Newar Buddhist Culture: A Concept

- Dr. Bajra Raj Shakya

- Mr. Shanta Harsa Bajracharya

(This is the english summary of the paper in Newari presented during the "Newa Buddhist Culture Preservation seminar" in 1993.)

  1. Introduction

  2. Habitat of Newar Buddhists

  3. The World View of Newar Buddhists

  4. Belief Towards Nirmankaya Buddhas

  5. Social structure

  6. Newar Buddhist's language & literature

  7. Costumes

  8. Education and Initiation

  9. Tools and Instruments Used for Ritual and Other Purposes

  10. Profession

  11. Customs

  12. Festivals

  13. Conclusion

 

1. Introduction

            A culture is defined as a belief system, values and behavior pattern of the people within a specific territory. It is in general, a process of amalgamation of behavior pattern which is handed down to its posterity. A culture changes according to the time, integrating new elements into its fold, sustaining its fundamental structure. In culture, it encompasses the subjects like scripts, literature, language and a communication system. In such a system various organizations, classes, trustees play a big role in functioning life cycle rituals, festivals, food habits, ritual elements. Each has a distinct features of its own quite differently from other cultural systems.

2. Habitat of Newar Buddhists

            Nepal Mandala is the principal seat of Newar Buddhists. Nepal Mandala is said to be circular surrounded by sacred mountains, a secured and pleasant land enriched with fertile soil, irrigated by sacred rivers. In this sacred land people seldom experience the flooding, hurricane and other forms of natural disasters. The climate is neither extremely cold nor extremely hot. Cool breeze blows from northern Himalayan ranges. The Kathmandu Valley is extremely beautiful with magnificent Himalayas in the background. Poets do not hesitate to describe this sacred land as the land of Gods.

            From agricultural point of view, the land is fertile and it grows all sorts of fruits, vegetables. That is why people in those days worked for 3 months and the harvesting thereby was enough for 9 months to live on. It created enough leisure to strengthen and foster the development of literature, music, arts, philosophical thinking etc. It also accepted all strata of people into its fold thereby creating a civilized society. Thus the physical environment which is believed to be created and made habitable by the Bodhisattva Manjushree with his power and knowledge became the basis of  enhancement of the refined Newar culture.

            People in this land think of their habitat as a mandala consisting of Eightfold Cemetery Places, Eight  Matrika  goddesses, Eight Bhairavas, Eight Bodhisttvas  and Eightfold Caityas. In the Kathmandu Valley, there are innumerable Viharas consisting of Cokas  each having Swayambhu– Dharmadhatu Caityas. Of course, these Cokas  are in the form of Mandalas.

3. The World View of Newar Buddhists

            Newar Buddhists have their own form of viewing the world. It is the basis of Newar Buddhist culture. This view blends all the elements of Newar Buddhist culture into a unified system.

            The Eyes of Swayambhu Stupa  symbolising the awareness of emptiness of worldly phenomena is the basis of Newar Buddhist's world view. It means the five wisdoms of Five Celestial Buddhas. The purpose of Five Celestial Jinas  is to bestow five transcendent wisdoms to purify five principal delusions. The basis is to realize a unified aspect of wisdom and skill in means. That is why Newar Buddhists have engaged in the recitation of Namasangiti, Asta Sahashrika Prajnaparamita  in various Viharas  in order to strengthen their conviction in their view. Newar Buddhists establish Caityas  everywhere possible with five Buddhas embedded in it. In all its rituals the notion of five wisdoms is predominant. Thus, the world view of Newar Buddhists in its core is the awareness of emptiness (and dependent origination) of the worldly phenomena. 

4. Belief Towards Nirmankaya Buddhas

            Newar Buddhists have deep faith on the past Buddhas like Dipankara, Vipashvi, Sikhi, Bishvabhu, Krakucchanda, Kanakamuni, Kashyapa and Shakyamuni. They observe the ceremony of Panca dana  annually to honour Dipankara Buddha. These past Buddhas are believed to have visited here to pay homage to Swayambhu, the symbol of self existing awareness, the innermost essence of the Buddha's realisation.

            The self-existing awareness is the main theme of the text Swayambhu– Pura–na. Newar Buddhist's belief in the past Buddhas is the outcome of the doctrine continued in the Bhadrakalpika Sutra, Karunapundarika Sutra  and the Swayambhu Purana  itself.

5. Social structure

            Social structure is also regarded as an important constituent of our culture. Every culture has its own social structure. Newar Buddhists also have a particular kind of their own social composition.

