Genghis Khan

On my first visit to Mongolia, the National Legal Institute gave me a small leather scroll, a painted icon of Genghis Khan. I take it with me when I travel–initially because a Russian friend told me that if I traveled with an icon, I would be spared misfortune. So, the gift from the National Legal Institute of Mongolia (a sober and secular institution) has afforded me spiritual protection. When not travelling, I hang the icon on the wall at eye level in the room where I practice singing. Genghis Khan’s image keeps me focused, always striving to improve.

This icon has become rather important to me. There is a gold disc on his chest which I focus on while doing certain breathing exercises during which my mind might have a tendency to wander. I imagine that this gold disc connects Genghis Khan to powerful universal forces.  I remember Genghis Khan’s famous revelation that he had achieved his empire through no power of his own. When I first read this, I was astounded and shaken. The world’s greatest leader never lost touch with his essential vulnerability.  He was never deluded and knew very well his exact place between heaven and earth. His greatest achievement was a product of facing brutal odds with ingenuity, emotional honesty, devotion to his fellow beings and concern for the Earth. His understanding of universal principles assured that he would never try to assert his own will over and above these principles. Indeed, he had been successful in meeting his obligations by adhering to these principles and by appealing to the cosmic capacity to create outcomes according to those principles.

He was not one to abandon principle. Cosmic law had given him strength. He never considered himself more than ordinary. And this insight into his character, when it occurred, gave me tremendous relief. I recall that I even began to physically breathe easier. This small revelation of Genghis Khan’s ordinariness seemed to free my mind and expand my horizons. But it activated also a deep sense of vulnerability,  which I can only call realism. Genghis Khan had no “greatness” to protect him. He had only his ability to take responsibility. This ability was bestowed by the Sky and Earth. And the forces that acted through him came through his devotion and self-sacrifice. In the end, he was simply a human being, a cosmic traveller, a brother. He only ever did his best and even acknowledged his failings.

Learning about Genghis Khan has connected me to something profoundly mortal: there is This and only This. When we act balancing our passions with higher principles, when we organize rationally with one another and in harmony with our environment,  we can construct for ourselves an effacious moment in time, one in which cosmic hopes are born out and life can be celebrated, cherished.  If attended to thoughtfully, and if providence is not unkind, we can extend this efficacious moment forward in time, perhaps seven generations. Equally, we can extend ourselves psychically backward in time to acknowledge the sacrifices and insights of our ancestors.

We draw strength from both directions. We draw from inner reserves and shared resources.  We share of ourselves and we receive gratefully from others. It is really that simple. Genghis Khan embodies this. Embodying this, he has no use for “greatness”.  It is as though for him, “greatness” was mere folly.  He never needed false assurances. When in a crisis, there is only the seeking of solutions. When necessary, one goes to Burkhan Khaldun to find psychic access to ideas and solutions that perhaps lie presently just beyond one’s reach. As Einstein famously noted, we cannot solve problems at the same level they were created. Sometimes we must go the mountain.  It is all we can do. There are many paintings of Nicholas Roerich that depict spiritual personages engaging in exertions of a spiritual nature, seeking and connecting in a catalytic manner with the infinite, the cosmic cooperative.  He depicts them usually in natural environments, where their duties have drawn them to connect to higher principles. They are seen in postures of invocation, enveloped in light or magnetism, and always guided by a purpose, a purpose greater than themselves. 

One knows of Genghis Khan’s important visits to Burkhan Khaldun. One senses in the “environmental revelations” that Genghis Khan encoded in law a fastidious and deeply observant student of nature. The total symbiotic potential of his relationship with Burkhan Khaldun is probably incalculable. But it can’t be doubted that the great Khan understood his role as a steward of the Earth and that this role was the very basis of his leadership.  He had no power of his own.  It wasn’t that he saw the virtue of being ordinary. It was that he saw clearly the dangers in being anything else.  Superfluities become liabilities. Titles and conceits wither in an instant. What is necessary is adherence to universal principles which are inherent in all nature. We must attune to them. We must study and invite them into our thoughts. We must embody them. Where, then, is there any room for “greatness”? Genghis Khan was a servant of his people–through no power of his own! 

