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THERAVADA BUDDHISM IN MODERN NEPAL
Theravada Buddhism, the doctrine of the elders, is the oldest unbroken traditional Buddhist tradition practised by people since the time of the Buddha. It is found today in Sri Lanka (Ceylon), Myanmar (Burma), Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Chittagong (Bangladesh). Nepal is the birthplace of the Buddha, the founder of Buddhism. Buddhist era was started following Buddha’s death (Parinibbana). Although the Buddha was born in Nepal, the history of Buddhism in Nepal is not very clear. According to Buddhist literatures, he did visit Nepal, gave discourses and ordained some monks and nuns. There is evidence that the King Asoka of Magadha visited Lumbini in Nepal. He was a great patron and staunch supporter of Buddhism during his time. He sent nine missionary groups to different places. A group of four monks led by Ven. Majjima came to Nepal and succeeded in propagating Buddhism in Nepal. It was said that Buddhism was a well-know religion then and practised by people in their daily life. It is believed that the Buddhism that was practised during Asoka’s time was Theravada Buddhism. Unfortunately, for some unknown reason, popularity of Buddhism declined and its identity lost for many centuries. Vajrayana or Newar Buddhism developed after the decline of Theravada. However, Theravada Buddhism was re-introduced once again in Nepal in the closing years of 19th century by Nepalese who came in contact with the Maha Bodhi society of India.
Anagarika Dharmapala, a Sri Lankan Buddhist, founded this Maha Bodhi Society. Nepalese who came in contact with this society took initial steps for revival of Theravada activities in Nepal. Nearly a century later, Theravada once again gained foothold in Nepal. Presently, there are number of Theravada Buddhist monasteries in the country. The numbers of Nepalese Buddhist monks and nuns have also increased. Some are resident in Nepal and others are studying and carrying out dhamma work in Sri Lanka, Thailand, Myanmar and other countries. Beside dhamma work, they are also engaged in various charitable works like education, health, social welfare etc. for the upliftment of Nepali community wherever they are.
As I have mentioned earlier history of Buddhism in Nepal is very vague. There are some evidences that Buddhism was popular during Buddha’s time in Nepal. There are also evidences that the Buddha visited Nepal, gave discourses to relatives and Buddhists, and ordained Bhikkhus and Bhikkhunis. According to Buddhist scholar’s Theravada tradition existed in Nepal since the time of the Lord Buddha. The evidence was more reliable from the account of King Asoka. The great emperor of ancient India, King Asoka visited Lumbini and erected stone pillar with inscription in Bramhi script, which in English reads ‘ Here the Buddha was born’ (Hidabhagavamjateti Lumminigame). As mentioned before he also sent Dhamma Missionary (Dhammaduta) to Nepal after third Buddhist council (Sanghayana), which was held three hundred years after Buddha’s parinibbana. Buddhist legends has it that one of King Asoka’s daughter Carumati married a Nepali called Devapal and settled in Cabahil, Katmandu where she constructed a temple- Cabahil monastery and became a Bhikkhuni for the rest of her life.. Besides these, the records of Chinese travelers, who visited Buddhist pilgrimage sites in India and Nepal after King Ashoka’s visit, also gave some information on existence of Theravada Buddhist monks, who practised and studied along with other Buddhist sects in Nepal.
According to historians, Buddhism was a dominant religion until the time of King Jayasthiti Malla who ruled Nepal during medieval period (around 1382 C.E.). He imposed caste system in Nepal according Manudharmasastra, a Hindu holy book. Buddhist culture and tradition were banned, the celibate monks were forced to disrobe and forced to marry. Vajrayana or Newar Buddhism was developed following the demise of Theravada Buddhism. The situation of Buddhist became worse during the time of Rana government. In 1846, the mantle of power of Nepal’s government shifted from the monarchy to autocratic, isolationist Rana government. The Shah kings of the country were kept under tight control of Rana prime ministers. The country was closed from outside world and kept her eyes closed to what was happening outside for nearly 104 years. That was the age, when Buddhism was totally forgotten by non-Buddhist of Nepal. It was known and practised by only certain communities; Vajracharyas (Bajracharyas), Shakyas, Tuladhars etc. The Rana government banned all Buddhist religious activities. They also banned people converting from Hindu religion to Buddhism but traditional Buddhists were allowed to become Hindus.
