Invoking Happiness – the Sacred Festivals of Bhutan

Excerpted with permission from “Invoking Happiness – Guide to the Sacred Festivals of Bhutan and Gross National Happiness” by Khenpo Phuntshok Tashi, 2011.Bhutan is a country deeply steeped in Vajrayana Buddhist traditions, which originated with the arrival and auspicious influence of Guru Padmasambhava (or Guru Rinpoche) in the 8th Century. Vajrayana is often translated as the “indestructible path” and is one that employs skillful means and wisdom to remove obstacles and difficulties that are encountered on the journey to enlightenment. To follow this indestructible path requires extraordinary devotion and superior acumen on the part of the practitioners, who also – and perhaps most importantly – require the guidance of a qualified spiritual teacher. Today, Bhutan is the only country in the world where Vajrayana Buddhism is maintained as the state religion and where its guiding principles are directly incorporated into governmental policy.

Presently, awareness and knowledge about Bhutan is steadily rising and many international observers consider it a land of happiness, especially as a result of the government actively nurturing and developing the concept of Gross National Happiness (GNH). This concept was first introduced by the visionary Druk Gyalpo Jigme Singye Wangchuck, the Fourth King of Bhutan, and is considered to be one of the most important innovations in Bhutanese history. The Gross National Happiness policy consists of many components and its initiatives are visible throughout Bhutan. One key guideline seeks to preserve and promote Bhutan’s unique traditional culture. This is often most visibly embodied in local festivals and district-wide tshechu ceremonies.

In its most general terms, happiness can be defined as a positive mental state and the opposition of suffering. As the ultimate goal of Buddhism is to create conditions that eradicate suffering, these festivals can be considered manifestations of these Buddhist aspirations, displayed to the public in order to provide both teachings and direct experiences related to the path towards enlightenment.

When Tshechus (sacred festivals) are conducted, they are generally held in monasteries, dzongs, or temples of a particular community. The resultant positive mindset experienced by local residents becomes both a cause and a condition for an enduring positive mental state. The Tshechu fosters an environment in which all members of society, regardless of social position, come together to be entertained and cultivate a harmonious mindset. This frame of mind brings about positive action for all the attendees, and for this reason, there are hundreds of Tsechus throughout the country. The major Tsechus are held in Thimphu, Paro and Bumthang dzongkhags (districts), and these holiday events are organized during a specific time so as to best sustain the feeling of the community.

In Bhutan, it is understood that the Tshechu is an ideal mechanism to promote happiness and harmony, and strengthen social bonds within the community. These representations of traditional culture are given high priority and great respect from every level of Bhutanese society and function as a manifestation of Gross National Happiness.

Festival and Its Benefit

Most festivals and Tshechus feature sacred dances which were established by the masters of Vajrayana Buddhism and encompass many of its major teachings. The main goal of practicing Buddhism is to become fully enlightened and there are countless ways by which to achieve this aspiration. For an individual to simply be present and see these sacred dances, and experience them with the right mindset and pure intention is considered an auspicious opportunity. This applies to all those present, including the dancers, that they may be liberated from the suffering that pervades earthly life by properly cultivating themselves. This potential for transcendence is further extended to the animals and other sentient beings, such as insects, that may happen to be in the vicinity of these performances.

It is said in Vajrayana tradition that once you adhere to the Buddhist teachings, that there is every possibility to become fully enlightened within this very lifetime. However, enlightenment is contingent upon following the advice and guidance of a qualified master; the Vajrayana path is considered a fast, yet more difficult means of doing so. Practitioners must harbor strong devotion and dedication, and while the Tshechu performances provide entertainment, more importantly, they serve to remind practitioners of the different dimensions of the Vajrayana tradition, prompting them on the path to enlightenment in an entertaining yet effective way.