Bhutan claims to be the most Buddhist country in the world. By this the Bhutanese mean that almost every aspect of daily life, and government, is permeated by Buddhist teachings and philosophy. The Mayahana form of Buddhism that is practised in Bhutan can be seen in evidence in the dzongs, monasteries, stupas, prayer flags and prayer wheels that form part of the landscape, and the monks & nuns that you will meet in every village and every town.
Buddhism was first introduced into Bhutan by the Indian Tantric master Guru Padmasambhava in the 8th century. Since that moment Buddhism has taken hold of this tiny country and has shaped its development. In the 16th & 17th centuries it was warrior monks that built the dzongs and established the framework of the Bhutan we know today. It was subsequent religious leaders that laid down the country's laws and governed, until eventually ceding secular power to a king (Ugyen Wangchuck) in the early 20th century.
Thus in Bhutan, history and religion are intertwined and as a result many of the historic sites in Bhutan are also religious sites. It will therefore help your understanding of the country, and enjoyment of your tour, to have at least a basic grasp of Buddhist tenets and an idea of some of the religious characters that have shaped this country. Below we have listed just a few of the famous names that you will hear again, and again, as you travel across Bhutan absorbing its intriguing, and unique heritage.
Sakyamuni (the historical Buddha)
Sakyamuni is the historical Buddha who was born in India in the 5th century BC and whose teachings form the basis for Bhutanese Buddhism. You will see images of Sakyamuni in most temples and monasteries. Usually he is depicted as seated in the lotus position with one hand touching the ground and the other in his lap.
The Guru Rinpoche is one of the most famous religious figures in Bhutan. Another Indian, who arrived in Bhutan in the 8th century to preach and perform miracles. The Guru is usually depicted as having long hair and a curly moustache, however he can appear in seven other manifestations. Perhaps best known for consecrating the cave where Tiger's Nest Monastery was later built, as he flew to this cliffside location on the back of a tigress so as to subdue the local demon.
Drukpa Kunley (the ‘Divine Madman')
Another very famous, and influential, guru - Drukpa Kunley, or the ‘Divine Madman' as he is affectionately known, lived from 1455 to 1529. He took an unorthodox approach to teaching using songs, comedy and often outrageous behaviour to get his message across. You will find a temple dedicated to him in Punakha.
Perma Lingpa was a contemporary of the Divine Madman, was born in Bumthang and is best known as being a treasure finder. That is to say he was one of a number of tantric lamas who identified, and found, sacred texts hidden by Guru Rinpoche. One such find was made in the ‘Burning Lake' in Bhutan. Perma Lingpa is also famous for a cloak of chainmail, weighing 25kg, that is housed at the Tamshing Goemba in Bumthang.
Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal
The Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal is considered to be the founder of modern day Bhutan. A Tibetan, he arrived in Bhutan in 1616 and began teaching Buddhist scripture. His charisma and political nous allowed him to climb the ladder of power until ultimately he found himself the religious leader of Bhutan, at which point he started building the countrys first dzongs. His idea that the dzong should be a centre for civil and religious administration as well as a base for defence was to prove the blueprint for all later dzongs and so you will see his immense influence all over the countryside, as well as in the temples and monasteries.
If you would like to learn more about how Buddhism has shaped Bhutan or more about the religion itself we can tailor a tour to include specialist visits to monasteries, dzongs to meet local religious leaders who can give you an insight into Buddhism and its impact on modern day Bhutan.Back to experiences in Bhutan