BUDDHISM IN NEPAL
According to the 2011 census, Buddhists make up 9 percent of the population, while Hindus comprise 81 percent. According to the 2001 census, 80.6 percent of Nepalese were Hindu and 10.7 percent were Buddhists. But these numbers underestimate Buddhism’s full impact on Nepal. Buddha is widely worshipped by both Buddhists and Hindus of Nepal and Nepal is where the Buddha was born. .
The main types of Buddhism — Theravada Buddhism, Mahayana Buddhism and Tibetan Buddhism are all present in Nepal. Tibetan Buddhism is practiced by Tibetan refugees and ethnic groups in the with Himalayas with Tibetan roots. The Tantric form of Buddhism, which developed from Hinduism and has associations with Tibetan Buddhists, is practiced by Newars, who began embracing elements of Theravada Buddhist in the 20th century. [Source: “Countries and Their Cultures”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]
Buddhism in Nepal blends Mahayana , or the Great Vehicle, with Vajrayana, the Diamond Way. According to the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: Whether Tibetans or Newars, Buddhists believe in the five Dhayani Buddhas, and along with Hindus they believe in the principles of dharma and karma. Hindus in Nepal worship the major gods of Hinduism, such as forms of Vishnu, Shiva, Durga, and Saraswati. In the Kathmandu Valley Hindus along with the Buddhists also worship powerful local goddesses and gods known as Ajima, Vajrayogini, Bhatbatini, and others who can be very powerful, protective, and punitive. [Source: Alfred Pach III, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 3: South Asia,” edited by Paul Hockings, 1992 |~|]
David H. Holmberg wrote in the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”: Buddhist doctrine is not directly oriented toward the regulation of family or gender relations. With the exception of the Newar, Tibetan and Tibeto-Burman populations of Nepal allow women greater freedom than do Hindu populations, and they are not concerned about purity and pollution in ways that make women symbolically vulnerable. [Source: David H. Holmberg,“Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”, Thomson Gale, 2006]
“Historically Buddhism was extremely important in regional politics, but for centuries it has not had an impact on the Nepal nation-state. Within Buddhist communities high-ranking Buddhist functionaries are politically important because they are associated with and patronized by the most influential individuals in the community. Buddhism has become a significant factor in the nation's identity politics, with ethnic associations of Tibeto-Burman-speaking groups, for example, invoking their Buddhist identity in opposition to the dominant Hindu population.”
Hinduism and Buddhism in Nepal
Although the population of Nepal is mostly Hindu, since the 1971 census Hindus have shown the greatest decline as a proportion of the population, and Buddhists and Kirats have increased the most: in 1971 Hindus were 89.4 percent of the population, Buddhists 7.5 percent, and Kirats statistically 0 percent. However, statistics on religious groups are complicated by the ubiquity of dual faith practices — particularly among Hindus and Buddhists. Moreover, shifts in the population’s religious composition also reflect political changes. The 1990 constitution ended the government’s promotion of Hindu nationalism and official suppression of political participation based on religious, cultural, and linguistic traits. This policy has enabled greater freedom of religious expression and allowed the census to officially enumerate more religious groups. [Source: Library of Congress, November 2005]
Buddha, the founder of Buddhism, is regarded as the ninth avatar of of the Hindu god Vishnu. Some Hindus identify Christ as the tenth avatar; others regard Kalki as the final avatar who is yet to come. The geographical distribution of religious groups revealed a preponderance of Hindus, accounting for at least 87 percent of the population in every region in the early 1990s. The largest concentrations of Buddhists were found in the eastern hills, the Kathmandu Valley, and the central Terai; in each area about 10 percent of the people were Buddhist. Buddhism was relatively more common among the Newar and Tibeto-Nepalese groups. Among the Tibeto-Nepalese, those most influenced by Hinduism were the Magar, Sunwar, and Rai peoples. Hindu influence was less prominent among the Gurung, Limbu, Bhote, and Thakali groups, who continued to employ Buddhist monks for their religious ceremonies. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1991]
According to “Countries and Their Cultures”: Nepal occupies a special place in both Hindu and Buddhist traditions. According to Hindu mythology, the Himalayas are the abode of the gods, and are specifically associated with Shiva, one of the three principal Hindu deities. Pashupatinath, a large Shiva temple in Kathmandu, is among the holiest sites in Nepal and attracts Hindu pilgrims from all over South Asia. Pashupatinath is only one of thousands of temples and shrines scattered throughout Nepal, however. In the Kathmandu Valley alone, there are hundreds of such shrines, large and small, in which the major gods and goddesses of the Hindu pantheon, as well as local and minor divinities, are worshiped. Many of these shrines are constructed near rivers or at the base of pipal trees, which are themselves considered sacred. For Buddhists, Nepal is significant as the birthplace of Lord Buddha. It is also home to a number of important Buddhist monasteries and supas, including Boudha and Swayambhu, whose domeshaped architecture and painted all-seeing eyes have become symbols of the Kathamandu Valley. [Source: “Countries and Their Cultures”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]
According to the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: “Generally, Hinduism in Nepal is based on the Dharmashastras, Puranas, and various developments in Vaishnavism and Shaivism that have largely originated in India. Buddhism in Nepal blends Mahayana, or the Great Vehicle, with Vajrayana, the Diamond Way. Whether Tibetans or Newars, Buddhists believe in the five Dhayani Buddhas, and along with Hindus they believe in the principles of dharma and karma. Hindus in Nepal worship the major gods of Hinduism, such as forms of Vishnu, Shiva, Durga, and Saraswati. In the Kathmandu Valley Hindus along with the Buddhists also worship powerful local goddesses and gods known as Ajima, Vajrayogini, Bhatbatini, and others who can be very powerful, protective, and punitive.” The five Dhyani Buddhas; Vairochana, Akshobhaya, Rathasambhava, Amitabha and Amoghasiddhi, represent the five basic elements: earth, fire, water, air and ether. Buddhist philosophy conceives these deities to be the manifestations of Sunya or absolute void. Mahakaala and Bajrayogini are Vajrayana Buddhist deities worshipped by Hindus as well. [Source: Alfred Pach III, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 3: South Asia,” edited by Paul Hockings, 1992; Nepal government]
The Buddha and Buddhism
Buddhism had its origin in the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama, a Kshatriya caste prince of the Sakya clan; he was born in Lumbini, in the central Terai Region, about 563 B.C. His father was the ruler of a minor principality in the region. Born a Hindu and educated in the Hindu tradition, Siddhartha Gautama renounced worldly life at about the age of twenty-nine and spent the next six years in meditation. At the end of this time, he attained enlightenment; thereafter, known as the Buddha, or the Enlightened One, he devoted the remainder of his life to preaching his doctrine. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1991 *]
The Buddha accepted or reinterpreted the basic concepts of Hinduism, such as karma, samsara, dharma, and moksha, but he generally refused to commit himself to specific metaphysical theories. He said they were essentially irrelevant to his teachings and could only distract attention from them. He was interested in restoring a concern with morality to religious life, which he believed had become stifled in details of ritual, external observances, and legalisms.
