Buddhism is predominantly practiced throughout the country. The male protective deity of the country, Yeshey Gonpo, or Mahakala, is a tantric Buddhist form of raven. Prior to the advent of Buddhism, various forms of animistic religions, including Bon, were followed in Bhutan. In some parts of the country these traditions and rituals are still practiced by minority groups. Bhutan has been home to many sages and saints over the centuries since Guru Rinpoche brought Buddhism in the 8th century. Kuenkhen Longchen Ramjam, Phajo Drukgom, Pema Lingpa, Drukpa Kuenley, Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyel, and Desi Tenzin Rabgye are some of the key figures of Bhutanese Buddhism.
Drukpa Kagyu, a school of
tantric Mahayana Buddhism, is the official state religion. Although similar to
Tibetan Buddhism, it has its own set of unique beliefs and practices. Religious
institutions continue to play an important role in Bhutan. Besides the formal
monastic structure that is supported by the state, the monk body also includes
monks and nuns who are not part of state-sponsored institutions.
Monks continue to play an important role in people’s ceremonies, and preserve and promote traditional scholarship.
The Buddhist faith has played and continues to play a fundamental role in the cultural, ethical, and sociological development of Bhutan and its people. It permeates all strands of secular life, bringing with it a reverence for the land and its well-being. Annual festivals (tshechus and dromchoes) are spiritual occasions in each district. They bring together the population of the district and are dedicated to either Guru Rinpoche or other deities. Throughout Bhutan, stupas and chortens line the roadside commemorating a place where Guru Rinpoche or another Shabdrung may have stopped to meditate. Prayers flags are even more common. Fluttering on long poles, they maintain constant communication with the heavens. Bhutan is the only country in the world to retain the tantric form of Mahayana Buddhism as its official religion.