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Volunteer in Mongolia
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Volunteer in Mongolia

Help Restore an Ancient Buddhist Monastery

Article and photos by Jeff Mascornick

Volunteer in Mongolia
CRTP volunteers assist a Mongolian crew in reconstructing the main temple.
Photo by Jeff Mascornick.

Since its independence from the former USSR in the early 1990s, one important change in Mongolia has been the resurgence of Buddhism. Prior to the 1930s, when the communist government began to systematically eliminate the influence of the church, a strong monastic tradition had existed for centuries. Although Buddhism was not openly practiced for nearly 70 years, Mongolians seem committed to ensuring that it regains the place it once had in the nation’s rich cultural heritage.

This past summer I participated in a volunteer project to reconstruct the Baldan Baraivan monastery in the Khentii province in the eastern part of the country. I spent two weeks researching and working alongside the local staff and living in a “ger” ("yurt" in Russian). Although I did not see as much of the country as many of the other foreigners I met in the capital Ulaan Bataar, I believe I experienced more by being part of the culture for three weeks. In addition to direct involvement in the local community, I learned about the history of the monastery itself.

At one time it had been the second largest in the country, with a thriving community of thousands of monks and nuns as well as lay practitioners. At the end of the 17th century, a small party of monks was sent east from present day Ulaan Bataar to scout for an appropriate location for the construction of a monastery. When the party came to the foot of Mount Beley-Olzijt they met an old couple, Baldan and Zepelmaa, who invited them into their ger. As they entered the old couple’s home they were greeted with the auspicious sign of a pot of rice boiling over on the fire.

In addition to the rice, they noticed that the mountains surrounding the valley in each of the four cardinal directions resembled important Buddhist protector deities. It was agreed not only that the monastery should be built where the old couple lived, but also that monuments should be erected to commemorate their contribution to the effort. During the construction of the monastery it was discovered that the people in the area believed an ancient shamanic legend about a giant who slept in the valley. It was agreed that building monuments on the giant’s head, navel, and feet would honor the legend and ensure his peaceful sleep.

When the main temple was complete it stood for the next century and a half as the primary center of pride, religion, and education for the entire region. In the 1930s the government, in response to pressures from Moscow, reacted to the threat that the monastics, who held a tremendous amount of authority and resources, presented to them by drastically increasing their taxes. In 1937, when these demands finally became too great for the monks to satisfy, the government responded by imprisoning or killing the residents and destroying the monastery.

In 1999 Cultural Restoration Tourism Project (CRTP), www.crtp.net, a San Francisco-based nonprofit organization, began restoration of the main temple at Baldan Baraivan utilizing volunteer tourism and local resources. Volunteers pay a fee of $1,280 for eight days to $2,030 for 14 days, including travel, accommodations, and food within Mongolia, working alongside nearly two dozen local craftsmen and workers. Fees are considered a donation to the project and are tax deductible when applicable.

Aside from the primary goal of restoring the main temple, CRTP is also working to create an ecologically sustainable environment by promoting agricultural use of the land in order for the community to be self-sufficient in the future. The Mongolian cooks use the vegetables from the garden in meals for participants and staff. (The fact that Mongolians, who have an aversion to anything green, savor spinach pies at camp meals can only be described as miraculous.)

All the money that CRTP receives stays in the area and benefits the community directly. Only local resources are used for the restoration.

Master Carpenter at main temple.
This 82-year-old man is the Master Carpenter for the restoration work at the main temple.

A final objective of the project is to promote cultural exchange on a person-to-person basis. Because participants stay in the camp, this occurs naturally. The language barrier is an obvious difficulty, but the staff’s interest in learning English—along with the many social activities—effectively "break the ice."

While we are generally drawn to other cultures by the external differences we perceive, it is the identification of commonalities we find that usually prove to be the most enriching aspect of cultural exchange. For me, participating in something meaningful while experiencing a foreign culture leads to a greater awareness of how we can contribute to our own communities in constructive ways. This awareness is one of the most practical and beneficial aspects of volunteer tourism.

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