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Disrupting the faith? - Interview - Alexander Berzin - Newsweek

George Wehrfritz ()
13 January 1997

Title : Disrupting the faith? - Interview - Alexander Berzin
Author : George Wehrfritz
Publication : Newsweek
Date : January 13, 1997

Mongolian Buddhism barely survived under decades of Stalinist
repression. Now, more than five years after the collapse of the
Soviet Union, Mongolia's religions traditions could be facing
another threat: an invasion of Christian missionaries. Or so says
Alexander Berzin, 52, a prominent American Buddhist and a research
fellow at Columbia University. He recently toured Mongolia to
deliver a series of lectures on the country's ancient faith, a
journey that he says allowed him to witness the impact of foreign
evangelists. Berzin shared his observations with Newsweek's George
Wehrfritz in Beijing. Excerpts:

Wehrfritz : What prompted you latest visit?

Berzin : I was invited by the National State University of Mongolia
to deliver a series of lecture on Buddhism. The background is that
since the fall of the communist regime, there has been a very large
influx of American Christian missionaries to Mongolia from various
denominations. They are exerting tremendous pressure on the
population, particularly the young people, to convert to
Christianity. This is extremely disruptive to the process of trying
to re-establish Mongolia's traditional culture and religion.

How are missionaries disruptive?

For Mongolia to adapt to a new market economy and democracy, it is
very important that people feel self-confident. This sense of
self-worth comes from being rooted in one's own culture. So if you
take away the former Soviet culture, and in addition take away
Mongolia's traditional culture and values, which the missionaries
are trying to undermine, people are left with nothing. they feel
they are not worth-while, that everything they've spent their lives
on is garbage.

How, specially, do missionaries undermine Mongolia's traditional

They come and say that Mongolia's poverty and backwardness are due
to Buddhism. This is simply preposterous when one looks at the
development of Buddhist societies in Southeast Asia, Taiwan, South
Korea, Japan and Hong Kong. But many Mongolians believe it because
they don't have much information about the outside world. Also, the
missionaries come in the guise of English teachers. They print free
Christian literature in colloquial Mongolian and in English, which
attracts language students. They give money, computers to
universities, scholarship to children of influential officials.
They buy their way in. The Buddhists can't compete.

Why not?

They are still trying to re-establish themselves. Their monasteries
were destroyed some 700 during the Stalin period. The communist
government allowed only one Monastery to stay open. Now they have
restarted 155 monasteries. But the old monks who survive are only
able to teach the young monks rituals. They don't have money for
printing or translation to colloquial Mongolian. And then, of
course, they missionaries have parties for young people, with music
and free food-and a heavy hit of proselytizing.

What are they trying to accomplish?

The missionaries sincerely believe that they are saving the souls
of these people and bringing them to heaven. In the long run, they
could destroy Mongolian society.

How might the Buddhist community respond?

There are various steps. I am involved in a project to translate
texts from either Tibetan, English or classical Mongolian into the
colloquial language. The other thing which is being done is that
His Holiness the Dalai Lama has been sending teachers from India to
help re-establish a Buddhist educational system. Mongolia received
its form of Buddhism from Tibet, starting in the 18th century. So
there is a very long relationship.

Another strategy is to send in American Buddhists like yourself,

The missionaries are American, so Mongolian youth get the
impression that their Christian zeal is the backbone on Western
culture. It isn't as effective for Mongolian or Tibetan Buddhist
teachers to challenge this. But as an American, my presence sends
another message; that not every American has this missionary zeal,
that there are many other religions in the United Stated and that
we draw out strength from many factors besides Christianity.

It there a place for Christianity in Mongolia?

I'll give an example. The Dalai Lama and the pope have had a great
deal of contact over the years. One of the things they arranged was
an exchange of monastics. A number of Catholic monks came to
Tibetan Buddhist monasteries in India to learn meditation
techniques, in particular how to improve concentration. Likewise,
the Dalai Lama sent monks to Christian monasteries to study how
they set up orphanages, old-age homes, schools and hospitals. In
Tibet the village and family traditionally tool care of these
things. but in exile in India you don't have the structure anymore,
so monasteries need to do this. The Christian become Buddhists, nor
did the Buddhist monks become Christians. But they were able to
learn from each other to enhance their own religions and societies.
This type of exchange on the basis of mutual respect has a place in

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