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Bhutan’s Zangdog Pelri Temples: Paradises of Guru Rinpoche

Zangdog Pelri (ཟངས་མདོག་དཔལ་རི་) or the Copper Coloured Mountain is a style of temple architecture that represents the Copper Coloured Palace of Padmasambhava that is said to be located in the land of rākśasas or srinpo (སྲིན་པོ་) demons. The prevalence of Zangdog Pelri temples in Bhutan is due to the prominence of Padmasambhava in Bhutan’s religious culture. Padmasambhava, who is commonly known as Guru Rinpoche or precious teacher in Bhutan, is the most popular and pervasive religious figure in Bhutan’s Buddhist traditions. He is credited with the introduction of Buddhist teachings to Bhutan, with the subjugation of wild and malevolent forces in the land, and the sanctification of every part of the country. He is said to have come to central Bhutan in the 8th century and spread the teachings of the Buddha and blessed the people of the land that constitutes modern Bhutan. To the Bhutanese religious consciousness, Guru Rinpoche is the most popular deity or Buddha, believed to be connected to Bhutan through karma. From the basic prayers children mumble to grand state ceremonies, Guru Rinpoche forms the focus of many of Bhutan’s religious practices. He is considered an enlightened force who exists beyond spatial and temporal constructions, beyond birth and death.

Zangdog Pelri, as the place where he has resided since leaving the Himalayas, is seen as a blessed realm conducive for spiritual practices that culminate in enlightenment. He is said to reside there in order to tame unruly demons and frequently visit the human world through his supernatural power of emanation. Bhutanese pray to be born in Zangdog Pelri in the presence of the master and his enlightened retinue. There are many prayers that seek rebirth in Zangdog Pelri, describing the celestial palace, its residents and the spiritual activities that take place there. The palace is described in the visions and dreams of many religious saints including that of Pema Lingpa (1450-1521), Bhutan’s foremost religious figure who is considered as a spiritual son of Padmasambhava. Zangdog Pelri is often depicted in paintings on temple walls and on thangka (ཐང་ཀ་) scroll paintings.

Zangdog Pelri temples are functional three-dimensional representations of Padmasambhava’s palace. The architecture is three storeyed with a narrow top floor representing the realm of the Buddha Amitabha (འོད་དཔག་མེད་), the middle floor the realm of the bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara (སྤྱན་རས་གཟིགས་) and a broad ground floor as the realm of Padmasambhava. According to the Nyingma school of Buddhism in Bhutan, these three Buddhas represent the three embodiments of enlightenment known as the trikāya or kusum (སྐུ་གསུམ་). Amitabha represents the dharmakāya or choku (ཆོས་སྐུ་), the body of reality or truth, which is the intrinsic state of enlightened mind, the Buddha’s spirit. Avalokiteśvara is the sambhogakāya or longku (ལོངས་སྐུ་), the enjoyment body, the perfect physical expression of the enlightened spirit. The enlightened spirit of enlightenment manifests in the form of a perfect body with all the positive qualities. Padmasambhava represents the nirmāṇakāya or trulku (སྤྲུལ་སྐུ་), the spontaneous and pervasive emanation of the Buddha in myriad forms to help sentient beings.

The Zangdog Pelri edifices across Bhutan, despite minor differences, have three floors depicting the realms of these three Buddhas, who are in essence one and the same. The sculptures on the three floors includes Buddhas, deities, and figures who constitute the retinues of the three Buddhas. In the main shrine on the ground floor, Padmasambhava takes the central place surrounded by his disciples including the two chief female consorts, his twenty-five Tibetan followers and the many treasure discoverers. Wall murals also depict the Copper Coloured Mountain heaven realm. Though the structures reflect the Zangdog Pelri realm, they serve all the functions of any other temple. Thus, like most other lhakhangs, Zangdog Pelri temples are also hubs of religious activities and public events.

 

Karma Phuntsho is a social thinker and worker, the President of the Loden Foundation and the author of many books and articles including The History of Bhutan.

Bhutan’s Zangdog Pelri Temples: Paradises of Guru Rinpoche
Collection Bhutan Cultural Library
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A view on the building plans and cultural perceptions of temples built in Bhutan meant to emulate Guru Rinpoche's Copper Mountain Paradise.

Author Karma Phuntsho
Editor Ariana Maki
Year published 2017
Subjects
Places