What impact is the Anthropocene—the current geological age of human dominance—having on religion? How are communities where religion has long interacted with ecology responding to the fundamental changes taking place within that ecology? Saskia Abrahms-Kavunenko asks these questions in her important book Enlightenment and the Gasping City: Mongolian Buddhism at a Time of Environmental Disarray by delving into religious life in postsocialist Mongolia. Drawing on fieldwork conducted over twenty-two months between 2009 and 2016 in the Buddhist Dharma Centers of the Mongolian capital of Ulaanbaatar, Abrahms-Kavunenko disrupts simplistic representations of Mongolian Buddhist revival by focusing on urban communities, and specifically by exploring the impact of environmental pollution on how Mongolian Buddhists relate to concepts of light and the sky.
According to Abrahms-Kavunenko, in contemporary Mongolia, many Buddhist centers promulgate meditation instructions for purification (Mongolian: ariutgal) practices for lay practitioners that invoke descriptions of bright light and clear skies. These practices are intended to create favorable conditions for Mongolian Buddhists pursuing enlightenment (pp. 3–4). What happens, then, when the clear sky and bright light are obscured by air pollution throughout the winter months? The result of this exploration is an informative and empathetic consideration of how Buddhist communities in Mongolia have responded to the many changes brought about by environmental, human-created change and its accompanying social inequalities, including air pollution and its impact on livelihoods in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Abrahms-Kavunenko's focus on traditional forms of practice, such as clear light meditation, demonstrates the flexible and adaptive nature of Buddhism in response to new challenges, and it is a refreshing change from the narratives of decline or disappearance often found in discussions of religious revival and the Anthropocene.
The book comprises an introduction, nine chapters, and a conclusion. The chapters can be divided into three major themes: introductory and background material in the first three chapters; Buddhist concepts in practice in chapters 4 and 5; and in the final four chapters, the connections between Buddhist practices, the environment, and ethics in contemporary Mongolia.
In the introduction, Abrahms-Kavunenko introduces us to the problem of air pollution as a major issue in Ulaanbaatar during the winter months, discussing its appearance following the socialist period as part of urbanization in Mongolia. Here she positions her research within anthropological studies of material culture and modern Mongolian history.
In chapter 1, Abrahms-Kavunenko discusses how the economic changes in Mongolia during the postsocialist period have generated increasing amounts of air pollution along with other forms of pollution caused by mining and political and economic corruption. In chapter 2, she outlines a history of Mongolian Buddhism from the fourth century CE onward. These first two chapters provide excellent introductory material for understanding the contemporary Mongolian context that is the focus of the rest of the book.
In chapters 3 and 4, Abrahms-Kavunenko considers the role of Buddhism since the beginning of the postsocialist democratic revolution in Mongolia in 1990 and the rise of new forms of Sinophobia, hybridity, and cosmopolitanism among Mongolians. In that context, she considers the impact of such rapid social change on religious practice by examining contemporary Mongolian anxieties around religious ignorance. Drawing on anthropological frameworks for understanding ignorance, Abrahms-Kavunenko considers how the postsocialist period has been marked by a democratization of religious knowledge that has fueled the revival of religion but also led to important problems of loss, trust, and authority.
Chapters 5, 6, and 7 explore the practices of contemporary Buddhists in Ulaanbaatar and take up the geopolitics of contemporary Mongolian Buddhist teachers in the broader landscape of the city and translocal Buddhist networks. Here, Abrahms-Kavunenko considers the “growing physical obscuration of Buddhism in Ulaanbaatar” (p. 100) as a result of the proliferation of high-rise buildings and the appearance of new institutions in the form of dharma centers run by translocal organizations such as the Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition (pp. 112–14) and blessed by visiting religious figures from the Tibetan diaspora. Chapters 6 and 7 consider the relationship of Buddhist practices with environmental pollution by focusing on the theme of purification. Chapter 6 centers discourses that connect karma with moral causality through a rich analysis of interviews with a wide variety of Mongolian Buddhist practitioners and teachers. In chapter 7, Abrahms-Kavunenko discusses Buddhist rituals and objects that are intended to unblock obstacles to fortune, a source of anxiety for individuals and communities because of the fluctuations of the postsocialist Mongolian economy.
Chapters 8 and 9 explore the implications of this rising anxiety for people's attitudes toward new and revived Buddhist institutions. The perspective of one of Abrahms-Kavunenko's interlocutors, the layperson Ochir, provides us with an insight into a common criticism among Mongolians of contemporary Buddhist institutions: Ochir states that in Ulaanbaatar, it seemed “there are a lot of temples, a lot of lamas who just want money . . . Most of them I think can't read the sūtras, or they can read but they can't understand what the words mean” (p. 159). Chapter 9 offers a fascinating examination of new religious groups in Ulaanbaatar. Many of these movements are connected to vegetarianism (known in Mongolia as “white food”), which is seen as yet another form of purification. But Abrahms-Kavunenko points out that the rise in popularity of vegetarianism raises important questions about cultural continuity and accessibility, especially in the countryside, where nomadic herders survive by consuming animal-derived products.
In the conclusion, Abrahms-Kavunenko reflects on the rise of air pollution in Ulaanbaatar and around the world. She writes of how “[a]s the skies have become fuzzy with smog, inequalities have become more visible, compounding the sense that Ulaanbaatar is imbued with spiritual and moral decline and that this decline literally hands over the city. . . . It is a source of inaction, blocking efforts to transform the city” (p. 202). However, the Mongolian conception of khiimori, the wind horse, is connected to “movement, vitality and good fortune,” and Abrahms-Kavunenko argues that this concept, along with other indigenous and Buddhist metaphors, can bring about positive transformation and reinvigoration (p. 202). Such metaphors may also inspire global change since access to fresh air connects us, as Abrahms-Kavunenko concludes, “[e]ven in this smothering air the seed of enlightenment” (p. 203).
Enlightenment and the Gasping City is a beautifully written and deeply original work that will contribute to discussions across disciplinary boundaries in the environmental humanities, religious studies, and anthropology. Abrahms-Kavunenko's research carves out new paths in the study of the revival of Mongolian religions, especially Buddhism. Her selection of rich interview materials and experiences and her care in centering Mongolian voices and perspectives, along with carefully selected photographs, allows unprecedented insight into attitudes regarding religion and ecology in contemporary Mongolia. But wider audiences will have much food for thought as well. Her arguments about the impact of pollution and environmental change on religion, culture, urbanization, and nationalism will make this an important book for years to come, and a snapshot of a crucial moment in Inner Asian environmental history.