Highlands Buddhism of Nepal
Some two hundred years after the death of the Buddha, the renowned emperor of the period, Ashoka, became the Buddhist emperor. Following the teaching of the Buddha, he sent Buddhist 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 percent of its land is covered by mountains. Archaeologically, it seems though Buddhism was first introduced to these highlands in the time of Ashoka if not at the time of the Buddha himself. At present the entire Himalayan regions of Nepal are influenced by a form of Mahayana Buddhism which is also sometimes known as Vajrayana Buddhism. However, it is much more popular with the term Lamaism or Tibetan Buddhism in a wider extent.
The inhabitants of Nepalese highlands belong to various ethnic groups whose socio-religious and culture are heavily influenced by Buddhism. In northern Nepal live Sherpas, in mid-hills of Nepal live Gurungs, Magars, Thakalis. Tamangs live in most part of mid-hills and around the Kathmandu valley. All these ethnic groups are culturally Buddhists. In their societies they have their own religious men and agents in different forms. Apart from Buddhist priests (lamas) they have exorcists and shamans result of their local beliefs in deities and spirits. In terms of Buddhism their main source of reference is Tibet, although their practice of Buddhism is not exactly the same as in Tibet. In the past, they used to be trained by Tibetan Lamas either from Tibet or Kathmandu Valley but now this tradition is rarely followed.
According to Tibetan history one part of the credit for introducing Buddhism into Tibet was given to a princess of Nepal, Bhrikuti. She later became a Tara or Buddhist goddess in Tibetan Buddhism. The relationship between Nepal and Tibet, therefore, went back to very early period of their histories. Later Buddhism firmly established in Tibet with assimilation of local beliefs and it was prosperous till China invaded the country a few decades ago. The prosperous of Buddhism in Tibet had direct effect over most Nepalese ethnic groups who have close links with Tibet. Sherpas has the closest links with Tibet socially and culturally, whereas Tamangs, Gurungs and others have distant relationships. However, based on their oral histories they link their lineage with Tibet one way or other. Significantly, Buddhism practiced by those ethnic groups are unique in their own way. They have developed and shaped up different styles of Buddhism from its main reference of Tibetan Buddhism. It can be labelled according to each ethnic background: Sherpa Buddhism, Tamang Buddhism, Gurung Buddhism etc.
Among these Nepalese highlanders the most familiar Buddhist term is lama. Lama is not necessarily a celibate Buddhist monk but rather a household priest. Among the Sherpas it is only in the early twentieth century that they began to build Buddhist monasteries (gompa) and have celibate lamas (gelung) and nuns (gelungma). Otherwise they have always practised Sherpa Buddhism in which local married priests (lama) conducted rituals in village temples and at houses, for the benefit of the general populace similar to other highlanders.
Among Nepalese highlanders, the affiliation of religion is clearly seen in their life-cycle rituals. Among all rituals the most important ritual is a death ritual where the missing link has to be established between the death and the next life through a medium i.e. Buddhist lamas and Bon shamans. Death ritual (Ghyawa) is the main event of these highlanders and they associate Buddhism with death and otherworldly concerns.
Some scholars refer highland Buddhism of Nepal as a development of Nyingmapa school of Tibetan Buddhism. Nevertheless, there are also followers of Gelungpa and Bon traditions. Nying-mapa which means ‘adherents of the old [tantras]’ puts Padmasambhava, the founder of the sect before the Buddha. In their gompas (temples) the main statue is the figure of Padmasambhava whereas the Buddha is the secondary figure. This is opposite to Gelungpa tradition. These two traditions are widely identified with their hats. Nyingmapa are called red hat because they don red robe and hat, whereas Gelungpa are called yellow hat according to the colour of the hat they wear. The main distinction between these two traditions is celibacy. Nyingmapa priests often live as householders forming a distinct social group or class, and only gather in the local temple for the performance of rituals whereas Gelungpa priests live in monastic lives.
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 prayer-flags on the houses. Their life-cycle rituals are performed 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 gompa in the Sherpa communities: private and public. Private gompas are located in private homes, mostly in the property of senior member of the clan. All relatives and followers of this clan gather at the private gompa when rituals are performed. Public gompa, built outside private homes are for public use without any kin-based structures. However, the latter type of gompa was only introduced in the late seventeenth century.
The nature of the Sherpa religious practices emphasise on the relationship between humans and gods which is expected to work as a result of the performance of rituals. Ortner (1989:43) writes, ‘The basic idea is that the world is full of negative forces taking the form of demons and other nasty creatures. The gods are protective of people, but this protection does not come automatically; it must be petitioned and renewed through ritual. Thus the essential act of ritual practice is to make offerings to the gods, so flatter them to some extent, and to request that they continue their protection of humanity against the evil forces of the world.’
