Ten years ago I took a National Endowment for the Humanities course on Himalayan Cultures in Worcester, Massachusetts. My focus of study was on Buddhism, and I learned a great deal during the summer. However, I remember one of my professors saying that the new generation of Tibetan monks was more likely to be watching TV or playing video games than doing meditation. I’ve also heard similar anecdotal comments that meditation has become a lost practice among Buddhists in Asian countries. As a religion teacher wanting to properly represent these faiths, I’ve often wondered about the spirituality of contemporary Buddhist monks in Asia. And as a Christian who has re-discovered contemplation in my own tradition, I’m also quite curious about the spiritual practices of contemporary followers in Asia.
So, I have been pleasantly surprised thus far in my time in Bhutan that everyone I have spoken to seems sincerely committed to Buddhist teachings, culture, and practices. On numerous occasions while visiting various dzongs (fortress-monasteries) and temples, I have heard the distinctive Tibetan Buddhist chants with horns and drums emanating from assembly halls. One of the leaders (pictured below) of the national sangha told me that adult monks participate in more than 600 ritual services a year, some of which may last up to 18 hours at a time.
Today my family and I hiked up to Khamsumyuelly Namgyel, a temple in the form of a stupa, about a half hour drive north of the old capital of Punakha. The 45-minute walk through rice paddy trails winded my family, although we stopped occasionally for Buddhist monks to pass by or for a pack horse loaded with farm goods heading to market to cross our path.
We were not disappointed when we arrived at the top. In a country that struggles with poverty and malnutrition, it is indeed striking that temples are so well taken care of. Constructed by the Queen Mother in 1999, this temple was particularly beautifully designed with small stupa-like lamps lining the walls.
We headed to the top to see what promised to be a spectacular view of the Punakha valley. Admiring the view, our tour guide Sonam engaged the temple keeper, dressed in a ruby red monk garment, in conversation. And so after our picture taking, I was able to learn more about this man through Sonam’s translation.
The temple keeper’s name was Dendup. He was born 60 years ago in the Punakha area. At age 8 he decided to commit himself to training to become a monk. At age 20, he studied at Tango University, which is housed at the monastery outside of Thimphu that we walked up to two days ago. During his studies, he did his first of four three-year meditation periods. (To be precise, the meditation period was three years, three months, and three days.) In the last 40 years of his service as a monk, then, he has spent 12 of those years meditating.
Given his experience and my own fledgling attempts at Centering Prayer, I had to ask him, “What have been the benefits of your meditation?” Through Sonam’s translation, he explained, “The benefits are not to me, but to all sentient beings. I pray for the welfare of all. See those men plowing the rice fields below? Their plowing is hurting small animals in the soil. These sentient beings experience suffering. And who knows? These beings may be your parents or ancestors in their next life.” And then he asked me, “Do you find this hard to believe?”
I responded, “Actually, your story makes a lot of sense to me – more than the scientific story that most of us seem to accept.” I thanked him for his time, and told him that I am a religion teacher at school in Hong Kong. I asked him a final question, “What message do you have for the students I teach?” He simply said, “Do not live for yourself. Remember to live your life for all sentient beings.”
Then I asked his permission to take some pictures so that I could share his story with my students back in Hong Kong. A small smile indicated his affirmative answer.
In my brief time so far here in Bhutan, I have been pleased to find that Bhutanese people seems to support Buddhist principles and practices without excluding the beliefs of others. Yesterday morning I joined local Bhutanese who circumambulate the Memorial Chorten in Thimbu every morning. Despite the sound of nearby traffic or hotel construction, young and old alike walked around this sacred shrine. Some spun prayer wheels, chanted, or did prostrations, while others walked and talked with family or friends. All seemed in agreement that something as important as one’s spiritual life is not separate from daily life, but intricately connected to it. In this environment, living your life for all sentient beings seems as natural as a purposeful morning stroll.
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A group of friends, including my teacher Cynthia Bourgeault, visited Bhutan in February, 2014. One of the participants, Pip Nicholls, wrote a gently illuminating piece about their visit.