The return of Theravada Buddhism to Nepal


Originally published in the Bangkok Post; Bangkok, Thailand

PATAN is a cozy nest of a village in Nepal, just a stone's throw south of Kathmandu. It's a place in which a timeless web of alleyways and dirt paths lined by orange brick homes virtually escort you by the arm in gentle invitation to wander these sleepy streetscapes.

A right turn leads me onto a narrow, dusty path whose only inhabitants are a few stray dogs and a tired, wrinkled black cow listlessly chewing its cud. At the next turn there is a white-washed monastery, small, with an ambience more of a private home than a temple. Nondescript though it appears, I wander in.

After passing through a small courtyard, within the open temple is a large golden Buddha image, distinctly Thai style. A glance over to an adjacent wall reveals a picture of Their Majesties the King and Queen of Thailand... unexpected findings in Nepal. In another area a group of 20 Nepali children are attending class taught by a yellow-robed monk. At class's end I venture a little Thai language while greeting the monk and he responds in Thai. His name is Dhammapalo, he is Nepali and fluent in Thai, having spent 10 years as a monk in Thailand... Yet further surprises in this curious composition unfolding before me.

Dhammapalo invites me to join him upstairs. There, sitting upon a cushioned platform, garbed in orange pullover sweater, yellow robes, bespectacled and smiling warmly before his small audience of nuns and lay devotees is an elderly monk. Deep grooves line his face, his eyes appear clouded over behind his thick glasses and he has difficulty hearing. Despite this he is very alert and motions for me to sit down while gesturing to one of the nuns to prepare me a cup of hot tea. He is Phra Pragnananda Mahastabir, 90 years old, and behind that weathered face lies a unique story very closely winnowed to the re-emergence of Theravada Buddhism in Nepal. I listened carefully over my hot tea as Dhammapalo, .a disciple of Phra Pragnananda, recounted it for me.

Over 600 years ago, King Jayasthiti Malla in Nepal, began the historic suppression of the Order of Monks and Nuns... "All Theravada (yellow-robed) monks and nuns must disrobe or leave (the land of Lord Buddha's birth) forever." The warrior ruler apparently felt the independent minded followers of Buddha's teaching were a threat to his hold on the Himalayan mountain kingdom. No yellow-robed monk. was interested in defying this edict until 1930, when a young novice named Karma Sheela decided to enter Nepal and revive the original teachings of Buddha in the land of his birth.


The young novice had to endure many hardships. He stayed in a dilapidated building behind the Swayambu Stupa ("Monkey Temple" - just outside Kathmandu). From here he went around the city, making alms rounds, as the first yellow-robed monk in Nepal in over 600 years. There was little, if any sympathy from the local people, frequent questionings and harrassment by authorities and the curiosity of onlookers not accustomed to his odd ways.

He would not be deterred. He was a Nepali, born in Kathmandu Valley. It was not his intention to upset the existing order or threat-en the government or existing religions. His simple wish was to live and practice as the Lord Buddha taught, in his native land; to revive the genuine Dhamma (teachings of Buddha) in the holy land of the Buddha himself. If there were others interested in receiving from him the ancient lessons of the En-lightened One, repressed and extinguished so many years ago, then he would be happy to teach them.

The officials yielded and allowed Karma Sheela to practice in the Theravada tradition. What harm would come of it? What difference would a single monk make? As it turned out, a significant one. This young novice's reintroduction of Theravada Buddhism into Nepal would lead years later to the repeal of the edict imposed 600 years ago thus permitting Theravada monks and nuns to enter and practice in Nepal once more.

Phra Pragnananda, the novice Karma Sheela, born in Kathmandu in 1900, was the ninth child in a large family whose parents were both Ayurvedic physicians. His family, like some Nepalis, were followers of the Mahayana school of Buddhism and worshipped the various Tantric dieties. At the age of 16, he travelled to Lhasa, Tibet for business purposes and remained there 12 years as a merchant. He married and fathered a child. At the age of 28, in Tibet, he renounced secular life and entered the Order of Tibetan monks, practicing in the Ghelumpa tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, and was at that time given the name Karma Sheela.

