Kaplonski”, “Heissig and Samuel”) and cited together as both authors in the notes. The way of transcribing the Mongolian terms is rather personal (such as “MAQN-YN TÜÜ Qiin Asoodal” for MAKhN-yn tüükhiin asuudal, “qotagt” for khutughtu, “qüree” for khüree, class. küriy-e, “Dakh eq” for Dakhi ekh). It is also irregular (the opposition between anterior and posterior vocalism is sometimes transcribed, sometimes not; same names are spelled in various manners: Dja-Demba p. 66, Djadamba p. 152, Ja Damba p. 163; “MAQN” and “Mak’ Nam”, p. 229). And it contains numerous errors: “El’bekdor” for “Elbegdorj” (p. 500, n. 57), süm (temple) for sum (district); “qavrac” for khavar (spring), etc.
The book’s problems stem from insufficient mastery of a wide and complex subject. Had the author been really “assisted by” C. Kaplonski, the result would have been more enjoyable for regional specialists.