Newar Buddhism: Problems and Possibilities
by: Min Bahadur Shakya
OVER THE LAST FEW DECADES, the Kathmandu valley has become the meeting place of Tibetan and Western Buddhists for the study of Buddhism. Renowned Tibetan Buddhist masters are busy offering initiations, conducting seminars and teaching sessions. Serious Western Dharma practitioners participating in these initiations and seminars seem to be less aware of the existence of a strong Buddhist tradition practised by the Newars of the Kathmandu Valley. Very few of the Western and Japanese Buddhist have thought it worthwhile to explore indigenous Buddhist tradition in the Kathmandu Valley.
Most of these Western Buddhists hold the view that Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhism is in all respects exhaustive in character while Newari Vajrayana Buddhism is only a corrupt form of Buddhism and hence warrants no observation, investigation or research. Of course, this view is erroneous. One needs to carefully consider the situation in a logical way before making such a hasty conclusion.
Some Problems in Newar Buddhism
The Newari form of Buddhism may be the oldest living tradition of Buddhism in the world. Buddhism as practised by the Newari Buddhists of the Kathmandu Valley has some characteristic features not found in other Buddhist countries. It was the Buddhism of Shakyamuni as it manifested itself in the Himalayan region. Newar Buddhism can be classified along the tradition of Indian Vajrayana or Tantric Buddhism which derives its lineages from the Siddha tradition of the Nalanda and Vikramashila Monastic Universities of India. This traditional Buddhism of Newars has recently become the subject of great interest and detailed study by Lienhard, Gellner. M. Allen, Bechert, and others. Although some observers professed as early as the last century the hasty disappearance of this form of Buddhism, it has proved to be remarkably durable an important factor in its conservation and social structure.
Some observers have found it to be in a pitiful condition. Not being able to cope with the modern situation the Shakyas and Vajracharyas are taking little interest in their own traditional religion and culture. The Vajracharyas are beginning to neglect taking Acharya Diksa (master initiation) with the result that there is a conspicuous decline in the number of Buddhist priests. The patrons (Skt. Jajaman) pay too little respect to these Buddhist priests because of their ignorance of Buddhist doctrine. These Vajracharyas get little remuneration in return for their services to their patrons in life cycle rituals. Thus, they are compelled to take up various secular professions. These are the obvious reasons for the decline of the traditional Buddhism of the Kathmandu Valley. Furthermore, most of the Bahas and Bahis (Buddhist monasteries) of three illustrious cities, owing to the lack of proper conservation, are in a dreadful state of dilapidation. Nowadays, we see these Bahas and Bahis being replaced by concrete buildings. In addition, the rare Buddhist manuscripts which Nepal takes pride in, are being sold in the common markets for exorbitant prices. We also see the ancient Buddhist sculptures and thankas, being exported to foreign markets. For all these reasons, scholars have begun to speculate about the hasty disappearance of this traditional Buddhism by the end of this century.
The importance of Newari Buddhism
The importance of Newaris in South Asian Buddhist History has been discussed at great length by Lienhard in his paper "Nepal ! The Survival of Indian Buddhism in a Himalayan Kingdom." Similarly in 1898 Prof. Sylvian Levi, who wrote "Le Nepal", discussed the survival of Sanskrit Buddhism in the Kathmandu Valley. He, with the help of Pt. Kulaman Singh of Kvabahal, translated into French the Mahayana Sutralankara of Arya Maitreyanath. Buddhism disappeared in India. The Theravada tradition flourished in Sri Lanka, Burma and Thailand whereas the Vajrayana/Mahayana traditions were kept alive in Tibet, China, Japan, Korea and Nepal.
How Buddhism disappeared in India is still the subject of great controversy. How Newars kept Vajrayana Buddhism alive in the Kathmandu Valley is an interesting topic in itself. These are some of the topics:
-Westerners, many lay people, educated, urban, more wealthy people need/want teachings and practices that have been adapted to lay life, i.e, non-celibate people with family and jobs.
-Newari Buddhism is unique because it has survived without a permanent, celibate Sangha.
-It has something unique to offer lay people seeking high level practice and teachings but unwilling or unable to ordain as monks or nuns permanently.
Nepal as the Land of Buddhas
The Kingdom of Nepal, endowed with enchanted snowy peaks, lakes and caves, has been aptly described as the land of the Buddhas. The discovery of three Ashokan Pillars has revealed the native towns of three Buddhas, namely: Krakuchchand, Kanakamuni, and Shakyamuni at Gotihawa, Niglihawa, and Lumbini respectively in the South-West Terai regions of Nepal.
Lumbini, the birthplace of Lord Shakyamuni Buddha is a sacred place for Buddhists from all over the world.A veteran Asian traveller writes, "as millions of Christians look to Jerusalem for inspiration, as millions of Muslims turn to Mecca, so do the millions of Buddhists see the sacred kingdom of Nepal." Nepal is a holy land not only because it is the birthplace of the Buddha Shakyamuni, but also because it is the land where the self existing primordial one Swayambhu, was created. If we study Nepalese historical records, we can see that the Kathmandu valley was the center of Buddhist learning in the medieval period.
At that time Buddhism was in its height or apex of glory. This is
corroborated by the inscription of NS. 350 (1230 AD) found in Guita Vihara of
Patan written on the statue of Dipamkara Buddha. It runs as follows:-
Vikhyata Lalitpuriti Nagari Diskhu Sarvasvapy Vidyabhyam (Trans: Lalitpur is
famous in all directions for its academic life.)
Nepal as a treasure trove of Sanskrit Buddhist Manuscripts
In 1824. Mr. Brian Hodgson, a British diplomat in Nepal, discovered a great number of Sanskrit Buddhist manuscripts in Nepal. The existence of these before his time was unknown, and his discovery has entirely revolutionized the history of Buddhism as it was known to Europeans in the early part of this century. Copies of these works, totaling 381 bundles, have been distributed so as to render them accessible to European scholars. Prof. Jayadeva Singh writes in his "Introduction to Madhyamika Philosophy".
Books on Mahayana Buddhism were completely lost in India. Their translation existed in Chinese, Japanese and Tibetan. Mahayana literature was written mostly in Sanskrit and mixed Sanskrit. Scholars who have made a study of Buddhism, hardly suspected that there were also books on Buddhism in Sanskrit.
In similar matter, Dr. Suniti Kumar Chatterji writes,
"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 humankind 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."