Mongolia had contacts with Buddhism for at least 2000 years. The Hunnu empire (Xiognu), Xianbei and Rouran Khaganate empires received Buddhist monks from Nepal and allowed them establish temples on its territories.
Buddhism, like other religions, gained prominence on the whims of the khans who would sponsor and become their patron. Chinggis Khan allowed Buddhism prosper among with shamanism and other religions. Later on Kublai khan made Buddhism a state religion. A Tibetan monk Pakpa Lodro Gyeltsen played an important role as an advisor to Kublai khan.
The next large attempt was done by Altan Khan in 1578 when he invited Sonam Gyatso from the Gelug school (one of Tibetan schools) to practice in Mongolia. Altan khan, also, bestowed a title of Dalai Lama to the highest monk of the Gelug school thus starting a tradition that carries on until today. During this period Buddhism spread all over Mongolia and became the dominant religion.
With the Qing dynasty, Buddhism was used to control Mongols. For example they instituted the practice of the choosing the highest monk (Bogd Gegeen) from Tibet. This was done to weaken the power of Mongolian nobility. Also, large number of Mongols became monks. By the 19th century fully 13 percent of the population were monks.
Ironically, Mongolian monks were one of the first who started the rebellion against the Manchu rule. Reportedly, drunken monks started a fight against the Chinese who lived in the present day Ulaanbaatar. So when Mongolia declared itself independent from the Qing dynasty in 1911, they proclaimed a monk their theocratic ruler. Jebstundamba Khutukhtu, the theocratic ruler, was originally from Tibet, though he grew up in Mongolia. After his death, Mongolia became a socialist country.
During the 30s all the monks were forced to resign and many of the top leadership were executed.
Strangely enough, it was the American Vice President Wallace who visited Mongolia in 1945, who inadvertently made the authorities rethink the importance of having at least one temple. During the visit, he has requested to see a temple. The authorities hastily prepared the Gandan temple (the most important temple in Mongolia) which was empty at that time, to be set up for the visit. Several former monks were brought in to show that this temple was working. Afterwards the temple was allowed to carry on its duties.
Though only one temple was allowed to function, in the 60s the situation has changed and many more monks could practice. The first Asian Buddhist Conference of Peace was held in the 60s. In 1979, Dalai Lama visited Mongolia for the first time. After 1990s all the restrictions were lifted and more that 200 temples were set up.
So, the question if Buddhism was good or bad for Mongolia is probably besides the point. I think two thousand years of more or less continuous contact with Buddhism prove that.
Buddhist temples through their schools carried knowledge, healed people through traditional medicine and was a place for enlightenment. There were times when religion was used for political purposes and the adherents were vilified as spies and traitors. But whatever it is, Mongolian school of Buddhism is a unique Buddhism as it carries elements of shamanism and Mongolian nomadic culture therefore it is an indivisible part of Mongolian culture.
Originally published at http://mongoliafaq.com on December 9, 2018.