(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