An Introduction to Buddhism in Bhutan

When traveling in Bhutan, you quickly see the influence of Buddhism in almost all aspects of life. The form of Buddhism that flourishes here is part of the larger Tibetan or Vajrayana tradition. It combines the monastic tradition with local spiritual beliefs in a unique form of Buddhism. This unusual tradition includes lay-practitioners, philosophical study, and highly complex symbolic rituals.

Origin

Based on Indian Buddhist teachings, Vajrayana Buddhism spread in the 8th century. Tibetan king Trisong Deutsen invited Guru Rinpoche, also known as Padmasambhava, to his kingdom to introduce the Buddhist dharma. Guru Rinpoche began traveling to Bhutan in the middle of the 8th century and visited three times, imbuing sites like Paro's Taktsang Lhakhang and Bumthang’s Kurje Lhakhang with his spiritual legacy. Guru Rinpoche is widely credited and revered for bringing Buddhism to the Himalaya.

In the 13th century the Drukpa Kagyu sect became dominant with a slightly different emphasis on specific scriptures and the methods through which instructions are passed from teacher to student. It is now the state religion of Bhutan.

Characteristics

Leave your impressions of silent, somber, vegetarian monks at the airplane door when you arrive in Bhutan. While there are many moments of tranquility at the monasteries and dzongs, there are also whirling ritual dances, brightly colored masks, and intricate drawings of peaceful and wrathful deities. You may also find a whole host of dreadlock-crowned or long-haired gomchen, meditators who dedicate their lives to Buddhist practice outside of the monastic setting. And keep an eye out for chortens, stupa constructions that often contain relics of saints and around which people circumambulate clockwise.

What to Expect

The Bhutanese are open to sharing with us many of their rituals, dances, and other ceremonies. They’ll understand if you don’t follow along—many locals attend without detailed knowledge of the complexities—and, as a GeoEx guest, you'll have a local guide with you to explain the context. The best approach is to remain respectful at all times and ask your guide for advice on how best to engage in the activity at hand.