Bhutan’s travelling monks
The lay monks popularly known as Lam Manips are the custodians of the precious Tashigomangs. These lams were once an integral part of the sacred cultural landscape of the Mahayana kingdom of Bhutan. From the former scores of the widely visible lay monks, today there are only two professional Lam Manips left. Kinley (born 1932) is now 85 years old and his colleague Kunzang Tenzi (born 1944) is 72. Nowadays both are in failing health. With no successors coming up, they are highly concerned about the future of the Tashigomang and Lam Manip tradition. The very survival of this element of Bhutan’s rich intangible cultural heritage is now under threat.
In the monastic community, Lam is a title given only to learned monks. They enjoy higher status and have more privileges than the average monks. A Manip is a person who chants the sacred mantra of Avalokiteshvara.
In Buddhist communities, this chant is considered the simplest but most sacred of all mantras. There are multiple benefits of chanting it. For example, it is believed that by reciting the mantra a hundred times, the merits accrued are equivalent to the merit earned by reading the 108 volumes of the Kangyur, which contain the Buddha’s entire teachings.
Because Buddhists believe in rebirth, it is believed that by reciting the mantra ten thousand times, one shuts the door to possible rebirths in the lower realms. Similarly, by reciting the magic syllables a million times, one can induce the seeds of bodhisattvahood to sprout faster. It is also believed that dedicated ones can even attain Buddhahood by reciting the mantra ten million times. So Buddhists of all ages and from all walks of life chant the sacred mantra of Avalokiteshvara diligently and revere the Lam Manips.
Lam Manips are gomchens or lay monks. But unlike Buddhist monks or gelongs they do not have to keep all the 253 vows. Like the gomchens, they marry and raise families and live in the villages. However, they enjoy higher status than the gomchens. Lam Manip Kunzang confirms that they are ranked higher in the pecking order of the Central Monastic Body hierarchy. The two indicators of this ranking are visible in their dress. Firstly, they have more folds in their scarf than an ordinary monk. Secondly, they are permitted to wear the dra lam or ceremonial boots. The gomchens are not entitled to these privileges.
The tradition of Manips exists in Tibet and in Ladakh, India and possibly in other Buddhist communities in the Himalayas. Commonly known as Manipas, the lay monks carry Thangkas or scrolls, usually of the Wheel of Life and Zhi thro or mural depicting life after death. The Manipas normally position themselves in places of congregation. Using a stick, they explain the paintings in these scrolls to the onlookers. Interestingly, this culture existed in North Eastern Bhutan in the dzongkhag of Trashiyangtse until a few years ago. The last known Manipa in Bhutan was Tsham Nidup who died in 2015 at the age of 85.
Origins of Lam Manips
Nothing in writing has been found yet about the origin or the tradition of the Lam Manip. However, according to our oral source Lam Manip Kunzang, Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel (1591-1651) instituted the tradition. It was his wish to make the Tashigomangs portable and not to keep them just in one place. So he deputed knowledgeable monks to travel to villages with these portable shrines.
If we are to believe the Lam Manip, initially the central monastic body recruited gelongs for the job. There is no formal curriculum or established institution for the training of the Lam Manips. The main criterion for the job was that these monks be physically strong, as they had to walk with a heavy load for long stretches at a time. In addition to being physically fit, the monks had to be multi-talented with good social and communication skills. They needed to have melodious voices and to be able to carry the tune of the mani. In addition, they had to have a good knowledge of Buddhism and be able to recite fables and legends.
Over the years, the tradition of the Lam Manip evolved. It became more convenient and practical for the gomchens to take over this responsibility from the gelongs who had a lot of restrictions on their activities. These lay monks were more familiar with the people and conditions in the villages.
As travelling monks, the Lam Manips would walk from one village to another. Because the Tashigomang is sacred and precious, most of the time the Lam Manips would carry the miniature temple themselves. But there are cases and tradition where people in the villages helped carry them to other villages.
The Sinphu Goenpa in remote Trongsa has a Tashigomang and an official post of Lam Manip. It is probably one of the last such villages with this tradition in the country. In addition to this interesting aspect of the monastery, the village has been able to preserve the gomchen culture and keep it alive. Twenty lay monks live in the vicinity of the monastery. The monastery has limited means to sustain their livelihood so every year six of the lay monks take turns on a rotation basis to look after the monastery.
Three of them are designated as kurneys or caretakers of the three temples located in the monastery. The remaining three are at the supervisory level and serve in the traditional central monastic posts of Kudu (Discipline Master), Umze (Chant Master) and Lam Manip. However, the Sinphu Lam said that it has been 15 years since the Lam Manip has taken out the Tashigomang to the villages.
Until then, the tradition of the Tashigomang was a prominent feature of the monastery’s calendar. For example, every year on the first day of the 10th month of the lunar calendar corresponding to the month of December, the Lam Manip would set out with the Tashigomang. He would walk to Mangdi TshoZhir covering the five gewogs or blocks of Nubi, Tangsibji, Drakteng, Langthil and Korphu.
After two weeks, on the 14th day of the month, he would return to Sinphu Goenpa. The following day, as part of the tradition, he would host a lavish lunch for all the gomchens of his community.
The donations that he had received, which consisted mainly of grain, were then used for the Sinphu Nguney the biggest event in the calendar year of the village. Because this ceremony took place immediately after the Trongsa Tsechu, the Nguney drew a large crowd. The funds and grain collected by the Lam Manips were used to fund this grand ceremony.
According to Sinphu Lam, the Chipon or messenger of the village, used to receive his Lam Manip. The village messenger would then walk from house to house and inform the people about the arrival of his guest. The local people would flock to see the sacred contraption and listen to the stories of the Lam Manip. The Lam Manip took the opportunity to teach the fundamentals of Buddhism and explain the need to earn merit by hoisting prayer flags and making offerings of all kinds. The Lam Manips claim that it was because of them that the Buddhist teachings flourished. Written historical evidence supports this claim.
Until February 18, 1997, Bhutanese were required to contribute free labour for development activities of the country. The Lam Manips also were entitled to this levy as the people would help them carry their grain to the monastery. While this news came as a boon to the common people, it was the start of the decline of this facet of Bhutan’s rich intangible cultural heritage.
As part of the revival of the ancient Lam Manip culture, training is already underway. Lam Manip Kunzang has already trained five gomchens of Sinphu Goenpa.