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Vajrayana Buddhism in Nepal

The traditional Buddhism of the Newars of the Kathmandu Valley is a very ancient form of Vajrayana Buddhism. It was once much more widespread, being followed throughout South Asia and beyond, as far as Cambodia, Java, and Bali in Southeast Asia. From South Asia this form of Buddhism was carried to Tibet, China, Vietnam, Korea, and Japan. Japanese Buddhist temples have Buddhist monuments and funerary sticks with mantras (‘mantara’ in Japanese) written in a script that is easily recognizable as a form of the ancient and ornate Ranjana script of Nepal. The mantras themselves are also the same, though pronounced slightly differently.

Mahayana Buddhism in South Asia died out in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries CE. The great monastic universities of north India were sacked and destroyed by Muslim invaders. The monks fled to Nepal and some went on to Tibet. Buddhist cultic centres were absorbed into Hinduism. Of course Theravada Buddhism flourished in Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia. But the Newars’ Buddhism is the only surviving remnant of the Sanskrit-based, Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism of South Asia. They are the only Buddhists in the world whose scriptures are still in Sanskrit. The Kathmandu Valley is, therefore, in the words of the great French Buddhologist, Sylvain Lévi, like a laboratory where it is possible to observe and understand the co-existence of Buddhism and Hinduism as it was in the first millennium in India. The Newars’ Buddhism is therefore of world-historical importance, and the old royal cities of Nepal – Kathmandu, Lalitpur (Patan), and Bhaktapur – which form its centres are quite rightly UNESCO-designated World Heritage sites.

Vajrayana Buddhism in Nepal focuses on sacred complexes known colloquially as baha or bahi in the Newars’ mother tongue, Nepal Bhasha. More honorically they are called vihara, the Sanskrit and Pali term for monastery. Thus every complex has two names, a colloquial one, e.g. Kwa Baha, and an honorific one, e.g. Hiranya-varna-mahavihara.

The members of these Newar monasteries are Shakyas and Vajracharyas, who form, with their families a priestly stratum at the head of Newar Buddhist society. In order to become a member of a baha or bahi, one must be the son of a previous member by a Shakya or Vajrcharya mother. Such a boy goes through an initiation ritual in which he becomes a monk for four days, wears monastic robes, receives dana (religious gifts) from relatives and friends, and then on the fourth day, returns his robe to the priest and is initiated into the Mahayanist and Vajrayanist path of the Buddhist householder.

The religious duties of the Buddhist householder are many in traditional Vajrayana Buddhism. The rituals are ensured by the householder domestic priest, his family’s traditional Vajracharya purohit or guru. The priest is invited for all major life-cycle rituals, from children’s first ricefeeding, to intiations, weddings, and death rites. He may be invited for many other occasions as well. In addition, there are many festivals throughout the year which are celebrated in a Buddhist idiom. Many guthis, socio-religious organizations, were set up in the past and endowed with land to ensure the performance in perpetuity of certain rituals, e.g. the annual observance or vrata to the Buddhist goddess of wealth and the harvest, Vasundhara.

The particular ritual and scriptural traditions of Nepalese Vajrayana Buddhism are therefore preserved by the Vajracharya priests. Both spiritually and literally, they trace their descent back to Shantikar Acharya, who is supposed to have been a King of Gaud, in what is now Bangladesh, who renounced and became a Buddhist priest. He came to Nepal and is supposed to have consecrated the Swayambhu stupa, the holiest site of Nepalese Buddhism, and is believed to be still alive inside the secret Tantric shrine of Shantipur, behind the north-east corner of the stupa.

See Vajrayana Reference for further infomation.

Hiranya Varna Mahavihar  (Vajrayana Vihara in Nepal)

Hidden away from the crowded streets and crossroads of the ancient city of Lalitpur (Patan/Yala) is one of the most intriguing, most elegant, and most ornate Buddhist monuments of Nepal: the monastery called Hiranya Varna Mahavihar.  To tourists it is more often known as The Golden Temple ... more

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