For as far as the eye can see, there sit row upon row of devotees, young and old, men and women, dressed in traditional Bhutanese garb, loudly reciting prayer passages written on old parchment paper. The atmosphere is serious yet mystical with every participant of the ceremony fully engrossed in the rhythm of prayer, unaware of his or her surroundings or of those sitting beside.
It's a fascinating sight, yet one that is considered not too uncommon in Bhutanese society. For a country that measures the prosperity of its people in terms of happiness rather than economic progress, it is evident that the Bhutanese take their spirituality very seriously.
As the last independent country to declare Buddhism as the state religion, the government of Bhutan has ensured that the religion's principal values permeate every facet of daily life. For this reason, it has been decreed that one son from each family should attend a monastic school. Throughout the region, religious monuments, prayer walls and sacred flags are put on display as a way of reminding people of the importance of religion in their lives.
Amongst the numerous aspects of religion in Bhutan, prayer stands out as its primary pillar and is thus seen being practiced in various parts of the country. To many Bhutanese, prayer is viewed as the establishment of a meaningful connection with the spiritual world and, in most cases, a way of cleansing the soul. In an article for Bhutan's newspaper, Kuensel, Dr. Karma Phuntsho who is the President of the Loden Foundation, Director of the Shejun Agency for Bhutan's Cultural Documentation as well as the author of the 'The History of Bhutan', describes in detail the symbolism behind such religious offerings. "Bhutanese belie-ve that chanting the khathun regularly helps them avoid harm and misfortunes, achieve their wishes, live longer and healthier lives, accumulate merit for a better rebirth, and also help them reach enlightenment swiftly."
The prayer or khathun (which literally means oral sessions) constitutes the daily prayers of traditional Bhutanese elders. Verses are recited from a book of prayers called thunpe; in Bhutan, the most common thunpe adheres to the Kagyu or Nyingma branch of Vajrayana Buddhism. The definition of Vajrayana Buddhism, according to Encyclopedia Britannica, "is a form of Tantric Buddhism that marks the transition from Mahayana speculative thought to the enactment of Buddhist ideas in individual life. The term vajra (which is Sanskrit for 'thunderbolt' or 'diamond') is used to signify what is absolutely real and indestructible in a human being as opposed to the fictions an individual entertains about himself and his nature; yana is the spiritual pursuit of the ultimately valuable and indestructible."
The thunpe begins with rituals that involve a supplication to one's guru, a practice which is known as 'calling the lama from afar'. This is followed by the oration of several literary compositions written in praise of the Buddha as well as Guru Rinpoche, more commonly known as Padmasambhava, the second Buddha in Bhutan. According to John Berthold in his book 'Bhutan: Land of the Thunder Dragon', Padmasambhava has been said to miraculously emerge as an eight-year-old from a blue lotus early in the eighth century. He further highlights Padmasambhava as a figure that "is celebrated for cementing Buddhist ideology in Bhutan and for heroic mediations in remote caves." In 'The History of Bhutan', Karma Phuntsho writes, "In the theological formulation of Padmasambhava as the focus of prayer and meditation, he is not merely a historical person but an enlightened energy or state of being.
The historical figure of Padmasambhava only symbolically represents the divine and enlightened being which transcends the vicissitudes of life and death and the notions of time and space. In the ultimate reality, he is the primordial Buddha, the enlightened nature in all phenomena and beyond individuality."
The thunpe consists of numerous praises of several Buddhas and Bodhisattvas and even sutras such as The Heart Sutra as well as The Sutra for Longevity. The Heart Sutra is perhaps the most popular sutra used in prayer by the Bhutanese. According to research, it was taught by the Buddha himself as a response on how a son or a daughter of a noble family should view everything including form, sensation, feelings, volitions, consciousness, the six senses, the twelve links of dependent origination and the four nobles.
Bhutanese recite these prayers regularly, sometimes as a precursor before routine activities. The collection of khathun contain small prayers or rituals to perform before, for example, preceding tea, having a meal, before making a serkem or alcohol offering and even before making sang (incense).
However, most of the time, Bhutanese citizens rely on serious and sustained prayers to be performed by professionals because only they are aware of the requisite language and rituals. This practice is known as surrogate praying. Interestingly, one of the events surrogate praying is used the most for is death. According to Russell B. Carpenter and Blyth C. Carpenter in their book, 'The Blessings of Bhutan,' the reason for this is "because death is the point at which the process of reincarnation begins. [It is therefore] fundamentally important to the people of Bhutan. For 49 days after this life ends, family members, monks and lamas engage in complex and expensive rituals to help the decedent achieve a beneficial reincarnation." They further explain, "This is not a time for local dieties or any of the other elements of folk religion. Instead, the services of the monks and lamas are essential. The professionals of formal Buddhism go to work with an unmatched intensity."
For many Bhutanese, prayer is an integral part of their lives. It is not uncommon to come across traditional Bhutanese elder who may otherwise be illiterate but who has still managed to memorise all the prayers in the thunpe. The reason behind such devotion is inculcation of the concept that happiness is the ultimate goal of all worldly and spiritual endeavours.
If anything, it is this intense association with prayer that has made them the envy of many Western societies who see Bhutan as a country that is as yet untouched by the adverse effects of globalization. In fact, Bhutan is viewed as one of the very few societies that have managed to adopt the constructive elements of technology for the benefit of the people, while simultaneously retain and preserve traditional culture and the relationship with spirituality to bring a bit of tranquility in their lives.