Cross-Cultural Fables: A Field Report from Bhutan

"Tell me a children's story," I ask our guide as we bump down the road. The entire east-west corridor connecting the major cities of Bhutan is under construction. The road, a muddy morass of calf-high furrows and construction debris, high-centers our minivan, before falling away in thousand-foot drops from a once-and-future single lane cut out of the Himalayas.

"Like a fable or fairytale," I ask. 

I'm hunting for evidence that the values of most cultures are in fact quite similar, and we teach our children the same virtues through stories all children could grasp. After all, greed is as much a sin in Catholicism as it is in Buddhism, which teaches that you could end up being reborn as a hungry ghost in your next life, doomed to wander a plane of existence where you long for material things you can never consume, and which will never sate you. A Buddhist hell is as frightening as a Christian one, except the sinner is not damned so eternally. After sufficient freezing and burning, a sinner works off his sins, climbs out, and is reborn with another chance at improving her karma by being a better person.

The fable, like religious doctrine, is social instruction, only in narrative form. It's a universal kind of speculative fiction, in fact, albeit one often overlooked because it appeals most to children and their parents. The tales tend to be simple, the messages too on-the-nose to be considered literature. But I'm guessing they translate well across cultures, since a fable is meant to socialize children, all of them wild individuals, into virtuous, cooperative citizens.         

Mural of the Wheel of Life. (Photo by author, 2016)

Mural of the Wheel of Life. (Photo by author, 2016)

Our guide looks at me like he wants to help.

My fault, I think. Inadequate explanation on my part. "Well, parents tell kids stories that help them learn lessons. Often using animals instead of humans. Like the story of the four friends."

In every Bhutanese Zhong and temple, there is inevitably a tribute to the Tale of the Four Friends:

Once upon a time, a rooster, monkey and elephant lived by a tree. Realizing their lack of respect for each other was causing trouble, they decided to give the eldest priority. But who was the eldest? they asked. The elephant remembered the tree from when he was little; the monkey remembered the tree from when it was small enough to touch his nose; but the rooster remembered a great tree nearby when he was young. He'd eaten its leaves and pooped its seeds where their tree now grew. They decided he was eldest, then the monkey and finally the elephant, and their advice should be listened to in that order.

The rooster advised they should all do good, avoiding the five major sins. Thus living peaceably, they were reborn as humans (with the chance to reach nirvana). A later version adds a hare to the pyramid of friends, and tells how they agreed to tend the tree together and share its fruits. The bird planted the seed, the hare watered it, the monkey fertilized it and the elephant protected it, until it grew into a strong tree full of fruits. By relying upon their individual talents and standing upon each other, they could reach more fruits and obtain a better harvest.

Sculpture of the "The Four Friends." (Photo by author, 2016)

Sculpture of the "The Four Friends." (Photo by author, 2016)

"Oh, yes," the guide says. "The four friends. We saw it in the square where the youths are learning trades."

"Right," I said. "The story teaches children to respect elders, that cooperation yields better results, and not to harm one another." I wait for a similar story. None is forthcoming.

"Oh, yes," he says. "It does."

"Are there any more stories like that?"

Actually, the story reminds me of two Western tales. First, the story of the mouse and the lion: The lion catches a mouse but doesn't eat him, because he is so amused when the mouse promises to help him someday in the future. Eventually, the mouse pulls a stubborn thorn from the lion's paw to the lion's relief. The Four Friends also reminds me of the tale "Stone Soup," in which a clever woman fails to get any food while begging in a stingy town, but rather than give up, she starts a stew with only water and a stone; soon, the whole town has contributed something to everyone's supper feast. These fables all teach the core norm of community: we all benefit when we put aside pure self-interest and cooperate in a shared society.

I'm about to share our Western fables with our guide when he points down the side of a hill. "Look," he says. "There's the phallus town."

Whoa. Whaaaa--?

"This is where you go when you can't make a children. You pray and make a sacrifice at that temple there. And then if you get pregnant, you come back an make another sacrifice."

This does not sound like a traditional Buddhist practice.

"Tell me the story of how that started," I ask.

"Once, long ago, in the 14th Century, when the Divine Madman lived--"

"Who?" we ask, already enthralled.

"He was a great lama, but who taught Buddhist rules, you know, using 'different' methods. Like subduing evil spirits with his thunderbolt. Anyway, one day a farmer who wanted to live a more religious life went to the Divine Madman and asked him, 'Learned One, the mantras aren't working for me. Can you teach me your mantras?'"

The Divine Madman replied, "My mantras are unique, different all the time. You can't possibly learn them."

But the devotee insisted, persisted and wouldn't leave the Madman alone.

"All right," the Divine Madman finally agreed, and he taught the devotee mantras which consisted entirely of obscenities. The peasant happily memorized them, went home and started chanting them.

"Not quiet, you know," the guide explains, grinning. "But loud. Really loud. And the houses over there are close, and the wife gets very embarrassed."

The wife tells him that the Madman has made a fool of him to get rid of him. "And you can't say those things in front of our little girl."

Nevertheless, he continues, and soon the neighbors begin complaining.

Rather than penalize him, the town agrees to build him a monastery just outside of town. "So they send him up there," our guide continues, "And he very happily continues chanting his mantras. As loud as he wants. And soon there are lots of babies in the town. And pilgrims start coming, bringing money, making prayers... and that's how this town got famous."             

Marginalia from the " Roman de la Rose " (France, 14th c.)

Marginalia from the "Roman de la Rose" (France, 14th c.)

The misunderstood visionary is a common figure in speculative fiction. As a teen, I loved Isaac Asimov's Foundation series, whose hero, a kind of psycho-economist-historian-scholar, warns the galactic empire of its coming doom, only to be met with derision. He founds a utopian civilization in isolation at the galaxy's far edge, set away from contamination. It is the seed from which reorganization can begin. That's a kind of social fertility, there: the way community rejuvenates by letting a divine madman go off on his own. While fables like The Four Friends or Stone Soup teach social cohesion and norms, science fiction more often celebrates the norm-breaking misfit who saves the town.

In any case, I've found one universal human value, at least: humor. A phallus town?! Our guide shows us fertility talismans hanging from all four corners of the houses. "For luck," our guide says as he grins again.

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