By: Min Bahadur Shakya**

The Introduction

Newar Buddhism is to be classified in the tradition of Indian Vajrayana or Tantric Buddhism deriving its lineages from Siddha tradition of Nalanda and Vikramashila monastic universities. However, it has developed its peculiar characteristics which are one of a kind in the Buddhist history. One should not forget that Newar Buddhism possesses quite a number of indigenous elements, which are not to be found in Indian Mahayana Buddhism. Now that Mahayana Buddhism has disappeared from India, Newar Buddhism found in Kathmandu valley represents one of the few tradition in the world which has retained features inherited directly from India. At one time all forms of Buddhism were believed to have been found in the Buddhism of Nepal. At present, there are no longer any celibate monks among Newar Buddhist Sangha. The members of community live in Vihara and have retained its designation (Sangha).

There are two status within caste communities namely Vajracharya (Literally: Master of the Thunderbolt) and Shakyabhikshu. The Vajracharyas were the masters of Tantric Buddhism and ritual specialists whereas the Shakyabhikshus were Buddhist monks. The Vajracharyas played a higher role than Shakyas because they were given additional initiation (Achaluyegu) on Buddhist tantra. Only the male members of this community after having undergone the rite of monastic ordination (skt: Cudakarma) belong to the Sangha. Shakya and Vajracharya boys normally undergo this monastic ordination at the age of five, seven or nine. The rule is that they should be under twelve years of age. Elders of the monastery addressed as Sthavira Aju will give them Pravrajyavrata or monastic initiation. The initiated boy stays in the monastery for 4, 10, 16, 20, 25 years for Buddhist studies. After finishing his studies he disrobes himself for his lay Bodhisattva life. To facilitate his spiritual career, he goes through marriage ceremony. When the couple receive instructions on Buddhist practices, they would be given Vajracharya Abhiseka or Acharya Abhiseka. It forms one of the series of life cycle ritual.[1] It should also be noted that Newar Buddhism has no place for higher ordination (Upasampada) by which a novice monk becomes a fully ordained Buddhist monk. The fact that Newar Buddhism has no place for monastic life upgrading except for the four-days observance seems to be a serious weakness [2] to the modern Buddhist and to the western educated persons.

Newar Buddhism has recently become the subject of great interest and detail study on different aspects for Siegfried Lienhard, Joohn K. Locke, David Gellner, Michael Allen and others.[3]

The unique features of the Newar Buddhism and validity of its monasticism is analyzed in this article. Newar Buddhists describe their structure of religion as integrative in the nature of Shravaka, Mahayana and Vijrayana traditions.

Shravakayana in Newar Buddhism

To explain Newar Buddhism and its integrative behavior, it is befitting to give an account of monastic rite when young boys receive ordination (skt:Cudakarma). Before the neophyte’s topknots are cut off, a ritualized exchange between the disciples and the preceptor is supposed to take place. It runs thus: [4]

“Oh Guru, in accordance with your instruction, from this day, and until I have attained enlightenment I shall go for Lord Buddha’s blessing (Sri Bhagavaan Yaake Darsana Wane)”

Thus the guru is requested, supplicated by him.

The Guru says, “I of such and such name go for refuge to the Buddha. I go for refuge to the Dharma. I go refuge to the Sangha. While this Mandala remains, give up desire (skt: trsna).” (You, as pupil should say) “Oh Lord ! Oh Guru, greatly compassionate. For the rest of my life, Ten Akusala Karma must be given up, and other sins, various words-now I shall save beings and so forth.”

The pupil says, hearing this instruction, “O Lord, O Guru (as you are here) killing and so on I despicably as you say, Oh lord, Guru, you have graciously spoken I must go”.

The Sanskrit version of ritual handbook runs as follows:

kulaputra idanim grhinama evam pravrajyavratam dharayam ; sakyo si va sakyoh?

(Now, son of good family, are you capable or not of taking up the observance of going forth as you should?)

The pupil says:

bho acarya mamatmame pravrajyavratam vamcayami; krpam kuru tvam, aham itthamnama yavajjivam buddham bhagavantam

mahakarunikam sarvajnam sarvadarsinam sarvavairya bhayatitam mahapurusam abhedyakayam niruttara-kayam, dharmakayam saranam gacchami gananam agram.

(Oh ! My preceptor I wish to undertake the observance of going forth, please be compassionate. I of such and such name, shall for the rest of my life go for refuge to the Lord Buddha who is greatly compassionate, all knowing, all seeing, beyond the danger of all enemies, great man, of indivisible body of the ultimate body, the Dharmakaya, foremost in all religious groups.)

The Guru says,

sadhu sadhu kulaputra grhalingam parityajya pravrajyalingam sakyo si trisatyam eva kuru

(Well done, well done, son of good family swear three times that you are capable of abandoning the insignia of a householder and taking up the insignia of the going-forth)

The pupil says,

bho acaryopadhyaya pravrajyavratam sakyami niscayam trisatyam

(Oh preceptor and taking up the capable of the observance of going forth (I declare it is true) three times.

