Danzan Ravjaa: The Controversial Mongolian Monk
Several months ago, my teacher His Eminence the 25th Tsem Rinpoche gave me a book about the 5th Noyon Hutagt, Danzan Ravjaa (1803 – 1856). This book was titled Lama of the Gobi: How Mongolia’s Mystic Monk Spread Tibetan Buddhism in the World’s Harshest Desert by Michael Kohn. When I read it, I was quite amazed with his personality as he was very unconventional. Although he was known for his love of alcohol and women, he was a prolific writer who composed more than 400 poems and songs. Danzan Ravjaa was not only famous for his literary talent but also for his medical skills, prophecies, and his knowledge of philosophy and astrology.
During his lifetime, Danzan Ravjaa used his charisma and influence to advance public education and women’s rights. The monasteries he established became prominent in spreading Buddhism during his lifetime. He was also known for promoting both the Yellow Hat (Gelug) and Red Hat (Nyingma) traditions of Tibetan Buddhism.
I believe that a historical character should not be judged by contemporary standards. Instead we should look at the circumstances and situations surrounding the character in question. Looking at his legacy and his life story, Danzan Ravjaa was definitely not an ordinary person. It is a pleasure for me to be able to write about this controversial personality.
Introduction to the Noyon Hutagt Incarnation Lineage
The Noyon Hutagt is regarded as the emanation of Hayagriva, also known as Tamdrin Yansang Yidam in Mongolia. According to Michael Khon, Tamdrin Yansang Yidam is a deity famous for “wizardry, power, genius and healing”.
Hayagriva is believed to be the wrathful manifestation of Chenrezig, the Buddha of Compassion, who helps practitioners to overcome their internal and external obstacles. Due to his nature as Chenrezig, he helps practitioners develop altruistic compassion.
The Noyon Hutagt Incarnation Lineage
The 1st Noyon Hutagt, Agvangonchig (1621 – 1703)
The 1st Noyon Hutagt came from a long incarnation lineage of illustrious masters, including the 4th Karmapa and Kukuripa, one of the 84 Mahasiddhas of India. During the lifetime of Sanjaibalsan, one of his previous incarnations, a heart student requested him to take rebirth in Mongolia and he agreed. After Sanjaibalsan passed into clear light, his students searched for his incarnation in Mongolia. They found three possible candidates:
- Khangalchingellin Adoochin Hutagt, ‘The Wild Cowboy Saint’. He was particularly known for his love of horses
- Nomj Mergen, ‘Wise and Educated’. He was particularly known for his love of reading holy texts
- Dogshin Sogtuu Hutagt, also known as Agvangonchig, ‘Fierce and Drunk Saint’. He was known for his fondness for drinking and the ability to transform alcohol into medicine
The third candidate, Agvangonchig was acknowledged as the 1st Noyon Hutagt. Agvangonchig was born into a Mongolian aristocratic family. He was ordained and educated in Lhasa, Tibet for 30 years. When Agvangonchig returned to Mongolia, he built the Amgalan Temple. Later many new temples were built around Amgalan Temple, forming the Tsorai Monastery complex.
The 2nd Noyon Hutagt, Jamyn Dambi Jantsen (1704 – 1739)
Unlike the 1st Noyon Hutagt who was born to an aristocratic family, the 2nd Noyon Hutagt, Jamyn Dambi Jantsen was the son of an ordinary livestock breeder. He is known for having built Choilong Monastery. Unfortunately the monastery was accidentally burnt down not long after it was built.
There were two more attempts to rebuild the monastery. Each time however, the ground was levelled by sandstorms. The monastery was abandoned by the end of 18th Century.
The 2nd Noyon Hutagt passed away at the very young age of 35 years old.
The 3rd Noyon Hutagt, Jamyn Danzan (approx. 1740 – 1765)
The 3rd Noyon Hutagt, Jamyn Danzan was the son of a Mongolian nobleman, Tseden Mergen Zasag. There are two contradictory accounts of the 3rd Noyon Hutagt.
The first account about Jamyn Danzan’s life is from a Russian writer, Pozdneyev who depicted the 3rd Noyon Hutagt as a hunter and thief who was executed by the Manchu Emperor because he stole Chinese government silver.
