Pope Francis quotes Buddha at interreligious event in Mongolia

Khamba Nomun Khan, the head of the Gandan Monastery in Ulaanbaatar, accompanied Pope Francis as he made his entrance at the interreligious dialogue event. Khamba Nomun Khan, the head of the Gandan Monastery in Ulaanbaatar, accompanied Pope Francis as he made his entrance at the interreligious dialogue event at the Hun Theater in Mongolia on Sept. 3, 2023. | Vatican Media

In a meeting with Mongolian Buddhists, Shamans, Shintoists, and other religious representatives, Pope Francis said Sunday that interreligious dialogue is “not antithetical to proclamation” but helps religious traditions to understand one another.

“With humility and in the spirit of service … the Church offers the treasure she has received to every person and culture, in a spirit of openness and in respectful consideration of what the other religious traditions have to offer,” Pope Francis said in a speech in Ulaanbaatar’s Hun Theater on Sept. 3.

“Religious traditions, for all their distinctiveness and diversity, have impressive potential for the benefit of society as a whole,” he added.

Pope Francis met with 12 religious leaders and representatives in the performing arts center on the Bogd Khan Uu mountain overlooking Mongolia’s capital city. The theater is built in the circular shape of a traditional Mongolian nomadic yurt dwelling called a “ger.” The rector of the only Orthodox church in Mongolia, Father Antony Gusev, represented the Russian Orthodox Church at the meeting.

In his speech, Pope Francis twice cited the “Dhammapada,” the most widely-read Buddhist text that is a collection of sayings of the Buddha.

“The fragrance of flowers spreads only in the direction of the wind, the fragrance of those who live according to virtue spreads in all directions,’” the pope said, quoting the “Dhammapada.”

Nearly 90% of Mongolians who identify as religious are Buddhist. Mongolia is also home to a boy who is considered the 10th reincarnation of Buddha, discovered by the Dalai Lama in 2016.

Khamba Nomun Khan, the head of the Gandan Monastery in Ulaanbaatar, accompanied Pope Francis as he made his entrance at the interreligious dialogue event.

The religious landscape of Mongolia — once a heartland of Tibetan Buddhism — was dramatically changed by communist rule.

At the turn of the century, there were an estimated 110,000 Buddhist monks and 700 monasteries in Mongolia.

A French Catholic missionary who visited what is today Mongolia at the end of the 19th century saw the succession of Buddhist monasteries in Mongolia and noted that the vast country would also be well-suited for a Catholic contemplative monastery, a dream shared by Cardinal Giorgio Marengo, Mongolia’s apostolic prefect.

Under the Mongolian People’s Republic’s one-party rule, many monasteries were destroyed and closed and about 17,000 Buddhist monks were killed, while many others renounced religious life.

While in recent years, the country has had a modest religious revival with a movement to rebuild the destroyed Buddhist monasteries after the fall of the Soviet Union, today roughly 40% of Mongolia’s population remains atheist or without a religion.

“May the memory of past suffering — here I think especially of the Buddhist communities — bestow the strength needed to transform dark wounds into sources of light, senseless violence into the wisdom of life, devastating evil into constructive goodness,” Pope Francis said at the meeting.

Gusev, who represented the Russian Orthodox Church at the event, also recalled the persecution Christians experienced in Mongolia in the 20th century, particularly the torture and murder of Orthodox Father Feodor Parnyakov by Russian Gen. Baron Ungern von Sternberg in 1921.

In his speech, Pope Francis quoted another line attributed to the Buddha: “‘The wise man rejoices in giving, and by that alone does he become happy.”

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The pope also cited the writings of Mahatma Gandhi on having “purity of heart” and Lutheran existentialist philosopher Soren Kierkegaard on hope.

After Buddhism, Islam and Shamanism make up about 5% of the Mongolian population who expressed a religious identity in the 2020 census.

In Mongolian shamanism, shamans enter trances to communicate and are sometimes possessed by spiritual beings. Animal sacrifice, particularly of horses, is still sometimes part of shamanistic rituals, as well as music, dance, and chanting.

D. Jargalsaikha, the president of the United Union of Shamans of Mongolia, explained that Mongolian shamans “worship the idols of the Eternal Heaven, Emperor Ghengis [Khan], ancestors, and parents.”

Shamanistic practices are also incorporated by many Buddhists in the country. The majority of Buddhists in Mongolia today are Mahayana Buddhists.

In the pope’s first speech to Mongolian government officials, the pope said that “the holistic vision of the Mongolian shamanic tradition, combined with the respect for all living beings inherited from Buddhist philosophy, can contribute significantly to the urgent and no longer deferrable efforts to protect and preserve the planet.”

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Christians are a small minority in Mongolia representing 2.2% of people who hold religious beliefs in the country. Mongolia’s 1,450 Catholics make up far less than 1% of Mongolia’s 3.3 million people, but the Church has been growing with 35 baptisms in the last year.

At the interreligious event, Dambajav Choijiljav, the head of the Zuun Khuree Dashchoilin Buddhist Monastery, and Jargalsaikhan met the pope and made a speech.

Other religious representatives at the meeting included Adiyakhuu Oktyabri from the Seventh-day Adventist Church, a Morman, and a representative from the Mongolian Baha’i community.

“I would like to reassure you that the Catholic Church desires to follow this path, firmly convinced of the importance of ecumenical, interreligious, and cultural dialogue. Her faith is grounded in the eternal dialogue between God and humanity that took flesh in the person of Jesus Christ,” Pope Francis told the religious leaders.

Following the interreligious event, Pope Francis will return to Ulaabaatar’s apostolic prefecture for lunch before presiding over an afternoon Sunday Mass at Mongolia’s Steppe Arena. The 86-year-old pope will make the 11.5-hour return journey to Rome on Monday afternoon.

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