Monday, November 7, 2011

Bummin' With Buddha In Bhutan

My wife and I recently spent about three weeks in the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan.  It has been in the news recently because the country's beloved young king got married in a stunningly exotic ceremony that made a great visual "human interest" piece for media broadcasts.  Bhutan is also known for its policy of judging the worthiness of public programs and new laws against a standard of "Gross National Happiness," a rather different approach than some of the ideas being promoted currently in our own policy debates.

As a tourist destination, Bhutan offers what many of us seek in a travel experience;  a colorful, exotic culture with a rich and important history in a beautiful physical setting.  However, this tiny country also has several unique characteristics that make it particularly fascinating. For one thing, it is a country that -- though friendly and welcoming once you're there -- has historically closed itself off from the outside world.  Tourists were not allowed in Bhutan until 1974, and even now are tightly controlled and even banned in certain areas to protect the culture.  A visitor must travel as part of a supervised group or as many do (including us) with a personal guide and driver, enter or leave the country only via the state airline, Druk Air, and spend a minimum per day of $200 (this will increase to $250 in 2012).  These policies restrict the number of tourists and their activities and so far have mitigated some of the problems mass tourism usually brings to underdeveloped countries. 

It is also a fiercely vertical country, an attraction especially to those who enjoy multi-day trekking expeditions.  We stuck to day hikes and traveling by car.  Even so, my gps measured an accumulated elevation gain of 92,000 feet as we journeyed west to east and back, crossing high mountain passes between picturesque valleys along the country's only main "highway," a very scenic but scary road 1 1/2 lanes wide in most places.  Average moving speed according to the gps was 18 mph, leading some days to what we called "Bhutan Butt Rash."

One aspect of Bhutan traditional culture that appeals to many tourists is the prominence of Buddhism in people's daily lives, especially the many colorful festivals held each year in monasteries throughout the country. Most visitors from western countries are not familiar with Buddhist beliefs, and though Bhutan's monastic rituals and ceremonies are puzzling they are exotically photogenic in the extreme.  Buddhism was first introduced around 800 a.d., but really reached a peak in the 14th-17th centuries with the establishment of hundreds of fortified monasteries call Dzongs that are now an architectural hallmark of the country (the style is similar to the famous Potala Palace in Lhasa, Tibet). The monastic order still wields great influence in the political, economic, and social institutions of Bhutan, perhaps more than any other country in the world at this time.

Possibly because of Bhutan's self-imposed isolation in modern times, traveling there is a little like taking a trip in a time machine to a Himalayan Buddhist society of the 1500's or earlier.  This is a "magical" experience in two senses of the word.  First, most visitors are charmed by what they encounter, though they probably have little understanding of it.  Second, belief in magic and supernatural powers is pervasive and at the core of everyday life.  These beliefs are not essential to Buddhism though they are often presented to visitors as if they were.  Rather, they derive from earlier religious traditions in the Himalayas that included shamanistic practices, animism, and beliefs in myriad demons and deities that controlled one's fate, and many of these beliefs were retained as Buddhism was modified to fit local sensibilities. We were repeatedly shown sites where Guru Rinpoche, the founder of Bhutanese Buddhism, subdued a local demon and then meditated for 3 months in a nearby cave, usually leaving an imprint of his body in the stone.  Even his arrival in Bhutan was magical -- he flew in on the back of a tiger who was actually a manifestation of one of his eight consorts. Many other historical figures are credited with feats of similar supernatural powers, ranging from creating a new animal from the bodies of two other species to diving under water with a lamp that did not extinguish.  It seems that the monastic order not only tolerates such beliefs but actively promotes and controls their expression -- many of the rituals performed during the yearly festivals at monasteries are based on such ideas.

The magical aspect of Bhutanese culture is perhaps not that different than similar beliefs in many other countries and religious orientations, including our own, but may be problematic in Bhutan in at least a couple of ways.  First, Bhutan is a country that is emerging from its historic isolation with a jolt. Somehow these traditional beliefs must be reconciled with the wider world that Bhutanese will encounter, and this may involve adjustment difficulties at both the personal and societal level.  Up to now there have been no challenges to magical and supernatural beliefs and I wonder if the Bhutanese monastic order has considered how to adapt to such challenges, as has been done successfully in other parts of the world where Buddhist practice is quite compatible with secular and scientific modes of thinking.

A second problem for me is that Western visitors to Bhutan come away with the mistaken impression that magical thinking is an essential characteristic of Buddhism in general -- for instance, that in order to be a Buddhist you must believe that monks can fly on the backs of tigers.  An example is a man from the U.S.we met as we left Bhutan who had just finished a National Geographic tour of the country. He really enjoyed Bhutan, he said, "but I really didn't buy all that Buddhist stuff."  National Geographic organizes high-end expeditions all over the world that supposedly provide highly informative and educational travel experiences. Yet this man's comments suggested a rather murky understanding of what he saw and rather than opening him to the possibility of an alternative religious approach the tour seems to have had the opposite effect. This is unfortunate, because my own study of Buddhism has convinced me of its value without any reliance on flying tigers.

Whatever their beliefs, the Bhutanese have an undeniable charm and gentle dignity about them that is refreshing in today's climate of strife and polarization.  Although I fear the odds are against them, I hope that they retain these "magical" qualities as their society encounters the outside world.

I'm keeping my fingers crossed.
Suggested Reading:

What Makes You Not a Buddhist by Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse
Buddha by Karen Armstrong


PaddleDoc said...

Dick, great post! Your writing is up to the subject and brought to us as readers an opportunity to consider the traveling and the culture of Bhutan. I liked your comments on Brother Buddha and the flying tiger. Somehow it is easy to forget in our culture we see similar examples of old religion and superstition mixed with the current ones. Maybe they are not sanctioned in quite the same way, but it takes little to find. Most Americans are easily provoked to consider evil spirits & black magic while easily dismissing evolution and Big Bang theories. Interesting to consider the human experience!

RS said...

Thanks, and I like your observations. As I wrote this I kept thinking of examples of magical and superstitious thinking in our own society, including the views of the anti-evolution folks and the popularity of shows like Paranormal Activity, etc. The difference is that in Bhutan there is absolutely NO challenge to the magical and superstitious, whereas there is at least some debate and open challenges to such thinking in our own society.