Tenzhug (བརྟན་བཞུགས་) or Zhabten (ཞབས་བརྟན་) is a type of ceremony to request the Buddha or an enlightened master to live long. It falls within the sixth limb of the seven-part practice. It is essentially a prayer to enlightened beings who are thinking of entering nirvāṇa and leaving this world to not do so, but rather remain in this world for the welfare of the sentient beings.
Buddhism teaches that a human existence is special, in that there is the potential to perform many meritorious deeds. Because humans have the power of higher thought, being human offers precious opportunities for spiritual awakening as well as providing great service to others. Thus, every moment of human life is to be treasured, and human lives of the longest duration possible are greatly desired, as longevity compounds the possibilities. This is particularly true for the lives of altruistic and enlightened personalities who are highly influential and beneficial to the world. Supplications requesting enlightened beings to remain as long as possible creates the auspices for them to continue their human existence and work for the world. The requests link their powers of compassion and accomplishments with the needs of their beneficiaries, who help them extend their lives. The Buddha is said to have extended his life by several months after Cunda made such a request to him.
How do we make the request?
The ritual to request longer life can be as simple as a supplication. Normally, the request is constituted of an earnest verbal prayer asking the enlightened being(s) to remain in the world for many aeons or until the world is free from suffering. High lamas often compose specific zhabten supplications requesting other lamas to live long and those compositions are then recited by their devotees.
In some cases, the request is elaborated into a ceremonial ritual. In an elaborate display, a religious ceremony for long life is carried out invoking the Buddha of Longevity and the blessings derived from the ceremony are dedicated to the personality for whom the ritual was conducted. During such a ceremony, prayers and sacred objects are offered to the personality as symbols of stability and longevity. Three objects are offered: a statue is offered to symbolize stability of the body along with prayers that his/her body remain unwavering like a vajra; a text is offered to symbolize stability of the speech along with prayers that his/her speech remain uninterrupted like Brahma’s voice; and a stupa to symbolize stability of the heart/mind along with prayers that his/her mind remain unmoved in the state of ultimate reality. The ceremony is a ritualized request to the great personalities to carry on with their lives and deeds for the welfare of the world and is normally performed for high lamas and occasionally for rulers. Since 1980s, such ceremonies have also been conducted for kings in Bhutan.
What one should think while making the request
As the efficacy and power of prayers are believed to lie in the state of one’s mind and not in the material and external ceremonies, it is important to conduct the prayers with earnestness and sincerity. One must fervently wish and pray that the important personality, or the Buddhas and bodhisattvas, remain in the world and work tirelessly for the welfare of the sentient beings. Such aspiration not only helps create the right circumstances for the great personalities to live long and benefit the world, but also indirectly helps the person who makes such prayers aspire and work for higher ideals and causes associated with the great personalities. Ultimately, by praying for the long life of noble beings and an extended association with them, one must wish to learn from them and emulate their enlightened lives in order to transcend the worldly state and reach enlightenment as they have done.
Karma Phuntsho is the Director of Shejun Agency for Bhutan’s Cultural Documentation and Research, the President of the Loden Foundation and the author of The History of Bhutan. The piece was initially published in Bhutan’s national newspaper Kuensel as part of a series called “Why We Do What We Do.”