A Tibetan Lama in the Land of the Dragon
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Issue Courtesy: | Date : 02 May , 2024

A few years ago, during a visit to Drukyul, the Land of the Dragon as Bhutan is locally known, I had the occasion to meet a group of Bhutanese scholars and historians belonging to a local think-tank. During the course of the discussion, the term “our Northern neighbour” kept coming up in the conversation.

As I was wondering why the Bhutanese were not naming China, I asked an Indian friend accompanying me: “why nobody names China”. My friend explained that as a ‘small’ (by size at least) country, Drukyul does not like even to pronounce the name of its northern neighbour.

A formula used by the 13th Dalai Lama as he was chased out of his country by a Chinese warlord in 1910, returned to my mind: “The big insect always eat small insects”.

In the past Tibet played the role of ‘big insect’ for Bhutan, the southern neighbour.

Till very recently, Thimphu has been extremely wary of the Tibetans; for example the Dalai Lama has never been permitted to visit the Land of Dragon, even 65 years after he took refuge in India.

The recent visit to Bhutan by one of the highest Tibetan lams should be seen in this background. 

Sakya Trichen

Known as His Holiness Kyabgon Gongma Trichen Rinpoche, the respected lama served as the 41st head (Trizin) of the Sakya School of Tibetan Buddhism from 1951 until March 2017, when he handed over his responsibilities of throne-holder to a successor.

His biography says: “His Holiness Sakya Trichen [former throne-holder] is renowned throughout the world for the brilliance and clarity of his teachings and his fluency and precise command of English. Receiving teachings directly from His Holiness carries a special lineage of blessings from the founders of the Sakya Order, as well as from Manjushri himself.”

It speaks of an unbroken lineage dating back to 1073 A.D.: “Since this celestial race descended upon earth over one thousand years ago, the lineage remains unbroken to this day. Many illustrious masters and practitioners have appeared in the lineage including the Five Great Masters of the Sakya Order”.

Sakya Trichen is a member of Khon noble family, which founded the Sakya School in the eleventh century and ruled over Tibet for centuries. The present Sakya Trichen is said to be a manifestation of Manjusri, the Buddha of transcendent wisdom.

First relocated in Darjeeling in 1959, the Lama soon shifted to Rajpur, near Dehra Dun from where he reestablished the Sakya monastery and preserved his lineage’s tradition.

The Visit

Sakya Trichen left India for his inaugural visit to Bhutan on April 9.

As he arrived at the Paro Airport, he was received by Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche, one of his foremost disciples, who apparently organized the visit.

Incidentally, Khyentse is not only a renowned religious teacher, but also a filmmaker (he directed the hugely successful “The Cup”), a photographer and a football fan. Khyentse was born in 1961 into a ‘hard-core Buddhist family’ in the ‘staunchly Buddhist country’ of Bhutan. At the age of seven, he was recognized by the same Sakya Trichen as the main incarnation of the unrivaled Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Chökyi Lodrö, the spiritual heir of one of the most influential and admired 19th century ‘Rime’ (non-sectarian) traditions of Tibetan Buddhism; his biographer says: “At a time when sectarianism threatened to decimate the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, in a unique collaboration with Jamgon Kongtrul Lodrö Taye and Chogyur Lingpa, Khyentse Wangpo was responsible for initiating and promoting Rime throughout the Land of Snow, effectively breathing new life into all schools of Buddhism, and rescuing many lineages from complete extinction.”

It was in the 19th century.

Sakya Trichen in Bhutan

On April 11, Sakya Trichen emphasized the importance of devotion to Guru Rinpoche (also known as Padmasambhava) in today’s world.

The next day, he met Dzongsar Khyentse and other Bhutanese Rinpoches.

Most impressive was the grand procession in Bumthang on April 13 where tens of thousands of devotees had gathered to receive the teachings and blessings of the 78-year old lama. Sakya Trichen took the opportunity to bestow a number of oral transmissions and empowerments to the local population.

On April 15, he had an audience with the King and the Queen of Bhutan and some of the members of the royal family, during which the Tibetan lama was accompanied by his wife Dagmo Tashi Lhakyi Sakya.

