Tradition and Change in Himalayan Buddhism - An Interview with Khenpo Lodrö Rabsal

Like many monks of Ka-Nying Shedrub Ling, Khenpo Lodrö Rabsal hails from an area called Mugum located in the Himalayan region of far West Nepal. Although the practice of Buddhism in this region is many centuries old, it has not always assumed the same form.  In the hope of shedding light on the larger social context of Himalayan Buddhism, and particularly on its more recent developments, such as the recent introduction of monasticism, Khenpo-la sets aside the intricacies of Buddhism philosophy to discuss his homeland. True to his meticulous character, his lengthy responses demonstrate an impressive level of both detail and insight.

Can you introduce us to the region of Mugum, its inhabitants, and some of its religious geography?

First of all, I should say that I am by nature not much of an historian, nor was I mature enough when living in Mugum to really take any detailed notice of its local customs. So I can only explain what I’ve heard from my family members, community elders, and from one recently published book on the subject.

Mugum is located in the Mugu district of the Karnali region in far West Nepal and sits at the rather high elevation of 11,011 ft (3,356 m) above sea level. It is a day's walk, 16 miles (27 km) from the border of Ngari in Tibet. The Mugu district is well known for the Rara Lake, which attracts many tourists. As for holy places, there is a mountain above our village that we call Yiblang Gangri because of its shape resembling a bull. It’s said that Guru Padmasambhava blessed this mountain when leaving Tibet and there remains his footprint and other natural features that are variously associated with him and his consort. Physically, Mugu is a rather narrow valley, however it is well regarded for its pure environment, the clear contrast of the four seasons, and its rich abundance of medicinal plants and trees.

The ethnic group of the village finds its origins in the ancient Zhangzhung culture that was associated with the Bön religion, the North East areas of Ngari such as Zanskar and Burang, and also Turkic people of Central Asia. Mugum’s culture and language have always been derivative of what is found throughout the pan-Tibetan world. Politically, the area came under the Khas Kingdom from around early the 13th century. Although the Khas are an Indo-Aryan people and today associated with Hinduism, King Krācalla (1189-1223) is said to have become a Buddhist after meeting a Drikung Kagyü lama while delivering his deceased mother’s ashes to Lake Manasarovar. This was during the time of the famous Jigten Sumgön (1143-1217), when the Drikung Kagyü controlled the entire area of Eastern Tibet. It was during this period that Mugum came under the political control of the Khas, while the religion of the area was established as Drikung Kagyü.

In terms of livelihood, Mugumpas engage in only a limited amount of agriculture, as none of the desirable grains can grow in the area apart from buckwheat. Like nomads, they also tend to yaks, however this is not to sell butter and milk so much to carry loads. From the earliest times, we have been traders selling grain products from Jumla to Tibet and salt from Tibet to the lowlands.

What are the formal traditions of Buddhism that have been spread in Mugum?

Buddhism spread in Mugum from an early time; there are records of small retreat huts and individual practitioners. But it seems that the religion only became established in an organized manner starting from the 13th century. Instrumental to this was one direct disciple of Jigten Sumgön and Chengawa Sherab Lingpa, called Chöje Könchok Gönpo. He had received a prophecy from his teachers that he would be of service to the people of “Mum Retreat,” as the place was known at the time. After spending a few years at Kailash and with Tibetan nomads, he also made contact with the Khas king who was impressed by the lama’s religious accomplishments and mastery of miraculous displays. With the King’s sponsorship, Chöje Gönpo founded retreat centers and a monastery in Mugum. He is also known for having initiated new norms of social behavior in accord with Buddhist teachings, and also for settling a considerable population of nomads from Tibet in the area. In this way, he is remembered as the founder of the basic religious and social traditions of our area.

