I was about to publish this blog yesterday morning when the very sad news came through that my Nana had passed away. All of a sudden the title of this post took on a whole new meaning. What was a post about our 12 months in Bhutan coming to an end had broader implications of the impermanence of life itself. And this was quite significant because in the blog post I was exploring some of the Buddhist teachings that I’d picked up this year including the Buddhist approach to the cycle of life and death.
What prompted me to write a bit about Buddhism was that Jordi and I had been reflecting on the highlights and challenges of our time here and we mostly agreed on everything except for this one. Jordi would list Buddhism under challenges, but I would actually consider it as one of the highlights. For me it has been a fascinating experience to learn a bit about Buddhist teachings and experience how it is manifested in everyday life, in the only country in the world where Buddhism is the national religion.
Buddhism was introduced to Bhutan from Tibet in the 13th Century. It is so ingrained in the culture that Bhutan would just not be the same without it. On an aesthetic level, it makes the visual landscape what it is: for instance, the colourful prayer flags strung up on mountain sides, sending prayers on the wind to all sentient beings; the prayer wheels housed in chu mani harnessing hydropower to spin the wheel and ring a little bell, likewise to send prayers to all sentient beings; and of course the other structures dotted across the landscape such as mani walls, stupas and Lhakangs which house important Buddhist relics and are places of worship.
Pre 1960’s, when the modern education system was introduced to Bhutan, entering the monastic body was the only way to receive a formal education. The monastic system still remains alongside the modern school system. The peaceful nature of the country might have something to do with the fact that there are more monks than military in Bhutan (approx. 10,000 monks in a population of 750,000). There are also Buddhist nuns but a lot fewer of them. The head Lama of the country, known as the Je Khempo, is considered to have the same status as the King.
At a deeper level, many of the Buddhist teachings I’ve picked up through the year really resonate with me. Particularly the parallels between some of the Buddhist concepts and modern scientific thinking: for instance between the concept of interdependence/samsara/reincarnation with systems thinking; the concept of karma with Newton’s Third Law that every action has an equal and opposite reaction; and that Buddha urged followers to think freely, question everything, don’t blindly follow.
I also made a link in my own head between Buddhism and Shakespeare and a quick google search revealed that I’m certainly not the first one to do that! This was specifically in regard to the Buddhist practice of training the mind through meditation to overcome suffering and promote compassion, with the notion that all such things originate from the mind. This immediately made me think of the quote from Hamlet: “There’s nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so!”
Connected to this is that a lot of our suffering stems from our attachment to things. Buddhism teaches that we need to train our mind to let go and understand the impermanence of all things.
…….. just like our time in beautiful Bhutan! … and in a broader sense life itself
And just for the record, here are some of the highlights and challenges of our year in Bhutan, what we’re looking forward to about returning home and what we’ll probably find challenging about being in Australia again.
The highlights include:
- The spectacular natural environment (mountains, forests, rivers, lakes)
- Outdoor activities (hiking, cycling, running, rafting). In fact, this is the subject of Jordi’s blog https://bhutanrunsandrides.wordpress.com/
- The beautiful Bhutanese people with their unique wisdom and welcoming hospitality
- The wonderful friendships we’ve made both Bhutanese and Chillips
- The meaty conversations and exchange of ideas on Politics, Religion, GNH, Development and everything in between, particularly at conferences such as Mountain Echoes and E3
- Feeling that we’ve made a positive contribution in the various voluntary work we’ve undertaken, and for me personally the variety of activities I’ve got involved in as a freelance volunteer
- Field trips to remote parts of the country along crazy winding roads and on foot
- Both finishing our Master’s degrees while in Bhutan and being able to integrate examples from Bhutan into our studies
- Homestays (staying with a family and getting an insight into the lifestyle in rural Bhutan)
- Hot stone baths
- Traditional architecture and Dzongs
- Experiencing the changing of the seasons
- The view from our little apartment (across the glinting golden temple rooftops of Changangkha Lhakang to the snow capped mountains beyond and the city of Thimphu in the valley below)
- Experiencing cultural integrity
- That it’s not overrun by tourists thanks to Bhutan’s tourism policy (although 2015 has been declared “visit Bhutan year”)
- Discovering or reviving pass times such as snooker/chess (Jordi) and meditation/yoga (me)
- Personal and professional development in a different cultural context
The challenges have been:
- Getting used to the large number of stray dogs and their nightime barking
- The driving culture (a different approach to roundabouts and pedestrian crossings than we expect in the west)
- The spitting of Doma (a stimulant consisting of an areca nut, a betel leaf and lime paste which when chewed produces a red saliva)
- Waste management
- The cultural tendency to place blame and find excuses to save face
- BST (Bhutan Stretchable Time)
- While we’ve loved the Bhutanese food and beer after a while we’ve started craving some variety
What we’re looking forward to:
- Reconnecting with family and friends
- Fresh seafood, fresh salads, tropical fruit and variety of cuisine in general
- Pale ales and good red wine
- Good coffee (although Ambient Café is pretty good!)
- Swimming at the beach and ocean baths
- An ergonomic office set-up
- A work culture we’re familiar with
- Our own comfortable bed
- Our bath/shower
- An oven
- ABC TV, Triple J radio and the Saturday SMH newspaper
- Getting back into our interests such as Parkrun, choir, film society, gardening etc
- Going to the cinema
- Driving a car/scooter again
- Seeing what’s changed and what’s the same in our home town
- Returning to some of our favourite cafes and restaurants
- Going camping
- Our Graduation
What we’ll probably find challenging:
- Consumerist values
- An increase in administrative stuff
- The price of things
- Less predictable weather
- Driving again
Thank you to all the wonderful people who have touched our lives this year. To steal a line from one of the other Aussie volunteers, “it’s the people that make the place”. We are the last of our batch of AVIDs who arrived a year ago to be leaving. It is the week of farewells with a beautiful picnic in the forest last Sunday and Jordi’s workplace farewell dinner last night. But we dearly hope to have the opportunity to come back to Bhutan one day.
“These mist covered mountains
Are a home now to me.
But my home is the lowlands
And always will be”
R.I.P. Nana. Perhaps we’ll meet again in the next life.