The future has arrived in Mongolia, both in the high-rises of its capital, Ulaanbaatar, and in the vast emptiness
If the Buddha were living now I think he would use social media,” said Baasan Lama, the fresh-faced abbot of Erdene Zuu, Mongolia’s oldest monastery. He flashed a luminous smile. “I already have a Facebook page.” From the folds of his thick red-and-gold robes, he pulled a small book he had published four months earlier that offers 108 tips for right action in a scattered world. “Short,” he told me, in no-nonsense English. “People don’t like to read long books these days!”
Visitors from Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia’s boomtown capital, kept bundling into the small room where I was sitting with the Hamba Lama Baasansuren, as he is officially known, to receive his blessings and teachings. Not many minutes earlier, in the 17th-century whitewashed prayer hall next door, I’d listened to him lead chants while younger monks pounded drums.
The bulging-eyed black demons on the walls, the red-and-gold benches, the fragrance of juniper incense, and the flickering rows of candles and butterlamps all made me feel as if I were in Tibet.
The complex contained temples that looked Chinese and gers (the domed white felt huts also known as yurts) with chapels inside. A brick wall surrounded it, mounted with 108 tall, white stupas that seemed to ward off the emptiness of the Orkhon Valley, once the centre of the Turkic, Uighur, and Mongol empires and now a UNESCO World Heritage site. Erdene Zuu, locals had told me, stands on the ruins of Karakorum, the city that Genghis Khan’s son Ogodei built in 1235. Driving here across unending grassland, I’d seen only a handful of lonely white gers against the wide horizon and a few crop-circle gatherings of goats beside Bronze Age burial mounds.
Though Baasan Lama is only 37, he has spent the past 24 years in the temple, having taken on robes after his country emerged from 70 years of Soviet-imposed atheism. Now the strapping lama was presenting me with a sleekly produced CD he’d released to go with his book, featuring sing-along Buddhist chants that had become instant hits with the iPhone-tapping, Lexus-driving, sushi-and-Gucci movers of Ulaanbaatar. As two ‘monklets’ offered us cups of fermented mare’s milk and bowls of noodles with thick beef, the lama continued his impromptu discourse. “I’ve read the Bible,” he said. “And the Koran. I think that if Jesus and Mohammed and the Buddha were alive now, they would be good friends.”