In the late 13th century, Tibet came under the control of the Sakyapa, headed by Drogön Phagpa, and the Khas Kings became both their students and sponsors. In fact, Jitārī Malla is even said to have been ordained as a monk in the Sakya order for some time. Because of this relationship, Mugum changed its monthly and yearly rituals to conform with the Hevajra and Lamdre traditions of the Sakyapas. At this time, it appears that scholastic learning and debate began to flourish in Mugum. Even today, the ngakpa lamas regard their custom of discussing religious doctrine as a continuation of this Sakya-initiated practice. The dominance of the Sakya tradition in ancient times is reflected in that to this day Sakya rituals are recited, even for the anniversary pūjā of Chöje Könchok Gönpo.

Nearing the end of the 17th century, a Tichu Rongpa lama from Dolpo named Tinlay Dargye came to stay in retreat in Mugum. He was a lineage disciple of the famous master from Mustang, Ngari Panchen (1487-1542). Tichu Rongpas are, ethnically speaking, said to be a mix of Dolpopas and people from the lowlands. As he meditated in a solitary cave, shepherds wandering nearby began to request of him divinations about their lost sheep. Eventually, the lama became quite famous for his teaching and his lineage continues until today. He didn’t practice a single particular tradition of Nyingma, but rather a mix of the Jatsön Pödrug, Tertön Garwang’s Zabtik, Jangter, Minling, and Tulku Nyingthik. The connection with the Nyingma tradition was reaffirmed when a student of Düjom Lingpa (1835–1904) gave the empowerments for the Düjom Tersar in Mugum. Some years later, Düjom Jigdral Yeshe Dorje (1904-1987) did the same in Jumla.

Among these traditions, the Drikung Kagyü practices have been more or less lost, apart from the chö practices of Machig Labdrön and Karmapa Rangjung Dorje, which are not even Drikung as such. Otherwise, although large formal ceremonies are still based on the Sakya Hevajra rituals, most people practise and identify themselves with the Nyingma tradition. Now it seems that the Nyingma tradition of the Düjom Tersar is most prominent.

Since the passers-down of these traditions have been all ngakpas, can you explain who becomes a ngakpa, what training is involved, and how such a person makes a living?

It seems that in the past there may have been some individual bhikṣu, however the community of practitioners has always been centered on ngakpas or tantric priests. As we can see throughout South Asia, a son is invariably expected to take up the profession of his father, so it is the sons of ngakpas who generally become ngakpas.

The training for a ngakpa begins with a father teaching his son. Sometimes, the sons of lay people will also receive this training, which I personally also received as a child for five years before coming to the monastery in Kathmandu. The boy’s family first formally requests the lama associated with their particular village settlement to train their child. Once the lama accepts, the boy will begin to study reading and writing, but his provisions must be provided by his original family or community. After gaining basic literacy, the boy must memorize a large corpus of rituals since it is the custom of our area to recite all the major rituals without looking at books. Finally, the boy will learn the various practical elements of rituals, such as making offering tormas or playing instruments. Throughout this period, the boy is not allowed to partake in any of the offerings or material belongings of the ngakpa community.

Once having completed this training, the boy will then receive upāsaka vows and, for a period of seven days or so, will also uphold the eight upavāsa vows. This is considered a major rite of passage and is accompanied with a lot of ceremony and gifts. We describe this process as, “the name being elevated and body transformed.” Henceforth, the boy is entitled to consume the offerings and use the property of the ngakpa community.

The ngakpa neophyte must next complete the preliminary practices (ngöndro) and only then he will be permitted to perform smoke offering ceremonies (sang) for others. Similarly, he must complete the basic mantra recitation of the Jastön Pödrug three root deities before he can recite the feast offering on the 10th day of the lunar month.

If he is a particularly dedicated practitioner, he will receive all of the essential empowerments and instructions relating to tantric practice and proceed to spend many years in retreat. During this time, he meditates on the preliminary practices, the various Nyingma terma practices known in the village, and even the practices of the Six Dharmas of Naropa. There is another ceremony to enthrone the lama upon completion of such a retreat. This is also an extremely important and elaborate occasion. The lama is thus regarded as capable of all the functions demanded of a guru, including giving empowerments, instructions, and acting as a vajrācārya or tantric ritual master.