The Four Noble Truths summarize the Buddha's analysis of the human situation and the solution he found for the problems of life. The first truth is that life, in a world of unceasing change, is inherently imperfect and sorrowful, and that misery is not merely a result of occasional frustration of desire or misfortune, but is a quality permeating all experience. The second truth is that the cause of sorrow is desire, the emotional involvement with existence that led from rebirth to rebirth through the operation of karma. The third truth is that the sorrow can be ended by eliminating desire. The fourth truth sets forth the Eightfold Path leading to elimination of desire, rebirth, and sorrow, and to the attainment of nirvana or nibbana, a state of bliss and selfless enlightment. It rejoins right or perfect understanding, aspiration, speech, action, livelihood, effort, thought, and contemplation.
Lumbini, the Birthplace of The Buddha
Lumbini (in southern Nepal near the Indian border) is where tradition says The Buddha, Siddhartha Guatama, was born in 623 B.C. He was a prince in Shakya clan, a people who still reside in this part of Nepal today along what are mostly Hindus and Muslims. There are no records from the seventh century B.C. that prove unequivocally that Buddha was born here but according to Buddhist lore, his parents lived 30 kilometers away in Kapilavastu. One day his mother, Queen Mahamaya, stopped here to rest while on her way to her parents home in another kingdom and suddenly gave birth to Siddhartha underneath a sal tree. Across the border in Bihar, India, in Bodh Gaya and Sarnath, is where Siddhartha achieved enlightenment and became the Buddha and delivered his first sermon.
The original sal tree disappeared long ago. In the early centuries after The Buddha's death, temples were erected to mark the site where the tree is believed to have stood. But as Buddhism was replaced by Hinduism in India interest in Lumbini withered. The site was rediscovered in 1895 by the brother of the king of Nepal.
Early in the 20th century the ruins of the temples were covered with an ugly cement platform. The sereneness of the site has been further disrupted by archeologists searching for remnants of the original sal tree, the first temple and the "flawless stone" placed here by the Indian Emperor Ashoka in 249 B.C. In 1996, archeologist claimed they had discovered the "flawless stone" but to find it they tore down a temple dedicated to Buddha's mother and damaged a sacred sal tree like the one Buddha was born under. Thus far they haven't damaged a huge bo tree grown because of its association with Buddha's enlightenment.
Not surprising Lumbini is a popular destination with Buddhist pilgrims from all over the world. The main attraction is the sacred garden, which features a temple depicting the birth of the Buddha, Ashoka's pillar (placed by the Indian emperor on the place where Buddha was born), and a pond where it is said Buddha's mother took a dip before she gave birth. Around the site are remnants of monasteries and chaityas (Buddhist shrines or prayer halls with a stupa at one end) built over the centuries.
Three square miles of land around Lumbini is currently being developed into a major Buddhist center. A new library and museum were opened up in 1994. A dozen monasteries paid for by various Buddhist sects have been completed in recent decades or are under construction. Two old temples — one built by Tibetan Buddhists and another built by Theravada Buddhists from Thailand, Burma and Sri Lanka — had to be moved to make way for the new buildings.
Buddha tradition says the Buddha lived in Kapilavastu until he was 29. Historians and archeologists have long wondered about the exact location of Kapilavastu and argued over whether it was in India or Nepal. In the early 2000s, archeologists found evidence that it was situated near the modern Nepalese town of Tilaurakot. The evidence includs a fortress wall and many building, which make it the only large urban area in Budhha's time. In 1972 a coin was found that said: "Here iss the monastery of the monk of Kapilavastur."
Lumbini, a UNESCO World Heritage Site
According to UNESCO: “Siddhartha Gautama, the Lord Buddha, was born in 623 B.C. in the famous gardens of Lumbini, which soon became a place of pilgrimage. Among the pilgrims was the Indian emperor Ashoka, who erected one of his commemorative pillars there. The site is now being developed as a Buddhist pilgrimage center, where the archaeological remains associated with the birth of the Lord Buddha form a central feature. [Source: UNESCO ]
“The Lord Buddha was born in 623 BC in the sacred area of Lumbini located in the Terai plains of southern Nepal, testified by the inscription on the pillar erected by the Mauryan Emperor Asoka in 249 BC. Lumbini is one of the holiest places of one of the world's great religions, and its remains contain important evidence about the nature of Buddhist pilgrimage centers from as early as the 3rd century BC.
“The complex of structures within the archaeological conservation area includes the Shakya Tank; the remains within the Maya Devi Temple consisting of brick structures in a cross-wall system dating from the 3rd century BC to the present century and the sandstone Ashoka pillar with its Pali inscription in Brahmi script. Additionally there are the excavated remains of Buddhist viharas (monasteries) of the 3rd century BC to the 5th century AD and the remains of Buddhist stupas (memorial shrines) from the 3rd century BC to the 15th century AD. The site is now being developed as a Buddhist pilgrimage center, where the archaeological remains associated with the birth of the Lord Buddha form a central feature."
