Drubchen is an advanced form of ceremonial practice in Vajrayāna Buddhism. One of the main differences between exoteric or sūtra form of Buddhism and esoteric or tantric form of Buddhism is the visualisation and worship of deities or Buddhas. Vajrayāna Buddhism has a lot of meditation on the Buddhas in different forms – peaceful, wrathful, celibate, in sexual union, multi-armed and multi-headed, etc.

In a tantric deity practice, a practitioner visualises the deity, sometimes surrounded by many other deities, and mantras at the heart of the deity. It also consists of visualisation of many activities such as offering, prostration, casting forth and dissolution of rays and mantras and efficient channelling and tuning of spiritual energies. The whole world and surrounding are visualized as a pure maṇḍala or configuration of enlightened beings and energies.

There are many stages in such meditation on the deity and mantras. The first one is normally the full awareness of the state of emptiness. From the state of emptiness, one does the meditation on the luminous appearance or clarity of one’s mind. Such nature of empty luminosity is then embodied or expressed in the form of a seed syllable or letter, which the practitioner clearly visualizes. The seed syllable is then transformed into many mantras or enlightened symbols and gestures and eventually into the full form of the Buddhas. Finally, when the meditator has mastered these phases of meditation, he or she engages in a group session with other colleagues and spiritual companions in order to boost his meditation. This is called tsombu tsogdrub and is commonly known as drubchen these days.

Thus, in the advanced drupchen practice, the practitioners would have normally finished the earlier stages and then come together to do the practice in a group. They go through the stages of meditation and chanting together, often considering the main guru as the central deity. Drupchen is thus a group psycho-spiritual exercise in order to enhance the power of meditation through deity visualisation and chanting of mantras.  The duration of such session can last from a week to six months. In brief, it’s a meditational communion based on the visualisation of a deity and mantras and not everyone is qualified to take part in it. What goes on today as drukchen ceremony is largely symbolic enactments of the real thing.

How does one do the drubchen?

Drubchen is an advance meditation practice and one should follow all the norms and requirements of drupchen. One must participate in drupchen with full spirit and awareness of the deity that is being visualised, worshipped and meditated. One must chant the mantra and do the visualisation with the knowledge that a drupchen is an act of internal transformation. It has nothing to do with showing off wealth, religious charity or spiritual power. It is not a ritual for worldly prosperity or power. One should be fully aware of the purpose of drubchen as an internal process of edification and enlightenment.

Therefore, one must try to improve the quality one’s mind by following the practice of meditation and visualisation of the deity. One must at least try to perceive the whole drubchen environment as positive instead of participating in it with the same human prejudices and habits. One must have a positive attitude or dagnang and try to view everything as pure and divine. At the least, one should pray that by taking part in this symbolic ritual, one may be able to undertake the proper drubchen  taking in the future. One can end with a prayer that all sentient beings reach the stage of the deity that is the central figure of the drubchen practice. 

Karma Phuntsho is the Director of Shejun Agency for Bhutan’s Cultural Documentation and Research, founder of the Loden Foundation and the author of The History of Bhutan. The piece was initially published in Bhutan’s national newspaper Kuensel in a series called Why we do what we do.