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20.04.2021Karénina Kollmar-Paulenz

The “White History”: Religion and Secular Rule in Buddhist Mongolia

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With the assertion of Buddhism as the dominant religion at the end of the 16th century, a new reflection on the relationship between the secular and the religious commenced among the Mongols. They adopted the Joint Twofold System of Governance formulated in Buddhist Tibet, and adapted it to the Mongolian cultural context. This system of governance is described in the work “The White History”, written in the late 16th century, with the epistemic distinctions1 between the religious and the secular discursively negotiated in the work. Although the impact of these distinctions on the social differentiations of Mongolian society during the Qing period (1644–1911) remains to be investigated, the “White History” nonetheless provides a valuable insight into pre-modern Mongolian notions of the distinction between the religious and the secular.

The Rise of Tibetan Buddhism among the Mongols

Tibetan Buddhism has long played a decisive role in shaping the Mongolian religious and intellectual landscape. Even in the 13th century, during the period of the Mongol Empire,2 Tibetan Buddhism was promoted by the Mongol rulers, and gained considerable influence among the elites. Although after the end of the Mongol Yuan Dynasty in China (1368), Buddhism remained present among the Mongols, it was not until the late 16th century that it became their dominant religion. Its expansion was initiated by Altan Khan (1507–1582) of the Tümed Mongols. After his attempts to establish tributary relations with the Ming Empire failed, Altan Khan repeatedly undertook military raids against the Chinese over the course of nearly forty years from the 1530s until the peace treaty with Ming China in 1570/71. At the same time, he subjugated the Western Mongols in a series of campaigns. He succeeded in becoming the politically and militarily dominant ruler in the Mongolian steppe regions. However, his leading military position lacked political legitimacy, as he could not claim direct genealogical descent from Chinggis Khan. In this context, Altan Khan and the Tibetan Buddhist Gelukpa (dGe lugs pa)school joined forces. In 1578, a meeting took place between Altan Khan and the Gelukpa hierarch Sonam Gyatso (bSod nams rgya mtsho), in Cabciyal at Lake Kokonor. As was customary in Inner Asian diplomatic relations of the time, they exchanged honorary titles during their meeting. Sonam Gyatso received the title of Dalai lama, under which this incarnation lineage was henceforth known. Indeed, the title was also retrospectively bestowed upon his two predecessors, such that he became known as the Third Dalai Lama. In exchange, Altan Khan obtained the title of Qotala esrun yeke küčün-tü čakravarti nom-un qaɣan, “accomplished Brahma, great powerful cakravartin dharmarāja”,4 legitimising his rule through Buddhist authority. Buddhism, with its model of the ruler as dharmarāja and cakravartin, provided an extremely powerful tool to legitimise and authorise Altan Khan’s rulership. This may have been a strong incentive for Altan Khan to push the spread of Buddhism among the Mongols. Subsequently, relations between the Mongol rulers and the Tibetan (and later Mongolian) Buddhist institutions were established according to the yon mchod relationship between a secular “donor” and a religious “donee”.5 The concept of the Two Orders of religion and government, rendered in Tibetan as chos srid zung ’brel, Joint Twofold System of Governance, is based on the yon mchod model.

In the longue durée, the meeting between the Mongol ruler and the Tibetan Buddhist monk had a tremendous impact on early modern Mongolian society. It led not only to the dominance of Buddhism in the religious and intellectual spheres, but also to drastic social changes. A new social class, the Buddhist monastic community, was established and institutionalised. The Buddhist Sangha and its monastic institutions soon gained equal social status with the Mongol aristocracy. In the formative years of the Sangha, the sons of the nobility joined the newly established monasteries. Furthermore, nobles selected many of their subjects, including prisoners of war, for monastic life. Because of its long-term impact on Mongolian society, right up to the 20th century, the 1578 meeting of Altan Khan and the Third Dalai Lama, and the subsequent Buddhisation of Mongolian society, can be considered a critical juncture in Mongolian history.6 At that time, the question of securing and legitimising political power, which had always been an undercurrent in Mongolian political culture, once again came to the fore. The Mongolian indigenous concept of the legitimation of rule was based on the one hand on the mandate of Heaven Above (Mo. deger-e tngri),7 which the ruler constantly had to confirm through his charisma and his political and military success. On the other hand, since Chinggis Khan’s time it was also based on the principle of descent from the lineage of Chinggis Khan. However, if the ruler, legitimised by Chinggisid lineage, proved de facto incapable of ruling in the eyes of his subjects, he was deemed to lack Heaven’s favour and his rule lost its legitimacy. The inherent instability of the Mongolian indigenous concept of rule was one of the reasons for the recurring crises of succession throughout Mongolian history.

At the historical crossroads of Altan Khan’s rule, the reference problem of securing and legitimising his rule led to the formulation of a new guiding principle that developed the interdependence, but simultaneously the autonomy, of the religious and political order.8  This guiding principle was elaborated in the treatise “White History”, which has been widely read by the Mongols since the late 16th century.

Works which serve the purpose of instructing rulers are mainly known from Tibet. Such instructions are classified in the category of dampa (gdams pa) or shepa (bshad pa), “instruction, explanation”, or under the category of zhulen (zhu lan), “question-answer”, or simply as yig, “letters”. They serve on the one hand to explain the subtleties of Buddhist teaching, and on the other, to advocate the realisation of a just and good (Buddhist) government. The addressees are usually princes and rulers. The earliest Tibetan texts describing and exhorting a good Buddhist government date back to the period of the Mongol Empire and its political and military rule in Tibet in the 12th/13th century. During the Mongolian Yuan dynasty,9 for the first time in Mongolian history, social reality was addressed through the twofold framework of religious and worldly rule.  The concept of Buddhist government, in which religion and worldly power are separated but valued equally, was thus theoretically formulated in a political-cultural context of encounter and interaction. From the Tibetan perspective it also served not least to gloss over the reality of asymmetrical power relations, during the period of Mongol rule.10 It is important to note that the conceptual distinction neither corresponded to, nor instigated, a respective societal differentiation, even if this is almost invariably what the later Tibetan and Mongolian historical sources would have us believe. The actual design of the relationship between the religious and non-religious spheres was much more differentiated,11 and the relationship between the Sakyapa (Sa skya pa) school and the Mongol rulers was by no means as exclusive as later sources suggest. Although the realisation of the Two Orders during the Yuan period did not correspond to the social reality of the time, later Tibetan and Mongolian historiography idealised the Yuan emperor Qubilai Khan (r. 1260–1294) as the ideal Buddhist ruler and described his relationship with the Sakyapa hierarch Phakpa (’Phags pa) (1235–1280) as the perfect realisation of a yon mchod relationship.

