Swayambhunath Stupa

The Means to Awakening

Samuel Grimes on Newar Buddhism and its guru–student dynamic.

By Samuel M. Grimes

Mariana Restrepo
Swayambhunath Stupa in Nepal. Photo by Aashish Sapkota.

Buddhadharma: Newar Buddhism is a lesser-known tradition. What is it, and who practices it?

Samuel M. Grimes: Generally speaking, Newars are the indigenous ethnic group of Nepal’s Kathmandu Valley. Newar Buddhists practice the only form of Mahayana in which all ritual and liturgy is in Sanskrit. They preserve a version of Buddhism that some have labeled “Indian” since they are the ones who still practice the form of the religion that once existed in today’s India. 

Are there other factors that notably differentiate Newar Buddhism from other Mahayana traditions?

Newar society is very stratified according to caste status, and Newar Buddhism is no exception. Newar Buddhism is the only form of the religion with specifically Buddhist castes. No one knows exactly when these castes were codified (vajracaryas and sakyas are the Buddhist priest caste), but it seems likely it may have been as recently as the late eighteenth century when the Hindu Gorkhas took over Nepal. 

In practice, Newar Buddhism is highly orthodox and has often been incorrectly aligned with Hinduism due to a superficial resemblance. But the image and stupa veneration with a highly ritualized form of Mahayana is exactly what disappeared from the rest of the northern subcontinent and is now in the sole preserve of the Newars.

Given that Newar Buddhism is a hereditary tradition practiced exclusively by the Newar people of the Kathmandu Valley, how did you become involved with this tradition? 

I would not say that I am a practitioner of Newar Buddhism. Newar Buddhists have life cycle rites, ritual performance birthrights, familial lineages, etcetera, that, as a matter of course, no foreigner may become a part of. 

However, one may disentangle the Sanskrit Mahayana from the culturally specific tradition to an extent. A number of prominent vajracaryas (the highest Buddhist caste) have done this in the past few decades and attempted to open this aspect of the religion to outsiders. My teacher, Yagyamanpati Bajracharya, is a leader in this endeavor of outreach. Outsiders to the tradition are not only foreigners, but anyone who is not a member of castes traditionally associated with Buddhist practice. 

How did you find your guru?

I had questions regarding transgressive language in Buddhist tantras, and my friend Amrit recommended that I meet his master, Yagyamanpati Bajracharya. Amrit is a buddhacarya, a member of a hereditary priesthood who are the stewards of the Svayambhu stupa in Kathmandu. Guruju Yagyamanpati was teaching a group of buddhacaryas twice a week, and I would come toward the end of their meeting and wait outside the secret room for him. We would converse as he walked from the hilltop down to the backside, where taxis waited. This was in 2014. In 2016, I requested certain initiations and traveled to Nepal for ritual training and the requisite initiations. I am his only foreign student to request training in tantric ritual, and I was not accepted immediately; I was made to prove my resolve and seriousness through a series of tests and was told that any lapse in duty would result in my excommunication.

Can you describe the guru–disciple principle in the Newar tradition? How is their perspective on this dynamic different from other Mahayana traditions?

As Guruju Yagyamanpati once said to me, “Guru is greater than God. There is no God, but if there was, guru would be greater.” The guru deserves absolute respect and service. Considering this power imbalance, one must be prudent in selecting a teacher. This perspective is no different from any other Mahayana tradition. In practice, Newar Buddhism is the most orthodox form of the religion, and as a continuation of the tradition that once existed in India, it serves as the template from which other traditions have constructed their models regarding what is proper.

What does the Newar tradition tell us about how to approach finding a teacher?

Karma will take a person to a teacher’s door. That is to say, one would be impelled to seek a guru due to the ripening of their karma. If one is born into a Newar Buddhist family, this is due to karma. If a foreigner is in Nepal, seeking a teacher of Indic, Sanskrit Buddhism, this is due to karma. A request must be made by the prospective student for training; a teacher does not summon prospective disciples. There must be a real connection between guru and disciple, like that of a parent and a child. The parent loves the child unconditionally and is responsible for it, and the child loves, respects, and relies on the parent. In Newar society, elders are revered, and the young serve the old. The guru should be revered and served in such a way. The guru is giving the student the means to awakening and nirvana in this very life. Selecting the appropriate teacher for oneself is a serious business. 

Samuel M. Grimes

Samuel M. Grimes is the Shinjo Ito Postdoctoral Fellow in Buddhist Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. He specializes in the Buddhism of Nepal, both through engagement with the contemporary Newar Buddhist community in Kathmandu as well as through the engagement of texts written in Sanskrit or Newar. His Newar teacher is Yagyamanpati Bajracharya, a member of the Jamal, Shikamu, and Lakyu viharas.

Mariana Restrepo

Mariana Restrepo is deputy editor of Buddhadharma, Lion’s Roar’s online source for committed Buddhists. She is Colombian with a Nyingma-Kagyu Tibetan Buddhist background, has an MA in Religious Studies, and currently lives in the Appalachian Mountains of North Carolina with her husband and two children.