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Diary from Bhutan: Long live the bees!

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In her second diary entry, Stephanie Earnshaw tells us about her visit to the monastery at Punaka. A discovery there led her to choose an unusual topic for discussion with her students at the monastery the next day.

It's almost July so things are getting warmer and wetter in Thimphu. It's also exam time so this month, as well as seeing the worst flooding Bhutan has experienced in many years, we've had revision classes to deal with.

Two of my students are planning to study in the USA next year so they've had to sit the IELTS exam. This was pretty nerve-wracking for all of us. Last minute revision lessons focused on learning not to put an article in front of every other word, not to use 'one' instead of 'a' or 'an' – for example 'I bought one dress in the market yesterday' – and not to say 'and all' after every third sentence. Being from a town just slightly south-east of London where it's common to finish sentences with 'and all' or 'and that', I initially found it sweet that my students shared some of my native speech patterns. But there's no room for sentimentality with IELTS.

Teaching at Nalanda monastery, Bhutan

Lessons with the monks continue in the same surreal vein. Last time was a team lesson with the boyfriend as my lovely (and highly competent) assistant. We planned a communicative lesson. No grammar – due to a lack of English teachers all the monks seem to do is copy from grammar books – instead, we had a debate.

In theory, a debate should be what monks do best since they are taught the intricacies of Buddhist theology through public debate with their teachers and peers. Unfortunately, when they have to speak in English the conversation doesn't exactly flow, although they seemed to like the idea. It was also an opportunity for us to learn a bit about the rules and gestures of Buddhist debate. For example, gesticulation (such as clapping) is used as a type of physical punctuation. And more mysteriously, circling an opponent's head three times with a hand while shouting 'These are three circles!' means the opponent has made a mistake or false argument.

Monastery at Punakha, Bhutan

Bees were the unplanned topic. Monastery lessons are on Sundays and on Saturday we'd visited the spectacular monastery at Punakha, Bhutan's religious winter capital. The monastery itself is both huge and beautiful, sitting solid and boat-like between the converging male and female branches of the river Puna Tsang Chu. With violet jacaranda trees lining its walls and a cantilever bridge leading up nearly vertical steps to the imposing front doors, it's a sight to behold. The surprising thing, though, is that the front wall of the monastery is covered in gigantic bee hives. Bee corpses litter the front steps and one monster hive completely covers the highest centre window, which just so happens to be where the King sits to address audiences on ceremonial occasions.

Of course, our immediate reaction was 'Why don't they take it down?' Can you imagine having a metre-long bee hive hanging above the balcony at Buckingham Palace? Our friend Tashi enlightened us by explaining the King's view that if the bees are happy then they should stay there.

So you can understand why, at the monastery the next day, we encountered a decidedly pro-bee attitude from most of the monks. We discussed with the students whether it's possible for bees to get bad karma, for example by stinging people. My 'assistant' and I presented arguments in favour of removing the bee hive. We pointed out that bees die when they sting so moving the hive would be the kindest thing to do in the long run. Sensing defeat, we seditiously suggested that the King could be stung. This would be a disaster and the mere thought of it brought horrified looks and won over a few votes. All proposed alternatives were rejected.

Bee hives on Punakha Dzong, Bhutan

According to the monks, bees are bees because they did something bad in a previous life but they can't be held responsible for what they do as bees. Only humans can take responsibility for their own actions. Therefore, if the bees want to live in front of the King's window at one of the most important religious buildings in the country it's probably karma so just accept it. I'm discovering that 'go with the flow' is the best policy here.

The debate ended with a vote. More than three-quarters of the class voted to leave the hives where they are despite protests from the minority about the risks to the bees, the public and, above all, the King. But monks are peaceful vegetarians so I suppose the outcome was no surprise. There was one shocking revelation though – some of the monks eat honey. This may not seem scandalous to you and me but it's quite something for a Buddhist monk to admit since eating honey is considered to be stealing bee food – not good karma.

In any case, long live the bees!

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