            Newar Buddhist society has been organized in the form of Sangha  in more than 400 Viharas still existing in the three illustrious cities. Every Baha and Bahi seems to possess an organized Sangha with its own prescribed rules and regulations that allow only those Shakyas and Vajracharyas who have already been ordained and initiated respectively to be registered as members of the Sangha. Only men are allowed to be its members while women are forbidden. All those who had taken refuge to the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha might have been granted an access to ordination and thereby were included in the Sangha  at the time before the advent of Jayasthiti Malla. Now that Sangha simply stands for a patrimonial asset.

            Every Vihara consisting of a Sangha  ought to be characterized by the presence of monks and nuns, laymen and laywomen. It is believed that there existed celibate monks before the advent of the King Jayasthiti Malla. And there ought to be laymen and laywomen in the Sangha. The very structure of the Sangha might have been transformed with the entry of non-celibate monks in the Sangha. It might have so happened that only Shakyas and Bajracharyas who had undergone initiation and ordination respectively were included in the Sangha  with the rest excluded. Though not formally the members of the Sangha, laymen and laywomen are still included within the structure as the members of various trusts, Guthis  ascribed to the Sangha.

            Nowadays, even if Shakyas and Bajracharyas are ordained as monks in accordance with the rules set forth by the Sangha, they relinquish the vows of monk later and marry as laities, earn their livings through diverse professions, they observe the rules of monks like fasting, meditating, worshipping, dispensing charity etc. They circumambulate sincerely the Buddha Shakyamuni installed in the courtyard, reciting Stotras  at night and thus recollect and appreciate the profound qualities and kindness of the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. Furthermore, the members of the Sangha  and other laymen and laywomen who have acquired initiation have been continuing performing their daily ritual activities like mantra  recitation and meditation.

            Gurujus frequent the abodes of not only Shakya Bhikshus  but Upasakas  and Upasikas  of different status or people following various professions, to perform puja (worship) as well as imparting religious initiation and sermons to the patrons. This process has continued intact even to the present day.

            Every Sangha  has a chief Vihara  called Mahavihara  with a wide square courtyard and a  Pagoda style temple with either Shakyamuni, Avalokiteshvara or Dipankara as the main deity. Also in the middle of the courtyard, we can find Caityas and Dharmadhatu Mandalas.

            Various daily, monthly and yearly Pujas  are performed in the Viharas  still today. In the Vihara  social structure, there are different layers to perform these different activities. At the top, there is a group of five, ten or twelve elders who ultimately are responsible for all Sangha activities.

            All the Viharas  scattered around the three cities have their links with Swayambhu and it is in the Acarya trust of Shantipur in Swayambhu that all Vajracharyas from Lalitpur, Kathmandu and Bhaktapur used to become members. And according to the tradition, deities from the three cities have to be taken to Swayambhu on the occasion of Samyaka  festival. Every Vihara has a miniature Stupa representing that of Swaymanbhu. Thus the focal point of each Baha is Swayambhu Dharmadhatu  and Acarya Guthi  there by contributing to consolidating all the Buddhist Newars in one group by establishing its link with each Baha.

6. Newar Buddhist's language & literature

            Newar people have their own language and script which is still in vogue, but the religious literature and official documents were written in Sanskrit. Even now Sanskrit is used in religious fields. Only lately, religious texts in Sanskrit were translated into Newari Language for the convenience of common people. Navagranthas that Newars admire were written in Sanskrit whose translation is taking place only at present. Among them Lalitavistara was translated by Pandit Nisthananda Bajracharya who used to be considered as one of the four pillars of Nepal Bhasa. Other scriptures were translated by Pt. Ratna Bahadur Bajracharya. Most of the Buddhist literatures available in Nepal Bhas˙a are merely the translation of Sanskrit literature. The first original Buddhist Newari literature published is Citta Dhar Hrdaya's epic"Sugata Saurava Mahakavya". Though published in written form very recently, Avadana stories, Stotras, teaching Jatakas  had been transmitted verbally by Vajracharyas since ancient times. As Sanskrit is nowadays superseded by English and English language is widespread even in the field of language and literature and is becoming more useful and beneficial too, there seems to be a conspicuous decline in the Sanskrit erudite. At the same time, as there is no adequate translation of Buddhist literatures in Newari language, the customary of disseminating Newar Buddhist literature has declined.

