Kuchö (སྐུ་མཆོད་) and its associated term gongzog (དགོངས་རྫོགས་) are traditional Himalayan ways of commemorating the demise of an important spiritual figure. While kuchö refers to the offerings made to the deceased master, gongdzog literally means the fulfillment of his or her wishes and thoughts. Thus, a kuchö/gongzog commemoration is an opportunity to make offerings to and also fulfill the wishes of the person in question. In some Himalayan areas, the commemoration is also known as dechö (འདས་མཆོད་), or offerings on the death anniversary.
Traditionally, Bhutanese do not celebrate birthdays as birth is an ordinary occurrence in the cycle of existence. It is a basic beginning of human existence, an incarnation in which one’s success is yet to be proven. However, Bhutanese celebrate death anniversaries of accomplished persons even centuries after their passing. This is because death marks the culmination and fulfilment of a person’s life. A person’s achievements as well as the type of death a person experiences is believed to be an indication of the quality of his or her life. Death is when the sum total of a person’s life and actions is determined. Thus, if a person has lived a highly positive, productive, and inspiring life, the death of such a person is considered to be the culmination of his or her wishes. In subsequent years, others can remember that person and his/her ideals, values, and endeavours and receive the benefits of such acts. For followers and devotees, commemorating the death of a great figure can provide inspiration and blessings.
The kuchö and gongzo commemorations generally involve rituals of worship. Students gather to remember the master, make offerings to his/her enlightened personality, make reparations for their shortfalls, and recite aspirational prayers that they will live up to the master’s ideals and standards and fulfill individual wishes and goals. Rituals of guru worship or guru yoga, also known as lama chöpa (བླ་མ་མཆོད་པ་), or veneration of the lama, are often conducted on these occasions. Devotees carry out a tantric practice in which the guru is invoked and they receive the blessings of his/her enlightened body, speech and mind. The service often includes the tshog feast offering, chanting supplication prayers to the guru, and offering scarves to the master’s image.
In Bhutan, the most popular kuchö or gongzo commemorations are those of Pema Lingpa (1450-1521) in the first Bhutanese lunar month, Longchenpa (1308-1364) in the twelfth Bhutanese lunar month, anniversaries of the many Je Khenpos and other senior religious hierarchs, and, above all, the kuchö of Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal (1594-1651) on the tenth day of the third Bhutanese lunar month. The year 2016 marked the 400th anniversary of Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal’s arrival in Bhutan, as well as his 364th death anniversary, although it is important to note that his kuchö was not publicly observed for several decades after his death in 1651.
Bhutanese observe his kuchö or gongzo on 16 April (according to the Gregorian calendar), during which time it is considered important to remember the sacrosanct person of Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal, make offerings to him, pray for his blessings, feel gratitude for his benevolence, be inspired by his great deeds, and most importantly, recollect the noble ideals, values, principles and practices he embodied. All Bhutanese are taught to aspire to live up to his wishes in personal ways and realize the vision, hard work, and aspirations he had for the country he founded. That is considered the ideal way of making offerings to him (kuchö) and fulfilling his wishes (gongzog).
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 in a series called Why We Do What We Do.