Basic Dzongkha Word Familiarization


 Chorten: A chorten is literally a receptacle for offerings, and in Bhutan all chortens contain religious relics. The classical chorten shape is based on the ancient Indian form of a stupa. Each of the chorten’s five architectural elements has symbolic meaning. Bhutan has three basic styles of chortens, usually characterized as Bhutanese, Tibetan and Nepali.

Goemba: In Dzongkha, the Bhutanese language, a monastery is called a goemba. A primary reason for selecting the location of a monastery is to have a remote location where the monks can find peace and solitude. This is particularly evident in Bhutan where goembas are built atop rocky crags or on remote hillsides. All Bhutanese goembas are different, but they all possess certain common features. They are self-contained communities, with a central lhakhang and separate sleeping quarters.

Lhakhang: The term lhakhang may be used to refer to both the building itself and to the room inside the building that is the primary chapel. Furthermore, some goembas have several lhakhangs within the central building. A typical lhakhang has a serto (golden pinnacle) on the roof. On the outside walls are racks of prayer wheels, which monks and devotees spin as they circumambulate the lhakhang.      

Desi: Temporal Ruler of Bhutan in the time of the Zhabdrung.

Dharma: Buddhist teachings

Dzong: Large monastic establishments are merged with the secular administration in Bhutanese dzongs. One may say that in Bhutan the dzongs are physical expressions of the well-known concept of ‘chos srid gzhung brel’, meaning ‘the harmonious blend of religion and politics’. The importance of the dzongs in Bhutan is reflected in the fact that the national language is called Dzongkha, which literally means the language spoken in the dzongs, and each district is called Dzongkhag.

Mandala: a mystic cosmic diagram which has a divinity in the centre with whom the meditating practitioner seeks to merge after traversing various stages incorporated in the said mandala. In Buddhism different mandalas are used for different rituals; each deity has its particular mandala. Mandalas are used for visualization, for self-generation and for initiating a disciple into the various mandala deities. Mandalas may be painted on the ceilings of temples or on gates where they are intended to bless those who pass beneath.

Nyingma: The Nyingma tradition is the oldest of the four major schools of Tibetan Buddhism (the other being the Kagyu, Sakya and Gelug).  Nyingma literally means ancient and is often referred to as the ‘school of the ancient translations’ because it is founded on the first translations of Buddhist scriptures from Sanskrit into Tibetan, in the eighth century.

Samsara: the cycle of birth, decay and death.

Shedra / Lobdra: Monastic School / Buddhist College

Puja: Religious ceremony

Pedling Tradition: A way of Buddhism originating from Pema Lingpa who encouraged people to follow the Nyingma tradition of Buddhism.

Terton: Treasure Discoverer

Terma: Religious Text

Trulku: a Tibetan Buddhist lama who has continued to be reborn many times in order to continue the Bodhisattva vows stating that they will strive to liberate all sentient beings from samsara and deliver them into Nirvana.

Zhabdrung: The most important trulku lineage in Bhutan, equivalent in many ways to the Dalai Lama lineage of Tibet.


Drukpa Kuenlay: “The Divine Madman” Drukpa Kuenlay was a disciple of Pema Lingpa. He was born in Tibet and travelled throughout Bhutan and Tibet as a neljorpa (yogi) using songs, humour and outrageous behaviour to dramatize his teachings. Under the guise of uncontrolled lust and apparently thoughtless womanizing, one of his greatest gifts to countless beneficiaries was, therefore, a child.

Guru Rinpoche: The major growth of Buddhism in Bhutan started in the 8th century with the visit of the Indian saint, Padmasambhava, popularly known in Bhutan as Guru Rinpoche, “the precious master”. His teachings laid the foundation for one of the most important and unifying forces in the development of Bhutan’s unique culture and tradition. The Nyingma School regard him as the second Buddha.

The Je Khenpo plays a very important role in the monastic community as he heads the clergy and controls all religious affairs. He is chosen from among the most senior monks in the hierarchy for 5 years.

Mahakala: Mahakala is the Protector of the Dharma (Buddhist Teachings) in Tibetan-Buddhism and is the arch deity of Bhutan.  Maha means “Great” and Kala means “Black”.

Pema Lingpa: A famous saint of the Nyingma school of Buddhism. He is known as the first of five main tertons or ‘treasure discoverers’. He is known to be an incarnation of Guru Rinpoche, who also prophesied that Pema Lingpa would recover 108 sacred texts (termas). He is the founder of a number of temples in Bumthang.

Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel: The reincarnation of Mahaguru Padmasambhava and Avalokitesvara (Buddha as the god of Compassion) came to Bhutan as prophesied by Guru Rinpoche. Having defeated all the enemies, he ruled the people of Bhutan with love and justice. He built many dzongs and temples and established monk-bodies where the monks could practice the Buddhist Tripitaka (the Three Classes of Learning: 1 – Yinaya. 2 – Sutra. 3 – Adhidharma) and meditations. With the result of such religious deeds, the people enjoyed happiness not only in this life but also in the next life.