WHO WAS NOYON KHUTAGT DANZANRAVJAA?
Danzanravjaa’s Mission to Shambhala
About 200 years ago an extraordinary man, whose totem animal was the scorpion, devoted his life to restoring Shambhala and liberating people from pain and suffering. At that time, the Manchu Qing rule had been wielding divisive politics to weaken Mongolia’s relations and exerting pressure in the form of religious and monetary constraints repressing Mongols for over two centuries. Dulduityn Danzanravjaa created knowledgeable communities, built monasteries, libraries, schools, museums, and a theater to empower ordinary people of the Gobi. He was a composer, a playwright, and an author of some 500 poems and songs in Mongolian, Tibetan and Sanskrit. He was a healer and a teacher who circulated Buddhist wisdom in comprehensible and memorable verse. He was also a visionary who foresaw that the changes in the coming 20th century would cast a heavy burden on many people including those on a mission to enlightenment.
The Mongolian word “khutagt,” originating from Sanskrit “arya” and Tibetan “phagpa,” is a title given to persons whose spirits have “transcended the ordinary life” and have attained freedom from worldly attachments. According to Buddhist tradition, they reincarnate into this life to awaken individuals to enlightenment. They are creators who were born to give to instead of take from this world. Their talents and abilities are often revealed at a young age. (P. Badral, 1)
As for Noyon Khutagt Danzanravjaa, it was determined that he knew something about the mysterious ways of the world when at the age of six or seven he spontaneously recited his poem on the inevitability of death regardless of social status or age to an audience of wealthy Gobi nobles in 1810.
The Wisdom of the Scorpion
Spirits live in every animate and inanimate parts of nature. According to Mongolian tradition, the scorpion belongs to the realm of the Water spirits. The scorpion is a nocturnal animal whose ancestors inhabited the waters of the Earth some 430 million years ago. To this day, the fossils of ancient 2.5-meter-long sea scorpions reflect a mysterious fluorescent glow. In the Gobi Desert, the scorpion is feared and respected for its reminder of the truth. The truth that the soul knows – the truth that endures time-bound beliefs, ambitions, and judgements – the truth that says, the only constant in life is change.
Like his totem animal, Danzanravjaa taught the lasting truth that the soul knows, to help people understand that freedom and peace were attainable in their lifetime. In his poems and songs, he often refers to the Buddhist principle of Shunyata. In Mongolian it is known as “khooson chanar,” emptiness that constitutes ultimate reality. It is the quality of no-mind, no-thing. Danzanravjaa’s famous song, “Ulemjiin Chanar” (The Quality of Perfection), is about this principle, and not just about romantic love as some people mistakenly believe. (N. Enkhbayar in Д. Равжаа Судлалын Тойм, Vol. 2., 119) This song is about the idea that what makes up the soul also makes up the universe, so that the soul exists in relation to the world it exists in. Therefore, so long as the universe exists, the soul will continue to exist because both are one and no-thing at the same time.
Truth and Death
Danzanravjaa’s first known poem recited in 1810 to wealthy Gobi nobles referred to the idea that worldly desires of gaining power, money and fame are ultimately superfluous because they instill fear, greed and envy in others. What matters is living mindfully, compassionately, purposefully. Filling others’ memories of us with gratitude for having known us in their life. Buddhists believe, this will help the soul in its rebirth.
In 1781, Immanuel Kant wrote in the Critique of Pure Reason, “we may adduce the transcendental hypothesis that all life is properly intelligible, and not subject to changes of time, and that it neither began in birth, nor will end in death. We may assume […] that if we could intuite ourselves and other things as they really are, we should see ourselves in a world of spiritual natures, our connection with which did not begin at our birth and will not cease with the destruction of the body. […] This hypothetical procedure is in perfect conformity with the laws of reason.” (I. Kant, Chp. 1, Section 3)
What Kant referred to is similar to the philosophy of major religious traditions originating from the great Indian cultures. They too suggest that the soul is infinite, that there is a universal intelligence, which human reason is part of, and by which cycles of life, death and rebirth abide. Buddhism explains that we experience suffering because we struggle to die unto the self that faces a fundamental challenge.
