Having read a biography of the great Mongolian conqueror Genghis Khan, I knew that in earliest times the Mongols worshipped the Eternal Blue Sky, but when I got off the plane at the Ulaanbaatar airport, I understood why. The sky over Mongolia is enormous, overarching, a bright clear blue.
Sandwiched between China and Russia, Mongolia is the world’s largest landlocked nation. The country, about the size of Alaska, has a population of slightly less than three million people— just a bit more than Chicago. Surrounded by huge spaces and open sky, the Mongolians have been nomadic people for centuries. Most still live in yurts (Mongolian, gers) and herd their horses, sheep, camels, and goats to graze across vast stretches of open land.
I came to Ulaanbaatar in early July 2008 to attend the Sakyadhita International Conference on Buddhist Women. Sakyadhita, which means “Daughters of the Buddha,” is the name of an organization founded in Bodhgaya, India, in 1987, to create an alliance for transforming the lives of women in Buddhist societies. This was the tenth gathering in 20 years, convening participants to work for compassionate social action and gender equity in Buddhism through education, training, and publications for Buddhist women. Among the 400 participants, 30 countries were represented— from Vietnam to Canada to Malaysia, from Bangladesh to Germany to Sri Lanka.
The recent history of Mongolia gave particular resonance to the conference. Mongolia had been a strongly Buddhist country, practicing a form of Tibetan Buddhism for centuries, until the USSR invaded in 1921. In the 1930s, the Soviets began purging Buddhists. An estimated 17,000 high-ranking monks were arrested and persecuted. Thousands of monks were killed, while younger monks were conscripted. The Communists closed down 700 temples, destroyed monasteries, and stole religious treasures.
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