Letter from Mongolia 01: Eej and the new lam

This is the first in a new series of short stories based on my in-Mongolia ethnographic research. You are probably already aware, that doing an in-the-field participant-observation longitudinal study is a little different to sitting in a library and logging on. This first story describes an event that took place at Delgeruun Choira (D.C.) in Delgertsoght Sum in the Gobi Desert of Mongolia not long after I first arrived at the desert monastery for an extended stay over the Summer of 2005.

Every morning at D.C. Eej would be in her kitchen ger before anyone else was up. With the help of one of the lams (her assistant for that day), she would assemble and knead the dough to produce freshly-made fried breads (boov). Variously shaped and knotted Bin (flour, salt , sunflower oil), Gambir (flour, sugar, sunflower oil) and Boortsog (a richer leavened dough, flour, yeast, milk, salt, sugar and clarified butter) were always to be found in an airtight container somewhere in her kitchen. Over many days and many subsequent visits to Mongolia as her guest, for me these would become a much looked-forward to comforting and delicious (late) breakfast to be consumed with milk tea (or in my case a generous vessel full of hot plunger coffee) as we together would plan out our respective work schedules for that day. Photograph by C.Pleteshner 27 August 2005.

Every morning at D.C. Eej would be in her kitchen ger before anyone else was up. With the help of one of the lams (her assistant for that day), she would assemble and knead the dough to produce freshly-made fried breads (boov). Variously shaped and knotted Bin (flour, salt , sunflower oil), Gambir (flour, sugar, sunflower oil) and Boortsog (a richer leavened dough, flour, yeast, milk, salt, sugar and clarified butter) were always to be found in an airtight container somewhere in her kitchen. Over many days and many subsequent visits to Mongolia as her guest, for me these would become a much looked-forward to comforting and delicious (late) breakfast to be consumed with milk tea (or in my case a generous vessel full of hot plunger coffee) as we together would plan out our respective work schedules for that day. Photograph by C.Pleteshner 27 August 2005.

Eej and the New Lam

Very early one summer morning in 2005, a young Mongolian lam unexpectedly arrived at Delgeruun Choira, a Mongolian Gelug (Wyllie, dGe-lugs-pa) monastery in the Dundgovi. [1] The young lam had made the long journey on his own from another Gelug monastery, Amarbayasgalant in Selenge Aimag which is located North-East of Ulaanbaatar and not too far from Mongolia’s northern border with Buryatia.[2]

Delgeruun Choira, on the other hand, is 250 kilometers to the south of Ulaanbaatar. Rather than being situated on river flats and their rich alluvial pastures as is the case for Amarbayasgalant, the original Delgeruun Choira was built on top of rock and sand. There is little or no topsoil and the pastures are now even less fertile with onion weed taking hold. This most recent arrival, a bandi (Sanskrit. vandya) was eleven years old. Zava Damdin (1976-) DC’s Abbot welcomed him  and considered him to be a hard worker as well as being very bright.

In the kitchen ger [3], her usual place for this time of the morning, sat Eej. [4] She was methodically working away, cleaning out the entrails of a freshly-slaughtered Mongolian flap-tailed sheep. In her usual quietly-spoken voice, she explained to me that because the young lam had neither a mother nor a grandmother who could care for him properly, he had been sent to Amarbayasgalant to become a lam. Eej’s own son, Lobsang Dhargay (having been recognised as Zava Damdin and now also DC’s Abbott) had until very recently been in charge of monastic education there. The newly arrived lam was his student-disciple and to whom he considered he had a duty-of-care. The young lam had now come all the way from Amarbayasgalant to once again be with his Teacher.[5]

Zava Damdin Rinpoche (at times referred to as Zava Rinpoche) began the somewhat complex process of relocating from Amarbayasgalant to his new monastic seat, Delgeruun Choira. A handful of his most devoted disciple-lams had refused to remain at Amarbayasgalant without their beloved Teacher. They had insisted on coming with him when he first departed. Some lams were members of his blood kinship group, others were not. They all had helped him pack up and move. This latest arrival, somewhat younger than the others, had now also followed, as would others in the months ahead.

