Highland buddhism

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History of Theravada Buddhism in Nepal is very vague. There are some evidences that Buddha visited Nepal during his lifetime, preached to his relatives and friends and ordained some people.  

Theravada tradition is believed to be the oldest unbroken tradition. The teaching- the Dhamma was divided into two sects- Sthaviravada and Mahasanghika in the second council held 100 years after the death of Buddha. Sthaviravada later developed as Theravada and Mahasanghika developed as Mahayana, which also includes Vajrayana.

More concrete evidences of existence of Buddhism in Nepal were found from the visit of king Asoka of India and some more from descriptions of Chinese travellers. King Asoka visited Lumbini in Nepal in 250 BC and erected a stone pillar, which is still standing. The inscription in Bramhi script in this pillar reads in English as follows: “King Piyadasi” (another name for king Asoka), beloved of the gods, having anointed 20 years, came here himself and worshiped saying ‘Here Buddha Sakyamuni was born (Hida Budhe Jãte Sãkyamuni)’. 

Chinese travellers Fa Hian (AD 403) and Hiuen Tsang (AD 636) also described the existence of dilapidated stupas, monasteries and palaces. (Source: Holy places of Buddhism in Nepal & India – Trilok Chandra Majupuria and Indra Majupuria). 

According to historians, Buddhism was a dominant religion until the time of King Jayasthiti Malla who ruled Nepal during medieval period (around 1382 C.E.). He imposed caste system in Nepal according Manudharmasastra, a Hindu holy book. Buddhist culture and tradition were banned, the celibate monks were forced to disrobe and forced to marry. Vajrayana or Newar Buddhism was developed following the demise of Theravada Buddhism. The situation of Buddhist became worse during the time of Rana government who ruled Nepal from1846 to the dawn of democracy in 1950. That was the age, when Buddhism was totally forgotten by non-Buddhist of Nepal. It was known and practised by only certain castes-Vajracharyas (Bajracharyas), Shakyas, Tuladhars etc. The Rana government banned all Buddhist religious activities. They also banned people converting from Hindu religion to Buddhism but traditional Buddhists were allowed to become Hindus.

Revival of Theravada Buddhism started in the closing years of 19th century. Mr. Jagat Man Vaidya (later known as Dharmaditya Dharmacariya) of Patan, Nepal started publishing Buddhist journals from India where he was studying to promote Buddhism.  He also started Buddha Jayanti (Vesak Day) Celebration to commemorate birth, enlightenment and death (parinibbana) of the Buddha. This was first celebrated in modern Nepal in 1926.

According to Lalit Bistara in Newari language, influences of Dharmaditya’s campaign and Tibetan Lamas motivated some Nepalese to take ordination according to Theravada tradition. The first Nepali to take ordination according to this tradition was Venerable Mahapragna, a Hindu Shrestha by birth in 1928 in India under Venerable U. Chandramani, a Burmese monk at Kusinagar. Other Nepalese followed his example and took Ordination under the same Burmese monk in India. But when they return to Nepal, they were arrested, imprisoned and then exiled.

Towards the later year of Rana regime the attitude of the government towards Theravada Buddhism and Theravada monks and nuns softened and the exiled monks were allowed to return to Nepal to practice the religion according to Theravada tradition. Until that time, only Vajrayana monks (Bajracharyas), who are really a householders and Tibetan Lamas were known to Nepalese. After the advent of the democracy in 1950 Theravada tradition thrived and made rapid in road into Nepalese society. Both His Majesty King Tribhuvan, the father of the nation and his son king Mahendra were supportive to Theravada revival movements. Because of the enthusiasm of Theravada monks and nuns, their lay supporters and encouragement from their Majesties Theravada tradition progressed and became a part of Nepalese religious life. Many more Nepalese men and women took ordinations. Theravada monasteries were opened in different parts of the country. At present there are 96 Theravada Viharas in the country, 303 Bhikkhus and Samaneras Sangha members and 135 Anagarikas. Some are resident in Nepal and others are either studying or practising dhamma in other countries of Asia and Europe; and in Australia and United States of America. (Source: The Ananda Bhoomi; year 33; issues 32 and 33).

Late Venerable Amritananda Mahasthavir deservers special mention in Theravada revival movement in Nepal. He played a prominent role in promotion of Theravada Buddhism in Nepal. He founded Dharmodaya Sabha, All Nepal Bhikshu Association (Akhil Nepal Bhikshu Sangha), travelled widely promoting dhamma and translated and published many Buddhist texts.

Late Venerable Bhikshu Sudharshan added a different dimension to the movement. He started training centre with the aim of broadening ordination to other ethnic groups. Until then, Newars – original inhabitants of Kathmandu Valley were the only ones who have taken ordinations in this tradition. Because of his foresight and timely action many people from other ethnic groups have accepted Theravada Buddhism and some has taken ordination. Ven. Nyanapurnika of Viswasanti Vihar who established Novice Training Centre, Ven. Ashowghosa of Sangharama, who trained most of the present leading monks of Nepal and Anagarika Dhammavati of Dharmakirti (Now Bhikkhuni according to Mahayana), who established Nunnery training centre are also well known figures in Theravada in Nepal.

At present all three traditions Newar Buddhism (Vajrayana), Tibetan Mahayana Buddhism and Theravada Buddhism have become acceptable Buddhist traditions in Nepal. Theravada Buddhist monks and nuns with their saffron coloured robe, along with Tibetan Lamas and Bajracharyas are familiar features in Nepalese society, especially in Kathmandu valley.

For full Article, see THERAVADA BUDDHISM IN MODERN NEPAL by Venerable Sujan

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