The Guru says,

abhunaham pravaksyami srnu vatsa maharatah-vratacare kathascaiva pancasiksa vidhiyate pranam na hanyat na pibec ca madayam mrsa na bhasya na haret parasvam (madanasvabhavam parisamisadya), svargan ca gacched grhavat naranam, punas ca. himsa kale tatha nunam smanasa vacasa pi va.

(Now I, the greatly delighted one, shall explain. Listen dear one, the five precepts followed in this observance are laid down with explanations. He should not kill any living being, nor drink any alcohol, lie are not to be uttered, he should not take others’ goods. He should not act lustfully. If he does all this, he goes to a heaven with other men though he be a householder. Furthermore, desire to kill even for a particular occasion even in mind or speech is wrong.)

tasmat himsa na kuryani alpayus ca bhavet naram. yada mayaratas caiva sarvajnanam parayate. dhavamsanam sarvasastrani tasmat madayam na pibayet, mrsavadaratas caiva manyahinam sada bhavet. tena mithya na sevanti duhkhapamkesu jayate. paradravyanulobhena mahaduhkhesu jayate. daridravarnapamkesu paradravyani naharet. kamakrda sadacari sada duhkhi bhavisyati. sada bhayam sada kastam tasmat kamam na sevayet. iti upasakacarya

(Therefore, desire to kill is not to be done. (Otherwise) a man’s life is short. When men are addicted to drinking, all knowledge and all learning is destroyed. Therefore, he should not drink alcohol. He who is addicted to telling lies will also be despised. His falsehood will be useless; he will be reborn in the mud of suffering. By covering what belongs to others one is reborn to great sufferings (sunk) in the mud of wretched untouchability, so, he should not take others‘ things. He who always indulges in sex and love games will always suffer. Forever fear, forever misery. therefore, he should not pursue physical pleasure. This is the conduct of the layman.)

Then the disciple promises,

aham itthamnama yavajjivam pravrajyavratam dharayami samanavaharantu mam upadhayaya.

(I, of such and such name, for all my life take up the observance of going-forth. Bear witness for my assistant priest)

After such a marvelous dialogue between the Guru and his disciple, the priest proceeds to perform necessary rituals.

Now the neophyte’s topknot (Nep: Tupi) is cut off with a gold plated razor while reciting this mantra:

Om sarva jnana avarana chedaya chedaya hum phat

(Cut cut all obstacles to understanding)

The absence of topknot is perhaps the most crucial marker of the distinction between Shakya, Vajracharya Buddhists and the rest of other castes in the Kathmandu valley. After consecration by holy water from white conch shell, the boys are given a new name and three robes. They are given begging bowl and a staff (silaku), which has an effigy of the Buddha (or of a Stupa) at the top. They are permitted to enter into main shrine of Vihara and pay homage toKwapadya and make offerings. Newar Buddhists are very much attached to this four days observance of monastic ideal to maintain one’s Buddhist identity rather than renouncing the worldly desires and become a Buddhist monk.

Duties of a Sakyabhikshu

The Shakya Bhikshu, who observe four days of going forth as part of Vajrayana ritual in the Nepalese style are required to observe some specific duties:

  • For the four days the Shakyabhikshu must beg his food daily,
  • Must live the life of a Buddhist monk though they continue to live at home.
  • They have to observe the regulations of diet of the monk
  • Avoid contact with unclean (association with dogs and shoes), and
  • Keep ten precepts.

The neophyte receives his first alms from the senior ten elders (Dasaparamita Sthavira Aju) of the monastery and his family Buddhist priest. During the tenure of his monkhood he must visit the main shrine and pay homage to Kwapadya (main deity) and make offerings.

On the fourth day the neophyte returns to the lay life. The boy then hands over the begging bowl and staff, and takes off his robes. It is calledChudakarmavisarjana. Since the topknot is never maintained by Sakyabhikshu even after disrobing ceremony they are given the status of Sakyabhikshu. The disrobing ceremony does not signify the abandonment of monastic vows but transition from Sravakayana to Mahayana practice. They remain as Bodhisattva.

It is difficult to pinpoint the exact time when the system of celibate monasticism disappeared in Nepal. We are certain that celibate monks existed even during the seventh century. Chinese pilgrim Xuan Zang (Hsuan-tsang) had mentioned in his travel diary that the number of Hinayana and Mahayana Buddhist monks were more than two thousand.

An inscription of Amshuvarma has also confirmed a conspicuous presence of Bhikshuni Sangha belonging to the Mahasanghika sect [5] as well as Mahasanghika Bhikshu Sangha.[6] The inscription mentions:

tad prayojane ca caturvimsa mahayana pratipanna
aryabhikshunisamgha paribhauga akhayanivi

Now, the question arises as to what was the Vinaya lineage of Newar Buddhist Tradition. At present, we come across difficulty in finding parallel reference in the Chudakarmavidhi tradition with Mahasanghika or Mulasarvastivada tradition. A newly discovered inscription in Bhaktapur also suggests a presence of Mahasanghika Bhikshuni lineage.[7]

Duties of Buddhist Sangha in Newar Buddhist Vihara

The duties of elders are to oversee the daily, monthly, and annual Buddhist functions and festivals. They also organize initiation into Bhikshu Sangha i.e. (performance of Chudakarma, Achaluyegu ceremony of initiated members’ offsprings) as well as regulating the discipline of the Sangha and social rules.

