Odysseys for the Soul


The Dogs of Bhutan

by Dianne Shiner

The millions of us who are searching for a more balanced inner life and who hunger for a vibrant connection with the natural world need Bhutan to prosper. There may be no place on earth that can better teach us wiser ways to live.

— Carpenter, The Blessings of Bhutan

No matter how well-prepared, brilliant, and guided a traveler may be, it is foolish to believe that one can come to really know a place in a brief sojourn. In my initiating culture shock in India more than 40 years ago, I found that the longer I stayed, the less I knew about India, and the more I learned about myself. The British essayist, Alain de Botton, in The Art of Travel, has said that travel agents ask the wrong question when they ask, “Where would you like to go?” but rather should say, “What is it that you would like to change about your life?” Though we may anticipate, we do not really know what changes will befall us on the road; in fact, most travel rarely goes according to plan, and it is often the spontaneous and incidental that will have the most impact. The dogs of Bhutan surely fall into this category.

In 1961, I “discovered” Bhutan in a National Geographic article in my college library. A desire to visit was planted deep in my heart, even though this Himalayan kingdom was closed to the outside world. As part of my second journey, I am reawakening and exploring those nascent intentions, the spiritual bucket list. So, a year ago, after two weeks of travel in Bhutan, I found myself in a closing circle near Paro with three guides, two drivers, and 13 guests (never once referred to as tourists).(1) Having just returned from an arduous trek to Taktshang Goemba (the Tigers Nest Monastery), we gathered, weary and reflective, for an intimate tea. As we shared our gratitude and highlights of the trip, four people commented that the dogs were most remarkable. Now, in a spectacular country once known as the Forbidden Kingdom, the last Shangri-La, the Land of Gross National Happiness, it is surprising, to say the least, that Bhutanese dogs would emerge as singularly cherished in our memories. What about them spoke so deeply to us?

My comments on Bhutan come from limited, but liminal, experience. I must acknowledge that somewhere in Bhutan, perhaps in the capital city of Thimphu, there exist mangy stray dogs who are shooed away as dangerous, flea-bitten rascals. I only know we never saw any. We never heard a dog bark. Never followed a chase. Never saw a territorial fight. Never had a dog beg, even when they sat amiably among us while we picnicked by a river or snacked on a trail. They certainly noticed the food, but were never aggressive or pitiful in obtaining it. They sometimes volunteered as companions up steep hikes to monasteries, waiting patiently to bring us back or simply ignoring us. Guardians, perhaps, but hardly guard dogs.

Well-cared-for pets? Not really. There appeared to be only a few pet owners; in fact, I think the very idea of “owning” a dog is alien to most Bhutanese, and the pet obsessiveness of my culture funny indeed. Yet these dogs were healthy, calm, and everywhere. More than man’s best friend, dogs embody religious symbolism in Tibetan Buddhism. Bhutanese believe that, from among sentient beings, dogs have the best opportunity to be reborn as humans. In Garth Stein’s wonderful novel, The Art of Racing in the Rain, the storytelling dog Enzo says in his dying: “Not all dogs return as men, they say; only those who are ready. I am ready.”

Dogs are also said to be helpful in the afterlife, leading us through the darkness with a light glowing on their tails to a better place. In ancient Bhutanese folklore with which Buddhism is intertwined, dogs interceded with the gods who were displeased with human greed and decided to withhold the natural bounty of the earth. Because of their pleading, the food left behind for the dogs is what we survive on today. Many Himalayan Buddhist saints had close dog companions, and monks integrate the care of dogs into their daily spiritual practice. No wonder that the novice pilgrim in Bhutan finds the dogs awesome.

In the opening tea circle, our leader Karma Dorji welcomed us to Bhutan by saying that “Buddhism is the air we breathe.” Every day, we experienced the freshness of a culture still immersed in a lively and shared sense of the holy. The sheer lightheartedness of the Bhutanese people, manifested in easy smiles and twinkling eyes, is ever the “most infallible sign of the presence of God” (Teilhard de Chardin). Early in the trip, I witnessed our hotel clerk being berated by a dissatisfied guest. Never have I seen a young man with such gracious boundaries; he was neither stressed nor defensive nor obeisant. I came to find that this odd combination of amusement and respect was indeed the cultural norm, whether with children or with the wizened.

