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.