Bhutan is a deeply religious country and religion permeates all facets of Bhutanese life. Even its landscapes, architecture, arts and politics are shaped by religious beliefs. The dominant religious tradition is Buddhism and Bhutan’s history is mainly defined by the diffusion of Buddhism through ages.
Pre-Buddhist Era through the 8th Century CE
The pre-Buddhist faiths of the region that is Bhutan today are still too obscure for one to say anything definite. Apart from the archaic practices surviving in the form of folk beliefs, rituals and cultures, there is hardly any historical documentation of the religious developments, principles and practices before the advent of Buddhism. It is very implausible that an established religious system or institution existed apart from the diverse folk beliefs and rituals known in different localities. These beliefs and practices later came to be locally categorized under the broad category of Bon (བོན་) by the virtue of their pre-Buddhist existence and some resemblance the Bon religion of Tibet.
Bhutan’s pre-Buddhist spirituality mainly deals with people’s relationship to nature and its forces. Nature is viewed as a living force with a wide range of territorial deities, spirits and non-human beings inhabiting the earth. Religious practices of this era consist of various strands of shamanism, paganism and nature and spirit worship. Although these were generally replaced by or sometimes assimilated into the Buddhist system, traces of these animistic and shamanistic practices still exist in village festivals and customs. Shamanistic supplication to local or regional deities through mediums and oracles such as pawo (དཔའ་བོ་), pamo (དཔའ་མོ་), jomo (ཇོ་བོ་), nyejom (རྣལ་འབྱོར་མ་) and terdag (གཏེར་བདག་) and worship of local spirits through offerings and sacrifices are main features of these indigenous practices. The aim of these religious practices seems to have been worldly goals such as prosperity, wealth, long life and power although the concept of rebirth and ultimate liberation are not entirely excluded. A great number of these rituals and practices have been adopted by the Buddhists as medium for the higher Buddhist spiritual message. Although Buddhism has spread widely since the 8th century, these pre-Buddhist practices still constitute a considerable part of Bhutanese lifestyle and tradition.
Buddhism in Bhutan: The 8th-17th Centuries
The first sign of Buddhist religion in Bhutan are the two temples of Jampa Lhakhang in Bumthang and Kyerchu Lhakhang in Paro, monuments which are believed to have been built by the Tibetan Emperor Srongtsen Gampo (c.617-698). However, the arrival of the Indian master Padmasambhava, known to the Bhutanese as Guru Rinpoche or the Precious Master, in middle of the 8th century marked the proper advent of Buddhism to Bhutan. Today, the figure and worship of Guru Rinpoche dominate Bhutanese Buddhism and most sacred sites including the two most holy places are dedicated to him. Although there are no historical records of change brought by his mission, oral traditions have it that people took lay Buddhist vows and gave up animal sacrifices. Some traditional historians believe that the short hairstyle of Bhutanese men and women originated in ordination of the people by Padmasambhava into the Buddhist path, and the Bhutanese penchant of chewing pan leaves and betel was introduced by Padmasambhava as a substitute for some savage customs. The pan leaves supplanted skin, the betel nut, heart, white lime, brain and the subsequent red fluid, blood.
In the centuries following Padmasambhava, Buddhist missionaries from Tibet such as Myos Lhanangpa, Barawa Gyaltshen Palzang, Phajo Drukgom Zhigpo and Longchenpa poured into the region. The Nying ma tradition of Tibetan Buddhism widely spread in what is now central and eastern parts of Bhutan and produced religious figures such as Pema Lingpa (1450-1521), the most renowned Bhutanese hierarch, while other schools such as the Lhapa, Barawa, Nenying, Sakya, Drukpa and Karma Kargyud started to spread mainly in western Bhutan. Thus, between the 8th and 17th century Bhutan saw the arrival and propagation of several traditions of Buddhism and a gradual conversion of the people to Buddhist faith. Buddhism gave the segregated communities of Bhutan’s isolated valleys a shared religious identity and common spiritual purpose.
Buddhism in Bhutan: 17th century to the present
The year 1616 is a milestone in Bhutanese history. Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal (1594-1651), the prince-abbot of Ralung monastery in southern Tibet and the founder of Bhutanese nation state, arrived in Bhutan in exile. His escape and the subsequent settlement and influence in Bhutan led to the temporal unification of the country. Under his theocratic rule, the Drukpa Kargyu denomination of the Tibetan Kargyu school spread widely. Most of other denominations, except the Nyingmapa, were declined in the country and the central ecclesiastical body was established. In the following centuries, branches of the central monastic body were founded in many districts, thus spreading Drukpa Kargyu tradition across the country as a state religion. However, Zhabdrung’s theocratic government combining both secular and religious power, known as the dual system, soon declined and political power fell in the hands of lay regents. But Zhabdrung’s unification of Bhutan under the Drukpa rule left behind for the Bhutanese a shared political identity.
Buddhism has continued to thrive under the hereditary monarchy that was founded in 1907. Today, Bhutan is the only country with the Vajrayāna form of Mahāyāna Buddhism as its state religion and the last of Himalayan Buddhist kingdoms, and the two traditions of Nyingma and Drukpa Kargyu flourish amicably. Nyingma used to be more common in the eastern districts whereas Drukpa Kargyu was dominant in the western districts and both thrived equally in the central districts although now with movement of people the separation is less clear. Among the southern Bhutanese, most of those who are from Nepali origin are Hindus. There is said to be a few hundred Christians although missionary works have been generally unsuccessful. In spite of Bhutan’s efforts of modernization and rising materialism, religion still plays a vital role in the day to day life of the Bhutanese. Freedom of religious practice is unrestricted in the case of existing denominations. For now, an exotic Buddhist culture with elements of pre-Buddhist practices is thriving and Bhutan is seeing a new wave of Buddhist scholarship and spirituality, and an integration of its spirituality in its new model of development called Gross National Happiness.
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. The piece was initially written for Religions of the World.