All the male members who are initiated in Mahavihara constitute the Sangha. Mahavihara has a Guthi which include all the initiated members. The senior-most member of the Guthi of the Vihara is addressed as Mahasthavira, and the Chakresvara and other elder are addressed as Sthavira Aju.

In the Viharas of Kathmandu as well, daily worship of the main deity (kwapadya) enshrined in the Vihara is performed. At one time, the Vihara of Kathmandu Valley also had a complete schedule of rituals for the whole day. This is no longer in practice except at Janabaha in Kathmandu and Kwabaha in Patan.[8] Among these ritual practices the recitation of Namasangiti, Danagatha, Aparimita Dharani, Saptavidanottara Puja Strotra, Dasaparamita Strotra, and Buddham trailokya Stortras are the most prominent ones. Besides, the recitation of Astasahasrikaprajnaparamita, Pancharakshya andNava Sutra are the scriptural bases of the Newar Buddhism. However, meditation on Samatha and Vipassana is definitely lacking. Those Vajracharya and Shakya who had received the initiation on Cakrasamvara or Achaluyegu, however, meditate for some time on deity yoga and some recitation only. Nowadays a Vajracharya or Shakya very rarely perform the retreats for intensive practice.
Duties of a Bhikshu Sangha in a Theravada Monastery

The Buddhist monastic or the ordained Sangha has played a crucial role in keeping alive and passing on the lineage of the teachings and practice since the time of Buddha himself. Every Buddhist monastic community has some common religious and devotional exercises each day. It is brief and simple in Theravada monasteries, for example: Buddhapuja, and Paritrana, as well as Mangal Sutra recitation in ceremonial and Kathinotsava occasions. In regular occasions, the Theravada monks give the instructions on the practice of Samatha and Vipassana meditation for the lay followers.
Duties of Bhikshu Sangha in the Tibetan Monastery

In most of the Tibetan monasteries, at about 4 A.M., monks usually gather together with the morning bell. They clean up the floor and offer prostration to the main deity of the monastery and some begin to offer water bowls and decorate the altar with butter lamps. Monks gather to perform first torma (ritual cake) offering by ceremonial tea. Then they recite texts on Guru Yoga, Vajrasattva, Tara Puja and Long Life Buddha.

The forms of Guru Yoga (Padmasambhava and his lineage in case of Nyingma tradition) may vary in each tradition but the plan is however similar in nature. After formal group recital some silently sit in meditation until 7 to 8 A.M. If the sponsors have some specific puja they continue it until its completion. Sometimes they go out to the sponsors’ residence and do personal practices in their own apartments or rooms. In some monasteries, small novice children (thaba) usually read and write Tibetan grammar and English in the afternoon. They recite by hearing small ritual texts.

In the afternoon around 5-7 P.M., monks get assembled for performing Puja of protective deities like Mahakala and so forth. Sometime monks have to perform Puja on the founder’s birthday or Drubchen ceremonies. The ceremonial rituals may continue sometime even for two months at most and week at least. For Sakyapa the tutelary deity ceremony of Hevajra (a Highest yoga tantra deity) last for ten days.

In most of the Gelugpa monasteries, especially Kopan Monastery where facilities are available for the resident monks, the full time study program includes Buddhist philosophy, debate, English, Tibetan, Nepali language classes and Thangka painting. Monks are trained to become teachers, meditation Masters and translators.

In some great Kagyu and Nyingma monasteries namely Kanying and Sechen monasteries where there are facilities, the resident monks and novices do have an opportunity for higher philosophical studies such as Bodhicaryavatara of Shanti Dev and Pramanavarttika of Dharamakirti. Most of the monasteries are run by the support and donations from individual benefactors and sponsors. The abbot of the each monastery hold responsibility for the function of the monastery.

It should be noted that Tibetan Buddhist monasticism is also based on Mahayana and Vajrayana. It has two types of Buddhist monks: celibate Buddhist monks and Tantric Buddhist Master with consort (Ngakpa Lama). Both of them wear maroon in ceremonial puja.

To become a Tantric Buddhist master one should have thoroughly gone through training under a competent Buddhist Master and gone for retreats for at least three years and should have some degree of realization. When his realization is authenticated by his lineage Guru, he is authorized to act as the Vajra master. Because of high degree of realization of the tantric master in profound doctrines of Buddhism, they are given higher status than the celibate monk scholars. This tradition is valid and substantiated by the Buddhist Sutras and Tantras.

To cite few examples, in the seventh century Chandrakirti revered Master Chandragomin for his proficiency and dexterity in Namasangiti doctrine. Gampopa revered Guru Milarepa as his root Guru for realization of Mahamudra. Venerable Rwa-Lotsawa (Rwa lo-tsa-ba Dorse-grags) revered Nepalese Vajracharya Bharo for his realization of Vajrabhairabha doctrine. He also revered his Guru Mahakaruna (Ye Rang ba) of Patan who mastered in Tantra under his guidance.[9] He mastered in Sambhara tantra, Samputatantra, Chakrasambara Heruka abhyudayanama, Vajrabhairva Tantra and several other tantras.[10] The Vinaya lineage of this Tibetan tradition is Mulasarvastivada tradition.
Mahayana / Vajrayana

The Newar Buddhists, like Buddhists everywhere, take refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha. In the Mahayana and Vajrayana context, the Buddha is of course, Sakyamuni Buddha. But in Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism, the Five Tathagatas (Panch Buddhas: Vairochana, Akshobhya, Ratnasambhava, Amitabha and Amoghasiddhi) are well known in ritual than the historical Buddha.

