Although most people in Nepal are Hindu, Buddhist influences are widespread in Nepali culture. Most Nepali Buddhists practise Tibetan Buddhism. For a long time however, Buddhism was not commonly practiced in Nepal. In the first half of the twentieth century, the government of Nepal even banished and deported Buddhist monks from Nepal.
Today, Buddhism in Nepal is practiced by roughly 10% of the population. The vast majority of Nepali is Hindu. The fact that Buddhism is nevertheless omnipresent and visible in Nepali culture, makes this an interesting subject. In what follows, we will discuss a number of symbols that have become real symbols of Nepal and are Buddhist by origin.
When reading Lonely Planet’s article on Nepal, it became clear that most of the recommended highlights in Nepal are religious Buddhist sites. These include Buddhist monasteries, stupas and pagodas. A stupa, with its typical bell-shape, usually houses one or more sacred items. To worship the stupa and the relic inside you walk around it in clockwise direction. One of the most important stupa’s in Nepal is Boudhanath. Situated to the east of Kathmandu, it is one of the most imposing landmarks in Kathmandu and one of Nepal’s holiest Buddhist sites. The 36-meter-high stupa is one of the largest in South Asia. With many monasteries surrounding it, Boudhanath is the centre of Tibetan Buddhism in Nepal. It is a Buddhist pilgrimage site and is included in the World Heritage Cultural site list by UNESCO. This is undoubtedly of major importance to Nepal tourism.
The all-seeing eye of the Buddha is another symbol that is unmistakably linked to images of Nepal. In Stupa’s, there are giant pairs of eyes looking out from every side. They are also known as Buddha eyes and wisdom eyes. The eyes of the Buddha in the stupa symbolize the all-seeing ability of the Buddha.
Prayer flags are another omnipresent Buddhist symbol. They can be found all over Nepal and give the country its typical and recognisable outlook. These flags originated in Tibet and have mantras written on them. They are usually mounted in high places. Every time the wind passes over them, the mantras sanctify and purify the air. Although they originated in Tibet they are used in most Buddhist countries, including Nepal, where they are most commonly seen tied to the peak of a stupa.
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Nepal has many spectacular Buddhist monasteries. Most of them are Tibetan monasteries opened by refugees that fled the Chinese occupation. These monasteries house hundreds of monks. They study and live in the monasteries. There are said to be over 1,200 Buddhist temples in Nepal, some going back as far as 2,000 years.. Lumbini, the birthplace of the Lord Buddha, is on the UNESCO World Heritage list. The site is now being developed as a Buddhist pilgrimage centre.
The cities of Kathmandu, Bhaktapur, Patan and Lumbini are top tourist highlights, many of them being Buddhist. Swayambhunath, Boudhanath, Durbar Squares in Patan, Bhaktapur and Kathmandu are just a few examples that give Nepal its typical outlook.
Notions of modesty: Buddhism and Nepalese culture share most of their ideas about modesty. Both are rather conservative when it comes to clothing. Women are expected to cover their shoulders and knees at all times, while men aren’t supposed to take of their shirt in public. These are values we see reflected in the majority of communities in Nepal and this is why it is seen as a universal value in the country. Hinduism as well as Buddhism accentuate the importance of modesty by banning anyone who doesn’t follow the ‘rules’ from holy sites, like temples or shrines. While you won’t get in trouble on the street if you don’t follow these ideas, you will be looked down upon and regarded as unrespectful by locals.
Attitude towards (old) age: Buddha had many thoughts on the matter of old age. The first is learning to accept old age. The Buddha also asked us to consider that longevity is perhaps not as important as what we do with ourselves in the time we have. Another aspect of old age that the Buddha addresses is the issue of caring for the aged. As we will explain in what follows, Nepal is considered to be a collectivist society. People take care of the members of their (social) group. The elderly are not only treated with respect and reverence, but they are taken care of as part of the group. In return, the elderly might take care of the children in the group. This will keep them occupied and make them feel needed. The Buddha said that loving and grateful people think like this concerning their parents: `Having supported me I will support them in return’
Gender (in)equality: Although Nepal has a female president (Bidhya Devi Bhandari) since 2015 and women’s rights were recently improved in the Constitution, there is still great inequality between the sexes in daily life. Male and female literacy rates show a huge gap between the genders. In 2015, adult literacy was 63,5% of which 76,4% male and 53% female. Women have less education, information, and opportunities for self-enhancement. Girls and women are still responsible for household chores and deprived from education. They have less access to health services, property, social security and freedom, as well as decision-making processes. Although Nepal is making progress, gender equality has not been achieved.
