Tag Archives: Bhutan

Fear & (Ego) Dissolving in Haa

29 Mar

Legend, mysticism, and historical facts sometimes appear to be one and the same in Bhutan. There are so many stories and accompanying evidence about the existence of incredible spiritual practitioners, the taming of demons, and hiding of relics that it is difficult to separate the purely fantastical from actual events. In my previous post, I shared the story about the phantom cell phone ring and strange photos/videos that appeared on my friend’s phone while we were inside the Khamsum Yulley Namgyal Chorten (KYNC) outside of Punakha. So, I had personally experienced inexplicable phenomena in the country and had a grasp for how stories passed on orally from ancestral generations of Bhutanese could possibly strain credulity. The day after our visit to the KYNC, we left Punakha and stopped first at Chime Lhakhang which was a monastery built in 1499 A.D. and dedicated to Lam Drukpa Kuenley (known as the “Divine Madman”) who was a Buddhist master and poet, as well as, fun-loving drunk and vagabond.

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Image of Drukpa Kuenley (the Divine Madman) and his “flaming thunderbolts”

Similar to the Senge Dradog manifestation of Guru Rinpoche, Drukpa Kuenley embodied the Vajrayana Buddhist tradition of “Crazy Wisdom” and wielded his own version of a flaming thunderbolt — a large wooden phallus. Depictions of phalluses and their ejaculatory flames are found painted on the sides of houses, or dangling like wind chimes from the rooftops of the village buildings surrounding Chime Lhakhang. Because Drukpa Kuenley employed an irreverent approach to his Buddhist teaching, he used the phallus as a way to force people to look at those darker aspects and truths of reality that society did not want to acknowledge. He was known to shake up unenlightened persons through his drunken sermons where he wielded the phallus for emphasis of his teachings. Apparently, his unique method of sermonizing also resulted in Drukpa Kuenley’s seduction of thousands of women who would seek his blessing. One of Drukpa Kuenley’s most well-known feats was his subjugation of a fearsome demoness who lived in Dochu La. After he had captured this demoness, he buried her in a mound upon which Chime Lhakhang was later built.

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Pilgrims in the courtyard of Chime Lhakhang

When I walked towards Chime Lhakhang, I saw a sign in English that provided a short history of Drukpa Kuenley and the monastery. The sign stated that Kuenley was born in 1455 and died in 1570, so he would have lived to 115 years old. I don’t know if this was his actual age or an exaggeration, but he was a Tibetan Buddhist mystic with an unassailable joie de vivre and the force of his personality could have extended his life well beyond the average lifespan of the time.

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Entrance to main temple of Chime Lhakhang

Chime Lhakhang consists of one primary building which is the temple room and it is surrounded by an outer wall of prayer wheels. I remember 2 immediate sensations overtaking me when I walked inside the temple: first, the charred smell of juniper and butter lamps; and second, the crisp, creaking sounds of the dark planks of wood on the floor. We were able to see the actual wooden phallus that Kuenley used over 500 years ago in his teachings. This same phallus is still sought after for blessings by pilgrims and others who come to Chime Lhakhang praying for health, well-being, and fertility. Based on the large number of worshippers at Chime Lhakhang and our guide’s own veneration of Drukpa Kuenley, it was evident to me that the Divine Madman’s legacy is very much alive in the hearts and minds of the Bhutanese today.

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In the land of smiles – outside wall of Chime Lhakhang

Our next destination was in the far western reaches of Bhutan — the Haa Valley.  As had been promised by our guide when we had first arrived in Punakha, when we returned through the Dochu La pass and came to a designated prayer flag area, we got out of the car, took a few minutes to seek a blessing for safe passage, and then fastened our own prayer flags (which we had blessed at KYNC) on top of a hillock.

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Fastening prayer flags

We then continued west for several hours until we reached the highest vehicle road in Bhutan at Chele La which is at a height of 3,988m/12,700+ft. We stepped out for some air at Chele La and walked through corridors of tall white mandihar spirit flags erected in memory of deceased relatives. The combination of the thick cottony fog and the fluttering of the flags produced an eerie, ghostly sensation which foreshadowed our upcoming stay in Haa.

