400 years of Zhung Dratshang Commemorated

On May 11, 2022, the auspicious occasion of Zhabdrung Kuchoe, His Majesty The King, His Majesty the Fourth Druk Gyalpo, His Holiness the Je Khenpo and the Royal Family graced the ceremony to commemorate 400 years of the Zhung Dratshang at Punakha Dzong. 
Ministers and senior government officials were in attendance for the ceremony. 
His Majesty, His Majesty the Fourth Druk Gyalpo, and His Holiness the Je Khenpo offered prayers at the sacred Machen Lhakhang in Punakha Dzong. 
Special prayers were recited at the Grand Kuenrey of Punakha Dzong, with Ku Sung Thugten Mendrel offerings. 
The first formal monastic community in Bhutan was established by Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel at Chari Monastery in Thimphu, which was completed in 1622. The establishment of the Zhung Dratshang is of historic significance as it marks the first steps in unifying Bhutan as a nation-state in the 17th century.
According to history, before completion of the monastery, Zhabdrung instituted his first sangha by enrolling 30 novice monks in 1621. Hence, the establishment of Zhung Dratshang was formally started in 1621 with the induction of monks and finally completed with the consecration of the Chari Monastery in 1622.
It is said that three years after Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel arrived in Bhutan, in 1619, his father Mipham Tenpa Nyima (1567-1619) passed away in Tibet. The Zhabdrung secretly smuggled the mortal remains of his father and performed the cremation at Tango monastery in Thimphu. Historical accounts also say that after the funerary services at Tango, Zhabdrung performed the divination before the sacred Ranjung Kharasapani (self-created image of Avalokiteshvara) for a suitable site to construct the kudung chorten or the reliquary stupa that would house the remains of his father. He also sought the auguries of the protective deity, Yeshey Goenpo.  Both the divinations pointed to the site of the Chagri Dorjeden monastery, now popularly known as Chari monastery.
According to late Dasho Sangay Dorji, construction of the Chari Monastery was carried out mainly by Zhabdrung’s monk-attendants, his patrons from Kabisa and devotees which included the local populace. The Tango Choeje Mipham Tshewang Tenzin was appointed as the site supervisor. In addition to the Bhutanese volunteers, he also had five Nepali Newari craftsmen who were hired to sculpt the reliquary stupa.
“The newly built monastery with its 12 sides was an architectural marvel. Big enough to accommodate the increasing numbers of monks, nuns and devotees, the principal aim was to establish the monastery as the seat of the Southern Drukpa Kagyud or the Lho Drukpa Kagyud,” writes historian and writer Tshering Tashi.
According to Tshering “one of the jewels of the Chari monastery is its goenkhang or chapel dedicated to the protective deities.” “In it, Zhabdrung offered numerous sacred and exquisite relics including sculptures that he himself crafted. Stories are told of how Zhabdrung personally painted the murals on the walls of the chapel. Zhabdrung and his Yongzin, Khedrup Lhawang Lodroe presided over the consecration ceremony of the monastery.”
According to Dasho Sangay Dorji, the first head abbot of the Chari monastery was Choeje Chogdra. The Umze was Druk Namgyal and the Kudrung was Pekar Jungney with Tenzing Drugyal as the first Chagzo.
Tshering further mentions that in addition to the appointment of the first officials, Zhabdrung had invited his esteemed tutor, Yongzin Khedrup Lhawang Lodroe (b.16thc) from Tibet to teach at the monastery. The Yongzin was not only a great Drukpa scholar but a brilliant astrologer. At the newly established monastery, he presided over the performance of the prayer ceremonies and rituals.
The Yongzin is credited for the composition of the astrological commentaries. It is based on the interpretations of the accomplished Drukpa Kagyu master, Kunkhyen Pema Karpo (1527-1591).  The great scholar’s writings on astrology are the main source of the unique Bhutanese calendrical system.
“At Chari, Zhabdrung is supposed to have composed some of his foremost commentaries and ritual manuals used to this day by the Zhung Dratshang. He and his Yongzin imparted regular teachings to the first batch of monks at the Chari monastery,” Tshering writes.
The monks at the monastery were regulated by the constitutional and procedural framework Zhabdrung had drawn up for his first monastic community in Ralung in Tibet.  They followed a set of religious curricula and the strict code of conduct known as Chayig Chenmo.
The establishment of Chari began a new chapter in the history of the Drukpa Kagyu School. It was the start of the organized religious tradition of Lho Druk or Southern Drukpa order.
The origin of the Zhung Dratshang dates back to 1621 when Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel inducted the first batch of monks consisting of 30 monks and consecrated the Chari monastery four hundred years ago in 1622.
After building Chari monastery and operationalizing the monastic institution, in 1623, Zhabdrung entered into a three-year retreat in a cave just above the main structure. As a firm believer in prophesies, dreams, and the workings of karma, Zhabdrung wanted to use the time in retreat to contemplate his next step.
Historical evidence suggest that Zhabdrung’s original intent was to return to Tibet. The grand plan was to contest his legitimacy with his rival Tsang Desi Phuntsho Namgyel in the regional court of Tsang. However, with the dispute being drawn-out which was followed by several intense battles, Zhabdrung was left with no choice but to devise plan B.
Bhutan is regarded as one of the last Buddhist countries where the Vajrayana tradition of Buddhism has flourished uninterrupted and undiluted since its arrival in the 7th century AD. Bhutanese culture, tradition, customs, history, and landscape bear the influence of Buddhism. This is attributed to the institutionalisation of the Zhung Dratshang, or the Central Monk Body, since its establishment in 1620 by His Holiness Zhabdrung Rinpoche Ngawang Tenzin Namgyel, the Father of the Nation. The unification of the country, codification of the laws, and organisational development of the dual system of governance happened only after establishment of this significant primary institution.
Although Bhutan had many great scholars and spiritual masters between the 9th to 17th centuries, none of them could establish a formal monastic community or Sangha in Bhutan. It was Zhabdrung Rinpoche who instituted the Sangha at Cheri, as the base for administration at the time. Later, in 1637 the Sangha was moved to Punakha Dzong, which today continues to serve as the winter residence or headquarters of the Zhung Dratshang, while Thimphu Tashichhoedzong serves as the summer residence. According to the Constitution of Bhutan, the Zhung Dratshang is an autonomous institution, financed by an annual grant from the Royal Government.
At the head of this institution is His Holiness the Je Khenpo, the crown jewel of the religious hierarchy. The present Je Khenpo, His Holiness Ngawang Jigme Choedra, is the 70th in line and assumed office in 1996. He is assisted by five Lopen Lhengyes who are masters in specialized religious disciplines. They are the members of the Supreme Sangha Council and are conferred ranks equal to a government minister by the Constitution.
Each of the Lopen Lhengye is in charge of one of five areas: religious tradition, ritual services, social services, institutions for education, and administration & finance. The Dorji Lopen is chief of the five Lopens and normally succeeds to the Vajra Throne of His Holiness the Je Khenpo. Below them are eight deputy minister-ranking officials: the two Zimpons (chamberlains), two Getshog Lopens (masters of the rites), and the four Prefects. They are further assisted by District Abbots, Heads of Institutions, administrators, and junior monastic officials who are in charge of various divisions such as ritual performers, Mandala and arts, various religious music, masked dances, astrology and twenty-nine offices.
(With additional inputs from writings of Tshering Tashi and Lopen Gembo Dorji).