The “White History”

The "White History" reflects the changing social and epistemic structures of Mongolian society of the period. It aims to present a manual of governance for the ruler of a realm in which a good life – defined from a Buddhist perspective – is achievable. The “White History” imagines an ideal Buddhist society in which the worldly and religious spheres are two separate yet interrelated domains. It transplants the Tibetan model of the Joint Twofold System of Governance into the social lifeworlds of 16th-century Mongolia. The treatise proved to be immensely influential over the course of the next three centuries.12

Origin, Authorship, and Content

The origin and authorship of the “White History of the Ten Meritorious Doctrines” (Mo. Arban buyan-tu nom-un čaɣan teüke), as its extended title reads,13  are disputed among scholars. Some assume that the “White History” was written in the late 13th century by none other than the founder of the Yuan Dynasty, Qubilai Khan.14 Others believe, however, that the work was written by the Mongol nobleman Qutuɣtai Sečen Qung Tayiji (1540–1586), a nephew of Altan Khan and himself a powerful military leader, from much older textual materials.15 Based on current analysis, it is safe to say that the “White History” in its present form is demonstrably a work from the 16th century, although it contains much material from the 13th century.16

The treatise, as preserved in the manuscript I use,17 is divided into three parts or chapters (Mo. bölög):

  1. The regulations for the cult of Chinggis Khan (fol. 1r–2v).18 The veneration of Chinggis Khan as the ancestral deity of the Mongols goes back to the time of the Mongol Empire. It developed into an elaborate cult, whose regulations are described in detail. This first part, compiled from various sources, is irrelevant to us, and I will not go into further detail here.
  2. The history and explanation of the Two Orders (Mo. qoyar yosun) of religion (Buddhism) and government (fol. 3r–5r). In a historical narrative, Chinggis Khan’s establishment of the Mongol Empire is directly related to his adherence to the rules of qoyar yosun, the Two Orders. This second part contains a brief explanation of the application of the principles of the Two Orders in the two domains of religion and government.
  3. The third part mainly deals with the realisation of the ‘ideal’ rule by the Yuan emperor Qubilai Khan and the Tibetan Buddhist monk Phakpa Lama (fol. 5v–20r). In this part, the structure of an orderly government is presented on the basis of a list of different offices and ranks of the administration, and their respective duties. Detailed treatment is also given to ethical principles, such as earning money, healing and non-healing actions, Buddhist rules of life and maxims in general, as well as punishments for misdemeanours by monks and lay people.

The closing word is followed by a hymn to Qubilai Khan (fol. 20v–21r). The manuscript also includes a list of the offices of the Chinggis Khan cult in the Ordos region (fol. 22r–v).19 

The table of contents illustrates the hybrid character of the work, which makes a literary-historical classification difficult. Although the Mongolian term teüke generally refers to a work of history, the treatise is not a historical chronicle. It has more the character of a work of state theory, but with historical interpolations.

The Two Orders according to the “White History”

In the introduction to the second part of the “White History”, the aim of the treatise is stated:

The root of the sublime teaching, the lord of the dharma, is the Lama;
The head of the state, the mighty one of the world, is the ruler.
The law (Mo. jasaɣ) of the true dharma is indissoluble like a silken knot.
The law of the strict ruler is indestructible like a golden yoke.20
The following brief guide is intended to give equal and flawless effect to
these two true orders. (Fol. 3v)

The Two Orders (in Tibetan also called, among other terms, khrims chen po gnyis, the “two great laws”) designate the “law of the dharma” (Mo. nom-un törö,) and the “law of the world” (Mo. yirtinčü-yin törö). ‘Religion’ in this context refers exclusively to Buddhism. The binary terms nom-un törö and yirtincü-yin törö21 distinguish a sphere of the Buddhist order and a sphere of the worldly order. The term nom thus does not yet represent a plurality of religions, but emphasises that there is no ‘religion’ outside the dharma.  While nom in the “White History” can have a variety of meanings depending on the context, ranging from “dharma” and “instruction” to “rule, norm”, the synonymously used term šasin is only found in its meaning as Buddhism and as part of the qoyar yosun, the Two Orders. Unlike nom, however, which retained its particularistic meaning, šasin developed in the 18th century into a comparative generic term that depicted a plurality of religions, such as the “teaching of the shamans” or Islam.22

The representatives of the Two Orders are the lama and the ruler, whose relationship to each other is characterised as “donor-preceptor” (Tib. yon mchod).23 The Tibetan copulative compound yon mchod consists of the two terms yon bdag, literally “lord of gifts”, and mchod gnas “subject of sacrifice”, one worthy of sacrifice. This ritual religious relationship shapes, on the one hand, the socio-religious relationship between the Buddhist village community and its assigned monastic community. On the other hand, the concept refers to the personal tantric relationship between a lama and his adept. The tantric ritual specialist is the “subject of sacrifice” in the context of a tantric initiation. The “lord of gifts” is the recipient of the initiation, the gift itself being the ritual payment for the transmission of the initiation. The payment can be made in natural produce, money, gold or other valuables; in services, e.g. in compulsory labour, but also in military protection or active military assistance.

In Tibet, the yon mchod model was transported to the level of the government and reformulated in the concept of the “two great laws”. Furthermore, the concept was also adopted to define the relationship between two countries, e.g. Tibet and China, or Tibet and Mongolia. Regarding its applicability in this sense, however, the concept is valid only within a larger Buddhist framework of interpretation. The worldly societal order is an order based on Buddhist ethical rules.

