Buddhism in Nepal
In many areas, Hinduism has absorbed Buddhism to a large extent, but the two religions have many shared deities and temples.
As every Nepali is proud to tell you, the Lord Buddha was born in Nepal. That is to say, he was born in the Shakya Kingdom of Kapilvastu which is now in the Rupandehi district in the Lumbini zone of Nepal. No one is exactly certain of the year when Prince Siddhartha was born, but it was probably around 623 B.C). According to the Tripitaka, he visited his father’s kingdom and converted his family and clan to Buddhism. Subsequently the Shakya clans moved to the Kathmandu Valley where they helped establish Buddhism there.
About 11 percent of Nepalese practice Buddhism and are mainly from Tibeto-Burman ethnic groups like Sherpas, Tamangs and Bhotia people from the mountain areas along the border with Tibet. In many areas, Hinduism has absorbed Buddhism to a large extent, but the two religions have many shared deities and temples. In Muktinath, the temple there is sacred for both Hindus and Buddhists.
Though most people in Nepal are Hindu, Buddhist influences are pervasive in most aspects of Nepali culture. Tibetan Buddhism is the most widely followed and the Newar Buddhists practice a particular Newar variant of Vajrayana Buddhism and Theravada Buddhism.
For a long time however, Buddhism was not widely followed in Nepal. In the first half of the twentieth century, the government of Nepal even banished a few Buddhist monks from Nepal in an aim to suppress the resurgence of Theravada Buddhism in the country. In 1926 and again in 1944, several monks were deported from Kathmandu. Those exiled in 1926 were the first group of monks to have been seen in Nepal since the 14th century. They had been trying to revive Theravada Buddhism which had disappeared from Nepal over five hundred years before. The ruling Rana regime took a dim view of Buddhism and Nepal Bhasa, the mother tongue of the Newar people. The Ranas saw the monks’ activities as a growing threat, so after police harassment and imprisonment failed to stop these Newar monks, five of them were deported, along with their Tibetan teacher, Tsering Norbu. They were marched to the Indian border under police escort. From here they first went to Bodh Gaya in India, and then dispersed to Burma and Tibet.
Another eight monks were exiled in 1944. Accused of encouraging women to renounce their faith and also found guilty of writing in Nepal Bhasa, they refused to promise not to continue their activities and were thrown out of the country. In India they founded the Dharmodaya Sabha (Society for the Rise of the Teaching) to promote Buddhism and some stayed in India, while others went to Tibet, Bhutan and Sri Lanka.
Two years later, a Sri Lankan goodwill mission visited Kathmandu and interceded on behalf of the monks. They stressed how Lord Buddha had been born in Nepal, so his followers should be free to practice their faith in the country where he was born. Eventually the ban was lifted and the monks returned, renewing their efforts to spread the faith. Shorty after in 1951, the Rana regime was ousted by a revolution, democracy was established and the overt persecution of Buddhists ended.
Buddhist temples in Nepal
There are said to be over 1,200 Buddhist temples in Nepal, some going back as far as 2,000 years. As well as in the Kathmandu Valley, monasteries can be found in many of the mountain districts that border onto Tibet to the north and India to the east.
There are many temples in Kathmandu, Patan and Bhaktapur. Many of the main ones are found in Swayambhunath, Boudhanath and Charumati Vihara. They are with a stupa design and are believed to go back about two thousand years. Both Swayambhunath and Boudhanath are UNSECO World Heritage Sites. Patan is the oldest city in Kathmandu Valley and there are at least 18 ancient Buddhist temples to be found there including the Golden Temple, Ashoka Stupas, Mahaboudha, Rato Machhendranath and so on. In Bhaktapur thre are also many Hindu and Buddhist temples, mostly built between the 14th and 18th century.
In the city of Kathmandu, the stupa at Boudha is the largest Buddhist temple in Nepal and one of the largest stupas in the world. Another of Kathmandu’s five World Heritage Sites, the original site of Boudha’s stupa is said to be at least two thousand years old. Most historians believe that the current stupa was built sometime in the 7th century. One of the most sacred Buddhist temples in Nepal, the stupa is a huge dome structure with a gilded spire with Buddha’s eyes painted on the base and a brass canopy on the top. The relics of Kashyap Buddha, one of the mythical Buddhas, is said to be enshrined there. There are also about 50 Buddhist monasteries in and around Boudhanath.
Just north-west of Boudha’s stupa, is the White Monastery, popular for Buddhist studies, meditation and learning Tibetan language. After Tibetans were exiled from their homeland, many came to live in and around Boudhanath, making it Nepal’s and one of the world’s largest Tibetan settlements outside Tibet.
