June 28, 2021

The World’s Last Remaining Vajrayana Buddhist Kingdom

Bhutan is the world’s last remaining Vajrayana Buddhist Kingdom, and this ancient spiritual tradition is, to this day, embedded in the very consciousness and culture of the people. Even as Bhutan faces the modern-day challenges of a global pandemic, it remains deeply interwoven into the fabric of the lives of the Bhutanese people.

When the Royal Government of Bhutan announced Bhutan would be receiving its first vaccine shipment in March of this year, Bhutan’s Central Monastic Body, the Zhung Dratshang, conducted a three-day Medicine Buddha ceremony on the day of arrival. And when Bhutan announced that it would begin rolling out its nationwide COVID-19 vaccination program, the date was selected by the most senior monks in the country as the most auspicious day for the program to commence. Buddhism is, without doubt, the bedrock of Bhutanese society and an opportunity to learn about Buddhism in Bhutan offers a deep insight into the country’s history and heritage.

Buddhism in Bhutan has its origins in Tibet and follows the Vajrayana or Mahayana branch of Buddhism. On the 10th of this month, Bhutan paid tribute to one of its holiest saints Guru Rinpoche, who is credited with bringing Buddhism to Bhutan in 810AD. Guru Rinpoche, translated as ‘precious master’, is also known as Guru Padmasambhava, meaning ‘lotus born’. According to Bhutanese legend, he flew to Bhutan from Tibet on the back of a tigress and meditated there for three years, three months, three weeks, three days and three hours. Years later, the famous Taktsang Monastery in the Paro Valley, also known as Tiger’s Nest, was built to mark this holy place. To the Bhutanese, Guru Rinpoche is not just a spiritual leader or a historical figure but a highly enlightened master, regarded as the patron saint of Bhutan. His birthday, celebrated on the tenth day of the sixth lunar month, is marked by religious ceremonies in temples across the country.

Two monks reading in Bhutan
Two monks in Bhutan
Monks praying in Gangtey, Bhutan

To participate in these ceremonies and observe these remarkable traditions is to receive a uniquely personal account of Buddhism in Bhutan. And this is an opportunity that awaits guests of Gangtey Lodge. Just five minutes’ walk from the Lodge is the local Shedra or Monk School, home to approximately 250 monk students ranging in age from 12-40 years. Here the monks not only learn Buddhist philosophy and basic English but also poetry, logic, meditation and debate.

Every morning at 5.15am, the monks conduct morning prayers known as the Tara Prayers, offered in the early morning because Buddhists consider the body and mind to be most pure at this time of day. Guests are invited to participate in this morning prayer ceremony and later to accompany one of the Lamas (teachers of Dharma) on their morning rounds, providing the opportunity to converse with the teacher while the student monks prepare for their studies. Alternatively, guests can join the evening prayer session and meditation class.

Gangtey Lodge is committed to sustainable tourism and providing benefits to the local community and the special relationship the Lodge enjoys with the Shedra means funds are donated to support the school, its projects and the monks themselves. The Shedra in Gangtey Valley is part of a broader mission to preserve, promote and propagate Buddhism for peace, prosperity and harmony in the world and to preserve Bhutanese tradition and religious education.

This unique opportunity to witness these traditions firsthand and observe the daily routine of those living in Bhutan’s monastic institutions offers visitors to Bhutan a deep understanding of what it means to be a Buddhist living in the “Land of the Thunder Dragon.”