The second account is the Mongolian version, which depicts the 3rd Noyon Hutagt as a good and praiseworthy monk. According to the legend, his father, Tseden Mergen Zasag failed to repay his loan to a trader. After the trader passed away, he complained to Erlig, the king of the underworld. Therefore, after Tseden Mergen passed away, he was brought before Erlig to explain his conduct and an argument between the trader and him ensued. The 3rd Noyon Hutagt was called to the underworld to clarify the situation and was allowed to return to the land of the living afterwards. Unfortunately, when he was away his colleagues thought that he had died and mummified his body, and he was unable to return to his body.
The 4th Noyon Hutagt, Jamyn Oidov (1765 – 1796)
The 4th Noyon Hutagt, Jamyn Oidov was known for promoting Buddhism in Mongolia. He was also known for his beautiful singing voice and medical skills. Jamyn Oidov established Zuun Khashant Monastery. He passed away prematurely at the early age of 35 years old.
According to Altangerel, the curator of Danzan Ravjaa Museum, after performing a miracle to subdue an army of mice in Erdene Zuu Monastery, Jamyn Oidov was invited to a banquet in his honour during which alcohol and delicious food were served. After the feast, he was involved in a brawl with a Chinese aristocrat and accidentally killed him. Jamyn Oidov was then arrested and the Manchu government ruled that he should be put to death.
Prior to his execution, Jamyn Oidov instructed his attendant, Jigmid Gonchig to buy a horse. He told his attendant that they would be connected in his next life through this horse. Jamyn Oidov later named the horse Boriv Kheer (‘Chestnut’) and nicknamed his attendant Jintu (‘Pillow’) for the kindness and comfort he had offered him.
The night before his execution, Jamyn Oidov asked to meet one of the emperor’s advisers, the Juntung. Jamyn Oidov gave him a silver knife and a fire starter, informing him that with these items he would be able to identify his next incarnation. He also told the Juntung not to hurt the boy, saying that the items “will help you identify the next incarnation. Do not harm the boy. The lineage must continue and you will be rewarded.”
After Jamyn Oidov died, the Manchu government banned the Noyon Hutagt incarnation line.
The Humble Beginnings of the 5th Noyong Hutagt, Danzan Ravjaa (1803 – 1856)
Danzan Ravjaa was born to poor parents, Dulduit and Majikhan. His father, Dulduit was a wandering singer and beggar. After his mother passed away when he was two years old, Danzan Ravjaa followed his father and endured much hardship.
One day, when they heard that a juntung had come to town, Danzan Ravjaa asked to meet him. When the guards rejected his request, he created a commotion and yelled, “No event is complete in just one lifetime! I would like to speak with the juntung about my previous life!” Hearing the commotion, the official came out and Danzan Ravjaa asked for the fire starter and the silver knife that he gave the juntung in his previous life. “You have my knife and fire starter,” he said. The official was shocked and returned the knife and the fire starter. True to his promise, he kept the real identity of Danzan Ravjaa a secret in order to protect him.
Recognition and Enthronement
In 1809, Danzan Ravjaa met with his previous life’s attendant, Jintu Gonchig. Prior to this fateful meeting, Jintu Gonchig had been searching for the 4th Noyon Hutagt’s incarnation. When he met Danzan Ravjaa, he began to question him. During the process, Danzan Ravjaa was able to correctly identify some of the objects Jintu Gonchig showed him as his own, including the horse, Chestnut. Therefore, Danzan Ravjaa fulfilled his previous life’s prediction that Jintu Gonchig would be connected to him through the horse.
Jintu Gonchig took Danzan Ravjaa to Ongiin Gol Monastery to be enthroned. Danzan Ravjaa’s enthronement was a huge affair. It was reported that the boy received 1,540 horses, 800 cows and more than 1,000 sheep in addition to gold, silver, animal pelts, silk, ger (a round portable tent used by nomads in Central Asia) and clothing for every season. Initially, Danzan Ravjaa was not enthroned as the Noyon Hutagt because the title had been banned by the Manchu government. He was instead enthroned as the Avshaa Gegeen, the title of a recently deceased lama.
However, his father Dulduit, did not benefit from his new fortune. The new lama’s attendants sent him away with only a small pension. It was not long before Dulduit had to return to his previous profession as a beggar. He died a pauper nine years later.
