Every time we do a posting about Bhutan, I sense our guide Namgyel thinking to himself, “After all those dzongs, temples, monasteries and chortens I took them to, when are they going to talk about Buddhism?”
Namgyel, where do we start? You took us to 27 Buddhist sites. “Was that all?” Magellan asked. You told us countless stories sprinkled with dates and facts, and introduced us to some of Bhutan’s 6,000 monks and 15,000 lay practitioners and a lot of Bhutanese people we met along the way whose stories you translated. How do we begin to talk about Buddhism?
Then I got an idea.
A few days before we flew to Bhutan, in our hotel room in Bangkok was a marvelous book WITHOUT and WITHIN, Questions and Answers on the Teachings of Theravada Buddhism that became mine for the suggested donation, about $3.75. I’ll pattern the book’s Q&A structure.
Why is Buddhism so well preserved in Bhutan?
As the world’s only Buddhist kingdom, Bhutan has a sparse population in a landlocked, mountainous country never conquered by outsiders. Its people have an aptitude for the spiritual philosophy of Vajrayana Buddhism, which took hold here in the 8th century and is practiced by 80 percent of the population. At the Kurjey Lhakhang Complex in Paro, we especially liked the three-storey statue of Padmasambhava, known as Guru Rinpoche, a tribute to the outsized greatness of the one who brought Buddhism to Bhutan.
“There cannot be enduring peace, prosperity, equality and brotherhood in this world if our aims are so separate and divergent, if we do not accept that in the end we are people, all alike, sharing the Earth among ourselves and also with other sentient beings, all of whom have an equal role and stake in the state of this planet and its players.” Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, Fifth and current King of Bhutan
What’s unique about Vajrayana Buddhism?
In Bhutan, Buddhism is an inherent, inherited philosophy.
Vajrayana Buddhists recite mantras and worship lakes, mountains (Bhutan doesn’t allow mountaineering) and certain deities they believe will subdue evil spirits.
They accept Dhamma, “the ways things are,” not complacently but with the realization that whatever you do will be affected by conditions you can’t control. One aspires to truth and goodness by acting well, kindly and wisely for personal fulfillment and the good of others.
Vajrayana Buddhism has a quartet of Sublime Mental Abodes:
- loving kindness
- sympathetic joy, and
The popular book Mindful Living in Bhutan states that “Compassion is the genuine attitude that opens up everything, it is not a practice of self-contained meditation or self-enlightenment, it is a practice of making more space for every sentient being.”
“Life can be summed up in these three words: not always so.” Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield
Will Bhutan’s new Buddha statue be named the “Eighth Wonder of the World?”
InThimphu, Bhutan’s capital, Namgyel took us to see what will be the largest Buddhist statue in the world when it’s completed. Under construction for eight years, it’s 51 metres high and houses 125,001 Buddhas. How does a poor country pay for this $700 million Buddha? Singapore is one of the main sponsors.
I’d suggest Bhutan has had the Eighth Wonder of the World since 1692 when the iconic Tiger’s Nest, the Taktshang Pelphung monastery, the country’s most recognized symbol, was first built. A UNESCO site, it’s an otherworldly construction impossibly grafted onto the side of a mountain at 3200 metres, reached by an arduous climb.
“The measure of your life is the amount of beauty and happiness of which you are aware.” Agnes Martin
Why does Bhutan have so many Dzongs?
Dzongs (there are 19 in the country) are fortresses that function as jurisdictional centres for Buddhism and government—they house temples and offices. Often built over rivers, they were constructed with no written plans and no nails and made of pounded mud, stone and wood, the beams lashed together with rope to allow for give during earthquakes. When marauders came from Tibet and Mongolia, the Bhutanese holed up here with enough food to feed thousands of people—for years.
Trongsa Dzong was one of our favourites—because of its prominent location on a spur above the Mangde Chu valley gorge, it’s the most spectacularly sited dzong in Bhutan. It started out as a temple in 1543 and was rebuilt as a dzong in 1648. When Bhutan became a kingdom in 1907, the first king ruled from here. Inside, there are 25 temples and about 200 monks. We liked the adjacent museum, a treasure house of history opened in 2008 thanks to funding from the Austrian government. There was a group of tourists on motorcycles at our hotel in Trongsa, so these words on a card posted on a small bulletin board outside the museum made us smile: “Moto Monks: Open Roads, Open Hearts, Open Minds.”
