Prayer wheels are everywhere in Bhutan–perched above stream beds, constantly turned by the power of the water; built into crumbling chortens beside the roads; lining the outer walls of sacred temples; tucked into walls around the corner from the hardware store; and solar powered prayer wheels like the one pictured above spin on the dashboards of cars all across the country. You will even see people walking around with hand-held prayer wheels on a stick that you spin with a turn of the wrist. When you spin them you send into the universe the sacred words inscribed upon them, Om Mane Padme Hung. . . “May all sentient beings be free from suffering.” Spinning prayer wheels might feel, to some Westerners, like an exercise in faith alone, not an active intervention to eliminate suffering. In my Western mind, for instance, if I wanted all sentient beings to be free from suffering, I’d intervene with antibiotics and vitamins and flea baths to try to save the lives of all six of the neighborhood puppies, or all 50, or all 100, or all 10,000, or I’d spay and neuter all the dogs in Bhutan. Thinking that way, I quickly become overwhelmed and give up in hopelessness. An idea flickers in the dim reaches of my brain. . . I wonder, could hundreds of thousands of prayer wheels spinning out compassion and kindness, sending that scared chant, Om Mane Padme Hung, over the mountains, into the valleys, up the alleyways of Thimphu, down the farm roads of Bhutan, into the forests and across the rice paddies, be a place of balance between doing nothing to alleviate suffering and trying to eliminate it altogether? Could it be a middle path? Could the wheels themselves represent the circle of life, which after all, includes death?
Recently I met my first Bhutanese businessman. He’d been born in a remote village and pulled himself up by his bootstraps, as we say in the US, to become a charming, well-spoken, international entrepreneur, handsome and contemporary in a black turtleneck and gray sport coat. Explain to me, I asked him, about the dogs.
“I grew up hard,” he said. “I am the first in my family to leave the village. When you don’t have enough to eat, whether that dog eats or not cannot be your concern. Also Bhutan has so many dogs, so many dogs. We think that if we feed them then they will grow stronger and there will be more. If the dog lives or dies it is its karma.” To stress his point, he related another tale about how infants in his village, at one point in history, were taken to the cold river, held by their feet and dunked in head first. If they survived, they were meant to live. It was their karma.
Besides, he said, “We Bhutanese are lazy. If we go by a dog that is suffering, we think, I could do something about that, but why bother.”
“Lazy I don’t think is the right word,” I said. “Lazy means slothful and maybe ignorant, but the Bhutanese, I think, are neither. In fact, they may be the counterweight to the Western penchant for intervention. We in the West think we can change everything. The Bhutanese, perhaps, practice more humility.” Is it such a bad thing, I wonder, to just let something be, to let it live out its own karmic existence?
Karma isn’t just “fate” or “consequences,” but an accumulation of merit or de-merit from actions performed in one’s current and past lives. A person’s suffering in his current life may be because of misdeeds in a previous life, but if he suffers gracefully and commits acts that contribute to the happiness of all sentient beings, then he gains merit for the next life. All sentient beings take part in the circle of karma, including dogs. In fact, one of your past lives may have been as a dog, or a mouse, or a spider, or a yak. As one of my students told me, any of those sentient beings could have been your mother.
They curl up in boxes and baskets, on beds of garbage in nooks, crannies and alleyways, fast asleep all day to bark and howl all night. They congregate around yak entrails and pig heads at the Sunday market meat stalls, snarling over tidbits of flesh. They loll in the sun, warming themselves against the concrete of the college walls, or smack in the center of the courtyard. They trot around, their tails held high, or limp and slump and cower. They drink out of puddles of sewer water burbling up from broken drains, lick their mangy sides, scratch at their fleas, run wildly on the cobbled riverbed, nurse their babies in the parking lots, paw through the rubbish in the campus garbage bin, and occasionally chase cars, but hardly ever bother humans. Mostly they are shy and polite, seemingly preferring their own complex culture to that of their two-legged friends.
Bhutan is full of stray dogs. If you want to read a great story about them, catch ahold of Kunzang Choden’s Dawa: The Story of a Stray Dog of Bhutan. After reading this charming book, a required text for Bhutanese students in grade 9, I gained a new appreciation for dog culture and some insight into why the Bhutanese seem somewhat reluctant to intervene in dog life. It’s about the circle of karma.