Our dissatisfaction with life arises from our own desire to control the impermanent quality of the universe while having forgotten that we too are part of its impermanence. Death walks next to every sentient being. Rebirth to a new outlook on reality is painful. But once we accept it, we could be relieved of our suffering as death becomes the pathway to enlightenment. If we could understand that all one needs to do is accept things as they are, then liberation will come naturally from the recognition of this truth. Nirvana, therefore, can be attained by living in harmony with the truth of death.
Preservation of Danzanravjaa’s Legacy
Shortly before he died in 1856, Danzanravjaa appointed one of his trusted students, Balchinchoijoo, to take care of his valuables, manuscripts, and creations. Balchinchoijoo was instructed that the heir to this role as a guardian (takhilch) would be born with a distinguishing birthmark. Danzanravjaa knew that a time was approaching when people may be persecuted for mentioning his name, let alone his legacy. He foresaw that his work may be displayed later in a museum where future generations could remember him. Five generations of takhilch after Balchinchoijoo had meticulously preserved the treasure trove bequeathed by Danzanravjaa in 1500 large wooden trunk chests.
The treasures were kept safe in a monastery until the Great Repression when Buddhist monasteries throughout the country were set on fire. In 1938, the seventh takhilch, G. Tudev, was able to save 64 chests. He moved them out in the middle of the night by himself and buried them in secret locations. During the communist era Takhilch Tudev became a carrier of goods by caravan and memorized passages from Lenin and Stalin’s books so as not to raise any suspicion. Secretly, he trained his grandson Z.Altangerel, who was born with the distinguished birthmark, to care for the remaining hidden treasures. After the 1990 revolution, Takhilch Altangerel dedicated his career to rehabilitating Danzanravjaa’s legacy, rebuilding his monasteries and reopening Danzanravjaa’s museum.
In 2006, UNESCO celebrated the 150th anniversary of the death of Danzanravjaa. Their official statement read, “A Buddhist thinker with many talents, ranging from music to architecture and philosophy to the theater, Danzanravjaa Dulduitiin exerted an important influence on thought and culture, well beyond the borders of Mongolia. His vast body of work is now being rediscovered with the renewal of traditional Mongolian culture.” (UNESCO, 24)
In the late 1950’s, famous Mongolian writer, Ts. Damdinsuren, participated in the unearthing of the treasure chest that happened to contain the theatrical costumes from Danzanravjaa’s opera. Thus, Damdinsuren pioneered Danzanravjaa studies. Cautiously, so as not to upset the authorities, the tone in early significant Danzanravjaa research by Mongolian scholars usually criticizes the luminary’s “feudal” and “outdated” views.
In recent years, considerable scholarship and analyses have been devoted to Danzanravjaa’s poetry and literature. However, some popular interpretations of his philosophy, especially on meditation and love, risk being too literal or one-sided. (L. Khurelbaatar in Д. Равжаа Судлалын Тойм, Vol. 2, 53) This further exacerbates the public confusion of his philosophy with the negative stereotypes initiated by Danzanravjaa’s ideological rivals. Still, much research needs to be done on his work as a composer, painter, sculptor, architect, playwright, pedagogue, Buddhist, philosopher, healer, astronomer, biologist, geographer.
Today, schools and publications freely cite Danzanravjaa’s unique legacy. We may never know what was in the 1436 treasure chests that were lost to the Great Repression. But thanks to the 64 existing treasures, we have only begun to understand the scope of Danzanravjaa’s life, his mission and work.
We may not fully comprehend the reality in which souls in afterlife or the kingdom of Shambhala exist. But we know of a remarkable man who knew that they exist. He created many wonders because he lived for the purpose of awakening ordinary people to that reality. He sang prayers for the compassion and reverence of all of Nature’s sentient beings. The truth that Danzanravjaa knew will continue to resonate in people’s minds and spirits like the lights of a supernova that travel for hundreds and thousands of years.
By Ariunaa Jargalsaikhan
Published in UB Post on January 11, 2021
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2) G. Tsedevdorj. Д. Равжаа Судлалын Тойм, Vol. 2. Ulaanbaatar: Bambie San, 2014.
3) Kant, I. Critique of Pure Reason. Book II. Transcendental Doctrine of Method. Translated by J.M.D.Meiklejohn. Project Gutenberg, 2003.
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5) UNESCO. Celebration of Anniversaries with which UNESCO will be associated in 2006-2007. Paris: UNESCO, 2006.
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