The Punakha Dzong, built above the confluence of two rivers, is the most impressive in the country. Situated in a valley, the Punakha Dzong used to be the country’s winter capital and because of its romantic site, is still used for royal marriages. Namgyel described the stories told in paintings on three of its four walls to illustrate the life of Siddhartha, the founder of Buddhism. Born into a royal family in India 2,600 years ago, Siddhartha left his wife and child in search of spiritual liberation and when he found enlightenment, devoted his life to revealing the Dhamma. (Apart from the courtyards, guests are not allowed to take pictures inside a monastery, temple or dzong so we cannot show you these wonderful wall paintings.)
Paro’s Drakgyel Dzong, a gorgeous ruin that burned in 1951 when a butter lamp caught fire, evokes spirituality. The Bhutanese now use veggie oil in their butter lamps.
“The constant happiness is curiosity.” Alice Munro
What are chortens?
Small, whitewashed buildings or monuments, often found in clusters, like the 108 chortens at Dochula Pass (an auspicious number because the Buddhist scripture has 108 volumes).
The Khamsum Yuley Chorten, a 45-minute walk above Punakha, holds our best chorten memory. As we were walking back toward town, a little girl in flip-flops carrying a small shawl and a rolled up Ngu (abbreviation for their money, the Ngultrum) was skipping down the trail, all alone. “Ask her where she’s going,” we said to Namgyel. Dekilhamo had walked up with her mother, who worked at the Chorten as a cleaner. Now she was on her merry way to meet a friend for the day. Freedom.
Continuing walking for two hours through a community forest and potato fields, we met a woman who runs a farm that generates 18,000 kg of potatoes/year producing an income of $12,000 that feeds a family of eleven (only three are her kids).
The Memorial Chorten in Thimpu gave us pause. Millenials drop off their jubilado parents who happily spend the day sitting on the grass, gossiping and performing their koras (circumambulating the chorten clockwise), whirling the red prayer wheels and chanting in whispers. Bhutanese elder daycare. Free.
For its design, we liked the Chandebji Chorten out in the country on a scenic mountain road in the Mangde River Valley.
“Wherever you go always take with you six teachers: forms, sounds, odors, tastes, physical sensation and mental activity.” Ajahn Chah
What are the monasteries and temples like?
In Jakar, the Tamshing Goempa temple has the oldest wall murals in Bhutan, built in 1501 by Pema Lingpa whose statue is unusual—the eyes are closed.
At Chakar Lhakhang Temple, built in the 14th century by the man who invited Guru Rinpoche to Bhutan, our driver Tashi and I donned the 35-pound iron-chain cloak made by Pema Lingpa and each circumambulated the temple’s interior once. That means one-third of our sins will be redeemed. Magellan and Namgyel remain burdened with sins but probably had fewer to begin with.
Magellan’s favourite temple was Dungste Lhakhang constructed in 1433 in Paro by the country’s greatest bridge-builder Thangtong Gyelpo. It has a three-storey central column made from pressed clay and is said to be built on the head of a demoness.
At the Gangtey Gampa Monastery, one of the largest in Bhutan, we listened to the comforting chanting of monks, old and young—Namgyel discovered one little fidgety guy was only six years old. An auspiciousness arises in my heart when I listen to chanting, even when I don’t understand the words, a sense of calm, community and harmony. We found the same feeling in Kharchu Monastery in Jakar, where we recorded the chanting and music of the monks.
About 10% of Bhutan’s population is involved in the monastic system. As you’d expect, many of the young monks are from disadvantaged families who see this way of life as an opportunity for their sons (and daughters, although there are only 500 nuns in the country) to get an education and have a better life. Although supported by the government, monks often survive on very little, living in barren rooms with no heat and limited food. Tourists leave small cash donations, while locals donate food.
At the Kurjey Lhahkang Complex I mentioned earlier, we saw red-robed young monks sitting in the courtyard, large plastic bottles of Coca-Cola on hand, as they set about the morning’s task to each clean 125 butter lamps. Two things struck me. One, there must be better ways to occupy their young minds. Two, the fascination of seeing identical twins (right down to the scars on their foreheads) and Namgyel telling us that by law, identical twins must be named Penpa and Nyima, which means both Sun and Moon and Saturday and Sunday.