Bhutan’s dogs look like mixtures of every canine you’ve ever known—Rottweilers, poodles, terriers, golden labs, basset hounds, Chihuahuas, corgis, spaniels, huskies, collies, Lhasa Apsos, Tibetan mastiffs and schnauzers. On any given day this winter there may have been 20 or more adult dogs and several litters of puppies roaming about the Paro College campus. One particular tiger-striped mutt lived in the neighborhood made up by the guesthouse where Ruth and I live, and the four college-owned houses inhabited by three faculty families and the director. No one actually pets this dog, or scratches her behind the ears, but they do feed her leftovers and look after her litters of puppies, to a point.
Mama dog started with six pups; as the weeks went by, they disappeared one by one. Walking to and from my office daily, I’d see some vomiting in the grass, tails between their legs, eyes full of mucous. Others scratched and cried, victims of mange or fleas. Each day, it seemed I’d come across a new dead puppy, serenely stretched under a bush or in a clump of grass. One little black girl survived.
I’m used to a culture where dogs live in houses and sometimes sleep in their owner’s beds; where castrating and spaying dogs is considered responsible and humane; where letting a litter of puppies die would incur the wrath of the animal control officer; where every dog is supposed to have a set of ID tags and be on a leash in public; where people buy clothes and gourmet food for their pets and spare no expense for their medical care.
In Bhutan it’s different. I’m reminded of the Prime Directive in the science fiction series Star Trek. One must not attempt to change another culture or intervene in any way that might alter the future or change the past. In Bhutan, a dog’s life, a dog’s karma, is his or her own.
Bhutan time seems less linear than USA time. The Bhutanese good-naturedly call it “BST” — Bhutan Stretchable Time. One senior lecturer attending a workshop I’d organized confided in me, as we waited for other participants to arrive, “In Bhutan it is often not a good idea to be early.” In fact, we were not “early,” we were “on time” and everyone else was “late.” In Bhutan “ten minutes” can actually be five, or forty-five. “After some time” could mean in a little while or next week. “Last time” could mean yesterday or last year. “Just now” could also mean immediately, or in an hour.
At a meeting in New Delhi enroute to Bhutan, a Cultural Affairs officer advised me that a common pitfall for Fulbright scholars in South and Central Asia is that they get hung up on accomplishing things during their tenure. “As opposed to what?” I was confused, since the Fulbright application itself stresses the importance of the applicant completing a project while abroad. “As opposed to just being there,” he said. So, I embarked on my Bhutanese journey determined not to be a slave to time and effort; determined to be a “be-er” instead of a “do-er.”
It’s been harder than I ever imagined. Westerners in general are hard-wired to think time is real. I am all about being on time, making the best use of my time, getting the most out of my time, using my time wisely, saving time, and managing my time efficiently. The Bhutanese don’t seem to embrace these concepts as closely as I.
What happens when a do-er is set down in a be-er culture? Time becomes a complex site of tension. Three days prior to the supposed beginning of a week-long workshop I was to conduct, I still wasn’t sure whether it would happen. I called an Indian friend in New Delhi confiding that I was afraid I didn’t have time to prepare properly and that I’d “look bad” because of it. “Be in the moment,” he advised. “Prepare gently but don’t be attached to the outcome.” Besides, he said, Bhutanese culture stresses humility, not ego. “You won’t be judged on how prepared you are. You’ll be judged on how many good vibes you put out into the air.” What a concept! Time and ego tangled into one unyielding knot.
I recently met the vice principal of Bhutan’s Royal Academy for Performing Arts, Mr. Tshering, who a few years ago earned an MFA in performing arts at the University of Montana in Missoula. “There was a lot of culture shock,” he admitted. What was most difficult, I asked. “The timing,” he said. He experienced USA time as somewhat overly structured and stressful; people always hurrying here and there. He knew people who, he said with his eyes wide, ate lunch at their desks and read the newspaper on the toilet! This conversation took place, by the way, while he and I and Ruth were relaxing in the sun just after the second tea break of the day, as the RAPA dancers, swaying and turning on the grassy field near the dzong, practiced for the upcoming Punakha Tshechu, an annual religious festival. When he returned to Bhutan from Montana, Tshering confessed, he’d adopted some, not all, of these more Western attitudes about time, and tended to be a bit of a task master with trainees and students. “If you know there will be a traffic jam,” for instance, he said, “you should leave 30 minutes earlier so you don’t keep others waiting.”
