Buddhism in Bhutan

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It is believed that Buddhism was introduced to Bhutan in the late 8th century CE by Guru Padmasambhava (also known as Padmakara or Padma Raja; and earlier as Saroruha Vajra or simply Saroruha), a monk from the Swat Valley, (now in Pakistan). In Bhutan and Tibet, Guru Padmasambhava is also known as Guru Rinpoche ("Precious Master"), and followers of the Nyingma school regard him as the second Buddha.

Bhutan is a country of Shabdrung, a follower of Buddhism. Buddhism flourished in Bhutan before Shabdrung, the religion had its stronghold from his time when he unified the country in the early 17th century. Folk tales remark that the country was under Buddhist influence for many centuries before, and retained its culture and religion identity for longer period. “There were several reasons why Bhutan has been able to retain its cultural identity while neighbouring areas to the south and north have been undergoing profound and fundamental changes”.

Historically, the diversity and heterogeneity that have characterized South Asian society and the tolerance of Hinduism for cultural diversity have had a strong influence on Bhutanese society.

Along with Buddhism, other religions have also played a significant role. Hinduism and Buddhism have distinct border though nowadays have interliving between them. Mostly, Buddhists are found in the north and Hindus in the south of the country. Being a Buddhist country, it has close relations with Japan, Nepal, China, India and other Buddhist countries. After 1960, some Christian families are also seen in the country. Father William Machea (known as the Brother of Bhutan) is the source of the popularisation of Christianity in Bhutan. But then also, Christianity was not allowed to preach openly in the country. The government had restricted the preaching of religions other than Hinduism and Buddhism.

If Bhutan’s religious history is to be traced back, the first religion flourished in the country was Bonism led by Lhase Shangma. But as the leader himself was exiled, the religion could not exist and set its footholds.

The existence of Bonism ended in 1222 when Phajo Drugom Shigpo entered Bhutan. During the course of time, Bhutan was being stucked by Geluckpas and many other religious sects. When the Geluckpa drove other sect of Buddhism from Tibet, they entered Bhutan. This became the source that Bhutan pertains its distinct cultural heritage. Most of the primitive rules followed in Tibet were reformed and a new form of Buddhism flourished in Bhutan, though its principles didn’t change. Buddhism flourished in the 3rd century, when Ashoka sent his followers including his own son Mahendra to preach Buddhism in neighbouring countries.

The other record indicates that the Buddhism was firstly preached by Lam Gyalwa Lhanangpa in the 12th century. Thinley Rabyang is other Lam who stretched his hands in preaching Buddhism in about 1522, in Bhutan, though he could not attain much success.

Buddhism was effectively flourished in Bhutan from the time of Guru Rinpochhe. Preaching of Guru Rinpochhe is the greatest in the Buddhist history of Bhutan. He is favoured fellow to preach of Buddhism in the Himalayan land-sheds. Some leaders had entered Bhutan as exiled or ordered by their elders. Instead, Guru Rinpochhe was invited officially by the Bhutanese in the initiation of the Bumthang king, Sendya Gyab in 784 CE.

This way Buddhuism was finally recognised in Bhutan. Though many sects cursed it, its supremacy never detained. A boy could become a novice monk between the age of five and ten. If found acceptable, the child was invested with a red cloak and a piece of cloth placed round his neck; and thereafter he no longer belonged to his parents. The gelongs fed him, taught him to pray and read holy books. He had to renounce all connection with women and with any form of cultivation but could engage in trade or serve the government. The gelongs were obliged to perform religious worship in public to read holy books for private individuals and to burn the dead. The gelongs are abstained from fish or flesh on 8th , 14th and 30th of each month and were for bidden to take wine, although some drank in secret. (Peter Collister - Bhutan and the British, page 46/7)

Preaching of Buddhism

Drukpa Kagyukpa is the state religion of the country. “The advent of Buddhism into Mon Yul in early seventh century A.D not only brought about a religious transformation of the people but also set a process of historical evolution of the country.