There is some debate concerning how much of traditional Mongolian environmental law was the direct creation of Genghis Khan.  It is undoubtedly true that Genghis Khan was informed by knowledge that had existed for many millenia. In the creation of his sacred state, it was necessary to codify and formally enshrine these ancient principles. But these principles derive from the living science of Mongolian nomadism.

Nomadism IS environmentalism.  It is the applied science of best environmental practices. And in the example of Genghis Khan we glimpse something we can call perhaps “principled development”–not merely sustainable, but development that is concerned with the human being and with the recognition of universal law that undergirds all life and which, when observed, brings evolutionary results. Principled development cuts no corners, allows neither starvation nor ignorance. While it follows principles born out in best practices, it is itself living and changing. It is not a dead formula played out for convenience. It requires the constant and adept attentions of all. As musicians must tune to one another, this vigilance brings melodic freedom. We can soar when we feel ourselves in alignment with harmonic principles. It is the same with nomadism, with environmentalism.  In an era when “sustainability” has been coopted to cover for practices that remain inadvisable, we should urge the human project toward principled development–a development that leaves no one behind, that wastes nothing and engages the human spirit.

We know with certainty that obscene profits conceal terrible crimes. We know that justice delayed is justice denied. We understand intuitively that our human rights emerge from deeper levels of order inherent in all life. On a good day, we know what it is to feel One with everything. We know what it is to want to share that sense of oneness. In that state of oneness, growth for the sake of growth seems insane.  Genghis Khan was a genius at organizing the human project in harmony with the energies of Father Sky and Mother Earth. His adherence to principles grounded his considerable genius for improvisation and innovation.  It is my great hope that in my capacity as Secretary-General of the Roerich-Bira Foundation,  I can begin to bring the principles of Mongolian nomadic environmentalism to general consciousness, that they might refuel and invigorate the development of international environmental law.  In my view, the Indigenous perspective gives the human family access to the awareness of the principles that have given us life. There is no more viable global voice than the Indigenous voice. We may have to quiet ourselves somewhat in order to listen carefully to its message. But the soft and gentle power of its admonitions will provide us with the fearless and indomitable spirit we will require to set the human project back on the right path. The great and gentle spirits that Genghis Khan sought at Burkhan Khaldun are still there. In his exertions, he aligned his purposes with sacred harmonies.


Well, relative success! A very important day and a day projecting much in the way of forward momentum. I should perhaps learn better to trust, to have faith. I have firmly aligned myself with forces larger than myself and so I need to operate psychologically on a larger playing field. It is a very important lesson to learn–to stop confusing personal limitations with universal parameters. Besides,  I have no real choice. I cannot abandon my purpose. And I cannot abandon myself. My personal limitations reveal immediate realities beyond my personal boundaries. My personal issues are common. To know them well is the first step toward being of service to the larger community.

The meeting today with Dr. Shagdargen Bira and his powerful daughter Dr. Yanjmaa Bira was incredibly productive. The Roerich-Bira Foundation is the ideal platform from which to develop this new basis for international environmental law.  Drawing on the legacy of Nicholas Roerich as a legal innovator and his visionary Roerich Pact as a model,  the concept of consolidating international law around the concepts articulated by the global indigenous movement has both psychic energy and viability. Mongolian Tenggerism,  which has been Dr. Shagdargen Bira’s passion and dominant subject of study, provides a clear and resonant elaboration of the themes pronounced by indigenous peoples everywhere. The Earth, the Sky and Humankind existing in cooperative and harmonic balance is the spiritual, theoretical and practical basis for the further development of international environmental law.  And the universalist visionary Roerich remains steadfast! Culture is essential to life! It enshrines and keeps open for lively discussion the living essence of human experience.  It is as essential for collective psychological navigation as is a compass for the individual exploring remote areas of the Gobi. “Khamkhuul,” “tumbleweed”. The image conjures both toughness and fragility. It conjures a floating sphere, it echoes both existential loneliness and welcome recognition.  It embodies transience and endurance, the singularity of life and the vastness of space. It can represent each of us or all of us. We smile at it. Or it reminds us of harsh reality. We both identify and feel remoteness. So, it is life.

