Buddhism in Nepal
Like most of the Himalayan region, the valley called Nepal was a frontier zone until the modern state’s creation in 1769. The area absorbed and interpreted Indic cultural influences from the south and, later, from the Tibetan region to the north.
This article will discuss the history of the early Indic traditions in the Kathmandu valley, the Tibetan Buddhist lineages originating from the Tibetan plateau, the Newar-supported Mahāyāna traditions, and the recently imported Theravāda tradition.
The earliest historical records of the central Himalayan region - more than 200 Sanskrit inscriptions made by Kings of a ruling dynasty who referred to themselves by the name Licchavi - are found in the Nepal valley beginning in 464 C.E.
These inscriptions indicate that Hindu temple institutions existed alongside Buddhist monastic traditions in a harmonious relationship confirmed by the Chinese pilgrim Xuanzang around 640 C.E. This relationship has endured up to the present day.
The Licchavi inscriptions reveal connections between the Nepal valley and the traditions of monasticism and patronage that originated across the Gangetic plain from the time of the Buddha.
There are references in the inscriptions to Monks and Nuns from over a dozen discrete Saṅghas residing in land-owning Vihāras (monasteries) and enjoying the support of prominent local merchants and caravan leaders. The most frequently mentioned Saṅgha is that of the Mahāsaṁghika School.
These early monasteries were centres of a predominantly Mahāyāna culture, with the inscriptions providing only a few hints of Vajrayāna practice:
Monastic precincts reveal verses of praise addressed to Śākyamuni and other Buddhas, as well as shrines to the celestial Bodhisattvas Mañjuśrī, Vajrapāṇi, Samantabhadra, and - most frequently - Avalokiteśvara.
Donations of Stūpas, in several instances by nuns, are also mentioned.
Nepal’s earliest monasteries charged monks with maintaining law and civic order in settlements built on lands donated to them, a custom that is unattested in Indian sources.
Examples of similar duties are also found in the records of the residents (mandalis) of contemporaneous Hindu temples.
Tibetan texts recount how great Indian sages came up through the Nepal valley to establish Buddhist traditions on the Tibetan plateau. Later legends describe their subduing demons and establishing communities of devotees.
Although the history of these first Himalayan monasteries remains obscure, some may have been established by the great siddha Padmasambhava (ca. late 8th century) or his disciples.
Texts composed to recount the lives of Atiśa (982-1054) and Marpa (1002/1012-1097) describe their sojourns visiting still-recognized valley locations.
Once Buddhism was firmly established in central Tibet as a result of its 2nd introduction (ca. 1050 C.E.), the northernmost settlements of modern highland Nepal became sites where monasteries were established by every major school of Tibetan Buddhism:
These areas include Humla in the far west, as well as (from west to east) Dolpo, Lo-Mustang, Nyeshang, Nupri, Manang, Langtang, Helambu, Solu-Khumbu, and Walung.
Local boys interested in training to become senior monks would travel to central Tibet and return to maintain local institutions that typically sheltered, at most, a dozen or so monks whose main occupation was ritual service.
This same pattern occurred for the Bon faith in a few of these regions.
There was a second level of connection with the monastic networks of central Tibet established among the Tibeto-Burman-speaking peoples living in the mid-hills, including the Magars, Gurungs, Tamangs, and Sherpas.
Many of these peoples followed the Nyingma School and relied on householder lamas to perform Buddhist rituals for their villages:
To train for this service, young men typically lived for several years as apprentices with elder householder lamas or in the regional highland monasteries. Most returned to marry and maintain shrines established as their family’s own property.
Thus, most “Buddhist monasteries” among Tibeto-Burman peoples were (and are) family shrine-residences, and sons usually succeed their fathers as local Buddhist ritualists.
By the early Malla era (1350 C.E.) Tibetan monks came to the Nepal valley to acquire tantric initiations, ritual practices, and texts from resident masters (Newars and others), traditions they conveyed up to the highlands.
Some Tibetan monks also established branch monasteries affiliated with the main Tibetan schools;
the first were located near the monumental Stūpas at Svayambhū and Bauddhanātha. Notable Tibetan teachers probably influenced the practices of Newar Buddhists.
