Several traditional Tibeto-Mongolian accounts credit Chingis Khan (1162–1227), founder of the Mongol Empire, with the introduction of Buddhism into what is now the country of Mongolia. The 17th century Jewel Translucent Sutra, a biography of Altan Khan, the Mongolian chieftain converted to Buddhism by the Tibetan Sonam Gyatso, the 3rd Dalai Lama, states:
Temüjin became famous as the Genius Chinggis Khan . . .The son of Könchok Gyelpo, who in 1173 founded Sakya Monastery in Tibet, Kunga Nyinpgo (1092–1158) was a noted scholar and meditator who gave the name of “Sakya” to the new sect which developed around the monastery founded by his father.
And invited Kunnga Nyingpo the Supreme Sakya Lama.
He [Chingis] was the first to propagate the Buddha’s religion.
The Rosary of White Lotuses, a nineteenth-century history of the introduction of Buddhism into Mongolia, maintains, however, that Chingis sent this invitation, along with gifts, not to Kunga Nyinpgo but to a another lama at Sakya Monastery, Kunga Gyalten (1182–1251), who would become better known as the Sakya Pandita. The letter of invitation supposedly stated,
“I have not finished the wars of my reign yet, but as soon as these are over, please come to Hor [Mongolia] with your disciples and spread the Teachings of the Lord Buddha. . . In these boundless crude wastes of the north the Buddha’s teachings should make their long-delayed appearance.”Dharmatala, the author of the Rosary of White Lotuses, adds, “Although he [Chingis] never met the lama himself, the Holy One acted as a Preceptor even from a distance, in the Preceptor-Protector bond. In this way, [Chingis] became the first Protector of the Teachings in Hor [Mongolia].” This was obviously an attempt to portray Chingis and one of the Sakya lamas as the progenitors of the Preceptor-Protector (or Priest-Patron) concept which later became a standard feature of first Mongol-Tibetan and eventually Qing Dynasty-Tibetan relations. The author of the Rosary of White Lotuses also asserts that Chingis was a emanation of the bodhisattva Vajrapani (himself a form of the Indian god Vishnu, the Destroyer), and also the “Great Turner of the Wheel of Power.” This latter phrase seems to suggest that the author viewed Chingis as a Chakravartin King, a ruler who combined propagating Buddhism (turning the wheel of dharma) with political power. As we shall, see, later lamas of the Sakya sect would develop this religio-political theory of a Chakravartin kingship and apply it to various of Chingis’s successors.
Despite these claims in traditional Tibeto-Mongolian accounts, however, there is little real evidence of any attempts by Chingis to propagate Buddhism and none that he became a Buddhist himself. Most modern-day historians dismiss these early contacts between Chingis and Buddhism as “historical fabrications”; one Tibetologist, Helmut Hoffman, dismisses Chingis’s letter to Sakya Pandita as “probably a pious invention.”
Chingis was remarkably broad-minded where religion was concerned, and might well have been the first ruler of an empire to espouse freedom of religion as a state policy. His youngest and possibly favorite son Tolui famously married a Nestorian Christian, and he himself showed considerable interest in Daoism, as witnessed by his well-known contacts with the Daoist priest Qiu Chuji, who traveled the whole way from China to the Hindu Kush Mountains in what is now probably Afghanistan to met the Mongolian ruler when he was there on a military campaign. His main interest in Daoism, however, was the belief that its priests possessed an elixir of eternal life; when this turned out to be not the case his personal interest faded, although he did grant Qiu Chuji control over all religious affairs in the conquered parts of northern China (the Temple of the White Clouds, patronized by Qiu Chuji, functions to this day in Bejing).
Chingis was certainly aware of Buddhism. He would have encountered Tibetan Buddhism first-hand no later than 1205 when he invaded the state of Xi Xia, in what is now the Chinese provinces of Gansu, Ningsia, and Inner Mongolia. The Xi Xia people, also known as Tanguts, were ethnically and culturally related to Tibetans, and spoke a language similar to Tibetan. In 1038 the Tangut ruler Yuanhao founded the Xi Xia Dynasty which was to exist coterminously with Liao and Jin dynasties in China proper. Xi Xia straddled the Silk Road and was thus exposed to various beliefs from both East and West, including Confucianism, Daoism, Manichaeanism, Nestorian Christianity, and Islam.
Buddhism was practiced in its Uighur, Chinese, and Tibetan forms, but ultimately Tibetan Buddhism became most prevalent in Xi Xia. The arrival of the Bengal sage Atisha in Tibet itself in 1042 signaled a renewed fluorescence of Buddhism and the end to the almost 200 year long spiritual dark-age which had followed the suppression of Buddhism in Tibet the King Langdharma, a supporter of the Bön religion, in the ninth century. As F. W. Mote points out “The eleventh century was a time of deep ferment and religious revival in Tibet; many learned monks fired with zeal for reform of their church spread out into neighboring parts of Inner Asia to teach the purified doctrines.” Some of these monks ended up in Xi Xia, where Tibetan Buddhism soon attracted many followers. As a semi-nomadic people themselves the Xi Xia had the greatest affinity for this form of Buddhism which had developed among the semi-nomadic people of Tibet. Tibetan Buddhism, with its Indian roots, may also have appealed to the Xi Xia leadership as a counterweight to the overwise overpowering influence of the Sinitic culture to the east. Thus it was Tibetan Buddhism which eventually became the dominant teaching in the Xi Xia realm.
I popped down to Beijing and winged westward 600 miles to Yinchuan, the capital of ancient Xi Xia and now the capital of Ningxia Province. My first stop was at the Ningxia Provincial Museum. Here on display was a replica of the Gangtong Stupa, dating from 1094, which gives a very detailed account of Buddhism in Xi Xia.
An example of Xi Xia writing, which may appear at first glance to be Chinese but is actually quite different.
A statue from the Xi Xia tombs outside Xinchuan; although Indian, Uighur, and Chinese forms of Buddhism were all found in Xi Xia, Tibetan Buddhism, as indicated by this statue, became the most prevalent.