The site was selected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site because: 1) “As the birthplace of the Lord Buddha, testified by the inscription on the Asoka pillar, the sacred area in Lumbini is one of the most holy and significant places for one of the world's great religions”; and 2) “The archaeological remains of the Buddhist viharas (monasteries) and stupas (memorial shrines) from the 3rd century BC to the 15th century AD, provide important evidence about the nature of Buddhist pilgrimage centers from a very early period." “The integrity of Lumbini has been achieved by means of preserving the archaeological remains within the property boundary that give the property its Outstanding Universal Value. The significant attributes and elements of the property have been preserved. The buffer zone gives the property a further layer of protection. Further excavations of potential archaeological sites and appropriate protection of the archaeological remains are a high priority for the integrity of the property. The property boundary however does not include the entire archaeological site and various parts are found in the buffer zone. The entire property including the buffer zone is owned by the Government of Nepal and is being managed by the Lumbini Development Trust and therefore there is little threat of development or neglect. However the effects of industrial development in the region have been identified as a threat to the integrity of the property.
“The authenticity of the archaeological remains within the boundaries has been confirmed through a series of excavations since the discovery of the Asoka pillar in 1896. The remains of viharas, stupas and numerous layers of brick structures from the 3rd century BC to the present century at the site of the Maya Devi Temple are proof of Lumbini having been a center of pilgrimage from early times.
History of Buddhism in Nepal
David H. Holmberg wrote in the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”: Gautama Buddha, the historical Buddha, was born in what is now Nepal in 563 B.C. Scholars project that early forms of Buddhism were likely practiced within Nepal from the time of the Buddha. The religion was well established there by the sixth century, at which time Mahayana Buddhism appeared in India. Sectors of the Newar community, an important urban ethnic population, continue to practice Mahayana Buddhism. Later, Vajrayana, or Tantric, Buddhism also took hold among the Newar and has remained integral to Buddhist practice in Nepal. [Source: David H. Holmberg,“Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”, Thomson Gale, 2006. Holmberg is a professor of anthropology at Cornell University]
“Tibetan Buddhism began to have a serious impact in Nepal beginning with the introduction of Vajrayana forms of Buddhism in Tibet during the reign of Songtsen Gampo in the seventh century. Scholars hypothesize that Tibetans were key supporters of Buddhist sites in Nepal by the thirteenth century and that they gained additional support from indigenous Tibeto-Burman-speaking populations. Tibetan forms of Buddhism strongly influenced the religious life of the latter for the next 500 years.
“Following China's occupation of Tibet and assumption of direct administration in 1959, large numbers of Tibetans fled to India and Nepal. Many took up residence around the great stupa at Bauddhanath in Nepal. Modern developments of note include the introduction of Theravada Buddhism in Nepal, especially among the Newar, in the 1930s. Also, the Sherpa and related groups have converted many of their monasteries from noncelibate to celibate practice. Finally, Tibeto-Burman-speaking groups like the Gurung and Tamang have begun to assert their identity as Buddhists more forcefully in Hindu Nepal.
Licchavi Era of Buddhism in Nepal
Todd T. Lewis wrote in the Encyclopedia of Buddhism: “The earliest historical records of the central Himalayan region — more than two hundred Sanskrit inscriptions made by kings of a ruling dynasty who referred to themselves by the name Licchavi — are found in the Nepal valley beginning in 464 A.D. These inscriptions indicate that Hindu temple institutions existed alongside Buddhist monastic traditions in a harmonious relationship confirmed by the Chinese pilgrim Xuanzang around 640 A.D. This relationship has endured up to the present day. [Source: Todd T. Lewis, Encyclopedia of Buddhism, The Gale Group Inc., 2004. Lewis is a professor of world religions at the College of Holy Cross]
“The Licchavi inscriptions reveal connections between the Nepal valley and the traditions of monasticism and patronage that originated across the Gangetic plain from the time of the Buddha. There are references in the inscriptions to monks and nuns from over a dozen discrete sa ghas residing in land-owning viharas (monasteries) and enjoying the support of prominent local merchants and caravan leaders. The most frequently mentioned sa gha is that of the MahAsA ghika school.
“These early monasteries were centers of a predominantly Mahayana culture, with the inscriptions providing only a few hints of Vajrayana practice. Monastic precincts reveal verses of praise addressed to Śakyamuni and other buddhas, as well as shrines to the celestial bodhisattvas Manjuśrī, Vajrapa i, Samantabhadra, and — most frequently — Avalokiteśvara. Donations of stŪpas, in several instances by nuns, are also mentioned. Nepal's earliest monasteries charged monks with maintaining law and civic order in settlements built on lands donated to them, a custom that is unattested in Indian sources. Examples of similar duties are also found in the records of the residents (mandalis) of contemporaneous Hindu temples.”
Tibetan Buddhism Enters Nepal
According to the Encyclopedia of Buddhism: “Tibetan texts recount how great Indian sages came up through the Nepal valley to establish Buddhist traditions on the Tibetan plateau. Later legends describe their subduing demons and establishing communities of devotees. Although the history of these first Himalayan monasteries remains obscure, some may have been established by the great siddha Padmasambhava (ca. late eighth century) or his disciples. Texts composed to recount the lives of Atisha (982–1054) and Mar pa (Marpa; 1002/1012–1097) describe their sojourns visiting still-recognized valley locations. [Source: Todd T. Lewis, Encyclopedia of Buddhism, The Gale Group Inc., 2004]
“Once Buddhism was firmly established in central Tibet as a result of its second introduction (ca. 1050 A.D.), the northernmost settlements of modern highland Nepal became sites where monasteries were established by every major school of Tibetan Buddhism. These areas include Humla in the far west, as well as (from west to east) Dolpo, Lo-Mustang, Nyeshang, Nupri, Manang, Langtang, Helambu, Solu-Khumbu, and Walung. Local boys interested in training to become senior monks would travel to central Tibet and return to maintain local institutions that typically sheltered, at most, a dozen or so monks whose main occupation was ritual service. This same pattern occurred for the Bon faith in a few of these regions.
