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A Monastery in Time

The Making of Mongolian Buddhism

A Monastery in Time is the first book to describe the life of a Mongolian Buddhist monastery—the Mergen Monastery in Inner Mongolia—from inside its walls. From the Qing occupation of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries through the Cultural Revolution, Caroline Humphrey and Hürelbaatar Ujeed tell a story of religious formation, suppression, and survival over a history that spans three centuries.
Often overlooked in Buddhist studies, Mongolian Buddhism is an impressively self-sustaining tradition whose founding lama, the Third Mergen Gegen, transformed Tibetan Buddhism into an authentic counterpart using the Mongolian language. Drawing on fifteen years of fieldwork, Humphrey and Ujeed show how lamas have struggled to keep Mergen Gegen’s vision alive through tremendous political upheaval, and how such upheaval has inextricably fastened politics to religion for many of today’s practicing monks. Exploring the various ways Mongolian Buddhists have attempted to link the past, present, and future, Humphrey and Ujeed offer a compelling study of the interplay between the individual and the state, tradition and history.

440 pages | 6 halftones, 2 maps | 6 x 9 | © 2013

Anthropology: Cultural and Social Anthropology

Asian Studies: General Asian Studies

Religion: South and East Asian Religions


“Taking as its focus the Mergen Monastery of Inner Mongolia and its penumbra of tradition(s) that have developed over the course of 250 years, this anthropological study built on fifteen years of fieldwork is a theoretical tour-de-force excavating how religions develop, become institutionalized, and transform across both time and space.” 

Johan Elverskog | Religious Studies Review

“Humphrey and Ujeed’s captivating anthropological study of the Mergen Monastery and its tradition is a result of extensive and collaborative fieldwork located in the south-western region of Inner Mongolia, commonly known as Urad. It is an important contribution to Mongolian and Buddhist studies and is especially timely given the growing interest in Mongolian Buddhism. One of the merits of this book is the authors’ ability to integrate the anthropological method and perspective with historical and archaeological data and textual evidence. The project is multilayered and covers two temporal frameworks: a historical one that concerns the formation, renaissance, tribulations, demise, and revival of the Mergen tradition from the early eighteenth century to the present, and the one that covers nearly seventeen years of the authors’ field research. The book provides an excellent exploration of the socio-historical, economic, and religious underpinnings of the Mergen lineage of reincarnations, a nuanced discussion of the religious life of Mergen Monastery, its religious and political roles under the Qing, and the importance of the monastery in creating and maintaining Mongolian-language-based Buddhism.”

Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies

“This is a unique documentation of a unique sacred place, including its development, suppression by the Chinese, and subsequent revival in recent times. The authors provide an exemplary historical and ethnographic study of a sacred place, Buddhism, and Mongolia. . . . Highly recommended.” 

L. E. Stonsel | Choice

A Monastery in Time is a tremendously original product of almost fifteen years of painstaking scholarship. Caroline Humphrey and Hürelbaatar Ujeed combine an ethnography of a particular site, the Mergen monastery in Inner Mongolia, with a theoretically informed description of what a tradition—the Mongolian Buddhist tradition or any tradition—actually is. The results are impressive both for the theory and for the ethnography of an important but little-known religious community.”

Christopher P. Atwood, Indiana University

“This is a vital addition to our understanding of the rich interweaving of Tibetan and Mongolian Buddhism, taking place in a land where religion and politics have, for better or worse, undergone almost perpetual revolution. Caroline Humphrey and Hürelbaatar Ujeed’s ethnography of the Mergen monastery combines a deep sense of Inner Mongolia’s turbulent history—from the rise and fall of the Qing dynasty to the terrors of the Cultural Revolution to the labyrinthine regulations of the modern moment—with a nuanced portrait of the individual religious meanings, the personal struggles, and the everyday institutional strategies that make up that history.”

Martin Mills, University of Aberdeen

“During the past two decades, an impressive body of scholarship has emerged concerning the revival of religious life in China following the Cultural Revolution, a particular focus of which has been renewal among China’s minority peoples, including Tibetan Buddhists. Relatively little has appeared, however, in respect to the cognate Buddhist traditions of Inner Mongolia. This gap now begins to be filled, and masterfully so, in A Monastery in Time by Caroline Humphrey and Hürelbaatar Ujeed. The great strength of this work is found in its unusual blend of exacting observation of contemporary events with the depth born of thorough historical research, and further with the insights of recent work in the social sciences and Buddhist Studies. I recommend A Monastery in Time highly, both for its substantive contribution to our knowledge and for its theoretical savvy.”

Matthew T. Kapstein | École Pratique des Hautes Études and The University of Chicago

“A lively product of extensive field research in Inner Mongolia, this book brings to light how the Mergen monastery propagated Mongol versions of Buddhist texts and rituals among lay populations in the mid-eighteenth century. Drawing on a variety of untapped local sources, Caroline Humphrey and Hürelbataar Ujeed offer a refreshing view on the Mongol reappropriation of Buddhism in everyday life—an indispensable anthropological reading that illuminates previous studies based on official sources.”

Roberte Hamayon, École Pratique des Hautes Études

Table of Contents

Acknowledgments and a Note on the Writing of this Book


1. Buddhist Life at Mergen
2. Mergen Gegen and the Arts of Language
3. Mergen Monastery and Its Landscape
4. Duke Galdan, Perspectives on the Self in the Qing Era
5. Sülde: The “Spirit of Invincibility,” Its Multiplicity and Its Secrets
6. The Afterlife of the 8th Mergen Gegen
7. Sengge: A Lama’s Knowledge and Its Vicissitudes
8. The Chorji Lama: Inheriting from the Past in a New World
9. Regroupings of Laity
10. Tradition and Archivization

Epilogue: Dispersion and Creation



Association for Asian Studies: E. Gene Smith Book Prize
Honorable Mention

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