Once a fixture of rural Trashigang, the lay monk has now become a rare breed

Religion: When the tsozin (head) of Samcholing goenpa in Samkhar, Trashigang lost his life in an accident recently, the community didn’t have anyone to replace him for quite some time.

It brought out a bitter truth.  The number of gomchens (lay monks) in villages is dropping to the extent that finding a replacement for caretakers or enough to form a complete set to perform a ritual is becoming difficult.  With goendheys not seeing new enrollments, a handful of aging gomchens remain in the goendheys.

Goendheys and goenpas in Trashigang, which at one time boasted of having more than 40 gomchens each, are now left with only a few, with some even without a single gomchen.

The tsozin of Taling goenpa in Khaptoe, Gawo, said there are only five gomchens left at the goenpa today. “About three decades back, we had about 30 gomchens. Today, their numbers have not only decreased but we don’t see new recruits at all,” he said. “The case is no different in any other goendheys or goenpas in Trashigang.”

While most gomchens have migrated to urban areas for better livelihoods, some have taken up farming activities and no longer perform rituals.  And the younger generations don’t see any career opportunities in religious organisations.

A former gomchen, Tshering Samdrup, said that parents no longer enroll their children in goendheys and goenpas.  The government’s education policy of “no child left behind” could have further affected enrolments.

Those, who remain back, said without remuneration from the government or organisations like the Commission for Religious Organisations (CRO), all goendheys would have to be locked.

Gomchens aren’t asking for much. A stipend of at least Nu 500 every month from the state should be enough,” he said. “It has also become difficult to find koenyers (caretakers) nowadays.”

Tsozins, lams and gomchens, who are not listed with the zhung dratshang (central monastic body), had raised the issue when the National Council chairperson, Dasho (Dr) Sonam Kinga, visited Trashigang last year.

After appraising the issue to the CRO, it was decided that the latter would discuss the matter during the commission’s annual meeting.

Deputy chief program officer of CRO, Lopon Phurba, said that the matter was deliberated during their annual meeting recently.

“We’re in the process of collecting details from the registered religious organisations under the commission,” he said. “However, we also need to find out how many religious figures are already being provided with benefits, and how much they’re receiving.”

The findings would then be submitted and deliberated during the commission’s next annual meeting.

Meanwhile, to revive the practice of enrolling young monks and gomchens, the CRO had developed a curriculum for classes I to VIII, with subjects such as computer, driglam namzha (etiquette) and English in 2013.

A sub-committee was formed and a joint meeting was initiated with the gewog chairmen of religious organisations.  The cabinet then endorsed it and circulars to implement the curriculum from 2014 were forwarded.

Provisions to conduct annual examinations for the religious organisations in the coming years were also supposed to come up so that students become eligible for higher studies and a better future

The secretary general of the central monastic body, Lopon Gyembo, said that rural-urban migration is the prime factor for the dwindling number of gomchens in religious organisations, and lesser number of new enrolments in the monastic body across remote pockets.

“If you look at the enrollment rate in the monastic bodies near the centre, it has in fact increased,” he said.

There are currently 94 religious organisations registered with the CRO in Bhutan.  Although there are about 70 religious organisations in Trashigang, only 14 religious organisations are registered with CRO.

Tshering Wangdi,  Trashigang