“There was a second level of connection with the monastic networks of central Tibet established among the Tibeto-Burman–speaking peoples living in the mid-hills, including the Magars, Gurungs, Tamangs, and Sherpas. Many of these peoples followed the Rnying ma (Nyingma) school and relied on householder lamas to perform Buddhist rituals for their villages. To train for this service, young men typically lived for several years as apprentices with elder householder lamas or in the regional highland monasteries. Most returned to marry and maintain shrines established as their family's own property. Thus, most "Buddhist monasteries" among Tibeto-Burman peoples were (and are) family shrine-residences, and sons usually succeed their fathers as local Buddhist ritualists.
“By the early Malla era (1350 A.D.) Tibetan monks came to the Nepal valley to acquire tantric initiations, ritual practices, and texts from resident masters (Newars and others), traditions they conveyed up to the highlands. Some Tibetan monks also established branch monasteries affiliated with the main Tibetan schools; the first were located near the monumental stūpas at Svayambhū and Bauddha. Notable Tibetan teachers probably influenced the practices of Newar Buddhists.
“Although the Hindu state of Nepal, which was established in 1769, did not favor Buddhism and tried to make Buddhists conform to brahmanical laws, the traditions and loyalty of most Buddhist ethnic groups has endured, as have Nepal's family-based monasteries. Since 1990 the strength of Buddhist identity that is held together by these institutions among the Tibeto-Burman groups has become the basis of ethnic nationalism directed against the high caste dominated Hindu state.
“The Kathmandu valley is now one of the most important centers of Tibetan Buddhism in the world for several reasons. First, one of the world's largest concentrations of Tibetan refugees has settled in the Kathmandu valley, where they have focused on building institutions for their communities. Some of the profits generated by the carpet-weaving industry have been used to expand the initial structures and build new monasteries. Second, since about 1970, many of the most affluent Tibeto-Burman Buddhists from Nepal have chosen to establish homes in the valley, both for business and political purposes. Prominent donors from this community have bought lands and built monasteries that have drawn monks or nuns from their home regions. Finally, as Tibetan Buddhism has become increasingly attractive to Westerners, prominent Tibetan lamas funded by their donations have established "dharma centers" that in most ways resemble traditional monasteries. Here one can find textual study and meditation being pursued by both ethnic Tibetans and Westerners clad in monastic robes.”
Buddhism in the Malla Period
According to the Encyclopedia of Buddhism: “By the early Malla era, the valley had become an important regional center active in domesticating an indigenous Indic Mahayana Buddhism. Nepalese monks developed a highly ritualized Buddhist culture among the Newars, whose life-cycle rites, Mahayana festivals, and temple ritualism reached high levels of articulation. It was VajrayAna Buddhism and tantric initiation that assumed the highest position in local understanding, though only a few practiced esoteric traditions. Monastic architecture reflects this development: In the large courtyards that define the monastic space, the shrines facing the entrance have, on the ground floor, an image of Śakyamuni, but on the first floor above is the agama, a shrine with a Vajrayana deity, with access limited to those with tantric initiation. [Source: Todd T. Lewis, Encyclopedia of Buddhism, The Gale Group Inc., 2004]
“By the later Malla era (1425–1769 A.D.), when Hindu shrines and law were in the ascendancy, Newar Buddhism underwent many changes and assumed roughly the form extant today. This era was marked by the building of many new viharas, but there was also a literal domestication of the sa gha, wherein former monks became householders. These Newar householder monks called themselves Bare (from the Sanskrit term vande or vandana, an ancient Indic term of respect for monks), adopted the names śakyabhik u, and vajracarya, and began to function as endogamous castes. This meant that one had to be born into the sa gha and, with a few exceptions, everyone else was prohibited from being admitted. Thus, ordination into celibate monastic life was possible only in the local Tibetan sa ghas. The Newar sa ghas were probably transforming their tradition to conform to caste laws and thereby preserve the social and legal standing of the Buddhist community, as well as their extensive monastic land holdings. Since that time, those wanting to become adult members of the Newar sa gha must first undergo (in local parlance) śravaka-styled celibate ordination (usually taking three days), then Mahayana-styled initiation into what is referred to as the bodhisattva sa gha.
“Once the Newar kings were ousted by the Shah dynasty from Gorkha that unified the modern state in 1769, discrimination against Buddhists and changes in land tenure laws undermined the tenancy system that had supported the domesticated Newar monastic institution. At its peak, Newar Buddhists had established over three hundred monasteries. Today, roughly 10 percent have all but disappeared and more than 50 percent are in perilous structural condition. The majority of the monasteries, however, still function and most of the remainder can still be located using modern records. Monasteries See Below
“One of the most important changes that Shah rule brought to the middle hill regions of the country was the expansion of trade, and this was commonly in the hands of Newars who migrated to trade towns. The thousands who left the valley brought their prominently Buddhist culture with them. Thus, in towns such as (from east to west) Daran, Dhankuta, Chainpur, Bhojpur, Dolakha, Trisuli, Bandipur, Pokhara, Palpa, and Baglung, Newar Buddhists built bahas as branch institutions of those in their home cities.
Theravada Buddhism Influence in Nepal
According to the Encyclopedia of Buddhism: “Since the mid-twentieth century, Newars who have become disenchanted with their form of Mahayana monasticism have supported the establishment of Theravada Buddhist reform institutions in the Kathmandu valley. Inspired by teachers from Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, and India, Newars "entered the robes" and some founded institutions in the large cities that are dedicated to the revival of Buddhism based upon textual study, popular preaching, and lay meditation. [Source: Todd T. Lewis, Encyclopedia of Buddhism, The Gale Group Inc., 2004]
“Beginning with the Anandaku ī Monastery at Svayambhū for monks and the Dharmakūrti dormitory for nuns in central Kathmandu, Newars have been ordained and have renounced the householder life to live in these institutions. Technically, the ancient order of nuns has died out in Theravada countries; the term anagarika is used locally, although the women conform to most vinaya rules, including celibacy.
