Tantric Buddhism In Bhutan

I have witnessed Buddhism practices in many different forms, from Myanmar to Bhutan. Each country is predominantly Buddhist. There are some similarities in terms of spiritual dances, music instruments and the Buddha figures, yet some rituals and ceremony differs. Certain discoveries are startling yet interesting. These are images depicting Buddhism in Bhutan that I have photographed over a period of one year. 

It was Bumthang where Buddhism was first introduced in the 8th century by an Indian Tantric master, Guru Rinpoche. It is also known as Tantric Buddhism which is originated from Tibetan Buddhism. Ancient temples and monasteries with many religious relics and histories are found in Bumthang, central Bhutan.

Phallus wards off evils and it brings good luck.

It is not unusual to see phallus painted on walls and at religious festivals all over Bhutan. It is one of the Tantric Buddhism believes that phallus wards off evils and it brings good luck. This was introduced by Drukpa Kunley, also known as the Divine Madman, a legendary Buddhist monk of the 15th century, who teaches Buddhism in an unconventional way using outrageous sexual humour. Therefore, phallus is one of the religious symbols until the present days.

Besides painting on the wall, phalluses are placed or hanged at the corners of homes for protection. 

At Chemi Lhakhang, it is common to see a woman carrying a phallus and walking clockwise around the temple. This is part of the ritual for women and couple who come to this temple to pray for a child. Chemi Lhakhang is located in the valley of Punakha farmland. Also known as the Fertility Temple. It was built by Lama Nawang Chogyel in 1499.

Liberating the souls.

Small cones like these can be seen between cliffs, temples and under prayer wheels. These are the remains of human ashes placed by relatives of the deceased hoping to liberate their souls. 

Tsechu, religious festival.

Religious or Cham festivals, also known as tsechu, are held annually across Bhutan, in the dzong (fortress) which houses Buddhist monasteries. The festivals are very colourful, with combination of fast moving and meditative dance movements. 

Paro Tsechu is one of the biggest Tantric Buddhism festivals in the Bhutanese calendar. It has been held annually since the consecration of Paro Dzong in 1644.

The sequel of Mask or Cham dances are composed by saints of the Tantric Buddhism including Guru Rinpoche, also known as Padmasambhava. Deities are invoked during the dances to give blessings and to ward off evil spirits. 

The dances are performed with continuos whirling in a meditative state of mind, some with a knife in the dancer’s hand. Such intense dance movement is to purify the space and to invite the blessing of the divinities. These are sacred dances which are not entertainment even though they are opened to the public.

Some of the ceremonial rites include monks and the atsaras (festival clowns) gathered around to ignite the sacred powers from a candle shaped like a phallus.

At tsechu or religious festivals, the Atsara would go around with a phallus to bless the spectators with a little humour. The gesture is to ward off evils and bring good luck. The Atsara can be quite abrupt with their act, simply to make people feel embarrassed. Embarrassment is also a blessing as I was told. The embarrassment helps to cleanse any unwanted or evil thoughts that comes into mind. 

Besides all the Cham dances documented in my journey, the most unusual one was the Naked Dance. This dance was performed at Jambay Lhakhang in the freezing winter midnight by a group of naked men with masks covered faces. They paraded around the bon fire dancing and chanting to wade off the evil spirits. This sacred dance has been performed for many centuries to commemorate the construction of Jambay Lhakhang and Guru Rinpoche, the patron saint of Bhutan. The ritual is opened to the public. No camera is allowed to document the ritual. 

In the early centuries, the construction of Jambay Lhakhang was hindered by many demons. Monks have performed many rituals to wade off these evil spirits and all were unsuccessful. The head monk came up with an idea for his final ritual. He called upon all men to be fully naked, with only their faces to be covered with masks. His intention was to make men looked unusual and unknown to the demons. The act and disguise startled the demons, and the evil spirits started to vanish one by one from the temple ground, allowing the construction of the temple without further obstructions.

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