Travels in Bhutan: Living in a Buddhist Country

Guest post by Catherine Perkins

You know from my earlier post that I spent almost five months living, studying, traveling, and working in the Buddhist Kingdom of Bhutan, a small country in the Himalayas tucked between China and India. It’s one of the few countries that still identifies as a “Buddhist Kingdom.”

Even though the senior citizens complain about the declining spirituality among the Bhutanese youth (as every older generation in every culture for all time has complained about the youth turning away from their traditions), Buddhism is still an integral part of Bhutanese culture for the young and the old.

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Nuns can have fun, too

I worked at a Buddhist nunnery where I met young women who had voluntarily devoted themselves, in adulthood, to a religious life. I attended tsechu (religious festivals) and celebrations of Buddhist holidays where every demographic was represented in the crowd. I saw young mothers teaching their toddlers how to make prostrations in the temples, and old widowers spinning their prayer wheels in the town center.

Here’s what you can expect from life in a Buddhist Kingdom:

1. Everyone loves to explain Buddhism to foreigners.

As an American, I was automatically assumed to be Christian. It didn’t really matter that I’m an Asian Studies major who has extensively studied Buddhism (both in an academic and personal context), or that I identify as Buddhist myself. Everyone from my roommates to my taxi drivers took it upon themselves to educate me.

2. Everyone is proud of their Buddhist culture – but incredibly tolerant of other religions.

Although everyone assumed I was Christian, no one treated me differently for it. They were all eager to explain Buddhist philosophies and historical figures, but not a single person proclaimed it as absolute truth. Many of them prefaced their explanations with phrases such as, “Buddhists think that…” or, “In Buddhism, we believe…”

Bhutanese are almost exclusively Buddhists. The Nepali community in the south practices Hinduism in addition to Buddhism, but the first Hindu temple in Bhutan wasn’t even constructed until 2012! There’s also a very tiny Christian community, and an even smaller Muslim community. (Christians and Muslims each comprise less than 1% of the population.)

Despite the spiritual uniformity, Bhutan has religious freedom written into its constitution. And based on my personal experiences, the Bhutanese people are more “politically correct” and sensitive towards those with other beliefs than most other people I’ve met.

In Bhutan, Buddhists don’t proselytize. They won’t try to convert you – though they may invite you to celebrate their holidays with them!

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Inside of a Buddhist temple in Bhutan, while the nuns were taking a break from their ritual

3. Buddhism is a big part of daily life.

I spent most of my time in the student dorms, so keep in mind that most of my observations are limited to this demographic. I didn’t see my roommates engaged in daily prayers or rituals (at least, nothing obviously so – one of my roommates lit a stick of incense every morning but let it burn down while she went on Facebook before class).

However, it was pretty typical for my roommates to visit temples on the weekend. Both of them had sick family members and so they often went to make offerings to deities. Most of the girls in the dorm had paintings or pictures of religious figures hanging on their bedroom walls. The meditation club which met on Monday afternoons always had a good turnout.

Whenever we visited a temple, no matter what time of day, there were always other people circumambulating the perimeter, spinning prayer wheels, and making prostrations to the big statues inside. People go to be blessed, to cure ailments, to increase fertility, to ward off bad luck, to increase their karma, and for a million other reasons.

Consulting an astrologer is also necessary for big decisions or life events; they believe that you must do important things on auspicious days, and that bad things will happen if you don’t. Bhutanese may wrap up a dead body and keep it untouched for weeks before conducting death rituals or cremating it if they have to wait for an auspicious opportunity!

 

4. Buddhism is also a fun part of life.

Any expat or tourist would be missing out if he/she didn’t take the opportunity to attend a tsechu. These religious festivals happen annually all over the country. You can observe the sacred dances or people-watch as everyone struts around wearing their best and most colorful gho and kira.

Other Buddhist holidays are also subject to big festivals – I got to celebrate Buddha’s birthday, and participate in a ritual on Shabdrung’s death anniversary (That’s not to mention all the days off from school whenever a Buddhist holiday rolled around.)

5. Buddhism and Bhutanese culture are interconnected.

From life philosophies to artwork and architecture, Bhutanese culture embodies Buddhism so forcefully that it’s impossible to divorce the two.

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The Endless Knot — a religious symbol, embodied here in a piece of furniture

Since Bhutan’s creation as a unified state in the 17th century, it has thrived from a dual system of government where the country was ruled by both a secular leader and a religious leader. Religion and politics have been married from the beginning, which has influenced Bhutan’s legislature, which has affected ideology and lifestyle.

Here’s a quick, simplified example: Buddhism preaches nonviolence. Bhutanese legislature bans all forms of animal hunting within the country. Even though it’s not illegal to kill bugs, Bhutanese won’t even swat flies because they believe they’ll be reborn 50 times as a fly for killing a single one.

In Bhutan, religion not only influences politics, but also artwork, architecture, environmental preservation efforts, farming techniques, social relationships, education, and many other things.

So whether you’re Buddhist or not, there’s lots for tourists and expats to appreciate about how the Bhutanese embody and are affected by the ideals of Buddhism.

 

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The author with prayer flags

 

Catherine Perkins is an English and Asian Studies double major at Wheaton College, Massachusetts. After she graduates in 2014, she plans to teach English in Japan. You can read more of her writing at Travels in Bhutan.

Comments

  1. Catherine,

    Thanks so much for sharing your experience in Bhutan.

    It is one of the most amazing places I’ve been.

    Not only did I love the beauty and unspoiled nature of it (I was there in early 2004), but I so appreciated the Bhutanese people’s dedication to their way of life and their beliefs. There really did not appear to be a separation between the two.

    I invite you to visit our website if you’re interested in seeing our photos from 2004 (I bet it’s changed a bit since then!).

    Best wishes on your studies and for your life,

    Steph

    • Catherine says:

      Hi Steph,

      Thanks so much for your comment! You’re exactly right — there’s this connection between religious/spiritual beliefs and Bhutanese culture which is unbelievable. The two are so tightly bound together that they can’t possibly be severed.

      I went poking around your website and have to admit that I’m VERY jealous of all your travels!

      I’m glad you enjoyed the article, and thanks for the kind words.

      -Catherine

  2. What an amazing experience you had! I loved reading what you wrote about it. Thank you 🙂 Good for you for going for this wonderful opportunity to see a different part of the world and a different culture.

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