With two days left until the start of the International Vajrayana Conference at the Center for Bhutanese and GNH Studies, President Dasho Karma Ura spoke with Research Fellow Yangchen C. Rinzin about the significance of the event. The excerpts.
The conference returns after three years. Specifically, what can we expect regarding Vajrayana Buddhism?
Participants from 37 different nations are taking part in the conference. The conference brings together a large number of distinguished Vajrayana Buddhist scholars as well as high religious figures. We are honored to have Buddhist spiritual leaders from the region and also from distant nations like Russia.
The increase in the number of foreigners from 88 at the last conference to around 200 this year speaks for their growing importance in the perception of science and practice. The fact that speakers and attendees pay for their journey, not to mention the time they put in, shows the great interest in the conference. After their arrival, the speakers will only be entertained on site for the duration of the actual conference days. In a modest way, the local economy is momentarily brightened by the international participants.
The range of topics presented over the four days is indeed broad. The themes deal in one way or another with the impact of Vajrayana Buddhism on our lives today amidst changing economic and technological situations. There are articles on Buddhism’s intersection with philosophy, constitutionalism, politics and geopolitics, health, AI, digitalism, meditation, retreats, mindfulness, ecology, environment, social engagement, feminism, yoginis, bhikkhunis, the lightbody, death, visionary experiences, the arts including music and so on.
Why is such a conference being held in Bhutan and why is it important in today’s world?
Vajrayana Buddhism has been a central part of Bhutan since the beginning of its known history in the 6th century. Seen from a broader perspective, therefore, we have a historic mandate to carry his insights as far as possible through such events, even when budgets are limited. With His Revered Majesty’s blessings, which we have received now as in the past, I am sure that the conference will go ahead. I hope that this event will become regular. Thanks to the kind support of the International Buddhist Confederation of India, this year’s edition of the conference could take place, and we look forward to similarly generous donors in the future.
The central monastic body co-hosting the conference is an embodiment of the Vajrayana institution which is dedicated to combining skillful means in practice and wisdom to realize that nothing inherently exists. Its many offerings can be globalized, and one way is through such events.
In terms of the relevance of the conference to today’s issues, Buddhism offers its own distinctive orientations and viewpoints, and in that sense it is also a source of insight into how everyone approaches economics, business, management, the environment, food, commerce and can shape , technology, ethics, social organization, politics, etc. from a Buddhist framework of understanding our human existence and its future. Knowledge and perspectives are really quite diverse, and we should be open to exploring which ones can shine a better light and point a better way towards a future together.
The theme of the conference is “Modernity of Buddhism”. As broad as the subject is, could you explain why Buddhism is modern? What is the logic behind it?
Modernity in Buddhism is another way of saying that most of Buddhism’s insights can be explored as timelessly relevant, or of saying that it is not antiquated in every way. There are always admirable scientific attempts to separate myths from facts, knowledge from dogmas. The conference papers will comprehensively underpin the modernity of Buddhism. To give you an example, one of the outstanding understandings of Buddhism is its insightful theory of consciousness and sense of self, and explanation of the mind’s minor afflictions. Buddhism also comes down to a modern frontier research: what is consciousness and what is self-identity?
Who can attend the conference? What is the driving force when CBS, a single organization, manages the entire conference with more than 200 foreign participants and 400 local participants?
Everyone is welcome to attend any session they wish to attend. It is open to the public at all times. We envisage 500 seats in plenary sessions and half of them in each parallel session. The plenary sessions last until 4 p.m., after which parallel sessions take place. A Buddhist calligraphy exhibition by the renowned Sikkimese calligrapher Jamyang Dorji, which is also open to the public at all times, will be held. There will also be classes by Kalu Rinpoche on the evening of the 1st and 2nd and a film screening by the Russian delegation on the evening of the 3rd.
Bhutanese officials are generally quick to solve practical logistical challenges when ill-conceived rules don’t cause deadlocks. The scientific staff at CBS have extensive skills in this regard. They formed groups and each group took on a range of responsibilities from running the kitchen to running the sound systems. Other groups have taken on everything from conference programming to entertainment performances. This is being skillfully coordinated by Jigme Phuntsho on our side and high monk Lopen Ugyen Namgyel on Dratshang’s side.
Can you talk a little about the history of Vajrayana Buddhism in Bhutan?
Our country was sanctified by repeated visits from Guru Rinpoche who enriched the country and people with liberation, enlightened freedom and happiness and initiated Vajrayana Buddhism in the Himalayas and Tibet in the 8th century. According to the text of the Bhutanese Terton Ugyen Zangpo, Guru gave the Bhutanese King Sindha Raza and his opponent and their respective retainers in Nabji in Trongsa Sadhana of the Eight Herukas. Enlightened women like Khando Yeshey Tshogyal and Monmo Tashi Chidren soon saw this potential, and countless others followed over time. So, the history of Vajrayana Buddhism in Bhutan is quite rich. It is part of the strand of our identity and aspirations. Deepening our understanding of the various facets of Vajrayana Buddhism could only enrich this strand of our identity.
What is the takeaway of this conference for the Bhutanese audience?
Vajrayana Buddhism has maintained a dual focus in our country. The first was removing obstacles on the path to healthy everyday living, and the second was removing obstacles on the path to enlightenment. Even as a layman, one can strive to combine these two paths at the same time. We hope that the conference will refocus people on healthy living and give a little boost to the progress of their enlightenment.