Saturday, June 25, 2022

Mongolia | Lama Gombo | Kalachakra | Shambhala | Roerich Expedition

At one point I got a call from Lama Gombo, who at the time was ninety-three years old. He said he had something he wanted to talk about and that I should met him at Lamrim Khiid, a temple complex just outside Gandan Monastery in Ulaanbaatar. It turned out he had a CD full of photos of a Tibetan language scripture known as the Condensed Kalachakra Tantra, also known as the Kalachakra Laghutantra, or Shri Kalachakra, which according to tradition had been compiled by Manjushri Yashas, the first of the Twenty-Five Kalki Kings of Shambhala, probably some time in the second century b.c.
Lama Gombo (click on photos for enlargements)

As best I could make out, given the sometimes non-linear mode of Lama Gombo's mind, prior to 1938 the book had been kept in the Kalachakra Temple, which at that time was located in Zuun Khuree, part of the huge monastic complex that dominated what is now the city of Ulaanbaatar. In 1938 the Kalachakra Temple (Düinkhor Datsan in Mongolian) had been destroyed by the communists, but a monk at the temple rescued the book and gave it to a man in Nailakh, the coal-mining town just east of Ulaanbaatar, for safe keeping. Apparently the man in Nailakh died and the book was passed on to a relative. In 1996 the relative gave the book to a lama at Gandan Monastery. A lama at Erdene Khamba Monastery in Bulgan Aimag then asked to borrow for the book because his monastery did not have a copy. Apparently this was viewed by both parties as a loan, but the first lama at Gandan transmigrated, and now the lama at Erdene Khamba says that the book was actually given to him, and by extension to his monastery, and he refused to return it to Gandan. So the physical book remained in Bulgan, according to Lama Gombo. That’s why he sent someone to Bulgan to take photos of the entire book.

Sample pages from Lama Gombo’s Condensed Kalachakra Tantra

The book in Bulgan contains many illustrations of tantric deities and what look like kings of Shambhala.  According to Lama Gombo the illustrations first consisted of black and white line drawings and were later colored in by Luvsantüvdenvanchug, the Fourth Bogd Gegeen of Mongolia (1775–1813) himself. If this was true—I was never able to confirm it independently— it would certainly add to the bibliographical interest of the book. The Fourth Bogd Gegeen had traveled to Tibet in the late 1790s and attended a Kalachakra Initiation in Lhasa. He apparently brought back with him a copy of the Condensed Kalachakra Tantra when he returned to Mongolia. The book now in Bulgan Aimag is probably a copy of this book, or, just conceivable, the actual copy the Fourth Bogd Gegeen brought back to Mongolia from Tibet. In 1800 the Fourth Bogd Gegeen initiated the construction of the Kalachakra Temple and it was finally completed in 1806. Previous Bogd Gegeens seemed to have shown little interest in the Kalachakra, and thus it was the Fourth Bogd Gegeen who introduced, or at least popularized, these teachings in Mongolia. The original Kalachakra Temple burned down in 1892 and a new one was subsequently built. As mentioned, this new version was destroyed by the communists in 1938. In 1992 a new Kalachakra Temple was built within the confines of Gandan Monastery in Ulaanbaatar. 
New Kalachakra Temple at Gandan Monastery in Ulaanbaatar


At any case, Lama Gombo wanted to know if it was possible to make a facsimile edition of the book from the photos (402 of them, most showing two pages of the book). Given the low resolution and poor quality of the digital photos I had to tell him I did not think this was possible. While I had his attention, however, I asked him what he knew about the Thirteenth Dalai Lama’s stay in Ulaanbaatar. He said that the Dalai Lama had stayed in the Didan Lavran Temple within the confines of Gandan Monastery, but other than that he did not know much about his activities. I doubted he would know anything about the Roeriches but I decided to ask him anyhow. I was in for a surprise. Lama Gombo was twenty years old when the Roerichs arrived in Ulaanbaatar and at the time living at Shankh Monastery, near the more famous Erdene Zuu Monastery in Övörkhangai Aimag, 190 miles east-southeast of Ulaanbaatar.

Main temple of Shankh Monastery

Lama Gombo at Shankh Monastery. The Kalachakra diety is shown on the thangka to the left. Shambhala is depicted on the thangka behind the Buddha.

Later he came to the city and heard much talk among other monks about the famous Russian and his family who was doing a khora around Shambhala. This was news to me. A khora is a clockwise circumnavigation of a sacred place or object done on foot, by horse, yak, camel, or some other means of locomotion. One of the most famous khoras is the thirty-two mile-long trek, usually done on foot, around 22,028-foot Mt. Kailash in Tibet. I had completed this khora a few years before, along with several thousand Tibetans and a smattering of pilgrims and adventure tourists from outside Tibet. It took me two and half days. I have been told that in the nineteenth-century there was a khora route around Bogd Khan Uul, the huge massif that dominates the skyline south of Ulaanbaatar, although admittedly I have never been able to ascertain it exact route. Before the communist era pilgrims would routinely do khoras when visiting Erdene Zuu, the monastery founded in 1585-86 by Avtai Khan (1554–1588), the great-grandfather of Zanabazar, the First Bogd Gegeen of Mongolia (now a museum located on the outskirts of Kharkhorin, in Övörkhangai Aimag.

Erden Zuu. A Khora path can still be seen around the monastery.

