Mongolian Yurts, Impermanence and Buddhism

Buddhist temple in a yurt

How are Mongolian yurts interconnected with the Buddhist concept of impermanence?

Historically, Mongolians have been Animist or Shamanist – believing in surrounding nature, wind, animals, spirits and the ‘Eternal Blue Sky.’

Mongolians spend most of their life connected to the ground in a yurt, which shelters them from the extreme climate but directly unites people with their environment. The yurt is not anchored to the ground, as not to harm the earth, and is a small representation of the universe.

Let’s explore some of the history behind these concepts, and how Mongolian culture today reflects this long-held concept of impermanence.

Yurts, the Khans and Tibetan Buddhism

buddhist temple in mongolia

Buddhist temple in a remote area of Western Mongolia.

Kubilai Khan, Genghis Khan’s grandson, introduced Tibetan Buddhism to Mongolia in the 13th century, but Mongolians returned to Shamanism after the collapse of the empire.

In the 16th century Buddhism was reintroduced to Mongolia by a military leader who wanted to reunite the empire. It once again began flourishing until being halted by the communist regime in 1924, who forbade any type of religion. They began to persecute Buddhist monks and believers, destroying temples and monasteries across the country. At that time, there were 140 living buddhas (people who have reached enlightenment) in the country.

The downfall of the socialist regime caused a resurgence of Buddhism in Mongolia, alongside a seemingly new interest in meditation amongst the population.

Buddhism in Mongolia Today

sacred mongolian site

An ovoo, a sacred pile of stones, combines shamanist and Buddhist believes.

Buddhism and Shamanism continue to be part of Mongolian spiritual life today.

Perhaps nowhere better is evidence of this found than within the yurt.

The toono (dome) is built in the shape of the wheel of Dharma (the Eightfold Noble Path); while the décor, inspired by Buddhist symbolism (in particular, ulziis – the infinity knots), represents the interconnection of everything in the universe.

The Principle of Impermanence

in a mongolian yurt

The toono is shaped in a wheel of Dahrma.

How did these fierce conquerors become so peaceful and tolerant?

Has the Buddhist philosophy helped explain the laws of nature that they experienced in their daily lives for millennia?

I have no doubt that the yurts, or gers, with their sturdy but soft felt dwellings also had a role to play. Mongolians live for the day, or even the moment, and deeply understand the principle of impermanence.

This principle is not always easy to practice, especially when one tries to sell their products to the Western world. Planning and quality are two values that might not be of utmost important to the free Mongolian nomad and it has been interesting trying to mesh the differing values.

Yurts, Impermanence and Minimalism

The yurt itself is impermanent.

It’s made to be set up and taken down, and if abandoned to the elements, will simply fall back to the ground, without a trace.

Each yurtis made with intention.

The builders sing while painting the traditional patterns, thank the sheep for their wool and thank the horse while cutting its mane for ropes.

Are these some of the reasons that it feels so right to mediate in a ger or that one feels so good in an authentic Mongolian yurt?

May all beings be happy!