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Monastic Body of Bhutan

Article submitted by the Volunteers' Group in Bhutan

Bhutan is regarded as one of the Buddhist countries where Buddhism flourishes uninterrupted. Its culture, customs, history and landscape bear the most venerable traces of the influence of this noble religion. Historically, Buddhism was first spread to Bhutan in the 7th century A.D.

Although numerous scholar-saints appeared between 10th to 17th century, none of them could establish formal monk community (i.e. Sangha) in Bhutan. It was Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel (1594-1651), the founder of the Bhutanese Nationhood, who for the first time instituted the Sangha in Bhutan in the 17th century. He began the Monastic body with only 30 monks when he completed the first monastic center at Cheri about 14 kms. north of Thimphu in 1621-22. Later, in 1637 when the construction of Punakha Dzong [in another valley towards east from the capital, Thimphu] was completed, monks of Cheri were moved there. The Punakha Dzong, even today, continues to be the winter residence of the Central Monastic Body (main Sangha center at Punakha/Thimphu), while Thimphu (Capital) is their summer residence. Subsequently, the number of monks increased as and when Sangha centers were completed in other parts of the country. As per the record of 2001 maintained by the Central Monastic Body, there were total of 3,877 monks in various Sangha Centres,1062 drubdeps (those undergoing meditation) and 848 novices in Monastic Schools.

The Monastic Body comprises of the Central Monastic Body and the District Monastic Bodies. The current strength of the Monastic Body is about 7,000 registered monks and is financed by an annual grant front the Royal Government. The Monastic Body is the sole arbiter on religious matters.

At the head of the Central Monastic Body is the supreme abbot known as Je Khenpo, equal in rank to His Majesty the King in the civil office. The present Je Khenpo, His Holiness Jigme Chodra, is the 70th in line and assumed the office in 1996. He is assisted by five acharyas who are masters in specialized religious disciplines. They are equal in rank to government ministers each in charge of religious tradition, liturgy, lexicography, or logic. The lonpon, one of whom, the Dorji Lonpon, normally succeeded the current Je Khenpo. Below them are preceptors and three prefects, religious administrators and junior monastic officials in charge of art, music, and other areas and many junior acharyas which are not considered here.

The monastic community in a district is headed by an abbot known as Lam Neten. And Buddhist colleges and Meditation Centers are headed by principals and meditation masters.

Given the long religious history of the country, the Dratshang (Monastic Body), continues to play an important role in the spiritual and cultural lives of the people. It not only engages in religious practices, but also participates in important state institutions such as the Tshogdu (National Assembly) and the Lodey Tshogdey (Royal Advisory Council). Except in the teaching fields, monks seldom take part in the administrative matters of the civil organizations.

Since almost every important occasion in the life of average Bhutanese is invested with religious significance, the monks visit households to perform rites related to diverse events such as birth, marriage, sickness, death, construction of houses, consecration ceremonies, promotion of government officials, inaugural ceremony and other day-to-day functions.

So their days are spent in study and meditation and also in the performance of rituals honoring various bodhisattvas, praying for the dead, and seeking the intercession of bodhisattvas on behalf of the ill. Some of their prayers involved chants and singing accompanied by conch shell trumpets, trumpets made from human thighbones, metal horns up to three meters long, large standing drums and cymbals, hand bells, temple bells, gongs, and wooden sticks.

Monastic Education

Till the introduction of modern education, monastic education was the only avenue of acquiring literacy and scholarship. The monasteries were the centers of learning.

The medium of instruction was choekey – classical language.

The ultimate purpose of monastic education was spiritual progress. Skills earned and taught in monastic institutions were meant to enhance the spiritual progress of the student. Besides getting student trained in many mundane arts, he is required to get trained in the essential part of the teachings which include recognition of the perfect human birth, impermanence and death, the law of karma, the misery of samsara, generating Bodhicitta, moral values and principles, the training of the mind and much other such training. Thus the monastic education is mainly geared towards providing guidance to liberate oneself and other beings from the cyclic existence.

Monastic Education and Practice

Curriculum of monastic education consisted largely of religious rituals, grammar, poetry, numeracy, graphic arts, painting, chanting rhymes, philosophy, logic, meditation etc. It will not be possible to elaborate each subject prescribed, within this limited scope of the paper, and therefore only general outline of the curriculum at different levels is given hereunder:

Monastic School

The monastic school is equivalent to today’s modern high school. The curriculum begins with the learning of the alphabet, spelling, reading, and proceeds to the memorization of prayers and other relevant texts besides observing daily monastic rules and regulations. Besides memorization of texts, they also learn various ritual arts, metrical rhymes, trumpet, making ritual cakes etc. As they proceed to higher classes, they learn grammar, prosody or literary science which is geared towards pursuing higher Buddhist philosophical studies.

English and arithmetic are also taught so as to enable the monks to become more effective communicators at a time when Bhutan is increasing contacts with the outside world.

After completion of their studies from the schools, they join Buddhist Colleges (Shedras) for higher studies while others opt to join Central Monastic Body.

Monastic College

The monks after having gained a basic proficiency in religious studies from the monastic schools, they graduate to higher Buddhist philosophical studies. Besides Prajnaparamita, Vinaya, Abhidharma, and the biographies of saints of the concerned Buddhist tradition, the 13 Great Texts are prescribed as the main subjects for the Buddhist colleges. The study of the above subjects forms the main part of the curriculum in the Buddhist colleges, besides ritual prayers and observance of daily monastic rules and regulations.

The course is of five years - i.e. two years bachelor’s degree course and three years master’s degree course. Besides their regular studies, they observe summer retreat (yarney) during which they are not permitted to move out of the college compound for 45 days. The summer retreat begins from the 15th day of the 6th month and ends on the 30th day of the 7th month of the Bhutanese calendar [which precisely corresponds to June and July] with a day long thanksgiving ceremony to the protective deities.

Meditation Practice

The monk’s education does not end by his gaining proficiency in Buddhist studies alone in the Buddhist colleges. After receiving theoretical teachings, he must undergo in one of the Meditation Centres a minimum of three years’ meditation practice – referred to as Losum Chog Sum, which means three years and three faces of a month (one and half months).

The meditation course depends on which tradition one belongs. The course begins with preliminary and proceeds to advance part, guided by the most accomplished master. After successful completion of three year meditation course, he is appointed either as a principal of Buddhist colleges or head of Meditation Centers or district Sangha Centres. One could also continue meditation further if one desires so, and could become a renunciate hermit wandering through isolated mountains.