Newar Buddhism

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Dīpankara Buddha (Bahi-dyah) on display during Gunla.

Newar Buddhism is the form of Buddhism practiced by the Newar people of the Kathmandu Valley, Nepal.[1][2] Newar Buddhism is a specific form of Vajrayana, distinct from Tibetan Buddhism, or the Japanese Shingon tradition. It has developed unique elements, such as the Newar caste system, in which the roles of the Buddhist community are determined by a hereditary caste system, which includes two types of clergy (the śakya and the vajrācārya), and a merchant class who serve as patrons (urāy).

Unique features of Newar Buddhism

Newar Buddhism includes the following unique features when compared to other Buddhist traditions:

  • preservation of forms of Mahayana and Vajrayana as practiced in later Indian Buddhism
  • reliance on Sanskrit texts for study and practice liturgies
  • later development of the Buddhism community within a larger Hindu community, and under the governance of Hindu kings
  • the development of a unique hereditary caste system which determines roles that individuals play within the Buddhist community

Charles Novak (1992) states:

The most noted characteristic of Buddhadharma as practiced by the Newars of Kathmandu Valley is that it has to a large extent preserved those forms of later Indian Buddhism known as Mahayana and Vajrayana in an unbroken, living tradition.[2]

John Locke (2008) states:

The uniqueness of Newar Buddhism... is related to the fact that it is embedded in a dominant Hindu society confined with in a very small geographical area. Buddhism in India flourished in a Hindu society, but within a vast area where it was possible for the monks to truly withdraw from Hindu society to establish their monasteries in relatively remote places where they were less affected by the customs and strictures of Hindu society. In the Valley of Nepal, Buddhism flourished within the confines of the three small walled cities of Patan, Kathmandu and Bhaktapur, where it was very much a part of its (Hindu) surroundings.[1]

The roles of the "clergy" (the śakya, and the vajrācārya)

A Vajracharya priest

John Locke (1975) states:

The clergy of the Newar Buddhists are the bare, a cast made of two subdivisions, the śakya, and the vajrācārya (or more commonly in Newari the gubhājū). They are the custodians of the ancient shrines of Buddhism, the bahās (Sanskrit vihāra), and the vajrācāryas are the family priests of all the other Buddhist castes among the Newaris.
The bahā is the center of religious life and the focus of their social relations. The members of the bahā are a patrilineal descent group, i.e. one is a member of his father's bahā. He must be initiated there, and he is entitled to share in the life and rites of that bahā only. The initiated male members of these families constitute the bahā sangha, a term used in the early stages of Buddhism to denote the community of bhikṣus, or Buddhist monks. Office and function within the sangha go by seniority of initiation. The bare chuyegu is the initiation rite of the bare. The membership of some bahās is composed only of śakyas, some only of vajrācāryas, and some are mixed. The sangha of the Machindra Baha is composed of both śakyas and vajrācāryas, and the difference between the functions and status of the groups is clear from the initiation rite.
A recent article by Michael Allen in South Asia gives a brief description of the bare chuyegu rite as performed in Patan. It is evident from his article that these there are differences between the Patan rite and the Kathmandu rite, especially in regard to the ceremonies pertaining to the vajrācāryas. Furthermore, I suspect there are minor differences and local customs in each of the bahās. However, the main outlines of the ceremony are the same, and the manuscripts which I have seen show that they have remained the same for at least 250 years.[3]

Nine sacred texts

In Newar Buddhism, a group of nine Mahayana sutras, called the "nine books" (navagrantha) or "nine dharmas" (navadharma), are revered as special objects of devotion.[4] The nine texts are preserved in the Sanskrit language. They are:[5][6][7]

  1. Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra
  2. Saddharma Puṇḍarīka Sūtra
  3. Suvarṇaprabhāsa Sūtra
  4. Samādhirāja Sūtra
  5. Gandavyūha Sūtra
  6. Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra
  7. Daśabhūmika Sūtra
  8. Lalitavistara Sūtra
  9. Tathāgataguhya Sūtra (actually replaced by the Guhyasamaja since the tradition lost the Tathāgataguhya Sūtra)

Artistic tradition

Newar Buddhism is characterized by its extensive and detailed rituals, a rich artistic tradition of Buddhist monuments and artwork like the Chaitya (stupa), Baha and Bahi monastic courtyards, statues, Paubha scroll paintings and Mandala sand paintings, and by being a storehouse of ancient Sanskrit Buddhist texts, many of which are now only extant in Nepal.[8]

Roger Goepper states:

Nepal’s proximity to Northern India influenced the Buddhist art in Nepal on many levels; these Indian influences were later integrated into existing local traditions. The earliest still existing monuments were stupas. The four Aśoka stupas erected at the cardinal points near the entrances to the city of Patan are related to basic Indian forms of the third century, as exemplified by the Great Stupa of Sanchi. The stupas at Patan have flat tumulus-like cupolas on low walls, small shrines for reliefs of buddhas, and square harmikās (pavilion-like blocks of stone atop the domelike stupas) that show Pala influence. The large Swayambhunath stupa to the west of Kathmandu, first erected around 400 C.E., is dedicated to the five tathagatas. It shows a relationship to a Mauryan tumulus, but pairs of eyes painted onto the four sides of the harmikā are a Nepalese characteristic. They symbolize the all-seeing eyes of the supreme ādi-buddha. The stupa is designed as a representation of the axis of the world, and it is thus surrounded by four shrines marking each of the heavenly directions. The plan of the second monumental stupa of Boudhanath in Bhatgāon (Bhaktapur) is related to the concepts of a mandala. It is also orientated to the four heavenly directions; it has a flat large tumulus on a three-step foundation, as well as eyes on the harmikā. One hundred and eight niches in the low base of the aṇḍa contain statues of Amitabha.
The earliest representations of monastic architecture in Newari style are found in illustrations of prajnaparamita sutras that date to 1015. These buildings were characterized by a combination of plain brick walls, with roofs, doors, and windows made of elaborately decorated wood, a style possibly derived from Gupta architecture. Such structures are also characterized by slanting struts supporting the weight of the projecting roofs, which sometimes have Chinese-looking upturned corners.[9]

Chachā (Charyā) ritual song and dance and Gunlā Bājan music are other artistic traditions of Newar Buddhism.[10]


  1. 1.0 1.1 Locke 2008.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Novak 1992.
  3. Locke 1975, pp. 1-2.
  4. Robert E. Buswell Jr., Donald S. Lopez Jr., The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism (Princeton: 2014), s.v. Navadharma
  5. Ratnakaji Bajracharya (1993), Traditions of Newar Buddhist Culture. "Newar Buddhist Culture Preservation seminar".
  6. Shakya, Miroj. The Digital Sanskrit Buddhist Canon Project: Problems and Possibilities in "Veidlinger, Daniel (2019) Digital Humanities and Buddhism: An Introduction. Walter de Gruyter GmbH & Co KG."
  7. 84000.png Roberts, Peter Alan (2022), The King of Samādhis Sūtra , 84000 Reading Room, Introduction
  8. Gutschow, Niels (November 2011). Architecture of the Newars: A History of Building Typologies and Details in Nepal. Chicago: Serindia Publications. p. 707. ISBN 978-1-932476-54-5. 
  9. Goepper 2004, pp. 322-323.
  10. Widdess, Richard. "Caryā and Cacā: Change and Continuity in Newar Buddhist Ritual Song". Asian Music. University of Texas Press. 35 (2): 7–41. JSTOR 4098444. 


Further reading

External links

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