The Dharma is realization of Prajnopaya namely unity of wisdom and skilful means. The texts are Vaipulya sutras: Astasahasrika Prajnaparamita,Gandavyuha, Dasabhumikasutra, Saddharmapundarika, Suvarnaprabhasa, Lankavatara, Samadhiraja, Lalitavistara and Tathagataguhyaka Sutra. These texts are recognized as the official texts. They are recited at various times, and the books are worshipped. In fact, worship is favored than scholarly study.

The Sangha is of course the Bodhisttva Sangha. Much of the devotional life of the people revolve around the worship of eight Bodhisattvas,[11] especially Avalokiteshvara and Manjushree. Avalokiteshvara is recognized as the head of eight Bodhisattvas. He is the representative of Sangha of Bodhisattvas. Just as in Theravada Buddhist tradition the Bodhisattva Sangha is excluded, similarly in Newar Buddhist tradition Shravaka Sangha is excluded. Since the emphasis is laid on Mahayana/Vajrayana tradition of Buddhist Sangha it would be unwise to expect Buddhist Sangha of Newar Buddhists in Theravada context.

In Newar Buddhist tradition, it seems to be no harm in giving Shakyaputra the status of lay Buddhist monk provided that they maintain refuge and Bodhisttva vows or even tantric samaya.

The rationale behind the abandonment of Shravaka practice is given in disrobing ceremony of Chudakarma (Ne: Barechuegu). As part of ritual there is always a dialogue between the Guru and the disciple. It thus goes-

Oh, Lord Guru ! By your grace I have undertaken the vow of going forth first, given the ten unproductive sins in accordance with the five precepts and eight precepts and carried out the disciple’s path. Now I shall take up the path of Mahayana.

The Guru says:

Very good, lay disciple, take up the path of Mahayana. Take up the practice of the great lord of liberation, the Guru Vajrasattva, lord of mystic circle.[12] What is the practice of the Mahayana like? Listen and I will tell you the most fundamental of religious practices unique to the Mahayana which can never be fulfilled without a consort. Nor can the Mahayana or its observance be complete without tantric initiation. How much more tantric initiation is necessary for liberation. Therefore, you, knowing the ultimate god and goddesses who as skill-in means and wisdom (Prajnopaya), take up the practice of Mahayana and abandon that of the Shravaka.

In these versions, entering the Mahayana under the instruction of the Guru can make up the fault of abandoning the monastic vow. Taking consort for Buddhist practice has been a general theme for Tantric Buddhist practitioner. The idea of Swayamvara and Marriage has been a life cycle ritual as described inKriyasamuccaya of Jagaddarpana Acharya (Mahamandalacharya).
Exploring Celibacy in Bhikshu Sangha of Newar Buddhist Tradition

The Buddha often placed Dhamma first and then the Vinaya in relevance to his teachings. According to the Buddha, Vinaya is the most important of theTripitaka (three baskets) for the survival of the Sasana. Vinaya rules are used for regulating outward conduct of the individual and the collective practice of the Sangha. Dhamma is for inward development and the attainment of a good life.

Celibacy is considered as holy and good in most of the religions of the world, especially within the Buddhist Sangha of Theravada and Mahayana tradition. As Buddhism is spread in Western countries, the practice of celibacy is being critically questioned for the first time. In those places, many people consider the voluntary abstention from sexual activity which is strange or unnatural.

If celibacy is a sole Buddhist religious ideal, then the student of Buddhism can find those Japanese and High Tibetan Lamas whose marriages are accepted by their cultures? Are they all subject, by their religious principle, to ostracism as sinners then?

History shows that the practice of celibacy is as old as asceticism in India, much older than the historical Buddha himself. Buddha was born, there were ascetics who practiced celibacy as a spiritual discipline conductive to the attainment of enlightenment. Although celibacy was quite common, the practice may not have been very strict since some ascetics (rishis) took their wives with them to practice asceticism in solitary places of India. When Buddha taught celibacy as important commitment to his disciples, celibacy came to be held in highest regard for its own sake as well as for the pleasing impression it created in pious lay people. Once the strict practice of celibacy had become a strong norm, its transgression came to be seen as a sinful thing.

In his first sermon the Buddha mentioned sexual intercourse as a base or low act performed by common people as opposed to monks. He said that addiction to attractive sensual pleasures and addiction to self torture are both extreme practices. Since, as extremes, they are inconsistent with the middle path leading to nirvana.[13] In Theravada tradition, Buddha had to prohibit every kind of sexual behavior by member of the Sangha community as unfit acts and had to punish him or her through formal meeting of the Sangha.

Only the willing celibate is a proper candidate for ordination, but others may seek it. The monks’ unmarried life is individually free. A monk can devote all his time and energy to spiritual development. But if he is not active in spiritual practices there is nothing special about his monkhood. It is both waste of time and painful restraint on his freedom in terms of sexual activity, especially when he longs for it.

