Buddhism in the Himalayan Regions

Min Bahadur Shakya
The earliest reference of Buddha’s missionary activity can be seen in a statement made by the Buddha to his sixty disciples after his enlightenment. The Buddha’s enthusiastic zeal and infinite compassion of suffering humanity is evident form the following extracts from the Mahavagga. “Go, Ye, now, O Bhikshus! And wander for the gain of the many, for the welfare of the many out of compassion, for the world for the god, for the gain and for the welfare of gods and men. Let not two of you go the same way. It is obvious that sixty disciples moved to the different directions. But we are not certain if some of them reached Himalayan regions too. Although we have no archaeological and epigraphical data form the Buddha’s visit in the Himalayan regions, the reference can be met in Divyavadana, in which Buddha is supposed to have visited Manasarovar/ Anotapdaha where Buddha delivered some of his discourses on the past lives of Sariputra and Maudagalyana. Textual sources provide affirmation that Buddhism was introduced in Nepal Valley during Buddha’s period. The Mulasarvastivada Vinaya Samgraha compiled by Jinamitra and translated by I-Tsing in 700 A. D. mentions an episode relating to transport of wool, and group of Bhikkhus en route toward Nepal (Ni-po-lo) at the time the Buddha was residing at Shravasti. In the same text, it is stated that Ananda, Buddha’s cousin went to the Kathamndu Valley to meet his relatives. Ananda came back to Shravasti with his toes bitten by frost. Seeing his condition, the Bhiksus inquired of the climatic condition of Nepal and cause of his frost been toes. Ananda replied that Nepal is the place surrounded by the tall big mountains covered with snow, many waterfalls and a lot of cold rivers. It was through those rivers and snowy mountain that he had to walk bare footed, Thus his foot was frost bitt, The people of Nepal used to wear shoes to protect themselves from cold and frost. The Buddha later made Vinaya to use shoes for the monk. The Present Situation The entire Himalayan regions of Nepal are influenced by Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhism. Now all of the major sects of Tibetan Buddhist Traditions can be found here in the Kingdom of Nepal. Various ethnic groups of Himalayan regions, for example, Tamang, Gurung, Magar, Lepchas and others follow Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhism. The Tibetan Buddhist Masters, to name a few, like Marpa, Milarepa, Rwa Lotsava, Ras Chungpa, Dharma Swami, XIII Karmapa, XVI Karmapa and several others visited and some traveled in the Himalayan regions . However the largest group of Tibetan came in the 1960’s. Many settled around the Swayambhu and Bodhanath Stupas. Many Other famous Lamas known throughout the world has their centers in the Kathmandu Valley.