“If no wind blows, then nothing stirs, And neither is there merit without perseverance.” The Way of the Budhisattva
What about the crazy story of Guru Rinpoche bringing Buddhism to Bhutan by flying from India on the back of a tigress?
Every day after telling us a story like this, Namgyel would say, “Any questions? Any doubts?” We had both but focused on the former. After all, aren’t there a lot of stories competing for implausibility in other religions? I’m reminded of a tea towel I bought in New Zealand imprinted with a drawing and these words:
“Cecily thought it sweet that Joseph accepted Mary’s explanation for her pregnancy.”
Is Buddhism working for Bhutan?
You’ve probably read our posting on Gross National Happiness—Bhutan’s people are the happiest we’ve ever encountered. The country has low rates of crime and corruption. Their king lives in a very modest home. There isn’t the chasm between rich and poor; the mean income of the richest quintile in 2012 was only five times that of poorest. Bhutan, with roughly the same population as Vancouver, has only two psychiatrists.
But it’s not perfect. There are the problems of urbanization, a stagnant economy, inflation and youth unemployment. In a government survey, the people indicated they want improvements in water supply, road conditions, public transportation and communications. There are five precepts Buddhists are supposed to refrain from: taking life, stealing and cheating, sexual misconduct, lying, and consuming alcohol and drugs. Yet there are 700 bars serving alcohol in Thimphu and night-hunting, a euphemism for rape, though not as prevalent as in the past, is still an issue. There’s also “phone-call syndrome,” akin to what goes on here in North America when the rich and powerful call in their favours from governments.
“Self-honesty is the basis of moral virtue.“ Mae Chee Kaew
Did you and Magellan feel like becoming Buddhists?
See the fifth precept above, which we violate with wine, gin, beer, bourbon…
The closest I came was in the Tang Valley. Namgyel had bought prayer flags for us to hang in an auspicious spot. I love the sound of prayer flags (called lung-tas in Dzongkha, which translates to wind horses, describing their thudding, snapping roar) and the earthy symbols of their colours: red for fire, yellow for earth, blue for water, green for wind and white for purity. We had just spent the morning with a lovely family and family was on my mind because of a loved one’s difficult situation back home. As we strung our prayer flags on the bridge over the Tang Chu River, it seemed easier to accept Dhamma, the ways things are.
“In the end these things matter most: How well did you love? How fully did you live? How deeply did you let go?” Buddha
Any last words on Buddhism?
Yes. The last sentence in WITHOUT and WITHIN.
“May it bring curiosity.” Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse
Thanks Ruth Ann for introducing me to Cecily’s cheeky products, her words and bold illustrations are guaranteed to make you smile, such as “Cecily tried to be her real self but couldn’t always remember who that was.”
Dorje, Gyume. Footprint Bhutan Handbook. UK: Globe Pequot Press, 2010. Scholarly guides for independent travellers since 1924, Footprint’s guides are good sources that we like a lot.
Drexler, Madeline. A Splendid Isolation. EBook, 2014. As per her subtitle, this book is a splendid reference that I used often in composing this post and others on Bhutan. As she writes, “The Bhutanese have not necessarily found the answers, but they are asking original questions.”
Jayasaro, Ajahn. WITHOUT and WITHIN, Questions and Answers on the Teachings of Theravada Buddhism. Bangkok: Buddhadasa Indapanno Archives, 2013.
Khyentse, Dzongsar Jamyang. What Makes You NOT a Buddhist? New Delhi: Timalan Books, 2009. One cold, March afternoon in Bhutan’s Chumey Nature Resort I noticed this book in our room and curling up under the duvet, finished it before we left the next morning. Dzongsar says there are four things that make you NOT a Buddhist: believing 1. all compounded things are permanent; 2. all emotions are painless; 3. everything has an inherent existence; and 4. Nirvana is a concept.
Wind Horse Tours has offices in Thimpu and in the US to facilitate travelling to the democratic kingdom of Bhutan. We found their services to be exemplary from the first email to the mid-trip phone call to see how things were going to their follow-up when we returned home.