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The Lama and the Khan: On the Spiritual Conquest of the Past by Carlos Perona Calvete

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The Lama and the Khan: On the Spiritual Conquest of the Past

Statuette of the 5th Dalai Lama, 19th century, located in the Museum of Ethnology, Vienna.

In 1652, the Fifth Dalai Lama was traveling from Tibet to Beijing. On his way, he detoured to Ejen Khoroo, the Mongol city of the “Eight White Yurts.” To this day it is the most prominent site of reverence for Genghis Khan and his descendants (or rather, it has again become so, following an interlude of Soviet repression). After his death, the Khan’s people came to honor him as a deified ancestor, just as they had understood him to be a great shaman in life, a prophet of Tengri (“The Sky,” the one transcendent God).

This cultic veneration would extend to notable Buddhist hierarchs, such as the first Changkya Khutukhtu, who wrote a prayer to the Khan, as did the seventh Panchen Lama, also producing a sacred portrait of the great conqueror. Holy men of great spiritual attainment seemed to recognize the departed Mongol unifier as a legitimate intercessor involved in humanity’s spiritual edification. Having risen to a place of prominence in the heavenly realms, the conqueror was now a protector of Buddhist Dharma (the moral order).

This post-mortem glorification accompanied the transformation of his very past, even of the story of his birth. Traditional Mongol accounts tell us the future world-ruler’s mother had noticed her newborn’s fist was tightly closed. She timidly opened it and found the tiny fingers clenched around a blood clot, a potentially ill omen. But in their discernment, later Buddhist commentators found this blood clot to have actually been an auspicious, talismanic sigil of rulership. In a similar vein, we may also refer to the surprising production of genealogies in which Genghis Khan is connected to the family of the historical Buddha.  

If this seems like a cynical retelling of history, we should realize that, for certain understandings, history is a function of deeper truths, its events displaying different meanings like images that change depending on the angle of the beholder. To them, the biography of a person may be rewritten “from above,” revealing truths that the initial surface appearance of an event could only pallidly manifest. 

But the Fifth Lama, who we were accompanying on his trip to the Eight White Yurts, had not come to pay abaisance to this sacred storehouse of Mongolian royalty. His was an esoteric mission. He was on his way to speak with the spirit of the Khan, and he would do this at Ejen Khoroo, not only because it provided a particularly direct line of communication with its former lord, but because this city had been the site of a violation of Dharma. 

The Lama had received disturbing reports that the failure to carry out certain traditional Mongolian sheep sacrifices—or, at least, to do so properly—had resulted in deadly reappraisals. It seems the thangka (icon) of Genghis which was kept at Ejen Khoroo was somehow causing people to die. This was the sign of a demonic energy whose taste for blood and influence may lead (and in this case, may have already led) to the establishment of a sacrificial cult. 

The venerable Buddhist patriarch could not suffer such an abomination. If, in death, the greatest of the Mongols had been allowed a place of patronage over the nation he led in life, this had accompanied an oath to defend proper spiritual principles and practices. It now appeared his departed presence might be lapsing into the same violent desires that had tainted his mortal career (at least according to his opponents). 

Neither was this the first time such a thing had been observed. Indeed, there had been warning signs. Prominent divines at the top of Tibet’s clerical hierarchy, namely the third Dalai Lama and the Fifth Panchen Lama, had wanted to ban Mongolian sheep sacrifices, but the soul of the great Khan had apparently vetoed this decision. 

We might fathom a legitimate version of sheep sacrifice, akin to the slaughter of a lamb at the temple of Jerusalem leading to a consecrated meal. From the perspective of Abrahamic religious sensibilities, Mongolian practice might even be understood as balancing ascetical excesses in the Tibetan clergy. But demanding that blood be spilt on pain of spilling it oneself from beyond the grave was an unmistakable sign of spiritual perversion and dangerous preternatural power. Biblical tradition (especially the Book of Enoch) warns that the departed ghosts of giants (and perhaps the Khan was a giant of sorts) may contact the living and ensnare them into rendering blood offerings, providing, as these do, a source of strange nourishment and stimulation to the disincarnate tyrants. 

The Lama had to save the Khan from falling into demonism, as well as the Mongolians from adopting violent shamanism in which ancestor worship and the gaining of favour from spirits takes the place of self-sacrifice and righteousness. 