This being said, according to the “White History”, both societal spheres, the religious and the secular, should ideally be separated from each other. The deliberate and clear separation of the two domains is affirmed in statements such as “[one] shall establish the Two Orders, each for itself, without confusing them” (fol. 11v). In the “White History”, the conceptually prescribed rigorous separation of the two domains leads to the drawing of new boundaries in the description of social realities. Thus, the seasonally defined Buddhist festive “good times” (Mo. sayin čaɣ, Tib. dus bzang), in which meritorious works are to be accomplished, are assigned to the religious sphere. The four indigenous seasonal festivals (Mo. qurim) constitute their secular counterpart. These four festivals consist of four offering ceremonies closely related to pastoral economy, especially horse breeding, whose introduction is attributed to Chinggis Khan in his function as ancestral deity. Contrary to other Mongolian sources, which consider these festivals part of the religious sphere, including Buddhist and non-Buddhist practices,24  the “White History” assigns them to the secular domain. This conceptual ‘secularisation’, that is alien to the Tibetan notion of chos srid zung ’brel, can be read in the sense of a ‘Mongolisation’ of the Two Orders, as presented in the “White History”.

Yet, since a good government is clearly Buddhist, i.e. based on religion, both spheres are nevertheless closely intertwined. In the “White History”, the interdependence of the religious and the secular domain comes to the fore in the description of the “rules of the world” [Mo. yirtinčü-yin yosun]. The text enumerates four different kinds of rulers responsible for the common good in its social and political aspects. The first of them is the cakravartin, the “wheel-turning king” who “is able to enforce the rules of the dharma (Mo. nom-un törö), the Dhāraṇīs and Sūtras, each for itself, without merging them.”25 Thus, the ruler of the worldly sphere is also responsible for the religious sphere. Furthermore, the enumeration of the titles of the officials who are in charge of the worldly domain confirms this interdependence of the two domains. The highest government officials are the three güüširi (fol. 9r, 12v), the “national preceptors” (Chin. guoshi). As far as I know, in the Yuan period the title guoshi was only conferred on religious dignitaries. However, the title and office also have worldly implications, because the guoshi was in charge of the institutional administration of the Buddhist clergy in the empire. The religious and the secular domains are thus conjoined in the office of the guoshi.

In the “White History” the Two Orders are further differentiated in the following statement:

These Two Orders are the rules of the dharma [Mo. nom], namely Dhāranīs and Sūtras,
and the rules of the world, peace and lightness. (fol. 6v)

The “rules of the dharma” (Mo. nom-un yosun)26 include the two Buddhist paths to liberation, as expounded in Mahāyāna Buddhism, the “Vehicle of the Mantra” (Skt. mantrayāna), and the “Vehicle of the Sūtra” (Skt. sūtrayāna). Both vehicles or paths ultimately lead to the soteriological goal of liberation from the cycle of rebirth and attainment of Buddhahood, but they do so with different methods. The Mantrayāna refers to the tantric path to salvation, whereas the Sūtrayāna is mainly based on the sūtras, and the principles of moral behaviour, mental concentration and wisdom taught in them.

The two “rules of government” (Mo. törö-yin yosun) are peace (Mo. engke) and lightness (Mo. kilbar),27 a figurative term for order. The rule of peace denotes a life without external enemies, material worries and unjust rule. These circumstances also ensure that people can devote themselves unhindered to the practice of the dharma, which they would not be able to do if they were exposed to war, famine, etc. The rule of lightness is identified with Mo. amur, “peace, calmness, order”, and tübsin, which literally means “smooth, even” and in a figurative sense “peaceful, calm, consolidated, just”. In addition, it includes happiness (Mo. jirɣalang), which is understood as a peaceful life without negative external influences. The cornerstones of a ‘good government’, in the Mongolian Buddhist sense, are often referred to by the terms engke amuɣulang, “peace and quiet”.

These concepts of governance, which have had Buddhist connotations since the late 16th century are much older. They date back to the 13th century and can be found in the oldest Mongolian literary-historiographical work, the famous Mongɣol-un niɣuča tobčiyan, “Secret History of the Mongols”, from the years 1228/1240. They are also present in the equally famous Jasaq, the normative orders and commandments of Chinggis Khan relating to governmental affairs, military administration, jurisdiction, and other matters. The latter are known to us only from Persian and Arabic sources, and their authorship is attributed to Chinggis Khan himself, an assertion which is historically doubtful.28 The Jasaq was normatively binding throughout the Mongol empire – it was imperative that it be obeyed. In these early Mongolian writings, we are confronted with an understanding of good and just government that is not so different from later Buddhist concepts.However, it is based not on Buddhist principles, but on the indigenous understanding of Mongol rule. This understanding is grounded in the concept of the Eternal Blue Heaven (Mo. köke möngke tngri) or Heaven Above (Mo. deger-e tngri), upon the grace of whom (or which)29  the ruler is dependent. It manifests itself in the personal charisma and successful governance of the ruler. In this regard, it is incumbent upon the ruler to bring his subjects peace (Mo. amur), calm (Mo. nuta), and order (Mo. kilbar/amur). A just internal order proves the rule of the Khan to be legitimised by Heaven and ultimately as Heaven’s will. This transcendently justified empowerment of rule is also indicated by the language of formulas used in the numerous letters from the Mongol rulers to European kings and the Popes. The opening formula is always: “by the power of Heaven Above” (Mo. deger-e tngri-yin küčü-dür) or “by the power of Eternal Blue Heaven” (Mo. köke möngke tngri-yin küčü-dür).30 The ruler must ensure that there is neither hunger nor material need in his realm. The Mongol rulers performed this task conscientiously, motivated by the knowledge that the charisma bestowed upon them by Heaven was confirmed by the maintenance of order. If the ruler could not keep this obligation, he had obviously lost the favour of Heaven and his subjects were no longer bound by their oath of allegiance to him. This dynamic principle of rule required considerable and sustained effort on the part of the ruler. In his “Compendium of Chronicles” (Jami῾ al-tawarikh), the Persian historian Rashid ad-Din (1247–1318) tells us that, during his campaign against the Chorezm Shah, Chinggis Khan levied a charge on the army in order to supply the Mongols who had fallen into need and were left behind in Mongolia.31 Chinggis Khan’s successor Ögedei Khan in turn introduced a livestock tax, for the benefit of the poor and needy in the empire.32 In addition, the rulers had to ensure that their subjects always had access to sufficient pastures and water. If these duties, which made concrete the theoretical cornerstones of just rule, were neglected, then their subjects threatened to vote with the hooves of their horses; i.e. whenever possible, they bodily withdrew from the sphere of influence of their ruler.