“Theravada institutions have been instrumental to promoting the modernist "Protestant Buddhism" originating in colonial Sri Lanka. These institutions have subtly critiqued Newar and Tibetan Mahayana beliefs and practices, while seeking to revive the faith by promoting textual study and vernacular translations, scheduling popular preaching, and spreading the practice of lay meditation. Other independent meditation centers started by Goenka, a lay teacher from India, have since the early 1980s gained considerable popularity. Theravada monasteries and meditation centers are now found in most major towns of the Kathmandu valley of Nepal.
Buddhist Practice in Nepal
David H. Holmberg wrote in the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”: Buddhist practice in Nepal remains relatively decentralized. Identifying key leaders and theologians recognized by all Nepalese Buddhists is impossible because each of the thousands of communities across the country finds its leaders among local practitioners. [Source: David H. Holmberg,“Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”, Thomson Gale, 2006]
Early leaders of Buddhism are impossible to identify clearly from the historical record. They are associated with the founding of particular monasteries or monastic communities, which number in the hundreds in Nepal. Most contemporary Tibetan Buddhists in Nepal, especially Tibetan immigrants, hold the Dalai Lama in high esteem. Other Buddhists identify their leaders according to sect or ethnic community.
Buddhists do not proselytize, but Buddhism, being a universalizing religion, welcomes converts. Buddhists in Nepal do not have a history of social activism in alleviating poverty and injustice. Nevertheless, Buddhism has become the religion of many disadvantaged ethnic groups in Nepal. Buddhists in Nepal do not involve themselves in controversy concerning social issues, except in their demand for respect for the Buddha and the Buddhist religion. Most recent controversies have focused on international filmmakers shooting in Nepal who have represented the Buddha in ways that Buddhists find offensive. The filming of both Little Buddha (1993) and Hollywood Buddha (2004) met with protests.
“The main cultural impact of Buddhism in Nepal has been in the visual arts. Painting, especially in the Tibetan tradition, has been almost exclusively associated with Buddhist iconography. Newar metalworkers are world-renowned for the production of religious sculptures and statuary.
Buddhist Rituals in Nepal
David H. Holmberg wrote in the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”: Major rituals for all Buddhists in Nepal include offerings to the divinities and Buddhas and prayers both at temples and monasteries and at home. Monks make such offerings and prayers on a daily basis. Laypersons do so on important dates of the ritual calendar. [Source: David H. Holmberg,“Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”, Thomson Gale, 2006]
“The Buddhist laity tends to be most interested in the worldly benefits of worship. Tibetan Buddhist laypersons, for instance, participate in rituals in order to receive blessings of power, long life, and good fortune. Most Buddhists make regular pilgrimages to major shrines and temples, sharing pilgrimage destinations with Hindus. Many pilgrimages have only local or regional significance, but others, such as the pilgrimages to Gosainkund and Muktinath, attract Buddhist and Hindu pilgrims from throughout Nepal.
Newar, Tamang, Gurung, Thakali, and other Tibeto-Burman-speaking Buddhist populations follow, more or less, the same rites of passage as Hindus — but with a different emphasis. Most observe rites of purification at birth, at the first rice feeding, at marriage, and at death. High-caste Buddhist Newar boys are initiated into a monastery in a rite that parallels the Hindu bartaman. Some, like the western Tamang, observe a first haircut for boys at the age of three. Among the Tibeto-Burman and culturally Tibetan populations of Nepal, death rites stand out as those having the most extensive social ramifications, whereas marriage is the most important rite of passage among Hindus.
Buddhist pilgrims earn merit by circling the great Boudhanath stupa. The Nepalese government has lobbied to make Buddha's birthday World Peace Day. A Dolpo saint by the name of Tulka Tsewang meditated for 65 years inside a wooden crib. To gain an audience with him a votive offering that looks like a piece of chocolate and a shell suggesting the spinning of the universe.☻
Buddhist Temples and Sacred Places in Nepal
David H. Holmberg wrote in the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”: The most important Buddhist sites in the Kathmandu Valley are the stupas and associated monasteries at Bauddhanath and Swayambhunath. Probably the most significant monastery and temple for the Newar Buddhists of Patan is Kwa Bahah. [Source: David H. Holmberg,“Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”, Thomson Gale, 2006]
“The Sherpa region of Solu Khumbu boasts several large monasteries, the most famous of which is Tengboche. Large monastic communities and important temples are also found in the Mustang district north and west of Kathmandu. Lumbini, the birthplace of the Buddha, lies in the southern Terai plains of Nepal and has become a Buddhist pilgrimage site in recent decades.
“Buddhists in Nepal have linked local geography to Buddhist mythology, and outstanding features of the landscape and nature are thus sacred. Relics associated with high incarnate lamas are held in reverence and sometimes entombed in stupas, which are themselves objects of veneration. The Buddhist word, including mantras as well as sacred texts, is powerful and sacred, whether printed in the canon or etched into the face of a rock.
