Buddhism is the official religion practiced throughout Bhutan. However, all Bhutanese have freedom of religion.
Buddhism is evident everywhere in Bhutan – prayer flags, stupas, prayer wheels and temples dot the landscape and Buddhist art adorns the houses.
Bhutan is the only country in the world to have adopted Mahayana Buddhism in its Tantric form as its official religion. The Mahayana school of Buddhism is followed in Northern India, through the Himalayas to China, Japan and Korea. It focuses on compassion towards others and the liberation of all living beings through the practice of the six perfections: generosity, moral discipline, patience, effort, concentrations and wisdom. The word Tantra comes from the name of a body of texts left to a select few of Buddha’s early disciples. Tantra involves identifying with a guardian deity through deep meditation and the recitation of mantra. The most well know mantra is om mani padme hum.
Tantric Buddhism is based on the same beliefs as other forms of Buddhism: that all the consequences of your actions in this life, or karma, forces reincarnation. Humans should aim to become enlightened which means a release from the cycle of incarnations into the state of Nirvana – a state free from suffering.
Tantric Buddhism recognizes many symbolic deities and bodhisattvas – ‘Buddha’s-to-be’ that have achieved enlightenment but decline Nirvana in order to be reincarnated into the world of humans to help others. Bodhisattvas are in practice treated more as deities than as enlightened human beings and occupy the centre of a world of many gods: subordinate deities; opposing, converted, and reformed demons; wandering ghosts; and saintly humans reflecting the shamanistic folk religion of the regions into which Buddhism expanded, an example of the accommodating nature of Buddhism. You will see many images of these deities in the wall paintings in the Dzongs (fortresses) and temples in Bhutan. The peaceful deities sometimes take the form of wrathful deities to subdue evil spirits. The nudity of the deities implies that the conventions of this world have no higher importance, and the sexual unions between male and female represent the union of knowledge (the male) and wisdom (the female). Without wisdom, compassion leads nowhere and without compassion, wisdom is useless.
Different approaches can be used to gain enlightenment including rituals and religious practices such as the reciting of mantras with a rosary or prayer wheel, lighting of butter-lamps, prostrations, and the creation of mandalas (cosmic diagrams used as an aid to meditation). Buddhist values and rituals are central to Bhutanese daily life and every house has a choesham (shrine) to which offerings are made every day, including seven bowls, which are filled with water each morning – a gift that every Bhutanese can give. They represent the seven offerings which must be made to Buddha and the deities: food, drink, water for washing, flowers and incense to please the senses, a butter-lamp for light and perfume. On special occasions, ritual cake, torma, is offered along with rituals of initiation, purification or consecration depending on the occasion. Each ritual includes prayers and reciting of the appropriate mantra. On auspicious dates, it is common practice to visit a high monk, or to give offerings to a temple or monastery, to make a pilgrimage, or to join a collective blessing.
The majority of Bhutan’s Buddhists are of the Drukpa (‘those of the thunder dragon’) School of religion. This is a branch of the Kagyupa School, one of the four major schools of Tibetan Buddhism introduced into Bhutan from Tibet in the eleventh century. Central to the teaching of the Kagyupa School are the dharma (laws of nature, all that exists, real or imaginary), which consist of six Tantric meditative practices teaching bodily self-control so as to achieve nirvana. One of the key aspects of the Kargyupa school is the direct transmission of the doctrine of the faith from teacher to disciple (the literal translation of Kagyupa is ‘oral transmission’).