Good Governance according to the “White History“

The “White History” offers an array of instructions on how to obtain and maintain social order. It mentions concrete measures to strategically secure the borders, fight crime, assure the well-being of livestock against wild animals, and to secure communication, transport and trade:

And further: Post guards at the passes of large mountains and at the mouths of large rivers!
Put up bundles of branches to scare away the wolves! Feed dogs for the robbers!
Have ships ready to cross the sea!
Feed roosters to know the time!
Build bridges in a region full of canyons!
Strew all paths with grey pebbles!
If you do [all] that, the whole people will be calm. (fol. 15r)

The key terms “peace”, “order”, “joy”, “happiness” and others are well-founded in Mongolian indigenous concepts of rule (and, on their basis, the largest contiguous empire in history was constituted). Their meaning was reconfigured in the “White History”, and endowed with a Buddhist interpretation. In pre-Buddhist times, Mongolian religious concepts and, in turn, concepts of just rule, concentrated on this-worldly matters. To a certain extent, the use of these well-established notions of pragmatic goals, to describe a Buddhist ordered state, inner security and inner peace, ensures the continuity of the indigenous concept of rulership. Nevertheless, important changes were introduced. The pragmatic goals now served a higher, universal goal. The Buddhist ruler needs to establish a government in which peace and ease (with all the connotations explored above) are guaranteed, and in which all people can live without endangerment by external enemies or an unjust political authority. These circumstances allow his subjects optimal conditions to follow the Buddhist path to salvation. What awaits a world in which the Two Orders are not observed is described in the section that follows the measures for maintaining internal order: Misfortune, suffering, material deprivation and violence will poison society.

The secular government depends on religious guidelines, as peace and order can only be achieved through right moral conduct, namely the observance of the Buddhist Ten White Virtues34 (Mo. arban čaɣan buyan): 

When one entrusts oneself to the virtuous ruler, the people will live in peace. (fol. 13v)

The government can therefore only enforce the instructions for action mandatory to obtain internal order on the basis of a generally binding religious code of values.

Instructions for action: Buddhist ethics

Contrary to the fact that the commandment against killing is the first of the Ten White Virtues, a ruler in an ideal Buddhist realm does not have to adhere to the commandment of non-violence. The willingness to protect the Buddhist realm that provides the basis for the path to liberation, justifies drastic means. Thus the “White History” contains a number of passages demanding “to beat the foreign enemy with cunning and violence during wartime” and to strengthen one’s own army with weapons (fol. 8v).

The “White History” addresses concrete social situations, and provides instructions on how to cope with them, probably referring to existing practices of customary law. Draconian punishments are carried out on people who are guilty of an offence:

If a man speaks lies, cut off his tongue!
If someone commits robbery, cut his eyes out!
If someone […]35 destroys the Great Government, take his life! (fol. 17v)

A wise ruler chooses his ministers and officials carefully:

If one finds and employs upright, wise people, one will realise the intentions of the ruler and bring peace to the people. […]
Bad people, even if they are appointed to high ranks, will bring suffering to the country and destroy the works of the ruler. They will become shameless and mean by themselves.
Therefore, one should only give titles after careful consideration and with deep insight. (fol. 18r)

The “White History” is one of the rare texts that not only reflect the lives of the elites, but are also concerned with ordinary people. It provides them with instructions on how to react to bad government, which it characterises by arbitrariness, mercilessness and wastefulness:

From a merciless king one shall depart!
Merciless nobles [Mo. noyad] one shall leave!
One shouldn’t be too lenient with bad people! (fol. 14v)


Governing princes [Mo. jasaɣ noyad] who understand nothing about government,
are more inaccessible than mountains.
If the law is enforced in a way that deviates from the rules,
one cannot remain the head of the people [Mo. ulus]. (fol. 14v-15r)

A ruler has authority and legitimacy only as long as he follows the Buddhist principles of good government. If he does not, his subjects are free to impose the aforementioned consequences, and he himself has to abdicate. At this point, indigenous and Buddhist notions of worldly rule merge.


The Mongolian “White History” served as a government handbook for nobles and rulers. It not only conveyed the principles of good governance, but also envisioned the ideal order of a Buddhist realm, in which a ‘religious’ and a ‘secular’ domain are clearly identified and separated from each other. Describing in detail the offices of the religious and secular order, these epistemic structures are grounded in social stratification. The binary code displayed in the Two Orders advances a differentiation between religious and non-religious spheres in 16th-century Mongolia. How vital the system of the Two Orders was considered for a functioning society is illustrated by the following statement:

If the law of the dharma does not exist, living beings fall into hell.
If the law of the ruler does not exist, peoples and communities perish. (fol. 13r)

In this taxonomic order, reality is evaluated according to a binary scheme, similar to the secular/religious divide we are familiar with. In the Mongolian case, the religious and the secular are framed and discussed as two separate sovereign spheres that are not conceived as mutually exclusive, but as complementary to each other. In contrast to modern secularities based on a ‘horizontal’ secular/ religious divide, the binary distinction is a religious – here, Buddhist – strategy to categorise Mongolian society. It seeks, in this way, to claim authoritative interpretative power also over those areas that are excluded from the religious sphere and are thus positioned as non-religious. In this sense, it is a Buddhist or religiously based secularity, that is spelt out not only on the epistemic level, but also on the social level. Whether the described societal differentiations correspond to actual social realities is not important, because this epistemic distinction does not reflect any social differentiations. Rather, it aims at creating a Mongolian-Buddhist ideal model of society. Reflecting the religious, social and economic changes of Mongolian society in the late 16th century on an epistemic level, the “White History” propagated a new model of good governance, which was no longer based on the Heaven-mandated rule of a Chinggisid leader, but on Buddhist rule grounded in the Ten White Virtues. On one hand, the epistemically postulated rigorous separation between the religious and the worldly sphere is enhanced through the detailed description of the social order, including the different offices and institutions in both domains. On the other hand, both spheres are intimately related to each other – they are even intertwined – as good worldly rule is based on Buddhist ethics, and indeed amounts to their implementation in all societal spheres. A good government is ultimately a government that provides its subjects with ideal conditions for achieving the Buddhist goal of salvation. These are an ordered community, material prosperity, internal order and legal security. However, these guiding ideas of Buddhist government draw on indigenous conceptualisations of a Heaven-mandated rule. Good government was defined along the Buddhistically superscribed lines of Chinggis Khan’s Jasaq, which already in the 13th century showed indications of rule of law.36 Indigenous concepts of good government thus shaped the Mongolian adaptation of the Tibetan Buddhist Joint Twofold System of Governance. The legacy of both the indigenous and Buddhist conceptual distinctions of a religiously defined secularity lives on in Article 9 of the current Mongolian constitution, which regulates the relationship between religion and state. It is coined in the very same terms šasin37 and törö,38 whose genealogical trajectories can be traced back to 16th century Mongolia and the writing of the “White History”.