The Talented Youth and His Education
After his enthronement, Danzan Ravjaa was sent away to various monasteries in Inner and Outer Mongolia to study Buddhism. One of these journeys brought him to Beijing where he met the 7th Panchen Lama Palden Tenpai Nyima. The Panchen Lama was impressed and convinced that Danzan Ravjaa was a high incarnation. Thus when the news reached the Manchu court that the incarnation of the 4th Noyon Hutagt had been found, the Chinese authorities issued an arrest warrant for Danzan Ravjaa. The Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama however, appealed to the Chinese authorities. Since that time, Danzan Ravjaa became known as the 5th Noyon Hutagt.
In addition to studying Buddhism, Danzan Ravjaa learned art, music, chess, rhetoric and debate. He was also taught the Tibetan, Mandarin, Mongolian and Manchu languages, and possibly Russian and English from explorers, traders and travellers. It was not long before Danzan Ravjaa’s literary talent and his rebellious character became apparent.
When he was 14 years old, Danzan Ravjaa received his novice monk vows after which he started receiving visitors for consultations and blessings. He also performed prayers and even divinations.
One of Danzan Ravjaa’s teachers was the 4th Janjiya Hutagt, the spiritual leader of Doloon Nuur and an important Gelugpa leader. The 4th Janjiya Hutagt encouraged the young incarnation to follow both the Nyingma and Gelugpa traditions. Years later, when asked about his religious orientation, Danzan Ravjaa responded that “Buddha’s right arm is the Red School and his left is the Yellow School. Would you like me to tear the Buddha in half?”
When he was 19 years old, Danzan Ravjaa completed his basic Buddhist training and built his first temple, Labrang Sum. He went on to build several more temples that year.
The Unconventional Lama
Throughout his life, Danzan Ravjaa’s behaviour was unconventional. He was temperamental and well known for his love of alcohol and women. His eccentricity earned him the nickname ‘The Crazy One’. Danzan Ravjaa himself acknowledged his hot temper in a poem:
My strong and true mind
Is out of kilter with the world
My ill-tempered nature
Is out of kilter with local customs.
Danzan Ravjaa’s eccentricity did not stop there. Although he lived in Mongolia where social customs and family ties were emphasised and observed, he owned a ger with no door. Once he entered the ger from under the wall, he was not to be disturbed. Regardless of his unconventional behaviour however, he was still able to command respect from his peers, students and society in general.
He was fearless in criticising low ethical standards even when it involved the authorities. Danzan Ravjaa was known for his relationships with women. There were two women who were considered his ‘wives’ (note: no formal marriages ever took place between them), Dadishura and Baljudmaa. Dadishura was considered the intelligent one, who could choreograph plays and write music. Baljudmaa was the beautiful one, who bore Danzan Ravjaa a son, Dunkhor. Danzan Ravjaa wrote the following poem about his son:
The sandalwood tree
Is fixed, not rigid
My son has a destiny
To learn without instruction
The coconut tree
Is dark brown and solid
My son has a gift
To learn without difficulties.
Later, Dunkhor was recognised as an incarnation and known for his singing ability. He lived until he was more than 80 years old.
Danzan Ravjaa valued women as men’s equal. He encouraged respect toward women and was passionate about women’s education.
Temples and Monasteries
During his lifetime, Danzan Ravjaa built many temples and monasteries. After the construction of several temples in his late teenage years, he began to build monasteries. Between 1825 – 1836, Danzan Ravjaa built three monasteries in Outer Mongolia: Demchog, Ulaan Sakhosnii Khiid and Sayan Tolai Khiid. These three monasteries became important Buddhist learning institutions. Unfortunately, the Communists destroyed the monasteries in the 1930s.
In 1831, Danzan Ravjaa led the renovation of Agui Sum (Cave Temple) in Alasha. According to local folklore, one of the demons subdued by Padmasambhava is locked away inside the cave of Agui Sum.
Among the many monasteries he built, Danzan Ravjaa’s primary monastery was Khamaryn Khiid. It was meant to replace Khashant Khiid, the monastery that was closed after the 4th Noyon Hutagt’s death. Khamaryn Khiid consisted of four sections: Zuun Huree, Baruun Huree, Tsokhon and Duinkhor. Danzan Ravjaa stayed primarily in Zuun Huree which also housed a library and a school for young teachers. The Duinkhor quarter housed the temples and theatre where Danzan Ravjaa’s opera and tsam dances (religious dances) were performed.
