Myths of Bhutan Revealed

Up until recently, when I visited the tiny country of Bhutan, it remained a mystery to me. I pictured this magical place where the entire nation practices Buddhism, animals roam free through the protected forests, and everyone is happy and content all the time. Some of the movies I watched also suggested that one becomes very peaceful and all the illnesses go away when you go to Bhutan.

As an eager journalist, I wanted to find the facts for myself. What I discovered was very different from everything I knew, which is generally what happens until you actually travel to that destination.

Here are some of my questions answered…

Is everyone in Bhutan Buddhist?

Technically, Bhutan is a Buddhist country. Majority of the population is Buddhist, followed by Hindu. Though the influence of Buddhism is strong in many areas, not 100% of the people observe all its beliefs and rituals. About 15% of the population are Buddhist monks. There are both male and female monks in the monasteries.

female monk in Bhutan

Do Bhutanese eat meat?

If you look at the traditional Bhutanese menus, they tend to have a lot of meat dishes, including pork, beef and chicken. The government does not allow killing of animals for consumption. In fact, you can get arrested and fined if you slaughter an animal for food, fish from the rivers, or even accidentally kill a stray dog. Therefore, the meat you find in Bhutan is imported, mostly from India.

Though the Buddhist belief does not allow consumption of animals, many of the Bhutanese people do eat meat.
bhutan food

Is everyone in Bhutan happy?

In 2016, the World Happiness Report published by the United Nations ranked Bhutan as the 84th happiest country. According to the domestic survey done to measure Gross National Happiness in Bhutan, 90% of the population reported that they were happy. Now the definition of happiness can be subjective. In Bhutan, you will find a lot of poverty and access to very little resources. Infrastructure is undeveloped, there is high unemployment, work is mostly in agricultural sectors, and practically everything is imported into the country. One might question, how one can be happy having so little? In fact, while walking around shops, I didn’t particularly find anyone smiling or laughing with joy. Most people went about their day very seriously and responded only when spoken to.

Perhaps the people in Bhutan are happy because of their culture which embodies the teaching of Buddhism. There is strong emphasis on living as a community, helping each other, doing good deeds and finding happiness from within.

Is there any crime in Bhutan?

Though Bhutan is a peaceful country and quite safe, there is some petty crime especially among the youth. You can find instances of pick pocketing, theft, domestic violence and an occasional murder as well. When I asked one of the judicial officials regarding this, he mentioned that most cases of crime are committed by adolescent boys, perhaps overcome by peer pressure, alcohol or just hormones. Crime in Bhutan is significantly less than other countries.

Is Bhutan a mountainous country?

Given that the country is half the size of Indiana, there is unimaginable diversity in nature. Valleys, subalpine mountains, rivers, and plains are spread through the country, making it hot and rainy in the south, and dry and cold in the north. 60% of the country is protected as forest land under a strict regulation for maintaining the environmental impact. It is home to many animals including leopards, tigers, musk deer and takin. There are also some of the highest peaks in the world found in the Himalayan mountains of Bhutan, making it a great destination for trekking and mountaineering.

punakha bhutan scenery

The highest point in Bhutan is Gangkhar Puensum at 7,570 metres (24,840 ft), which has the distinction of being the highest unclimbed mountain in the world

Can you feel the monarchial presence in Bhutan?

Bhutan’s political system has recently changed from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional monarchy. In 2005, King Jigme Singye Wangchuck transferred most of his administrative powers to the Council of Cabinet Ministers and allowed for impeachment of the King by a two-thirds majority of the National Assembly.

In everyday life, you can feel the presence of the monarch though. Pictures of the royal family, including the current 36-year old king, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck and Queen Jetsun Pema are displayed at homes, shops, museums, hotels, etc. They make ceremonial appearances at festivals and assemblies, and give motivational speeches to the kingdom on the importance of education, giving back, and following one’s customs.

How much freedom do the Bhutanese people have?

In 1999, the government lifted a ban on television and the Internet, making Bhutan one of the last countries to introduce television. They believed that exposure to the western world makes people unhappy as it encourages desire and greed.

There are few bars and clubs in Bhutan, mostly frequented by young people. Certainly not a destination for party lovers.

happiness wine in bhutan

Traditions supersede freedom of expression. The King requires everyone to wear the national costume to work, school and temples. Only during free time, one can choose to dress as they like.

Women and men have equal rights in Bhutan. Even in jobs involving manual labor, such as construction and agriculture, you can find women working alongside men. Respect for women is also an important part of Buddhist culture. Bhutanese men perform domestic duties including cooking. Traditionally the groom moves to the bride’s family home after marriage.

people of bhutan

What shocked me most about Bhutan?

The poverty in Bhutan was very noticeable from the moment I landed in Paro. There were dirt roads right outside the airport, and lots of garbage on the streets. I guess I was expecting this enchanted land with forests and mountains, where everything is squeaky clean, and the people in a constant state of eternal bliss.