Military power in the Mongolian steppes

Legitimation of political rule through Buddhist authority

Close connections between Mongolian nobility and the newly established Buddhist Sangha

Twofold indigenous legitimation of rule: mandate of Heaven Above and descent from Chinggis Khan

Interdependence of religious and political order in instructions for rulers

Conceptual distinction between religious and secular did not correspond to societal differentiation

A Mongolian formulation of the Tibetan Joint Twofold System of Governance

Contents of the “White History”

The “White History” as a work of state theory

The Tibetan “donor-preceptor” relationship

Clear separation between religious and secular societal spheres

Conceptual ‘secularisation’ of indigenous ritual practices 

Interdependence of the religious and the secular in the “rules of the world”

The “rules of the dharma”

The “rules of government”

Indigenous roots of Buddhist governance: the Eternal Blue Heaven

A dynamic concept of worldly rule

Advice on how to maintain social order

Pragmatic goals of just rule 

Secular government founded on religious ethics

Suspension of the commandment against killing on behalf of the Buddhist ruler 

Markers of bad government

The religious and the secular as two mutually exclusive yet complimentary spheres


  1. In this article, I follow the heuristic definition of secularity given by Monika Wohlrab-Sahr and Marian Burchardt as “the culturally and symbolically as well as institutionally anchored forms and arrangements of differentiation between religion and other social spheres” (Monika Wohlrab-Sahr and Marian Burchardt, “Multiple Secularities: Toward a Cultural Sociology of Secular Modernities,” Comparative Sociology 11, no. 6 (2012): 881). Both spheres are only identified as religious and secular as a result of their differentiation. Secularity is thus understood as a mode of distinction between religion and other social spheres.
  2. Chinggis Khan (ca. 1162–1227) built an empire of unprecedented size from 1206 onwards, which in 1259 extended across large parts of Eurasia, including Tibet, European Russia, Turkey and northern and western China. In 1260, the empire broke into four successor states, the Il-Khanate in present-day Iran, the Golden Horde in the Caspian and Black Sea region, the Chagatai Khanate in present-day Central Asia, and the Yuan Empire in present-day China.
  3. For better readability, Tibetan names and terms are transcribed phonetically. At first mention, the correct Wylie-transliteration is added in brackets.
  4. Anonymous [after 1607], Erdeni tunumal neretü sudur, fol. 30r, in Erdeni tunumal neretü sudur orosiba, ed. Jorungɣ-a (Beijing: Ündüsüten-ü keblel-ün qoriy-a, 1984), 124.
  5. For a detailed explanation of the yon mchod-model, see Dagmar Schwerk, “Buddhism and Politics in the Tibetan Cultural Area,” in Companion to the Study of Secularity, ed. HCAS “Multiple Secularities – Beyond the West, Beyond Modernities” (Leipzig University, 2019), 9–10.
  6. Giovanni Capoccia, “Critical Junctures,” in The Oxford Handbook of Historical Institutionalism, ed. Karl-Orfeo Fioretos, Tulia G. Falleti, and Adam D. Sheingate (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), 89.
  7. The origin of the concept of Heaven Above is still open to debate. The concept is found in the famous Kül tegin inscription (8th century) of the Orkhon Turks of the 7th and 8th centuries, in which the qut (good fortune, a kind of vitalising force) of the ruler is bestowed by tängri. It is also reasonable to further assume that the concept was influenced by the Chinese concept of tianming 天命, the “mandate of Heaven”, especially since the Eastern Turks themselves were strongly influenced by Chinese culture. The degree of the Chinese impact is, however, still debated, see Igor de Rachewiltz, “Some Remarks on the Ideological Foundations of Chinggis Khan’s Empire,” Papers on Far Eastern History 7 (1973): 28–30. The nomadic cultures in the regions north and west of China did not exist in a vacuum. It is reasonable to assume that cultural ideas were transported in both directions and that Chinese and non-Chinese cultures mutually influenced each other.
  8. A historical parallel can be found in the Japanese paradigm of the ‘interdependence’ of Buddha-Dharma and ruler’s law, see Christoph Kleine, “Religion and the Secular in Premodern Japan from the Viewpoint of Systems Theory,” Journal of Religion in Japan 2, no.1 (2013).
  9. The Mongolian Yuan dynasty was founded by Chinggis Khan’s grandson Qubilai Khan. He adopted the Chinese dynastic title “Yuan” (“origin”) for his rule in 1272 and moved the imperial capital to Beijing.
  10. For an early example, dating from 1434, see Śrī bhu ti bhadra (g’yas ru stag tshaṅ pa dPal ’byor bzaṅ po), rGya bod yig tshaṅ mkhas pa dga’ byed chen mo ’dzam gliṅ gsal ba’i me loṅ (Thim phu: Kunsang Topgyel and Mani Dorji, 1979), smad cha, fol. 16v–17v. 
