Gathering news in Thimpu – Bhutan’s capital city – is an education in itself. This is widely seen as a ‘closed country’ but, unusually, there is little poverty to speak of and no pent-up national anger. Nor is there any crime worth reporting.
The economy barely gets a mention, and the King (the leader of this tiny Himalayan recess) is the greatest folk hero of them all! Indeed, he tried to step down not too long ago and push his 810,000 people toward democracy.
They would have none of it and he’s back where he was — now into his 34th year as King of the ‘Thundering Dragon’, as Bhutan is affectionately known. And his motto? Well, in Bhutan few are concerned with ‘Gross National Product’. All the talk is about ‘Gross National Happiness’!
The environment consistently makes the headlines in Bhutan: the colossal pine forests that cover more than 70% of this mountainous land, the hydroelectric plants feeding energy to northern India and, of course, the unparalleled flora and fauna. Don’t dare drive over a black-necked crane or you’ll be behind bars before you know it!
But beyond the natural beauty, what makes Bhutan so unique is its religion. Every fibre of this country’s culture is soaked in Buddhism. From the King down, everybody lives and breathes it. A million prayer flags wave incessantly. Prayer wheels, monasteries and monks are universally present.
Oddly enough, it was the enormous numbers of dogs in the streets that gave us our first bizarre introduction to their religion. Dogs certainly aren’t unusual in Asia, but in Bhutan they are everywhere.
While we might feel exasperated at their racket in the middle of the night, the Bhutanese have a different, tolerant perspective. To them, packs of dogs with their incessant barking, yapping, howling and fighting, are on a spiritual journey from one life to the next — a canine pilgrimage out of animal life and into a next stage. No Buddhist in his right mind would interrupt that process.
Most of Bhutan can only be reached by footpath but, with recent small increases in permitted tourists, roads are beginning to snake through the mountain passes and ravines. Around 6,000 tourists a year make their way to this kingdom.
We travelled from east to west, driving from the airport in Paro — just about the only piece of ground in Bhutan flat enough to land a plane on — to the depressing province of Bumthang.
The journey is only about 150 miles, but it took us most of a week to manoeuvre around a thousand hairpin bends and crawl along cliff edges. It’s certainly not for the faint-hearted.
It is beautiful when dry. There is no more breathtaking sight than a panoramic survey across the Himalayas, peering down as we did onto the tops of the clouds. But when it rained and we slithered our way perilously close to muddy cliff edges, it was a different story.
But this was not a tourist trip. Our job in Bhutan was two-fold. On the one hand we were anxious to spend time with Bhutanese believers and understand — as best we could — what it means to be a disciple there.
Imagine, then, the humbling joy of huddling together with several tiny groups of worshippers. We were among the first to arrive in the front room of a most ordinary house. There were no church signs outside, no welcome boards with list of public meetings and activities for the week. The Bhutanese have never welcomed the gospel nor those who believe and practise it.
It was dark behind closed doors, and as each person quietly pulled back the curtain and entered through the back door, we couldn’t help but stare at them with respect and admiration. These were people who had chosen to swim against the overwhelming tide of Buddhism. Perhaps 25 men, women and children came and sat down quietly.
Someone led in prayer and then they sang together, all from memory. There were a few Bibles but only in Nepali. Nothing was available in Dzongkha, the native language of the Bhutanese.
Persecution in Bhutan is often more intellectual than outright brutal. Generally, it is not violent; it is subtle and organised, discriminatory but suffocating.
People always want to know if you are Buddhist, or rather, if you are not. Fill out any form, and you had better be prepared to nail your faith-colours to the mast immediately:
‘Are you Buddhist?’
Little wonder believers rarely get good jobs or offers of promotion. Nor is it a surprise to see their children closed out of schools. To be Bhutanese is to be Buddhist.
We went to several little fellowships and our joy was immense. We were on top of the world among some of the Lord’s giants. And yet the euphoria did not last long. For our other reason for visiting Bhutan was to try to learn about its spiritual culture.
We had been before to communist Laos where Buddhism is practised. Bhutan, however, offers visitors the full, unabridged version of popular Buddhism.
We continued our journey westwards and eventually entered Bumthang. This is a Buddhist heartland and we at once felt it to be a sinister, spiritually dark environment. There are several people-groups in this region: the Brokpa and Bumthangpa, Lap and Kurtop, to name but a few. Most of these have no believers.
Visiting their monasteries was a miserable experience. These are impenetrable fortresses with hundreds of chanting, shaven heads and drums and horns generating a constant, monotonous drone in the background. The copper, red and saffron colours of monks’ robes were blowing every-where while streams of churning water powered the spinning prayer-wheels.
Most disturbing of all was to see six-year-old boys who were there for life — forever chanting their way toward something they could never be sure of, their lives mapped out for them.
It is a brutal existence. Several times we heard leather whips cracking and lashing and knew some poor child had missed his cue. Here we felt ourselves to be in the presence of real evil and in an atmosphere of utter hopelessness.
As our time in the country drew to a close, we were caught up in one of Bhutan’s annual festivals. An enormous, woven tapestry with a representation of Buddha was unfurled. It was so immense it more than covered the side of a large building.
The people came (not the monks this time but ordinary folk — farmers, women and children) and prostrated themselves en masse before the idol. Still more kept coming; and we were pushed along by an enormous, frenzied scrum until somehow we found ourselves at the front of the crowd.
We watched as multitudes filed past the Buddhist priest, longing for his blessing. This was their chance for redemption. Through looking upon the Buddha, thousands were convinced their sins had been expiated.
Bhutan has enormous splendour, perhaps the most fantastic natural beauty anywhere in this world. There are still only a few foreigners who make the journey. As we criss-crossed the valleys and repeatedly bumped into the same small groups of tourists with whom we had first entered the country, we realised that no more than 25 or 30 outsiders are allowed to see beyond the veil at any one time.
This was ‘the road less travelled’. It proved a deeply moving experience, for the reality is that Bhutan’s multitudes remain enveloped in Buddhism.
We could succumb to overwhelming depression thinking them completely unreachable with the gospel. But the Lord has his ways and is doing good things. The fellowship we enjoyed in the Himalayas with the few who have chosen a testing path in fellowship with Christ, proved that some Bhutanese at least have found ‘the road best travelled’