Urga Becomes the Seat of the Living Buddha Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Zanabazar, the son of a Mongol nobleman and reportedly a descendant of Genghis Khan, was proclaimed the leader of Mongolian Buddhism in 1639, residing in Urga, now known as Ulan Bator. Urga grew out of the encampment around Zanabazar’s monastery.

Summary of Event

Under the leadership of Genghis Khan (1155/1162-1227), the Mongols became one of the most powerful peoples in the world. However, after the death of the last Mongol emperor in 1259, the Mongols split into a variety of different groups. During the fifteenth century, Mongolia was ravaged by civil war between the eastern clans of the Khalka and the western clans of the Oirad. During the sixteenth century, the Khalka leader Altan Khan Altan Khan managed to unite the Khalkas and defeat the Oirad. [kw]Urga Becomes the Seat of the Living Buddha (1638-1639) [kw]Buddha, Urga Becomes the Seat of the Living (1638-1639) [kw]Living Buddha, Urga Becomes the Seat of the (1638-1639) Religion and theology;1638-1639: Urga Becomes the Seat of the Living Buddha[1280] Government and politics;1638-1639: Urga Becomes the Seat of the Living Buddha[1280] Outer Mongolia;1638-1639: Urga Becomes the Seat of the Living Buddha[1280] Buddhism;Mongolia

Buddhism had entered Mongolia as early as the third century b.c.e., when silk traders from India brought with them the teachings of the Buddha. By the time of Altan Khan, many Mongolians already had adopted Buddhism. During the 1570’, Altan Khan met with a Tibetan Buddhist lama, or teacher, named Sonam Gyatso Sonam Gyatso . The Mongolian leader converted to Tibetan Buddhism Buddhism;Tibet in 1578 and made Buddhism the religion of the Mongolians. Altan Khan gave Sonam Gyatso the title Dalai Lama Dalai Lama , frequently translated as “ocean of wisdom.” The title also was bestowed on Sonam Gyatso’s two predecessors, making Sonam Gyatso the Third Dalai Lama. The Dalai Lama, in turn, named Altan Khan the “king of the turning wheel and wisdom.” With Buddhism, then, Mongolia began to recover some measure of political and religious unity.

In 1580, the Dalai Lama met with another important Mongolian leader, Avtai Khan Avtai Khan of the Tusheet khanate, who also converted to Tibetan Buddhism. Avatai Khan was succeeded as ruler of the Tusheet khanate first by his son and then by his grandson, Gombodorj Gombodorj . The birth of Gombodorj’s own son, in 1635, become the subject of legends and tales. This son was given the name of Zanabazar Zanabazar , which is frequently translated as “thunderbolt of wisdom.”

Zanabazar is said to have begun speaking and reciting prayers at the age of three. His father enrolled him in a monastery as a lama in 1638. According to tradition, both the Buddhist hierarchy and the secular leaders of Mongolia heard about the extraordinary gifts of the child, and they became convinced that he was destined to play a historic part in Mongolian Buddhism. According to some modern historical interpretations, the nobility used the young lama as a rallying point for unifying the Mongolian nobility. Zanabazar’s rise to religious supremacy is believed to be the result of the political and military power of his father, Gombodorj, and as a consequence of Gombodorj’s desire to establish his own control over Mongolia.

A convocation was held in the territory of Gombodorj at Shireet Tsagaan Nuur, or White Throne Lake, in 1639 to enthrone Zanabazar as the head of Mongolian Buddhism. The gathering took place at the small lake, surrounded on three sides by hills covered with sand dunes, with a great rock massif on one side. There were probably several thousand people at the convocation, with khans from all the khanates of Mongolia. The four-year-old Zanabazar was first given the title of gegen, meaning “supreme holiness” or “enlightened one.” Bogd gegen, the full title he later received, is usually translated as “holy enlightened one.” It became the title held by Zanabazar and by all of his successors as head of Mongolian Buddhism.

Near the lake, there was a traditional Mongolian tent, known as a ger. The name of the spot, Urga, is a Russian pronunciation of ger. A Buddhist lama carried little Zanabazar up to the ger and placed him on a throne inside, symbolizing that the child was now the head of Buddhism in Mongolia. The ger was sanctified as a temple and became the new bogd gegen’s own monastery. Those assembled swore allegiance to the child leader and gave him offerings, including a dozen ger and property associated with them. They ended the ceremonies with celebratory games.