  11. A re-evaluation is provided by Adam C. Krug, “Pakpa’s Verses on Governance in Advice to Prince Jibik Temür: A Jewel Rosary,” Cahiers d’Extreme-Asie 24 (2015).
  12. As late as 1877 new manuscripts of the text were produced and distributed in Mongolia.
  13. It is common in Mongolian literature that works have several titles. Thus, the “White History” is also known under the title “Short instruction to put the true Two Orders equally and flawlessly into practice” (Mo. Ünen qoyar yosu-yi tegside endegürel ügei yabuɣulqu-yin tobčiya).
  14. Klaus Sagaster, ed. and trans., Die Weisse Geschichte (Čaɣan teüke). Eine mongolische Quelle zur Lehre von den Beiden Ordnungen Religion und Staat in Tibet und der Mongolei (Wiesbaden: Otto Harrassowitz, 1976).
  15. Walther Heissig, Die Familien- und Kirchengeschichtsschreibung der Mongolen. I. 16.–18. Jahrhundert (Wiesbaden: Otto Harrassowitz, 1959), 17–26. Tsymzhit Vanchikova in Čaɣan teüke – “Belaja istorija” mongol’skij istoriko-pravovoj pamjatnik XIII-XVI vv. Sostavlenie kriticheskogo teksta i perevod “Beloj istorii” P.B. Baldanzhapova, issledovanie, redaktirovannie perevoda, sostavlenie kommentariev, podgotovka teksta “Beloj istorii” k publikatsii, perevod i kommentarij k “Shastre khana-chakravartina” i “Shastre Orunga”, ed. Tsymzhit P. Vanchikova (Ulan-Ude: Izdatel’stvo Burjatskogo nauchnogo tsentra SO RAN, 2001), 7-9, discusses in detail the question of date and authorship of the Čaɣan teüke. A total of eighteen manuscripts of the “White History” are known today, see Borjigidai Oyunbilig, “An Explanation of Ankka and Kilbar in the ‘White History’,” in On a Day of a Month of the Fire Bird Year: Festschrift for Peter Schwieger on the Occasion of His 65th Birthday, ed. Jeannine Bischoff, Petra Maurer, and Charles Ramble (Lumbini: Lumbini International Research Institute, 2020), 583.
  16. However, the titles and offices mentioned in the description of the ideal government do not reflect Yuan Dynasty hierarchies, about which we are well informed from the Chinese annals of the Yuan dynasty, the Yuan Shi, see Paul Ratchnevsky, “Zur Frage der Datierung des Caɣan teüke,” in Olon ulsyn mongol chėl bičgijn ėrdėmtnij anchdugaar ich chural, vol. 3, ed. Ž Coloo (Ulan-Bator: Verlag Šinžleh Uhaany Akad. Hėvlėl, 1962), 136-45, quoted after Sagaster, Weisse Geschichte, 285.
  17. The facsimile edition provided by Walther Heissig, Familien- und Kirchengeschichtsschreibung, „Facsimilia“, 1–24, with the title Mongɣol ulus-un arban buyan-tu nom-un čaɣan teüke ner-e-tü sudur orosibai (“Sūtra called white history of the ten meritorious rules of the Mongol people”).
  18. In the “White History”, the cult of Chinggis Khan in the so-called Eight White Yurts (Mo. naiman čaɣan ger) is attributed to Qubilai Khan, while most Mongolian sources of the 17th and 18th centuries place its implementation in the period directly after Chinggis Khan’s death. The Persian historian Rashid al-Din also mentions the cult of the Mongolian ruling family, see Sagaster, Weisse Geschichte, 197–98. Compare also Herbert Franke, From Tribal Chieftain to Universal Emperor and God: The Legitimation of the Yüan Dynasty (München, 1978), 30–31.
  19. In the cult of the Eight White Yurts (Mo. naiman čaɣan ger) Chinggis Khan is venerated as the protector and ancestor deity of the Mongol people. 
  20. This comparison for the Two Orders is widespread in the Tibetan cultural area. The law of the dharma (Tib. chos khrims) is compared with a silken knot, that of the king (Tib. rgyal po'i khrims) with a heavy golden yoke (Skt. yugaṃdhara), literally “yoke-bearer”, an allusion to one of the seven large mountain ranges of Buddhist cosmology, which in concentric circles surround the mountain Sumeru, the Buddhist axis mundi.  
  21. In the “White History” törö is used synonymously with yosun, denoting “order, law, rule”; compare Tatyana Skrynnikova, “Die Bedeutung des Begriffes törö in der politischen Kultur der Mongolen im 17. Jahrhundert,” Asiatische Studien/Etudes Asiatiques LXIII, no. 2 (2009): 450.
  22. On the development of a comparative concept of religion in 18th-century Mongolia, see Karénina Kollmar-Paulenz, “Lamas und Schamanen: Mongolische Wissensordnungen vom frühen 17. bis zum 21. Jahrhundert. Ein Beitrag zur Debatte um aussereuropäische Religionsbegriffe,” in Religion in Asien? Studien zur Anwendbarkeit des Religionsbegriffs, ed. Peter Schalk et al. (Uppsala Universitet, 2013).
  23. Cf. Schwerk, “Buddhism and Politics,” 7–8. For the Indian antecedents and the semantic range of the respective Tibetan terms, see David Seyfort Ruegg, Ordre spirituel et ordre temporel dans la pensée bouddhique de l’Inde et du Tibet. Quatre conférences au Collège de France (Paris: Collège de France, 1995), 70-86.