Danzan Ravjaa chose the site because he believed in the special quality of the area which is believed to be the energy centre of the Gobi Desert. Danzan Ravjaa and his disciples found a water source on the site which he declared to be holy. He proclaimed that the water “properties could cure ailments of teeth, eyes, blood, joints and liver”. Nicholas Roerich described this place as the northern gateway to Shambhala.
At one point, the monastery contained 13 temples, 22 chapels, 11 smaller buildings and two stupas. Khamaryn Khiid was closed in 1931 by the Communists and destroyed in 1937. The monastery was recently rebuilt by the Mongolian government as part of their restoration efforts.
Situated near Khamaryn Khiid are the Yalkhoi Caves, known as the ‘108 Caves for 108 Students’. Danzan Ravjaa used to visit these caves when he was entering retreat. The monks of Khamaryn Khiid also performed a 108-day strict retreat in these caves.
The Literary Man
Danzan Ravjaa was a talented writer, poet, dancer and choreographer. His troupe was known for their dynamic performances. They staged plays, songs, operas, dances, etc. Even Danzan Ravjaa himself was known to have performed the tsam dance created by the 3rd Panchen Lama about the Shambhala war.
Danzan Ravjaa modified some elements of tsam dance to emphasise the importance of women’s roles. Having developed appreciation for the actors’ facial expressions, he introduced tsam dance in which the actors did not wear masks. Most of his plays contain moral messages and Buddhist teachings. However, he was also critical of Manchu authority, hypocritical personalities and corrupt officials.
Danzan Ravjaa’s most notable play was Saran Khokhoo Namtar (The Life Story of the Moon Cuckoo) based on a book by Madi, a Tibetan writer. Saran Khokhoo Namtar required more than 200 musicians, actors and assistants from various backgrounds. Saran Khokhoo Namtar is a drama about social conflicts, the contradiction between good and bad, wisdom and dullness, and humanity.
An Influential Buddhist Teacher
Despite his eccentricity, Danzan Ravjaa was an influential and respected Buddhist teacher. He travelled extensively to give teachings and was known to perform miracles. One particular example of his influence relates to a statue of Guru Rinpoche that was made from 10,000 knives. In 1825, a Chinese man was stabbed following an argument near Khamaryn Khiid.
This terrible incident lead to civil unrest. Danzan Ravjaa used the opportunity to encourage those who kept knives as weapons to surrender them to him. So great was his influence, roughly 10,000 knives were surrendered to him. These knives were then melted down and made into a statue of Guru Rinpoche. Today, the statue is known as ‘The Ten Thousand Knives’ statue.
During the tenure of Tudev as takhilch (the caretaker of Danzan Ravjaa’s properties), the statue was stolen but the base was left behind by the thieves. Seeing this, Tudev predicted that when the statue returned to the base, Buddhism would be restored in Mongolia. During the tenure of Tudev’s grandson, Altangerel, as takhilch the statue was found and returned to Khamaryn Khiid.
Danzan Ravjaa was known for his medical skills and potent medicines. It is said that at times he deployed unusual means to cure his patients as described in one of the stories below:
…a distraught father whose son has fallen gravely ill. One day, the man decides to meet Danzan Ravjaa in hopes of curing his son. After explaining the circumstances of his visit, Ravjaa ducked inside his ger and returned with a flintlock gun. Positioning the heavy gun towards the man’s ger, a full 60 kilometers away. Ravjaa took careful aim and fired. The shot rang out and a plume of smoke rose from the barrel of his crude weapon. Ravjaa put away his gun and said “Go home now, your child is better.”
Confused, frightened and bewildered, the man mounted his horse and rode home. Upon arrival he found his child completely revived, healthy-looking and in good spirits. There was also a gaping hole on the ger wall.
In 1850, in an attempt to separate the popular monk from his followers, the Chinese Emperor instructed Danzan Ravjaa to serve as a doctor in the Chinese army. He also told him to carry the yellow Manchu banner. Although he initially obliged, Danzan Ravjaa later covered the yellow banner with red cloth decorated with the Soyombo, the symbol of the 1st Bogd Gegeen Zanabazar (1635 – 1723), the spiritual leader of Khalkha Mongols.