When in first century China was under Buddhist influence, Tibet was a pagan country. However, when in the 7th century (before Tibet was influenced by Bonism doctrine), the Tibetan King Tshrongtshen Gampo (624-49 CE) was married with Chinese and Nepalese princesses, both Buddhist, its doctrine changed the spiritual and religious structure of Tibetan community. Those two queens ordered the construction of 108 monasteries in Nepal, Tibet, Sikkim, China and Bhutan. Kichu monastery of Paro and Jampe Lhakhang of Bumthang are the two located in Bhutan. In this way Buddhism was firstly introduced in Bhutan in the 7th century CE but did not come in concrete existence as in China and Tibet.

Later on many Buddhist leaders entered Bhutan for preaching Buddhism from Tibet and other neighboring countries. Though in earlier it was reluctantly dominated, it created a firm existence as state religion and now respected by all Bhutanese.

Ral Pachelan was the king of Tibet between 816 and 836 CE. His follower Lam Shangpa Gyarey entered Bhutan preaching Buddhism in 830. Buddhism was further strengthened by brother of Tibetan king Lang Dharma (836-842). His effort lasted for six years and was assassinated by a Buddhist monk Pal Dorji in 842 CE.

After the clash of Nabudara and Sendya Gyab in Bumthang, 12 monasteries including Takshang monastery, Bumthang Kurje, Damar monastery, and Paro Chhumphu monastery were built in Bhutan.

During the time Tshrongtshen Gampo of Tibet, Buddhism flourished in South Asia. In this period, 108 monasteries were bulit under the active leadership of Nepalese princess, Bhrikuti, in Nepal, Sikkim, Bhutan, Tibet, China and other neighbouring places.

Buddhism was divided into two sects as Hinayana and Manayana during the Fourth Great Buddhist Council [FGBC] meeting at Jalandhara {date not mentioned}. Since the people from Hinayana {Theravada} had not attended there, the sect was declared as the lesser vehicle and the Mahayana as the greater vehicle. But after the time of Garapsel, Atisa and Rinchhen of Tibet divided Buddhism into three sects as Nyingmapa {old sect}, Kadampa {reformed sect}, and Sakyapa. Kadampa existed in Tibet till Gelukpa {Yellow Hat Sect} dominated the country. Nyingmapas were exiled to Bhutan, Sikkim and Tibet during the 14th century.

Tibetan sages and lamas had stretched hands in preaching Buddhism in Bhutan whose activities are discussed below. During their preaching they were attacked from neighbouring countries and from within the country. Among the attackers, Gelukpas of Tibet and Lam Kha Nga from within Bhutan were the main. It happened such that Buddhism never ended though cursed by many feudal lords and sectorial religion.

Buddhist leaders

Guru Rinpochhe

Earlier Bhutan was divided into small states ruled by individual feudal lords fighting each other from time to time. Amongst these principalities, Bumthang was one. It was being governed by feudal king named Sendya Gyab. Saying his forefather’s kingdom, Nabudara {Nauchhe} of southern Duar attacked the kingdom of Sendya Gyab. During war around an iron castle, the son of Sendya Gyab, Taglamebar was said to have been killed. This loss brought in Sendya unsatisfaction. He ordered the destruction of all temple and idols. This itching made him seriously ill. When no sign of recovery was seen, messengers were sent to Maratika, Nepal {some say India} with cupful of gold dust. Thus Guru Rinpochhe was invited to Bhutan. He subdued, as Bhutanese records speak, the feudal deities and preached Buddhism reconstructing temples and monasteries. Then Sendya Gyab and his citizens were made the followers of Buddhism, the Nyinmagpa sect. So ‘he is regarded as the second Buddha’.3

Phajo Drugam Shigpo [1184-1251]

The other distinct Tibetan Lama who came to preach Buddhism in Bhutan was Phajo Drugom Shigpo. He came from Kham, eastern Tibet. He was instructed to preach Buddhisn in Bhutan by Sangye Oendrey, founder of Drukpa School in Tibet. Phajo was educated in Ralung. He entered Bhutan in 1222 AD. Namthars indicate that he had lot of visions of Guru Rinpochhe and was instructed by him as well. With Sonam Palden, he preached Buddhism in Bhutan mostly in northern part. He made the religion recognised in the country and brought the Bhutanese under unity and friendliness.

