Haipeng Hu

Buddhism in the Mongols Empire


As one of the most important components of human society, religion is an unavoidable topic when we explore history. Therefore, undoubtedly, if we want to explore the influence of the Mongols Empire, the largest empire in human history, we cannot ignore its contribution in the spread of religion. Prior to Genghis Khan beginning the expansion of the Mongols Empire, the dominant religious system among the Mongols was Shamanism. In Shamanism, the tribes would elect a shaman to help the Mongols connect to the spiritual world. However, after the basic frame of the Mongol Empire formed, the cultural communication and cultural fusion converted many Mongols, even the rulers, to the world religion, such as Buddhism, Islam, and Christians. In comparison to the other two religions, Buddhism stood out more clearly than the other two in the Mongols Empire era, because it was once promoted by the the first emperor of Yuan China, Kublai Khan, and it was also spread to the Middle East, Ilkhanate, under the rule of Ilkhan Hulegu.

Origin and Nature of Buddhism:

In order to understand why was Buddhism preferred by the Mongols, learning about the origin and nature of Buddhism is important. In Marco Polo’s book, The Description of the World, when Marco Polo traveled to the island of Ceylon, also known as Sri Lanka in today’s world, he described the story of the Buddhism founder, Sergamoni Borcan[1]. Sergamoni was the son of a powerful and wealthy king, but he didn’t like any “worldly” things and he didn’t want to inherit his father’s position. Although the king promised Sergamoni that if he took the crown, he could rule the kingdom in any way he wanted, Sergamoni refused to rule over anything. Therefore, the king decided to put Sergamoni into a beautiful palace and assigned 3000 maids to serve him, because the king believed that the taste of power could take Sergamoni back to the earthly things, but this method didn’t work out neither. However, as a well-protected man, Sergamoni had never seen any death men nor old men. There was a time, when Sergamoni left the palace and walked on the street, he saw a dead man’s body was placed on the street, so he asked his servant what was that, and his servant told him that was a dead man. Then Sergamoni saw a toothless old man, so he asked the servant again what was that, then the servant told him that was an old man. Sergamoni was shocked by the fact that all men would get old, so he decided to leave the palace and went to a faraway mountain to live a simple and abstinent life until he died, because he wanted to find a world that doesn’t have death and pain. People said that after of each of his death, he would become a new animal to live a new life. After Sergamoni’s 84th death, he became a god, and people honored him as Buddha.
In comparison to Christianity and Islam, Buddhism has decisive advantage that made it more acceptable for the Mongols. In Christianity and Islam, people believe in a god, but in Buddhism, Buddha is actually considered as an extraordinary person that reached enlightenment[2], so people practice Buddhism because they want to reach the similar stage of life, instead of believing Buddha as a god. Therefore, strictly speaking, Buddhism can be considered as a “spiritual tradition”[3] that encourages people to live in a decent way. This nature of Buddhism is similar to the nature of Shamanism, which was the religion that was mainly practiced by nomadic Mongols people. In Shamanism, people would choose a person as Shaman who can contact the “spiritual world”. Shamanists don’t believe in any god, instead they believe in the concept of a spiritual world, which is similar to the belief in Buddhism, therefore Mongols people were able to convert themselves to Buddhism easily.

Buddhism in Yuan China

Prior to Genghis Khan conquered Song China, Buddhism had already been adapted into Chinese culture. Under the influence of local Taoism, the two religions adapted characteristics from each other to gain more influence in China[4]. Finally, Zen Buddhism, a unique school of Buddhism, was formed in China. However, after Kublai Khan constructed Yuan China, Zen Buddhism wasn’t adopted by Kublai Khan. Instead, Tibet Buddhism was made the official religion of Yuan China, which is also known as Lamaism[5]. Why Lamaism? According to David Morgan, the author of The Mongols, Kublai Khan selected Lamaism because it contained lots of elements from the pre-Buddhist religion of Bon, which shared many similarities with Shamanism, therefore Lamaism was more attractive to those of a Shamanist background. With the enthusiasm toward Lamaism, Kublai Khan sponsored to print the translation documents of Buddhism to promote the religion[6]. In a short period after Lamaism was introduced into China, the Taoists in China got persecution and some religious documents were destroyed in the 1250s[7]. Fortunately, in consideration of the stability of the country’s economics and politics, later Yuan emperors abandoned the attacks on other religions.

Phags-pa Lama

In terms of the development of Lamaism in Yuan China, Tibetan monk Phags-pa Lama is a person that cannot be ignored. Phags-pa was the most influential Tibetan figure in Yuan China era[8], and his contributions could be demonstrated in two perspectives: he provided the Yuan emperors with a pseudo-historical legitimation in Buddhist terms by incorporating them into the line of Buddhism universal emperors and he produced a Buddhist religio-political theory[9]. Under Phags-pa’s promotion of Lamaism, Kublai Khan converted to Lamaist and made Lamaism the official religion of Yuan China. In addition, Phags-pa also contributed to Mongolian writing system[10]. Kublai Khan required Phags-pa to invent a new alphabet for the writing of Mongolian to replace the previous Uyghur script applied by Genghis Khan. After Phags-pa developed the alphabet, Kublai Khan declared the Phags-pa script was the official Mongolian writing system, so all government documents should be written in Phags-pa script. However, this writing system didn’t replace the Uyghur script. Currently, Uyghur script is still used among the Mongols living in Inner Mongolia, China, while Phags-pa script can only be seen in the remaining documents from the Yuan dynasty.

