Roerich House Mongolia Morns the Loss of a Great Lama Friend
The great Baasan Lama Dorligjav passed away quietly in his home on Jan. 30th, 2011, while lying on his bed in the auspicious Lion’s Posture of a Buddha. He had a mischievously playful smile on his face, so characteristic of how we all knew him.
Baasan Lama was one of the oldest friends of Roerich House Mongolia, his friendship in fact pre-dating Bira’s discovery of the house in 2004, and consequently of the efforts to have the house declared an historical building to be preserved for posterity. Of course it far predated our efforts in 2008-09 to raise money to restore the house and have it transformed into a Roerich Shambhala Museum and Art Institute. (It is one thing to have a city government place a stay order on the demolition of an old building, but quite another to find the funds to do restore the building and do something with it.)
Like most Mongols, Baasan Lama had learned about Roerich as a young man: learned that Roerich had visited Outer Mongolia as well as numerous Russian and Chinese occupied Mongolian territories in the mid 1920s, had again visited Chinese occupied Mongolian territories in the mid 1930s (Stalin had banned him from the Soviet satellites by this time), and had created several hundred paintings inspired by these visits. He also learned that Roerich had been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1929, and of the subsequent Stalinist ban. As far as Baasan Lama was concerned, anyone banned by Stalin was worthy of admitarion.
Baasan Lama’s connection with Roerich deepened in 1988, when Prof Bira was asked to assist with the planning of a Russian expedition to the sites visited by Roerich on his 1925-28 expedition. Bira, knowing that Baasan Lama was a Roerich enthusiast, asked him to lead the expedition. This was a decade and a half before anyone learned that the Roerich House in Ulaanbaatar had survived the harsh Communist years and still existed. Mongolia was still under Communism at the time, although Gorbachev had ushered in a more liberal mood.
Baasan Lama’s profile took a quantum leap upward in 1990, when he became famed as one of the “Group of Thirteen” who led the movement that overthrew the Communist government and ushered in democracy. He was the only monk in the Group of Thirteen. In fact, his courageous participation terrified the conservative monks in Ganden (at the time the only monastery allowed by Communism in Mongolia), who distanced themselves from him because of it.
I first met Baasan Lama in Singapore in 1992, when I was there translating for the late great Kirti Tsenshab Rinpoche. Baasan Lama attended the teachings and initiations, and we became instant friends. He was in Singapore to try and generate interest among the Buddhist community in rebuilding Buddhism in Mongolia, that had been so terribly destroyed by the seventy years of Communist rule. (Only one of its 1,250 monasterys escaped closure and destruction.)
Our friendship deepened in 2004 when I was on my own lecture tour through Asia. The tour took me through Mongolia. I was giving a talk in Ganden Monastery of Ulaanbaatar, when my old friend Baasan walked in, late as usual. He smiled ear to ear, prostrated and sat down.
Two years later I curated an exhibition of Mongolian Buddhist art for the Oglethorpe University Museum of Art in Atlanta, entitled “Portals to Shangri-La: Masterpieces from Buddhist Mongolia in Honor of Mongolia’s 800th Anniversary of Statehood.” The exhibit was sponsored by the Rubin Museum of Art in NY, and the Rubin Foundation. After showing in Atlanta it travelled to NY and also to the Crowe Gallery in Dallas. Baasan Lama graciously accepted my request to travel to Atlanta with his old friend Guntusangpo Lama to perform chantings at the opening ceremony.
During that visit to Atlanta the two lamas were received by former US president JimmyCarter, who since his retirement from political life has become very involved in supporting democratic movements around the world. President Carter heard that one of Mongolia’s “Thirteen Heroes of Democracy” was in town, and asked to meet with him. The meeting took place in the Carter Center for Human Rights. President Carter showed great interest in Mongolia and its fledgling democracy, and promised to make the facilities at the Carter Center available to Mongols interested in promoting democracy and human rights. Baasan Lama and Guntusangpo Lama then travelled to NY to meet with Don Rubin of the Rubin Museum of Art, and to DC to meet with the Conservency for Tibeto-Mongolian Art and Culture.