Although the Hindu state of Nepal, which was established in 1769, did not favour Buddhism and tried to make Buddhists conform to Brahmin laws,
the traditions and loyalty of most Buddhist ethnic groups has endured, as have Nepal’s family-based monasteries.
Since 1990 the strength of Buddhist identity that is held together by these institutions among the Tibeto-Burman groups has become the basis of ethnic nationalism directed against the high caste dominated Hindu state.
The Kathmandu valley is now one of the most important centres of Tibetan Buddhism in the world for several reasons:
First, one of the world’s largest concentrations of Tibetan refugees has settled in the Kathmandu valley, where they have focused on building institutions for their communities:
Some of the profits generated by the carpet-weaving industry have been used to expand the initial structures and build new monasteries.
Second, since about 1970, many of the most affluent Tibeto-Burman Buddhists from Nepal have chosen to establish homes in the valley, both for business and political purposes:
Prominent donors from this community have bought lands and built monasteries that have drawn monks or nuns from their home regions.
Finally, as Tibetan Buddhism has become increasingly attractive to Westerners, prominent Tibetan lamas funded by their donations have established “dharma centres” that in most ways resemble traditional monasteries:
Here one can find textual study and meditation being pursued by both ethnic Tibetans and Westerners clad in monastic robes.
By the early Malla era (c. 1201–1769), the valley had become an important regional centre active in domesticating an indigenous Indic Mahāyāna Buddhism:
Nepalese monks developed a highly ritualized Buddhist culture among the Newars, whose life-cycle rites, Mahāyāna festivals, and temple ritualism reached high levels of articulation.
It was Vajrayāna Buddhism and tantric initiation that assumed the highest position in local understanding, though only a few practiced esoteric traditions.
Monastic Architecture reflects this development:
In the large courtyards that define the monastic space, the shrines facing the entrance have, on the ground floor, an image of Śākyamuni, but on the first floor above is the Āgama, a shrine with a Vajrayāna deity, with access limited to those with tantric initiation.
By the later Malla era (1425-1769 C.E.), when Hindu shrines and law were in the ascendancy, Newar Buddhism underwent many changes and assumed roughly the form extant today:
This era was marked by the building of many new Vihāras, but there was also a literal domestication of the Saṅgha, wherein former monks became householders.
These Newar house-holder monks called themselves Bare (from the Sanskrit term vande or vandanā, an ancient Indic term of respect for monks), adopted the names Śākya-bhikṣu, and Vajrācārya, and began to function as endogamous castes:
This meant that one had to be born into the Saṅgha and, with a few exceptions, everyone else was prohibited from being admitted. Thus, ordination into celibate monastic life was possible only in the local Tibetan Saṅghas.
The Newar Saṅghas were probably transforming their tradition to conform to caste laws and thereby preserve the social and legal standing of the Buddhist community, as well as their extensive monastic land holdings.
Since that time, those wanting to become adult members of the Newar Saṅgha must first undergo (in local parlance) Śrāvaka-styled celibate ordination (usually taking 3 days), then Mahāyāna-styled initiation into what is referred to as the Bodhisattva Saṅgha.
Many contemporary Newar monasteries, especially in Pātan (Lalitapur), still bear the name of their founding patrons, some dating back to the early Malla period.
Local Buddhist monks, like Hindu Paṇḍits (scholars), were especially active in manuscript copying; by the modern era, Buddhist monastic libraries had become a vast repository of Sanskrit texts.
Unlike the monastic institutions of Tibet that fostered in-depth philosophical inquiry and vast commentarial writings, Newar monks produced few original contributions to Buddhist scholarship.
The Newar Saṅgha’s focus was the performance of rituals drawing upon deities and powers of the Mahāyāna- Vajrayāna Buddhist tradition.
Like married Tibetan monks of the Nyingma order, Vajrācārya priests serve the community’s ritual needs, with some specializing in textual study, medicine, astrology, and meditation.
Lifelong ritual relations link householders to family Vajrācārya priests, which some have called “Buddhist Brahmins:”
Their ritual services are vast,
including Buddhist versions of Hindu life-cycle rites (saṁskāra), fire rites (homa), daily temple rituals (nitya pūjā), Mantra chanting protection rites, merit-producing donation rites, Stūpa rituals, chariot festivals (ratha jātra), and tantric initiation (abhiṣeka).