The Revival of Theravadin
The closing years of 19th century saw reform movements in many Buddhist countries with idea of modernizing Buddhist movement. The term ‘Buddhist modernization’ is used to refer to these new reformist activities. The aim of this movement was to bring back Buddhism to India and Sri Lanka. The Maha Bodhi Society was founded in India under the leadership of Anagarika Dharmapala. This organization was the first Buddhist organization established with the aim of internationalizing Buddhism.
The success of The Maha Bodhi Society encouraged Nepalese who came in contact with this society. They were mostly traditional Buddhists (Newar Buddhists) of Nepal who were merchants and pilgrims. They played an important role in Theravada revival movement in present day Nepal. However, it was students of Buddhism who gave a kick-start to Theravada movements in modern Nepal.
Mr. Jagatman Vaidya, a traditional Buddhist by birth, went to India for further studies. He initiated the Theravada Buddhist revival movement with the help of The Mahabodhi Society. Mr. Jagatman, who later became known as Dharmaditya Dharmacariya devoted most of his time and energy to Buddhist Revivalism in Nepal by publishing Buddhist journal in Newari, Nepali, Hindi, English etc. One of his great deeds was to celebrate Baisakh day, Buddha Jayanti or Swanya Punhi in Nepal to commemorate Buddha’s birth, enlightenment and death (Parinibbana). He established ‘Buddha Dharma Uddhar Sangha’, ‘Buddhopasaka Sangha,’ and other organizations for the propagation of Buddhism in Nepal.
The Buddha Jayanti, which he has initiated, was celebrated for the first time in the history of modern Nepal in 1926 after a long gap. Now a day, this day is widely celebrated in Nepal. Every year people celebrate it with great joy and happiness. He was also responsible for stopping animal slaughter at Mayadevi temple in Lumbini and renovation of Kindol Vihar in Kathmandu. This Vihara became the center for Theravada revival movement. He published Buddhist magazine entitled ‘Buddha Dharma’ in Newari Language (Nepalabhasa) emphasizing the importance of Buddha Jayanti celebration and Theravadian views. This was the starting point of Theravada activities and promotion of Theravadian views in Nepal after many centuries.
Some Nepalese youths took ordination according to Theravada tradition in 1928. The first Nepalese to take ordination was venerable Mahapragna, a Hindu Shrestha by birth. He was initially ordained as Gelung in Tibetan tradition in 1926. Later, he was arrested for his conversion from a Hindu to a Buddhist monk and was exiled to India, where he met Ven. U. Chandramani, a Burmese monk at Kusinagara. He was impressed with Ven. Chandramani and took Theravada ordination from him. This was the starting point for Theravada ordination once again in the history of modern Nepal after almost 600 years. On the other hand, Venerable Pragyananda (Karmasheel), who converted from Gelung of Tibetan tradition to Theravada with Ven. U. Chandramani at Kusinagara, India, was the first yellow-robed monk who appeared in the street of Kathmandu valley, at the end of 1930s. He stayed at Kindol Vihar at the invitation of Dasaratna Shahu (later Ven. Dharmaloka) and gave discourses. The attendance at his discourses increased day by day and it worried then Rana government and arrested all the members of Vihar. They were imprisoned, fined and later released. Fortunately, Ven. Pragnananda was in different place and was not arrested. He went on pilgrimage to India with some devotees. His four devotees took ordination under guidance of Ven. U. Chandramani at Kusinagar. They were Samanera Shasana Jyoti, Anagarika Ratna Pali, Anagarika Dhamma Pali and Anagarika Sangha Pali. This was the first nun’s ordination in Theravada Buddhism in modern Nepal. In the mean time, Dasaratna Shahu, who was running Kindol Vihar brought Civar and bowl from Sri Lanka for monk ceremonies. Soon after his release from prison, he took ordination according to Theravada tradition at Kusinagar from Ven. U. Chandramani and became Samanera Dhammaloka in 1932. He visited Nepal as a monk but was arrested immediately on his arrival in Kathmandu and was imprisoned once again for six days and then released without charging him with any offences. Following his release from prison, he went to stay at Kindol Vihar and continued his religious activities. He was finally able to carry out religious activities freely in Nepal. He succeeded to propagate Theravada Buddhism in the streets of Kathmandu valley. Later, he founded Nepal’s first Theravada Buddhist temple ‘Anandakuti’ at the foothill of Swayambhu hill and it became the center for Theravada Sangha in modern Nepal.