Ilkhanid Buddhism

Among the four Khanates of the Mongols Empire, Buddhism was important in two Khanates. Besides Yuan China, Buddhism also played an important role in Ilkhanate. Nestorian Christianity, Western Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Tibetan Buddhism (Lamaism), Taoism, and Confucianism were all practiced in Mongol-controlled territories[11]. As long as the belief wouldn’t threaten the Mongols rulers, people can pursue their religions as they previously did, but Ilkhanid was an exception. Ilkhanid locates in the Middle East region, so it is traditionally a region that is mainly composed of Muslim and some Christians[12], but under the rule of the Mongols Empire, Ilkhanid Buddhism had a “paradoxical existence”. Ilkhanid Buddhism is not a school of Buddhism, instead it was more like a cultural and political phenomenon that offered the Ilkhanid court advice on governance, medical treatments, agriculture, and others[13]. Ilkhanid Buddhism could form because Ilkhanid court at the time needed “an effective ideology that might balance competing theological interest groups “. With the familiarity of Buddhism, Arghun and other Ilkhan selected Buddhism to assist their governance based on the teaching of Dharma[14].
Hulegu, the founder of Ilkhanid Khanate, contacted Kashmiri Buddhism in his early career, which later become the foundation of Illkhanid Buddhism. Kashmir is located in the region between Tibet and India, so it was geographically closed to the location of Ilkhanid[15]. In order to promote Buddhism in Ilkhanid, Hulegu decided to utilize the resources from Tabriz to construct temples and construct Buddhist communities. Tabriz was a trading center in the Middle East, which connected East Asia market and Europe market[16]. Merchants from different countries would gather in Tabriz to do business. According to estimation, the Ilkhanid court advanced at least half of its wealth to make gold and silver Buddhism artworks at the Middle East region and employed monks from Kashmir region to construct Buddhist communities[17]. Under the constant investment from the Ilkhanid court, Buddhist communities got well developed. Similar to Muslim merchants, Buddhist communities historically sustained extensive fiscal and commercial networks, so the newly constructed Buddhist communities, which contained craftsman, artists, and minks, naturally attracted more merchants than the traditional Muslim communities in Ilkhanate[18].
Although Ilkhanid Buddhism failed as the Ilkhanid dynast failed in the 1300s, the import of Buddhism in the Middle East region undoubtedly changed or improved local political and cultural perspectives.


For the Mongols Empire, Buddhism served more than a religion because it also provided political and cultural guideline to the Mongols Rulers. Although Buddhism was mainly developed in Yuan China, the influence of Buddhism on the Mongols lasted for a long term. In the modern history, Mongolia fully banned Lamas’ privilege in the 1900s as the People’s Republic of Mongolia constructed. Accordingly, we can see the long-lasting effect of Buddhism on the Mongols. In addition, the cross-continental transportation of Buddhism also transported many technology and goods to places that had not reached.


[1]Polo, Marco, The Description of The World, Chapter 178

[2]History.com, Buddhism

[3]History.com, Buddhism

[4]Foy, Geoff, Buddhism in China

[5]Morgan, David, The Mongols, p.109

[6]Jackson, Peter, Pax Mongolica, p.236

[7]Cartwright, Mark, Religion in the Mongol Empire

[8]Cartwright, Mark, Religion in the Mongol Empire

[9]Morgan, David, The Mongols, p.110

[10]Morgan, David, The Mongols, p.111

[11]Cartwright, Mark, Religion in the Mongol Empire

[12]Polo, Marco, The Description of The World, Chapter 26

[13]Prezniak, Roxann, Ilkhanid Buddhism: Traces of a Passage in Eurasian History, p. 651

[14]Jackson, Peter. Pax Mongolica, P.237

[15]Encyclopaedia Britannica, Kashmir

[16]]Prezniak, Roxann, Ilkhanid Buddhism: Traces of a Passage in Eurasian History, p. 658

[17]J]Prezniak, Roxann, Ilkhanid Buddhism: Traces of a Passage in Eurasian History, p. 659

[18]]Prezniak, Roxann, Ilkhanid Buddhism: Traces of a Passage in Eurasian History, p. 659


Buddhism, History.com, HISTORY, https://www.history.com/topics/religion/buddhism

Cartwright, Mark, Religion in the Mongol Empire, Ancient History Encyclopedia, 2019.

Foy, Geoff, Buddhism in China, Asia Society, 2018.

Jackson, Peter. “The Mongols and the Islamic World.” Chapter: PAX MONGOLICA AND A TRANSCONTINENTAL TRAFFIC.

Morgan, David. The Mongols. Blackwell, 2008.

OLSCHKI, LEONARDO. “Manichaeism, Buddhism and Christianity in Marco Polo’s China.” Asiatische Studien = Études Asiatiques, vol. 5, 1951, pp. 1. ProQuest, http://proxy.library.nyu.edu/login?url=https://www-proquest-com.proxy.library.nyu.edu/scholarly-journals/manichaeism-buddhism-christianity-marco-polos/docview/1303228460/se-2?accountid=12768.

Polo, Marco, et al. The Description of the World. Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 2016.

Prazniak, Roxann. “Ilkhanid Buddhism: Traces of a Passage in Eurasian History.” Comparative Studies in Society and History, vol. 56, no. 3, 2014, pp. 650-680. ProQuest, http://proxy.library.nyu.edu/login?url=https://www-proquest-com.proxy.library.nyu.edu/scholarly-journals/ilkhanid-buddhism-traces-passage-eurasian-history/docview/1545321231/se-2?accountid=12768

Phags-Pa Script: Overview, Babelstone.com, Babelstone, https://www.babelstone.co.uk/Phags-pa/Overview.html