  24. Cyben Žamcarano, “Kul’t Chinggisa v Ordose. Iz puteshestvija v Juzhnuju Mongoliju v 1910g,” Central Asiatic Journal VI (1961). Compare also Karénina Kollmar-Paulenz, “A method that helps living beings: How the Mongols created ‘shamanism’,” Mongolo-Tibetica Pragensia 12. Ethnolinguistics, Sociolinguistics, Religion and Culture 5, no. 2 (2012).
  25. This passage, which is missing in the manuscript I use, is quoted from another version, the Erte boɣdasun yabudal-un yamun-u čaɣan teüke kemekü yeke erketü kölgen sudur ene bolai (“This is the great and mighty sūtra called ‘white history of the rules of conduct of the holy ones of earlier times’ ”), fol. 7r. This manuscript is preserved in the Gandanthegchinlin monastery in Ulaanbaatar. Vanchikova, Čaɣan teüke contains the facsimile reproduction.
  26. As mentioned before, yosun is used synonymously with törö in the “White History”.
  27. Oyunbilig, “Explanation,” 586, reads gilber, carrying the meanings of “hard, solid” and referring to “martial power”. This is not the place to discuss this reading, nor the interpretation that follows from it, which is based on the Chinese ‘two ways of governing: civilian and military’.
  28. See the discussion of the different scholarly standpoints in Igor de Rachewiltz, “Some Reflections on Činggis Qan’s Jasaɣ,” East Asian History 6 (1993).
  29. It is still open to discussion whether the Mongol concept of tngri was conceived as an abstract principle or as a personal transcendent being. Tngri was often identified with God or Allah of the surrounding monotheistic traditions. Thus, in the Rasulid hexaglot, a vocabulary in Arabic, Persian, Turkic, Greek, Armenian and Mongolian from the 14th century, the Greek ho theos and the Arabic Allāh are given as equivalents to the Turkic tängri and the Mongolian tngri/tenggeri, see Peter Golden, ed., The King’s Dictionary. The Rasulid Hexaglot: Fourteenth Century Vocabularies in Arabic, Persian, Turkic, Greek, Armenian and Mongol, trans. Louis Ligeti (Leiden: Brill, 2000), 198, 61, quoted after Christopher Atwood, “Validation by Holiness or Sovereignty: Religious Toleration as Political Theology in the Mongol World Empire of the Thirteenth Century,” The International History Review 26, no. 2 (2004): 252. When the Il-Khanid rulers converted to Islam, they officially acknowledged that tngri is the god of the prophet Muhammad. 
  30. For example, in the seal of Güyük Khan’s letter to Pope Innozenz IV, see Louis Ligeti, Monuments préclassiques I: XIIIe et XIVe siècles (Budapest: Akadémiai Kiadó, 1972), 20.
  31. Paul Ratchnevsky, Genghis Khan: His Life and Legacy (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2006), 177.
  32. Erich Haenisch, Mangḥol un niuca tobca’an (Yüan-cha’o pi-shi). Die Geheime Geschichte der Mongolen aus der chinesischen Transkription (Ausgabe Ye Têh-hui) im mongolischen Wortlaut wiederhergestellt von E.H. Teil I: Text (Wiesbaden: Franz Steiner Verlag, 1962), paragraph 280, 101; translation in Igor de Rachewiltz, The Secret History of the Mongols: A Mongolian Epic Chronicle of the Thirteenth Century. Translated with a historical and philological commentary (Leiden: Brill, 2004), 1:216.
  33. In some ways, these instructions reflect social life. It was, for example, customary in Mongolia to strew paths with small grey stones (Sagaster, Weisse Geschichte, 371), or to set up a bundle of branches near sheep pens to scare off wolves.
  34. The Ten White Virtues are: (1) do not kill, (2) do not steal, (3) do not live unchastely, (4) do not lie, (5) do not speak roughly, (6) do not speak foolishly, (7) do not slander, (8) do not covet, (9) do not have bad intentions, and (10) do not have false opinions.
  35. Mo. qubiyad: the meaning of this word is not clear.
  36. In the Mongol Empire, the will of the ruler was considered the supreme law. Although the ruler was the supreme judicial authority, his arbitrariness was curbed, as court proceedings took place in public. Chinggis Khan had established the office of jarɣuči, which took over the administration and jurisdiction. The court of jarɣuči usually dealt with criminal cases and disputes that affected the interests of the empire or the ruler. The rule of publicity could not be violated, even by the ruler himself. Arbitrary sentences were also branded as such, as the admission of guilt by Chinggis Khan's successor, Ögedei Khan, who had his henchman Doholhu secretly killed, makes clear in the Secret History of the Mongols (Erich Haenisch, Mangḥol un niuca tobca’an, 102; Igor de Rachewiltz, The Secret History of the Mongols, 1: 218). In this sense, we may speak of a rule of law.
  37. Compare n. 22.
  38. The article reads: “The State (törö) shall respect the religion (shasin), whereas the religion shall honor the State in Mongolia.” Mongolia’s Constitution of 1992 with Amendments through 2001, (last accessed 20.12.2020). The passage reads in Khalkh-Mongolian: Mongol Ulsad tör n‘ shashnaa khundetgezh, shashin n’ töröö deedelne.