In 2005, the actual physical relocation of both people and their belongings had only taken place a few months before I too arrived, having met Zava Rinpoche at Amarbayasgalant in 2004. Rinpoche’s mother, Eej had also moved from her city apartment in Ulaanbaatar to Delgeruun Choira to help with this, from my perspective  gargantuan reconstruction project, as had other members of their extended family and friends. This monastery had been razed with (almost) everything destroyed during the soviet socialist-auspices cultural purges during the 1930s and thereafter.

Zava Damdin (1976- ) leading his novice lams and others into one of the Teacher’s gers for the daily 8am class (which would go until lunchtime) at Delgeruun Choira in the Gobi Desert. I often sat in for these classes too. What a privilage! L.Pagchog (pictured left) looking at me with the camera, thinking “who is this person in a women’s body taking a photo of me?” Nearly two decades later, we both continue to study with Zava Rinpoche (1976- ) and over the years have become firm and trustworthy kalyanamittra-friends. Photograph: C.Pleteshner. 18 September 2005.

Zava Damdin (1976- ) on the right, leading his novice lams and others into one of the Teacher’s gers for the daily 8am class (which would go until lunchtime) at Delgeruun Choira in the Gobi Desert. I often sat in for these classes too. What a privilage! L.Pagchog (pictured left) looking at me with the camera, thinking “who is this person in a women’s body so early in the morning taking a photo of me?” Nearly two decades later, we both continue to study with Zava Rinpoche (1976- ) and over the years have become firm and trustworthy kalyanamittra-friends. Photograph: C.Pleteshner. 18 September 2005.

Structurally, what remained from that era were two rows of storehouses (see above) probably built during the 1960s. These too were in disrepair. No longer weatherproof, they had not been opened or used for years. The monastery’s library, the datsan (Mongolian for temple) and the other permanent buildings had all been destroyed. The mammoth task of reconstruction (of residential and other infrastructure) was in 2005 only starting. The young boy-lam, for his own reasons, had come to join the others, having hitched a ride in an old grey soviet-style jeep (ubiquitous at the time) to also be part of the goings on.

Suddenly, the busy yet relaxed atmosphere in the small ger-kitchen in which Eej and I were sitting, chatting away and working as usual, completely changed. From outside, gunshots and raised voices came echoing through the summer ger’s thin felt lining. It was as if the quietude and individual busy-ness of this small monastic community was in those few moments suspended. It seemed as if everyone had stopped what they were doing: cooking, chopping wood, sawing timber, mixing concrete, whatever. There was not one other sound to be heard other than the sound of gunshots and two children squealing.

Eej and I looked at one another in disbelief. We were a long way from the nearest small town, at least 15 kms, and the lams were still very young boys. Surely, the communist-inspired religious purges of monastic communities in Mongolia had ceased? Or maybe there were still some rogue vigilantes, Mongolian cowboy-bandits active out here in the treeless windswept post-socialist and still remote steppe of the Dundgovi? Had someone come to steal, or to destroy what this small community here was just starting to rebuild? Unvoiced internal speculation was rife.

As fear flowed into the eyes of my companion, as well as into my own veins, we furtively looked at one another in search of an explanation. Adrenaline began to flow. The usually contained and ever-accommodating needs of others Eej, a Mongolian woman now in her 60s, sprung to her feet from where she was sitting. She flew out through the small timber door of her kitchen ger and headed straight for the chora (Tibetan for debating ground) that was not more than 50 meters away from where we had been quietly sitting and working away.

Now, only her heavy Mongolian black boots and purposeful gait could be heard in the stillness as she strode in a strait line towards the commotion. By now I too had sprung to my feet and was heading in the same direction. As her stride gained speed, Eej began yelling at the top of her voice. Clearly, she was very angry as well as distressed. The shrill, high-pitched litany continued. Then, the shots, the squealing, as well as Eej’s litany abruptly stopped.

Having now also arrived in the chora, I saw how Eej wrenched a one metre long, magnificent (in proportions) multi-coloured plastic toy machine gun from the hands of the newly arrived lam. She threw it onto the ground, and then proceeded to pulverise it into tiny little pieces with repeated, determined blows with her boots.

Her heavy black fleece-lined Mongolian boots, first with one foot and then the other, struck the toy gun once, twice, then repeatedly with such force that the young boy-lams, like young deer blinded by a bright light, could do nothing other than stand motionless, speechless, transfixed and clearly immobilized with fear (of her). This process took what felt like an eternity. Eej was unstoppable in her determination. She did not stop until she had completed what she set out to do.