First they would circumambulate the wall surrounding the monastery, which measures roughly 1350 feet on each side.  Then they would circumambulate the three Zuu Temples at the southwest corner of the monastery complex. Entering the Central Zuu Temple, they would then circumambulate the famous Jowo statue, the centerpiece of the temple, passing behind it via a corridor along the back wall. Mini-khoras are also often done around ovoos, or stone cairns, that mark passes on highways and other auspicious places. Many drivers, passing such an ovoo, will stop and circumambulate it three times.

Mini-khora path around an ovoo

Just the year before I had done an 84.6-mile Khora by Horse around Burkhan Khaldun, the mountain worshipped by Chingis Khan and now the focus of ceremonies dedicated to his memory. 


Now Lama Gombo was suggesting that the entire Roerich Expedition, which took three years and had covered thousands of miles by horse, yak, camel, horse-drawn cart, boat, railroad, and motor car, was actually one long khora

Route of the Roeriches’ khora through Inner Asia

Apparently the Roerichs believed that some manifestation of the legendary kingdom of Shambhala was somewhere within the bounds of their khora. I knew the Roerichs were obsessed with Shambhala. The several books Nicholas had written about the expedition and the voluminous collection of letters and other writing by his wife Helena all return again and again to the theme of Shambhala. So what else do you know about Roerichs? I asked Lama Gombo. “Well, he replied, “some said Nicholas Roerich was an incarnation of the Fifth Dalai Lama.” I must say I was amazed by this. As we shall see, Nicholas Roerich and his circle did claim he was a reincarnation of the Great Fifth, as Ngawang Lobsang Gyatso  (1617–1682), the Fifth Dalai Lama was called, but I had no idea this belief had permeated into Mongolia, perhaps as far  back in the late 1920s. Elsewhere Roerich wrote:

Every century the Arhats make an effort to enlighten the world. But until now not one of these efforts has been successful. Failure has followed failure. It is said that until the day when a lama will be born in a western body and appear as a spiritual conqueror for the destruction of the century-old ignorance, until then there will be little success in dissolving the snares of the West.

Eventually Roerich came to believe that he himself, the reincarnation of the Fifth Dalai Lama, was the “spiritual conqueror” the world was waiting for. He soon came up with a quixotic scheme to create, with the connivance of the new Bolshevik regime in Moscow, a  New Shambhala, an earthly realm which he, the reincarnated Fifth Dalai, would play a leading role. 

Lama Gombo added it was only natural that the Roerichs turned up in Ulaanbaatar, since the city is intimately connected with Shambhala. How so? I wondered. “As you know the city used to be called Örgöö, or Ikh Khüree (Big Monastery), he explained. “After the communists took over they decided to change the name. They were still trying cooperate with the monasteries at the time so they went to some important lamas and asked for their advice in renaming the city. The lamas suggested the name Ulaanbaatar, Red Warrior. The Bolsheviks thought they were referring to Sükhebaatar, the hero of the Bolshevik (red) revolution and the lamas allowed them to believe this. Actually they were referring to the deity Jamsran, also known as the Red Warrior, or Red Protector (Ulaan Sakhuis). So the name Ulaanbaatar has both an exoteric meaning and an esoteric meaning.


Mask of Jamsran (Ulaan Sakhuis) now in the Choigin Lama Museum

Jamsran, said Lama Gombo,  is believed guard the portals to Shambhala. Is the city actually a portal to Shambhala? I asked. Lama Gombo shrugged. “It could be, there are many portals to Shambhala,” he said. But where is Shambhala? I wondered. “In the seventh dimension,” he replied. This was the first time I had heard about the Seventh Dimension business, but I would subsequently hear about it from several very well-informed lamas in Ulaanbaatar.  They seemed serious, but at times I could not help but wander if they were making up tales to feed my interest in the Shambhala mythologem, which I was was examining strictly from an historical point-of-view. In any case, none could or would elaborate on what exactly was meant by the Seventh Dimension, or how to enter it.


Nicholas Roerich did not believe Shambhala existed only in some other dimension. In his book Shambhala the Resplendent, written in 1928, Nicholas Roerich wrote, “Lama, tell me of Shambhala!”:

The Lama studies us with his piercing glance. Then he says: “Great Shambhala is far beyond the ocean. It is the mighty heavenly domain. It has nothing to do with our earth. How and why do you earthly people take interest in it? Only in some places, in the Far North, can you discern the resplendent rays of Shambhala . . .” 

Roerich was not satisfied with this explanation:

Lama, we know the greatness of Shambhala. We know the reality of this indescribable realm. But we also know about the reality of the earthly Shambhala. We know how some high lamas went to Shambhala, how along their way they saw the customary physical things. We know the stories of the Buryat lama, of how he was accompanied through a very narrow secret passage. We know how another visitor saw a caravan of hill-people with salt from the lakes, on the very borders of Shambhala. Moreover, we ourselves have seen a white frontier post of one of the three outposts of Shambhala. So, do not speak to me about the heavenly Shambhala only, but also about the one on earth; because you know as well as I, that on earth Shambhala is connected with the heavenly one. And in this link, the two worlds are unified.

From this it would appear that the Roeriches were indeed looking for a physical Shambhala here on earth. They would see signs of it in numerous places while doing their enormous khora through Inner Asia but apparently had not been able to locate and enter the legendary kingdom. But it was not for want of trying. 


Lama Gombo

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