Buddhism in Nepal | Overview

1. Buddhism in Nepal

Buddhism in Nepal started spreading since the reign of Aśoka through Indian and Tibetan missionaries.

The Kirātas were the first people in Nepal who embraced Gautama Buddha’s teachings, followed by the Licchavis and Newars.

Buddha was born in Lumbini in the Śākya Kingdom. Lumbini is considered to lie in present-day Rupandehi district, Lumbini zone of Nepal.

Buddhism is the 2nd largest religion in Nepal:

According to 2001 census, 10.74% of Nepal's population practiced Buddhism, consisting mainly of Tibeto-Burman-speaking ethnicities, the Newar. However, in the 2011 census, the Buddhist population in Nepal was just 9% of the country population.

It has not been possible to assign with certainty the year in which Prince Siddhārtha, the birth name of the Buddha, was born, it is usually placed at around 563 BCE.

In Nepal's hill and mountain regions Hinduism has absorbed Buddhist tenets to such an extent that in many cases they have shared deities as well as temples. For instance, the Muktināth Temple is sacred and a common house of worship for both Hindus and Buddhists.

2. Overview

In Nepal, the majority of people identify as Hindu.

However, Buddhist influences are pervasive in most aspects of Nepali culture to an extent that Buddhist and Hindu temples are shared places of worship for peoples of both faiths so that, unlike in other countries, the distinction between Hinduism and Buddhism in Nepal is not always clear.

During the reign of King Aṁśuvarman (595 CE - 621 CE), the Nepalese princess Bhṛkuṭī played a significant role in spreading and developing Buddhism in Tibet. Tibetan Buddhist architecture has long been influenced by Nepalese artists and sculptors like Araniko (1245–1306).

The sacred Buddhist texts in Mahāyāna Buddhism are mainly written in the Rañjanā alphabet, the script of the Newars, or scripts like Lantsa, which are derived from Rañjanā.

In traditional Nepalese Buddhism, there are 9 special texts which are called the "Nine Dharma Jewels" (Navagrantha), and these are considered the nine books of Buddhism par excellence:

1. Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra
2. Gaṇḍavyūha Sūtra
3. Ten Stages Sūtra (Daśabhūmika)
4. Samādhirāja Sūtra
5. Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra
6. Lotus Sūtra (Saddharmapuṇḍarīka)
7. Tathāgataguhya Sūtra
8. Lalitavistara Sūtra
9. Golden Light Sutra (Suvarṇaprabhāsa)

Among the Tibeto-Burman-speaking peoples, Tibetan Buddhism is the most widely practised form. Newar Buddhism is a form of Vajrayāna influenced by Theravada Buddhism.

Buddhism is the dominant religion of the thinly populated northern areas, which are inhabited by Tibetan-related peoples, namely the Sherpa, Lopa, Manangi, Thakali, Lhomi, Dolpa and Nyimba. They constitute a small minority of the country's population.

Ethnic groups that live in central Nepal such as the Gurungs, Lepcha, Tamang, Magar, Newars, Yakkha, Thami, Chhantyal and Chepang are also Buddhist. These ethnic groups have larger populations compared to their northern neighbours.

They came under the influence of Hinduism due to their close contacts with the Hindu castes. In turn, many of them eventually adopted Hinduism and have been largely integrated into the caste system.

The Kirati people, especially the Limbu and the Rai people, have also adopted Tibetan Buddhist practises from their Buddhist neighbours. The Jirel people, who are considered a Kirati, have also adopted Tibetan Buddhism.

3. History

Buddha was born as Prince Siddhārtha in Nepal.

He attained Enlightenment under the Bodhi Tree in Bodh Gaya, in present-day Bihar, India. He there preached his teachings and thus Buddhism came into existence.

Emperor Aśoka of the Maurya Empire put up a pillar at Lumbini, the birthplace of the Buddha, in the 2nd century BCE.

After the 3rd Buddhist council, Aśoka sent missionaries to Nepal. It is also believed that Aśoka went to Patan (now Lalitpur, Nepal) and had 4 Stūpas built there.

It is believed that his daughter Charumati established the village of Chabahil and founded the Monastery of Chabahil (called Charumati Vihāra), which is one of the oldest Buddhist monasteries of Nepal.

