Bhutan is the only country in today’s world that still retains the Tantric form of Mahayana Buddhism (Drukpa Kagyu) as its official religion. This form of Buddhism was first introduced to Bhutan by the Indian Tantric master Guru Padmasambhava, the second Buddha, in the 8th Century.
According to legends, Guru Padmasambhava made his legendary trip from Tibet to Bhutan on the back of a flying tigress to subdue evil spirits who hindered the spread of Buddhism teachings. The place he landed in Bhutan is known as “Tiger’s Nest” in Paro Valley where he meditated for 3 months. Till now, this place remains as one of the most prominent and sacred places in Himalayan Buddhism. Taktsang Palphug Monastery was first build on this precipitous cliff at 3,120 metres above Paro Valley in 1692.
In 1222, the visit of Phajo Drugom Zhigpo (a Tibetan lama from Kham, Eastern Tibet) marked another milestone in the history of Bhutan and Buddhism. He introduced Drukpa Kagyu (a school of Tibetan Buddhism), which is a combination of the Theravada (monastic), Mahayana (messianic), and Tantrayana (apocalyptic) forms of Buddhism.
The greatest contributor was Zhabdrung Nawang Namgyal, a Tibetan lama of the Drukpa School, who arrived in 1616. Under his leadership, he bought the various Buddhist schools that had cropped up in many parts of western Bhutan under his domain and unified the country.
In today’s world, Buddhism has continued to play a fundamental role in the cultural, ethical and sociological development of Bhutan and its people. To bring Buddhism to the people, numerous symbols and structures are employed. Religious monuments, prayer walls, prayer flags, and sacred mantras carved in stone hillsides were prevalent in the early 1990s.
Among the religious monuments are chorten, the Bhutanese version of the Indian stupa. Prayer walls are made of laid or piled stone and inscribed with Tantric prayers. Prayers printed with woodblocks on cloth are made into tall, narrow, colorful prayer flags, which are mounted on long poles and placed both at holy sites and at dangerous locations to ward off demons and benefit the spirits of the dead. To help propagate the faith, itinerant monks travel from village to village carrying portable shrines with many small doors, which open to reveal statues and images of the Buddha, Bodhisattavas, and notable lamas.
During the reign of Jigme Dorji Wangchuck (the 4th King of Bhutan), to support of the state religion, 10,000 gilded bronze images of the Buddha were manufactured, elegant calligraphied editions of the 108- volume Kanjur (Collection of the Words of the Buddha) and the 225-volume Tenjur (Collection of Commentaries) were published, and numerous chorten (stupas) throughout the country were constructed.