Venerable Amritananda was another well-known Buddhist scholar and pioneer person for revival of Theravada Buddhism in modern Nepa. He was ordained under Ven. U. Chandramani at Kusinagara in 1936 C.E. but was imprisoned along with Ven. Mahapragna at Bhojpur in 1937. In 1942, he came back to Nepal from abroad after completing his study and gave discourses at the request of Ven. Dharmaloka in Swayambhu during vassavasa days (Three months Buddhist lent). His public discourses impressed lay people and many people came to listen to him. Other Monks, Samaneras and Nuns of Nepal who were studying abroad also came back and joined him and gave public discourses in different places of Kathmandu valley. This was a great breakthrough during isolationist Rana government. Rana government of the time banned any public assembly because of fear of political unrest and demand for political reform in Nepal. Because of their religious activities, they were arrested on 30th July 1944 and brought in front of then Prime Minister Juddha Shamsher Jung Bahadur Rana for giving verdict on the charges of propagating the dhamma. He made rules to curtail the Buddhist activities. Those who didn’t follow these rules were asked either to leave the country or return to worldly life. All the respected monks, who were active in revival of Theravada in Nepal refused to obey the order and were exiled once again from Nepal. The exiled monks this time included Ven. Pragnananda, Ven. Dharmaloka, Ven. Subhodhananda, Ven. Pragnarashmi, Samanera Pragnarasa, Samanera Ratnajyoti, Samanera Agga Dhamma and Samanera Kumar. The nuns were allowed to remain in the Vihar until the end of the Vassavasa.
The Development of Theravada Buddhism
The exiled monks formed ‘Dharmodaya Sabha’ - Nepal’s first Buddhist organization with the help of other Buddhist organizations and individuals on 30th November 1944 in India under the chairmanship of Ven. U. Chandramani. Ven. Amritananda was its general secretary. Immediately after establishment of ‘Dharmodaya Sabha’ Ven. Amritananda wrote a protest letter to Nepalese government and also appealed to other Buddhist organizations on behalf of Dharmodaya Sabha. He visited many places and various countries to get support against the expulsion of Buddhist monks from modern Nepal. One of the countries, he visited and undertook further studies was Sri Lanka. In Sri Lanka, he also succeeded in bringing a goodwill mission to Nepal in 1946 under the leadership of well-known scholar Ven. Narada Mahasthavir of Vajiraramaya, Colombo. The members of this mission consisted of Ven. Narada, Ven. Amritananda, Ven. Priyadarshi, Dr. Ratna Surya and Prof. Aryapal. They were able to meet the newly appointed Prime Minister Padma Shumsher J. Rana. Ven. Amritananda and leader of the mission Ven. Narada requested his Excellency to give permission for the exiled monks to return to Nepal. Prime Minister Padma Shamsher accepted their request and permitted the exiled monks to return. Ven. Dharmaloka was the first one to come back to Nepal immediately after receiving a letter from Ven. Amritananda and arrived in Kathmandu in June 1946 (Jesth Sukla 6, 2003). Other monks also returned one by one and again started propagating Theravada Buddhism in modern Nepal. Ven. Narada visited Nepal three times and constructed a Sri Lankan Cetiya at Anandakuti Vihar. He brought a branch of Bodhi tree, Buddha’s relic to Nepal. He also established the first Sima (Uposatha) of Nepal for Bhikkhus at the Vihara. During his third visit he met then Prime Minister Mohana Shamasher J. Rana and requested him to declare Baisakh Purnima or Buddha Day as a public holiday. His Excellency agreed and declared it as a public holiday for the Buddhist government civil officers. Since then, Theravada Buddhism gained ground in Nepalese society and made progress. Theravada monks propagated Buddhism by performing ceremonies, giving Dharmadesana and publishing Buddhist texts. Many Viharas were built in and outside the Kathmandu valley to propagate dhamma.