In 1970’s Ven. Urgyen Tulku Rinpoche established Ka-Nying Shedrupling Monastery at Bodhanath. Through the initiatives of Ven. Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche, the abbot of Ka-nying Sedrupling. Rangjung yeshe Institute had been conducting its annual Buddhist Seminar since 1986. The Seminar offers daily teachings, individual interviews, and explanations and empowerments of Buddhist practices. These courses are designed for Westerners only. In 1972, Ven. Lama Yeshe and his Sherpa student Lama Zopa Rinpoche established a Foundation for the Preservation of Mahayana Tradition Kopan Monastery. Since its inception, FPMT has more than one hundred and fifty centers around the world. Besides, a number of monasteries have been built by eminent Lamas at Boudhnath. Boudhnath Stupa and the surrounding area has become the Vatican of Tibetan Buddhism and Buddhism in general in the Himalayan Regions. It seems that after the Chinese occupation of Tibet, the Kathmandu Valley became the base of Tibetan Buddhism. But the Tibetan Buddhist Masters are not spreading the Buddhist teachings incessantly. They are focusing more on their own community because they are afraid that their culture is vanishing due to the Chinese Occupation. The lamas are now focusing more of their time and energy on Westerners than Nepalese because they are gaining more financial support from Westerners. Since the Vajrayana of Buddhist Newars and Himalayan people are not different from Indian Vajrayana, Tibetan Budhist Masters have preserved these teachings from generation. One need to take care for them for the uplift of the status of Buddhism in essence.In the past, Newar vajracharyas such as Omkara vajra taught to Guru Padmasambhava, Guru Bharo Vajracharya taught Vajrabhairava tantra to Rvalotsava, Guru Paidapatika taght Catuspitha tantra and other tantras to Guru Marpa, it is now time for Tibetan Buddhist Masters to demonstrate their compassion to Nepalese disciples in the transmission of their lineage. On the other hand, all the Nepalese Lamas and Monks following the Tibetan tradition must learn the Tibetan language to read Tibetan texts and receive Tibetan teachings. However, local people in these Himalayan regions are ignorant of these languages in letters and spirit. They learn to perform pujas and rituals but they hardly have any opportunity to learn language or Buddhist teachings. In addition, in the Himalayan region the monasteries are situated in the higher altitudes of the Himalayas. Often, Buddhist masters are not willing to go to these places in order to give teachings. As a result, the propagation of Dharma in these remote areas had become very difficult if not at all impossible. Supporting or educating these people in remote areas is a challenging problem. Furthermore, the standard of living of these Himalayan people is extremely low so they cannot even afford to come to the Kathmandu Valley for study or a visit. Most of the places are still lying in the remote districts, inaccessible by land transport. No Buddhist organization is seriously considering these problems and nowadays Muslims and Christians are moving very fast. These Christian missionaries give education and aid for everyday life. Nowadays Christianity is taking root in the hills. Muslims are giving support as well by going into communities becoming familiar with people and inter-marrying. Then, within the context of marriage, wives and children must accept the religion. In this way, the Buddha’s population in the entire Himalayan region is dwindling in spirit and because of poverty and lack of Buddhist education.

If a definitive step is not taken immediately, Buddhists of the world will see Nepal. The birthplace of Lord Buddha’s being dominated by Christianity, Islam and Hinduism. Nepalese Government had declared Nepal as a Hindu country only. Nepalese Buddhists also have the experiences of persecution under the Hindu Rana Regime (1846-1950). From the census data, we have a vague negative indication about the true nature of the Buddhist population distribution. Many erudite scholars have raised questions concerning the methodology of census date collection, especially in regard to the recognition or identification of Buddhists or Hindus. It is regrettable to say that the Buddhist population in Nepal according to census data was 17% in 1961, 13% in 1971, 5% in 1981, and 7% in 1991. It seems that the number of Buddhists in Nepal is shrinking. There are still fundamentalist Hindus who want to declare Nepal as Hindu country. Thanks to democratic movements of coagulated eight party government who declared Nepal as secular country.Now we hope that the status of Buddhism will enhance further. It is noteworthy to mention that Tibetans in the Kathmandu Valley are doing well. They have received a considerable financial support from the West and from the South East Asia. But the Nepalese people following Tibetan tradition in the Himalayan regions are acutely suffering because of lack of Buddhist education. Few have opportunities to study in Tibetan monastic universities, Dharmasala, or Tibetan Higher Studies at Sarnath. With a view to offer Nepalese people a non-formal Buddhist education since couple of years ago, Himalayan Buddhist Education Foundation initiated organizing Buddhist Awareness training camps in several different villages of Himalayan and Terai regions giving an opportunity for people for study and receiving Buddhist teachings. The result of these activities and its outcome had been a significant one. More Tharu ethnic tribes in the Terai region have become aware of importance of Buddhist education and are demanding more Buddhist literature in Nepali or Tharu language. It can be estimated that more than one and half million Tharu people are looking ahead towards Buddhism. Furthermore, Magars, Tamangs and Gurungs ethnic tribes are desperately expecting similar Buddhist awareness camps in their districts and villages.

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