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Mongolia and Inner Asia Studies Unit


The Bhutanese socio-cultural identity and nationhood was shaped by its rich religious past and the religious traditions continue to have pervasive influence on both the affairs of the state and the lives of ordinary people.

One of the most influential religious traditions arose from its local religious savant, Pema Lingpa (1450-1521). Pema Lingpa is Bhutan’s foremost religious figure and the founder of one of the two major schools of Buddhist practice and spirituality in Bhutan. A mystic, saint, artist and the founder of several monasteries and religious lineages, Pema Lingpa is now celebrated as a spiritual ancestor and cultural hero. He is undoubtedly the most renowned Bhutanese figure in the Himalayan Buddhist world.

His teachings form the religious classics and liturgies in many Himalayan communities, and the monasteries he and his descendants founded in Bhutan and Tibet are well-known centres of religious education, art and culture. The institutions arising from his family and the line of reincarnations have played an important role in shaping the history of Bhutan and the Himalayas. Yet, no proper study or documentation of the Pad gling establishments and institutions has so far been undertaken apart from a few biographical and genealogical accounts. A systematic study of the historical development and the religious and political significance of Pad gling institutions is crucial to our understanding of Himalayan religion and history.

The principal themes and topics this project aims to explore are the corpus of teachings associated with the tradition known as Pag gling chos skor, the three lines of reincarnations known as Pad gling yab sras gsum and the many monastic and family establishments associated with the Pema Lingpa tradition. The treasure teachings Pema Lingpa revealed and his own writings became very popular even in his lifetime. They spread across the Himalayan Buddhist world and is now being studied and practiced across the globe. The three reincarnations continued and propagated the legacy of Pema Lingpa and played leading roles in the religious and secular history of Bhutan and the Himalayas. Pema Lingpa’s family line has also grown into a pre-eminent class of religious elites and dominated the Bhutanese religious and political scene. The current royal family of Bhutan claims direct descent from Pema Lingpa, as do many other Himalayan religious elites. The arts and cultures introduced by Pema Lingpa and his descendants today represent the intrinsic Bhutanese tradition. The rituals and masked dances composed by Pema Lingpa and his followers are performed across the country during festive occasions and Pema Lingpa’s metal works are treasured as masterpieces. Pema Ling and his tradition is, thus, seen to underpin the Bhutanese cultural identity.