Buddhist Monks and Monasteries in Nepal
David H. Holmberg wrote in the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”: Buddhist monks in Nepal wear red robes and shave their heads. The married monks of the Newar, Tamang, Gurung, and other Buddhist ethnic groups don special habits for the performance of rituals. [Source: David H. Holmberg,“Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”, Thomson Gale, 2006]
According to “Countries and Their Cultures”: ““Buddhist monasteries train young initiates in philosophy and meditation. Lay followers gain religious merit by making financial contributions to monasteries, where religious rites are performed on behalf of the general population. Within Buddhism there is a clerical hierarchy, with highly esteemed lamas occupying the positions of greatest influence. Monks and nuns of all ranks shave their heads, wear maroon robes, and embrace a life of celibacy and religious observance. [Source: “Countries and Their Cultures”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]
Todd T. Lewis wrote in the Encyclopedia of Buddhism: “Many contemporary Newar monasteries, especially in Patan, still bear the name of their founding patrons, some dating back to the early Malla period. Local Buddhist monks, like Hindu pa itas (scholars), were especially active in manuscript copying; by the modern era, Buddhist monastic libraries had became a vast repository of Sanskrit texts.Unlike the monastic institutions of Tibet that fostered in-depth philosophical inquiry and vast commentarial writings, Newar monks produced few original contributions to Buddhist scholarship. The Newar sa gha's focus was the performance of rituals drawing upon deities and powers of the Mahayana-Vajrayana Buddhist tradition. [Source: Encyclopedia of Buddhism, The Gale Group Inc., 2004]
“The cities of Kathmandu and Patan both have a system of main monasteries (mu baha), eighteen and fifteen, respectively; each monastery is linked to one or more satellite monasteries. Every householder monk is ordained in one of these monasteries, though they may reside in one of the several hundred branch monasteries affiliated with the main monasteries. A system of rotation requires that each ordained male perform the monastic daily ritual duties periodically. Bhaktapur and other smaller towns in the Kathmandu valley also have bahas, but each is an independent entity. Newar monasteries are now ruled by the senior male members of their individual sa ghas, which makes reform or innovation within the local sa gha difficult. From the Shah-era conquest in 1769 until the present, Newar Mahayana Buddhism has been gradually weakening as a cultural force due to the loss of landed income and leadership. Yet despite the decline of the monasteries as buildings and institutions, much is still preserved in the elaborate monastic architecture, the thousands of archived texts, and the wealth of cultural observances.
“The typical Newar baha is situated around a courtyard. The main entrance, often ornamented by a tympanum, usually has small shrines dedicated to the monastery guardians Ganesh and Mahakala, which flank the passageway leading into the main courtyard. Opposite the entrance is the main shrine building. On the ground floor is the kwapa dyah, usually Ś;akyamuni Buddha, flanked by images of his two great disciples, MahAmaudgalAyana and ŚAriputra. Stairs within the main shrine building lead to the agama, a tantric shrine that is opened only to adults who have received the appropriate Vajrayana initiation. The windows and the door, including another tympanum, are often adorned by elaborate wood carvings.
Newar Buddhists ascribe to an unusual mix of Mahayana, Tibetan and Theravada Buddhism with elements of Hinduism thrown in. According to the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”: Newar Buddhists are divided into castes and follow dietary rules similar to those of Hindus. Clean castes will not accept water from untouchable castes. Higher castes will take water only from other higher castes, and they will not accept cooked rice from castes lower than their own. The sharing of such items as liquor and tobacco across caste boundaries is also highly restricted. Other Buddhists in Nepal are less concerned with purity. [Source: David H. Holmberg,“Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”, Thomson Gale, 2006]
“Like married Tibetan monks of the Rnying ma order,” Newar “vajracarya priests serve the community's ritual needs, with some specializing in textual study, medicine, astrology, and meditation. Lifelong ritual relations link householders to family vajracarya priests, which some have called "Buddhist Brahmans." Their ritual services are vast, including Buddhist versions of Hindu life-cycle rites (sa skara), fire rites (homa), daily temple rituals (nitya pūja), mantra chanting protection rites, merit-producing donation rites, stūpa rituals, chariot festivals (ratha jatra), and tantric initiation (abhi eka). [Source: Encyclopedia of Buddhism, The Gale Group Inc., 2004]
“Some of these cultural performances were noted centuries ago in India. In Kathmandu's Itum Baha one can still observe monks rapping on wooden gongs to mark time, a monastic custom begun over two thousands years ago in ancient India. The "Mahayana cult of the book" endures as well. In this and many other respects, Newars continue the evolutionary patterns of ritual practice and lay ideals of later Indic Buddhism. Claims that "Indian Buddhism died out" defy geography and ignore the ongoing survival of Newar Buddhism.”
Sherpas are a Tibetan Buddhist people that are essentially Tibetans who have lived in Nepal long enough to develop some of their own unique traits and characteristics. They are quite different from Hindu Nepalese. The Sherpas of the Khumbu valley near Mt. Everest are famous mountaineers and guides.
Sherpas are devout Buddhists. The belong to the Nyingya (“old”) sect of the Tibetan form of Mahayana. Buddhism. The Thunderbolt Vehicle is universally observed. In the old days many boys became monks but this no longer the case.
Religion is a daily, if not hourly practice, for the Sherpas. They earn religious merit by their gentle thoughts, by practicing nonviolence , doing good deeds, spinning prayer wheels and offering gifts to lamas. Sherpas are not allowed to kill animals. To eat meat they must hire a non-Buddhist to slaughter their animals. On days of the full moon and new moons Sherpas are expected not to work and devote their time to reading and chanting Buddhist scripture.
Sherpas regard many mountains as sacred. Mt. Everest is regarded as less sacred than others. (See Places). Before embarking on a climb Sherpas often make an offering of rice and incense to the mountain deity. They often encourage their foreign clients to do the same. Sherpas also believe in a large pantheon of gods, spirits and demons that influence health and daily life.
Village religious activities are presided over by married lamas. Monks and nuns are usually based at monasteries or some other religious facility. They generally don’t beg like monks in Southeast Asia nor are they supported by the state like monks in Tibet, Many rely on family inheritance. Their community duties are generally limited to reading sacred texts at funerals and the blessing of new buildings.
Sherpas believe the marks on the moon were created by a monk who loved the Khumbu valley so much he wanted to be able to see it at night. One night he reached up and pulled the moon closer to the earth. What look like craters are actually the finger marks he left behind. [Source: Desmond Doig, National Geographic, October 1966]
According to the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures: “ In past centuries, religion was organized on a village and clan level; since the turn of the 20th century, celibate monasticism, imported from Tibet, has flourished in the Sherpa region. The Sherpa pantheon is vast, ranging from the great Buddhist divinities connected with the quest for enlightenment and salvation to local gods, spirits, and demons influencing health, luck, and day-to-day concern. The former are the object of temple and monastic worship, the latter of exorcisms, commensal feasts, purification rites, and curing rites performed by married lamas and shamans.