The year after Zanabazar was named bogd gegen, another, purely secular assembly gathered. The Mongolian ruler Baatar Khongtaiji Baatar Khongtaiji called together Mongolian groups from all around Asia. He argued that they should form a union against their foreign enemies, including the Russians, Manchus, and Chinese.

The bogd gegen, then five years old, was probably not present at the gathering called by Baatar Khongtaiji. However, Mongol-Tibetan Buddhism was an important element of unity in the Mongolian coalition. Baatar Khongtaiji encouraged his fellow Mongol leader Gushri Khan Gushri Khan . In 1642, Gushri Khan overthrew the king of Tibet and made the fifth Dalai Lama the ruler of that land in secular as well as religious matters.

If Buddhism offered a means of uniting the Mongols, it also divided them. While some Mongol factions saw themselves as the representatives of Buddhism under the Tibetan Dalai Lama, the Khalkas clung to their own supreme leader, the bogd gegen. The connections between the Dalai Lama and the bogd gegen continued, but Buddhism did not provide a way to revive the Mongol Empire. After Zanabazar studied the Buddhist teachings for years under the most learned teachers in Mongolia, he traveled to Tibet for further studies in 1649, at about the age of fourteen. There, he met the fifth Dalai Lama, whom Gushri Khan made leader. In 1650, Zanabazar received the Tibetan title of javzandamba hutagt, which became the title for all the living Buddhas of Urga in the years that followed until the death of the eighth javzandamba in 1924. Zanabazar made a second trip to Tibet in 1655, strengthening the religious connections between the Mongols and the Tibetans.

The proclamation of Zanabazar as religious and national leader of Mongolia did not prevent the Mongols from falling under foreign political domination. Mongolia had been under pressure from the Russians, the Chinese, and the Manchus. Inner Mongolia fell under Manchu administration a few years before the convocation at Shireet Tsagaan Nuur. By the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century, the Manchus Manchus , who became rulers of China, established an uneasy domination of Outer Mongolia. Some modern Mongolian historians have criticized the first bogd gegen for reportedly collaborating with the Manchus and allowing Manchu political influence over his country.

As bogd gegen, Zanabazar was the most important Buddhist figure in Mongolia. He also became a sculptor of religious figures. He is credited with having developed the soyombo, a mystical image including a yin and yang symbol with horizontal bars and arrows above and below and vertical bars on each side. The soyombo is often regarded as the symbol of Mongolian nationhood, and using the soyombo as a foundation, Zanabazar is said to have created a writing system for the Mongolian language. The temple and palace that grew around his ger developed into the city that was later known as Ulan Bator, the modern capital of Mongolia.


The convocation at Shireet Tsagaan Nuur in 1639 created one of the key figures in Mongolian history, the Living Buddha of Urga Living Buddha of Urga . As first Living Buddha of Urga, Zanabazar played an important part in spreading Tibetan Buddhism in Mongolia. As a sculptor and painter of religious images, the first bogd gegen became one of Mongolia’s most influential artists. Contemporary museums in Ulan Bator still display his works.

Because the Mongolian capital of Ulan Bator grew around the monastery and palace of the Living Buddha, the convocation of 1639 also marked a central event in the political geography of Mongolia. Although Mongolia did fall under foreign domination, Ulan Bator continued to be the nation’s main center as well as its political heart. The successors of Zanabazar continued as the official religious and political heads of Mongolia until the early twentieth century.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Heissig, Walther. The Religions of Mongolia. Translated by Geoffrey Samuel. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980. A good overview of Mongolian religions. Includes a bibliography, an index, and a map of the region.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kaplonski, Christopher. Truth, History, and Politics in Mongolia: The Memory of Heroes. New York: RoutledgeCurzon, 2004. Kaplonski explores modern interpretations of important figures in Mongolian history. Chapter 7 focuses on interpretations of the role of Zanabazar.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Spuler, Bertold. History of the Mongols. Translated by Helga Drummond and Stuart Drummond. New York: Dorset Press, 1988. One of the best general histories of the Mongol people.
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Categories: History