Ngakpas traditionally do not study the Buddhist scholastic tradition, but focus on practice and ritual. These days some are taking an interest in scholasticism and travel to various places in order to receive such training. This is a new development.

How do lay people practice religion, either individually or in groups?

One of the main social innovations attributed to Chöje Gönpo was requiring the lay people of the community to engage in some form of action specifically related to Dharma before beginning a major secular activity. This has meant that many Buddhist practices have been incorporated into the yearly schedule of village life. Beginning after the new year celebration and approaching the spring planting seasons, it is the custom for lay people to receive a long-life empowerment over the course of a few days. After the fieldwork is complete, large fasting rituals (nyungne) are organized in different places throughout the valley. At the beginning of the summer, people have to travel to the lowlands to collect the summer grain harvest, before which families typically sponsor various types of pūjās or rituals, such as reciting sūtras or the gyabshi ritual. After returning from the lowlands, we have to go north to sell the grain and collect products from Tibet. At this point, the youths of the village will all take off to the holy mountain associated with Guru Padmasambhava to hold a type of party that lasts for some days. When they return, they give an elaborate performance of song and dance for the entire village. This is said to be in honour of Guru Rinpoche’s founding of the holy place. Before going north, families sponsor a thousand or one-hundred thousand gaṇacakra (feast) pūjās depending on their wealth. The same is done upon their return from the north in the late fall, this time with newly acquired articles of butter, cheese, milk and so-on. This is understood to be a purification for the suffering brought onto the pack animals and the other various sins committed throughout the journey. Again at the end of the fall season, people will practice the fasting rituals. During fasting rituals, the presiding lamas will give instructions on virtue and non-virtue, how to develop faith and relate to a guru, and other basic Buddhist teachings. There isn’t a tradition of explaining Dharma in reference to particular texts such as The Words of My Perfect Teacher; rather, lamas give instructions that are more generalized explanations.

At times, there may become the need to perform particular rituals for the wellbeing of the entire village. Such events are not fixed, but they may include reciting a certain number of mantras of Lokeśvara or Guru Rinpoche in large groups. The traditional way of life for lay people in the village is in this way very much integrated with various forms of religious practice.

These days, many Mugumpas have moved to places across Nepal and India, and some take a very active interest in receiving empowerments and teachings from gurus. My father and uncle, for example, show up every year to listen to Chökyi Nyima Rinpoche’s fall seminar. These lead to more detailed and scholastic ways of engaging with Buddhism, which is also a new development.

When faced with death, illness, or other forms of hardship, in what ways do people evoke religious practice including forms beyond Buddhism such as shamanism?

Our community is organized around a central monastery. This has all the facilities of a monastery of bhikṣus, but it is run by ngakpas. They handle the major ritual needs of the community, including those related to death. Since our community also has quite a large number of ngakpas, they become linked to smaller individual settlements and perform rituals as needed. Individual households may also develop relationships with individual lamas, in which case they can request divinations, invite them to their homes, and have rituals perform as needed.

There are some extreme cases such as protracted group conflicts that develop into situations where people, because they may only have a nominal belief in karma and its effect, will make use of Khas shamans who sacrifice a chicken to a local god and dedicate this to the defeat of their opponents. But this is an extreme example and an aberration of the norm. Otherwise, our annual practices and rituals for illness, death, and so-on are completely Buddhist.

How did the contemporary tradition of monasticism emerge in Mugum? Where have monks gone to study and what effect has this had on the village?

Apart from some individual cases, there was never a tradition of an established bhikṣu community in our area. Only after the changes in Tibet and the arrival of important lamas to Nepal and India did the tradition of ordained monastics begin to flourish.