Mongolia implies adaptability.  In today’s meeting we wisely chose to postpone the seminar originally intended for October.  Having become sufficiently acclimated to Mongolian culture,  I can attest to the wisdom of flexibility.  There is need to improvise,  to devise alternatives, to wait and see.  So my inborn western instinct to feel impatience at postponement has now been tempered by the capacity to welcome adjustment. Postponing our seminar until May will allow for a fuller flowering of ideas and and a greater organizational potential: the Roerich “diaspora” will be involved, UNESCO can be cultivated as a partner, more luminaries of international law will be able to attend and contribute, our aims and aspirations will have more time to clarify, and the few contacts I have made in local media here in Ulaanbaatar will have time to help build a real event. And so, the dismay of postponement is converted to excitement. Much work lies ahead. But May will be here in a hearbeat. So diligence and adaptability are required!

I will also have time to establish good communication with indigenous rights organizations, with tribal leaders and indigenous media. Without this, our project will not have wings or wind. Dr. Shagdargen Bira’s presence exudes both the profound, universalist dimensions of indigenous wisdom with the erudition and scientific curiosity I felt in Moscow last year at Roerich Conference. In his passionate speech and compassionate presence, one feels a kind of cosmic surety that invokes a kind a of cultural reconciliation: the ancient meets the modern, the West meets the East, Spirit meets Science. But also, the great reverence one must feel for such a man is offset by his warm and practical demeanor. His eyes seem to have seen great distances, both inner and outer. And so, one feels great trust.  His daughter is the perfect complement: dynamic, driven, warm and funny. Her training as a medical doctor commands respect. And her guardianship of her father’s legacy is beyond any reproach and holds out much promise for the further study of Mongolian nomadic environmentalism and its global potential. We are indeed relieved to join purposes with such a duo.  And I am confident in the magnetic potential of our collaboration.  My dream of uniting law and culture in the service of our current challenges has now a clear form and a plan of action. My colleagues in Moscow, Vienna, and Washington will be energized by our news. And my mentor, Prof. Yutaka Tajima,  will–I hope–nod approvingly.

That this formative meeting should occur in the last hours of my visit here in Ulaanbaatar is also typical of what I understand as my Mongolian experience. Breakthroughs here are often last minute. And often in defiance of the odds. But the sense of chaos that this might convey is softened by the social consonant that is its backdrop. Perhaps that is what I have learned most from Mongolia: the overriding value of social cohesion and mutual understanding at the individual level. It is this communal vision that facilitates action and  teaches the virtues of patience and respect. I know I will take this back with me to a New York.  I have no illusions about transforming those I will rejoin there. I expect no magical conversions of friends or family. I expect a continuation of  bewilderment, self-absorption and even rejection.  But it will sting less. And my sense is that if I follow my hunches, hold onto my faith in my purpose and develop my guiding concepts, I will succeed. And I will return to Ulaanbaatar in November to work and stoke local interest.

When last I saw my Shaman, he agreed to help me clear away obstacles. And, in truth, I have psychologically relied greatly on his pledge in the past several weeks. The sense of the insurmountable has been eased by the contribution of his psychic energies in this process.  And, indeed, his help has allowed me to “hang in there.” This alone has enabled the wonderful results that today has brought. 

When last I saw my Shaman, we played a traditional game involving the rolling of sheep’s anklebones like dice. He told me that he would help me if I won. Unfortunately,  I lost.  But he said he would help me anyway because he said I had a “white spirit”. He had asked me why I wanted to help Mongolia. I told him that my aim was not to help Mongolia. I told him that I was in Mongolia because I thought the answers to the world’s problems were in Mongolia, that Mongolia possesses the keys that will unlock a new era. I spoke this with great certainty. This certainty has only grown in me. He accepted my response.

I am no do-gooder. On Twitter yesterday I was accused of being an ‘odious Russian chauvinist’.  I am afraid that I am probably odious in many respects. If I am a chauvinist, this is indeed a grave fault.  But, my faults quite aside, I know I have experienced truth here in Mongolia.  In the Gobi, in Ulaanbaatar.  And I am eager to share this experience with others from around the globe. Friends and family may be the last to come along. But my vision has widened and my capacity for faith has deepened. And I wish to share this.