Advent of Buddhism in Bhutan
The advent of Buddhism in Bhutan began after the arrival of Guru Rinpoche in Bhutan in the 8th century, the Bon religion and the protector deities played a very vital role for different places, communities and clans across the entire spread of Bhutan. The thoughts and beliefs differed from place to place, from one valley to another, they were never the same at all. The differences were omnipresent, everywhere. But the guiding force, the pivot, the consolidator, the leader, the Guru wasn’t around.
And the Padmashambhava, the great lotus born saint was the Guru-in-waiting. The Guru knew exactly about the fate of Buddhism in India that it would be more than erased by the Mughal emperors. Even after the great flourishment of the Buddha Dharma in Tibet, it would actually, finally fall on a decline because of the Chinese. Nepal didn’t offer much scope, it was a predominantly Hindu nation and that didn’t actually connect to his likeliness. So Bhutan was his natural choice. Mountainous and remote, hidden in the inner Himalayas, the Mughals or the Chinese Hans had no chance to come to Bhutan and plunder the Buddha Dharma. So Bhutan was where the Buddha Dharma would prosper and flourish forever. That was his belief, his vision. And it came out true in so many ways as we see and analyze it now, wonder saint and philosopher, a gem and like they say diamonds are forever. It was also in Bhutan where he later hid several Buddhist holy scripts, religious documents, texts and relics, to be discovered and found by his chosen entity, Pema Lingpa of Bumthang, several centuries later in the 17th century.
Guru Rinpoche is actually credited with the founding of the Nyingma lineage, also known as the Red Hat sect of Mahayana Buddhism which became the dominant religion of Bhutan at that time.
He himself was found lying on top of a lotus flower floating on a pond. There are no records to prove where he was born or who his actual parents were. He just materialized on top of the flower one fine day! This was in the Swat valley, the historians say, in present day Pakistan. Quite big, handsome and impressive in size for a small child, the king took him as his own, adopted him as his son, made him the crown prince. So he grew up as a prince in his initial years, quite like prince Siddhartha, the eventual Buddha. So there is actually quite a similarity here if we can relate the two in the same context. As he grew up, he found it more arduous with his meaning of life in the garb of a prince. He could see, foresee several things that were to come and happen in the world. More like a Nostradamus with a very interesting religious twist. One fine day he decided to undergo such an act that could lead to his banishment from the kingdom. His father, the king had no choice but to banish him forever. Having set himself free, he traveled to several places, to Tibet and to Nepal which had so many similarities and parallels. Some historians say he must have been in Nepal when he got this invitation from the ailing Sindhu Raja of Bumthang.
Sindhu Raja was a powerful Indian king of Bumthang, who ruled from an iron fortress. Although a powerful monarch, Sindhu Raja lost his son and sixteen chieftains when feuding with another strong rival Indian king of the south named Nachhoe or “the big nose”. This incident so deeply disturbed Sindhu Raja that he ordered the desecration of all the temples dedicated to the chief deity and protector of Bumthang, Shelging Karpo. Shelging Karpo quickly retaliated to take revenge and performed a ritual that severed the life force of Sindhu, bringing him very close to death. Unable to find an antidote to his sickness, one of his close counsels sent an urgent appeal to Guru Rinpoche requesting for his supernatural powers to save the Raja. The great yogi agreed to the request, which he probably already knew, and after his arrival in Bumthang, meditated leaving a “jey” (imprint) of his “kur” (body) on a rock, now surrounded by the Kurjey Lhakhang. Hence the name Kurjey.
Guru Rinpoche was offered Sindhu Raja’s daughter, Tashi Kheudon. But he instead sent her to fetch water in a golden ewer. While she was away, the Guru transformed into eight manifestations and together, they started to dance in the field by the temple. The dances were so spectacular that every deity of the entire area appeared to watch them, all except the stony faced Shelging Karpo, who stayed away in his rocky hideout. But this was not to dishearten the Guru. When the princess returned, the Guru transformed her into five beautiful princesses each with a golden ewer. The golden sunlight emanating out of those ewers finally attracted Shelging Karpo, who appeared as a snow lion, which in turn was immediately recognized by the Guru. He himself transformed into a giant eagle, a Garuda, flew high up and subjugated the lion. The defeated Shelging Karpo thus gave back the life force to Sindhu Raja and was made to pledge to be a protector deity of Buddhism. Both the rival kings converted to Buddhism and Guru Rinpoche was allowed to preach Buddhism in their respective kingdoms. To seal the agreement, the Guru planted his staff in the ground at the temple in Bumthang. Its cypress tree descendants, the national tree of Bhutan, continue to grow and tower over the area at Kurjey Lhakhang till this date.
This event marked the beginning of the Dharma taking root in Bhutan, and a body imprint of Guru Rinpoche meditating in a nearby cave serves as a tribute to this occasion. So this was how Buddhism was first introduced to Bhutan by Guru Rinpoche, which later went on to become the state religion of the nation. But this divine connection between Guru Rinpoche and Sindhu Raja is something that we sometimes forget to remember and recognize.
The eight sacred dances also marked the beginning of the introduction of Tshechu(s) in Bhutan featuring the famous mask dances which have then been repeated year after year for centuries till today. So the first ever Tshechu in Bhutan was conducted by Guru Rinpoche in Bumthang! Tshechu, which literally means “Day 10” of any particular Buddhist lunar month, featuring the mask dances and religious festivals are now conducted in all the districts of Bhutan. On the final day of a Tshechu, a massive thangka painting, called the Thongdrel is displayed for public early in the morning and rolled up again before sunrise, which features Guru Rinpoche and his two principal cohorts and his eight manifestations, to be displayed again the following year on the same exact date.