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Key Buddhist Masters in Bhutan's History

Lovingly known as Guru Rinpoche — “Precious Teacher,” Padmasambhava (8th century), from the ancient Kingdom of Uddayana, located in the present-day Swãt Valley in northeastern Pakistan, arrived in Bhutan around 800 A.D. and founded the Nyingma “Old” school of Himalayan Buddhism. He is considered by many to be the Second Buddha and is credited with introducing Tantric Buddhism into Tibet and the Himalayas. His images are found in almost every shrine in Bhutan. He hid religious treasures to be revealed centuries later when the situation proved appropriate. He is shown supported by a multilobed lotus pedestal [as he was miraculously “lotus born], distinguished by his hat with upturned flaps and boots, carrying the dorje, a skull cup and his khatvãnga staff. He generally exhibits an intense facial expression of determination and willingness to confront negative forces.

Pema Lingpa (1450-1521), the formost “Treasure Revealer” and the fourth of the “Five Kings of Treasure Discovery,” had an aptitude for self-learning which his followers attribute to the spiritual and intellectual achievements in his previous incarnations [specifically the great philosopher-saint Longchenpa (1308-63)]. He was a blacksmith and metalworker who made many important ritual items at his workshop in Northern Bumthang. He is noted for discovering many hidden treasure texts [such as The Quintessence of the Secrets of Clear Expanse (Klong gsal gsang ba snying bcud)], revealing visionary instructions for ritual sacred dances such as those for the five classes of dãkinïs (mkha’ ‘gro sde Inga), publicly extracting a Buddha statue and a sealed skull from a deep river pool, and illuminating cycles of religious rituals and meditation instructions. These treasures are said to have been buried and entrusted to the guardian spirits by Padmasambhava and his disciples, to be revealed at an appropriate time by the destined treasure discoverer. He ultimately revealed more that 50 treasures, all previously hidden by Guru Rinpoche. In addition to the many earth treasures he discovered, he also imparted a rich legacy of mind treasures as evinced by his visionary trances and dream journeys, which were considered no less real than actual life and thus as tangible events in Pema Lingpa’s existence. Here he carries a long-life vase and sits in meditation on cushions on a throne. On the altar table before him are his drum, box of sacred substances, bell, cup stand, skull cup, phurba on a triangular stand, and dorje (thunderbolt).

Drukpa Kunley (1455-1529), the “Divine Madman”, was one of the most colorful and beloved teachers of the Kagyu faith in Bhutan, famous for his unorthodox way of propagating the teachings and for his earthy humor. He was born in Tibet but spent a long time in Bhutan, where he became the subject of many colorful and sometimes racy stories, renowned for his fondness of women and strong drink. He sits on an animal’s skin, often wearing an antelope skin across his torso as befitting an ascetic, playing the dramyen [a lute-like stringed musical instrument] with deep concentration. He married a Bhutanese wife, one of his numerous female disciples, and founded an important Bhutanese lineage that includes Bhutan’s fourth civil ruler. He is directly associated with the Chimi Lhakhang temple in Punakha where many famous relics, his personal effects and scriptures reside.

Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal (1594-1651) was the great unifier of Bhutan as a religious state in the 17th century and one of the most hallowed “three [religious] gems of Bhutan” [the other two being Buddha Sakyamuni and Padmasambhava]. Around 1616 he came to Bhutan from Ralung in southern Tibet after a bitter conflict over his succession as the Chief Abbot of Ralung Monastery. He accepted an invitation to Bhutan offered by followers of the Drukpa Kagyu school, gradually consolidating his power in western Bhutan over the course of the next ten years. From there he spread his influence into central and eastern portions of the country. He is shown with a long pointed dark beard reaching down to his belt or waist, and in later depictions he is seen wearing a meditation belt or band under his upper monks robe. He is often shown holding a long-life vase and wearing the ceremonial Drukpa Kagyu headdress (gomsha). His death was keep a state secret for 56 years during which time he was treated as if he were alive and in retreat, served by two attendants.