Inside the lives of Mongolia's 'millennial monks,' who play basketball, pray for 12 hours a day, and hold the fate of their religion in their hands

mongolia monksReuters/Thomas Peter

  • Thousands of Buddhist monks in Mongolia were killed under Communist leadership in the 1930s.
  • Today's millennial generation is the first to come of age since democracy was introduced, and young monks are finding a new set of challenges to keep their religion alive.
  • The leaders of one revered monastery are in their 20s and 30s, and are struggling to attract new students.


In Mongolia, the future of one of the world's oldest religions is in the hands of millennials.

Young Buddhist monks are increasingly being given control of Mongolia's monasteries as the religion struggles to find new blood.

The millennial generation of monks is the first to come of age since democracy was introduced to Mongolia in 1990. Prior to that, Buddhists in this sparsely-populated country faced deadly persecution - an estimated 17,000 monks were killed in Stalinist purges in the late 1930s.

Now, monks in their 20s and 30s are tasked with leading the next generation of Buddhist religious leaders. At one monastery in northern Mongolia, the monks alternate hours of religious study with games of basketball and the occasional phone call, a privilege reserved for people older than 25.

Here's what life is like for Mongolia's generation of millennial monks.

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The millennial generation of monks in Mongolia is the first generation to come of age since democracy came to the country in 1990. Before, under communist leadership, Mongolia lost thousands of monks to bloody purges.

The millennial generation of monks in Mongolia is the first generation to come of age since democracy came to the country in 1990. Before, under communist leadership, Mongolia lost thousands of monks to bloody purges.

Source: Reuters

Religious centers like the Amarbayasgalant Monastery are shells of what they once were. Before the purges, 800 monks resided at the monastery. Just 40 live there today.

Religious centers like the Amarbayasgalant Monastery are shells of what they once were. Before the purges, 800 monks resided at the monastery. Just 40 live there today.

Source: Reuters

Located in the seemingly endless grasslands of northern Mongolia, the monastery is struggling to attract and retain students.

Located in the seemingly endless grasslands of northern Mongolia, the monastery is struggling to attract and retain students.

Source: Reuters

29-year-old Lobsang Tayang is four years into his studies, but has already been tasked with teaching two younger students — a role that generally requires two decades of experience.

29-year-old Lobsang Tayang is four years into his studies, but has already been tasked with teaching two younger students — a role that generally requires two decades of experience.

Source: Reuters

"I felt like I hadn't gained enough knowledge yet," Tayang told Reuters. "I was thinking, 'Is it right for others to call me teacher when I myself am still learning?'"

"I felt like I hadn't gained enough knowledge yet," Tayang told Reuters. "I was thinking, 'Is it right for others to call me teacher when I myself am still learning?'"

Source: Reuters

Tayang wakes up his students at 7 a.m. every day to test their memory of their scriptures, a task that takes the entire morning to complete.

Tayang wakes up his students at 7 a.m. every day to test their memory of their  scriptures, a task that takes the entire morning to complete.

Source: Reuters

In the afternoon, students learn secular topics like math or literature, but there are hardly enough teachers to go around.

In the afternoon, students learn secular topics like math or literature, but there are hardly enough teachers to go around.

Source: Reuters

Monks at the monastery wind down by playing basketball at sunset …

Monks at the monastery wind down by playing basketball at sunset …

Source: Reuters

And they play with dogs after their evening prayers have concluded.

And they play with dogs after their evening prayers have concluded.

Source: Reuters

Finding young people to become students at the monastery can be an arduous task.

Finding young people to become students at the monastery can be an arduous task.

Source: Reuters

For one thing, monks are only allowed to visit the outside world twice a year.

For one thing, monks are only allowed to visit the outside world twice a year.

Source: Reuters

As for cellphone use, that's restricted to those over the age of 25.

As for cellphone use, that's restricted to those over the age of 25.

Source: Reuters

"Nowadays it's very rare to find monks who can remain faithful to their vows," Lobsang Tayang told Reuters.

"Nowadays it's very rare to find monks who can remain faithful to their vows," Lobsang Tayang told Reuters.

Source: Reuters

The leaders of the monastery hope their students can overcome these modern challenges.

The leaders of the monastery hope their students can overcome these modern challenges.

Source: Reuters

"It's easy to chop down a forest, right?" Lobsang Rabten, the monastery's second-in-command, told Reuters. "But it takes a long time for new trees to grow back."

"It's easy to chop down a forest, right?" Lobsang Rabten, the monastery's second-in-command, told Reuters. "But it takes a long time for new trees to grow back."
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