4. Buddhism during the Licchavi period (400-750)

The Licchavi period saw the flourishing of both Hinduism and Buddhism in Nepal:

Excellent examples of Buddhist art of the period are the half-sunken Buddha in Paśupatināth, the sleeping Viṣṇu in Budhānilakaṇṭha, and the statue of Buddha and the various representations of Viṣṇu in Changu Nārāyan.

Another Buddhist text, the Mañjuśrīmūlakalpa, mentioned Mānadeva as the King of Nepal Mandala.

Researchers believe the Mūlasarvāstivāda Vinaya was written in the 2nd century CE, and that the Mañjuśrīmūlakalpa was written during Mānadeva's reign.

The Svayambhū Purāṇa, the ancient Buddhist Purāṇa text, and a Licchavi inscription all mentioned Nepal Mandala.

Buddhist inscriptions and chronicles and Tibetan sources also record a few tantric Buddhist deities, namely Akṣobhya, Amitābha, Vajrayoginī, Vajra Bhairava, Uṣṇīṣa Vijayā and Samantabhadra.

Strong influence from Animism resulted in belief in Buddhist deities such as the Pañcarakṣās.

Religious tolerance and syncretism were stressed during the Licchavi period:

King Mānadeva (464–505 AD) paid homage at both Hindu and Buddhist sites. His family subsequently found expression for their beliefs in various religions.

The worship of the Chaitya and the Ratha Yatra cart festival of Avalokiteśvara were introduced around this period:

Many ancient sites in the Kathmandu Valley were identified with major Buddhist Chaityas, such as Svayambhū, Boudhanāth, Kathmandu and the 4 "Aśoka" Stūpas of Patan (Lalitpur), and another 200 stone Chaityas dating from the Licchavi Period, were testified to the widespread antiquity of Chaitya worship.

It is possible that this practice, in its earliest incarnation, was related to the worship of stones, which may have originated in the early, rival Kirāta inhabitants of the Valley, prior to the Licchavis.

According to one of the earliest Licchavi inscriptions,

Chaitya worship ordinarily consisted of ritual circumambulation of the Chaitya and offering standard items such as incense, coloured powder, oil lamps and ablutions.

At times, the inscriptions indicate, it could even involve resurfacing an existing Chaitya and covering the new surface with many elaborate paintings.

Chaitya worship was an important factor in bringing more of the proto-Newar tribal inhabitants into the Buddhist fold, as it was a devotional practice designed for the general public.

Thus, the masses probably began practicing the cart festival of Avalokiteśvara/Matsyendranāth (Jana Bahā Dyaḥ Jātrā and Buṅga Dyaḥ Jātrā) during the latter half of the 7th century AD.

This festival was celebrated by hundreds or even thousands of people, who helped to construct and transport a huge, wheeled cart that bore the image of Avalokiteśvara for several days or weeks along a specific route.

The introduction of this festival must have been an instant success among the majority of the Kathmandu Valley population. This strengthened Buddhism's standing in relation to the other Hindu and Animist faiths of the Valley at the time.

40 stone inscriptions made some mention of Buddhism throughout the Licchavi period:

Most of the references are concerned with monasticism. However, almost nothing is known about the day-to-day life in the Vihāra monasteries or how they functioned administratively.

The names of the 15 Buddhist monasteries are known, and it is clear from the context in which some of these are named that they are among the most important religious sites of that time.

It is not known for certain what schools of Buddhism were most prominent at the time.

But the strongest early influences (aside from an even earlier probable substratum of Pāli Buddhism) probably came from the Mahāsaṁghika, Saṁmitīya and the Sarvāstivāda schools.

The Mādhyamika and Yogācāra schools were thought to be more influential in the later period with the emergence and growth of the Vajrayāna School.

Inscriptional evidence also proves that there was a string of traditional methods of making religious gifts. These offerings were used for earning blessing and making merit and the women of the Buddhist seem to have taken the lead in offering these gifts.

Strikingly, parallel points within the Buddhist cave contain inscriptions of Maharashtra, which predated the Licchavi Nepal.

