Vol 3: Roerich House Mongolia Morns the Loss of a Great Lama Friend

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.

 

 

During that visit to Atlanta the two lamas were received by former US president Jimmy Carter, 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.

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Vol 2: Profile of a Roerich Enthusiast: Don Croner, Our Hero of 2009

Profile of a Roerich Enthusiast: Don Croner, Our Hero of  2009

When we began the marathon drive in the spring of 2009 to raise money for and  accomplish the work of restoring the Roerich House in Mongolia, and get the house at least to a state where we could open the doors on the Dalai Lama’s birthday of that summer (July 6th), we had two great strokes of luck.

The first was that the professional restoration artist Vedran Bolfek joined us as a volunteer supervisor of the work crews, and of course also worked tirelessly himself with hammer and nail. Vedran ran several different work crews, some simultaneously, often working from early morning until long after dark in order to try and have things ready for our scheduled July 6th opening. Somehow he succeeded.

The second stroke of luck was that Vedran brought the American Mongolist Don Croner on board as publisher extraordinaire, and during the spring of 2009 Don published a half dozen books by or on the Roerichs. Don’s blog, “Don Croner’s World Wide Wanders (see http://www.doncroner.net/blog.html) has become almost legendary with enthusiasts of modern Mongolia, and his support and involvement with Roerich House Mongolia was a great inspiration to all members of the Roerich Society in Mongolia.

Don began by publishing three books in cooperation with and for us (well, in reality out of his admiration for the Roerichs, and in order to help the success of our Roerich Mongolia project). The vehicle was his Mongolian publishing house, Polar Star Books. The three were:

1. Shambhala, by Nicholas Roerich (in English);
2. Heart of Asia, by Nicholas Roerich (in English); and
3. The Foundations of Buddhism, by Helena Roerich (in English).

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In addition, he also published a Russian edition of the Helena Roerich book on Buddhism. Helena had in fact written this book in Russian during the winter of 1926-27, while living in the house in Ulaanbaatar that we were now restoring. Her book had originally been published in Mongolia during the spring of 1927. Given that Mongolia had at the time already been under Communist rule for half a decade, this was quite a feat on her part.


Don and his Polar Star Books also published a small catalog of Roerich House Mongolia, with articles in both Mongolian and English. This was much appreciated on the opening ceremony of July 6th 2009, at which former Mongolian president Ochirbat came as chief guest of honor.

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The saga continued a month later, when the great Tilopa Tulku (Delov Hutaght) generously consented to be the first featured speaker at our newly opened Roerich House Mongolia during his summer visit to Mongolia. This young US born lama is the present head of Buddhism in Kalmukia; but even more importantly, he is regarded as the reincarnation of the great Telo Lama, one of Mongolia’s three greatest incarnate lamas. The former Telo had escaped the Communist killings of the 1930s, and made his way to America, where he died in 1967. Thus he was the first lama to reside in the USA. He had been instrumental in bringing over the Kalmukian lama Geshey Wangyal, and thus helped to create America’s first Tibetan Buddhist centers.

Don turned up the heat in his publishing company when he learned that the Telo Lama would be in the country and would teach at Roerich House. He quickly brought out a new edition of the long out-of-print English translation of the autobiography and political memoirs of the former Telo Lama, and presented a copy of this work to the present incarnation when the latter visited Roerich House Mongolia in late July, several weeks after our opening.

Because of this great contribution, Prof Bira, president of the Roerich Society of Mongolia, formally presented Don with the award “Shambhala Hero.”

To view a video on Telu Tulku’s visit to Roerich House Mongolia, click on the following link:

—–        Glenn Mullin, Oct 18, 2011, Chicago

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Vol 1: The Roerich Mongolia Monthly

Mongolia has just completed the annual Tsagansar or “White Month” celebrations, and we now enter the Year of the Iron Rabbit. Rabbits produce many babies, and we hope that we at Roerich House Mongolia will be able to produce many great creations in the year to follow. An in honor of this New Year, we have decided to launch a weekly blog, The Roerich Mongolia Monthly.