In 1950, democracy replaced autocratic Rana regime under the leadership of H. M. King Tribhuvan. This heralded rapid development of Theravada Buddhism. Buddhist monks and nuns were able carry out their duties freely without hindrances throughout the country. The office of ‘Dharmodaya Sabha’ shifted from Kalimpong to Kathmandu after the advent of democracy in 1950/1. In 1951 Bhikkhu Sangha led by Ven. Amritananda formed ‘Akhil Nepal Bhikkhu Sangha’ (All Nepal Bhikkhu Sangha Council) for the further propagation of Buddhism in Nepal. Ven. Amritananda played a great role in propagation of Theravada Buddhism nationwide. His close relationship with their Majesties helped in his activities. He visited many countries on behalf of All Nepal Bhikkhu Sangha and Dharmodaya Sabha. In the same year Buddhists of Nepal succeeded in bringing the relics of Ven. Sariputta (Ven. Sariputra) and Ven. Maudhgalyana (Ven. Moggallana), the foremost disciples of the Buddha for the exhIbidion in Nepal. His Majesty King Tribhuvan chaired the reception committee and a reception party was held in the Royal Palace. Following year in 1952 Buddha Jayanti was celebrated throughout the country with the support of H.M. King Tribhuvan. On this occasion H.M. King declared Baisakh Purnima or Buddha Jayanti day as a public holiday throughout the kingdom.
In 1956 His late Majesty King Mahendra visited Lumbini, the birthplace of the Buddha and erected a Mahendra Pillar in Lumbini zone. In the same year, during 2500th Buddha Jayanti celebration H.M. king banned animal slaughter on this auspicious day throughout the kingdom. Nepalese Buddhists led by All Nepal Bhikkhu Sangha Council and Dharmodaya Sabha also organized the Fourth World Fellowship of Buddhist Conference (WFB) in Kathmandu on this year. His Majesty’s government cooperated fully and gave every assistance for the success of the conference. Gradually, Theravada Buddhist monasteries were founded. Buddhist Education, Buddhapuja, meditation, public discourses, publications of Buddhist texts and mass ordination etc took place as a part of dhamma activities. Burma, Sri Lanka, Thailand and other countries helped Nepal in its effort for Theravada revival. Soon after Theravada Buddhist monks established the first Bhikkhu training center- Sangharama Vihar and ordained number of novices under the leadership of Ven. Ashogosha Mahasthavir.
Following their ordination, they were sent to Sri Lanka, Burma and Thailand for their higher ordination and education. Many of these monks have returned to Nepal and are actively engaged in propagation of dhamma. Besides ordination of individual novices, mass ordinations for short periods were also held in different temple. After Anandakuti Vihar, the Viswasanti Vihara also established Vishwa Shanti Bauddha Shikshalaya, a Buddhist School under Ven. Nyanapunnika Mahathavir.It teaches both national and Buddhist curriculum to the novices. Now, there are nearly 100 Theravada temples, more than four hundred monks and Samaneras, and nearly 400 nuns in the country. Present Sangha Nayaka is Most Ven. Subodhananda of Gana Mahavihara, Kathmandu. President of All Nepal Bhikkhu Sangha is Kumar Kashyapa of Ananda Kuti Vihar, Swayambhu, Kathmandu and the head office of All Nepal Bhikkhu Sangha is in Viswo Santi Vihara, New Baneshwor, Kathmandu.
