Bhutan history - Bhutan religion - Buddhism

Bhutan history - originsBuddhism religion in Bhutan historyHistory of British influenceHistory of KingdomsPictures of Bhutan

The early history of Bhutan was chronicled in the scriptures of Buddhism. Many of these documents were lost in fires in 1828 and 1832. More manuscripts were lost in the earth quake of 1897 and arson in 1907.
The history has to be pieced together from the reports and letters of foreign visitors, legends and folklore and a few remains of documents which escaped the calamities.

Bhutan history: Introduction of Buddhism religion in Bhutan

It is believed that Buddhism was introduced into Bhutan in early 200 A.D. However scholars in Bhutan history agree that in 7th century A.D., the first temples were constructed establishing the evidence of spread of Buddhism in Bhutan.
History tells us that Srongtsenn Gampo, a Tibetan king built two Buddhism temples, one in Central Bhutan (Bumthang) and another in Paro valley (Kyichu).
Chronicled history say that, Guru Rinpoche (Padmasambhava), was a great tantric master of Buddhism religion from India. He was sent for by the king of Bumthang (Sendha Gyab) to get rid of a demon.
The folklore say that the Buddhism monk cured the king and converted both the king and the demon into Buddhism.
In the history of Bhutan, during the 8th century A.D., there was a exodus of monks from the Tibet region into Bhutan as the ruler of Tibet had banned the religion of Buddhism.
Thus the religion of Buddhism got firm footing in Bhutan and existed along with the original Bon religion of the region.

Bhutan history: establishment of monasteries of Buddhism and rise of religion in the rule of the nation

During the period between 9th and 17th centuries Bhutan remained a network of loosely connected regions ruled by local chieftains, noble families and ruling clans; Bon and Buddhism were followed.
In 842 A.D., the persecutor of Buddhism, Langdharma, was assassinated and Buddhism again flourished in Tibet.
The Tibetan Lama Tsangpa Gyarey Yeshe Dorji (AD 1161–1211) founded the Drukpa Kagyu lineage monastery order in Ralung.
However these sect of monks were persecuted by the rivals belonging to Gelug lineage in Tibet.
So 11th and 12th centuries saw exodus Drukpa monks from Tibet into Bhutan.
The Drukpa lamas settled and established monasteries in
the Western Bhutan; wielding influence among the locals became power centers.
Many of these lamas established their own sub sects.
Gyalwa Lhanangpa founded the Lhapa Kagyu lineage and established the Tango Goemba monastery.

From Ralung monastery in Tibet,a disciple of Lama Tsangpa Gyarey, Lama Phajo Drukgom Shigpo (1184–1251) came to Bhutan and defeating lama Gyalwa Lhanangpa, wrested control of Tango Goemba monastery.
He converted many people to the Drukpa Kagyu school of thoughts and established the Bhutanese form of Buddhism.
The period between 13th and 16th centuries in Bhutan's history saw the visits by many monks and tertons from Ralung and establishment of many monasteries and flourishing of the religion.
However the politically the region was still in the hands of local leaders and the monasteries were competing with one another for exerting influence.

The rise of Zhabdrung Rinpoche as supreme authority in Bhutan

In 1616 A.D., a descendant of Tsangpa Gyarey Yeshe Dorji (founder of Drukpa Kagyu lineage), Ngawang Namgyal (1594–1651) came to Bhutan from Tibet (Ralung).
He travelled through out Bhutan teaching the religion of Buddhism and soon gained popularity and political clout.
He, with the title of Zhabdrung Rinpoche, established himself as the ruler of Bhutan.
His rule was opposed by rivals from other lineages and his monastery Simtokha Dzong was attacked in 1629. The attacks were repelled and further attacks were mounted with the help of Tibetans. With repeated defeats the opposition diminished and in 1639 Tibet recognised Ngawang Namgyal as the ruling authority in Bhutan.
Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal, strengthened his power by establishing relations with the neighbouring kingdoms of Nepal, Ladakh and Cooch Bihar.
During his rule, Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal, established many monasteries in Bhutan.
In the year 1644 Tibetans along with Mongols attacked Bumthang region and were defeated.
In 1648 and 1649, the powerful Dalai Lama 'Great Fifth' tried to invade Bhutan and was defeated.
The defeat of Tibetans further consolidated the position of Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal.

The religion and administrative system of Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal

He appointed Mingyur Tenpa as governor (penlop) of Trongsa. Mingyur Tenpa brought the remaining regions of Bhutan under the effective control of Ngawang Namgyal.

Trongsa Zong
Trongsa Zong (enlarge)

Ngawang Namgyal, to have a separate religion and cultural identity, formulated many traditions, national dress, customs and ceremonies.
He also formed laws to define lay man, religion and monk and also established a system of taxes and compulsory labour for religion.
He separated the administration of the State into two wings; religion and administration. Zhabdrung Rinpoche handled the spiritual and Buddhism religion aspects of the nation.
The position of Desi was created who is an elected ruler. He was given the responsibilities of handling administrative, political and external affairs aspects of the nation.
Further a position of Je Khenpo, which was equal in status to desi, was established to look after the monastic establishment of the Buddhism religion.
Tenzin Drugyey (1591–1656), a Buddhism monk from Ralung Monastry was the first Desi and he established the system of districts and sub districts governed by Penlop (governor) and dzongpens (lords).
In 1651, in Punakha Dzong, Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal went into retreat and passed away. However his death was concealed till 1705 to keep the unity of the nation.

Then the belief of reincarnation of Zhabdrung in three forms namely (ku sung thug - body, speech and mind) was introduced in the Buddhism religion. The reincarnation of the mind of Zhabdrung was considered as the head of the Buddhism state.

The next 200 years of Bhutan's Buddhism history saw great turmoil and internal strife for power. There were six mind reincarnations and 55 Desis of whom 22 desis were assassinated by rivals in the Buddhism religion.
There were invasions by Tibet and finally a truce was initiated by lamas from Tibet and the rivalries died down and the mind incarnation of the Zhabdrung continued as ruler.

The Buddhism history of Bhutan next came under the influence of British in India. This is discussed separately in another post.
Then in 1907, the hereditary ruler of Bhutan was elected and the kingdom was established in Bhutan (Discussed in detail in another post) with state religion as Buddhism.

Other religions in Bhutan

Many Nepalese have migrated and settled in Southern Bhutan and their religion is Hinduism. Temples of Hindu religion exist in Thimpu and southern regions.
The pre Buddhism religion, Bon religion has merged with Buddhism of Bhutan and there are no exclusive practicer of this religion.
Christians are scattered throughout the country in small groups and most of them practise their religion at home; only one building is there functioning as church.
There is a small population in Bhutan practising the religion of Islam.
Vajray─üna Buddhism is the state religion of Bhutan.

Image courtesy: Thomas Wanhoff

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