After working with the Group of Thirteen to overthrow Communism and bring democracy to Mongolia, Baasan Lama traveled extensively throughout Asia to try and generate interest and energy in rebuilding Buddhism in Mongolia His travels took him through many countries, including Japan, Korea, America, India, China, Nepal, Singapore, and Malaysia. More recently, he had become a strong force in Inner Mongolia, assisting Mongolian lamas there in their effort to rebuild from the destructions of the Chinese Communists.
Baasan Lama also worked tirelessly to bring the Ninth Bogd Lama to Mongolia, whose visit was blocked by both the Mongolian government and conservative elements in Ganden Monastery. A high point in his life came when the Bogd Lama was finally allowed to return in 2009, and was granted citizenship in 2010.
I saw Baasan Lama once or more a month from the time I began spending time in Mongolia: winters to write, and summers to lead Buddhist pilgrimage groups. He often showed up at my apartment with a friend or two in tow, usually lamas, artists, musicians, social activists, or people involved in the movement to rebuild Mongolian traditional culture from the ravages of the Communist destructions.
November of 2008 brought a group of Russians to town for a conference on Roerich. Naturally Baasan Lama was in attendence, and spoke on his affections for Roerich and his visions. Prof Bira also invited me to read a paper at the gathering, and I was delighted to do so. At the time the Roerich House was in a terrible state, with all windows broken, holes in the walls big enough to walk through, and all eight rooms in it looking like they had been submitted to a barroom brawl out of an early cowboy moovie. The house had been used by drunks and homeless people for well over a decade, and was slated for demolition.
Baasan Lama was distraught at the state of the house. Bira had been able to get a reprieve for the building; but four years had passed since the city had given it to him, and it was more dilapidated than it had been at that time. Baasan pushed me to get involved.
Six months later we were ready to look at a “soft opening” for summer. I wanted a stupa on the land, based on the stupa that Nicholas Roerich had personally built in northeast Kokonor
during his 1925-28 visit to the Seven Mongolias. Baasan Lama came with a stupa maker who created his stupas from recycled metal. We went to look at his factory. Lo and behold, one of the pieces of scrap metal that he had on hand was the top of an old Russian tank, left behind when the Russians suddenly withdrew from Mongolia in 1990. We decided immediately: the stupa would be made from a recycled Russian tank. Somehow it seemed appropriate to the legacy of the Russian born New York peacenik artist Nicholas Roerich: swords to plowshares, and tanks into stupas.
Naturally, after the stupa was completed Baasan Lama came with a half dozen of his monk friends and performed the consecration rituals. After the consecration was finished, they recited the Panchen Lama’s famous “Prayer for Rebirth in Shambhala,” which Roerich mentioned several times in his writings, and which was one of his inspirations in the creation of his twenty or so Shambhala paintings, as well as in the writing of his book on the subject, simply entitled Shambhala. A good time was had by all.
When the time came in the summer of 2009 for our grand opening – July 6th, the Dalai Lama’s birthday – Baasan Lama came as one of the guests of honor. (The others were former President Ochirbat; and First Lady Damila, the widow of a former Prime Minister. Always a man with taste and style, he consented to sit for a photograph with the former First Lady and her entourage.
A month later the great Telo Tulku, whose previous incarnation was one of the three top incarnate lamas in the country, came to town. Baasan Lama phone me up excitedly and told me to get over to Rinpoche’s hotel immediately. As we saw in a previous posting, the former Telopa Lama had escaped the Communist destructions of the 1930s, and found his way to New York, where he became the first American lama. After his passing, his reincarnation was discovered in the form of a young Kalmuk Mongol who had been born in Philadelphia, City of Brotherly Love. It was this young lama who now was in Ulaanbaatar, en route to the homeland of his predecessor in Gobi Altai, Southwest Mongolia.
