Background

Following the Chinese takeover of Tibet and in the wake of the modernisation that has affected other parts of the Northern Buddhist world, the Kingdom of Bhutan has come to be seen as the last bastion of a fully-fledged Mahayana Buddhist tradition. Its long history of isolation and independence and its conservative cultural traditions and political structure have combined to make Bhutan a unique repository of the cultural and religious wealth of Himalayan Buddhism, with religious establishments, traditions and cultures still intact and largely unexplored.

Increasing access given to these institutions and repositories now makes Bhutan a strategic area for research that will lead to an enhanced understanding of the Mahayana Buddhist tradition and also provide systematic study and effective documentation of Bhutan’s religious and cultural heritage.

Pema Lingpa (1450-1521), the premier Bhutanese religious visionary, was the founder of one of the two major schools of Buddhist practice and spirituality in Bhutan. A mystic, saint, artist and the founder of several monasteries and religious lineages, Pema Lingpa is now celebrated as a spiritual ancestor and cultural hero, the most renowned Bhutanese figure in the Himalayan Buddhist world. His teachings form the religious classics and liturgies in many Himalayan communities, and the monasteries he founded in Bhutan and Tibet are well-known centres of religious education, art and culture.

The institutions arising from his family and the line of reincarnations have played an important role in shaping the history of Bhutan and the Himalayas. Yet, no proper study or documentation of the Pema Lingpa establishments and institutions has so far been undertaken apart from a few biographical and genealogical accounts. A systematic study of the historical development and the religious and political significance of Pema Lingpa institutions is crucial to our understanding of Himalayan religion and history.

The principal institutions this project aims to explore are the three lines of reincarnations (sprul sku) associated with Pema Lingpa. These reincarnations continued and propagated the legacy of Pema Lingpa and played leading roles in the religious and secular history of Bhutan and the Himalayas. Pema Lingpa’s family line has also grown into a pre-eminent class of religious elites and dominated the Bhutanese religious and political scene. The current royal family of Bhutan claims direct descent from Pema Lingpa, as do many other Himalayan religious elites. The arts and cultures introduced by Pema Lingpa and his descendants today represent the intrinsic Bhutanese tradition. The rituals and masked dances the Peling hierarchs composed are performed across the country during festive occasions and Pema Lingpa’s metal artefacts are treasured as masterpieces. Pema Lingpa and his tradition, thus, underpins the Bhutanese cultural identity.
A proper study of the Pema Lingpa institutions and their role in the religious and political history of Bhutan and the Himalayas is long overdue. This research project shall undertake a thorough study and documentation of Pema Ling pa’s religious works and the broader impact of his activities and institutions.

The main sources for our study are the literary collections of the major Pema Lingpa institutions and establishments, which were hitherto inaccessible. Consolidating new information from these monasteries and building on the existent works on Pema Lingpa, the project aims to make a substantial contribution to our knowledge of and resources on Bhutan and the Himalayas.