According to Parajika rules of Vinaya, the ordained monk who has violated the normal code of celibacy loses his monkhood. Such a monk cannot attain liberation or Nirvana. It should be noted that the ultimate aim of the practice of celibacy is to eradicate the mental defilement- greed, hatred, and delusion.
The fulfillment of celibacy is said to be the attainment of Nirvana.

In Newar Buddhist tradition, Bahi are said to be the repositories of celibate monastic tradition. When celibate communities existed, if celibate monks decided to become householder monks, they left their monastery and joined a bahi [14] According to John Locke’s hypothesis, two institutions namely celibate and non-celibate existed side by side from the earliest days. Gradually, as a result of the dominant tradition of becoming married number of celibate monks (brahmacharya bhikshu) decreased.[15] Locke confidently declares the celibate communities were always in minority even from the Licchavi and Thakuri period..

Since the Buddha advocated the path of restraint or renunciation in Shravakayana practices, the ultimate aim is the attainment of abiding Nirvana (Skt.pratisthita Nirvana). But in Mahayana/Vajrayana form of Buddhism, the Buddha advocated the path of transformation for his advanced bodhisattva disciples. He taught the doctrine of Great Bliss and Emptiness to attain the state of Buddhahood (Skt: apratisthita Nirvana i.e. Non-abiding Nirvana). In this form of teaching Buddha Vajradhara made use of lust or even sexual bliss in the path to enlightenment. From the point of view of Theravada tradition this view can be merely a joke. On the other hand Tantric Buddhists regard their practice as authentic in view, meditation, practice and function (drsti, dhyana, carya) and blameless in ideal as the Middle path of the Buddha.

Newar Buddhism as a Lay Bodhisattva Practice

It seems that there had been a provision for lay Buddhist monkhood which became very popular in the valley of Kathmandu. The validity of this tradition was also corroborated by the text “Siksasamuccaya” of Acharya Shanti Deva. It runs thus:

punara aparma kulaputra bhavisyanti anagata
adhavani grahstha pravajita adikarmika bodhisattva.

The meaning of the text is as follows:

Again, oh, Sons of the family, there will be the householder beginner
(Skt: adikarmika) and ordained bodhisattvas in the future.

Concerning Adikarmika Bodhisattva Acharya Anupamavajra stands prominent. His work had a great influence on Nepalese Buddhist tradition. It is surprising and interesting to note that Adikarmapradipa which was composed in 1098 A.D. by Anupamavajra had profound impact on the daily practice of Newar Buddhist society even till today. To state briefly, Adikarmapradipa deals with the following practices of Newar Buddhists.

  • Taking Refuge in Triple Gems
  • Reciting Namasangiti
  • To recite Bhadracarya Pranidhana
  • To offer Preta bali
  • To circumambulate Caitya, Buddha statues etc.
  • To perform Gurumandala rite
  • To meditate on tutelary deity
  • To recite Prajnaparamita and other Mahayana Sutras
  • To recite danagatha (stanzas of giving)
  • To perform Bodhisattva practices joyfully
  • To study Buddhist scriptures
  • Offering food to Triple Gems and tutelary deity before eating
  • Offer fivefold prostration to Buddha of ten directions
  • Sleeping in a lion’s posture after meditating on Deity Yoga

According to Newar Buddhist tradition, even after disrobing ceremony of Cudakarma, the Shakyas and Vajracharyas do not cease to be bhikshu or Buddhist monks, but they pass from the state of celibate bhikshu to that of householder monks (grihasthi bhikshu), a fact underlined by the term Sakyabhikshu used to refer to them down ages.

In disrobing ceremony the following lines are articulated about the status of bhikshu.

You have gone through Sravakayana and now comes to Mahayana, the greatest of the Buddhist Yanas. You have participated in some Vajrayana rituals and after going through some higher ordinations you will know what Chakrasamvara is.[16]

The Impact of Master Atisha’s Teaching on Newar Buddhism

Master Atisha who wrote Bodhisattvakarmadimargavatara also propounded the concept of the Adikarmika Bodhisattva practice. Since Atisha was contemporary with Anupamavajara and Advavajra, both of them have borrowed the idea of lay Bodhisattva practice from him.

Atisha first emphasized the practice of refuge and generation of Bodhicitta on the basis of sevenfold practice (skt : saptavidhanolttara puja) Newar Buddhists are proficient in performing “sattvapuja” (verse 5 of Adikarmapradipah).

He also promulgated the theory of moderation of consuming food habits and food offerings to Gurus and three jewels (verse 10-11).

With a view to teach the whole sentient beings one should recite profound Mahayana sutras (like Prajinaparamita and so forth) (verse 7).

After completing one’s morning duties one should practice the act of fivefold prostration to Triple Gems with a view to liberating all other sentient beings and should sleep in lion’s posture of Atisha after completing one’s devotional exercise (Caryasamgraha pradeepa, verse14). [17]

One should practice the unity of Samatha and Vipassana and should realize the emptiness of all body and ephemeral nature of all phenomena. Whereas Anupamavajra mentions only the necessity of practice of Deity yoga (Caryasamgraha pradeepa, verse 14).