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Mandihar spirit flags – Chele La

Haa is a rural outpost that primarily serves as a military base and training site for both the Indian Army and Royal Bhutanese Army. Since Haa is close to the Chinese-occupied Tibetan border, Bhutan has enlisted the support of its neighbor, India, in order to maintain a large army presence in the event that the Chinese invade Bhutan. Haa recently opened to tourists in the early 2000s, and at the time of my visit in 2016, there were only 2 hotels in the town. My friend and I stayed in a historical, 2-story farmhouse on the outskirts of Haa and we were dropped off there in the late afternoon. Our guide and driver stayed in one of the hotels. We walked through the surrounding area of our farmhouse and saw meadows, rocky creeks, empty shrines with glowing butter lamps, a strangely-shaped cow skull, other scattered bones, and no signs of people except for the distant, chilling sounds of a buzzsaw. When night fell and we returned to the farmhouse, none of the lights inside worked. I fumbled through the dark on the first floor of the farmhouse and somehow managed to find a fusebox. I instinctively flipped all the switches and –voila– we had lights which was a godsend since we only had a small flashlight and both the bedrooms and bathrooms were on the second floor. When we walked up the staircase to the second floor and found the bedrooms, a large cockroach or beetle scurried through the sheets of my friend’s bed. He ended up sleeping on top of the sheets as a result. During the night, the farmhouse seemed to come alive with various squeaks and thuds, and at one point, we both heard footsteps that appeared to come from the wooden staircase. I was too sleepy to investigate, and instead, held my breath in a mix of fear and anticipation of something or someone entering my room. However, nothing happened and I assumed that perhaps the caretaker of the farmhouse had walked up the stairs late that night in order to check on things. But, we never saw anyone at the farmhouse during our stay.

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Serene but spooky scenes at Haa

When our guide returned the next morning to pick us up, we mentioned the strange sounds and the issue with the lights at the farmhouse. He let out a chuckle and apologized, but then casually remarked that on the same day of our arrival, 2 Japanese tourists had also been scheduled to stay at the farmhouse. However, they arrived there earlier, took one look at the farmhouse, and then had demanded to stay at one of the hotels in town instead! They ended up staying at the same hotel as our guide who learned about the story through his chatting with the guide of the 2 Japanese tourists.

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Haa Dratshang/Lhakhang Nagpo (White Chapel) from 7th Century

Perhaps because of its remote location and possible poltergeist vibe, Haa contains some very interesting Buddhist sights. We first visited Haa Dratshang (also known as Lhakhang Nagpo or the “White Chapel”) which houses the monastic order of the Haa Valley. The grounds of the White Chapel were being renovated and the buildings had been scrubbed clean and were gleaming. It was hard to believe that the Tibetan King Songsten Gampo had constructed both the White Chapel and Lhakhang Karpo (the “Black Temple”) on the same day so long ago in the mid-7th Century A.D.

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Lhakhang Karpo (the Black Chapel)

When King Songsten Gampo descended from the mountains of Tibet and entered the Haa Valley, he wanted to initially construct 108 monasteries. He released one white pigeon and one black pigeon in order to scout locations for the first 2 monasteries. Where the white pigeon landed is where he ordered that the White Chapel be built, and where the black pigeon landed is where he had the Black Chapel built. We walked about a quarter of a mile to the Black Chapel which was not connected to the same complex as the White Chapel. The Black Chapel is actually gray in color and consists of one squat building which was unlocked for us by a monk. The Black Chapel was built on the remains of a lake and inside it there is a trapdoor that leads to where a lake spirit resides.

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Shek Drak hugging the cliffside above Haa Dratshang

From the Black Chapel, we drove slightly up one of the nearby hillsides and then did a short hike up to the cliffside shrine of Shek Drak. When we arrived at the shrine, we waited for a monk to open the locked door and allow us inside the shrine which contained an altar and prayer area used for meditative retreats.

