BARUUNBUREN, Mongolia (Reuters) - Buddhism is one of the world’s oldest religions, but its fate in Mongolia now rests on very young shoulders.
The country’s monasteries are increasingly run by millennial monks, the first generation to come of age after decades of religious repression under the Soviet system wiped out almost all Buddhist clergy.
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Just four years into his own studies, 29-year-old Lobsang Tayang is already teaching two young monks, a position he would normally attain only after 20 years.
“I felt like I hadn’t gained enough knowledge yet,” he said. “I was thinking, ‘Is it right for others to call me teacher when I myself am still learning?’”
He is stepping up because the repression, begun in the 1930s with the arrival of Communism, killed an estimated 17,000 monks, official figures show.
At the time, most Mongolians were devout adherents to a form of Buddhism similar to that practiced in Tibet.
After democracy came to Mongolia in 1990, monasteries and schools were re-established by the survivors, many already then in their 70s.
Lobsang Tayang’s monastery, Amarbayasgalant, is a sprawling complex deep in the endless grasslands, 35 km (22 miles) from the nearest road. It was home to around 800 monks before the Soviet era. After the purges began, half the monastery’s monks fled, while most of those who remained were killed.
Now fewer than 40 are left, and the oldest, the head of the monastery, is just 35.
The young monks are struggling to maintain crumbling monastery buildings that date from the 18th century, and were declared a world heritage site by the cultural agency UNESCO. Today just 28 of more than 40 original temples remain.
Flocks of nesting pigeons stain the walls with faeces and leave the monks, whose religion forbids killing, in despair.
Lobsang Tayang wakes his students, 10-year-old Batkhan Tuul and 11-year-old Temuulen, at around seven to test their memory of the scriptures, chanting which fills the rest of the morning.
In the afternoon, the younger monks can study topics such as mathematics and literature - if a teacher can be found.
Such a choice of career is unusual in the modern world, and finding children willing to sign up can be tricky. The choice is often made as much by parents as their children, and is rarely a straightforward task.
“He didn’t like the idea because he was afraid of the paintings and altars of the deity,” said Temuulen’s mother, Badamkhand Dambii, recounting her son’s reaction the first time she broached the topic. “He said they were frightening.”
It took him a while to come round, she added.
Getting children to come is only half the battle, however. Keeping them there is the real challenge.
“Nowadays it’s very rare to find monks who can remain faithful to their vows,” said Lobsang Tayang.
Many monks who grow up at the monastery yearn for the outside world, which they are only allowed to visit twice a year for two weeks. The monastery has 3G internet access, but mobile telephones are restricted to those older than 25.
“It’s easy to chop down a forest, right?” said Lobsang Rabten, the monastery’s second-in-command. “But it takes a long time for new trees to grow back.”
He hopes to return the monastery to its former glory.
For now, Temuulen is committed to a future at Amarbayasgalant and hopes to help rejuvenate it.
“When I grow up, if the monastery becomes bigger and more renowned, then hopefully lots of children will come.”
Reporting by Natalie Thomas; Additional reporting by Munkhchimeg Davaasharav in ULAANBATAAR; Editing by Clarence Fernandez