The Boy Who Is the Bogd

The Boy Who Is the Bogd October 9, 2023

Very old history has a way of keeping its grip on current events. Now some very old history has thrust an eight-year-old boy into an international conflict of global concern. The boy is known as A. Altannar, and he has been identified as the tenth tulku, or rebirth, of the Bogd, the spiritual leader of Mongolia. This puts the child at the center of long contention among China, Mongolia, Tibet, and leaders of Tibetan Buddhism. It could have implications regarding China’s claims on Taiwan. And it might also have put the boy himself  in great danger.

A Altannar is one of a pair of identical twins named Achildai Altannar and Agudai Altannar, who are rarely seen in public without each other. Because of security concerns, the precise identity of the tulku remains secret. Only a few know which twin, Achildai or Agudai, is the Tenth Jetsun Dampa, or more formally the Tenth Jebtsundamba Khutuktu, the highest ranking Buddhist lama of Mongolia. He is also called the Bogd, a Mongolian word that means “saint” or “holy.” The Bogd is a lama of the Geluk school of Tibetan Buddhism, which is the same school as the Dalai Lama. This past March the new Bogd was publicly introduced for the first time in a ceremony in India conducted by His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama.

And this puts the twins, and the government of Mongolia, at odds with China. China has awarded itself the authority to name all high lamas of Tibetan Buddhism and had not given approval for the naming of a new Bogd. Beijing can be ruthless in enforcing this authority. In 1995, six-year-old Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, the newly identified Eleventh Panchen Lama, and all of his family were taken into custody by Chinese authorities. They have not been seen since. Officially they are still “detained,” but one does suspect they were all killed. Later in 1995 Beijing declared that another child, the son of a loyal Chinese Communist Party member, was the real Eleventh Panchen Lama. That child, now 33 years old, serves as the face of Tibetan Buddhism in Chinese media.

As with all things involving Tibetan Buddhism and the government of China, the current situation with the Bogd is endlessly convoluted. I will try to explain it as simply as I can. Also note that no two sources spell Tibetan and Mongolian names and titles the same way. “Jetsun Dampa” is a simplified spelling I found in a history of Tibet, and I’m sticking to it.

About the Bogd and Mongolian Buddhism

Buddhism in Mongolia has been associated with the Geluk school, and the succession of Dalai Lamas, since the time of the Third Dalai Lama, Sonam Gyatso (1543-1588). The Third Dalai Lama was invited to Mongolia by Altan Khan, a descendant of Kublai Khan. This began a relationship between the people of Mongolia and the Dalai Lamas that continues to this day; see “The First Dalai Lama” for more background. (The Third Dalai Lama was, in fact, the first living person called “Dalai Lama.”)

The first Jetsun Dampa, Zanabazar (1635–1723), was identified as the rebirth of a renowned Tibetan Buddhist scholar named Taranatha, who had died in 1634. Zanabazar came from Mongolian nobility and was a descendant of Genghis Khan, as was the next Jetsun Dampa. In the 18th century a Manchu campaign against a large Mongol-ruled area called the Zunghar Khanate was followed by a Mongol rebellion against the incursion of Chinese authority, which mostly failed, although the effort is fondly remembered by Mongolians.  One of the results  of this episode was that the Qing Emperor of China declared that all future Jetsun Dampas must be born in Tibet. (Yes, I am leaving a lot out. As I already said, this history is endlessly convoluted.)

Outer Mongolia declared independence from the then-crumbling Qing Dynasty in 1911. The Eighth Jetsun Dampa (1869–1924) became the new head of state for Outer Mongolia with the title Bogd Khan. His government was called the Bogd Khanate. (Note that the Eighth Jetsun Dampa has appeared in this space before. In 1904 the Thirteenth Dalai Lama, in advance of an invasion of British troops,  fled Lhasa to spend two years in Mongolia with the Jetsun Dampa. See “Tibet’s Declaration of Independence and the Thirteenth Dalai Lama” for more background.)

Change in the Twentieth Century

After the Bogd Khan died in 1924 his theocracy was replaced by a Communist government that declared there would be no more reincarnations of the Jetsun Dampa. But obviously this was not the end of the lineage of Jetsun Dampas. A Tibetan boy named  Jampal Namdol, born in 1932, was identified as the Ninth Jetsun Dampa. His identity was kept secret to all but the highest echelons of the Geluk school to avoid causing trouble with Mongolia. Jampal Namdol fled Chinese-occupied Tibet for India in 1959, as did the Fourteenth Dalai Lama. In 1990, after the government of Mongolia had begun democratic reforms, Jampal Namdol’s identity as the Jetsun Dampa finally was revealed. He died in March 2012.

And this takes us to the search for the Tenth Jetsun Dampa. Accounts I have found in news stories vary a tad, but it appears that about seven years ago some Mongolian toddlers identified by Geluk lamas as potential candidates were summoned to a monastery in the Mongolian capital of Ulaanbaatar. Among the toddlers were the Altannar twins. The children were taken to a table strewn with religious objects and candy. Most of the boys went for the candy. But one of the twins instead reached for prayer beads and a ceremonial bell, and then he climbed onto the lap of a nearby monk. The beads and bell had belonged to the Ninth Jetsun Dampa, and the monk had been the Jetsun Dampa’s assistant.

There was a complication. The Altannar parents are wealthy and prominent business owners and educated in the U.S. They went along with the test, but when informed one of their sons had been chosen, they rebelled and said no. Surely another boy could be found. The mother even wrote a letter to UNICEF complaining that reincarnation had robbed one of her sons of his rights. But the Dalai Lama said the choice was the choice. Eventually the parents decided they would allow their son to be tutored by monks to prepare for his future role, but he also had to continue his regular education. And they insisted that the boy be allowed to decide for himself, when he turns 18, whther to accept the role of Jetsun Dampa or not.

The Political Fallout

There has also been criticism of the choice in Mongolian news media. Choosing a boy from such an elite family did not sit well with many Mongolians. We’ll have to wait to see how that turns out. But now let’s go back to the situation with China.

In 2007 China’s State Administration of Religious Affairs released Order No. 5, which covers “the management measures for the reincarnation of living Buddhas in Tibetan Buddhism.” The order describes the procedures necessary for recognition as a tulku. Applicants for reincarnation must apply to various parts of the bureaucracy of the People’s Republic of China to be approved and recognized.  The fact that a tulku is not residing in China doesn’t necessarily change the rules. James A. Millward, professor of history in the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University, writes for Foreign Affairs (“China’s Reincarnation Monopoly Has a Mongolia Problem,” April 23, 2023) that the Chinese Communist Party considers all territory once controlled by the Qing Dynasty to be part of the People’s Republic of China. That would include Mongolia, and it also is the basis for China’s claim to Taiwan. And Beijing is very serious about this. Recognition of a Mongolian Jetsun Dampa without Beijing’s approval could be interpreted by Beijing as a provocation. James Millward continues,

“How Beijing reacts to the new Jebtsundamba—a high lama in a religion it claims to control—thus implicates Beijing’s theory of the case regarding Taiwan, as well. If Beijing says there can be no Mongolian high lama without its say-so, that reveals the ludicrous overreach of its policy toward Tibetan Buddhism. But if it says nothing while a Qing-era lineage of tulku-leaders continues autonomously in Mongolia, that reminds us that the PRC is not the full-blown reincarnation of the Qing that it says it is.” And the world is watching.


Begtse, an iconic dharmapala (dharma protector) of Mongolian Buddhism. Source: Wikimedia Commons, public domain.
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