Similarly, in Swayambhunath, there is another giant stupa. Standing on the top of a hill on the western side of Kathmandu, it is the oldest stupa temple in Nepal. The exact date of its origin unknown, but the construction of current stupa is credited to King Manadeva who ruled Nepal in the 5th century. Over time, rulers of Nepal have added to the main stupa and now there are many shrines, temples, a library, museum and a monastery in the Swayambhunath complex.
In Patan, Mahabaudha Temple near Durbar Square was rebuilt following the 1934 earthquake from the rubble of a temple that dated back to 1585. Every brick in the temple has an image of the Buddha, so the temple is also called the Temple of a Million Buddhas (Mahaboudha). Nearby is Hiranya Varna Mahavihara going back to the 12th century, with the current temple dating from 1409. The front of the temple is covered with gilded plates and it is also known as the Golden Temple. Other famous temples in Patan include Rudra Varna Mahavihara, built in the 6th century and named after King Rudra Deva who renovated the temple in 980. The main temple of Machhendranath was built in 1673, though some structures in the complex go back to 1408. The spring festival of Rato Machhendranath is one of the most popular festivals in Kathmandu. There is also a White or Seto Machhendranath temple in Asaan Tol, north of Kathmandu Durbar Square where the festival of Seto Machhendranath in March or April is also celebrated with much fanfare. The Namo Buddha Temple is found in Banepa, about 40 kilometers east of Kathmandu. It is surrounded by several Buddhist shrines and every day, hundreds of people visit to perform circumambulation and light butter lamps. Also in the area is Thrangu Tashi Yangtse monastery that was founded by the ninth Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche in 1978 and is a center for Buddhist meditation, worship and study. About 250 monks live there and there is also a school for young Buddhist monks.
The exact spot where Buddha was born is preserved within Maya Devi Temple in Lumbini. The current temple was opened for the public in 2003 and houses the original Maya Devi Temple that was built in the 3rd century B.C. Recent excavations have unearthed human settlement in Lumbini that go back to 1300 B.C. Prior to this, the oldest record of Buddha was the stone pillar that was erected by King Ashoka in 249 B.C. Maya Devi Temple is the most important Buddhist temple in Nepal.
Tengboche Monastery (also called Thyangboche) is in the Khumbu Valley at 3,867 meters, is in the vicinity of some of the world’s highest mountains such as Everest, Nuptse, Lhotse and Ama Dablam. There are ten monasteries in Khumbu valley and the area is referred as a holy place in the Tibetan scriptures. Tengboche was founded in 1916, though some of the temples and shrines in and around it date back to 1880. The largest and the oldest in Khumbu, it is also the first monastery under the Nyingmapa lineage of the Vajrayana Buddhism. About 60 monks live there and the monastery is a center for Tibetan Buddhism rituals for the Sherpa community of Nepal. Around 15,000 people visit it annually.
There are ten monasteries in the area including those at Pangboche, Thame, Lawdo, Khumjung and Kunde. There are other monasteries in Solukhumbusuch as those at Chalsa, Phaplu and Jumbesi.
Learning about Buddhism
For those interested to learn about Buddhism, where better to come but to the country where Buddha was born. There are numerous monasteries and institutions where visitor can learn more about Buddhism, meditation and where volunteers can help teaching monks.
A stone’s throw from Boudha, Kopan rises up and can be seen for miles around. Kopan Monastery is a monastery following the Gelug tradition of Tibetan Mahayana Buddhism under the guidance of Lama Zopa Rinpoche. There are 360 monks, lamas, teachers and workers. Coming from all over Nepal and Tibet, they are aged between seven to sixty years old.
Affiliated with the Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition (FPMT), this organization is devoted to transmitting the Mahayana Buddhist tradition and values around the world through teaching, meditation, and community service. FPMT provides a series of courses throughout the year.
Rangjung Yeshe Institute
For serious scholars, degree courses are offered at Rangjung Yeshe Institute at Boudhanath that include topics in Buddhist philosophy, as well as Tibetan, Sanskrit and Nepali languages. Specialized non-degree courses including summer intensive short courses and a year-long translator training program are also available.
Yoga, meditation, reiki, short courses in Buddhism
For those who want to go on a yoga retreat, or take a course in reiki, hatha yoga, massage and other healing techniques, there are several places to go to in Kathmandu and in Pokhara. The Nepal Vipassana Centre in Kathmandu offers ten-day and occasional shorter courses involving silent retreats, getting up at 4am every morning, not talking or making eye contact with anyone over the entire period, and not eating after midday. Alternatively, FPMT’s Buddhist Centre in Pokhara’s Lakeside provides a more gentle introduction to Buddhism.