This occurred days after the July 6th opening of our newly (partially) restored Roerich House, and Telopa Tulku accepted our invitation to speak in our Shambhala Room. He would come, he said, after his return from the Gobi Altai. And indeed he did, becoming, for all of history, our first speaker. (Four more lamas visited and taught later that summer: Ongtrul Rinpoche, a Drikung Kargyu master from Tsopema India; Garchen Tulku, a Drikung Kargyu master presently based between New York and Germany; Majiid Tara, Mongolia’s lady lama and an incarnation of Green Tara; and Keith Dowman, the British teacher of and writer on dzogchen.)
Strangely, the night before Baasan Lama’s passing I dreamed that I was meditating in a forest hut with some friends. Suddenly Kyabje Trijang Dorjechang, the Junior Tutor of the Dalai Lama and one of my own root lamas, came in and sat with us. He appeared very old, and then suddenly sat up in meditation and passed away in our very presence. Although we were in a remote forest hut, three policemen magically appeared in my dream and took photos of Rinpoche’s deceased meditating body.
Moments after Baasan Lama’s passing, his family phoned to inform me of his passing. They asked me to come and perform powa prayers in their home. Naturally I was honored to do so. Then when I was in the middle of the ceremony, three policemen suddenly came into the room to photograph Baasan Lama’s body, just as had happened in my dream the night before with Kyabje Trijang Dorjechang. Photos of this nature are required for the official death report.
For me, the meaning is that Baasan Lama carried the great blessings of the mahasiddhas, and especially of Heruka Chakrasamvara, or Demchik as this Tantric Buddha is known in Mongolia. Kyabje Trijang Dorjechang was considered to be an emanation of Buddha Chakrasamvara.
Baasan Lama’s passing is a great loss to Mongolia, where so few lamas of his caliber, charisma and unique character remain. It is also a great loss to me personally. He took me under his wing in Mongolia, and shared his wit and wisdom with me since my first visit to the country.
A brief bio: Baasan Lama became a monk in 1974 at Gandan at the age of age 19. He studied for five years at Gandan Monastery, and then became Head Chant Master in 1979. He served in that capacity until 1989.
In 1989 he co-founded the Democratic Association, a secret body of thirteen Mongols who initiated and directed the movement to overthrow the Communism government. He was the only monk in the group; the other twelve were lay people. The “Group of Thirteen Heroes” drafted Mongolia’s “Declaration of Independence from Communism,” and the origin draft of this constitution was entrusted into his care for safekeeping. He kept it carefully hidden inside a copy of the Guhyasamaja Tantra (Sangdui) scripture. Their movement succeeded against all odds, and the Communist government capitulated. Mongolia has been a democratic country since 1990 because of this brave deed of Baasan Lama and his twelve associates.
From 1994 to 1996 Baasan Lama helped rebuild Damdol Tegchenling, a temple dedicated to the preservation of Mongolian lineages coming from Padma Sambhava.
After 1996-1999 he served as a chairman of the Mongolian Buddhist Association. That same year (1996) he became head lama of Zepel Choijin Lama Temple.
In 2002 he established The International Mongolian Buddhist Association, a platform with which he hoped to rebuild the traditional links between the Buddhist communities of “the Seven Mongolias.” (Six of these Mongolian kingdoms were lost to China and Russia during the tragic treaty of 1921, and intercommunication between them cut off during the long years of the Communist period.) Because of this work, he made many visits to Buriatia, Inner Mongolia, Khokonor, and so forth since that time, forging links with Buddhist leaders in those regions. Hopefully someone in the new generation of Monglian lamas can take up this important task.
In 2006 he formed a Mongolia-China Buddhist Association, a vehicle that he hoped to use to break down the Bejing government’s stranglehold on Buddhism throughout the Tibeto-Mongolian regions of China.