The story of Zhung Dratshang – Part II

When Zhabdrung emerged from his retreat in 1625, he is said to have announced his decision to establish a new government in Lho Mon Kha Zhi or Southern Mon Land of Four Doors. This is believed to be the formal proclamation of the founding of the state of Drukyul.  

The circumstances of how Zhabdrung arrived at this decision have been well laid out in Dr John Ardussi’s article, “Formation of the state of Bhutan in the 17th century and its Tibetan antecedents.” 

According to the article, Zhabdrung had explained his options to his attendants. One option was to follow the path of the great Tibetan siddha Milarepa (1052-1135) and become a wandering ascetic. The second option was to follow in the steps of the Sakya hierarch Chogyal Pakpa (1235-1280). 

In 1235, the hierarch was recognized as the ruler of Tibet by Kublai Khan (1215-1294) and founded a new religious state. 

While Zhabdrung laid his cards on the table, he also sought predictive guidance. He prayed before the prophetic image of the Ranjung Kharsapani and also waited for dream encounters with his late father. Both the prophesy and dream pointed to the founding of a religious state. 

So Zhabdrung founded a new religious state. He unified Western Bhutan under a sovereign central administration by bringing together the religious and secular components of government. This system of governance came to be known as the Chhoesid nyi-den or the dual system of governance. 

While some scholars argue that Zhabdrung’s government was fashioned after that of the Sakya, Dr Ardussi argues otherwise. He states that Zhabdrung was his own man.  Unlike the Sakya ruler, he neither depended on an external protector nor was he accountable to any higher external authority. 

Zhabdrung not only proved his statesmanship but also was able to inspire the Bhutanese to come under one roof. He was able to consolidate his power partly through willing patronage and partly through the expulsion of rival lamas and taking over their monastic seats. 

Thus, the seeds of the institutional foundation of the Southern or Lho Drukpa Kargyu tradition as the predominant sect in Bhutan was sown. Zhabdrung emerged as the supreme authority of the land. 

Dr Ardussi remarked that initially Zhabdrung did not rule out of a vast palace. Like his ancestors, the hierarchs of Ralung monastery, he believed in what is today called a ‘boots on the ground,’ management style.  

Both his biography and the reports of the Jesuit, mentioned that, he walked the length and the breadth of the valleys. He would dispense teachings and interact with the locals building personal relationships.  

Following the institution of the system of governance, Zhabdrung operated out of the monasteries of Chari, Tango and Pangrizampa for at least four years. 

Then he moved his base to the Semtokha Dzong after its completion in 1629, and in 1637 moved into the Punakha Dzong, from where he governed the country for 35 years, unifying the state Druk Zhung under Palden Drukpa. 

While Zhabdrung was in Chari monastery, after the completion of his retreat, the two Portuguese Jesuit fathers, Cacella and Cabral visited him. On 4 October 1627, Father Cacella wrote a long letter to his superior in Chochin. From the letter, we can appreciate Zhabdrung’s leadership skills, as he was described as a strong but caring spiritual and temporal leader, a highly literate and gifted artist with a broad mind.

16 Scores of Monks

When the Punakha Dzong was being built, stories are told of how the chief carpenter, reluctantly built the Assembly Hall large enough to accommodate 600 monks. Trulku Zow Balip could not understand why his master wanted the hall so big when there were only 100 monks in residence at that time.

With the passing of years, the number of monks increased. For instance, in 1637 it reached more than 100.  It was Zhabdrung’s goal to have at least 300 monks. Encouraged by his enthusiasm, many volunteers stepped up and the number increased to its all-time high of 360 monks. 

History credits his heir, the Fourth Desi, Gyalse Tenzin Rabgye (r.1651-1694) for strengthening the system in the Central Monastic Body. Raised as heir apparent and groomed by Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel himself, the Gyalse was also an able administrator dedicated to continue the legacy of Zhabdrung. During his reign the number of monks further increased, from 360 to 800.

The Gyalse was able to achieve such a high number because he made it compulsory for every family having three sons to enroll one as a monk.  During his time in office, the Gyalse made major reforms in the state monastic body and also instituted the system for appointment of the four Lopens to assist the Je Khenpo. It was during his reign that the monastic schools for teaching Buddhist metaphysics and logic were set up.

By 1834, the number of monks in the state body had greatly declined. When Athang Thinley (r.1834-1835) ascended the throne as the 34th Desi, he managed to achieve his sole goal of recruiting 320 monks. In history, this batch of monks is known as, “Athang Thinley’s Sixteen Scores of Monks.”

The King’s Scholars

By 1911, Bhutan had a good number of well-educated Bhutanese lams, thus making the First King more independent of Tibetan influence. In the Annual report on the relations between the British Government and the Bhutan Durbar for the year 1911-12, it is observed that “The monasteries in Bhutan are gradually accumulating a number of well-educated priests. It is, therefore becoming less necessary for her priests to go to Tibet for instructions. The Tibetan influence in Bhutan is thus lessened.”  

In order to further promote Buddhism, in 1917 Gongsar Ugyen Wangchuck selected six monks from the Zhung Dratshang. The bright young monks were sent to Tibet to study Buddhism. After mastering the sutras, tantras and the 13 profound literary texts from the renowned college of Dzogchen Shri Singha University in Dokham under the great scholar Shangchen Chokyi Nangwa, they returned back home.

The royal scholars, namely Zhudapa Tenpa Rinchen, Acho Pasang from the Punakha Central Monastic Body, and Rinchen Dorji, Pema Tshering, Kezang and Rigzang from the Trongsa Rabdey became teachers and successfully helped promote Buddhism in the country.