Time, like ego, Buddhism teaches, is just a concept; letting go of both is part of becoming an enlightened being. Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse in his book What Makes You NOT a Buddhist illustrates the conceptual nature of time (and space) with the story of the Buddhist saint Milarepa, who invites a student to take refuge from a hailstorm by joining him inside a yak horn. How can one man fit inside a yak horn, let alone two? Think about it. Anyone who has ever been in love knows how time stretches and bends in the midst of a kiss. “When Siddhartha reached enlightenment, he didn’t make time stop or reach to the end of time. He simply was no longer stained by the concept of time,” Khyentse writes; he went beyond it. “If we can go beyond the boundaries. . . . then Milarepa taking shelter in a yak horn will be no more surprising than someone putting on a pair of gloves.”
I’m experimenting; gently testing Bhutan time; practicing the preparation without attachment that my Indian friend advised. When someone asks me what my plans are for the day I try to imagine that almost anything could happen: “It depends,” I say. “Just now the one thing I’m sure of is that I’d like to finish my coffee.”
When we arrived the village was quiet–a bright early winter sun streaming down out of the mountains across the paddy fields, the occasional crow of a rooster, a gang carpenters at work with hand tools carving the unique and beautiful window frames that characterize Bhutanese homes, pounding the pieces of lumber together with wooden pegs.
No village in Bhutan has so far captured my imagination more than Khoma, where women using back-strap looms weave some of the finest textiles in all of Bhutan. Our friend Ugyen brought us here so that Ruth could buy a kira for the Trashigang Tsechu, which we were going to attend in the first week of December. Only a year ago, to get to this village in the far north east you had to hike an hour and a half from the main road, but now, as in many remote parts of Bhutan, a bumpy, dusty, dirt path will deliver you in a vehicle. Along the road women walked, stooped over, big wrapped bundles of textiles on their backs, heading from the village toward the main highway, where their wares would be picked up and transported to tourist shops in Trashigang, Mongar, Thimphu or Paro.
As we wandered from house to house, along dirt paths, into and out of stone-cobbled courtyards we saw women scrubbing clothes at the community tap, an ama distilling ara under a thatched canopy; we passed the place where residents parked their ponies, skirted alongside sweet fenced gardens full of chilis, greens, and garlic; it seemed as if the village was hardly inhabited. Then, rounding the back of one house we happened upon a roofed porch where three women were already hard at work on their looms. We were in awe, as we watched them weave the thin, bright threads of red, yellow, and blue silk into intricate designs, their fingers flying across the warp of the loom, then thump, thump thump, they’d pound down the threads with a long smooth stick, and begin a new row.
Ugyen communicated that we wanted to buy textiles, and soon 50 women had gathered at the chorten at the top of the village, emptying bulging plastic bags and draping their weaving for display across the chorten, transforming the white stone shrine into an outdoor marketplace, swirling with color, pattern, the roughness of raw silk, and smooth cool of cotton.
Mothers with babies strapped to their backs, amas (older women) with wide smiles stained red from doma, bright-faced college girls who’d returned to the village for school break—they all were quick to laugh, eager to practice their English, confident of the quality of their hand-crafts.
After much good-natured negotiating, Ruth settled on an elaborate kira made by an eight-year old daughter of one of Khoma’s finest weavers, who’d only just begun to weave under her mother’s instruction. We also each bought a rachu, a thin, long scarf, worn over one shoulder on ceremonial occasions.
What was it about Khoma that caught my imagination? Not just its pastoral beauty (a picture-perfect village nestled in a valley in the Himalayas) and the fact of its prosperity (as evidenced by its bright homes, abundant gardens, roaming clutches of roosters and hens, its busy carpenters, its fat cattle, its big black-bottomed ara pots), but the notion that the village’s well-being had been created through the artistry of these women.