Friday, April 9, 2010

The Mongolian Influence

Some years back I began reading about the history of Tibetan Buddhism and of the centuries long path the Vajrayana (and it's many different practitioners) had taken to arrive at various areas on the globe. I knew nothing of the path of the Vajrayana at that time, and by path I am not, in this case, referring to practice, but to it's very literal geographic route.

I had no real background knowledge of the history of Tibet or her neighbors at the time. When I learned of the very close political, militaristic and spiritual relationship of Mongolia and Tibet, it was simply one of those great moments of learning something new that opened the door to a whole new bevy of readings and questions, as well as a window of seeing the Vajrayana and it's formation with a new angle.

The wax and wane of the Mongolian Khan dynasties, their shifting power in the region and their historic patronage of different Tibetan Buddhist schools at different times greatly influenced the formation of how the Vajrayana was organized and practiced in the region. Khubilai Khan, for example, was instrumental in carrying on the legacy of his predecessors, ensuring military protection for Tibet while receiving the benefits of geo-political domination. Mongolia served for Tibet, also as a spiritual patron and it is Altan Khan, a descendant of Chinggis (Genghis) Khan, who is often credited with coining the term "Dalai" (of Dalai Lama), first referring to Sonam Gyatso in the mid 16th century with this name.

I try not to get too deep with specifics with much older history in this blog. Some things I have read extensively about (the naming of the "first" Dalai Lama, actually third, is one) and many discrepancies exist with these stories. I love history but it can become a tangled web of facts mixed with assumptions mixed with contradictions among references and so forth. Additionally, I have written an academic text on this subject that is studded with formal references. That is not my intent with this blog. If any reader ever sees a glaring error in some historical (or present day!) fact, I'm not very prickly and am very appreciative of such things being pointed out.

All of this said, I cannot wrangle extensively here and now with the truths and mysteries of what occurred several centuries ago within the patron/lama relationship of the Mongols and various Tibetan monks. My main point in bringing this historic relationship into play started with the virtual visit of the day: New Jersey.

New Jersey to Mongolia, hmm. For some readers, what I am about to relay may be no surprise. But it is historical fact and not one that is always reported so directly (or at all) in the annals of tracing Tibetan Buddhism's "arrival" in the West.

Prior to the mid 20th century, there were no dharma centers in the States. No Tibetan Buddhist monasteries, cultural centers, meditation groups. In reading the numerous books written on the recent development and history of Tibetan Buddhism in the United States, the figure commonly associated with "bringing Tibetan Buddhism to America" is Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche. Trungpa Rinpoche is undeniably a major figure in the history of the Vajrayana in the West. In the early days of Tibetan Buddhism being disseminated into the West, Trungpa Rinpoche founded centers in Europe, the USA and Canada. In the USA he established, in fact, a few centers, still running today as well as an organization that is now the nexus point for many centers globally. He was an extremely public figure who, debatably, did more for the dissemination of teaching and rousing of enthusiasm and interest in the America's, than anyone else in those first few decades of the rooting of the Vajrayana practice in North America.

But the first Tibetan Buddhist dharma center in the West, often overlooked in texts who refer to Rinpoche's centers as "the first," was the Lamaist Buddhist Monastery of America, founded in 1958 in New Jersey.

In the early to mid 1950's, a Kalmyk Mongolian immigrant community had begun to form in Howell, New Jersey. In the mid 1950's, Kalmyk Mongolian lama, Geshe Ngawang Wangyal, who was trained in Tibetan Buddhism, arrived in New Jersey. The seeking of the local Kalmyk community for a lama to perform religious functions, led to this role being taken on by Geshe Wangyal. Within a few years of arriving in New Jersey, he founded the Lamaist Buddhist Monastery of America, now known as the Tibetan Buddhist Learning Center. It was the first Tibetan Buddhist Dharma Center in North America and very likely, the West in general.

The influence of Mongolia and her practitioners on the scope of the Vajrayana is, for me, subtle seeming yet mind reeling and vast. It is one of the aspects of Buddhist history I most enjoy reading about. More on TBLC (Tibetan Buddhist Learning Center) in New Jersey in the next post.

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