Finally, he arrived at his destination. Entering into the hollowed precinct, the Tibetan master sat in a deep state of meditation, coming into the astral presence of that East Asian Caesar. We do not know what transpired, what forces or arguments were marshalled, what causes for the Khan’s bloodthirsty behaviour were uncovered and exorcised. We know only that, according to tradition (albeit recent tradition—recall that this all took place in 1652) the Lama’s mission was a success. Genghis recommitted himself to the Dharma. 

The Fifth Dalai Lama, whose name was Ngawang Lobsang Gyatso and who was sometimes referred to as the “Great Fifth,” is extremely historically significant. He was the first Dalai Lama to wield both religious and political power over his country of Tibet. In terms of his mission to the city of Genghis, however, it is important to highlight that the institution of the Dalai Lama was born from the union of Tibetan and Mongolian authority. The first to receive this title had been an abbot who was invited to the court of the “Tümed” Mongols, presided by Altan Khan (one of the Khan’s descendant-states). There, he succeeded in converting its people to Buddhism and, in return, was given the title of “Dalai,” meaning “ocean” in Mongolian, referring to the immensity of his wisdom. In deference to the abbot’s predecessors, the same honorific was bestowed on them posthumously (so that the first man to be called “Dalai Lama” was technically reckoned as the Third). 

Thus, the Dalai Lama’s lineage—so prominent an institution in the unfoldment of Buddhism’s global history, and the very guardians of the spiritual health of Tibet—came about through what some would deem a providential contact with Mongolian power and the descendants of the Khan. This is hugely significant and is one reason why Genghis, the originator of that authority, needed to be converted and aligned with the Buddha’s teachings, even if it meant rescuing him from a purgatorial state. The meeting between the abbot and Altan Khan presents the paradigm for that future meeting between the one’s successor (Fifth Dalai Lama) and the other’s ancestor (Genghis) at Ejen Khoroo, as though time had dilated in both directions, reconciling future developments with deeper roots.  

The notion that history’s positive developments can occur through morally compromised persons, and so can be muddied by negative developments, is a traditional one. To believers in many traditional religions, this idea is connected to the post-mortem purification of an ancestor’s soul (we may think of Catholic accounts of visions concerning prominent figures spending time in purgatory before entering their final beatitude). 

At the level of politics and geopolitics, this is analogous to the redemptive work of scholars who intend to rescue what is good in the past from what is not; to discern the one in spite of the other. Few would argue for the righteousness of every action taken by history’s men of renown, but there is frequently a great deal that is not only salvageable in their project, but even in some ways indispensable to the betterment of the human lot. It is often the conqueror who succeeds in putting an end to depraved practices, disrupting the insularity of local culture and its incestual intellectual environment, and spreading ideas and technologies that contribute to human flourishing. 

Were it not for Alexander the Great, for example—an occidental precursor to the Khan, whose advance would be mirrored many centuries later by the westward sprawl of that Alexander of the east—the world would not have received the civilizational infrastructure that facilitated the Roman empire and, therefore, provided the context for the spread of Christianity. The brute facts of conquest and the original basis upon which it was justified are subject to reappraisal, even inversion, in the light of that which they lead to—of that good which exceeds them even as it is partly manifested through them and undoes some of their legacy (just as medieval Christendom both upheld and undid the concept of Roman imperium). This does not justify the ills of the past. A man may learn certain virtues from growing up poor, but will sooner instill these in his son through discipline than by sending the child off to be destitute. He realizes poverty was in some sense a parody of self-imposed asceticism, but one that can prove providential in one’s life, and through which real virtues can be cultivated if one faces that test with the right attitude. Just so, imperial conquest and hegemony is often a parody of the ecumenic vision. 

From this we may draw the lesson that the past is up for conquering, that it can be converted both in spiritual and scholarly terms. Empirical history and, therefore, the direction of history, should be engaged poetically, and actively conformed to its own deeper principles and a vision of “the good.”

The lesson to be drawn from the spiritual encounter between the Lama and the Khan, then, is universally applicable, and particularly relevant to those wanting to call themselves ‘conservative.’ To conserve is always to choose what is conserved; conservation is always conversion. But our choice should respond to deeper waters and beautiful visions, not to fleeting whims and fashions. 

As for the specifics of how the Mongolian legacy has shaped the west and helped build the modern world, we may explore this in a future essay.

Carlos Perona Calvete is a writer for The European Conservative. He has a background in International Relations and Organizational Behavior, has worked in the field of European project management, and is currently awaiting publication of a book in which he explores the metaphysics of political representation.