A New Catholic Immersed in Buddhism

By Judy Gangle,

St. Gregory Nazianzen, Sitka

Last year during Lent and Holy Week, I was a volunteer with Health Volunteers Overseas in the Kingdom of Bhutan. It was an experience that was to have a profound affect on me, particularly as a new Catholic.

When I returned Father Scott Settimo asked me to write of my experiences as a Christian in a Buddhist country. So what I thought I would do is to show the similarities between Buddhism in Bhutan and our Catholic faith toward bringing us peace and happiness.

Bhutan is a small nation in South Asia, nestled in the Himalayas between Tibet and India. Bhutan has never been taken over by another country, so has maintained its Tantric Buddhist heritage. No other religion is allowed to postulate or build a church in this country. In fact, one must be invited into the country in order to receive a Visa.

You may have heard of Gross National Happiness, which the 4th King of Bhutan initiated. Gross National Happiness is Bhutan’s contribution to the world – the idea being that it is a more important indicator of the country’s progress than the measure of Gross National Product that most countries use. Gross National Happiness promotes cultural values in relationship to sustainable development, conservation of the natural environment, and establishment of good governance. These are all complemented by spiritual life. As Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, the 5th King of Bhutan said in his coronation speech, “ultimately without peace, security and happiness we have nothing. ”

Every morning Cynthia (my working associate) and I awakened to the sounds of the country’s predictable daily rhythms: the cooing of doves intermingled with the horns, bells, and drums of the local monastery. As the day progressed the sounds of school children and the rush of small Indian cars melded with the whir of prayer wheels and the drone of prayers as people passed their fingers over worn prayer beads.

The smells were far different than we were used to, predominately that of cloying sweet incense. Everyone, even shopkeepers burned incense in the morning to exorcise the demons that may have come during the night.

The food was wonderful, if limited. I did not need to pay attention to meatless Fridays because most of the diet is vegetarian. Fasting was no problem as no one eats a noon meal in the city, although farmers do.

Most families have one son who is pre-ordained to be a monk by an abbot who reads their solar chart in the first year of life. The child is sent to the monastery of the parent’s choosing (usually close to home) at the age of 4 or 5 to begin studies. The extended family supports the child and visits often. Therefore, there are monks of all ages everywhere in maroon and gold raiment.

Sunday was our only day off. Cynthia and I and our guide would spend lovely days in the country visiting one of the many dzongs (monasteries). I have never been in buildings so old and seen paintings and statuary as ancient as in these monasteries. Most were built in the 17th century. Each had a statue of the Guru Rinpoche, a statue of the present Buddha and a statue of the next Buddha. Many other statues in the image of other gods and demons abounded.

We were let into the monastery’s inner sanctum by a monk who offered us holy water in the palm of our hands to lick and then place on our heads. Of course, this reminded me of how we bless ourselves with holy water when entering the church building, and of sprinklings by our priests.

We then left small bills (about fifty cents) and were to offer a prayer and ask for a favor. In some places we could light a butter lamp also. The money collected was used to feed and support the monks. We Catholics also leave offerings of money to support our religious, our building and the education of our children, as well as when we light a candle.

Our guide was very devout and seemed sincere in his desire for us to reap the benefits of the privilege of being inside the monastery. All Bhutanese Buddhists have a special room used for prayers (chosum). Many Catholics also have such an area in their homes.

At the oldest monastery in the country, which happened to be in our guide’s hometown, we were allowed to put on a robe made of intertwined iron rings. This was made in one day by a monk in the 14th century. We were to walk around the inner sanctum at least 3 times to gain merit. When it was my turn to walk the course, I almost buckled under the weight of the robe. I thought of our Lord stumbling when carrying the cross to his crucifixion. I also thought of the Stations of the Cross, which when completed may obtain a plenary indulgence. This is equated to merit in the Buddhist world. All actions are based on gaining merit so that there would be less suffering in the next life.

Many times I was asked if I was Buddhist; I would say, no, I am a Christian. This was met with much concern for the merit of my soul.

I reflected on this experience recently while sitting in St. Gregory’s. I thought of the monasteries I had visited in Bhutan and compared them to my church. Although we do not worship statues, we do have beautiful and benevolent statues of Mary, Joseph and Jesus, which I find quite comforting.

It brings me much happiness to be home for Holy Week this year, it is really my first one as a Catholic. I look forward to assailing my senses with color, incense, music, prayer and scripture!

How rich and how meaningful it is to come together and worship our Lord, who lived and died and rose for our sake! Let me look upon Christ crucified. Let me look at his image covered, so that I might feel the desolation of being not in his presence. Let me rejoice in the resurrection so that I may go forth in this world with the light of Christ.

It is amazing to me how half way around the world our worship is similar. Are we so different from our Buddhist neighbors in Bhutan? As human beings we are not so different, so let me love my neighbor as myself.

And while there are similarities in our worship, what a privilege it is for us to have Christ as our Lord and our God.