The now unrecognisable brightly coloured plastic toy machine gun turned out to have been a gift from one of the many Mongolian tourists who in 2005 visited Amarbayasgalant monastery and its lams over the summer months when the weather is suitable for such travel. He had smuggled it into the new, fledgling monastery here in the Gobi in his carry bag. Having arrived home (where his Teacher was) he had brought out his splendid new toy and began playing war games with two of the other young lams, his friends, out in the new monastery’s yet-to-be-used debating courtyard.

Such play would not have been considered acceptable by the Abbot, whether it be at Delgeruun Choira or back at Amarbayasgalant. The events that unfolded over the coming hours were testimony to this. The reverberations of these actions flowed through the entire monastic community in residence, and left these three young lams (and everyone else) in no doubt whatsoever as to the Abbot’s and Delgeruun Choira’s position on the presence of such ‘toys’ here.  Needless to say, an assortment of punitive measures were immediately dispensed by the Abbot to all those involved.

Epilogue

Now let’s fast forward two years to 2007 … Only two years after the above event took place, Zava Rinpoche (1976- ) was instructed by his own principal Teacher, Mongolia’s Guru Deva Rinpoche to commence a 3 year 3 month solitary retreat. Starting in December 2008, only a month or so  after I had completed my own fieldwork in Mongolia for 2008, Zavaa Rinpoche went into solitary retreat in his personal ger and its fenced compound at Delgeruun Choira from which he did not emerged until October 2011.

In doing so, Zava Damdin became Mongolia’s first Gelug Buddhist Rinpoche to complete this kind of mandatory (for senior Gelug officiating prelates) long retreats in the Gelug system of monastic training since the cessation of socialist rule in Mongolia in 1991. Now, how cool is that?

However, Zava Rinpoche’s going into retreat did have flow-on implications for members of his own monastic community. Why would it not? Interestingly though, now more than six years on (2011), the young lam who had arrived bringing with him the toy gun, has grown into adolescence and had continued to live in and contribute to Delgeruun Choira’s spatial and social life.

Having to carry additional responsibilities, like the other young lams whilst their own Teacher is in retreat (a compulsory and required undertaking for all diligent Gelug practitioners) he too was now emerging as one of the new monastery’s more diligent lam-practitioners. Increasingly carrying specialist liturgical and other ritual performance responsibilities, and now with genuine support and affection, he continues to help Eej in all of the ways required, and more. As for Eej? She has never spoken of the toy gun incident ever again.

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Notes

This short story of Eej and the New Lam is intended to introduce you to a number of aspects of concern at the time of Mongolian day-to-day life:

Firstly, the echoes of fear of potential socialist reprisals that were still being experienced by those engaged in cultural, religious and monastic reconstruction. Although already 2005, and nearly fifteen years after Mongolia was no longer officially socialist, latent tensions and fears associated with a socialist and punitive of a religious practice past, were not very far from the surface of people’s minds and hearts, even as they went about their now-usual daily tasks.

I saw how an otherwise simple event (when interpreted as simply young boys playing with their new toy) could trigger, when interpreted as hearing real (rather than apparent) gunshots, all kinds of negative associations, particularly for (Buddhist) people working in community at Delgeruun Choira on its cultural and religious reconstruction.

Eej and the New Lam is just one such story. There are many others that similarly reflect this kind of predisposition in a climate that (back in 2005) was still imbued with a sense of hyper vigilance, fear and distrust. The Delgeruun Choira situation (read as: geographical location) is remote and at the time, surveillance or judicial resources were very sparse on the ground. Since 2005 however, many things have changed. Two big dogs [6] in the first instance, and now (2024) many more, sensor floodlights, cameras and a range of other surveillance devices have all been installed at the monastery in order to ameliorate intrusive activity.

Secondly, new and strict codes of appropriate behavior for lams were needed and have since been worked out. A differentiation between the secular and the monastic was being worked out, particularly for the young lams. Whereas at Amarbayasgalant, the giving of such a toy may have gone unnoticed or simply ignored, at Delgeruun Choira its presence was dealt with immediately and without any ambiguity on the part of the two main people in charge of the monastery’s day to-day running; the Abbot and his Eej.