Some of these cultural performances were noted centuries ago in India:
In Kathmandu’s Itum Bāhā one can still observe monks rapping on wooden gongs to mark time, a monastic custom begun over 2 000 years ago in ancient India.
In this and many other respects, Newars continue the evolutionary patterns of ritual practice and lay ideals of later Indic Buddhism. Claims that “Indian Buddhism died out” defy geography and ignore the on-going survival of Newar Buddhism.
Once the Newar kings were ousted by the Shah dynasty from Gorkha that unified the modern state in 1769,
discrimination against Buddhists and changes in land tenure laws undermined the tenancy system that had supported the domesticated Newar monastic institution.
At its peak, Newar Buddhists had established over 300 monasteries. Today, roughly 10% have all but disappeared and more than 50% are in perilous structural condition.
The majority of the monasteries, however, still function and most of the remainder can still be located using modern records.
The cities of Kathmandu and Pātan both have a system of main monasteries (mu bāhā), 18 and 15, respectively; each monastery is linked to one or more satellite monasteries.
Every householder monk is ordained in one of these monasteries, though they may reside in one of the several hundred branch monasteries affiliated with the main monasteries.
A system of rotation requires that each ordained male perform the monastic daily ritual duties periodically.
Bhaktapur and other smaller towns in the Kathmandu valley also have bāhās, but each is an independent entity.
Newar monasteries are now ruled by the senior male members of their individual Saṅghas, which makes reform or innovation within the local Saṅgha difficult.
From the Shah-era conquest in 1769 until the present, Newar Mahāyāna Buddhism has been gradually weakening as a cultural force due to the loss of landed income and leadership.
Yet despite the decline of the monasteries as buildings and institutions, much is still preserved in the elaborate monastic architecture, the thousands of archived texts, and the wealth of cultural observances.
The typical Newar bāhā is situated around a courtyard:
The main entrance, often ornamented by a tympanum, usually has small shrines dedicated to the monastery guardians Gaṇeśa and Mahākāla, which flank the passageway leading into the main courtyard.
Opposite the entrance is the main shrine building:
On the ground floor is usually Śākyamuni Buddha, flanked by images of his 2 great disciples, Mahā Maudgalyāyana and Śāriputra.
Stairs within the main shrine building lead to the Āgama, a tantric shrine that is opened only to adults who have received the appropriate Vajrayāna initiation.
The windows and the door, including another tympanum, are often adorned by elaborate wood carvings.
One of the most important changes that Shah rule brought to the middle hill regions of the country was the expansion of trade, and this was commonly in the hands of Newars who migrated to trade towns:
The thousands who left the valley brought their prominently Buddhist culture with them:
Thus, in towns such as (from east to west) Dharan, Dhanakuṭā, Chainpur, Bhojpur, Dolakha, Trisuli, Bandipur, Bokhara, Palpa, and Baglung,
- Newar Buddhists built bāhās as branch institutions of those in their home cities.
Since the mid-20th century, Newars who have become disenchanted with their form of Mahāyāna monasticism have supported the establishment of Theravāda Buddhist reform institutions in the Kathmandu valley.
Inspired by teachers from Śrī Lanka, Burma, Thailand, and India,
Newars “entered the robes” and some founded institutions in the large cities that are dedicated to the revival of Buddhism based upon textual study, popular preaching, and lay meditation.
Beginning with the Ānandakuṭī Monastery at Svayambhū for monks and the Dharmakīrti dormitory for nuns in central Kathmandu, Newars have been ordained and have renounced the householder life to live in these institutions.
Technically, the ancient order of nuns has died out in Theravāda countries; the term Anagārika is used locally, although the women conform to most Vinaya rules, including celibacy.
Theravāda institutions have been instrumental to promoting the modernist “Protestant Buddhism” originating in colonial Śrī Lanka:
These institutions have subtly critiqued Newar and Tibetan Mahāyāna beliefs and practices,
while seeking to revive the faith by promoting textual study and vernacular translations, scheduling popular preaching, and spreading the practice of lay meditation.
Other independent meditation centres started by Goenka, a lay teacher from India, have since the early 1980s gained considerable popularity.
Theravāda monasteries and meditation centres are now found in most major towns of the Kathmandu valley of Nepal.