As far as the potential to attain enlightenment is concerned, according to Buddha, men and women are equal. The Buddha said that women are just as capable of becoming enlightened as men. Despite this, women in traditional Buddhist cultures and the patriarchal Buddhist monastic system, women are considered inferior to men. Monks usually occupy all positions of leadership, leaving nuns to the household duties and other chores. Traditional Buddhist cultures have ignored the Buddha’s high ideal that the spiritual quest should be open to all despite status, race or gender. But in 2008, His Holiness The Gyalwang Drukpa, changed all that and established the Kung-fu nuns of Nepa with a simple motive: to promote gender equality and empower young women. In the name of gender equality, nuns are encouraged to learn masculine skills, such as plumbing, electrical fitting, typing, cycling and English.They are taught to lead prayers and are given basic business skills – typically work done by monks – and they run the nunnery guesthouse and coffee shop. They are now starting to use their skills and energy in community development.
Core Values in Nepali Culture
Family: a difference we find between Nepalese culture and Buddhism is the importance of family, while Nepal is a collectivist society, Buddhism isn’t a family centered religion. Monks believe they should detach from their family to focus on their personal enlightenment, however the lay people (non-practitioners) are valued because they support the monasteries and monks by making donations. This practice illustrates the collectivism in Nepal culture and how much Nepalese people value family, which are not necessarily relatives. Multigenerational households are still most common, although in cities nuclear families are becoming more popular.
Respect: in Nepal as well as in Buddhism,feet are regarded as the most unclean body part. This is also the body part that has the most rules surrounding it. You may never point the soles of your feet towards someone else or a Buddha statue. You should always sit in a way to avoid this and never put your feet up on furniture. You should take your shoes off before entering a house or temple and make sure they are placed with the soles down, as it is believed to bring bad luck to do otherwise. It is also important to apologise when accidentally touching someone with your foot by touching your forehead and bowing slightly.
Purity:A deep moral and ethical awareness is part of daily life in Nepal. This is influenced by religious values and beliefs, both Hindu and Buddhist, as well as cultural ideas of purity. They are ritualised in people’s diet and personal practice. Almost any action, object, job or person can be categorised as particularly ‘pure’ or ‘impure’. Nepalis can be quite reserved in their behaviour, acting modestly in accord with what is considered to be appropriate behaviour within these cultural guidelines.
Six dimensions of culture according to Hofstede
When using Hofstede’s 6 dimensions of Culture
- Power Distance: this dimension shows the inequality in a society between its individUAL members. Power distance shows the extent to which the ‘lower’ members of society expect and accept that they are inferior to the rest of society. Nepal scores a high 65 in this dimension. Nepalese culture is quite hierarchical and there is a significant gap between the poorest and the most powerful of society. People mostly accept these differences in social status as the natural order and show respect to those who are older or who they perceive to have a high status. There are similarities with Buddhist social hierarchy. Buddhism has a clear social hierarchy, with Buddhist monks being at the top end and and pilgrims being at the lower end. (how is the Buddhist hierarchy regarded by Nepalese gov/society: respected or not?…)
- Individualism: in this particular dimension the interdependence among the members of a society is studied. Is self-image perceived as ‘I’ or ‘we’? In societies in which individuals identify self-image as ‘I’, or individualistic societies, people are supposed to look after themselves and their close loved ones only. This is opposed to a “we”-society or a collectivist society in which people take care of others and in exchange will be taken care of if necessary. In the latter, people are often divided in ‘groups’. This can be family, extended family, friends or other people in their environment. Nepal scores low in this dimension, a score of only 30, meaning Nepal is a “we”-society. Nepalese culture is very collectivistic; loyalty to members of your group is very important. It often overrules other rules and regulations in the culture. This attitude fosters very close relationships within these groups. Buddhism is often perceived as a very individual religion, but according to Mathieu Ricard, a Buddhist monk, this is a common misconception. Although monks search for enlightenment of their own mind, they do so to free all beings of suffering. In Buddhist texts we find messages of altruistic love and compassion as the best way to Enlightenment. A famous Buddhist quote says : “What is not done for the sake of others is not worth doing.”