Interestingly, on the following day, he met the Lopens of the Zhung Dratshang or Central Monk Body of the Drukpa Kagyu tradition established in 1620 by Shabdrung Ngawang Tenzin Namgyel, the Founder of the Bhutanese State who unified the country, codified the laws, and set up the dual system of governance (religious and secular).

In 1637, the Sangha moved to Punakha Dzong, which still today continues to serve as the winter headquarters of the Zhung Dratshang, representing more than 7,000 monks, nuns and gomchens (meditators). According to the Constitution of Bhutan, the Zhung Dratshang is an autonomous institution, financed by an annual grant from the Royal Government.

The Tibetan Rinpoche had the occasion to mention the long cordial relations between the Zhung Dratshang and the Sakya lineage since the 17th century.

Why the Visit is Important

There is no doubt that the visit, though not covered by the world media, has important religious as well political implications.

First, it showcased that despite the differences, the cultural bondage between Tibet and Bhutan remains strong; it also demonstrates the spiritual reverence for a non-Bhutanese respected lama; let us remember that Sakya Trichen belongs to a different school than the main stream Drukpa Kagyu in Bhutan.

In his speeches, the Tibetan lama lauded time and again Bhutan’s spiritual atmosphere; he was happy to visit the ancient gompas and enjoyed meeting the common people as well as the religious leaders of the country. He was all praise for the royal family, particularly the “Dharma Raja”, the present king (the Fifth of the Wangchuk dynasty), whose role was stressed time and again as pivotal to the nation’s progress.

Religiously, the Sakya lama stressed Guru Rinpoche’s significance; he asked the Bhutanese to pray for the Tantric master of Swat, who strengthen Buddhism in the 8th century in Tibet and visited several places in Bhutan during his spiritual peregrinations. For the lama, Bhutan, with its ethos of Gross National Happiness, encapsulates a harmonious blend of cultural development, spiritual atmosphere and aspiration for global peace.

The visit of Sakya Trichen to the famous Paro Taktsang or ‘Tiger’s Nest’, a monastery built on a cliff wall about 900 m above Paro valley is significant in this context as the monastery is built around a cave where Padmasambhava is said to have meditated. The sage is said to have flown there from Tibet on the back of Yeshe Tsogyal, his consort, whom he had, for the purpose, transformed into a flying tigress. 

Political Significance

But the visit has also a political significance, at a time whom the ‘northern neighbour’ repeatedly intrudes into Bhutanese territory to bully Thimphu; the visit of the Indian Prime Minister Modi in April was probably linked to this, particularly the fact that Beijing is trying to force a border agreement on Bhutan. Could a Tibetan lama siding with its former ‘southern neighbour’ make Beijing think twice? Not sure.

One should remember that relations have not always been cordial between the Tibetans and the Bhutanese.

On April 5, 1964, Jigmie Dorji, then Bhutanese Prime Minister was assassinated by some Bhutanese officers.

Three days after the murder, the alleged assassin, Zambay was arrested; he apparently confessed that Bhutan’s deputy commander-in-chief, Brigadier Namgyal Bahadur, had ordered him to kill the Prime Minister.

The then King Jigme Dorji Wangchuk was then away in Switzerland; he returned hurriedly but rumours had already circulated that Yankie, the Tibetan mistress of the King, was involved, being jealous of the power of the Dorji family.

Eventually, a total of 39 army officers, including Brigadier Bahadur, were arrested and the brigadier was executed by a firing squad on May 17. Zambay was put to death on July 4.

Referring to local reports, the Bhutanese court that convicted Brigadier Bahadur noted: “There is no evidence at all that any foreign power was in any way involved…. The full and the entire responsibility for this plot belongs to these accused and only to them.”

Though Yankie was exonerated, mistrust continued to persist.

One could mention many such incidents showing that the suspicion between the Bhutanese and the Tibetans has continued; with this background, the visit of the Sakya lama is a most welcome change and it could be a powerful message to China that ‘divide and rule’ between traditional neighbours cannot be exploited forever.

Will the visit of the Sakya Trichen be followed by a trip of the Dalai Lama to the Land of the Dragon?

It is too early to say, but it would be interesting…


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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Claude Arpi

Writes regularly on Tibet, China, India and Indo-French relations. He is the author of 1962 and the McMahon Line Saga, Tibet: The Lost Frontier and Dharamshala and Beijing: the negotiations that never were.

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