There was however, one occasion when Danzan Ravjaa helped the Chinese army during the first Opium War of 1839 – 1842. According to the legend, he created a thunderstorm that damaged the British ships. Eventually, he said that the negative karma of the Chinese was too great and he could not help them to win the war.
The Tragic End
Danzan Ravjaa predicted his own end three years before his passing. One day in 1853, he gathered his disciples in a hill area near Khamaryn Khiid and announced that he would leave them in three years’ time. He suggested his disciples build an ovoo, a traditional stone-heap shrine, in that place to communicate with him.
It is widely believed that Danzan Ravjaa died of poisoning. There are many versions of story related to Danzan Ravjaa’s murder, but the most popular story involves Shuluum Avai, the second wife of Gobi Merger Van and a practitioner of black magic. She had previously flirted with Danzan Ravjaa but he rejected her advances. Having been spurned by Danzan Ravjaa, Shuluum Avai decided that he must die.
Shuluum Avai paid a person named Luvson 50 lang to bring seven bottles of vodka to Danzan Ravjaa. One of these bottles was poisoned. When Luvson carried out his task, Danzan Ravjaa predicted what would happen by telling him:
“You merely took 50 lang from Shuluum Avai, but it is I that have known five lives. So is it you who should drink… or I?”
Luvson was scared and confessed his crime. Danzan Ravjaa then said, “I will drink to fulfil the dreams of others,” before proceeding to drink the poison. Before he passed, he wrote one final poem:
Universe lady, to you
Let me give you simple jokes
To you with changeable manner
There is nothing interesting in you
You spiteful universe lady
I am giving you one nickname
‘Perfect pure vow Universe’
Who contradicted with the Buddha himself
Lazy sleeping world
Lost from power or strength of truth
You disturb all spirituality
Truly deceitful world
Which isn’t there when one sees it
Crazily screaming world
Which fades while one listens
Prodigal and foolish world
Becomes wrong while you think of it
Uncompassionate gluttonous world
Not satisfied with what it has
Unwise sleeping world
Unmerciful killing and eating
Most terrible monster world
Changeable in speed
Deceitful and slippery world
Losing and wicked world
Being friends from the early ages
Earnestly urging without fail
Devil’s leg world
Hiding your fault and being spiteful,
But having sickness in your abdomen.
Universal lady, to you
I will offer you simple jokes
Dear world, you think
You are nice?
I am drunk and I have free time
Let me present an interesting anecdote
For it’s impossible to be disciplined
Universe burned with pride
For it’s impossible to gain success
The world with attachment and passion
Never tired of tricking
Female unstable Universe you are
For you get upset when I say the truth.
The poem concluded with the following verse:
“I am hurt in this world, that I became a scoundrel. My poor father, these are the words of my sincere heart.”
After he passed away, Danzan Ravjaa’s body was sent to Khamaryn Khiid. Balchinchoijoo, a man of noble blood and a high ranking lama, took the responsibility of taking care of his body and properties. He swore an oath stating that “Since Master Bogdo Chinggis Khaan became Heaven and bid farewell, … I, Balchinchoijoo, became the protector of his temple.” His oath still hangs in Danzan Ravjaa Museum in Sainshand today.
Balchinchoijoo oversaw the mummification of Danzan Ravjaa’s body and the entombing process. He also took care of Danzan Ravjaa’s properties in order to protect them because during Manchu rule, it was illegal to loot property from the tomb. Balchinchoijoo saw himself as the “takhilch (protector, curator, or trustee) for Ravjaa”. Because Balchinchoijoo had a unique birthmark on his back, the role of takhilch was henceforth passed to Balchinchoihoo’s descendants who had similar birthmarks.
In 1931, just before the monks were arrested by the Communists, a decision was made to cremate Danzan Ravjaa’s mummified body. The ashes are now displayed in the Danzan Ravjaa Museum.
