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Teaching Bhutan

Bhutan, the Last Shangri-La: Buddhism and Ecology

Lesson Objectives
Relevant National Standards
Materials Needed
Estimated Time
Teaching Strategy
Assessment Recommendations

Lesson Objectives

Students will:

  • Use the Internet to find out which countries observe Buddhism as their main religion, and mark those countries, including Bhutan, on a world map.
  • List the ways in which species cooperate and the ways in which people and animals depend on other species, based on information that they already know about the natural world and ecology.
  • Watch video clips concerning Buddhist attitudes toward ecology, and list the ways in which the video illustrates Buddhist ecological principles.
  • Explain or act out the allegory of the Four Harmonious Friends as shown in the video.
  • Visit one Web site to learn more about Buddhist ecological principles and two Web sites to learn more about general ecology.
  • Make a chart that compares Buddhist reactions toward the natural world with reactions that are typical of the students’ culture.
  • Write a paragraph explaining how Bhutanese culture differs from their own in terms of attitudes toward the natural environment.
  • In groups, write and perform or tell an allegory similar in scope to the story of the Four Harmonious Friends but using ecological relationships that students see in their own regions.

Relevant National Standards

National Geography Standards

  • Standard 4: The physical and human characteristics of places.
  • Standard 6: How culture and experience influence people's perceptions of places and regions.
  • Standard 7: The physical processes that shape the patterns of Earth's surface.
  • Standard 15: How physical systems affect human systems.

Curriculum Standards for Social Studies (National Council for the Social Studies)

I. Culture: Social studies programs should include experiences that provide for the study of culture and cultural diversity.

III. People, Places, and Environments: Social studies programs should include experiences that provide for the study of people, places, and environments.

Materials Needed

VCR and TV.

Computer with Internet connection.

A large world political or physical map at the front of the class.

Arts and crafts materials to illustrate the allegories.

Optional: Blank world outline maps.

Optional: Arts and crafts materials to create props for the performance of the allegories.

Estimated Time

7-8 hours, including preparing and presenting the allegories.

Teaching Strategy

Background (Overview)

The video threads the allegory of the Four Harmonious Friends throughout the narration, as well as discussing Buddhism’s philosophy of caring for nature and of the interrelation of all living things. This lesson teaches students about general ecological principles and Buddhist attitudes toward ecology and the environment. They will be asked to think about their own culture’s attitudes toward ecology and the natural world and to compare those attitudes with Buddhist beliefs.


Introduction to Buddhism and Ecology

  1. Explain to the class that they’re going to study some of the beliefs of the Buddhist religion. Have one student, or a few students, go online and find out the countries of the world in which Buddhism is the primary religion, and have them show those countries to the class on a large world map. Ask them to point out Bhutan, and explain that they’ll be learning more about Buddhism in Bhutan. You may also want to have all students fill in the range of Buddhism and mark Bhutan on a blank world map.
  2. Inform students that the Buddhist religion places heavy emphasis on ecology and the ways in which all living things are related. Tell them that they’re going to see some video clips that help explain what Buddhists believe and that after viewing the video they’ll learn more about Buddhist ecology on the Internet.
  3. Define the word ecology: the study of the interrelationships between organisms and their environments. Ask them if they ever think about the ways in which different animals cooperate in order to live together in nature or about the ways in which animals and people depend on other species, including other animals and plants, for survival. Have them think about ecological concepts they’ve learned in previous lessons, other classes, or by observing the natural environment near home. Write these ideas on the board under the heading "Ecology."
  4. Have students watch the video, paying particular attention to the following clips concerning Buddhism and ecology. Ask them to pay close attention to the allegory that the artist is depicting in his painting and to listen carefully when that story is told. As they’re watching, ask them to take notes on the ways in which Buddhists view the natural world:
    • At about 4:15 - allegory of the Four Harmonious Friends
    • At about 7:02 - discusses the Buddhist belief that people live in harmony with their natural neighbors; continues to show the shrines as "monuments to the sanctity of all life" (9:29); Buddhism’s respect for the four elements
    • At about 24:33 - shows the monks’ winter migration; mentions reincarnation and how this philosophy requires human compassion for all life forms
    • At about 31:35- emphasizes the cycles of change, interrelatedness of all species
    • At about 37:29 - continuation of the allegory of the Four Harmonious Friends: shows the friends cooperating to enjoy the fruits of their previous labors
    • At about 45:40 - the significance of the forest to Buddhists; the hornbills and their labors of self-sacrifice
  1. After watching the video, ask them what aspects of Buddhism the video discussed. What scenes in the video illustrated the ideas of interdependence in nature (animals depending on each other and on plants) and of human respect for and appreciation of nature? List these ideas and scenes on the board under the heading "Buddhism in the video."
  2. Have a few students explain the allegory of the Four Harmonious Friends to make sure that all students understand what this story is about. Younger students can act out the allegory - assign the roles of each animal to several students and have the rest of the class tell the "animals" where to line up. Narrators can then explain the story to the class.
  3. Students will now use the Internet to further investigate Buddhism and ecology. Tell them that they’ll be finding some more information about Buddhism but that they’ll also visit two Web sites that provide general information about ecological principles. Explain that the concept of interrelatedness is a principle of ecology and, while it’s a major tenet of Buddhism, it’s also based in science and is therefore not purely a religious belief. In other words, they don’t have to be Buddhist to appreciate the interrelatedness of living things.

