Deities and rituals in Bhutanese Buddhism

I gave a talk on how Bhutanese Buddhism ended up with thousands of deities, divinities, and holy ghosts, and the related ritualistic practices – a supposed departure from the time of Shakyamuni Buddha, whose teachings were only understood as philosophical. And whose works were considered as a major and silent social movement against the caste systems of his period.

In brief, Buddhism first saw a bifurcation in the Second Century to two schools – Theravada and Mahayana, the latter adopting the concept of a supreme god in Adi-Buddha (Dzongkha: དང་པོའི་སངས་རྒྱས།), which was believed to have existed and enlightened eons before the historical Buddha Shakyamuni.

The Theravada school continued to be nontheistic considering the Buddha dharma as a philosophy and moralistic code – based on the Vinaya scriptures that were written right after Gauthama Buddha.

The bifurcation to Theravada and Mahayana was followed by the emergence of Varayana in the Sixth Century, which spread to Bhutan and other Himalayan communities and cultures. Vajrayana embraced the existing pre-Buddhist deities and religious practices in these regions such as Bon and Shamanism. Many of their deities were inducted as dharmapalas (protector deities), or as an emanation of the Buddha.

As Vajrayana evolved from Mahayana it strengthened the concept of premordial Buddha – such as Samantabadra (ཀུན་ཏུ་བཟང་པོ་ Kuntu Zangpo), Vajradhara (རྡོ་རྗེ་འཆང Dorji Chang), and of Bodhisattvas (བྱང་ཆུབ་སེམས་དཔའ་ Jangchu Sempa) – such as Manjushri (འཇམ་དཔལ་དབྱངས་ Jampel Yang) and Tara (རྗེ་བརྩུན་སྒྲོལ་མ། Jetsun Drolma) , which further extended the list of “gods” and divinities.

On the other hand, strict Theravada adherents in countries such as Thailand, Burma, or Sri Lanka, recognise only Buddha Shakyamuni, and no other divinities.

The existence, or the recognition, of the hundreds of deities and divinities entails a long list of rituals – either as appeasements (soelkha-serkem) or as as celebration (tshogkor or tshechu). This is the reason for the countless, or endless, rituals being performed in the private homes, as well as in community temples and national monuments.

Shakyamuni Buddha
Buddha Amitabha – who preceded Buddha Shakyamuni, and who is revered by the Pure Land Buddhism (a Mahayana sect)

NB: The above statements may be bit over-semplified. In practice, there are few concepts that overlap the three schools of Buddhism.

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