The Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan launched the fourth international conference on Vajrayana Buddhism in the capital Thimphu earlier this month – the first time in three years that the conference has been possible due to travel restrictions during the pandemic. The four-day symposium was held under the theme “The Modernity of Buddhism”, from October 1-4.
The forum brought together over 300 dignitaries, guests, participants and speakers from Bhutan and 37 nations, including leading scholars and practitioners of Vajrayana Buddhism, alongside religious figures, to present, review and discuss the practices and traditions of Vajrayana Buddhism and how they creatively adapt to life in the 21st century.
The four-day gathering covered a wide range of topics that addressed the central theme of the context of Vajrayana Buddhism in modern life, amid changing social, environmental, economic and technological circumstances around the world. Articles and presentations addressed the contemporary interface with Buddhist philosophy; mindfulness, meditation and Buddhist practice; politics and geopolitics; health and wellbeing; AI and digital technology; ecology and environment; socially engaged Buddhism; yoginis, bhikkhunis, and the empowerment of women; and Buddhism and the arts.
The event was organized by the Zhung Dratshang, the central monastic body of Bhutan, and the Center for Bhutan Studies and GNH (CBS), with the support of the International Buddhist Confederation, India.
Speaking on the significance of the conference, CBS President Dasho Karma Ura noted that Vajrayana Buddhism offers a unique perspective on human existence and as such has an invaluable role as source of inspiration and insight for human society and its endeavours.
“The Central Monastic Body, which is co-hosting the conference, is an embodiment of the Vajrayana institution, dedicated to combining skillful means in practice and wisdom in realizing that nothing inherently exists. Its many offerings can be globalized, and one of the ways is again through events like this,” Dasho explained. “In terms of the conference’s relevance to today’s issues, Buddhism offers its own distinctive landmarks and points of view, and in this sense it is also a source of information on how everyone could approach and shape the economy, business, management, environment, food, trade. , technology, ethics, social organization, politics, etc., from a Buddhist framework of understanding our human condition and its future. Knowledge and perspectives are, indeed, quite plural, and we should be open to exploring those that can better illuminate and show a better path towards a common future.
CBS is commissioned by the Bhutanese government to conduct and coordinate research and other activities related to Bhutan’s development concept of Gross National Happiness (GNH). Isolated and landlocked, perched in the thin air of the Eastern Himalayas, Bhutan is consistently ranked among the happiest countries in the world. With a population of just 763,249, according to government projections for 2022, Bhutan is also one of the smallest and least industrialized countries in the world, but it has significant experience in maintaining the delicate balance of managing economic growth in a sustainable way, notoriously encapsulated in its conservative BNB approach to economic development.
The GNH philosophy was introduced in the late 1970s by the country’s fourth king, Jigme Singye Wangchuk, informed by the kingdom’s traditional Buddhist culture. An alternative to traditional metrics for measuring national development, such as gross national product (GNP) or gross domestic product (GDP), the GNH is based on four underlying principles or “pillars” of good governance, social development -sustainable economy, preservation and promotion of traditional culture and preservation of the environment.
Presentations on the first day of the conference included reviews of research on mind-body practices in Vajrayana Buddhism, manifestations of Vajrayana in the West, values and ethics cultivated on the Vajrayana path, and Vajrayana in life daily.
Among the highlights of the conference, His Eminence Kalu Rinpoche, lineage holder of the Shangpa Kagyu tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, gave a presentation on the once “secret” practice of Niguma Yoga. His Eminence observed that Niguma was one of two fully realized dakini mahasiddhas whose wisdom and teachings led to the formation of the Shangpa Kagyu lineage.
“Niguma tradition yoga exercises are extremely beneficial for both the physical body and the inner subtle body, which is related to the cultivation and circulation of internal energy and vital essences,” Kalu Rinpoche said. . He added, “Unlike Tummo, the auxiliary practices of Niguma Yoga can be taught openly without prior empowerment.”
The conference also featured an exhibit titled “Buddhist Calligraphy: An Emerging Art” by famed calligrapher Jamyang Dorjee Chakishar, 71, from Sikkim, India, who also holds the record for the world’s longest calligraphy scroll at 165 meters. Chakrishar noted that the practice of calligraphic art is a skillful means that can help the practitioner perceive the nature of mind, the ultimate goal of all Buddhist teachings.
Bhutan, nestled in the foothills of the Himalayan mountain range and sandwiched between the two political and economic heavyweights of India and China, is the last Vajrayana Buddhist country in the world. The spiritual tradition is embedded in the very consciousness and culture of this distant land, where it flourished with an unbroken history dating back to its introduction by Padmasambhava, also known as Guru Rinpoche, in the 8th century. Nearly 85% of Bhutan’s population identify as Buddhist, with Hinduism accounting for the majority of the rest. Most Buddhists in Bhutan follow the Drukpa Kagyu or Nyingma schools of Vajrayana Buddhism.
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