            Some of the literatures translated from Sanskrit, specially dramas like Mahasattva  released during the time of King Rajendra Vir Vikram Shah Dev and  Sarvarthasiddha  based on the text entitled 'Lalitavistara' which was rendered into Newari by late Pt. Nisthananda Bajracharya have a great impact in the minds of Newar people. Similarly, dramas like Virakusa  and Visvantara  also became popular. After Dharmaditya Dharmacharya brought out the monthly Newari Magazine 'Dharmodaya'  on Buddhism, original Newari stories based on Ja–takas, essays and poetry began to appear. The Newari books written by the distinguished Theravadin monks such as Mahaprajna, Amritananda, Buddhaghosa, Sudarshana, Jnanapurnika and so on are the books that deserve appreciation. Based on Theravadin doctrine, their articles however have failed to establish their link with Swayambhu. The books in Newari and Sanskrit preserved at private collections, libraries, National library, Abhilekha–laya, Asha Saphu Kuthi, Keshar library need to be used for intensive studies.

7. Costumes

            Newar Buddhists have costumes of their own style adoptive to the local physical environment. Woolen clothes are worn during winter and cotton clothes during summer and they used to produce these materials in their own homes. This culture of wearing homemade clothes has now been substituted by imported clothes.

            As is customery not to wear leather goods in shrines, sacred places and during Puja performances, the use of leather wears seem to have been discouraged. 

            There are diverse colours used in the garment worn but there is absolutely no custom of wearing dark coloured clothes. At the time of death, white garment is worn, red one is worn during marriage and ritual worships. But yellow garment is set apart especially for Basundhara Vrata. When the worship of Pan˛ca Buddha takes place, garments are worn according to the colour of each. For instance white garment is worn for Vairocana, blue for Akshobhya, yellow for Ratna Sambhava, red for Amitabha  and green for Amoghsiddhi.

            So far as ornaments are concerned, it seems unusual for the tall men to adorn themeselves with too many ornaments. It is a customary to wear earrings by aged parents when they perform Bhimaratharohan˙a ceremony after they attain 77 years of age.

            Pure gold and silver are used for the ornaments as the symbol of purity. Jewelleries containing precious stones of five colors are widely used to mark the five Buddhas. A crown marked with pan˛ca Buddhas (Tathagata Cinha) are used by Bajracharyas during puja performances. Rings of pure gold and silver are put on the legs and ears to the childrens of 5-7 months for the protection from impurities. Further studies on costumes and ornaments are needed to be done.

8. Education and Initiation

            The system of education belonging to Newar Buddhism is a prominent subject of Newari culture. The usual worship performed by Gubhaju  is more often followed by a brief story regarding what has been worshipped, recounted to the patrons by Guvajus  themselves. And there is a customary of story telling lasting throughout the Gunla month in most of Viharas. In particular, in the first, second and third day of the waxing moon and the full moon, an Uposadha  fast is held, in general dedicated to Karunamaya  and other Bodhisattvas, Gurus always transmit the teachings and stories connected with the worship or Uposadha  itself.  

            The most popular centre for learning was located at Swayambhu, which was initiated by great Guru Shantikara Acarya and is now being conducted by Acarya Guthi. Various education centres of the Bahas and Bahiˆs were the development of the institution situated at Shantipur, Swayambhu and all the Bajracharyas were the members of its Acarya Guthi.

            In Viharas, there's an Acarya Guthi , where newly ordained or initiated Vajracharyas are trained about the procedure of ritual worship. Though the aim of a Vihara is to establish Sila, Samadhi  and Prajna  through the orderly transmission of the teachings about Sutra and Tantra and the graduated teachings (path) that leads to the enlightenment are preached here, this system is no more in vogue at present. But the traditions of imparting Cudakarma  ordination ceremony and Acarya  initiation are still continuing to the present day.

            Certain number of seniormost elders of the Viha–ra  receive initiation at Digi, where they perform regular rituals like Dashami Puja, Care Puja  etc. Having accomplished the ten perfections,  these elders or Ajus  attain the level of Cakresvara  or Thapa Aju  as per he being a Vajracharya or a Shakya.

            The role of Manjushri is of prime importance in the education system of Newar Buddhist culture. Not only Newars, people of other religions also visit the holy shrine of Manjusri, the Bodhisattva of learning at Swayambhu and start their education from the day of Sri Pancami. So the main object of Newar Buddhist education system is to realize the wisdom of emptiness through the study of sutra  and Tantra, and to develop compassion for the benefit of all sentient beings .

