Introduction of Buddhism

The real historical period of Bhutan, however, starts with the introduction of Buddhism in the 7th century A. D. Since then, Buddhism has always played an important role both in the history of Bhutan & in the ways of life of its people. Religious & secular powers were not clearly separated until the seventeenth century, when Shabdrung Ngwang Namgyel established a new dual system government. Even today, it is evident that the supreme head of the religious institutions known as the Je Khenpo holds a prominent place in the social & cultural life of the Bhutanese people.

Although the two most scared & historical Buddhist temples, Kyichu & Jambay, were built in the 7th century A.D., it was not until the visit of the great Indian saint Guru Padmasambhava in A.D. 746 that Buddhism took firm root in Bhutan. Padmasambhava converted a king (Sendha) reigning in the Bumthang valley to Buddhism, after which the faith gradually spread to other parts of Bhutan.

Legends have it that, at the end of the 8th century, King Sendha built an iron castle in Bumthang containing all the treasures of the world. His territory was invaded by King Nabudara or Nauche (Big Nose), who ruled the Duar plains to the south. Prior to the battle outside the iron castle, King Sendha performed a gr& ceremony in which he invoked the local guardian deities for their help. But it was all in vain: the Bumthang forces were defeated & King Sendha’s son Taglamebar slain. The distress king lost faith in the deities & ordered all temples in his kingdom to be desecrated & destroyed. A Bhutanese chronicle narrates what ensued: “The deities, deeply offended at the sacrilegious v&alism of the mortal king, grew irate, & misfortune befell the entire kingdom. King Sendha was struck down with a fatal illness. The deities had sapped his life seemed to be evaporating. People close to the king felt lost & forsaken.”

Officers of the royal court held discussions to seek a solution, & the leading astrologers of the region suggested remedies that failed to take effect. At that time Guru Padmasambhava (known as Guru Rimpochey or the most Precious Teacher), one of the greatest Buddhist masters of Ugyen country known for his miraculous powers, happened to be meditating in a cave called Yangleshoe in Nepal. Messengers carrying gifts & cups filled with gold dust visited the great guru, beseeching his help to destroy the evil deities & rescue their monarch.

Accepting the invitation, Guru Padmasambhava traveled via Nubjikorphu in the Khen region to Bumthang, where he organized a festival of ritual dances &, with his magic powers, assumed eight forms of dance in order to subdue the evil spirits. The encounter culminated with the guru, now transformed into the primeval bird Garuda, retrieving King Sendha’s vital strength from the chief of the local deities, had appeared at the spectacle as a lion & is now known as Shelging Karpo, chief protective deity of Kurjey temple in Bumthang.

Following these miraculous events, king Sendha & his subjects were converted to the Buddhist faith & undertook to propagate the new religion & reestablish all the holy places.

One salient features of Guru Padmasambhava’s religious policy was his incorporation of the Bon deities into the Buddhism pantheon, having, as the legend relates, bound them through oaths not only to serve the Buddhist faith, but also, in the process, to becomes its protector. The psychological implications of this development should not be underestimated, for it lent a sense of continuity to the beliefs of their new adherents & satisfied the needs of their stage of consciousness.

With the emergence of the anti-Buddhist King Langdarma in the northern kingdom of Tibet, a wave religious persecution & political turmoil swept through that country. The ninth & tenth centuries witnessed an exodus of monks to Kham in eastern Tibet & Bhutan, the latter quickly being recognized as a Baeyul, or scared Hidden L& of Spiritual Treasures, that had received the blessing of Guru Rimpochey. Among the innumerable monks & Tibetan religious practitioners who thus took refuge in Bhutan, many rose to eminence through their mystic practices & contributed significantly to the several school of later Buddhism in Himalayan region-among them the Kadampa, the Kagyudpa, the Sakyapa & the Gelugpa-that sprang up with the revival of the religion in Tibet in the eleventh century. A highlight of the religious history of this period was the appearance of Tertons, or Treasure-Discoverers, in Paro & Bumthang who revealed, at predestined, opportune moments, texts & scared objects hidden for posterity by Guru Padmasambhava & other saints.

In the first half of the 13th century, a spiritual master by the name of Phajo Drukgom Zhingpo (1208-1276) arrived in Bhutan. He is regarded as a very important figure in Bhutan because he was the forerunner of the Drukpa Kagyu tradition, which ultimately gained preeminence in the country. As soon as he arrived, Phajo Drukgom Zhingpo came into conflict with the Lhapas, who were already firmly established in western Bhutan. However, Phajo Drukgom Zhingpo finally won his struggle with the Lhapas & married women from Thimphu valley. Their four sons further spread the Drukpa Kagyu traditions in the country. Nevertheless, the Lhapa School continued until the seventeenth century, when it was totally crushed by Shabdrung Ngwang Namgyel.