Highland buddhism

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Highland Buddhism

Some two hundred years after the death of the Buddha, the renown emperor of the period, Ashoka, became the Buddhist emperor. Following the teaching of the Buddha, he sent Buddisht monks to propagate Buddha's teachings in all directions. Among all missionaries, a team of five monks was designated to Himalayan regions. The team was led by Ven. Majjhima Thera.

It was at Sanchi in India where archaeologists found a container of relics belonging to Ven. Majjhima. On the outer casket it was engraved 'relics of the great teacher of Himalayan people' (it is on display at the British Museum). This archaeological evidence clarifies that the mission to Himalayan regions was very successful. It was felt to be so important that his relics were kept and referred to him as the great master of Himalayan people.

Needless to say that Himalayan regions cover a whole range of Nepal where 83% of its land is covered by mountins. These regions are influenced by a form of Mahayana Buddhism, which is also known as Vajrayana Buddhism.

The inhabitants of these highlands belong to various ethnic groups (Sherpas, Gurungs, Magars, Thakalis and Tamangs) whose socio-religious and culture are heavily influenced by Buddhism. Buddhism practiced by these ethnic groups are unique in their own way. They have developed different styles of Buddhism from its main reference of Tibetan Buddhism.

The three main groups of highlanders are Sherpa, Tamang and Gurungs. However, there are other like Magars, Thakalis, Lepchas, Rais, Limbus and Khas who are all heavily influenced by the different forms of highland Buddhism.


Sherpa Buddhism

There is no dispute about Sherpas being Buddhists. The entire lives of the Sherpas are permeated in the Buddhist culture with temples in the villages, prayer-walls, along the mountain tracks, prayer-wheels on the mountain streams and fluttering paryer-flags on the houses. Their life-cycle rituals are perfomed according to Buddhist culture. They have a local belief that the middle son and daughter of the family has to be ordained according to a Buddhist Order.

There are two types of gompas (Buddhist monasteries) in the Sherpa communities - private and public. Private gompas are located in their homes, mostly in the homes of the senior memeber of the clan. All relatives and followers of this clan gather at the private gompa when rituals are performed. Public gompas, which was introduced in the late seventeenth century, are built outside of the private homes. It is for general public use without any kin-based structures.

The emphasis of the religious practices, performed through rituals, is on the relationship between humans and gods. There are three types of lamas (Buddhist monk) - Gyudpi, Ngawa and Gelung/Gelungma.

Gyudpi lamas have lineage or descendants of lamas.

Ngawa (which means black-hat) refers to tolden (yogi) who are married lamas with particular mystical powers.

Gelung/Gelungma are fully ordained male/female lamas who lead celibate monastic life in a Gompa.

Tamang Buddhism

According to Tamnag Buddhism Lama is a Buddhist household priest who live like their kinfolk. However, during rituals they are addressed as Sangkye ( the word for Buddha). There are two other religious specialists in Tamang society - Lambu who is an exorcist of the evil spirits and Bombo, a shaman who resuscitate the living.

In most villages, local lamas maintain a small temples with images of Guru Rhimborotshe (Padmasambhava) and other Buddhist images. The essential Buddhist rite among Tamang is Ghyewa or Gral (rescue), which is the memorial death feast. When someone dies, lamas are invited to read and chant the texts and to administer oaths. It is believed that the Bla (soul) would not be in peace until lamas chant the texts. Usually different types of lamas are present during these rituals. Some lamas only read the texts others play music. These are very costly and lavish rituals and hence people get help from all relatives and villagers.

In the name of death they have a custom to build small Buddhist stupas around villagess, on the top of mountains or along the walking trails. These stupas are of two kinds - Buddhist and Bonpo. They are very similar, Buddhist stupas have a stone engraved with the sacred words 'Om mani padme hum' and are circumambulated clockwise. Whereas the Bonpo has the scared work 'Om matrimuye saledu' engraved and is circumambulated anti-clockwise. It is believed that by worshipping these stupas on the path travellers will not get tired and they will be bestowed with luck.

Gurung Buddhism

Gurung (also known as Tamu) is another famous ethnic group. They are renown for their military services. They also intermix shamanic belief with Buddhism. They have two types of lamas - married and celibate (Dge-slong). Gurung lamas usually take their training in monasteries either in Nepal or Tibet. They are generally followers of Nyingmapa tradition of Tibetan Buddism. Like Sherpas many Gurung families encourage a son or a daughter to get initiated into the Gompa community as a monk or a nun. They are called the chos-pa meaning 'religious ones'. They (the lamas and the chos-pas) perform all domestic rituals and also maintain orthodox practices with strict rituals and textual training.

There are three types of religious agents - Buddhist, Pucu (also Paju or Pajyu) and Khilbri (also Khepre or Ghyabre). Pucu and Khilbri are similar to Tamang shamans. Gurungs refer to the local Pucu shaman, a virtuoso sacrificer as a 'black' Bon (bon-nag) and Khilbri as a 'white' Bon (bon-dkar).

Funeral for Gurungs is the important event, both socially and religiously. All three religious agents officiate the funeral rite side by side.

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