Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Travel TidBits: Religous and Spiritual Life in Bhutan

Bhutan is a country steeped in religious and spiritual life. Buddhism was introduced in Bhutan in the seventh century by a Tibetan King who built the Kyichu Temple in the Paro Valley, and was followed by Guru Rinpoche, the Precious Master, in the 8th century. Statues of Guru Rinpoche can be seen and are revered in many temples throughout the country. Since then, Buddhism has always played important role both in the history of Bhutan and in the way of life of its people. Religious and secular powers were not clearly separated until the 15th century, when Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal established a new dual system of government. The influence of religious leaders is evident in each Dzong, which houses the seat of government as well as a monastery under one roof.

The supreme head of the religious institutions known as the Je Khenpo resides in Thimpu Dzong, the seat of the central Bhutanese government where he holds a prominent place in the social and cultural life of the Bhutanese people, and is responsible for the nation’s religious affairs.

The day I visited Punakha Dzong, we witnessed a visit by Je Khenpo giving blessings to monks and the people alike gathered at the Dzong. After attending to a religious ceremony, monks in bright red, orange and yellow robes poured out of the temple, and visitors to the Dzong lined the temple wall to be in the presence and receive holy water and a blessing from the highest Abbott of the land.

Today, Bhutan is the only nation in the world where Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism is practiced as the State Religion. From the time when Guru Rinpoche came to Bhutan, Buddhism has wielded a profound influence both on the people's way of life as well as on the growth of the country's religion cultural and traditional customs. The presence of religion is evident in every fact of Bhutanese life and Buddhist values form the basis of Bhutanese society.

In the past each family entered at least one of its sons into a monastery, so that monks constituted a considerable percentage of the male population. Today, there are about 6,000 monks in Bhutan.  The state takes care of the needs of the monasteries and the monks.  The monks carry out daily rituals, tend to the temples and perform special rituals outside the monasteries in people’s homes.  The novice monks as young as 5-6 years of age obtain religious training and assist the ordained monks in their daily duties.

 Very young monks at a prayer wheel

Young monk at a monastic school carrying out his daily duties.

at the Dechenchodron Monastic School, Thimpu

While monks of Bhutanese monasteries of the Drukpa School are strictly celibate, those of the Nyingmapa order are not obliged to be so. There is a possibility for monks to leave the monasteries and those who do are called Gomchens or lay priests. They are allowed to marry and raise families, and work as peasants, but also carry out liturgical functions in temples and homes. They wield a great deal of social influence specifically in the rural areas.
Since almost every important occasion in the life of the average Bhutanese is invested with religious significance, monks visit households as well to perform rites related to diverse events such as birth, marriage, sickness, death, construction of houses, promotion of senior Government officials, inaugural or opening ceremonies of any occasion and other day-today functions.

The Gate Keeper of the Memorial Chorten in Thimpu

Young monk observing the ceremonial dances

During Spring and Fall, religious festivals, called Tchechu, are celebrated with sacred mask dances involving the entire monastery.

Young monks descending from Taktsang, the Tiger's Nest Monastery to the Valley of Paro.

The monastery sits high on top of the mountains at about 10,000 ft, about 3,000 ft above the Paro valley.  All supplies are carried up on foot and by pack animals.

If you are interested  to travel to Bhutan, the Kingdom high in the Himalayas, please check out the Festival and Photo Tour to Bhutan in October 2011
with Photographer Meggi Raeder.  More images of Bhutan can be seen at my web gallery.

You can also reach Meggi Raeder at mraeder33@gmail.com.

However, I am currently traveling for 2 months in Africa, photographing wildlife and teaching in Moshi, Tanzania.  I will have limited access to the Internet but will respond to all emails as soon as possible.  I'll return from Africa mid March 2011.