My journey to The Kingdom of Bhutan showed me great insight into the ideals of a society and a lifestyle. I went to Bhutan with a group of friends for 8 days in April 2017 and was enamored by the country, its people, its ideals, and its food. There are a few things that struck me as particularly memorable, which I am sharing with you here. I feel that all of these are ideals can be applied to our lives.
1. Spread Blessings to Everyone
One of the first things I noticed is the predominance of prayer flags. From the landing into the international airport in Paro, I could sense it was a spiritual country. The plane maneuvered through the mountains in a way that was simultaneously awe-inspiring and prayer inducing. Awe-inspiring because of the beauty of mountaintops and ridges it was flying next to, and prayer inducing out of fear for my life. The plane flew so close to the mountainsides that I felt like I could reach out and touch the mountains from the window… and so could any part of the airplane. But, I digress.
Prayer flags were visible on the side of the mountain from the airplane, and were hard to miss after landing and while driving throughout the country. They often are placed on mountainsides, although not on top of high mountains as these are considered sacred and people do not generally climb to the top. Prayer flags are also found on bridges, on fields, and on areas where there is a lot of wind, as the belief with prayer flags is that they provide a blessing for those who hang them, as well as for all of those who come across them. What is even more special is that the wind carries the prayers and blessings inscribed within the prayer flags to all other beings in areas near and far, so one does not have to come upon the prayer flags to be blessed by them. Bhutan is blessed by quite windy afternoons, where plains, valleys, and mountainous areas are swept by gusts, which makes prayer flags quite effective, since these winds thus carry blessings from prayer flags all across the country and beyond.
Prayer flags come in 5 colors, each color conveying a different kind of message or blessing to be spread. Blue represents good health, white represents purity, yellow represents long life, red represents removal of obstacles, and green represents good karma or good deeds.
Although I do not feel we all need to start hanging prayer flags around our surroundings, I do feel we can learn from the purpose of the prayer flags to spread blessings to all beings, and I believe that this is something we can all do, regardless of our religious affiliation, belief, or practice. It is simply about desiring that we are all able to have good health, be pure, have long lives, remove our obstacles, and do good deeds, and that we desire this not just for ourselves and our loves ones, but for all beings on this earth. When the community benefits, so does the individual.
2. Act With Compassion
Bhutan is a Buddhist country, perhaps the only country in the world where the governance of the country has been led by 2 generations of monarchs (King Wangchuck the 4th and 5th), whom Bhutanese rever as a God, all in the midst of transitioning as a new democratic country. The current 5th King is not only the Head of State, but is also regarded as a symbol of unity of the people of Bhutan. In the past, Bhutan was a duocracy and the monastic order was led by the Chief Abbot. Today, the Chief Abbot continues to hold an important role in Bhutanese society and leads the monk body throughout the Kingdom.
Buddhism is impregnated in every part of life, and even though monks are visible throughout, Buddhism is not overtly taught to lay people, meaning it is not learned in school. But it is present in every aspect of life, and is part of the framework of all Bhutanese.
We had an amazing guide, Namgay Tenzin, who was arranged through our tour operator Gaiya Bhutan. He shared with us that there are many aspects of Buddhism that he is not aware of, simply because he was not taught them. What he knows is based on what has been passed down to him from his family, his upbringing, and what he has learned explicitly or picked up along the way as a tour guide. He has made it a purpose to learn as much as possible in order to impart more knowledge to his tourist guests, but there are still some aspects that he is not aware of within the lore of Buddhism. But, truly I am talking about mere details, meaning that he may not have known every single story or interpretation concerning every single artistic depiction, mandala, or symbol, but he knew a great deal. In fact, everything I am describing in this article is based on the knowledge that Namgay shared with my friends and I during our trip.
Nonetheless, one of the first aspects of Buddhism and the Bhutanese way of life that Namgay shared with us is the importance of having a compassionate heart. Compassion is one of the edicts of Gross National Happiness or GNH, which is the Bhutanese way of measuring the country’s success. GNH as a development philosophy was introduced by the 4th King, and comprises 4 pillars (good governance, sustainable economic development, environmental conservation, and cultural preservation), and 9 different aspects, including compassion. Compassion is also one of the tenets of Buddhism and practicing a compassionate heart, in which we express and show compassion to all living beings, humans, animals, and other earthly entities. Thus, Bhutanese have a great amount of respect for each other, for animals, and other living beings. I will share a story of what we witnessed during our journey that will showcase this.
We did a few hikes during our trip, and during one of them we came upon an animal bone. We were curious as to what the bone was and what it was doing laying in the middle of a plain. When one of my friends picked it up, we noticed there was a small green worm that was attached to the bottom-side of the bone. At that moment, Namgay, concerned that we had disturbed the worm, asked for us to place the bone back down. My friend put the bone down, but this time, the worm was on the top, facing the sun. Namgay wanted to make sure that the worm remained out of the sunlight, as it had clearly been resting in the shade before we disturbed it. He turned the bone around to make sure the worm was able to get back to its shaded rest.