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Cliff-face view of Shek Drak

While Shek Drak provided for outstanding views of the Haa Valley below, it was not the cliffside shrine I had come to see. My primary reason for coming to Haa was to see the Juneydrag (or Juneydrak) Hermitage which was a shrine shrouded in spiritual power and the home of a relic belonging to a dakini (Sanskrit word for “sky dancer” or a powerful female spiritual priest). This dakini was Machig Labdron who lived from 1055 to 1149 A.D. She was born in Tibet and traveled throughout the region and into what is today Bhutan. Machig Labdron not only mastered Vajrayana (Tantric) Buddhist traditions, but also spawned her own Buddhist spiritual lineage which took hold amongst her followers and was passed on through today.

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Image of Machig Labdron on rocks outside of Juneydrag Hermitage

The key aspect of spiritual practice that Machig Labdron mastered and taught is called “chod“. This intense meditative practice refers to the complete cutting off or separating of one’s ego from all attachments. The goal of this practice (as I understand it) is to disassociate oneself from the shackles and obstructions of the physical world by visualizing the dissolution of these mental chains, and then connecting to the emptiness of consciousness that actually binds everything. An interesting aspect of chod practice is the use of fear to heighten the intensity of the ritual. As a result, practitioners will seek out places like graveyards and other fear-inducing places in order to optimize their chod practice.

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Juneydrag Hermitage – 8th Century

One look at the precarious perch of Juneydrag Hermitage on the cliff overhead made it clear to me why Machig Labdron had sought this location for her meditative practice. This small shrine is built over a cave in the cliffside where Guru Rinpoche himself had meditated in the 8th Century. Two centuries later, Machig Labdron had climbed up to the same cave for her own solitary retreat. She had left behind a relic from her stay — her right footprint was imprinted on the sidewall of the cave. I was intrigued by the possibility of seeing this footprint and it brought to mind my previous pursuits of the Buddha’s footprint on the summit of Adam’s Peak in Sri Lanka, as well as, the 2 giant footprints I saw in Luang Prabang, Laos (see posts: “Sri Pada (Adam’s Peak) – Prologue” at https://wp.me/p2Bq4y-hZ and “Summit (or Fellowship Found)” at https://wp.me/p2Bq4y-ja; and post: “Leaving Nothing But Footprints” at https://wp.me/p2Bq4y-Lq). The veneration of these footprints in stone (petrosomatoglyphs) has a long tradition in Buddhist Asia. But, here at Juneydrag, was the chance to see a footprint that was not tied by legend to the Buddha himself, but to someone else. Yet, I couldn’t help think about how much of Machig Labdron’s story was fact versus fiction. Some stories about Machig Labdron say she was originally born as a male and then transformed into a female after studying and mastering the Vajrayana Buddhist tradition. Despite my possible doubts, I was on a mission to find out what was inside Juneydrag and so I headed up the trail to the shrine with my guide in tow.

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The hermit of Juneydrag emerges from below

After about an hour of zig-zagging on and off the trail, hoisting ourselves up rope pulleys, and climbing wooden ladders, we came to an entrance door that was locked. This door was not not connected to the shrine itself, but instead was part of an outer barrier built on a narrow part of the trail where it was difficult to climb around or over it. I knocked on the door and waited for someone to come. My guide rather quickly gave up and said sometimes the hermit who is the keeper of the shrine leaves to get supplies, or will not respond because he is in deep meditation. I decided to knock one more time and then yelled out “kuzu zangpo la” which means “hello” in Bhutanese. Miraculously, a figure clad in red flowing robes emerged out of small dwelling below us. It was the hermit. He wore a wizened face and seemed to be from another world. He didn’t say much as he unlocked the door and then whisked my guide and I towards the entrance of the shrine.

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Stepping down into the cave temple at Juneydrag

As we stepped down into the mouth of the cave, we passed by demon-like figures and Tibetan Buddhist symbols painted on the rock walls. The interior of the cave was very small, and aside from a few flickering candles, there was not much light. The hermit motioned me to go to the lefthand side of the cave and there it was: the delicate imprint of Machig Labdron’s right foot. It was undeniably a human-made foot imprint. I knelt and touched Machig Labdron’s stony toes 3 times as the hermit chanted. I then placed an offering of a few Bhutanese ngultrum (Bhutanese currency) at the base of the small altar inside the cave. My guide had never seen the footprint either, so he also made an offering and received a blessing from the hermit. There was a near telepathic energy exchanged between the hermit, my guide, and myself as we stood in this 1,300 year old space and our eyes bounced off the footprint to the gnarled rocky interior of the cave and to one another. I definitely felt a communicative bond and a sense of shared warmth between the three of us although we didn’t say one word.

