Traditionally, Mongols practiced a combination of Tibetan Buddhism (also called Vajrayana Buddhism) and shamanism. Tibetan Buddhism shares the common Buddhist goals of individual release from suffering and reincarnation. Tibet’s Dalai Lama, who lives in India, is the religion’s spiritual leader and is highly respected in Mongolia.He visited Mongolia several times, and most recently in 1995 in the company of Richard Gere.
At the beginning of the 20th century, Mongolia had hundreds of monasteries, and about half of all men were monks. In the 1930s, the Communist government launched a campaign against Lamaism, Mongolia’s chief religion, and thousands of monks were arrested and executed. By 1945, after the Communist government's religious purge, all but one monastery (Gandan Tegchilin in Ulaanbaatar) had been closed, although shamanistic practices continued. Worship was forbidden until 1990, when democracy was restored and a religious revival ensued.
Since, when freedom of religion was restored, then Buddhism has rapidly re-established itself, resulting in the construction of dozens of new monasteries and the restoration of temples destroyed in the 1930s. The Buddhist art school in Gandan Monastery is thriving and high lamas from Tibet, Nepal and India has made trips to Mongolia. Many young people are receiving an education through these traditional centers of learning, and boys are increasingly applying to become monks. The new freedom of religion also extends to the Kazak Muslims. Meanwhile many Christian missionaries are seeking new souls in the country and some even have opened their churches.
Like many other Buddhist countries, religion dominates Mongolian arts, including traditional dance. The most common dance, the tsam, is a mask dance. Performed to exorcise evil spirits, tsam dances are ritualized and theatrical, and are influenced by unique Mongolian nomadic folklore, as well as shamanism.