Bhutan facts

The Buddhist Experience in Thailand

What is Buddhism? Theravada and Mahayana

Budda isn’t just a happy idol you see when you go eat at your favorite Chinese or Thai restaurant, but it’s a philosophy that manifests into a culture, and a particular way of thinking in many Asian countries, including Thailand. Buddhism is based on the teachings of the Buddha, “the enlightened one.” It is a compassionate and tolerant religion that aims to alleviate suffering. 95% of the Thai people practice Theravada Buddhism, and it is the official religion of Thailand. In fact, Thailand is perhaps the only country in the world where the king is required to be Buddhist.

PhraBuddhaChinnarat
Buddha shrine in Thailand

Theravada Buddhism is the second largest sect of Buddhism after Mahayana Buddhism. Theravada Buddhism is prevalent in Southeast Asia, especially in Thailand, Sir Lanka, Myanmar, Cambodia, and Laos; therefore it is sometimes called “Southern Buddhism.” Therevada means “Way of the Elders” and is the oldest branch of Buddhism. The Therevadians believe that they are most closely followed the original beliefs and practices of the Buddha and the early monastic Elders. The authoritative text for Thereavadas is the Pali Canon, an early Indian collection of the Buddha’s teachings. The purpose of life for Theravadians is to become an arhat, a perfected saint who has achieved nirvana and will not be reborn again.

Inside Wat Chiang Mien in Chaing Mei, Thailand
Inside Wat Chiang Mien in Chaing Mei, Thailand

Mahayana Buddhism “ The Greater Vehicle” is known as the more liberal and accessible version of Buddhism. It is a path available to people from all walks of life and not just monks. Mahayana followers are mainly found in North Asia and the Far East, including China, Japan, Korea, Tibet, and Mongolia, and are known as Northern Buddhism. However Mahayana Buddhist hope to not become arhats but boddhisatvas, saints who have become enlightened, but who unselfishly delay nirvana to help others attain it as well, like Buddha did. Mahayana Buddhists teach that enlightenment can be attained in a single lifetime, and this can be accomplished even by an average joe, unlike in Therevada, which believes enlightenment only possible for monks and nuns who devote their entire lives to the task. Thus, in the Theravada sect, the best outcome for an average man is to be reborn in the monastic life. As a result, Southern Buddhism tends to be more monastic, strict and world renouncing than its Northern counterpart, but also has a more philosophical than religious approach than Mahayana Buddhism.

Brief History of Buddhism in Thailand

It is widely believed by Thais, that Emperor Ashoka from India sent Buddhist missionaries to Thailand in the 3rd century B.C. Today this influence can be seen in Thailand, several thousands of years later, as evidenced by numerous images of Vishnu, Shiva and Buddha, found in early sites in Thailand. Animism found in Thailand before both Hinduism and Buddhism in Thailand and has persisted to the present day as well, mainly in the form of spirit shrines in doors, yards and businesses.

By the 6th century A.D. Buddhism was well established in south and central areas of what is now Thailand, after the Mons of southern Burma adopted Theravada Buddhism and later invaded the central valley of Thailand. They left numerous stupas and a distinctive style of Buddhist image.

Wat Chaiwatthanaram, a Buddhist temple in Thailand.

Theravada Buddhism in Thailand was further strengthened after King Anawrahta of Burma captured Thailand in 1057 A.D, he spread Theravada into northern Thailand. Later, when the Thai Kingdom of Sukhothai was formed in 1238 A.D. Theravada Buddhism became the state religion. As Thailand was never conquered by any colonial European powers, thus wasn’t subjected to assaults by Christian missionaries or imposed Western influence.

How does Theravada Buddhism manifest itself in Thailand?

Buddhism in Thailand is infused with many spiritual beliefs, which are likely the result of lingering animist, and Hindu beliefs from centuries earlier.  Most Thai homes and places of business feature a ‘spirit house’ just outside the building, where offerings are made to appease spirits that might otherwise inhabit their homes or workplaces.  Furthermore, Buddhist monks are often brought to new homes and businesses to ‘bless them’, and Thai people frequently light incense and make prayers to both Buddha images and a host of Hindu gods, whose shrines are located throughout Bangkok and the countryside.

Visitors to Thailand will encounter Buddhism in many aspects of Thai life. Many foreigners view “The Land of Yellow Robes” as the vision of yellow robes of the Buddhist monks are seen from the moment one steps inside the country. Senior monks are highly revered in Thailand and it isn’t uncommon to see their images adorning walls of businesses or homes or upon ornaments inside of taxi cabs. In many towns and villages the neighborhood wat (temple) is the heart of social and religious life. Buddhist holidays occur regularly throughout the year (particularly on days with full moons) and many Thai people go to the wat on these and other important days to pay homage to the Buddha and give alms to monks in order to make merit for themselves. Meditation, a primary practice of Buddhism is also popular as  a means of self-reflection in order to identify the causes of individual desire and ultimately alleviate ones suffering.

monks
Monks in Thailand in prayer wearing their yellow orange robes.

 

To learn more about Thailand, attend Destination Thailand in Atlanta on October 16, 2014!