Life of a Lam Manip- the travelling monk

Not long ago, most people living in Thimphu had to go to the vegetable market to get their provisions for the week. At the corner of the weekend bazaar, like the vegetable vendors, lay monks would set up their wares. But instead of vegetables and fruits, the Lam Manips would display the portable miniature shrines known as the Tashigomang. Back then, it was a common sight to see these men of religion in deep prayers or hear their melodious chants while shopping for weekly provisions.

As a resident of Thimphu in the 1980s, Professor Yoshiro Imaeda was a frequent visitor to the vegetable bazaar. He said that the Lam Manips caught his attention. The professor said that it is uncommon to see contrasts like this, where a religious atmosphere is created in the mundane setting of daily life.

From the former scores of Lam Manips, today only two of them remain. In this article we will profile one of them, Lam Manip Kunzang Tenzing who celebrated his 74th birthday this year.

The Lam Manip was born and brought up in Nyala village in Trongsa in central Bhutan. Nyala has the distinction of producing many Lam Manips.  At the age of eight, he was enrolled in the local lhakhang or monastery. Under the guidance of his teacher, Lopen Sangay Dorji, he received the traditional monastic education. For 13 years, till the age of 21 years, he lived in the lhakhang. He studied Dzongkha and perfected the art of performing various kurims (rituals).

In 1963, his Lam sent him to the Rigney Lobdra. Back then, this Institute of Language and Culture Studies was housed in the Simtokha Dzong on the outskirts of Thimphu.

Her Majesty the Royal Grand Mother Kesang Choeden Wangchuck with permission from His Majesty King Jigme Dorji Wangchuck established this premium institute in 1961 in Wangdiste monastery in Thimphu. On recommendation of Her Majesty Mayum Phuntsho Choden Wangchuck, the learned Buddhist master Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche was appointed as its first principal. When the Lam Manip joined the institute, it had been one year since it had moved from Wangdiste to Simtokha Dzong.

They were 110 students in the Lam’s batch. Teachers included Bhutan’s historian Lopen Pemala, who later became director of the National Library. The Lam said that in four years at Simtokha he learnt Ngachoe, Sumtag and Gyalsey Laglen. Studying under the great master, the Lam Manip said it was his lifelong honour to receive the various teachings from Khyentse Rinpoche. To encourage and inspire the students, His Majesty The King was a regular visitor.

After completing his studies, Lam Manip returned to his village in Trongsa as his master wanted him to fill in the post of the caretaker of the lhakhang which was vacant. As a graduate of this premier institute he had job offers in the government. Like his batch-mates, he was tempted to take up the offer and stay back in the capital. However, his teacher Lopen Sangay Dorji reminded him rather aggressively about his role in the monastery and his duty to his community. The tipping point for him was when his teacher cautioned him how modern development would one day erode the rich culture and the old traditions of the country. Fearing the worst, he returned to his village. He was 25 years old and sacrificed his career to become the caretaker of his monastery.

Family Background

Lam Manip Kunzang at the age of 28 married a girl from a nearby village in Danglha. The union was blessed with three daughters, four sons and four grandchildren. Sadly, his wife suffered from depression, and was burdened with this illness for ten years before she passed away in 2015. The Lam Manip has two older brothers who reside in Thimphu and Paro with their children. He has a younger sister who also lives in Thimphu but his older sister passed away a few years ago.

Back in his village the Lam served first as a caretaker for four years, then as Kudung or Disciplinarian Master for three years and then as the Nyerpa (treasurer) for another three years. He remained in the village as a gomchen. At the age of 55, in 1997 he became a Lam Manip. During the five years, he travelled the length and breadth of Trongsa.

After 35 years of living in the village, at the age of 60, in 2002, he returned to Thimphu for medical treatment. It was a shock for him to see how much Thimphu had changed. There were more houses, many more people and more motor-cars on bigger roads.

Diagnosed with diabetes, his doctor advised him to live in the proximity of the hospital and asked him to come for regular checkups. Since then, he has brought his Tashigomang with him and lives in Namseling in Thimphu with his two daughters.

Professional Training

There are no formal schools or written syllabuses in the world of the Lam Manips. They are passed on as an oral traditions. These travelling monks have their own teachers who teach them how to chant the mantras and expound on Buddhism. The Lam Manips must also be able to recite, at the very least, the biographies of Khandro Drowa Zangmo, Gyalpo Phagpai Ludrup and Meto Seldon.

The late Manip Thoepa was Lam Manip Kunzang’s teacher. The teacher lived in Dechencholing, Thimphu but was from Danglha and trained him to chant the Mani Dangrims, Thuji Dangrim, Choejay Gyalpo and Nyasoel Yangdoe. Following the training, he received blessings from Lam Yeshey of Danglha Lhakhang to be their Lam Manip. Since then he has been the custodian of the Tashigomang and their Lam Manip.

From the income Lam Manip gets from displaying the Tashigomang, a sum of Nu 4,000 has to go to the Danglha Lhakhang annually. The money is used for sponsoring various rituals and prayers of the lhakhang.

He displays his Tashigomang to the public only on auspicious days and ceremonies at least twice a month. On an average, he receives about Nu 500-600 as daily offerings.  On auspicious days, and when there is a huge ceremony of some significance, the offerings can go up to Nu 2,000 a day but this is an exception rather than a norm.

Unlike his colleagues, Lam Manip Kunzang is opposed to the idea of displaying his Tashigomang in the Sabji Bazaar. He believes that it is not right to display an object of such sacredness in a public place like the vegetable market. He does not feel comfortable to display his Tashigomang during auspicious days in places where large crowds gather, for fear of diminishing its sacredness. Lam Manip prefers smaller gatherings and avoids crowds. But Lam Manip Kunzang’s colleague Lam Manip Kinley (84) sometimes brings his Tashigomang to Thimphu and displays it in the vegetable market.

Many of the Lam Manip Kunzang Tenzing’s batch mates from Simtokha Rigney Institute have risen up the ladder. Although his life was more challenging than many of his colleagues, he said he is a content man. As the years catch up, he still manages to carry the 20kg Tashigomang, but spends more time in the Namseling community lhakhang praying or performing rituals for the community.

In his twilight years, he said that he has no regrets for having chosen this path and living the life of a Lam Manip for 19 years. He takes great pride that he heeded his teacher’s prophetic advice, realising the wisdom in his words. Although the tradition of the Lam Manip was on the verge of extinction, he is now content that he was able to contribute by teaching six Lam Manips to carry the intangible cultural heritage forward.

Contributed by 

Tshering Tashi

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