Quoted and Further Reading

  • Anonymous. “Erdeni tunumal neretü sudur.” In Erdeni tunumal neretü sudur orosiba. Edited by Jorungɣ-a. Beijing: Ündüsüten-ü keblel-ün qoriy-a, 1984.
  • Atwood, Christopher P. “Validation by Holiness or Sovereignty: Religious Toleration as Political Theology in the Mongol World Empire of the Thirteenth Century.” The International History Review 26, no. 2 (2004): 237–56.
  • Capoccia, Giovanni. “Critical Junctures.” In The Oxford Handbook of Historical Institutionalism. Edited by Karl-Orfeo Fioretos, Tulia G. Falleti, Adam D. Sheingate, 89–106. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016. 
  • de Rachewiltz, Igor. “Some Remarks on the Ideological Foundations of Chinggis Khan’s Empire,” Papers on Far Eastern History 7 (1973): 21–36.
  • de Rachewiltz, Igor. “Some Reflections on Činggis Qan’s Jasaɣ.” East Asian History 6 (1993): 91–104.
  • de Rachewiltz, Igor. The Secret History of the Mongols. A Mongolian Epic Chronicle of the Thirteenth Century. Volume 1, translated with a historical and philological commentary. Leiden: Brill, 2004.
  • Franke, Herbert. From Tribal Chieftain to Universal Emperor and God: The legitimation of the Yüan Dynasty. München: Verlag der Bayerischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, 1978.
  • Golden, Peter, ed. The King’s Dictionary. The Rasulid Hexaglot: Fourteenth Century Vocabularies in Arabic, Persian, Turkic, Greek, Armenian and Mongol. Translated by Louis Ligeti. Leiden: Brill, 2000.
  • Haenisch, Erich, ed. Eine Urga-Handschrift des mongolischen Geschichtswerks von Secen Sagang (alias Sanang Secen). Berlin: Akademie-Verlag, 1955.
  • Haenisch, Erich. Mangḥol un niuca tobca’an (Yüan-cha’o pi-shi). Die Geheime Geschichte der Mongolen aus der chinesischen Transkription (Ausgabe Ye Têh-hui) im mongolischen Wortlaut wiederhergestellt von E.H. Teil I: Text. Wiesbaden: Franz Steiner Verlag, 1962.
  • Heissig, Walther. Die Familien- und Kirchengeschichtsschreibung der Mongolen. I. 16.–18. Jahrhundert. Wiesbaden: Otto Harrassowitz, 1959.
  • Kleine, Christoph. “Religion and the Secular in Premodern Japan from the Viewpoint of Systems Theory.” Journal of Religion in Japan 2, no. 1 (2013): 1–34.
  • Kollmar-Paulenz, Karénina. “A method that helps living beings: How the Mongols created ‘shamanism’.” Mongolo-Tibetica Pragensia ‘12. Ethnolinguistics, Sociolinguistics, Religion and Culture 5, no. 2 (2012): 7–19.
  • Kollmar-Paulenz, Karénina. “Lamas und Schamanen: Mongolische Wissensordnungen vom frühen 17. bis zum 21. Jahrhundert. Ein Beitrag zur Debate um aussereuropäische Religionsbegriffe.” In Religion in Asien? Studien zur Anwendbarkeit des Religionsbegriffs. Edited by Peter Schalk, Max Deeg, Oliver Freiberger, Christoph Kleine, and Astrid van Nahl, 151–200. Uppsala: Uppsala Universitet, 2013.
  • Krug, Adam C. “Pakpa’s Verses on Governance in Advice to Prince Jibik Temür: A Jewel Rosary.” Cahiers d’Extreme-Asie 24 (2015): 117–44.
  • Mongolia’s Constitution of 1992 with Amendments through 2001. (last accessed 20.12.2020).
  • Mostaert, Antoine. “Sur le Culte de Saɣang Sečen et de son bisaieul Qutuɣtai Sečen chez les Ordos.” Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 20 (1957): 534–66.
  • Oyunbilig, Borjigidai. “An Explanation of Ankka and Kilbar in the ‘White History’.” In On a Day of a Month of the Fire Bird Year. Festschrift for Peter Schwieger on the Occasion of His 65th Birthday. Edited by Jeannine Bischoff, Petra Maurer, and Charles Ramble, 583–94. Lumbini: Lumbini International Research Institute, 2020.
  • Ratchnevsky, Paul. “Zur Frage der Datierung des Caɣan teüke.” In Olon ulsyn mongol chėl bičgijn ėrdėmtnij anchdugaar ich chural. Edited by Ž. Coloo, 3:136-45. Ulan-Bator: Verlag Šinžleh Uhaany Akad. Hėvlėl, 1962.
  • Ratchnevsky, Paul. Genghis Khan. His Life and Legacy. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2006.
  • Sagaster, Klaus, ed. and trans. Die Weisse Geschichte (Čaɣan teüke). Eine mongolische Quelle zur Lehre von den Beiden Ordnungen Religion und Staat in Tibet und der Mongolei. Wiesbaden: Otto Harrassowitz, 1976.
  • Schuh, Dieter. Erlasse und Sendschreiben mongolischer Herrscher für tibetische Geistliche: Ein Beitrag zur Kenntnis der Urkunden ders tibetischen Mittelalters und ihrer Diplomatik. St. Augustin: VGH Wissenschaftsverlag, 1977.
  • Schwerk, Dagmar. “Buddhism and Politics in the Tibetan Cultural Area.” In Companion to the Study of Secularity. Edited by HCAS “Multiple Secularities – Beyond the West, Beyond Modernities.” Leipzig University, 2019.
  • Seyfort Ruegg, David. Ordre spirituel et ordre temporel dans la pensée bouddhique de l’Inde et du Tibet. Quatre conférences au Collège de France. Publications de l’institut de civilisation indienne. Paris: Collège de France, 1995.
  • Seyfort Ruegg, David. “The Preceptor-Donor (yon mchod) Relation in the Thirteenth-Century Tibetan Society and Polity, Its Inner Asian Precursors and Indian Models.” In Tibetan Studies: Proceedings of the 7th Seminar of the International Association for Tibetan Studies, Graz, 1995, 2 vols. Edited by Helmut Krasser, Michael T. Much, and Ernst Steinkellner, 857–72. Vienna: Österreichische Akademie der Wissenschaften, 1997.
  • Skrynnikova, Tatyana. “Die Bedeutung des Begriffes törö in der politischen Kultur der Mongolen im 17. Jahrhundert.” Asiatische Studien/Études Asiatiques 63, no. 2 (2009): 435–76.
  • sTag tsaṅ pa Śrī bhu ti bhadra (g’yas ru stag tshaṅ pad Pal ’byor bzaṅ po). rGya bod yig tshaṅ mkhas pa dga’ byed chen mo ’dzam gliṅ gsal ba’i me loṅ. Thimphu: Kunsang Topgyel and Mani Dorji, 1979.
  • Vanchikova, Tsymzhit P., ed. Čaɣan teüke – “Belaja istorija” mongol’skij istoriko-pravovoj pamjatnik XIII-XVI vv. Sostavlenie kriticheskogo teksta i perevod “Beloj istorii” P.B. Baldanzhapova, issledovanie, redaktirovannie perevoda, sostavlenie kommentariev, podgotovka teksta “Beloj istorii” k publikatsii, perevod i kommentarij k “Shastre khana-chakravartina” i “Shastre Orunga” Ts.P. Vanchikovoj. Ulan-Ude: Izdatel’stvo Burjatskogo nauchnogo tsentra SO RAN, 2001.
  • Wohlrab-Sahr, Monika, and Marian Burchardt. “Multiple Secularities: Toward a Cultural Sociology of Secular Modernities.” Comparative Sociology 11, no. 6 (2012): 875–909.
  • Žamcarano, Cyben. “Kul’t Chinggisa v Ordose. Iz puteshestvija v Juzhnuju Mongoliju v 1910g.” Central Asiatic Journal VI (1961): 194–234.