Forest Sangha Newsletter January 1993

Living with Dying; Ajahn Munindo
Questions & Answers with Luang Por Chah: II
Dhamma Notes from Thailand; Ajahn Santacitto
A Buddhist Kingdom; Aj Pasanno & Jayasaro
Ten Rains; Sister Candasiri
First Rains; Ven. Sunnato
Wildlife in Hammer Woods; Mike Holmes

Signs of Change:


Journey to a Buddhist Kingdom

Having received an official invitation from the Bhutanese Civil Service, Ajahn Pasanno and Ajahn Jayasaro, the two senior bhikkhus from Wat Pah Nanachat, spent two weeks in Bhutan in April of this year. The following is extracted from a conversation with Ajahn Jayasaro concerning the trip.

Question: What is the present state of Buddhism in Bhutan?
Answer: Very healthy, I think. The Sangha is large in terms of the percentage of the population; the ten or twenty thousand monks and nuns represent a higher percentage of the population than even in Thailand. Monks are very much in evidence everywhere. There is a close liaison between the head of the Sangha and the government department which administers things like funding, and the monks play an important part in public life. There are ten monks in the Parliament and two or three in the Privy Council, so the monks' opinions and feelings about public affairs are closely heeded. No major bill is passed without the monks' approval.

The Head, the secretary of the monks' body, who is a direct liaison between the King and Sangha, is a very keen Buddhist reformer, and he has a cosmopolitan background with a broad vision of the way things should go in the future. He's pushing through things that the conservatives would find difficult to come up with themselves. One good example of that is the fact that nearly all the scriptures are in Tibetan, and when monks give Dhamma talks, they tend to read it from the Tibetan scriptures so that people don't understand what they're all about. It's more like a ritual. There are a small number of monks who speak in the vernacular, but not many. The secretary is trying to increase the number by encouraging monks to speak in the vernacular, getting the scriptures translated into Bhutanese. Previously, the difficulty was that the Bhutanese language did not have a script, so now they've solved that problem by just using a Tibetan script for Bhutanese words.

English tuition is also being encouraged in monastic colleges. English is the teaching medium in high school, so all Bhutanese who have been through high school speak fluent English, but the monks haven't learned English. Now, the secretary has initiated a change in the curriculum so monks and novices do one or two hours of English every day, in order to better propagate the Dhamma. So, I'm generally impressed with the state of the Sangha.

It's pleasant to see such power not being abused for selfish ends.

Q: Bhutan is making a determined effort to maintain its Buddhist culture; how did this impress you?
A: One of the reasons we were so keen to go was because, in running our monastery, we have a lot of invitations to teach people on all levels of society, and one of the major things that comes up is trying to integrate Buddhist teachings in a society which is rapidly industrialising. So it was very interesting to go to a country which is making sincere efforts to maintain and strengthen its Buddhist culture and put Buddhist values first. This contrasts with Thailand, where Western capitalist values tend to be put first and then Buddhism is grafted on to that afterwards. We were very impressed by the dedication of people in power, especially the King himself. An example of this was the Lord Chief Justice, who is making efforts to develop the Code of Justice in Bhutan, to make it more Buddhist. From his readings of the Tripitaka (Buddhist Scriptures), he feels that cetana (intention) should be the foundation of a legal code, so we were discussing the practicalities of using intention in prosecuting a legal case.

It's not democracy as such, so the people in power do have a lot more ability to make radical reforms and change things without having to go through a lot of discussion and argument. It's pleasant to see such power not being abused for selfish ends.

Q: How much evidence is there of Western technology in the country? And is it being integrated in a balanced way?
A: Again, I was very impressed to see they're trying to be their own refuge, and not rely on huge amounts of foreign aid, or push for rapid development. Western technology is not so widespread, although admittedly we were in the mountains a lot. Electricity is to be seen pretty well everywhere because it's Bhutan's main export. They have many swiftly flowing rivers, a number of Hydro Electric Power projects and are exporting electricity to India, so the towns there have electricity. There are many Western agencies with various programmes in Bhutan, and the most obvious evidence of technology is Japanese vehicles, especially in the capital city of Thimpu. In Thimpu you also see a few fridges in shops and VCR's but there is no TV in Bhutan. One thing they were expressing concern about was the lack of control of videos, which are available on the market, but otherwise it's generally a very basic subsistence economy.

Q: The style of Buddhism is completely Tibetan, isn't it? How are the monasteries supported?
A: Yes, they're funded by the government, their needs are supplied by the government, so there is not so much intense contact between the laity and the monks as, for instance, you find in Thailand. It means that many monasteries are in very remote areas, far from villages, in very beautiful silent spots.

Q: What is the position of women vis--vis ordination?
A: There are quite a lot of nuns. We visited a nunnery outside of Thimpu, which was well-supported and had a lot of young girls training as nuns. I don't think they get the same support as the monasteries so they have to be a bit more self-sufficient. They have a samanera ordination; there is not a full bhikkhuni ordination: I think it's the same as in Tibet.

One of the things that would often come up when we were chatting with the monks about our monastic tradition, was that they would be quite shocked or amused by the fact that in Thailand people would become monks for short periods, and that ordination was not a lifetime commitment. For them, disrobing is almost unthinkable. It would be a major humiliation and even require paying a fine if one were to disrobe. Certainly in the case of a Parajika, an offence entailing expulsion from the Sangha, there would be a very heavy fine to pay or imprisonment. So young boys enter the monastery from the age of seven upwards and then after ordination, they never consider disrobing; it's never a possibility; your life is dedicated to the religion.