The Contribution to Nepalese society
Besides promoting Dhamma Theravada monks and nuns (Anagarikas) are also involved in other welfare activities like organising free health camps, training centers either in the monasteries or outside the monasteries. They also founded center for old age and Kindergarten. Late Ven. Sumangala Mahasthavira initiated free clinic at Buddha Vihar, a Buddhist home for the elderly at Benepa and a Buddhist Kindergarten. Free Clinics were popular because of lack of adequate government run clinics in Nepal. Many monasteries organized free clinics. Regular clinics like eye and Homeopathic were run either on weekly or monthly basis. Annual campaigns are also run when it was felt necessary.
In 1964 All Nepal Bhikkhu Sangha established a Theravada education system Pariyatti Sikkha or Nepal Bauddha Pariyatti Siksa (Buddhist Saturday School). Classes are run in Theravada Buddhist monasteries, Tibetan monasteries, other Buddhist centers, in public and private schools. There are more than 32 centers throughout the country. Presently, its head office is at Viswo Santi Vihara in New Baneswora, Kathmandu.
Besides Pariyatti Sikkha, Ven. Amritananda founded a Buddhist school - ‘Anandakuti Vidyapith Boarding School’ and a college- ‘Siddharth Science Campus’. Both Buddhist monks and lay people used to teach in these institutions. It was started as a Buddhist school but for some reason it has become a private enterprise. Besides these, many monks and nuns are also running other educational institutions like ‘Nursery school (Siddhartha Shisu Niketan, Buddha Vihar), Primary school (Triple Gem Boarding School) and Higher Schools. There are some Higher Education institutes like Siddharth University in Banepa, International Buddhist University in Lumbini etc. Many Buddhist organizations were founded and they were also running different classes and research centers like Dharmakirti Buddhist Research Center. Anagarika Dhammavati founded this centre. Later on, Anagarika Dhammavati was ordained as Bhikkhuni according to Taiwanese tradition. She is one of the well-known nuns in the Theravada Buddhism in Nepal.
The Buddhist temples and organizations bring out number of publications annually, monthly, weekly and on special occasions. Dharmodaya, Anandabhumi and Dharmakirti are the oldest Buddhist journals in Nepal and still continued to be published.
Ven. Amritananda was one of the greatest Buddhist scholars of Nepal. He wrote and translated many books on Buddhism. There are still no other monks or nun in Nepal who can be compared with him. Late Ven. Sudharsan Mahasthavir came close to him. Ven. Sudharsan was a pillar of Theravada Buddhism after Ven. Amritananda. He was famous for different reason. His field of interest beside dhamma work consisted literature, language, Archaeology etc. He was a resident monk at Srikirti Vihar, Kirtipur and held the post of professor in History, Archaeology and Buddhist philosophy at Tribhuvan University until his death in July 2002. Some of his books in Buddhism became course book for B.A. and M.A. students in Nepal. He had special interest in archaeology of Lumbini and was an expert on this subject.
Revival of Theravada Buddhism in Nepal also had profound effect in cultural and religious way of life of Nepalese. Daily chanting or Buddhapuja, short term ordination, observing Sila (Moral code), caste system, celebration of Vesak day, celibate life were introduced. In the month of Bhadra or Gunla days (August/September) Buddhist hymns are chanted and public discourses are given.