I have not experienced this level of compassion for a worm before. I have encountered many who respect other living beings, but Namgay’s concern went beyond just making sure we did not harm the worm. He wanted to make sure the worm was as comfortable as when we found it.
Showing compassion for others is something we can all do. The feeling of compassion makes us less likely to judge, and more likely to care for the livelihood of those around us.
3. Care for The Environment
Having a compassionate heart is something that extends well beyond caring for other living beings and into the environment. In addition, the government has made a concerted effort to make sure the country remains at least 60% covered by natural forests, although currently the country surpasses this standard and is 72% forest-covered. All crops and foods grown and produced in Bhutan are organic, as they want to make sure their country and food sources remain pure and clean. Only produce imported from India and elsewhere are not organic.
Pride and care for their country is something that is evident amongst the Bhutanese. While we were in Thimphu, the capital of Bhutan, we had a gathering at our tour operators’ home. Gaiya Bhutan is owned by Pema and Gyaltshen, who arranged every detail of our Bhutanese experience. It is not common for tour operators to invite their clients as guests in their house, although Bhutanese are quite hospitable people and have been known to happily invite strangers and tourists into their homes. That being said, we had a unique connection with Pema. One of the friends I was traveling with was friends with Pema, and as a result, Pema invited us all for dinner at her house on the first night we arrived. It was a wonderful evening, but the aspect that showcased care for the environment was a comment that one of Pema’s friends, Tshering, who was also at the dinner, shared with us.
She mentioned that Bhutanese are concerned about protecting their environment. She shared with us that when her daughter was growing up she had to go to Thailand to buy diapers because diapers were not allowed in Bhutan. What is more, she was so concerned about polluting her country when disposing of these diapers, that she made sure to frequently travel back to Thailand to dispose of the them! She stated there were no incinerators in Bhutan that could take care of the kind of waste and pollution diapers created, and to protect her country from this waste, she was willing to hold on to dirty diapers until her next planned trip to Thailand, load them into her suitcases, and dispose of them in the country where she had purchased them from. She said she was concerned about Thailand and its resources, but believed that Thailand had the capacity to treat the waste created by diapers, where as Bhutan did not. Although she cared greatly for her daughter and wanted to provide her the best, which motivated her to buy diapers in the first place, she also cared greatly for her own country and for her home and did not want to see it polluted.
The earths pollution is a whole other topic that could take volumes to discuss, but what we can learn from this is having the awareness of our surroundings and consider to treat earth and nature as we do our homes, and before tossing a piece of garbage on the ground or creating some type of pollution, stop to think if we would do this in our own homes? If the answer is no, then we should not do this to the earth.
4. Be Generous
The best example I can give you of generosity has once again to do with Pema and Gyaltshen. On one of the last few days of our travels we returned to Thimphu, and we had planned on visiting the local farmer’s market. Pema and Gyaltshen wanted to see us once again, and they joined us for the outing. They knowledgeably described all the local produce and foods available at the market, sharing what the food items were, how they were grown or produced, and how they could be used in cooking. They asked for samples from the many vendors to make sure that we were exposed to the wonderful range of tastes and flavors that the country has to offer.
To send us off they bought us things from the market, like honey, spices, local cheese, and other delicacies. They wanted to do this for us out of the goodness of their hearts, and as a token of kindness. Again, I believe this occurred because of Pema’s friendship with one of my friends, but they also did not have to go out of their way to buy us these gifts from the market, at least not for all of us, since we all had not been previous friends. But, it pleased them to be able to do something for the guests that had traveled from so far to visit their country.
Another great example of this generosity came from Kinzang, our driver. We had expressed great like for Bhutanese food, and had grown tired of the often westernized or simplified food provided at touristic spots. In addition, we got along really well with both Namgay and Kinzang, and had developed a warm and fun rapport during our journey. As a result, Kinzang invited us to his cousin’s farm house for a local Bhutanese meal. Kinzang’s cousin is also named Pema, and she cooked a succulent meal with 8 dishes along with milk tea. She cooked a full spread of food out of 2 gas burners in her home. Eight of us sat on the floor and ate together, my 3 friends, Namgay, Kinzang, Pema, her husband, and myself. It was the best meal we had in our trip, not only because it was flavorful, but also because it was cooked with so much love. We had a unique experience that we would not have had, were it not for Kinzang’s and Pema’s kindness and generosity.
I live in a society where I feel closed off from people around me, even my neighbors. This experience in Bhutan has taught me to be more open and more giving to those around me, even if it is with just a smile and a polite greeting. I may not start with an invitation to dinner to my neighbors, but at least a greeting might help move things towards being more generous.
We were not all friends when we first met, but we certainly became friends through this journey. Not just the 6 of us travelers, meaning us 4 friends, Namgay and Kinzang, but also the two Pema’s and their husbands.
These 4 concepts of blessings, compassion, caring for the earth, and generosity can be easily applied into our daily lives, if we just take a step back to consider how what we do affects those around us. And, if instead of putting ourselves first, we put the needs of others and the community first, as is the Bhutanese way.