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Bhutan Compassion & Conservation conference: report

December 9, 2011:

Nuns from all around the country attended

The first “Compassion and Conservation” conference in Bhutan could not have gone better. Sixty-three high lamas, monks and nuns from throughout the country gathered in Thimphu, by invitation from Bhutan’s Dratshang Lhentshog, the Commission for Monastic Affairs in Bhutan.

The web-ready report is available online here.

Some 55 monks and 8 nuns attended this conference at Hotel Migmar in Thimphu, September 5 and 6, 2011. Nineteen of 20 Nam Netens (the representatives of the Chief Abbot of the Central Monastic Body from a particular district) from Bhutan’s 20 provinces attended the conference. The Chief Abbot of the Dratshang is the religious head of the country. In addition the chief secretary of the religious department not only gave a keynote speech, but also listened the next day to all participants’ thoughts and conclusions after group sessions.

On Day One participants heard a set of presentations from Bhutan’s conservation biologists and resources specialists, as well as from Victoria Finlay ARC (on Long-Term Environmental Plans) and Susan Higgins of the Tributary Fund (on Science Tool-Kits for Monastic Leaders). On Day Two, participants broke into three discussion groups where they arrived at a set of practical project ideas for monastic engagement in conservation.

This was the first meeting of its kind and it received thorough press coverage in Kuensel (the government newspaper, in which it received a front page lead story, a picture story and the lead op-ed column over different days) and the Bhutan Times (a private newspaper). Bhutan’s only national television news service, the Bhutan Broadcasting Service (BBS), also covered the conference.

“ I am very grateful for such a workshop as I not only learned a lot but also had the opportunity to share views with other participants from all over the country. I can take some of the ideas back to my school and try to implement them” Secretary of Nimalung School in Bumthang
Some of the key issues discussed were: green cremations; flower gardens; recycling; a better curriculum on nature; wildlife protection (and sharing of knowledge); writing educational books that really engage children; monks holding workshops on why organic/low pesticide agriculture is better for the earth, for health and for karma; using the emblem of the Old Man of Long Life to demonstrate how the environment is closely related to Buddhism.

The event was funded by Norway’s Royal Ministry of Foreign Affairs and The Tributary Fund. It was co-organised by The Tributary Fund, the Dratshang Lhentshog and the Alliance of Religions and Conservation.

What the Dratshang is doing already, and why

The teachings of the Buddha are to: do no evil work, accumulate virtue, tame your mind, and remember that these are the teachings of Buddha. “Everything is inside these four lines,” said the principal (Lopen Gyep Tshering) of the Lekshey Jungney Shedra (school) located in Punakha, and a model for other monastic schools. “The environment is in these lines, and everything else.”

In addition, much of modern-day Buddhism in Bhutan stems from Bon (shamanistic tradition) where there is believed to be a god in every stone, tree, river and mountain. “Deep in the forest there are places that you are not supposed to touch because they are sacred.”

Vegetable kitchens

Many monasteries have vegetarian kitchens and they promote the sacred days of the month as vegetarian – the first, eighth and fifteenth days of each month.

Cleaning the monasteries

In the Lekshey Jungney Shedra a college for monks at Punakha, all the cleaning is done by rotation. Each monk (including the principal) is assigned to clean the communal toilet once a week. They all cut vegetables in the kitchen. And although most are not by choice vegetarian, while they are at the school they eat only vegetables and quantities are carefully measured: “We do not waste even one piece of potato.” They use electric cookers that were provided by the Bhutan Trust Fund; this conserves wood. And they engage in self-study outside most of the year, in a woodland glade where each has a chair and lectern, because Buddha achieved enlightenment beneath a tree. “We do not advise them why: through the scriptures they will understand.” “We teach protection of the earth and we hope that when they leave they will be experts on this. We learn how to hear, to listen and to eat.”
  • At Tango Shedra there is a debate for 15 minutes every Saturday to focus on the relationship between the environment and Buddhism. “When students graduate from here they are posted in schools all over the country in high positions . . . They are the carriers of some very powerful words.”


    Gangteng Goemba is conducting programs on conservation teachings in the community and also working on prayer flags.

    The transformation of Dechen Phodrang Monastery

    Dechen Phodrang Monastery was previously in a terrible condition. There were just two taps for two or three hundred monks and just one toilet block meaning that many used the bushes. Four in five of the young monks had lice, and when their heads were shaved the scarring could be seen from impetigo and other painful scabbing. A team of doctors visited there and the Royal Society for Protection of Nature (RSPN) was given responsibility to look after the whole environment. They found it was unsanitary--even the paintings were filmy because of all the firewood smoke used for cooking. The cooks had sooty hands and they often did not wash them before cooking. With the endorsement of the Crown Prince, now the King of Bhutan, and government funding for the infrastructure, they brought in a new toilet block and water supply and, most importantly, new practices and awareness education through RSPN. Now, the monks and laypeople wash their hands regularly (and understand why). RSPN also developed a manual for monks to develop flower gardens (Ugyen Lhundup, RSPN).


    Link here to learn more of what Bhutanese monasteries and monastery schools can do to help the environment, and also read some of the stories.

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