WHY WE DO WHAT WE DO: Kuchoe (སྐུ་མཆོད་) or gongzog (དགོངས་རྫོགས་) is a traditional Himalayan way of commemorating the demise of an important spiritual figure. While kuchoe refers to the offerings made to the figure, gongdzog literally means the fulfillment of his or her wishes and thoughts. Thus, a kuchoe/gongzog commemoration is an opportunity to make offerings to and also fulfill the wishes of the person remembered. In some Himalayan areas, the commemoration is also known as dechoe (འདས་མཆོད་) or offerings on death anniversary.

The traditional Bhutanese, guided by Buddhist teachings, do not celebrate birthdays because birth is an ordinary occurrence in the cycle of existence. It is the basic and common beginning of human existence, the success of which is yet to be proven. However, they celebrate death anniversaries of an accomplished person even for centuries after the person has passed away. This is because death marks the finality and fulfillment of a person’s life. A person’s achievements by the time of death and the kind of death a person experiences indicate the quality and success of his or her life. It is a stage when the sum total of a person’s life and actions is reached. Thus, if a person has lived a highly positive, productive and inspiring life, the death of such a person is considered as the culmination of his or her wishes and mission. In the subsequent years, it is seen as a time when others can remember the person and the ideals, values and endeavours associated with him or her. The followers and devotees of the person commemorate the death of a great figure to draw inspiration and blessings from the life of the person.

The kuchoe and gongzo commemorations generally involve rituals of worship. Students gather to remember the master, make offerings to his enlightened personality, make reparations for their shortfalls, and recite prayers to live up to the ideals and standards of the master in order to fulfill his or her wishes and goals. The rituals of guru worship or guruyoga, also known as lama choepa (བླ་མ་མཆོད་པ་) or veneration of the lama, are often conducted on these occasions. Devotees carry out a tantric practice of invoking a guru and receiving blessings of his enlightened body, speech and mind. The service often includes the offering of tshog feast, chanting of supplication to the guru and a token offering of scarves to the image of the master.

In Bhutan, the most popular kuchoe or gongzo commemorations are those of Pema Lingpa in the 1st Bhutanese month, Longchenpa in the 12th Bhutanese month, the anniversaries of the many Je Khenpos, other senior religious hierarchs, and, above all, the kuchoe of Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal on the 10th day of the 3rd Bhutanese month. The year 2016 marks 400 years since the arrival of Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal from Tibet to Bhutan and the 364th death anniversary although his kuchoe was not publicly observed for several decades after his death in 1651.

As the Bhutanese observe his kuchoe or gongzo on 16 April, it is important to remember the sacrosanct person of Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal, make offerings to him, say prayers for his blessings, feel gratitude for his benevolence, be inspired by his great deeds, and most importantly, recollect the noble ideals, values, principles and practices he embodied. All Bhutanese must aspire to live up to his wishes in our own personal way and realize the vision, hard work and aspirations he had for the country he founded. That will be the true way of making offering to him (kuchoe) and fulfilling his wishes (gongzog).

Dr Karma Phuntsho is the President of the Loden Foundation, director of Shejun Agency for Bhutan’ Cultural Documentation and author The History of Bhutan.


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