His Next Incarnations
The 6th Noyong Hutagt, Luvson Dambi Jantsen Odser (1856 – 1875)
Upon the death of Danzan Ravjaa, the Manchu government declared that the subsequent reincarnation of Noyon Hutagt should be found in Tibet. The 6th Noyon Hutagt was Luvson Dambi Jantsen Odser. He was born in Tibet and educated within the Gelug tradition. However, this boy was born one year before the passing of Danzan Ravjaa, and therefore many people doubted his status as the real incarnation.
When he was 14 years old, Luvson Dambi Jantsen was sent to Khamaryn Khiid. It seems that he was not treated well there. The 6th Noyon Hutagt condemned Danzan Ravjaa and ordered the destruction of his work, which caused Danzan Ravjaa’s friends and disciples to become unhappy. Within six years of arriving at Khamaryn Khiid, he was poisoned.
The 7th Noyong Hutagt, Agvan Luvson Dambi Jantzen Jampts (1875/6 – 1931)
After the tragic death of the 6th Noyon Hutagt, negotiations were carried out to allow the next incarnation to be born in Mongolia. The 7th Noyon Hutagt, Agvan Luvson Dambi Jantzen Jampts, was born in 1891. Just like Danzan Ravjaa, he was very popular and well-travelled. In addition, he revived his predecessor’s popular play, Saran Khokhoo Namtar.
One legend states that in 1910, the 7th Noyon Hutagt met a brother and sister who were the children of someone named Ja Getsul. The two siblings were crazy and very much afraid of the 7th Noyon Hutagt. It was believed that the siblings were the reincarnation of Danzan Ravjaa’s murderers, Luvson and Shuluum Avai. They were born mentally challenged due to the heavy karma of murdering Danzan Ravjaa.
When Mongolia embraced Communism in the 1930s, the 7th Noyon Hutagt, his takhilch at the time and Balchinchoijoo’s grandson, Ongoi were arrested. According to Michael Kohn, the author of Lama of the Gobi, “It’s likely that the 7th Hutagt was shot dead and buried in a mass grave on the outskirts of Ulaanbaatar, as was the fate of many monks at the time.” Not long after, the Communists issued a new law that prohibited the recognition of Hutagt.
The 8th Noyong Hutagt, Gendensaivan (1933 – 1945)
After the death of the 7th Noyon Hutagt, his assistant, Gendensaivan secretly searched for his incarnation. He recognised a boy named Samdan Jampts. One of the reasons for this was because when Samdan Jampts was a baby, the boy refused to drink milk and only stopped crying when his mother offered him a taste of vodka. Samdan Jampts was never formally recognised and enthroned. When he was 12 years old, he became a casualty of war.
The 9th Noyong Hutagt, Danzanluvsantudev (1984 – present)
The 9th Noyon Hutagt, Danzanluvsantudev, was born in 1984. He was recognised by the 14th Dalai Lama on 2 March 2013. His main seat is in Khamaryn Khiid.
Danzan Ravjaa’s Legacy and the Treasure of the Gobi Desert
Around 1937 just before Khamaryn Khiid was destroyed, Ongoi’s son, Tudev had foreseen that Danzan Ravjaa’s tomb would be ransacked by the Communists. He discreetly managed to move 64 crates of treasure and buried them in the dessert before the tomb was looted.
Tudev had one daughter and one adopted son, none of whom had the auspicious birthmark of a takhilch caretaker. The daughter later married and had 10 children. One of her children, Altangerel, had the birthmark. Tudev took Altangerel and trained him to be a takhilch.
Later, Altangerel revealed the location of the boxes to the Austrian-Mongolian Treasure Hunt expedition, and was able to establish Danzan Ravjaa Museum in Sainshand, Mongolia.
The Opening of Danzan Ravjaa Museum
in Sainshand, Mongolia
Or view the video on the server at:
- Kohn, Michael; Lama of the Gobi: How Mongolia’s Mystic Monk Spread Tibetan Buddhism in the World; 2010; ISBN 978-988-17742-6-2
For more interesting information:
- Nicholas Roerich & Art (1874-1947)
- Ekai Kawaguchi – Three Years in Tibet
- Alexandra David-Neel
- The Russian Princess Buddhist Nun
- Incredible Geshe Wangyal
- Kalmyk People’s Origin-VERY INTERESTING
- Agvan Dorjiev: The Diplomat Monk
- 84 Mahasiddhas
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