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With the hermit of Juneydrag (2016)

When we felt it was time to exit, we walked out into the sunlight and I sheepishly asked if I could have a photo taken with the hermit. He agreed, but asked that I not share the photo. Since 4 years have now passed after my visit to Juneydrag and I have read that many of the hermits in Bhutan rotate between caring for shrines and temples all around the country, I’ve decided to post my photo with the hermit for the first time here. I do so only with the utmost respect and profound gratitude for this man and the disciplined watch he kept over Juneydrag. While I may never be able to have the spiritual discipline or capacity to practice chod, I have tried to be mindful of adopting the following lesson attributed to Machig Labdron:

Approach what you find repulsive, help the ones you think you cannot help, and go places that scare you.”

Though our visit to Haa had real moments of suspense and spookiness, it all made sense. There can be harmony between the power of fear and the quest for understanding.

Thunderbolts & Ringtones

20 Mar
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Looking up at the massive Buddha Dordenma – Thimpu, Bhutan (2016)

Bhutan contains a cocooned ecosystem where Buddhist thought, spirituality, and culture are in perpetual contact with every aspect of life in the country. All the buildings share certain design and thematic characteristics and have limitations placed on their height. Most citizens appear to prefer wearing traditional clothing that was in vogue in the country centuries ago, rather than, adopting the contemporary fashion trends of the outside world. There are no prominent entertainment establishments such as standalone bars, clubs, or similar venues although I saw a few snooker halls. The desire for instant gratification or the need to purchase goods in bulk is non-existent. The one visible hallmark of modernity that seems to have captured the interest of the Bhutanese is the smartphone and the global connectivity that comes with such devices. But, even smartphones or tablets are still used in ways to support the Dharma in Bhutan as I observed during my visit when I saw a monk reciting Buddhist sutras through the help of his iPad which displayed all the verses for him. So, ultimately everything in Bhutan seems to circle back to a Buddhist animus that pulsates through the country.

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Buddha Dordenma constructed in late 2015

On our first full day in Thimpu, our guide drove us through the hills south of town to visit a new monument that had just opened some months earlier: the Buddha Dordenma (or Buddha Point).  This monument consists of a gigantic seated Buddha (over 50m/170ft tall) surrounded by a semi-circle of several smaller Bodhisattva statues draped with scarves. Each of these Bodhisattvas is positioned in a manner that suggests they are making an offering or seeking a blessing from the Buddha that sits above them.

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One of the several Bodhisattvas situated around the Buddha

At the time of my visit, there was a large staircase and park area below the main platform of the Buddha Dordenma that was still being constructed. Additionally, the passage into the base of the statue which was to consist of an altar area with hundreds of small statues and other Buddhist objects was not yet open. Regardless of these unfinished aspects of the monument, the vantage point of this monument was spectacular and we could see the entire layout of the large Trashi Chhoe Dzong (Thimpu Dzong) in the distance along with the rest of Thimpu. 

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View of Trashi Chhoe Dzong (Thimpu Dzong)

From Buddha Dordenma, we drove down to Thimpu Dzong which was originally built in the 1640s A.D. by Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal. It was enlarged in the subsequent centuries by Bhutanese Kings so that it could continue to serve as the primary ruling residence while also housing all the key civil ministries and providing residences for the leadership of the Bhutanese monastic order. Thimpu Dzong also became the venue for one of the most well-known dance festivals or “tsechus” in Bhutan held annually in honor of Guru Rinpoche which features elaborate robed and masked performers. While there is a throne room and a large meeting room for government ministers at Thimpu Dzong, the current King has a separate residence at a nearby property and the Bhutanese National Assembly (parliament) now also uses another building in Thimpu for its meetings.