Many of you know the basic Nicholas Roerich story. A Russian born New York artist who lived the last decade of his life in India, Roerich took the world by storm in 1919, when he painted stage sets for the Paris opening of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. Everyone hated the opera, but loved Roerich’s stage sets. This was Roerich’s big break on the international scene. The international papers unanimously criticized   the opera, but praised Roerich. The next year he went to America at the invitation of the Art Institute of Chicago, and travelled on a twenty-eight city tour. America fell in love with him, and in NY a wealthy developed created a twenty-four city building in his name, with the two top stories for a Roerich Museum. This was the beginning of “The Master’s Institute,” a collective of artists, educators, scientists and social thinkers devoted to ushering in a new era of international peace and harmony. In 1929 Roerich was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. Later the Roerich Museum in NY moved to a more modest location, where it remains today. This NY institution has kept the Roerich legacy alive over the past ninety years. Its website makes available all sorts of great Roerich materials, including photos and writings for free download.

Roerich travelled to India in 1923 at the invitation of India’s greatest living poet, Rabindranath Tagore, whom he had met in London just before coming to America. He took up residence in the Dalai Podrang, the house where the British had housed the Thirteenth Dalai Lama from 1909 to 1912. He began his famous “His Country Series” there, and also his “The Himalayas” series.

In 1925 he, together with wife Helena and son George (a graduate of Columbia University, NY) left on a four year journey through the “Seven Mongolian Kingdoms.” This brought him to Outer Mongolia in 1926, and he remained until the summer of 1927. Nicholas’s own journal, Altai Himalaya, is a great peek into the many lands through which they travelled, as well as into Roerich’s visions and insights. George’s Trails to Inmost Asia is even better as a travel journal.

Skip forward thirty years. Khrushchev comes to power in Moscow, and sees the Stalinist anti-intellectual campaign as having been a disaster. He orders the government to release any surviving intellectuals who had been imprisoned, and pleads with ex-pat Russians to return and help Russia rebuild from the destructions of the Stalinist cultural purges. Nicholas Roerich’s eldest son George, who had left Russia as a child over forty-five years earlier, accepts to come to Russia for a term, and to re-open a Sanskrit-Tibetan program at the Institute of Oriental Studies in Moscow. The year is 1957.

Prof Bira, at the time a young teacher in Ulaanbaatar, returns to Moscow that same year and takes up studies under George, doing his PhD in Indo-Tibetan Buddhism under him. George dies in Moscow in 1960, the year that Bira graduates.

Skip forward another forty-five years. Prof. Bira is now the last surviving Asian student of George Roerich, and has become one of Mongolia’s foremost academics. By chance in 2004 he discovers the house where the Roerichs lived in Mongolia in 1926-27, and learns that he is slated for demolition, to be replaced by a high rise modern building. He surrounds himself with a small army of academics who appreciate Roerich’s contribution to Mongolian history, and together they press the Mongolian government to save the house by declaring it an historical site, and to entrust them and their newly established Roerich Society of Mongolia with the responsibility of  restoring and developing it.

Not much happens for the next few years. The small group of academics is unable to generate funds for the work, or even to pay the city land taxes.

Then in November of 2008 Bira re-meets Canadian writer and teacher Glenn Mullin, and Glenn accepts to take responsibility to raise funds for the project, and also oversee its execution. He brings on board Batdorj Damdensuren, former director of the Zanabazaar National Museum. Bira, his assistant Ishdorj, Glenn and Batdorj form a working committee to press ahead. Glenn’s fundraising activities meet with a modest success, and a few months later, after the winter cold has passed, work on the restoration begins.

The spring of 2008 brings a great stroke of good fortune. Vedran Bolfek of Croatia, a professional restoration artist, volunteers to come for six months and direct the restoration work. Three or four teams of local Mongol construction workers throw themselves into the task, and in four months time the Roerich House is ready for a “soft opening.”  (Soft, because still no permission from the city to hook to the city’s heat and water systems, and also because a quarter of the house is still unfinished and therefore is just blocked off.) The opening took place on the Dalai Lama’s birthday (July 9th) 2009, just as planned.

Many wonderful friends helped with the work, and many visitors made pilgrimage to our doors during the summer of 2009. We will glimpse into some of these in the blogs to follow.

To conclude, we thought that it might be useful to present the first dozen or so editions of our Roerich Mongolia Weekly in this manner, by reviewing what has been done to date. And of course, to intersperse these with accounts of present activities.





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