Bhutan's Culture & Religion
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Tantric (Tibetan) Buddhism has more recently generated widespread interest and gained a global following. Mahayana Buddhism in its Vajrayana (tantric) derivation is commonly associated with the lively personality of the Dalai Lama and meditation practices. At a more theoretical level, its sympathetic holistic values appear to closely correspond with those of a "postmodern" world. It attained its philosophical and artistic peaks within Tibet, where it was firmly settled by the Eighth Century. The beliefs were disseminated by wandering monks throughout the mountainous areas of inner Asia, and attained a strong adherence within the Himalayan Kingdoms of Ladakh, Mustang, Sikkim and Bhutan and in smaller pockets throughout the region.

For most of its history the Tibetan Buddhist Diaspora remained essentially detached from the outside world and Buddhism flowered as a civilization. Indeed, Tantric Buddhism is not so much a religion as a holistic approach to life. However, in the previous half-century these communities have experienced major displacements. More powerful neighbors have swallowed them up, and they have become overrun by new aspirations and authorities. Although religious belief remains strong, underlying contexts have changed. Bhutan continues as the only place where the faith remains observed within something resembling its traditional political, cultural, social and natural environments.

Immediately apparent are the ubiquity of the religion and the overall intensity of faith. To relate to Bhutan's present situation is to appreciate the overwhelming role that Buddhism continues to play. Values and belief systems circulate throughout Bhutanese life and form the bedrock upon which other structures have evolved. They are evident in all spheres, from individual outlooks, through social customs and institutions, to the functioning of the state. Perhaps they are at their most evocative when interpreted within small, distant, self-reliant communities. It is in these settings that the full spectrum of Tantric Buddhist teaching is most conspicuous - the interconnectedness of all living things, the solidarity bred from compassion, and the arcane and somewhat ethereal character.

In Bhutan one is surrounded by religion. Chortens, monasteries and temples dot the landscape, prayer flags flutter from hilltops, red-robed monks are in abundance, somber ceremonial sounds drift in the air. The country is full of holy sites, accorded significance through Buddhist luminaries and stories about their fantastic achievements. There are some magnificent examples of religious texts, art and architecture. Most private houses have a prayer room, and most families organize ritual observances (pujas) at least once every year. Many prefer to treat illness through traditional techniques that address both physical and spiritual sources. Whether at an organized festival or ceremony, within a monastery or in quiet personal prayers, evidence of Buddhist practice abounds.

Religion plays a major part in most people's lives, whether in a ritualistic mode or through more subtle teachings. The country maintains a state sponsored monk body of around 5000, which is called upon to perform a variety of public and private functions. Aside from its spiritual role the monastic community also carries out social welfare activities, both in traditional integrated forms and in the more formal development process. Wealthy patrons build temples and support monastic foundations. Rinpoches are treated with great reverence. The elected Chief Abbot (the Je Khenpo) holds an equal ceremonial rank to the King, and religion continues to play a major role in national affairs. Power is formalized within a centralized institution, the Dratshang Lhentshog, and representatives from the clergy sit on major decision-making bodies, such as the Royal Advisory Council and the National Assembly.

As indicated by the Noble Eightfold Path - correct understanding, correct thought, correct speech, correct action, correct livelihood, correct effort, correct mindfulness and correct meditation - Buddhism is not so much a religion as a holistic approach to life. Tantric Buddhism, with its emphasis on practice, implies a still more intimate relationship. Although for most the stated guidelines will remain aspirations, following the path is undoubtedly facilitated if one lives within structures that encourage or at the very least do not obstruct such values. Buddhist societies - almost by definition - appear the most suitable locations for the promotion of the broad faith. The prevailing conditions within Bhutan certainly afford suitable opportunities for those who either wish to live a relatively virtuous existence or undertake more serious explorations.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of Buddhism in Bhutan is the broader context within which the religion remains so fundamental and merges so seamlessly. The country possesses a special sense of spirituality, where specifically religious features are combined with more broad ranging human practices. This is reflected in the fundamental role Buddhism has played in the evolution of social and cultural systems. To appreciate the religion within a traditional village environment affords one a particular insight. Distant self-reliant agrarian communities subsisting in inhospitable conditions promote a sense of collective solidarity and serve to highlight the interconnectedness of all living things. Within such isolated settings it is not all that remarkable that individual perspectives attribute greater significance and intimacy to relationships with other realms. Traditional outlooks perpetuate that combine the natural and the supernatural, legend and superstition, perception and practice, in an unusually integrated manner. With the onset of modernity it is unlikely that such assimilated landscapes will remain.

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