Offering one’s food to tutelary deities and Dharmapala before eating meal is one fundamental daily practice of Adikarmic bodhisattva (seeCaryasangraha pradeepa, verse 11).

By analyzing these references we can conclude that Atisha’s teaching had great influence on Newar Buddhist tradition too. Atisha’s reformation in Buddhist monasticism is well known in Tibet. He tried his best to uplift Buddhist monasticism during his sojourn in Nepal. He composed Caryasamgraha Predeepa, and Vimalratnalekha nama to enhance the monastic ideal of Newar Buddhism. He even strongly prohibited the act of taking initiation of Highest Yoga Tantra for monastics. Because of short duration of his stay in Nepal his influence could not be seen and got strengthened. Later Anupamavajra superseded Atisha’s influence because of his tantric teachings.

Decline of Celibate Monasticism

Now the question arises why Newar Buddhists prefer to be Grihastha Bhikshu rather than to be celibate monks. There has been a constant conviction among the historians or local Buddhists that celibate Buddhist monks existed in the Newar Buddhist tradition until the advent of King Jayasthitimalla in the 15th century.

There is a hypothesis that King Jayasthitimalla alone could not have wiped out the celibate monastic tradition of Newar Buddhism. But as a matter of fact, the decline of celibate monasticism in Nepal started long before his coming to power. He had to witness the total disappearance of celibate monastic tradition by activating so-called social reformation. We can guess that there were only a few celibate Buddhist monks even during Atisha’s period. Atisha established a pre-Kadampa monastic order. He ordained a prince and named him as Padmaprabha. One of his monk friends due to growing influence of Buddhist tantrism, had asked Master Atisha for promulgation of non-tantric Mahayana Buddhist doctrine. Accepting his request Master Atisha had composed Caryasamgrahapradipa [18] to comfort him.

There might have been two causes on the decline of celibate Buddhist monastic system of Newar Buddhist tradition. These are:

Lack of royal patronization, and

Impact of Vajrayana Buddhism

a. Lack of royal patronization

If we research and analyze deeply the historical background of other Buddhist countries, it becomes clear that a strong patronage from a ruling circle is essential to maintain the celibate monastic community. While considering the events since Buddha’s period, his monastic community was well and fully patronized by King Prasenjit, King Bimbisara, King Ajatasatru, and in later periods, Emperor Ashoka, King Kaniska, King Harsha Vardhana, and some other Pala and Sena Kings too had patronized the Buddhist Sangha.

When Islamic invasion took place in important monastic centers of Buddhism in India, the muslims ransacked and thoroughly destroyed them. With no supporters for monastic community, the Sangha could not thrive in India, ending up with its total disappearance.

On the other hand, the Buddhist monastic Sangha thrived and flourished with the support of Kings and wealthy patrons in Tibet, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Burma and some other Southeast Asian countries. The decline in monastic community could be clearly seen in the withdrawal of active support and patronage from the rulers. The same reason can be applied to Newar Buddhist monastic community too. Due to the lack of support from Hindu rulers of Kathmandu valley, the celibate monastic tradition could not survive, let alone flourish.
b. Impact of Vajrayana Buddhism

To describe the presence of celibate Buddhist monks during the transition period from 880 to 1200 A.D. of Nepalese Buddhist history would be only speculative rather than factual.

The emergence and flourishing of Vajrayana Buddhism and its associated cults were distinctly visible due to the activities of Mahasiddha tradition of Highest Yoga Tantra in Nepal and India. The rise of Vajrayana Buddhism paved the way for the growth on non-celibate monastic tradition in India, Nepal and Tibet till the advent of Atisha (982-1054). It is a fact that with the rise of Vajrayana, celibate Buddhist monastic traditions began to dwindle and then slowly disappeared in Nepal completely by the end of 15th century.

The transition period of Nepal witnessed the birth of several outstanding Buddhist Masters of Nepal who were well versed in Tantric Buddhism. Nepalese Buddhist Masters had constant touch with the Indian and Tibetan Buddhist Masters. According to Padma Kathang, a treasure text of Nyingma tradition, Buddhist Master Guru Padma Sambhava is said to have visited Sankhu, Pharping and other places in Kathmandu valley and diffused Tantric Buddhist teachings around the eighth century. He took two female disciples called Sakyadevi and Kalasiddhi as his consorts for the practice of Atiyoga sadhana.[19]

Guru Paindapa and Chitherpa were the famous and gifted disciples of Naropa (10th century). Marpa (11th century), the great translator of Tibet, had stayed in the Kathmandu valley for three years to study Anuttarayoga Tantra under Paindapa and Chitherpa. According to the biography of Marpa, he received teachings on Catuhpith Tantra and Cakrasamvara Tantra from these Nepalese Guru at Ratnakara Mahavihara (Ha Baha) of Patan.[20]

The study of Highest Yoga Tantra among these great Masters is a common curriculum of their tantric studies. It is generally thought that the practice of highest Yoga Tantra is not fit for every body. For people who lack necessary qualifications, Tantra is said to be extremely dangerous. Such people can greatly harm themselves if they enter into tantric practice. Thus, the Dalai Lama cautions:

Tantra is not appropriate for the minds of many. If one’s mental continuum has not been ripened by the practices common to both sutra and tantra such as realisation of suffering, impermanence, refuge, love, compassion, altruistic mind generation, and emptiness of inherent existence, practice of the Mantra vehicle can be ruinous through one’s assuming an advanced practice inappropriate to one’s capacity. Therefore, its open dissemination is prohibited; practitioners must maintain secrecy from those who are not vessels of this path.[21]

Those who are judged to be suitable receptacles for tantric initiations are sworn to secrecy. The initiates are required to take a series of vows (Samaya), one of which is not to reveal tantric teachings openly. The promised retributions for breaking the vows include painful suffering in “Vajra hells” reserved for those who transgress their tantric promises. It involves taking many types of initiations. Four of the most important are:

Kalasa abhiseka (Vase empowerment)

Guhya abhiseka (Secret empowerment)

Prajna abhiseka (Wisdom empowerment)

Sabda abhiseka (Word empowerment)

The first involves giving initiation using water in a vase and is found in all four tantra sets. The other three are used only in highest yoga tantra. It is taught that receiving vase initiation causes to attain the rank of Nirmanakaya Body of the Buddha.

The secret, knowledge and word initiation, sometimes involve practice with a Karmamudra (actual consorts) and ingestion of impure substances. TheKarmamudra and substances may be either imagined or real in Tibetan tradition. But in Nepalese tradition use of real Karmamudra is stressed while takingacharya abhiseka too. The followers of these tantras use the desire in the path to enlightenment. They can transform energy of sexual desire into blissful wisdom consciousness. Through Deity Yoga, they enhance the experience of wisdom and compassion. The ultimate goal of these practitioners is the attainment of Buddhahood in one life time. Since these involve sexual practices, the celibacy of the monkhood is dangerously threatened. That is why Atisha in his Bodhipatha pradeepa strongly prohibited the monks from practicing Highest Yoga Tantra for it endangers their celibacy of monastic vows. According to Atisha Dipamkara, lay Bodhisattva life is much more favorable for the practice of Highest Yoga Tantra disciplines as stated in Bodhipathpradipa:

For attaining Bodhisambhara in a simple way it has been set forth in the Kriya and Carya (action and practice) ways. If one is desirous of the practice of Guhyamantra by pleasing the Guru, one receives the complete Acharyabhiseka. Blessed thus, you will purify all the negativities and become suitable vessel to achieve realization. In Adi Buddha Maha tantra, it is strictly prohibited that secret wisdom initiation is not the privilege of the celibate monks. The ordained one who abides in the asceticism can receive that initiation, the vow of asceticism will degenerate due to the practices of restrictions. The practitioner will be defeated, downfall will arise, due to which he will fall among the lower realms and never will there be realization.[22]

If this is so why Newar Buddhists take risk in being a celibate monk and at the same time practice Anuttara yoga tantra? That’s why, their preference to be a lay Bodhisattva practitioner is most likely one. Atisha also gives an option that those monastics who are highly advanced practitioners, and have perceived permission from the authentic Masters, for them there is no prohibition to receive these four initiations and practice. Later on, Tantric Masters began to give these initiations without taking students’ qualification into consideration and the Sangha suffered a lot. This resulted in a swift decline of monastic Buddhism in Nepalese Vajrayana tradition.


We have just discussed the nature of Newar Buddhism as being faultless according to the textual tradition. But if it is not reinforced with practice and study, it might become an obsolete religion. The purpose of this article is not to glorify the Newar Buddhism but present the existing situation. It is true that lay Bodhisattva practice is valid tradition authenticated by Siksasamuccaya of Shanti Deva. Thus the Newar Buddhism cannot be said to be corrupt form of Buddhism as some are tempted to allege. All forms of religious principles are followed by Newar Buddhists too.

Therefore, it is necessary that Newar Buddhists should revive and receive the lost teachings of Tantric Vajrayana Buddhism from Tibetan Buddhist Masters to bridge the gap of lineage of practice that has been ignored and lost in a way. If we could create some celibate Buddhist monks practicing Newar Vajrayana Buddhism then the structure of Newar Buddhism can be complete. In order to achieve this goal, a good relation and interaction with Theravada and Tibetan Buddhist monks should be established.

It is true that four days of observance of monastic vows are too symbolic in character. It lacks the foundation of monastic upgrading. So the Theravada monks who were trained in Burma, Thailand and Sri Lanka even charged Newar Buddhist monasticism with having no ground at all. The basis of their charge is that Newar Vajracharya and Shakyas are lay Buddhists and they are not monks. As it is discussed, the sustenance of Buddhist monasticism is very difficult if not impossible without the support and cooperation from the government. Nepal has preserved Buddhist Sanskrit literature. Nepalese scholars can contribute a lot to Sanskrit Buddhism. There are yet many unexplored areas of Buddhist culture and practices among the Newar Buddhism. At last, to conclude, the words of Suniti Kumar Chatterji, the famous Indian Buddhist Scholar, is worth mentioning:

One great service the people of Nepal did particularly the highly civilized Newars of the Nepal valley, was the preservation of all the manuscripts of Mahayana Buddhist literature in Sanskrit, it was the contribution of Sri Lanka to have preserved for human kind the entire mass of the Pali literature of Theravada Buddhism. This was also on to Burma, Cambodia and Siam. It was similarly the great achievement of people of Nepal to have preserved the equally valuable original Sanskrit texts of Mahayana Buddhism


* This paper was presented at the Seminar on Nepal Mandala organized by Lotus Research Centre.