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Monks entering Changangkha Lhakhang built in the 12th Century – Thimpu

Our next stopping point was the Changangkha Lhakhang monastery which was built in the 12th Century. This Buddhist monastery and temple is one of the oldest in Bhutan and is known as a destination for couples seeking good luck blessings for their newborns. In the back outside area of Changangkha Lhakhang, there are rows of prayer wheels embedded in the white walls and every single one of these were spun by pilgrims and worshippers as they dutifully performed their “kora” (or circuit) around the main temple hall.

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The artful symmetry of prayer wheels at Changangkha Lhakhang

Just as I had seen years earlier in Tibet and Nepal, these prayer wheels contained the 6 syllable mantra: om mani padme hum. Through the act of spinning these prayer wheels, one releases the mantra into the universe multiple times with rapid succession as she continues to walk and spin each wheel along the kora.  No doubt that this walk and spin method of prayer is a much easier and effective way of praying instead of having to orally chant the mantra over and over again. (For further understanding of the significance of the “Om Mani Padme Hum” mantra see post: “Bodhnath & Swayambhunath – Eyes Without a Face” at https://wp.me/p2Bq4y-7c).

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Prostration outside main prayer hall of Changangkha Lhakhang

We finished our walk around Changangkha Lhakhang and then prepared to head off on the slow, winding road towards Bhutan’s former capital, Punakha. On the way out of Thimpu, we first stopped at the National Memorial Chorten which was built in 1972 in memory of the 3rd Druk Gyalpo (“Dragon King”) who was the current King’s grandfather. This chorten was buzzing with people and it seemed especially popular with older Bhutanese citizens who were huddled together talking and enjoying the gardens of the memorial complex. The chorten itself reflects a Tibetan design that is similar to Bai Ta or the White Dagoba that is next to the Forbidden City in Beijing (see post “The Importance of Being on Brand” at https://wp.me/p2Bq4y-VU). I could not go inside the chorten, but I was able to look through the door at its base and could see a small altar area with a framed photo of the 3rd Druk Gyalpo inside. 

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The National Memorial Chorten built in 1972 – Thimpu

The distance from Thimpu to Punakha is about 85km (52miles), but the highway is a one-way, narrow road and there were long stretches where Indian laborers were working in the attempt to widen or repave the road. So, we had to idle at the side of the road a few times and wait until a bulldozer or other construction equipment was removed from the road in order to let our vehicle pass. Around the midway point of our drive, the road sidewinded to a higher elevation and we passed through a gully where prayer flags were strung above and across the road and along its sides. Our guide told us that we would get our own prayer flags blessed by a monk in a temple in Punakha, and then when we returned on the same highway, we would stop and fasten our prayer flags in this area. But for now, we continued driving onward until the road crested at Dochu La pass.

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The 108 memorial chortens of Druk Wangyal Chortens

At a height of 3,140m/10,300ft, Dochu La allows for views of the highest peaks of the Bhutanese Himalayas on a clear day. Aside from these incredible views, Dochu La is also known for its somber memorial called the Druk Wangyal Chortens. This memorial was built in 2005 and is comprised of 108 “mini-chortens” clustered together on a mound that looks like one bulbous stupa from a distance. Each of the 108 chortens represents the martyrdom of a Bhutanese soldier who died during an operation to quell an insurgency of Assam separatists from India that took place in southern Bhutan. I walked to the top of Druk Wangyal Chortens, and while I couldn’t see any of the mountains in the distance because of the cloudy conditions, the view was still breath-taking. I was above some of the clouds which were moving fast and it seemed that all the chortens around me were floating. For a moment, I fell into a daydream where I felt my body was also floating in tandem with the clouds around me. I only snapped out of it when I heard my guide calling me back to the car.

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View atop the Druk Wangyal Chortens – Dochu La

We descended from Dochu La and as the clouds parted, the golden green valley of Punakha appeared below us. We veered off the main highway before arriving at Punakha in order to see a nunnery and an eye-popping stupa that had been built on one of the hills. This stupa is very similar in its design to the Bodhnath and Swayambhunath stupas in Kathmandu. It sits on a terraced platform which is in the form of a mandala with a square base and circular form in the center. The central pillar of the stupa features 2 eyes on each of its 4-sides gazing out in all directions which is meant to symbolize the omnipresence of the Buddha and the accessibility of his teachings — the Dharma. This stupa was built within the last 20 years or so by a relative of the Bhutanese royal family and is maintained by the nuns who live in the small nunnery near it.

