Buddhism in Bhutan

Country most prior religion

Early History

Much of Bhutan’s early history is difficult to recount with any precision, given the incidence of earthquakes and fires that will have destroyed any evidence, but legend has it that Buddhism appeared, in the country we now know as Bhutan, in the 7th century.

The king of Tibet at that time, Songtsen Gampo, is said to have been attempting to build Buddhist temples across the region to anchor the body of an ogress who was obstructing the advance of Buddhism into his country. Temples were built in central Tibet at her hips and shoulders, and those in Bhutan were built to pin down her left leg – Kyichu Lhakhang in Paro and Jampel Lhakhang in Bumthang are two of the temples associated with this story.

And, of course, no history of the region would be complete without a legend or two about Padmasambhava’s interventions. He features prominently in the monasteries and temples in Bhutan today, known locally as Ugyen Rinpoche (his birthplace of Uddiyana is known in the Dzongkha language as ‘Ugyen’). He is said to have first arrived in Bhutan at the behest of a local king, Sendhaka (Sindhu Raja), who had neglected to worship a powerful local deity, Shelging Karpo, whilst mourning the death of his son during a feud with a rival king. Sendhaka’s life force had been withdrawn by the deity and was close to death, and only saved when Padmasambhava put on a display of magical powers, in which his eight forms manifested simultaneously, and a local princess was transmogrified into five identical princesses. Shelging Karpo was then sworn to become a protector of Buddhism, the king recovered, reconciled with the other king, and both converted to Buddhism.

The site of this first visit, Kurje in the Bumthang district, remains one of the most sacred sites in Bhutan, with an imprint of Padmasambhava’s body left on a rock where he is aid to have meditated, and on which a temple was later built. Two other temples were built nearby, one to house a large statue of Guru Rinpoche (Padmasambhava), and the other, the Ka-Gong-Phur-Sum Temple of the Nyingma terma tradition.

After this, Padmasambhava famously entered Tibet, to suppress the local deities who were obstructing the construction of Samyé monastery, but was to return to Bhutan again, leaving another impression in a rock after meditating to subdue a demon at a site where the temple of Gomphu Kora is now located. But his most famous legacy in the Taktsang Pelphug, ‘Tiger’s Nest,’ monastery above Paro, situated on a cliff face at 3210m. He is said to have arrived here in the back of a flying tigress, meditating in a cave known today as ‘Pel Phuk,’ once again to subdue a local demon.

Arrival of the Drukpa

In later times, Tibetan monks started to make inroads into Bhutan. Nyo Gyelwa Lhanangpa Sanggye Rinchen (1164 – 1224) is thought to have founded Do Ngön Dzong, which today lies in ruins near the monumental fortress Thimphu Dzong (Tashichho Dzong). He was ordained in the Drigung Kagyü, and his own special lineage called Lhapa remained influential in Bhutan with the establishment of additional monasteries in subsequent years.

But it was to be the Drukpa Kagyü who were to make a lasting impression on Bhutan and its people. The First Drukchen, Tsangpa Jarey Yeshe Dorje (1161-1211), founded the Ralung monastery, just east of Gyantse in Tibet in 1193, and it became the first seat of his lineage. In 1206 he went on to establish Namdruk Sewa Jangchub Ling, an event which led to the naming of his lineage as ‘Drukpa.’ This flows from the legend that when he arrived at the holy place where his root guru had instructed him to build a monastery, nine dragons roared up in the sky causing a loud clap of thunder and white flowers to rain down. To mark this auspicious occurrence, Tsangpa Jarey named his lineage Drukpa, meaning ‘Lineage of the Dragons’. The monastery was accordingly named ‘Nam-Druk’, meaning ‘Sky Dragon,’ and later became the main seat of the lineage.

Pajo Drukgom Shingpo (dates uncertain: (1184 – d.1251 or 1276) studied at Ralung with the nephew of Tsangpa Jarey, and later established a hermitage near the present Tango Shedra, formerly known as Tango Choying Dzong, north of Thimphu. He then took control of Do Ngon Dzong fortress shortly after its founding, firmly placing the Drukpa Kagyü at the forefront of Buddhist transmission in Bhutan.

Later, other Drukpa masters travelled from Ralung and strengthened the Drukpa presence in Bhutan, including Ngawang Chögyel (1465-1540, the fifteenth throne holder at Ralung) and his sons, who established several important monasteries, including Druk Choeding, the town temple in Paro, and, near Thimphu, Pangri Zampa and Hongtso Goemba.

This period also witnessed the phenomenon of Drukpa Kunley (1455-1529), an immensely popular figure with the Bhutanese people, and associated with the temple of Chimi Lhakhang (near Lobeysa in the Punakha valley). Born in the Ralung monastery complex in Tibet, he was to travel extensively across south-central Tibet and the southern Himalaya, train in tummo, mahamudra, and Dzogchen, and ordain as a monk before returning his vows in order to marry. He travelled throughout Bhutan, using song, humour, and outrageous behaviour to bring Buddhism to the people. His actions, including a great deal of promiscuity, were intended to awaken people to their innate potential to receive the Dharma. His sexual exploits were many and various, and the flying phalluses, believed to ward off evil, seen painted on homes , suspended from eaves, and on flags flying throughout Bhutan, are his distinctive legacy. He is known as the ‘Divine Madman’ or ‘Crazy Yogi.’