The references in the Licchavi inscriptions to the Mahāyāna and Vajrayāna will be mentioned below in connection with Buddhist art and notable Buddhist figures of the Licchavi period.

5. Buddhism during the Licchavi period (600-1200)

A Licchavi king, Aṁśuvarman (ruled 595 CE - 621 CE), married his daughter Bhṛkuṭī to the ruler of Tibet, King Songtsen Gampo:

According to legend, she received the begging bowl of the Buddha as part of her wedding dowry. It is believed that she introduced Buddhism into Tibet.

She is also believed as a reincarnation of the Green Tārā of Tibetan Buddhism, who is seen in many Buddhist Thangkas.

Licchavi period is known as the golden time for Buddhism.

6. Buddhism during the Malla dynasty (1200–1769)

The Malla dynasty ruled during the golden period of the syncretism of Hindu and Buddhist art forms by the Newar. The Paubha, the Newar counterpart of the Tibetan Buddhist Thangka, flourished in this period.

During the reign of Jayasthiti Malla (14th-century), after implementation of Manu Dharmaśāstra, celibate monks were banned from practicing in Nepal. This gave way to the non-celibate Newar Buddhism.

Because of this, Theravada Buddhism was lost in Nepal only to be revitalized in the beginning of the 20th century.

7. Buddhism during the Shah dynasty (1769–1846)

The Shah dynasty saw the decline of Buddhism in Nepal where it eventually merged with Hinduism as the Hindu Gurkha (militarists) rose to prominence.

In the north, the Mustang kingdom ruled by the Buddhist Lopa and the Thakali saw to the flourishing of Vajrayāna (Tibetan Buddhism) in the North.

8. Buddhism during the Rana dynasty (1846–1951)

There is an incorrect assumption that, due to perceived similarity to tantric Hinduism, that Modern Newar Buddhism in Nepal has largely been absorbed into mainstream Hinduism.

However, Newar Buddhism has retained a distinct identity, and nearly all practices, art forms and castes remain.

In the North, people of Tibetan origin continued to be the much-unchanged practises of Tibetan Buddhism, especially in the case of the Nyimba of Northwest Nepal.

On the other hand, the Thakali, who had traditionally played an important role in the Nepali society but yet retained Tibetan Buddhism, have begun to embrace Hinduism as well in the recent years.

It is significant to note that during the autocratic Rana regime, several Theravada Buddhists were banished from Nepal for preaching Buddhism:

The Banishment of Buddhist monks from Nepal in 1926 and 1944 was prompted by an attempt to suppress the revival of Theravada Buddhism which began in the 1920s.

Also, the rediscovery of Lumbini, the birthplace of Buddha, occurred in this era with contributions from among others, General Khadga Shamsher Jang Bahadur Rana (1861-1921).

9. Shah Dynasty (1951–2006)

After the overthrow of the Rana dynasty in 1951, Buddhism gradually developed in the country.

Theravada Buddhists played a greatly significant role for the Buddhist revival campaign in modern Nepal since the 1920s:

This revival movement has changed Buddhism from a religion of some ethnic groups and castes to going beyond the caste and ethnic religion in Nepal.

Presently, there are 3 main Buddhist schools:

1. Tibetan Buddhism
2. Newar Buddhism
3. Theravada Buddhism.

Tourism is an important factor for promoting Nepali Buddhism to the world:

Every year, Kathmandu can receive more than 10 000 travellers from all over the world just to visit the Boudha Stūpa Boudhanāth and the Svayambhū Mahā Chaitya Svayambhūnāth Stūpas. These are the remarkable and significant architectural sites, which are only found in Nepal.

Apart from these 2 main Buddhist monuments there are hundreds of Buddhist monuments in Kathmandu and in other main cities of Nepal.

International Buddhist Meditation Centre operates in Kathmandu.

10. Republic of Nepal (2006-present)

Nepal officially became a secular state in 2006. All religions in Nepal now have equal opportunities to propagate according to their belief.

Between 2001 and 2011 census, the percentage of Buddhists have declined by 1.7%, from 10.74% to 9.04%. All major ethnic groups (except Sherpa, Bhote and Thakali) showed decline in percentage of Buddhists.