Late Ven. Sudharshan Mahasthavir formed Sri Kirti Buddhist center at Sri Kirti Vihar with the aim of introducing Buddhism to other ethnic groups other than Newars- the original inhabitants of Katmandu valley. This project succeeded in bringing other ethic groups into Theravada Buddhism. As a result of this, many ethnic groups who were originally Buddhists have started organizing Buddhist conferences and Buddhist activities. Another important development is formation of Gyanmala Bhajan Khala - a Buddhist hymn group. This group sings regularly, especially during certain auspicious days at Swayambhu and other Buddhist sites. The songs they sing are based on Buddha’s teaching and has been successful in promoting Buddhism in simple melodious hymns, which attracts many people who visits these religious places.
Theravadin in Nepalese Society
For centuries Nepalese were aware of only Buddhist priest (Bajracharya) from Newar Buddhism (Vajrayana) and Tibetan Lamas. They were unaware of Theravadian Buddhist monks and nuns. Bajracharyas are household monks. They lead domestic lives and are not celibate. Not all Tibetan monks are celibate. It depends on the school they belong to. For example, monks from Sakya School of Tibetan tradition do not have to be celibate. Theravada monks wear distinctive saffron coloured robes. They are celibate and lead virtuous monastic life. These monks and nuns have different identity in the eyes of Nepalese, especially the inhabitants of Kathmandu valley. Their simple way of life, their full dedication in their work for the benefit of mankind, easily understood Theravada Scriptures translated in different languages e.g. in Nepal Bhasa (Newari), Nepali, in Hindi and in English for easy accessibility by different groups helped to gain the heart of Nepalese people. Although many lay people have played pivotal roles in revival of Theravada Buddhism in Nepal, the leadership of monks and nuns were vital in further development and survival of this tradition.
The lay Buddhists of Nepal are pluralistic. They participate in Buddhist ceremonies such as Vesak day, daily chanting etc. At the same time they also follow Hindu customs in their daily lives. Buddhism is different from Hinduism and it is not a branch of Hinduism. Hindus believe that Buddha was a reincarnation of Lord Vishnu. Buddha never claimed to be anything other than a human being – although a unique one in the history of mankind.
Buddhism in Nepal is unique because of existence of three different Buddhist traditions - Newar Buddhism (Vajrayana), Tibetan Buddhism (Mahayana) and Theravada Buddhism. Different Buddhist groups practised different traditions. Although the principle underlying all these traditions is the same, they differ in details. Theravada Buddhist tradition is different from Tibetan or Newar Buddhist traditions but it is developing side-by-side with them. It was not possible for Theravada Buddhism to develop in Nepal without close co-relation with other traditions but later developed on its own right. These various Buddhist traditions are coexisting in present day Nepal. Although they have different cultural traditions and are developing in their own ways but the followers are the same. Therefore, there is no separate identity of Theravadian lay Buddhists. There are number of lay Buddhist organizations, such as Dharmodaya Sabha, Dharmakirti Institute, Young Buddhist Associations, Female Buddhist Associations, more recently, Sukhi Hotu Nepal, which are playing important role in promotion of Buddha Dhamma but they are multi-cultural and multi religious in their daily practices.
Theravada Buddhism was introduced to Nepal at the time when public meetings were banned. It faced many obstacles at the beginning. Strong dedications of monks and nuns made it possible for its revival in Nepal after many centuries of neglect. Even though the revival movement of this tradition was started only about 80 years ago it has already gained strong foot hold in Nepal and gaining popularity day by day. The reason for its popularity lies in many things - the simple and easily understood way the teachings were given, the simple way of life of monks and nuns lead and various beneficial activities undertaken by Viharas. Theravadin Buddhist monks and nuns are well accepted by people and their contribution in promoting Buddha’s teachings is widely recognised. Although small in number in comparison to other Asian countries like Thailand, Sri Lanka and Burma, both the number of monks and nuns; and monasteries of this tradition are increasing day by day. If this trend continues it will become one of the prominent religious traditions in Nepal. It is only natural that this oldest Buddhist tradition should gain its place of honour it deserve in a country where the founder of the religion was born.
Some of the Theravada Buddhist Viharas (Monasteries) in Nepal
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