At the other end of the scale, even government policy is deeply informed by an authentic religious view. For example, their spectacular Himalayan peaks will never be scaled, and perhaps trashed, by mountain climbing expeditions, because villagers asked the government to protect the sanctity of the peaks, the home of the deities, from intrusion. National parks and biological corridors comprise over 40 percent of the country, preserving Bhutan’s amazing biodiversity. Economic development is intended to be slow, sustainable, and balanced by priorities in art, education, health care, and ecology (some of the measurable goals of concrete Gross National Happiness). The Dzongs (magnificent fortresses) equally house each district’s monastic body AND government offices. Prayer and devotion punctuate the day whether in golden rice fields, domestic temples, numerous monasteries, or casual businesses. Even the one and only golf course asks that you circle and apologize to a tree if your ball should strike it!

Bhutan is certainly not perfect; and indeed this very cohesiveness is at risk from modernization, however carefully and intelligently it is managed. To some, this homogeneity is na´ve, even dangerous. For others, there is conflict between piety and progress. Yet I found myself more than just nostalgic for the cultural Catholicism of my childhood. As early as 1904, Max Weber (in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism) was writing about the disenchantment of a secularized world, as opposed to traditional society where, for Weber, “the world remains a great enchanted garden.” For a brief 18 days, we were invited to reenter that garden of everyday mysticism, and to return changed by its vigor and delight.

What does all this have to do with dogs? Indeed, they are different in Bhutan. Like the canary in the mineshaft, they manifest the quality of “the air we breathe.” In entering another culture, it is easier to see the pattern and influence of the “atmosphere” on individual lives and values. If I live in a world of fear, I am more likely to be afraid. If I live in a world of kindness, I am more likely to be kind, or trusting, or compassionate. If I live in an enchanted or re-enchanted world, I am more likely to “see visions and dream dreams” (Joel 2:28). As I age, these simple truths become more profound....and urgent.

In my journal, I noted an irony: The Buddhist understanding of karma seems to place huge responsibility on the individual, yet its practice of interdependence is imbued with a communal identity with all living beings. In a Christian milieu as I have known it, the doctrine itself is definitively corporeal (the Incarnation, Corpus Christ, the Body of Christ), but its practice has often been very individualistic with an emphasis on my soul being saved. My favorite Bible scholar, Dan Erlander (in Manna and Mercy), says that the message of Exodus is clear: We do not go to God as individuals, but as a people. For me, this vision was transparent and embodied in my brief time in Bhutan.

Doctrinal differences of the many spiritual paths are no longer that important to me, but the sharing of the path is essential. In Bhutan, for all its isolation, communal spiritual consciousness is a given. I returned to cherish our church community, my women’s circle, our couples’ group, and the other anam cara of my life with new appreciation for the way we inspire, challenge, and cocreate the quality of our lives. For me, these are mutual lifelines to the holy, even, and particularly when there is no single word to describe the “air we breathe.”

As a college freshman, I did not realize that I was about to lose my religious na´vetÚ and walk the foggy path of disenchantment, never able to go “home again.” But Bhutan was planted then as a way back, so to speak, to my first language, beyond words, where my dog and I understood each other perfectly. “ The end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” (T.S. Eliot)

I do not live in such a cohesive nation as Bhutan; here, dogs are both abused and pampered in the same city. We do not have a milieu of common values and practices, let alone devotion. I both long for and fear such unity of spirit; wanting to hold both diversity and single-heartedness in my hands. I only know that the experience of a deeply spiritual culture is transforming for all beings, including, and perhaps especially, the dogs.

Dianne Shiner, M.A., M.S.W, lives on Whidbey Island, WA, with her husband, David Sellers. During her formative years, experience in a Benedictine community imbedded the integration of contemplation and action deep in her heart. Now retired, she was formerly the Executive Director of Lutheran Social Services, Holden Village, and the Whidbey Institute at Chinook. She has been blessed by travel with purpose and is regularly committed to volunteering at Escuela de la Calle, a school for street children in Guatemala.


1 The excellent tour company I used in Bhutan is Skykingdom Adventures; contact Karma Dorji at info@skykingdomadventures.com or 1-877-248-8728.