- Masculinity: In this dimension a high score means the society is motivated mainly by competition, success and achievement. This system usually starts in school and continues throughout organisational and professional life. We refer to this as a masculine society. A lower score indicates a more feminine society. Caring for others and quality of life are of bigger importance. What motivates people is a key factor here: wanting to be the best (masculine) or liking what you do (feminine). Nepal has a lower score of 40 and is considered a relatively feminine society. In more feminine cultures people value quality and solidarity. Conflicts are solved through compromise and negotiation and there is a strong focus on well-being. This is a mindset we also find in Buddhism, there is a strong sense of altruism and solidarity in Buddhist culture. Compassion is a very significant part of this religion, as it is believed that being a good person and being kind to others will help you advance in your enlightenment. There is no competition and Buddhists aspire peace and the end of all suffering for everyone.
- Uncertainty avoidance. How does a society deal with the uncertainty of the future? Does it want to control it or does it let it go its course? Different cultures have learned to deal with this uncertainty in different ways. This dimension measures to what extent a society feels uncomfortable with unpredictable situations and tries to avoid them. Nepal scores 40. This is fairly low. In a low uncertainty avoidance culture people are willing to take risks and are open to unpredictable situations as part of life. They tend to be a little more relaxed than their high-scoring counterparts. Nepalese culture is open towards unpredictability of everyday situations and Nepali are risk-takers. The fundamental importance religion holds in many Nepalis’ lives also influences their approach to problem solving. It is common for people to take a fatalistic attitude, assuming the cause of problems to be the result of a god or spirit’s work. This fatalism does not necessarily mean people are passive, waiting for things to occur at the will of a god. Nepalis generally work very hard until the point that they can do no more – from there, “what will be will be”. However, misfortunes are often attributed to an individual’s behaviour; for instance, bad health is commonly perceived to result from bad karma. Therefore, Nepalis are known to be quite stoic and tolerant in difficult situations as this explanation of problems can make them feel as if they somewhat deserve to suffer.
- Long term orientation: it is the degree to which a culture maintains links with the past in dealing with the present and the future. Some cultures maintain strong links with the past and find it difficult to break away from traditions. Other cultures have a long-term orientation towards the future and prepare for it in advance. Societies with a lower score are normative societies and they tend to maintain their long-held traditions and are weary of changes happening in their society. High scoring societies are more likely to prepare people for the future. We assume that Nepal has a more long-term orientation. As discussed above, Nepali are open towards unpredictability and change. This leads us to the conclusion that Nepal is a long term oriented society. Buddhism and long term orientation… reincarnation/nirwana?? Unfortunately, there currently is no score available for Nepal in this dimension.
- Indulgence: This dimension measures to what extent people give into their impulses, based on the way they are raised. When a culture tends to give into these impulses easily, we call it an indulgent culture and on the other end, the more strong-willed cultures we describe as restrained. Nepali are generally more focused toward saving, working and planning for the future, rather than seeking instant gratification. We would say they are rather restraint. Unfortunately, there currently is no score available for Nepal in this dimension. In Buddhism, life is a process that ultimately and ideally leads to Enlightenment. Enlightenment is not earned easily or instantly. Indulgence will not lead to Enlightenment.
Erin Meyer’s 8 dimensions
Meyer claims you can improve relationships by considering where you and international partners are situated on each of these scales:
- Communication: explicit versus implicit. The Nepalese communication style is generally indirect to avoid confrontation or offence. Conversations are usually long and drawn out. This communication style requires patience from the listener. It is important to pay attention to the subtleties in conversation. The absence of a clear response can reflect more than what is said. Meaning is also conveyed through body language and facial expression. Although Nepalis have an indirect communication style, they tend to be quite forward in asking personal questions, even when meeting someone for the first time. Buddhism… speaking in metaphors??