9. Tools and Instruments Used for Ritual and Other Purposes

            The ritual elements that Newar Buddhists occasionally make use of in various functions and ceremonies have their own specific significance. They are both useful and attractive. Before commencing a work of any kind, Sukunda  is kindled. Sukunda is said to be a symbol of auspiciousness. Another element is Kalasha or an embroidered vase which is considered as symbolizing Asta Mangala or eightfold prosperity. Kalasha  is consecrated, and it is supposed to contain nectar which is sprinkled over the body for the purification. Nhayakan Sinhahmu (Mirror and a ritual container of vermillion powder) are the two elements or pairs used simultaneously for different purposes. Next come Pujabhah (a plate containing five fold offerings), Kayabhah (A ritual container used for offering vermillion and red powder), ritual crown, a rosary and Mandala. All these sacred elements have distinctive meanings of their own. The cooking utensils used by Newar Buddhist in their daily lives are also something quite different from others. They are couldron (Jahsi), a huge metal jar (Tepa), a huge vessel called Phosi, a cask (Bata), a bronze pot for cooking (Kasori), a receptacle, a small steel or bronze cup (Khwala), a bowl (Kacaura), a curve knife (Kuin).  Other ritual objects are drum (Damaru), Conch (Shankha), Key (Tah), a Candrahasa  sword. Every worker has their own tools. Just as spinning wheel (Carkha),the thread unraveller (Phyalu), Tanga etc are those of women, so the goldsmith, carpenter, mason, blacksmith and builders have their own tools. These tools are now being replaced by modern machine made tools, utensils and other household materials.

10. Profession

            A feature of Newari Buddhist Culture is that being a lay Buddhist devotee, he has been given a monk's status and they follow the Dharma together with their family, sustaining their lives through various professions. Had the monk's work been restricted exclusively to the alms begging and staying in the monastery only, Buddha's religion would have vanished in the Valley much earlier in the same way as it did in India. But Newar Buddhists though a lay follower are now integrating Buddhism into every walk of their lives through diverse professions. They follow their profession conforming to the doctrine of right livelihood. Those who have taken initiations, consciously refrain from slaughtering animals. They haven't resorted to the buying and selling of the animals for the sake of their livelihood either. Moreover, they don't even carry on transaction, dealing in the leathers and bones of animal. They do not make their livings, recruiting themselves in the army. It is not that because they are coward, they never wish to join in the army. They have upheld such values and assumption as preclude them from bringing about harms and disservices to the lives of the people. Guided by these values and assumptions, they refrain from evil action, telling lie, stimulating the concept of arrogance like "I and mine", but they would rather render the helps whenever people stand in need. They however perform service-oriented jobs such as  worshipping, constructing houses, sewing clothes, doing carpentry work and physician's work, portraying pictures, making graceful ornaments etc. for the benefit of others. They manufacture the wooden, earthen, metal artistic goods by means of which they disseminate the Dharma.

11. Customs

            It is very difficult to be born as a human being and is even more difficult to sustain our living. For generations, Newar Buddhists have co-operated each other, creating various customs and rituals in order that one's relatives may not suffer in his or her life. These customs are the results of the experiences of the older generations who have handed down to their posterity. It is the way to live a mutual life of cooperation among the fellow neighbours and relatives. The concept of helping others, which is to think other's suffering as one's own is like oil necessary for running the wheel of life. This concept of helping others has been institutionalized in Newar society as various life cycle rituals. Some of these life cycle rituals are listed as follows;

            1. Annaprasanna - feeding cereal to the child for the first time

            2. Cudakarma  Ceremony - ordaining the child as a monk for four days.

            3. Ihi  Ceremony -  ritual retreat of girls at the age 5-11 years old.

            4. Marriage Ceremony - This is the most important and exciting ceremony. According to highest Yoga Tantra, bliss and emptiness can be realized through this path under the guidance of  proper realized Gurus.

            5. Initiation Ceremony - For lay Buddhists, taking initiation of Cakrasamvara  is a must in Newar Buddhist tradition.

            6. Bhimaratharohana - A ceremony or rituals usually held for old parents who have attained the age of 77 years.                                          

            7. Death rituals - There are many rituals to be performed during and after the death of a certain person.

 12. Festivals

            Newar Buddhists celebrate different kinds of festivals in a year. Many energy and resource may be necessary to overcome various crises and calamities which arise with the change in the season. They rejoice ecstatically after finishing their works, but some celebrate the alien festivals too in order to adapt themselves to the society. These festivals are Dasain (Mohani)  & Tihar (Swanti).