The Drukpa Kagyü, whilst the dominant force in Bhutan in these middle years, did coexist with the Nyingmapa. This can be traced to the legends of Padmasambhava’s early contributions, and later to the Terton Pema Lingpa (1450-1521) who was born in the Tang valley in Bumthang. He discovered his first Terma at the age of 25 (having dreamt that a monk had handed him a scroll giving instructions on how to find Guru Rinpoche’s Terma in a pool in the Tang valley). A second visit to the same lake led a sceptical local governor to accuse him of trickery, so he took a lighted lamp and disappeared into the lake with it. He emerged some time later, bringing with him a small box crafted from joined skulls, a small sculpture, and the butter lamp, still alight. The lake became known as Mebartso, the ‘Burning Lake.’ In total, he is said to have discovered thirty-two Terma during this lifetime, the most famous being the Lama Norbu Gyatso, and numerous material objects such as the image of Padmasambhava from Sengge Drak in Bumthang. In 1505 he completed the Tamshing Lhakhang, a major Nyingma monastery located in Chokhor in central Bhutan.

After his death, his teaching transmission lineage passed down through three primary lines of incarnations, one direct line of his own reincarnations, and two stemming from his son and grandson: the Peling Sungtrul (speech incarnation), the Peling Tukse (mind incarnation), and the Peling Gyelse (body incarnation), also known as the Gangteng Trulku.

Another legacy from Pema Lingpa are the dances (pa-cham) of the dakinis and yidams, observed during his visions within Zangto Pelri, Guru Rinpoche’s celestial paradise; some of these dances are still performed during Bhutan’s tshechu festivals.

One of his grandsons, Gyatse Pema Thinley established the Gangte Goempa in the Phobjikha valley, and the Gangte trulku lineage continues here to this day. The Bhutanese royal family, the Wangchuk dynasty is also descended from this line.

Zhabdrung Rinpoche

At this point in regional history, power remained fragmented, characterised by local feuds and sectarian competition between lamas as they attempted to extend their influence eastwards. Nyingma was the dominant tradition in central and eastern Bhutan and the Drukpa Kagyü predominant in the west, with over a dozen branch monasteries of Ralung established there before 1600.

It took at the arrival of Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel (1594-1651, also known as Zhabdrung Rinpoche), a Tibetan-born Drukpa Kagyü leader, to finally unify the region into what we now know as Bhutan. He had been recognised as the reincarnation of Pema Karpo (1527-1592), the fourth Gyalwang Drukpa and great scholar, but the selection was challenged by the powerful regent of Tsang, forcing him to flee to Bhutan in 1616.

In 1619 he founded Cheri monastery at the northern end of the Thimphu valley. In 1629, he founded his first fortress, Simtokha Dzong, east of Thimphu, enabling control over traffic between the Paro valley to the west and Trongsa valley to the east. The dzong was built to house monastic and administrative facilities, as well as serving as a defensive structure, a model for all subsequent dzongs in Bhutan. The important Punakha Dzong was completed in 1637 and became the central monk body.

Over his 35 years as the temporal and spiritual ruler of Bhutan, Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal repelled seven Tibetan invasions (the first by the Tsangpa, and later by the regime under the Fifth Dalai Lama), and overcame internal opposition to unify the country for the first time in its history. The primacy of the Drukpa tradition was to lead to the naming of the country as Druk yul, ‘Land of the Thunder Dragon,’ and its inhabitants then known as Drukpa.

The Zhabdrung reinforced his position by forming alliances neighbouring kings in Nepal, Cooch Behar (north eastern India), and Ladakh. Because of the Ladakhi royal family’s long association with the Drukpa Kagyü, Sengge Namgyal granted the Zhabdrung a number of enclaves in western Tibet for meditation purposes, including Nyanri and Zuthulphuk monasteries adjacent to Kailas, a relationship which prevailed until the Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1959.

Soon after completing a retreat in 1625, he established a dual system of government, whereby secular power was allocated to an administrative Druk Desi, supported by three provincial governors called penlops, and religious affairs were to be controlled by the Gyaltshab (‘representatives’ of the Zhabdrung, also known as Je Khenpo). Subsequent incarnations of the Zhabdrung were given the ultimate power over both domains. There is one aspect of the legal code established in 1629, which, perhaps, has a message for modern day governments: ‘if the government cannot create happiness for its people, then there is no purpose for government to exist.’

The Tshechu festivals were also inaugurated by the Zhabdrung to honour Padmasambhava and other protector deities who supported Bhutan in the 1644-46 war with Tibet.

His vital role in ensuring the stability of Bhutan during this period led to his death being kept secret. In 1651 it was announced that he had entered a long retreat – a falsehood that was maintained for over fifty years, with edicts issued in his name until 1705. In this period appointments to the role of Je Khempo had been made from the Zhabdrung’s extended family, but with the end of all male descent lines, a decision was made in 1695 to appoint ‘exalted rebirth’ heads of state from reincarnates of the Zhabdrung and of the early Gyaltshab. Four lineages were created: speech, mind, and two ‘Precious Prince’ lineages derived from his son and a distant nephew.