Christian Contemplatives' Visit to the Buddhist Kingdom of Bhutan

Pip Nicholls tells some of her story from a recent trip to Bhutan with a group of Christian Contemplatives invited to meet with the Buddhist kingdom Bhutan's Monk Body.

Bhutan: The land of 'enough'

I received an innocent invitation over a cup of tea to join a group of six contemplatives from four corners of the globe on an official visit to the last remaining Buddhist kingdom of Bhutan.
Before my next sip, I responded, 'well thank you indeed' and six months later was sipping a welcoming tea in the tea shop opposite the stunningly beautiful Paro airport, while we waited for our remaining companion to arrive. Sabina Alkire an Episcopal priest was our leader and Erik Keeney from Colorado, Gwen Rehnborg from Hong Kong, Fr Oswin Gartside from England, Cynthia Bourgeault from Maine and I made up the remainder of the group.

As Bhutan is increasingly opening its door to visitors, so too the Monk Body thought it time to open their doors to a small group of experienced Christian contemplatives. Our host was the ever serene hearted Lopen Gembo Dorji, Secretary General of Bhutan's national Monk Body. Some organisation is required as there are 8000 monks in Bhutan, just over 1% of the population living in an area the size of Canterbury!

Boys predominately become monks when they enter either a monastic primary or secondary school, so the choice is frequently made for them. Gembo is unusual in that he became a monk after he had graduated from university. English is the language of the state schools and universities, so Gembo spoke perfect English and was our translator, enabling the varied connections to be possible.

On three mornings of our ten day stay, we met with one of the Monk Body leaders. What was immediately evident was the depth of the three Eminences' practice and they each felt for me, like different aspects of embodied wisdom. One was diamond wisdom, one reasoned wisdom and the other inquiring wisdom. Drukpa Kargyu is the school of Buddhism in Bhutan and there is no pastoral or parish arm so monks spend their training and then monastic life in study, meditation and offering puja's (rituals for different deities or occasions). They almost always undertake at least one three year solitary retreat.

We did visit a monastery that was home for over 160 nuns, but our visit coincided with the end of term, so many had gone back to villages to visit their families. Bhutanese women can become nuns after secondary school, so the nuns we met were fluent in English and were delighted that some westerners were keenly interested in what Buddhism has to offer for both women and men.

One morning we meet with Dasho Karma Ura, the President of the Centre for Bhutanese Studies and the man responsible for implementing Gross National Happiness (GNH), Bhutan's unique version of GDP. If GNH is at the heart of Bhutan then Buddhism is at the heart of GNH. GNH is the way Bhutan measures their wellbeing as a nation - and includes the spiritual, physical, mental and social health of its peoples and the natural environment they live in. In many ways I felt great resonance between this and the Maori model of 'te whare tapa whā' (the four corner stones of health).

Some examples of Bhutan's strategies for achieving 'happiness' include employers not requesting staff to do overtime as each person needs the free time to walk 3kms a day, the country remaining at least 70% forested, no eye pollution from advertising hoardings and the country remains tobacco free - what's not to like about that?

A further example where Buddhism permeates all levels of Bhutanese culture is compassion pertaining to land stewardship. Land is passed down through the women and if there isn't enough land to pass on, a person or family can request the King for an allocation. He will then gift three acres of fertile land - always on a mountainside remember, plus 70 trees, and this he has done several thousand times.

Equally, Bhutanese engage compassionately towards themselves and others by the genuine experience of knowing when enough is enough. There is no sense of accumulating wealth for accumulation's sake, to have more land, chickens or yaks than is sufficient for the family. Materialism and consumerism are remarkably absent, except perhaps for those 20 to 25 year olds who have migrated to the capital Thimpu for work. Bhutanese wear the national costume to school and work, and this group are as keen as any 20 year olds to change into more casual gear and hang out in town together once work is done for the day.

In the afternoons of our stay we were treated to long and windy walks up mountain sides to see some of the thousands of temples, monasteries and the post graduate monastic university. To say they were impressive is an understatement. One three story spiral temple was painted at a similar time to the Sistine Chapel, and it is still in its original form - with no deterioration from electrical light, candles or curious visitors. Only torches, and one small window on the top floor, could be used to see the incredible frescos telling the story of Buddhism's journey through the centuries.

The well-known Taktsang Monastery (Tigers Nest) dates partly from the 6th Century and was kept for our final day - which was wise. By that time we were acclimatised to the altitude and were getting used to mountain hikes with hundreds of steps. We could have gone most of the way up on mules, but that would have been like flying over the Milford Track rather than walking it!

A trip like this is life changing, but not in an 180° kind of way. Rather in subtle more deeply felt ones. Buddhist monks and nuns live the call to 'pray without ceasing', and they're forever repeating mantra's on their mala's, turning prayer wheels and generally being mindful. So I've taken their inspiration to heart. This has meant simplifying prayer and the other side of this simplicity is the gentle reminder to let go of the continual story line of 'monkey mind' and to awaken to 'beginners mind'.

The trip also allowed me to come full circle in two significant ways. The first was the opportunity to visit the partially completed Stupa in Paro, which holds the remains of my own Buddhist teacher - Thinly Norbu Rinpoche who died in late 2011. To offer prayers there for the rebirth of his wisdom mind was one of those rare and auspicious occasions when West meets East, Christianity meets Buddhism, and two parts of us become whole.

The second was when as a group we had our Sunday Eucharist; four Anglicans, two Catholics and two Buddhist monks. The respect and aroha we all held sitting around 'the table', the breaking of bread and the sipping of wine was the moment for me, when the door that the Monk Body opened for us, opened both ways - there was no right or wrong, better or best only the shared hopes of the One Heart as manifested in our band of merry practitioners.


Cynthia Bourgeault's blog about Bhutan can be read here: Beggers in Paradise: The Bhutan Adventure

Posted on 20/05/2014 by Pip Nicholls