Likewise, there are three types of lamas in the Sherpa communities: gyudpi, ngawa and gelung/gelungma. Gyudpi lamas have lineage or descendants of lamas it is hereditary religious married priests. Ngawa which means black-hat also refers to tolden (yogi) who are also married lamas with a particular mystical power. Gelung are fully ordained male lamas who lead celibate monastic life in Gompa. Similarly, gelungma are fully ordained female priests who lead celibate monastic life in nunnery.
‘Tamang is a group of indigenous inhabitants of Nepal who are hardworking, cheerful and believe in Buddhism’ writes a renown Nepalese historian, Janaklal Sharma. In the past Tamangs were unknown, they were referred as Lamas by others. By calling themselves Lamas, they declare themselves Buddhist. Although in some context lama may refer to any Tamang, it has a more specific meaning in Tamang culture itself. Lama is a Buddhist household priest. Other two religious specialists in Tamang society are: lambu exorcist of the evil spirits and bombo a shaman who resuscitate the living.
Holmberg (1984:697) writes, ‘Tamang lamas are married householders who farm like their kinsfolk, although they avoid plowing. During ritual, they don red robes, chant texts, display scroll paintings, and employ ritual implements. At these times villagers address them by the honorific sangkye, the word for Buddha.’ In most villages, local lamas maintain small temples with images of Guru Rhimborotshe (Padmasambhava) and other Buddhist images. Tamang do not have monasteries or celibate monks and nuns as do Sherpas. A Tamang lama said ‘everything is male and female. It is like earth and sky. If there were only celibate nuns and monks, humans would diminish and die out. All living breathing things must exchange in marriage.’ (quoted in Holmberg, 1989:175).
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 or 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, other 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 custom to build small Buddhist stupas around villages or on the top of mountains and along the walking trails. Therefore, it is common to see many small stupas made of rock along any trekking path. These stupas are of two kinds: Buddhist and Bonpo. They are very alike. In Buddhist stupa they use to have an engraved stone with the sacred word of Om mani padme hum. Whereas in Bonpo stupa they use to have engraved stone with the Bonpo sacred word Om matrimuye saledu. There are some differences in circumambulating those stupas. Buddhist stupas are circumambulated clockwise whereas Bonpo are 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 upon them.
Gurung also known as Tamu is another famous Nepalese ethnic group. They are renown for their military services. They serve the Nepalese as well as the Indian and British armies. Culturally they are another Buddhist highlanders of Nepal. However, lowland Gurungs are affected by sankritisation and becoming more Hindus than the highland Gurungs who are still known as Lama-Gurungs.
As Tamangs, Gurungs also intermix shamanic belief with Buddhism. Like Sherpas they have two types of lamas: married and celibate (dge-slong). Unlike Tamang lamas, Gurung lamas usually take their training in monasteries either in Nepal or Tibet. They are generally followers of Nyingmapa tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. 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 chos-pa meaning ‘religious ones.’ These lamas and chos-pas perform all domestic rituals requested by the laity. At the same time they also maintain orthodox practices, with strict rituals and textual training.
Among Gurung communities there are three types of religious agents: one is Buddhist i.e. the lamas who are Buddhist monks, and other two types are shamans: Pucu (also paju, pajyu) and Khilbri (also khepre, ghyabre). They are similar to Tamang shamans, lambu and bombo. Gurungs refer to the local Paju shaman, a virtuoso sacrificer, as a ‘black’ Bon (bon-nag). The Khilbri shaman views himself as a ‘white’ Bon (bon-dkar). Their ritual roles are similar to lambu shaman and bombo shaman respectively.
Funeral for Gurungs is the most important event both socially and religiously. All three religious priests and shamans officiate the funeral rite side by side.
It is common among Nepalese highlanders to see syncretism of Buddhism and Bon. Moreover, in some places with Hindu deities as well. Therefore Buddhism practiced by highlanders of Nepal is a unique, different from Tibetan Buddhism and from each other among different ethnic groups.
This is just a glance of highland Buddhism of Nepal. I have only looked at three main groups of highlanders. There are still others like Magars, Thakalis, Lepchas, Rais, Limbus and Khas who are also heavily influenced by different forms of highland Buddhism.
(For details on Sherpa see S. Ortner (1989) High Religion: A Cultural and Political History of Sherpa Buddhism; on Tamang see D. Holmberg (1989) Order in Paradox: Myth, Ritual, and Exchange among Nepal’s Tamang; (1984) ‘Ritual Paradox in Nepal: Comparative Perspectives on Tamang Religion’ in Journal of Asian Studies vol. XLIII, No. 4 pp. 697-722; on Gurung see D. Messerschmidt (1976) The Gurungs of Nepal: Conflict and Change in a Village Society; S. Mumford (1990) Himalayan Dialogue: Tibetan Lamas and Gurung Shamans in Nepal.)
Back to top