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Nepali-style stupa at nunnery on the road to Punakha

As we left the stupa and nunnery, our guide began telling us about the history of Punakha. It had been the capital of Bhutan for nearly 300 years until the mid-twentieth century. Its most visited sight was the Punakha Dzong which was constructed in 1638 A.D. at the direction of Zhabrung Ngawang Namgyal whose embalmed body is kept in a sealed room at the Dzong.

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Punakha Dzong constructed in 1638 A.D. – Punakha, Bhutan

Punakha Dzong is a cornucopia of beautiful murals, lofty architecture, and rooms filled with magical thangkas (silk embroidered or painted banners) hanging from wooden beams. Because no photos are allowed inside any of the buildings, I could only snap photos of the outside areas of the Dzong which did not capture the wall-to-wall artistry inside the halls and prayer rooms, But, the artwork on the outside buildings is well-preserved, so it at least provides a glimpse of the meticulous skill and talent of the Bhutanese artisans responsible for the treasures at Punakha Dzong. Many of the external and interior murals are illustrations of fantastic landscapes, geometric patterns, different manifestations of Guru Rinpoche, and Buddhist iconography such as the Dharma wheel, deer, tigers, and birds.

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Manifestations of Guru Rinpoche and Buddhist iconography on entranceway to prayer hall at Punakha Dzong

Our guide explained to us how Guru Rinpoche was interpreted and depicted in 8 different forms in the Bhutanese Buddhism tradition. Each of these different forms was associated with a particular teaching or Buddhist virtue and was meant to provide a metaphor for deeper understanding and related meditative purposes. Two of the most prevalent of Guru Rinpoche’s forms are: “Senge Dradog” (the protector and guide of the Buddha symbolizing the ferocity and power of the awakened mind) and “Dorje Drolo” (the wrathful, indestructible crazy wisdom that comes with the awakened mind). Senge Dradog (known in Tibetan as “Chana Dorje“) is depicted as a blue demon-like figure with a third eye in its forehead, a crown of 5 skulls on its head, a snake around its neck, and a tiger loincloth around its waist. In its right hand, Senge Dradog wields a thunderbolt and is preparing to strike with it. The Dorje Drolo manifestation of Guru Rinpoche is similar to Senge Dradog except that it is red and it is standing on the back of a pregnant tigress. Dorje Drolo is particularly significant in Bhutan because the famous “Paro Takhtsang” (“Tiger’s Nest” monastery) was built at the cave site where Guru Rinpoche in the form of Dorje Drolo buried hidden texts and treasures while traveling on the back of a tigress he had subdued. Images of Senge Dradog and Dorje Drolo are found lurking all over Punakha Dzong and both represent the need to shake off the emotional obstacles and ignorance of life in order to receive the powerful clarity of knowledge that zaps one right between the eyes when becoming truly enlightened.

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Detail of door at Punakha Dzong with Senge Dradog image

The grounds of Punakha Dzong also showcase multiple courtyards where dance festivals and other large gatherings take place. One of these courtyards has a mid-sized bodhi tree that may have been grown from a cutting of either the Bodhi Tree in Bodh Gaya, India, or its progenitor in Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka (see posts: “Pilgrimage – Part I” at https://wp.me/p2Bq4y-4f and “Part I (Cont’d) – Tree” at https://wp.me/p2Bq4y-4P). I wasn’t able to get the origin of the tree verified by my guide, but I knew that there was a practice from centuries ago where monks who studied or visited the sacred Bodhi Tree at Bodh Gaya or Anuradhapura would take a small sapling of these trees and return to their own temple or monastery where they planted it.

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Bodhi tree in one of the large courtyards of Punakha Dzong

After our visit to Punakha Dzong, we got situated at our lodging in Punakha which was situated on the valley floor. All around us were tall lush grass, rice paddies, and even greener hillsides standing sentry.  We spent 2 nights in Punakha and at dawn of each day the chanting of monks from the surrounding hillsides would wash over us. There were no televisions or other distractions and we were completely immersed in an idyllic, peaceful landscape with warm and friendly people. I could only assume that the Gross National Happiness score of Punakha must be incredibly high. 