“Monks and nuns take lifetime vows of celibacy and live in institutions isolated from daily life. Their interaction with the community is mainly limited to the reading of sacred texts at funerals and annual monastic rituals to which the public is invited. The monks' and nuns' pursuit of merit in turn brings merit to the entire Community. Outstanding religious figures may be reincarnated, and the highest ecclesiastical offices at the Present time are held by reincarnations of earlier religious figures. In addition, shamans perform exorcisms and cures, though this is now less prevalent than previously. [Source: Robert A. Paul, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 3: South Asia,” edited by Paul Paul Hockings, 1992 |~|]
After a Sherpa dies his body is kept for two or three days in the house. The funeral is long and elaborate. The deceased is cremated. Rebirth is believed to take place 49 days after death. Ideally. the entire period is filled with rituals and ceremonies that are often require the chanting Buddhist texts.
The Nyinda are a small Tibetan ethnic group that lives in Humal Karnali, a rugged area between 2,850 and 3,300 meters in elevation in Nepal near the Tibetan border. There are only a few thousand of them. They have traditionally raised high elevation crops like buckwheat and millet and were involved in the Tibetan salt trade. They are also known as Barthapalya (in Nepali), Bhotia, Bhutia and Tamang.
According to the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: “Nyinba are Tibetan Buddhists of the Nyingmapa school, although people also give credence to Certain cosmological beliefs held to antedate Buddhism and to the deities and ritual practices of their Hindu neighbors. The pantheon follows orthodox Tibetan Buddhism, with the addition of minor deities of local significance. Contrary to Buddhism, village founders become powerful ancestors who are thought to safeguard the village and to whom appeals for agricultural prosperity are addressed. People also fear the power of the evil eye and witchcraft. [Source: Nancy E. Levine, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 3: South Asia,” edited by Paul Hockings, 1992 |~|]
“Each village includes one or more households of lamas, the most respected of whom trace descent to a hereditary lama lineage. These lamas are not monastics, although many have pursued advanced religious training in the monasteries of Tibet or in refugee centers in India and Nepal. Instead they marry, raise families, and serve the everyday ritual needs of villagers. A few women have become nuns; the esteem in which they are held depends on the rectitude of their lives and their religious accomplishments. Each village also includes several households of hereditary priests known as dangri, who are involved with the cults of local deities. These priests conduct from memory a simple liturgy modeled after Tibetan Buddhist ritual, preparatory to events of spirit possession. Finally there are the spirit mediums, or oracles, who are believed to incarnate local deities when possessed. The office of oracle rarely passes from father to son, but it does recur often among disadvantaged Nyinba, such as slaves and their descendants. |~|
“Lamas celebrate Buddhist rituals at prescribed times in their household temples. In addition, they officiate at privately sponsored rituals, prompted by life-crisis events or the desire to acquire merit, and at public ceremonials. The ritual calendar includes both locally distinctive Ceremonies and those known throughout ethnically Tibetan areas. Among the former are ceremonies held to propitiate clan gods, those seeking the blessings of founder ancestors, and rites associated with the growth and harvesting of the major crops. At these special local ceremonies, both lamas and dangris officiate, and there is public oracular possession. |~|
“Certain lamas practice traditional Tibetan medicine, which relies on empirical and mystical treatments: herbal and animal remedies, moxibustion (cauterization), and the performance of special rituals. Oracles also may be called in to diagnose the mystical cause of illness and to exorcise malignant supernaturals deemed responsible. Nyinba have been exposed to scientific medicine only since the mid-1970s. As more facilities are established and sources of supplies become reliable, reliance on them increases. |~|
“Following death are a series of Ceremonies that culminate in a merit-creating feast for the entire village and close relatives of the deceased. Like other Buddhists, Nyinba believe in reincarnation, and one of the major goals of these ceremonies is to help the deceased attain the best possible rebirth. Funerals also include ceremonies designed to remove death pollution from relatives and those who have come in contact with the corpse. The funeral is accorded great importance, and rich and poor sponsor the same ceremonies, which is not the case for other life-crisis events. |~|
Kung Fu Drukpa Nuns of Nepal
Alisha Haridasani Gupta wrote in the New York Times: “A dozen Buddhist nuns, bald and dressed in humble maroon robes... cartwheeled. They punched. They kicked and jumped and then landed in the splits. They wielded spears and swords, then danced with paper fans. These are the Kung Fu Nuns of a 900-year-old Buddhist sect called the Drukpa, which is derived from the Tibetan word for dragon.” They are based near Kathmandu and received an award in New York for being “inspiring agents of change.” [Source: Alisha Haridasani Gupta, New York Times, November 8, 2019]
“Traditionally, Buddhist nuns have not been allowed to exercise. They are forbidden from singing, leading prayers or being fully ordained. In some monasteries, it is believed that female Buddhists can’t even achieve enlightenment unless they are reborn as men. “Everyone has this old thinking that nuns can’t do anything,” said Jigme Konchok Lhamo, 25, who has been part of the nunnery since she was 12. (Jigme is a first name that all the nuns share, which in Tibetan means “fearless one.”)
“But the spiritual leader of the Drukpa lineage, His Holiness Gyalwang Drukpa, has spent much of his life breaking down those patriarchal Buddhist traditions. Gyalwang Drukpa doesn’t like “the terminology of empowerment,” he said in a 2014 interview. “That actually means that I have the power to empower them.” “I’m just moving the obstacles, so that they can come up with their own power.” In 2008, as part of his mission to bring about gender equality in Buddhism, Gyalwang Drukpa had the nuns learn kung fu to help them build strength and confidence. He has allowed nuns to take on leadership positions and has taught them how to perform and lead rituals.