- Evaluating: direct negative feedback vs. indirect negative feedback. Receiving positive feedback in Nepal is easy but receiving constructive and honest (sometimes negative) feedback is difficult. Nepali are reluctant to openly give negative criticism. Negative issues are often addressed in an indirect manner, very much in line with their style of communication. In order to avoid confrontation, a third party might even be involved in the communication. Buddhism??
- Persuading: deductive vs. inductive: It takes different approaches to persuade people from different cultures. Persuasive arguments are rooted in culture. Deductive reasoning (= principles-first reasoning) draws conclusions from general principles or concepts. Inductive reasoning (= applications-first reasoning) draws conclusions based on a pattern of factual observations from the real world. Principles-first culture tend to be preoccupied with the “why” of any context, whereas application first culture are preoccupied with the “how” of any context. Most people are capable of practicing both principles-first and applications-first reasoning, but it is heavily influenced by the kind of thinking emphasized in your culture. In most Asian cultures, it is important to see the interrelationships of the tasks as a whole before understanding and setting out to do the task (= why). As Nepal belongs to Asian culture, it could be expected that Nepali would use inductive reasoning.
- Leading: egalitarian vs hierarchical. Hierarchy is very important in Nepal. There is a high level of formality, for example in the workplace. It is important to emphasize the status of your colleagues. When speaking with a supervisor or superior, it is custom to add the suffix ‘ji’ to their name and they will do the same for you. It is important to understand and show the respect that is required for the status of every person in each of your colleagues or superiors. We have already stated that In Hofstede’s model, Nepal scores high on the power distance. A high power distance culture also means that the relative distance between people at different hierarchical level (such as boss and subordinate) is relatively large. The same goes for Buddhist social hierarchy, as equally mentioned above.
- Deciding: consensual vs. top down In Nepal, most decisions are made top down. In the workplace, decisions are usually made according to the senior management hierarchy of the organization. Because of this strong hierarchy, it is common for decisions to be made by those in the higher ranks. The idea of having inputs from staff, or taking part in bottom-up participatory decision making is beginning to be practiced by organized with higher number of westerners, however, it is not yet the norm. Buddhism?
- Trusting: task vs. relationship The importance of relationships and trust differ across cultures. There are two types of trust that are formed in any sort of relationship: cognitive trust and affective trust. Cognitive trust is formed when you have confidence in the other person’s technical skills. Affective trust is the result of feelings for other people. In some cultures cognitive trust is more important while other cultures favour affective trust. In a task based relationship culture, trust is based on the reliability, professionalism and the skills of the other person. In a relationship-based culture, trust is formed slowly, and is based on personal feelings rather than the skills of other group members. In Nepal, trust and confidence are essential for the development of close (working) relationships. It is not uncommon to mix personal and professional life with your colleagues. As family is central to life in Nepal, sharing stories about one’s family with colleagues is customary at the beginning of meetings as this will help building trust between colleagues. Buddhism??
- Disagreeing: confrontational vs. avoid confrontation Disagreement is expressed in different ways. Some cultures are confrontational and disagreement will be expressed directly and bluntly. Other cultures clearly avoid confrontation when disagreeing. In confrontation avoiding cultures, direct disagreement might be considered as “loosing face” in front of others. As mentioned above, the Nepalese communication style is generally indirect to avoid confrontation or offence.
- Scheduling: structured vs. flexible Different cultures treat time differently. Those cultures who have a linear time approach execute tasks sequentially. Sticking to the schedule and completing the tasks within the deadline are important scheduling principles. In contrast, in a flexible time scheduling approach, tasks are done unplanned, not necessarily disorganized but in a fluid manner. Many activities may be undertaken at once. Interruptions are normal and one has to adapt to constant changes. In “Nepali time”, people are far less punctual than what is the norm in Western culture. However, the required level of punctuality will depend on the relationship with the person in question. Be prepared to be kept waiting in social contexts. Nepalis are generally more punctual in professional settings. In a Buddhist culture, not only time but also life itself goes around in a circle. Whatever we plan, however we organize our particular world, generation follows generation; governments and rulers will succeed each other; crops will be harvested; monsoons, earthquakes and other catastrophes will recur; taxes will be paid; the sun and moon will rise and set; stocks and shares will rise and fall. (quote??)