**. Min Bahadur Shakya is a Lecturer at Engineering Campus, and a Visiting Lecturer at the Central Department of Buddhist Studies, Tribhuvan University, Kirtipur. He is also the Founder and Director of Nagarjuna Institute of Exact Methods, Lalitpur.

1. Acarya Kriyasamucaya mentions 10 life cycle rituals to be performed. They are as follows: (1) Jatakarma (2) Namakarma, (3) Annaprasana (4) Cudakarma (5) Chudakarmavisarjana (6) Vajracaryabhisekha, (7) Svayambara, (8) Bibaha, (9) Dikshya and (10) Sthavira. The author of Acharyakriya Samuccaya is Mahamandalacharya Jagaddarpana. The Brihat Suchipatra mentions 3 copies of the text in the Bir Library in 1964; Purna Ratna Vajracharya, Brihatsuchipatra, Vol. 7 pt 1, Kathmandu: Bir Library, 2021 B.S., pp. 53-59. Back to text

2. Heinz Bechert and Jens-Uwe Hartmann, “Observations on the Reform of Buddhism in Nepal”, Journal of the Nepal Research Centre, Vol. VIII, 1988, pp. 2-6. Back to text

3. Siegfried Lienhard, “Nepal: The Survival of Indian Buddhism in a Himalayan Kingdom”,
– H. Bechert and Richard Gombrich (ed.), The World of Buddhism, London: Thames and Hudgson, 1984, pp. 108-114. ; John K. Locke, Karunamaya: The Cult of Avalokitesvara Matsyendranath in the Valley of Nepal, Kathmandu: Shahayogi/CNAS, 1980. ; John K. Locke, Buddhist Monasteries of Nepal, Kathmandu: Sahayogi Press, 1985. ; Michael Allen, “Buddhism without Monks – The Vajrayana Religion of the Newars of the Kathmandu Valley”, South Asia, 3 (1973), pp. 1-14. ; David Gellner, Monk, House Holders and Tantric Priest: Newar Bhddhism and its Hierarchy of Ritual, London: Cambridge University Press, 1992. ; Stephen M. Greenwold, “The Role of the Priest in Newar Society” in James Fisher (ed.) Himalayan Anthropology, The Hague: Mouton, 1978, pp. 483-503.

4. David N. Gellner, “Monastic Initiation in Newar Buddhism” in Richard Gombrich (ed.), Indian Ritual and its Exegresis, Delhi: Oxford University Press, Oxford University Papers on India, Vol. 2 Part I, 1988, p 53.

5. Ramji Tewari et. al. (eds.), Abhilekh Sangraha (A Collection of Inscriptions), Part V, Kathmandu: Samsodhan Mandal, 2020 B.S., p. 8.

6. Hari Ram Joshi, Nepalko Prachin Abhilekh (Ancient Inscriptions of Nepal), Kathmandu: Royal Nepal Academy, 2030 B.S., p. 523.

7. Pasuka, Vol II, No. 11, N.S. 1118.

8. For the list of practices see John K. Locke, “The Unique Features of Newar Buddhism”, in T.Skorupski (ed.), The Buddhist Heritage (Buddhica Britannica I), Tring : The Institute of Buddhist Studies, 1989, pp.84 -85.

9. George. N. Roerich, The Blue Annals, New Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1986, pp. 374-375. Also see Min B. Shakya, A Short History of Buddhism in Nepal, Kathmandu: Young Buddhist Publication, 1986, pp. 33-34. Mahakaruna’s Tibetan name is Thugs-rje-chen-po.

10. Ibid, p. 375

11. The eight Bodhisttvas are- Manjusri, Vajrapani, Ksitigarbha, Khagarbha, Samantabhadra, Gaganganja, Sarvanivarna Viskambhi and Maitreya.

12. Gellner, op.cit. f.n. no. 4, p. 61.

13. I. B. Horner (tr.), The Book of the Discipline (Vinaya Pitaka), Vol. IV, London : Luzac & Company Ltd., 1962, p. 15.

14. Locke, op.cit. f.n. no. 8, p. 104.

15. Ibid, p. 105.

16. Allen, op.cit. f.n. no. 3, pp. 1-10.

17. Perhaps Acharya Anupamavajra preferred to this Deity yoga because of his tantric leaning.

18. Ramesh Chandra Negi (tr., ed.) Atishavirachita Ekadasagranthah, Saranath : Central Institute of Higher Tibetan Studies, 1992, p. 99.

19. W. Y. Evans-Wentz (ed.), The Tibetan Book of Great Liberation, London : Oxford University Press, 1954, pp. 176-77

20. Tsang Nyon Heruka, The Life of Marpa the Translator, Boulder: Prajna Press, 1982, p. 130.

21. Joffrey Hopkins (tr.) Tantra in Tibet. New York : Snow Lion Publication, 1977, p. 47. Back to text

22. Richard Sherburne (tr.), A Lamp for the Path and Commentary, London : George Allen and Unwin, 1983, p. 12.