“The all-female monastery he leads has since swelled to around 800 nuns, with the youngest member aged 8 and the eldest around 80. Every day, the nuns wake up at 3 a.m. to meditate for two hours. Then they take a series of classes, including Buddhist teachings that were previously taught only to men, and two hours of kung fu training. Beyond martial arts, the nuns are also environmentalists who pick up litter scattered around the Himalayas and cycle thousands of miles to promote sustainability. In a region notorious for violence against women and human trafficking, they go from village to village teaching girls self-defense. In 2015, when a violent magnitude-7.8 earthquake devastated Nepal, killing more than 1,900 people, the nuns sprang into action, delivering aid and food to remote villages that had been destroyed and deemed too dangerous and unreachable by international relief organizations. “It was very scary for us,” said Jigme Yeshe Lhamo, who described how their truck was hit by falling rocks in an avalanche.
Mysterious "Buddha Boy" of Nepal
Ram Bahadur Bomjan, known as “Buddha boy”, became famous in 2005, when he was 14, after followers said he could meditate motionless for months without water, food or sleep in Nepal’s dense jungles. Tens of thousands of people turned up to see him sitting cross-legged under a tree for nearly ten months in a position The Buddha sat in. Many regarded him as an incarnation of The Buddha. He resided in the remote forests in Ratanpuri, 150 kilometers southeast of Kathmandu.
A couple of times he disappeared after blessing thousands of supporters and then reappeared months later. In 2008, Reuters reported: “Ram Bahadur Bamjon, 17, blessed devotees for nearly 10 days in the remote forest of Ratanpuribefore disappearing, junior police officer Santosh Budhathoki said. Ten days ago Bamjon reappeared after almost a year when he had disappeared in order to meditate in the jungle. This is the third time Bamjon has disappeared since his first appearance three years ago. [Source: Reuters, November 22, 2008]
“Thousands of people, some out of sheer curiosity, including many from neighbouring India walked to the site in the middle of dense forests to see him this time. “He gave a 25 minute religious discourse to more than 5,000 people on Friday then went into an underground site for meditation,” Budhathoki said. He said the boy had wrapped a white cloth around his body and sometimes sat for more than 12 hours at one stretch during the discourse. “Not everyone can do this without any special power which he has,” Budhathoki said. “Whether he is a Buddha I can’t say.”
Mysterious "Buddha Boy" Accused of Sexual Assualt
In 2019, Ram Bahadur Bomjan, then, 28, was investigated over missing devotees and allegations of physical and sexual assault. AFP reported: A Nepali spiritual leader believed by his followers to be a reincarnation of Buddha is under investigation over the disappearance of several devotees, police in Kathmandu have said. The 28-year-old has a devout following but has been accused of physically and sexually assaulting some of his followers. [Source: AFP, January 7, 2019]
“Special police investigators have begun inquiries after the families of four devotees allegedly vanished from his ashrams. “The police have started investigating these complaints against Bomjan,” said Uma Prasad Chaturbedi, a spokesman for Nepal’s Central Investigation Bureau. “The investigation is in preliminary stage and we cannot share many details.” Bomjan has long been dogged by accusations of abuse, even as thousands of worshippers queued for days to witness his “miracles of meditation” deep in the jungle.
“In September 2018, an 18-year-old nun accused him of raping her at one of his ashrams. Dozens more have filed complaints against him alleging assault. Bomjan said he beat them for disturbing his meditation. The Bodhi Shrawan Dharma Sangha, an organisation associated with Bomjam, recently claimed fresh allegations made by a local website were baseless. Setopati.com published reports detailing alleged cases of disappearances, sexual assault and violence in Bomjan’s ashrams.”
Meditation and Buddhism-Inspired Spiritual Therapy in Nepal
According to Nepal Tours & Travel: “Many visit Nepal for meditation, spiritual rejuvenation, retreat and to unite with the mighty Himalayas. Nepal is theone of the world’s best destinations for many these meditation activities and boasts of having many renowned centers like the Kopan monastery which is world famous for Buddhist meditation. Shringa offers some of the best Vipassana. The name in the Buddhist tradition means insight into the nature of reality center in the world. Both these are just outside Kathmandu surrounded by beautiful nature. [Source: Nepal Tours & Travel]
Meditations like Vipassana are thorough, most reasonable and result oriented. The main objective is to cleanse the mind and once done, you learn to share your merit for the goodwill of others. You start using your sensations with love and kindness and let that feeling fill the atmosphere. You wish peace and happiness and freedom from mental and physical suffering for all.
Singing Bowl for Inner Harmony — also known as Himalayan singing bowl or chakra bowl — is popular for spiritual healing is the Singing Bowl, Chakra Bowl . There are wide varieties of singing bowls made of various metal compositions which are widely used for meditation, sound therapy and curing. This ancient Himalayan food bowl produces a wonderful singing rimming sound when tapped, struck or rubbed by a wooden striker or pin.
Healing Power with Hands Reiki is a form of spiritual healing and of therapy that uses simple hands-on, no-touch, and visualization techniques, with the goal of improving the flow of life energy in a person, which was used by Lord Buddha to heal people 2,500 years ago. Later, it was reintroduced in the early 20th century. Since then, it has been popular, especially in Nepal because most people can not afford to go to the hospital. Reiki is their only hope and prospect of recovery. The objective of Reiki in Nepal has always been to firstly; help those people who are suffering every day from serious and sometimes life threatening diseases and who are unable to afford any medical care. Secondly, Reiki in Nepal especially for tourists provides a suitable arena for those who are wishing to further progress on their spiritual journey in a peaceful and secluded setting. It is due to this very reason; there is a growing demand for a diverse range of spiritual teachings like Reiki.
Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Nepal Tourism Board (ntb.gov.np), Nepal Government National Portal (nepal.gov.np), The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Wikipedia and various books, websites and other publications.
Last updated February 2022