Over the past 40 years or so, most Mugumpas seeking renunciation have become associated with Nyingma and also a few Kagyü monasteries. When I first arrived in Ka-Nying Shedrub Ling Monastery in Boudha, the education wasn’t much different from the kind of religious training offered in my village. But it wasn’t long after that that the all-encompassing institution you now see before you began to emerge; i.e., a place built on the three foundational practices of the vinaya that nurtures the study of the tripiṭaka, fosters the practices the three trainings, and is replete with the tantric practices of the three inner yogas. Here, I can comfortably claim that the real essence of Buddhism, the Dharma of scripture and the Dharma of realization, is being upheld and practiced.

In any case, we have over forty monks from my village area in this monastery. If you count people who have left or moved on, there has been well over sixty. There are now four khenpos from Mugum, ten löpons, and a number of lamas who have completed at least three years of retreat. There is a similar situation in many of the monasteries across Nepal and India. Altogether, there are probably more than twenty khenpos and more than one hundred löpons. This means that we have a significant number of bhikṣus associated with Mugum, perhaps over 500.

Thus far, the activities of monks and nuns have been somewhat limited to their respective institutions. No bhikṣu has returned to Mugum to start a dedicated community of monks or nuns. Some travel there for a few months a year to organize educational programs for the locals. There is now also a Mugum community monastery in Boudha where the monks of Kathmandu monasteries have been active in setting up educational programs for the community, such as learning to read the Tibetan language or courses in fundamental Buddhist doctrine.

In the wider context of Buddhism in South Asia, some monks from our community have been very active. One notable individual has developed an organization for the preservation of Nyingma Kama teachings that holds yearly events for the transmission of these rare teachings. From a Buddhist perspective, there can be no greater service to the community than making such teachings easily available to the faithful. Another khenpo from our village has been very active in developing the physical and educational institutions of Shechen Monastery, including the recently rebuilt temple in Tibet.

In Kathmandu, there is also a student of Khenpo Thubten who started a nunnery below Kopan monastery. Nearby, there is another monastery built by a ngakpa who is also educating many monks.

Now with the pervasive reach of modern forms of national education and also the increased movement of people from your community, what developments have you noticed in people’s practice of religion and what do you think may happen in the future?

I see remarkable developments and improvements in some respects; yet in other ways, it’s clear that our culture, language, and other aspects of our traditional life have eroded. As our people have spread to different parts Nepal, India, and the world, they have significantly broadened their knowledge, vision, and understanding of things. As they have also started to receive modern education, they are developing the confidence to engage with outside people on the kind of terms that the modern world demands. Previously, we survived in a remote corner of Nepal by carrying on our forefathers’ business of transporting goods. Sending your child for education was simply unheard of. When evaluating the kind of change that has recently taken place in terms of the way such things are invariably judged these days, we have indeed seen a lot of progress.

On the other hand, none of the youth today agree to wear the traditional village clothes apart from on special occasions like marriages or losar. Similarly, youths cannot speak the local language properly. For myself, I came at a young age to a monastery where Tibetan is the lingua franca, so I can only really use thirty to forty percent of our local language. Others can only speak by mixing it with Nepali and English. The same decay can be seen with traditional forms of songs, dance, and other parts of our culture.

Another change is in terms of attitudes. Even when I was young, people had a tremendous, almost unconditional, respect for religious practitioners. People would avoid even stepping on the shadow of a fifteen or sixteen year old ngakpa. Upon seeing a bhikṣu traveling along the road, lay people would approach him for a blessing from his hand. Now the dominant ideology of our times has become that of equality, so such things as status and hierarchy have become meaningless for people.

My personal feeling is that there’s nothing inherently good about what is modern, or inherently bad about what is old or traditional. Apart from some conservative or “old brains”, most of us have blind faith in whatever appears modern. But we’re unaware of what we’re losing, such as language or culture. In particular, we have started to lose certain attitudes that are essential for the health of a society, such as the respect of the young for elders and the gentleness of elders for the young.

- Article by Ryan Conlon