In 1972, a visiting scholar made note of the state of the monastic education. Ram Rahul in his book “Modern History of Bhutan,” (1972), said that until 1959, young Bhutanese lamas used to go to Tibet, especially to the Dzokchhen Monastery in Kham in Eastern Tibet, for their religious education, but that now they go to the monastical college of Punakha and Thimphu. 

Talent of a High Order- Reforms in the Central Monastic Body.

Fast forward to the 20th century where the next big visible reform is initiated. In 1953, the first session of the National Assembly, fixed the total strength of the Central Monk Body at 800.  However, any vacancies created by the death of monks and / or expulsion were to be filled by new monks. 

The National Assembly of that year defined the entitlements of the senior members of the monk body. For example, the Je Khenpo was now officially entitled to four monks as his attendants. Similarly, the four most senior Lopens were also entitled to one monk each as an attendant. However, these new monks recruited as attendants had to be registered with the Dratshang in place of deceased or expelled monks.

The Assembly resolved that as the monks received stipends from the government, the admission fees of the novice to be credited to the government account. The fees collected from monks who were expelled for marrying was also to be deposited in the government account. 

The Assembly also passed a resolution that an individual had to be seven years of age to be eligible for admission to the Dratshang Rabdey.  By the age of 15, the monks had to be able to read and write. By the age of 27, the monk was expected to be well versed in their respective fields of Drapa, Tshenyipa and Digpa. If the monk fails in examination jointly conducted by the government and Dratshang, the monk would be expelled from the Monk Body.

Four years after the landmark National Assembly resolution, the Political Officer in Sikkim, Apa B. Pant visits Bhutan. His letter to Shri T. N. Kaul dated 23 May 1955, illustrates the blueprint of this reform in the monastic body. 

The other interesting resolution of the 1953 Assembly was the distribution of 339 monks between three Dzongs: 100 monks to be domiciled at Wangduephodrang, 90 monks at Trongsa and 149 monks at Rinpung, Paro. In a confusing statement, it was suggested that the monk body in Paro be reduced from 180 to 31 monks.

Apa Pant begins his letter by describing the Third King as a “remarkable character,” who shared his plans for the reorganization of the monasteries. He writes that the King now requires the monks to pass an examination before they are formally and permanently taken in. Those who fail are turned out of the monasteries.   Formerly all those who were too lazy used to flock to the monasteries. 

The Political Officer writes that the King has also started to give the monks instructions in painting, weaving, carving, etc. The letter quotes the King, “Mr Pant I want the monasteries to be a place of culture and devotion.”  Apa Pant writes that the King was able to make the reforms because of his popularity with the common people.

Self Sufficiency 

Bhutan received an annual subsidy of Rs 50,000 from British India. In his Annual Report for 1906 the Political Officer in Sikkim shows the distribution, revealing that the monks received Rs. 34,368 or 68.7% of the annual revenue. 

By the Second King’s time, the amount of the subsidy had increased but the proportion set aside for the monks had decreased to 39.5%. The Second King “explained that out of the two lakhs he received from the Government of India, he had to pay out approximately Rs, 79,000 to various monasteries and heads of districts.” While filing this report of 22 December 1933 (reference NO. 6 (1)-P /33) to his superior, he makes the following note, “It must be remembered that the monasteries have a great influence and any act that would alienate their sympathies would be most impolite.” 

Apa Pant concludes his letter by quoting the King. He writes that the King told me “that yearly they collect about 48 to 50 lakhs rupees as revenues. Half of this amount is spent on monasteries. The other half spent on privy purses, maintenance of roads, buildings, schools, hospitals, pays and wages for the officials and workers.” 

Apa Pant also writes, “When I talked to the King about the religious system in Bhutan, he said that apart from some of their monks going for their pilgrimages to Tibet and India the church in Bhutan was completely self-sufficient and they required nobody’s guidance and help for carrying out their religious duties. Today, almost all the monasteries in the state are maintained through the state revenues.

Almost two months later after Apa Pants’ visit, another Indian Officer has audience with His Majesty. Nari Rustomji, the Dewan of Sikkim (1954-59), attests Apa Pant’s information. In his book, “Enchanted Frontiers” (1971) he said that about half of the revenue of the State has to be allotted to the monasteries, leaving little for administrative and developmental activities. This was a source of worry for the King who genuinely felt the need of extending welfare activities more widely than at present. 

When Rustomji enquired, His Majesty told him that it would not be possible to reduce the State grants as they were prescribed by law and that there was a likelihood of serious discontent arising if monastic procedure was interfered with overmuch and would have undesirable repercussions.

Quoting the King, Rustomji said that ‘the sounder course at the present juncture would be to put pressure in the direction of reforming the monastic order so that it may perform a more useful part in the life of the community.” His Majesty gradually enlarged the range of activities of the monasteries. His Majesty showed his guest with keen enthusiasm, the school rooms being built in the dzong for the various new classes to be introduced. We spent much time with the students of the drawing class. They had been receiving instruction for only four months and had, to my mind, made remarkable progress. There is talent of a high order and it is to the credit of the Bhutan Government that is being encouraged and cultivated.

In 1964, the representative of Trashigang monastic body raised at the National Assembly his problem of not having enough monks in his dzong. He said that the numbers were not even sufficient to conduct the annual Tsechu. 

The 1964 National Assembly discussed the matter and arrived at a resolution. The record mentions that His Majesty the Third King was pleased to increase the strength of the monk body at Trashigang to 50.

Much of Bhutan’s unique culture, rich tradition, history, fine arts, language and spiritual heritage is attributed to the institutionalisation of the Zhung Dratshang four hundred years ago. As the oldest institution in the country, 10,521 monks of the Central Monk Body continue to play the important role in ensuring the preservation of the Vajrayana tradition of Buddhism.  

Contributed by

Tshering Tashi