He then made a pilgrimage to Kushinagar (a sacred pilgrimage site where the Buddha died) in India as a Tibetan monk. Under the influence of Guru Chandramani, a Burmese monk, Karma Sheela be-came interested in Theravada Buddhism and was reordained as a novice in the Theravada School of Buddhism in Kushinagar in 1930.

Karma Sheela decided soon after his ordination to return to his homeland to reestablish Theravada Buddhism there. He would be the first yellow-robed monk to teach and practice in Nepal since the suppression edict issued 600 years ago. His task was difficult as his practices and ways were different from other monks. He was met with scorn from local authorities but eventually acquired a small group of followers and disciples.

In 1932, on the advice of Guru Chandramani, he went to Arkan in Burma for further study in Dhamma. He was received into the Order of the Sangha at Arkan and was renamed Pragnananda.

He returned to Kathmandu in 1940 and threw himself vigorously into the task of promoting the recently revived Theravada Buddhism in Nepal. In those days, poor communication and transportation could seriously hamper meaningful efforts to acquire a following, but Pragnananda doggedly travelled miles on foot to teach the Dhamma, preside over Buddhist ceremonies and offer training in meditation techniques even in re-mote rural areas. The number of Buddhist aspirants interested in following Pragnananda grew.

The reemergence of a significant following in Theravada Buddhism alarmed the hereditary, autocratic Rana Prime Ministers, who had ruled Nepal for over a century. They perceived the activities of the yellow-robed monks as a threat to their power, much as King Jagasthiti Malla did 600 years before.


In 1944, in what has been called the darkest days in the annals of Buddhism in Nepal, Phra Pragnanada and seven other monks and novices were expelled from Nepal on charges of propagating the teachings of Gautama, the son of Nepal, in his own land. One event leading to this was the ordination of a nun by Pragnananda of a relative of an important official in the Rana government. When the Prime Minister, Juddha Shumsher was informed of this, he summoned all eight monks living in Kathmandu and told them not to preach the Dhamma. The monks would not agree and on July 30, 1944, the Prime Minister ordered them to leave the country within three days. There was concern within the government of a threat of some sort by this small group of Theravada monks. They were escorted under police guard to the frontier.

The exile to India would last for three years, when in 1947, the expulsion order was rescinded. Rana autocratic rule, in firm control for 104 years, was abolished in 1951 and Pragnananda would return to reengage himself in the effort to revive Theravada Buddhism in Nepal. Under the benign leadership of King Tribhuvan Bir Bikram Shah, every effort was made to compensate for the past 60 years of persecution and expulsion.

The way was clear for Phra Pragnananda, now 51, to fully pursue the revival of Theravada Buddhism, the direct teachings of the Buddha. In 1951, the All Nepal Bhikshu Mahasangha, the order of Nepalese monks, was established and, in recognition of the pioneering efforts of Phra Pragnananda in reestablishing Theravada Buddhism in Nepal, honored him by unanimously electing him as the first Sangha Maha Nayaka of Nepal, a position he holds to this day.

Theravada Buddhist monks, nuns and laity are now free to teach, study and practice the direct teachings of Buddha in Nepal, in large measure thanks to the effort of Phra Pragnananda.

In 1979, Phra Pragnananda, on the invitation of the venerable Phra Bromagunaphorn, lord abbot of Wat Saket Rajavara Mahavihar, in Bangkok, visited Thailand where he had an opportunity to meet with His Majesty the King. Later, a group of 77 Thai Buddhist monks, nuns and laity visited him at the Shakya Sinha Vihar in Pa-tan. In 1985, on the invitation of Phra Pragnananda, the then Supreme Patriarch of Thailand, Phra Nyana Samvara Mahatera presided over the historic mass Buddhist ordination for 73 disciples in ,Nepal. Most monks and nuns in Nepal have been ordained directly by Phra Pragnananda.

Theravada Buddhism is flourishing now in Nepal some 48 years after the young Karma Sheela be-came the first yellow-robed monk in 600 years to teach and practice the Buddha's dhamma in the land of the Enlightened One's birth.


  • robert livingston

    December 2, 2008

    Nice article. Thanks. Just one question... What's the flag of Israel doing on this page?? Talk about a symbol of intolerance, bigotry and persecution of others for religious beliefs (Islamic Paletinians being the most obvious!)and I can't think of a more potent and offensive symbol than the flag of Israel!!! Why would it be displayed here!!??!!

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