Kuenga Sengye [1314-1347]

Among the Abbots of Ralung, the seventh Abbot Kuenga Sengye was the first to come to Bhutan. He was said to be invited by great grandson of Phajo Drugom Shigpo. On his visit to Dechenphug in Thimphu valley, it is said that he had subdued the local deity Genyen Jagpa Melan, making him the protector of Buddhist faith. Now the statue of Jagpa can be seen in Dechenphug, regal looking, riding a red horse and holding a sword.

Drukpa Kuenley [1455-1525]

A favourite Drukpa Lam of Bhutan is Drukpa Kuenley, elder cousin of Ngawang Chhoegyal. His preaching in humour and compassion started in Bhutan by 1490. He was a special form of holiness, which has been called ‘crazy wisdom’ or “devine madness”. He is said to be against the monasteries as the priests were in habit of asking everything from the people and the teaching was in slow process. He was with people teaching them through humour, poetry, song, love and dance and in the ways quoted in Namthars. Historians stressed, his teachings tried to show that the spiritual life of a person is tied and bound to his real and everyday life and that through all the different experiences, a person can achieve full enlightenment. Thus his teachings were direct to preach and made lot of people his followers in short period of time.

Ngawang Chhoegyal [1465-1540]

This Abbot of Ralung visited first in 1497 though he visited Bhutan many times. On his visits, he was accompanied by two of his sons and helped him in the construction of temples and monasteries mostly in western Bhutan such as Druk Chhoeding in Paro, Pangri Zampa and Hongtsho in Thimphu and Chhimey Lhakhang in Punakha. His son Ngagi Wangchuk constructed the first Trongsa, Jakar and Lhuntshi Dzongs. All these lamas preach the Drukpa Kagyugpa sect. Amongst the lamas of other sects, Nyingmapas were successful in establishing their influence in Bhutan.

Longchhen Rabjam Drimey Oezer [1308-1363]

Of the Tibetan lamas, most famous and respected Nyingmapa lama, Oezer was one. He was regarded as the Buddhist Scholar. He spent about ten years in Bhutan preaching Nyingmapa Buddhism. On his preaching process, he built a number of temples and monasteries including Tharpaling and Ugyen Chhoeling in Bumthang and Kuenzangling in Kurtoe. He strengthened the Nyingmapa in Bhutan, which was being dominated before.

Pema Lingpa [1450-1521]

The Bhutanese saint who further strengthened the Nyingmapa sect was Pema Lingpa. He was born in Chelwa Rithrang of Tang valley of Bumthang in Iron Horse year. As he had discovered many Ters {treasures} hidden by Guru Rinpocche, he was popularly known as Terton Pema Lingpa. Among his discoveries here is one produced:

Mebartsho lake is said to be in dense forest of Bumthang. There Guru Padmasambhawa (Lotus-born) had buried a casket and prophesied that it will be discovered by a predestined person in future at proper time. Pema Lingpa discovered the treasure.

He preached the Buddhist faith as was instructed in the Spiritual Wisdom. Now his fame as Terton (treasure discoverer) spread not only in Bhutan but also in Tibet. Today his text and secret dances, commissional art etc. are all important cultural treasure of the country. And the Rpyal family of the country is regarded to be the descendents of Pema Lingpa.

These lamas including their many other followers who accompanied them during their visit to Bhutan, have strengthened religious structure but but were not able to establish a fixed and bound administration under one power. Weaknesses of those lamas were that they were not able to establish a concrete network of centralised administration, but it is their toil that Buddhism exists today as the royal cult of Bhutan. Bhutanese Buddhist deities had their counterparts in the Hindu Pantheon. KK Bose saw many similarities between the two religions. Both worshiped the images of deities, counted beads at prayers and offered clarified butter to the gods by throwing it into fire. (Peter Collister - Bhutan and the British, page47) Buddhist ceremonial were a curious compound of Romish, Buddhist and Hindu worship. (Peter Collister - Bhutan and the British, page 66)