            The first festival is said to be Gatha–nmuga Care. Care  refers to a day the Ta–ntrics  perform their worship, in the shrine of Digi, Gathanmuga Care  falls in two days before the Gunla Dharma  begins, its main object is to exorcise the evil spirits. Nails are driven or pounded into the lentils of the main gate to prevent the entry of spirits which have once been discarded or exorcised the spirit worship. The days that follow are those of Gunla Dharma  with which cultivation in the field begins.

            After Gunla begins, in Astami or the eighth day of the Lunar month, Dipankara Tathagata is displayed, Shakyas and Vajracharyas are honoured as monks and they are given alms. This also takes place in Jugah Care. In Gunla Paru, fruits called Sisaphusa, are offered as charity. In Gunla punhi, various deities and sculptors are displayed in Baha  and Bahis. It is in this day that a delicious mixture of cereal with nutritious soup called Kwati  is sipped. And a feast is organised to mark the end of Gunla Dharma. After Gunla is over, Newar Buddhists visit the holy temples dedicated to the Buddha to observe Yanla Seva throughout the month. When Yanla  begins, the power places of Astamatrika, the mother goddesses, are paid visit to and worshipped with lavish votive offerings followed by a magnificent feast at the end of Yanla. In the similar fashion, the Tihar  is also celebrated with great pomp and splendour. During Tihar, Laksmi worship, Body-worship and the worship of brothers take place on three consecutive days. Newar Buddhists perform all these worships offering to the Mandala of the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha according to their own traditional style.

            Dishi Puja that is held in the month of December on the tenth day(Dashami) of Lunar month has paramount importance in Newar Buddhist culture. According to Swayambhu Purana, Manjushriˆ beheld the two aspects of Guhesvari  namely, wrathful appearance and tranquil appearance in Dashami. Guhesvari  is adored and worshipped as Nairatmya,  a consort of Hevajra. In Navami, Agama puja  is performed and its consecrated offering is partaken in the following day.

            Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara has paramount importance in Newar Buddhist culture. In Kathmandu, the chariot festival dedicated to white Karunamaya (Avalokiteshvara) is celebrated while in Lalitpur the chariot festival of Avalokiteshvara Karunamaya, the red one, is celebrated with great pomp and splendour throughout the month. Before Karunamaya  is taken back to Bungamati village a vest called Bhoto studded with jewels is shown publicly in Jawalakhel in the presence of the King. The purpose of celebrating all festivals in Newar Buddhist culture is to realise Dharmakaya  and work for the benefit of all sentient beings.

13. Conclusion

            Newar Buddhist culture is conceived as the symbol of beliefs, values and behaviour of the people living in Kathmandu Valley which was once a lake and made habitable by Bodhisattva Manjushri. People of this place share the basic belief in Swayambhu Dharmadhatu Vagishvara, the symbol of innermost essence of the human existence. The values cherished by them are the Dashaparamita, the perfection of the ten qualities which they daily recite in order to attain them as goals. Their behaviours are guided by the ten virtuous acts they are instructed to perform and ten non-virtuous acts they are advised to shun. These beliefs, values and behaviours are not only shared by the people but they have passed down to their future generations through social, educational and cultural organizations called Vihara  which still exist in a number of five hundred in Kathmandu Valley. All kinds of caste people are associated with the Viharas, though Vajracharyas and Shakyas occupy the highest position by virtue of their being monks. This culture has adopted to the changing situations. It has still continued surviving through different turbulent periods in the history. It has adjusted itself in the kingdom ruled by Hindu Kings. All the activities of the Buddhists that they carry out throughout the day, throughout the month and throughout the year are integrated by their beliefs in the emptiness as explained in the Prajnaparamita  literature and Vihara organizational system centrally located in the Swayambhu.

            The Newar culture is changing in  the sense that Newars have changed their food habits, dress style, use of tools and utensils. They are sending their children to modern schools. But still their belief in the Swayambhu– as the supreme deity continues. This belief in Swayambhu is the  core of their whole culture. Literature, songs, dances, art, architecture, rituals etc all aspects of the Newar life style are simply the expresion of this essence which is symbolized by the Swayambhu. In all festivities and pooja performances a Swayambhu Caitya  replica is placed in the front place and puja is offered first to the Swayambhu Caitya. Their beliefs, values and behaviors have enabled them to live in peace for centuries. Such a peaceful and harmonious culture can be a model for the people around the world.