Buddhism in Bhutan

According to the Indian chronicles, the name ‘Bhutan‘ is derived from the Sanskrit word ‘Bhotanta‘ meaning ‘the end of Tibet’ (Bhot means Tibet) or from ‘Bhu-uttan‘ meaning ‘highlands‘. According to the classical Tibetan chronicles, the place is referred to as
(i) ‘Lhomon Tsenden Jong‘ which stands for ‘the southern ‘Mon’ country of Sandalwood (Chandan)’,
(ii) ‘Lhomon Men Jong‘ referring to ‘the southern ‘Mon’ country of Medicine (herbs).

The Bhutanese people follow Nyingma and Drugpa Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism. But the Bhutanese chronicles mention Bhutan as “Drug Yul” meaning “the Land of the Thunder Dragon” (because of the constant storms which roar in from the Himalayas) in reference to the predominant Drugpa school of Tibetan Buddhism in Bhutan, which is the nationalist interpretation of Bhutan. The territory is populated by the Tibetan people who do not follow Drugpa Kagyu Buddhism and other parts also do not follow Drugpa school of Buddhism, therefore, this name does not represent all the people of Bhutan inclusively, so it is debatable.

The history of Bhutan is directly linked with Padmasambhava‘s visit at around 747 AD. Padmasambhava has eight manifestations (Gure Chengye) and among theme is the Dorje Dolo and he subdued the local deity (Capricorn-dikpa) by transforming into the profound figure sitting on the pregnant tigress. He was transformed in this vision in Paro valley at Taktsang Lhakhang meaning Tigress’s Nest.

King Songtsan Gampo made thirteen ‘Lhakhang‘ in Tibet and the Tibetan Cultural Region surrounding Tibet, assuming the Tibetan cultural territory as the body of Vajra Varahi and he made the temples in the important points of her body. Among these Lhakhangs, two important Lhakhangs are within the territory of modern Bhutan. Therefore, we can infer that Buddhism entered into the area of Bhutan during the 7th century. The two Lhakhang:

1. Kyichu Lhakhang at Paro
Kyichu Lhakhang, (also known as Kyerchu Temple or Lho Kyerchu) is an important Himalayan Buddhist temple situated in Lango Gewog of Paro District in Bhutan.

kyichu lhakhang at Paro,Bhutan
Kyichu Lhakhang at Paro, Bhutan

2. Jambay Lhakhang (Jampa Temple or Temple of Maitreya) at Bumthang, are the examples of the expansion of Tibetan Buddhism in Bhutan. The precious master, Guru Rinpoche, who came to this area to subdue the local deities and expand Buddhism in this region, further carried Tibetan Buddhism of Bhutan. The Pedma Kathang mentions the reference to these places in detail. Similarly, the famous Padmasambhava’s consort (Dakini) Tashi Khyidron is believed to be a Bhutanese lady.

The Bhutanese also refer to the story of Khikharatho (a man with the head of a goat and a body of man) and they have a place khenpajong and falsely mention the place to be khenpalung of Nepal, one of the Beyul predicted by Padmasambhava known as Guru Rinpoche.

Around Jakar, Jambay Lhakhang is one of the oldest temples in the kingdom. It was founded by Songtsen Gampo, a Tibetan King in 659 AD. The king was destined to build 108 temples known as Thadhul-Yangdhul (temples on and across the border) in a day to subdue the demoness that was residing in the Himalayas. The temple is one of the two of the 108 built in Bhutan. A second is located in Paro, the Kichu Lhakhang also built on the same day. The main relics include the future Buddha, Jowo Jampa (Maitreya) from whose name the present name of the temple is derived.

Jambay Lhakhang at Bumthang
Jambay Lhakhang at Bumthang. Photo by Gerd Eichmann
Guru Rinpoche
Guru Rinpoche

The second propagation of Buddhism took place in the Bhutanese territories after the Kagyupa masters came to this region and established their lineage. The first Drigung Kagyu Lama (1164-1224) came to Bhutan in the twelfth century and developed Buddhism, which later became the important lineage in the western territories of Bhutan, which still exists, in livelier form. Following the trend another Tibetan lama PhajoDrugon Zhigpo (1208-76), a direct disciple of Tsangpa Gyare, came to Bhutan and established Drugpa Kagyu School of Buddhism and made the Tango Gompa at Phajoding in the thirteenth century and propagated Buddhism in this region. The most important Tibetan Lama of Drugpa Kagyu School, Kunga Legpa known as Drugpa Kunleg (1455-1529), one of the three Divine Madmen, came to this region and made a Palung Gumpa at and propagated Buddhism in Bhutan. The Tibetan chronicles mention his name as Drug Nyon Heruka (meaning the Madman with the Garland of the bones of a dead person and meditating on the crematorium. Therefore, he is referred as the establisher of Buddhism in Bhutan and he is the important cultural iconic figure of Bhutan.

Similarly, 14th century Nyingma Master Longchenpa (1308-63) came to Bhutan, therefore, the Nyingma School of Tibetan Buddhism exists in Bhutan. When the sponsors of Longchenpa had a confrontation, he came to Bhutan in exile and got married to the Bhutanese lady by giving up monkhood. He made two important Gompas at Bumthang: Tharpaling and Samtenling; and propagated Buddhism in this area. Later he returned to Tibet and wrote the terma texts on Beyuls. The Bhutanese Lama Pema Lingpa, a famous terma master further strengthened Nyingma Buddhism in Bhutan. He is famous for his contribution in the Terma revealing of Guru Rinpoche. He is believed to be the incarnation of Guru Rinpoche and Longchenpa. Therefore, the Bhutanese Buddhism is the combination of Nyingma and Dugpa Kagyu School of Tibetan Buddhism in the royal lineage.

Later, Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal (1597-1651), the fifth incarnation of Drugpa Kagyu, the lama who was not accepted as the incarnation, came to Bhutan in the western part and united Bhutan. He is therefore known as the father of modern Bhutan. He made dzongs to protect Bhutan from the foreign invasions and along with the head and made the division of authority or power. He looked after the administrative part and Je-Khenpo looked after the spiritual functioning of Buddhism in Bhutan. The Je-Khenpo must be a follower of Drugpa-Kagyu School of Buddhism. He also came to Nepal and supported the expansion of Buddhism here. The present Je-Khenpo is the 72nd lineage holder of the first spiritual master. Later, lineage holder of Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal was killed by Urgen Wangchug (Dec.17,1907) and became the first secular king and established the Wangchug Dynasty in Bhutan. The third king Jigme Dorje made Bhutan famous to the world and even made a member of UN in 1971. The present king is Jigme Singe Wangchug, the fifth Chogyal monarch of Bhutan. The main mission of the Bhutanese kingdom was on the Gross National Happiness, as a result, the other people who followed different form of religion felt dominated and went to exile as refugees.