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Shangri-la Revisited

Story ID:3147
Written by:Suzana Margaret Megles (bio, contact, other stories)
Story type:Period Piece
Location:Thimphu - Bhutan
Person:Lama Kunzang Dorjee
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Years ago-- many years ago in fact some of you may have seen the movie
"Shangri-la" or read the book which inspired the movie by James Hilton
(Lost Horizon 1933). Most of us who did probably thought this area of the
world the most heavenly place on earth. I know the movie which I can
now only faintly recall gave me that impression, and though there are
probably many things about this fabled land which has a basis in reality,
it probably always had then and even today its needs like all countries.

I am grateful to Kim Bartlett of Animal People who wrote about this real
"Shangri-la" and I was pleased that she helped take me back to the
rememberance of a very beautiful land. Even though Hilton drew heavily
on his experience in the Hunza Valley of Pakistan at the western end of the
Himalayas -- this Shangri-la, known today as Bhutan is at the eastern end,
and is probably a closer match to what the West would have considered as
Shangri-la. By the way, did you know that Roosevelt named the presidential
retreat Shangri-la and it was Eisenhower who changed the name to Camp

Kim relates that Lama Kunzang Dorjee of Bhutan is touring the U.S. to raise
support for the Jangsa Animal Saving Trust. Kunzang admits that it is difficult
coordinating the activities of half a dozen animal sanctuaries scattered
throughout this small nation which is still connected mainly by footpaths. I read
in almost fearful fascination that long-horned bullocks have to be moved to and
from their summer pastures over swaying single-file suspension bridges! This
thought conjured up for me the fear that I would experience if I would ever
have to cross one. Adventuresome -- I am not!

While Kunzang acknowledges that fellow Bhutanese donate most generously in
support of the Jangsa Animal Trust programs, he says that unlike American
animal advocates, he has little difficulty explaining to fellow citizens what he
is doing and why. The only problem is that the Bhutanese mostly do not have
very much to give.

Kunzang's slides and video clips showed villagers walking miles to contribute
baskets of corn to monks who trek thoughout the nation, seeking alms for the
animals. Bhutan with just 675,000 residents is among the world's poorest,
least populated and least accessible nations with a literacy rate of under 50%.

I read with surprise that "...THE ENTIRE NATION IS BY ETHIC AND
TRADITION A QUASI-ANIMAL SANCTUARY." I have never heard this said
re any nation before. About 75% of the Bhutanese are Buddhists while
most of the rest are Hindus. There is some ethnic tension between the
80% of the people who practice mostly vegetarian forms of Buddhism and
Hinduism and the rest of the 20% which comprises Tibetan refugees or
their descendents and, who though Buddhist, do eat meat.

Then I was shocked to read that archery is the national sport of this tiny
According to Kunzang, tigers and elephants are the elders of the forest
and they must be respected lest they do even more harm.

The nation is two-thirds forested and mostly more than a kilometer above
sea level. It was entirely closed to the outside world until 1961 and is still
hard to visit. Just one small airport serves Bhutan at Thimphu. Though
paved roads link the major towns, motor vehicles are scarce.

Places in Bhutan, Nepal, Tibet and India have been linked to the mystic
city of Shambhala, mentioned in Buddhist literature more than 1600
years ago. But today-- of these places it seems Bhutan primarily has escaped
violent insurrections fueled by poaching which have devasted the wildlife
of both Assam, India and Nepal. Fearing a spillover of Nepalese violence,
Bhutan banned the Nepalese language in 1988 and deported many alledged
Nepalese immigrants.

Approximatedly 90% of the Bhutanese population farm the less than 10%
of the land which can be cultivated. They rely on bullock power to do whatever
cannot be done with human hands. When the bullocks are retired -- many
of them blind or lame --the lucky ones will be helped by the Jangsa Animal
Saving Trust.

Aging widows who cannot care for the bullocks when their husbands die,
traditionally either donate the animals to monasteries, sell them to local
butchers or to traders who walk them down mountains to be slaughtered
in Darjeeling, India.

In the year 2000 Lama Kunzang Dorjee had a personal experience where
he encountered five bulls who had come to seek refuge in the Jangsa
Dechen Choling monastery where he is the head lama. These bulls had
escaped a slaugherhouse and were drawn towad the lama's monastery.

The brochure Kunzang brought with him to the US lists that ".... presently
the Trust maintains about 600 bulls, 40 yaks, 137 pigs, 23 sheep, 2 goats
and 9 ducks in the eastern and northern region of Bhutan.

Kunzang credits his compassionate concerns to his teacher Chatral Rinpoche,
a Tibetan Buddhist whose work was praised by Thomas Merton (1915-1968).
His writings helped to introduce Tibetan Buddhism to the U.S. I think that
had he lived, Thomas Merton would have shared his insights with us re his
newly found appreciation of Rinpoche's compassionate teachings.

Beside their animal refuge work, money from the Jangsa trust is going to be
used to sterilize and vaccinate approximately 7,000 dogs to eradicate rabies
outbreaks that killed three Bhutanese in 2006. Thank goodness, their response
to this scare is more compassionate than the Chinese when they faced a
similar one in the recent past. If I remember correctly the government sent in
troops or police throughout that part of China which had an outbreak. They
were ordered to kill all the roaming dogs. I also believe they went so far as to
wrench beloved dogs from their grieving owners' protective hands.

Thank you Kim. As always-- an interesting take on today's "Shangri-la" -Bhutan
and an introduction to a compassionate Buddhist -Lama Kunzang Dorjee, His
95 year-old teacher and mentor--Chatral Rinpoche still lives. May his
compassionate teachings inspire others and may the Lama's Jangsa Trust
flourish-- making Bhutan a veritable Shangri-la for both its people and its