In groups or individually, students should go to the following Web sites and answer the questions given for each site.

Have students continue to explore the basic ecological components of Buddhism at The Living Edens: Bhutan, the Last Shangri-La Web site:

    1. Based on what you’ve learned from this Web site and the video, explain the basic beliefs that Buddhists hold about the environment and the world’s animal and plant species.
    2. What would Buddhists think about a plan to cut down a forest? Why would they have this opinion?


Ecology: Comparing Your Views with the Buddhist Beliefs

  1. Ask students to compare their connection with nature to that of the Bhutanese Buddhists shown in the video. Have them fill in the chart provided with this lesson (below) to compare how their society reacts to natural phenomena versus how the Bhutanese would react. Show the video clips again if you think they need the review.


How would each culture react to these features of the natural world?

The Buddhists of Bhutan

Your Society

What might this culture do when the seasons or weather change?


How might people of this culture treat the animals living around them? What things do they think when they see a wild animal?


How might people of this culture use the plants that grow around them?

  1. When students are finished with their charts, ask them to write a paragraph answering the questions "In what ways is your culture different from the Bhutanese culture? In what ways are you similar?" Discuss their responses as a class.

Explaining Your Own Culture’s Ecological Beliefs: Writing An Allegory

  1. Divide the class into small groups of no more than five students each. Have the groups think more closely about the ecological interrelationships in their hometowns or regions. Even if they’ve never thought about this concept before, they should be able to brainstorm some ways in which animals, plants, and humans cooperate or rely on each other and in which the existence of certain species affects the lives of others. They might wish to refer to the "Ecology" list on the board that they created earlier in the lesson to refresh their memories of some of the local ecology that they have noticed.
  2. Explain that each group will be writing its own allegory, in a fashion similar to the story of the Four Harmonious Friends. The allegory will be about animals and plants that exist near where they live and will tell stories about how something came into existence in their region. It doesn’t have to be a true story, but it has to be a story that shows how animals and plants can work together to create something else in the natural world (like the Tree of Life in the Buddhist allegory), and it should explain something real in the students’ natural environment, such as the existence of a large tree, the reason why bees like flowers, etc. The allegory should involve at least two species (animal or plant).
  3. Groups should work on their allegories by first writing down all the animal and plant species that they know of in their area. They should then brainstorm ideas for a story about how these species might work together. Or, they can think of a phenomenon that they notice in their environment and then create a story explaining how that phenomenon came into being. Have them write down all their ideas before selecting one to form the allegory.
  4. Once they’ve chosen their subject, they should create the allegory in two forms: a written story and a picture or painting similar to the one shown in the video.
  5. Have the groups share their allegories with the class. If your students enjoy dramatic activities, have them act out the allegories. Otherwise, they can read the stories and show their classmates the pictures they’ve drawn to illustrate the stories. After each group has presented its allegory, ask group members to explain why they chose that particular allegory and to state whether they think that the species featured in the allegory really have a close relationship or interdependence in the natural world. Also ask each group to explain how its allegory illustrates the Buddhist principles of ecology and interrelatedness.


Assessment Recommendations

  • All students should participate in classroom discussions and presentations.
  • Evaluate students’ time spent on the Internet by how thoroughly they answer the questions for each Web site. Their responses should reflect a thoughtful consideration of the questions and a careful reading of the information at the relevant Web pages.
  • The chart comparing Buddhism with the students’ culture should be completed with responses that reflect students’ careful consideration of their own culture and an understanding of the Buddhist tenets as described in the video and on the Web. Students should include specific scenes or statements made in the video under the "Buddhists of Bhutan" column. In the section that asks students to consider their own culture’s reactions, you may get a wide variety of responses that reflect cultural diversity in your classroom.
  • The paragraphs comparing Bhutanese culture with students’ own culture should similarly reflect a careful consideration of the two cultures’ attitudes toward the environment and should include both similarities and differences. This paragraph should also contain specific examples from the video and from students’ own life experiences. You may wish to create a rubric that reflects the specific requirements of this essay, based on your own expectations of your students.
  • In preparing and presenting the allegories, students should demonstrate a clear understanding of the purpose of an allegory. They should present an allegory that includes more than one species and that tells a story that may or may not be realistic but that illustrates a real ecological event that they have noticed in their environment.


  • Have students interview parents or other adults about their attitudes toward nature and ecology. Do they hold any of the same values as the Bhutanese Buddhists? What are the differences and similarities between the attitudes of adults in your students’ region and in Bhutan?
  • Have more advanced students research the ecological beliefs of Western religions, such as Christianity and Judaism, and write an essay comparing those beliefs with the Buddhist beliefs.


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