One can see the value of temporary ordination in Thailand - if you have people that have been monks for a while and realise they don't have the vocation to give their whole lives, then they can leave. It becomes a problem when people feel they can't disrobe and stay against their will; especially if their sila is not so good, which causes a lot of difficulties in the monastery.

In Bhutan, one of the ways to deal with this problem is that there are many different kinds of occupation that monks can get into. You have monks who specialise in administration, in painting, in monastic arts and sacred dance, and monks who are studying or are into meditation. If you don't have the faith to go all the way, then you could become an administrator instead. So my impression was there was something for everybody.

Q: Did you talk to many of the monks about their meditation practice?
A: It was difficult. Firstly because of language - our translator was unsure of himself and afraid of mistranslating. Also, very few of the younger monks had really got that far, because meditation is put up on such a pedestal and there are so many preliminary practices that one has to do first. The feeling is that if one hasn't gone through the preliminary purification, and one hasn't had the blessing or initiation of one's Guru, then meditation will not bear fruit. It's quite a long time before monks get down to meditation as we know it.

One of the things we were stressing when we were teaching was bringing the Dhamma down to earth; although the more advanced Tantric practices might need a lot of preparation, surely it was not too much to be mindful of what you were doing and saying, and trying not to attach to things that arose and passed away in the mind. We encouraged the view of everyday life being a form of meditation.

Q: The preliminary stages in their practice also put a lot of emphasis on devotion, don't they?
A: Yes. It's stressed very much in the whole society.

Q: You mean more so than in Thailand?
A: Oh, yes! Buddhism in Bhutan is much more bound up with the whole animist tradition - even to the extent that local deities have their own side shrines in the main shrine room, complete with various weapons and shields and strange paraphernalia; there's a strange 'pagan' feeling. Of course the shrines themselves are very different from what we're used to. Padmasambhava is a recurrent figure as are Avalokiteshvara, Manjushri, and the group of sixteen Arahants. Often these compartments on the side of the main shrine contain the Tripitaka and the Mahayana scriptures, and then quite often the Tantric deities that couple in sexual union. As a Theravada monk, one feels a little bit uncomfortable the first few times being taken in and expected to bow to these deities, but one reminds oneself that these are symbols of spiritual truths which one is seeking to develop. This is the difference between idolatry and the Buddhist idea of Puja, isn't it, whether you bow to the thing itself or what it's pointing to.

Q: Were you invited to give a few formal talks while you were there?
A: Yes, we were invited to give talks in a number of schools. The first day we spoke to the Secretary of the Religious Affairs Department, and he was outlining the programme they had set up for us, asking what we might like to do. I said it would be very interesting to go and visit a school and see what kind of questions they have. He said they'd try and arrange it.

After a few days, we went to the Central Province, which is the heart of Bhutanese Buddhism, with very old temples and historical sites. One day we passed a school and dropped in. It was evening time and they were still studying. We spoke to the teacher, and he invited us to come around the next day and speak with the people. We went, and the pupils - two or three hundred of them - were very interested and all spoke good English. We both gave a short talk on Buddhist principles, and then we were flooded with questions for over an hour and a half. The teachers were very happy and the translator was elated. So the next day we went to another province and the first thing he did was to arrange for us to talk at another school. He was anxious to repeat the success of the previous day, and it went even better. The pupils were older and the questions were more sophisticated. Then we were invited to another school, which is considered to be the top junior school in the capital, one or two days before we left. I really enjoyed that a lot.

We found that the obvious question was: 'What brought you, as Westerners, to Buddhism?' So we talked about the characteristics we saw in Buddhism that we felt were lacking in our own religious traditions, and we found that many of those things were not present in their own Buddhist tradition.

Q: Could you give an example?
A: For instance, the emphasis on self-reliance, which is not really stressed in their own tradition. They have the mythologies and deities, and - at least on the lay level, for most Bhutanese - that's what it's all about. The idea of teaching as tools for awakening was quite fresh for them.

Q: Are there any other aspects of your trip which have stayed with you?
A: Geographically, the country itself is spectacular. They keep very strict control over the number of tourists who enter Bhutan. The country is underdeveloped and there's very little deforestation - at least in comparison with the other parts of the Himalayas. It's a very awesome country and the monasteries are built way up in the mountains. We visited one at the end of our trip which was extremely high up. It's very hard to imagine how anyone could build a monastery there; a sheer rock face hundreds of feet high; just to climb up there was quite a trek, let alone carrying rocks and building materials. So I feel a lot of joy that these people are trying to maintain something of their traditions and are not just throwing them out the window.

I also remember something an old Canadian Jesuit monk told me. He'd become a naturalised Bhutanese and was working in the educational department teaching art to a group of students. He really wanted to bring out their creativity and individuality. Now in Bhutan, almost all art is religious, the artists never write their names on the paintings and all the religious figures are painted according to set rules of iconography. This monk tried to get them to paint a more original form of Buddha or Deity, to put their imagination and feeling into it. Afterwards, the paintings were sent off to a competition - but the one that won was painted in the traditional iconographic style. For me, it was a really good example of the Western and Eastern minds. For the Occidental, being different and expressing something particular and personal is stressed, whereas for the Oriental, this is not important. Instead, they give themselves to painting according to very set guidelines and harmonise with them, without feeling it a bar to their creativity.