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The vajrayana branch of mahayana buddhism is practiced by 75% of the population of Bhutan and is the state religion. Hinduism is predominant among the people of Southern Bhutan and covers 20% of the population. Buddhism, like Hinduism, finds its roots in India and it is generally divided into two great schools: the mahayana, “greater vehicle,” and hinayana, “lesser vehicle,” (nowadays more commonly known as Theravada). The Sanskrit word yana, meaning “vehicle,” suggests a path which leads sentient beings to higher states, depending on their deeds.
Bhutan is the only independent mahayana buddhist country in the world today. It is generally thought that buddhist teachings arrived in Bhutan in the 7th century A.D., when the first two temples of Kyichu Lhakhang (in Paro), and Jampa Lhakhang (in Bumthang), were built, in the first half of the 7th century. Lhakhang Karpo and Lhakhang Nagpo, both in Haa Valley, also date from the same period.
However, the major growth of buddhism in Bhutan started in the 8th century A.D, with the visit of the Gandharan saint, Padmasambhava, popularly known in Bhutan as Guru Rinpoche, “the precious master.” His teachings laid the foundation for one of the most important and unifying forces in the development of Bhutan’s unique culture and tradition. Now, the Kingdom’s spiritual philosophy religion has become its way of life.
However, Bon was widely practiced before the advent of buddhism. Many of the mountains and local deities, which the people worship today, were originally gods belonging to the original Bon religion; as a result of Padmasambhava’s work, these were taken into buddhism as the protector deities.
From the 13th century on, many spiritual masters from Tibet came to Bhutan and spread the teachings of their schools, such as Sakyapa, Drukpa Kagyupa, Kathogpa, and Nyingmapa. Many of these schools were able to establish small temples, and, in the course of time, merged with other schools. Today, Drukpa Kagyupa and Nyingmapa are the two most prominent schools in Bhutan.
Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal (1594–1651), who unified Bhutan into a single state and built many Dzongs (fortresses), codified the teachings and traditions of buddhism now followed in Bhutan. To uphold these traditions, he appointed eight great disciples in the fields of lineage, oral tradition, religious law, and ritual, which are carried on today as the living tradition of the country.