Thirdly, even by 2008, so many years after the cessation of soviet-socialist rule, there were still many Mongolian cowboys and self-appointed so-called ‘vigilantes’, many of whom were ‘police’ officers on very little pay and with very little to do now – officially. They would spend their days driving through the remote Dungovi where Delgeruun Choira is located. They were on the lookout, like other post-soviet socialist dis-enfranchised Mongolian people, for any opportunities, the intentions of which were often far from legal let alone wholesome.

Stealing, fighting, drinking, enacting willful damage to things and people whilst under the influence of alcohol were commonplace. This is not speculation on my part. Over the years of fieldwork in Mongolia, I have witnessed such goings on. In this wild west borderland context, it seemed quite sensible, if not predictable, that our courageous Eej, would step forward and re-act in the way she did.

In those early days of cultural reconstruction (2004-8), many of the Delgeruun Choira lams in the Gobi were so very young, barely in their teens. Now, the situation and the demographics of the monastic community is quite different. By 2011 there were already many strong, grown up lams and other workers on site. However in 2005 there were few. Eej stepped forward, with not only  the intention to protect her children (the lams) but at the same time to convey the very clear, unambiguous message of what was acceptable behaviour and what was not in this, her own sphere of responsibility and influence.

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Endnotes

[1] During the hot summer, it was easier for both people and vehicles to travel across the Gobi at night rather than during the day. It was not uncommon for visitors travelling by cars in convoy to turn up at the desert monastery at three, four and five o’clock in the morning. In those days, it was customary for someone to welcome the new arrivals, serve them with the appropriate (seasonal) refreshments and escort them to where they could rest.

[2] The Republic of Buryatia is located in the South-Central region of Siberia along the Eastern shore of Lake Baikal.

[3] A ‘ger’ is a portable, tent-like structure similar to the better-known ‘yurt’.

[4] ‘Eej’ is the Mongolian term for ‘mother’.

[5] ‘Teacher’ is an honorific used by (Mongolian) Gelug Buddhists when referring to their own spiritual guides. The singular term ‘Guru’ (in isolation from a proper name such as Guru Deva Rinpoche) although widely used in the west, India and Tibet, was at the time seldom uttered by by practitioners of Gelug Buddhism in Mongolia.

[6] As an aside, in The Secret History of the Mongols, the noun-term “dog” is used primarily as a marker to  which humans are compared. People can be “hounds” in battle, fearsome and savage, or, alternately, so loyal that they “have dogs’ faces“. On occasion, dogs are also used as temporal references according to the shuixang system– ie, “in the Year of the Dog”.

For the most part however, dogs are used in a comparative sense. The comparisons made are extremely varied, but in a general sense, they deal with the conflict between a dog’s innate wildness and its cultivated domesticity. Comparing human actions to the behaviors of a dog illustrates the opposing pulls within humans, between the civilizing forces of society that define the modern man, and the instinctual responses that have helped humans survive since prehistoric times.

Culturally, dogs are important as one of the twelve animals of the shuxiang and by extension, as a means of preserving a societal memory of important events. “In the Year of the Dog” is commonly used in The Secret History when the beginning of a military campaign is being described. As loyal companions to nomadic families, they were respected animals. However, dogs were not so overwhelmingly essential that they were safe from consumption by their owners in lean times. In general however, the Mongols’ dogs as characterizations of many different sides of human nature, [and therefore reflect a balanced view of the human condition.]

See: Weatherford, J. (2004) Macalester College collaborative online student research project at: http://www.macalester.edu/anthropology/mongolia/dog.html

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Source

Source: Edited extract from Pleteshner, C. (2011). Nomadic Temple: Daughters of Tsongkhapa in Mongolia (Unpublished manuscript).  The Zava Damdin Sutra and Scripture Institute Library Archive in the Manjushri Temple, Soyombot Oron, Mongolia), pp111-115.

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Acknowledgements

During my post-graduate studies in Melbourne I was introduced to the strategy of writing short stories as a way of presenting ethnographic qualitative research data by Dr Mark Stevenson. This article is an example of such an approach. 

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Attribution

In keeping with ethical scholarly research and publishing practices and the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, I anticipate that anyone replicating the photographs, using or translating into another language all or part of this article and submitting it for accreditation or other purpose under their own name, to acknowledge this URL and its author as the source. Not to do so, is contrary to the ethical principles of the Creative Commons license as it applies to the public domain.

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