When the great Indian master Padmasambhava (Guru Rimpoche) introduced Tantric Buddhism to Bhutan, he had to overcome millennia of popular sentiment, tradition, and superstition invested in the ancient Bon religion.
Like the Roman Emperor Constantine, the early Christians missionaries in Europe, the Spanish and Portuguese priests in Central and South America, the Islamic mullah in India and in Indonesia, Guru Rimpoche had to incorporate aspects of local custom to make widespread conversion possible. In the Tantric tradition, this is referred to as “taming the local gods” by eliminating animal sacrifice and merging Buddhist concepts with shamanistic ritual and nature worship.
Bonpos worship a host of demigods considered the rightful owners of the natural elements: mountain peaks are the abodes of guardians, lakes are inhabited by water goddesses, the land belongs to subterranean deities, water sources are inhabited by spirits, and dark places are haunted by demons. These deities were not eradicated by Tantric Buddhism but incorporated, creating a spiritual relationship between people and their landscapes. The Buddhists of Bhutan engage with specific places in their landscape to nurture the habits of mind that recognize forests, soil, rivers, mountains, and wildlife as sources of life.
Respect for the sacred realms of local deities in Bhutan has shaped human settlement, land use patterns, local custom, and placement of religious as well as secular structures adding beauty and harmony to the landscape. Urban Bhutanese are obliged to return to their ancestral villages once a year to pay homage to their local deities. Modernization is subtly eroding this practice, threatening the cultural and ecological survival of sacred natural sites and spiritual landscapes and replacing them with ugly urban design.