Bhutan Snowman Trek: Buddhism in Bhutan
Blog and photos by Deana Zalbado
Around Paro, the capital Thimphu, and surrounding areas, we can’t pass a temple without my wanting to explore it. I’m gathering stories and looking for interesting out-of-way places to build into future trips…and Bhutan does not disappoint. Dark rooms are painted with winged wrathful deities to protect the land from disease. Centuries-old wooden ladders have steps worn smooth and sloping in the middle from thousands of feet climbing to higher altar rooms. Legends abound of evil spirits subjugated by Buddhist masters, and yes, sometimes they involve Tantric sex.
In remote monasteries, I meet young boys who chose at age 12 to leave their families and become monks. I meet a hermit who has left behind home, work, and worldly life to complete 100,000 prostrations (which will take more than 3 years of a few hundred per day). A monk stops our car because he is helping a caterpillar in the middle of the road onto a leaf so that he can put it out of harm’s way. Young and old, they possess a seriousness in their clarity and devotion to spiritual practice that impresses me.
Spiritual devotion is not limited to monastics. Thousands of people turn up for a 3‑month reading of the Buddha’s teachings at the foot of a giant Buddha statue on a hill. A local political leader makes the 5 hour round-trip hike three times every month to a forest temple to make offerings at the altar of a powerful feminine deity. Villagers donate their labor to rebuild a local temple destroyed in the 2011 earthquake (which did serious damage to historic temples across the country). By labor, I mean they spend months hauling 60-pound sacks of dirt up three flights of stairs to pound into rammed earth walls or take turns providing food and cooking for the 30+ people working on any given day. A woman who was diagnosed with a serious heart problem at age 60 came to live near the monastery where she has chanted mantras and spun a prayer wheel for the last 20 years. A check-up last year shows no heart problem.
Spiritual practice pervades every part of life here. Rich and poor, educated and not, most people offer a little of every meal to the deities or recite a prayer before eating (and I fit right in, as I make my own offering of gratitude before every meal). Homes are blessed annually by monks. Prayer flags are strung on high passes.
Some of the best parts of Bhutan can’t be captured in a photo (although the picturesque country and self-possessed populace certainly lend themselves to photos). Every temple prohibits pictures inside, every person practices in their own way, but Buddhism is part of the daily fabric of life in Bhutan.