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The prayer wheel keeper at Khamsum Yulley Namgyal Chorten

On our last day at Punakha, we went on a hike through some rice fields on the way to Khamsum Yulley Namgyal Chorten. It was a sunny, glorious day and as we emerged from the rice fields we entered a small building that housed a huge prayer wheel that was under the supervision of a 88 year old man. Our guide introduced this prayer wheel keeper and his friend to us and we spent a few minutes chatting with them. They noticed a “Bodhisattva” tattoo that my friend had in Sanskrit on his shoulder and they talked excitedly about this. It wasn’t clear to me whether they simply had never seen such a tattoo, or whether they were impressed to see this Mahayana Buddhist concept adopted in such a way by a foreigner. In either case, they were incredibly fascinated by the tattoo. After we left the prayer wheel keeper, we had to walk uphill for about 40 minutes to the chorten which sat high above us.

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Khamsum Yulley Namgyal Chorten

When we reached the top of the hill, I was encased in sweat and my shirt was stuck to me like a latex glove. But, I now had my first look at Khamsum Yulley Namgyal Chorten. This chorten was constructed in 1999, but it has the aura of an ancient building. We walked inside the chorten and climbed the stairs to the top where there is an outside observation platform. Our guide discussed the construction of the chorten and pointed out some of the other sights below us.

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Water fountain outside Khamsum Yulley Namgyal Chorten

When we returned back inside the chorten, our guide began explaining some of the stories behind the murals. Many of these murals showed important moments in Bhutan’s history, but a few also included some curious images such as shaggy-haired yetis and other Bhutanese legendary creatures. Just as our guide was speaking about these remarkable things, a bizarre ringtone blared from my friend’s cell phone. He had no cell phone service in Bhutan, yet his cell phone was loudly ringing.  All of us — our guide and driver included — were startled and exchanged befuddled looks of amazement. Our guide himself had no cell phone service while standing inside the chorten which was on a hillside more than 7km away from Punakha. We all laughed it off and our guide went on to finish his discussion about the murals. When we had hiked back down to the car, my friend checked his cell phone again, and now, he had several ghostly black & white photos and short videos saved on his phone! One of the photos even had a mysterious made-up word on it. We didn’t know what to make of any of this. Was it just a technical glitch, an accidental butt dial, or crazy divine intervention sparked by my friend’s “Bodhisattva” tattoo? Looking back on that day, I’d like to think that instead of being thunderstruck, we had received a spiritual wake-up call from Senge Dradog. That seems the best explanation for the phantom ring inside Khamsum Yulley Namgyal Chorten.

Happiness is a Place (Not a State of Mind)

8 Mar

Ever since I had visited Tibet in 2007, I knew what I wanted my next destination to be. This was going to be a trip to a small Himalayan Buddhist kingdom whose own history reflected the rich Mahayana Buddhist teachings and spirituality of Tibet. This was Bhutan — the Land of the Thunder Dragon. Given Bhutan’s geographic location tucked between the mountains of the Tibetan Autonomous Region [controlled by the People’s Republic of China (PRC)] and India’s snaky northeastern borders [portions of which are also claimed by the PRC], planning a trip to this isolated country would be tricky. First, any foreigner or non-Bhutanese citizen cannot independently fly into Bhutan and travel around the country unchaperoned. As a legacy of its fiercely insular past, Bhutan has a rigorous application process for all foreigners to complete in order to be granted a tourist visa. Each foreign visitor must register with a Bhutanese-based tourist agency which books all hotels and meals (which have different tiers depending on the visitor’s budget). The fees paid to the Bhutanese tourist agency include payment of a daily tourist tariff that is applied towards the hiring of a Bhutanese guide and driver who accompany all foreigners throughout the visit. Second, no non-Bhutanese airlines are permitted to fly to Bhutan, so instead, any visitor must use one of 2 Bhutanese airlines (Bhutan Airlines & Druk Air) in order to fly there. These 2 Bhutanese airlines each serve only a handful of other Asian countries. So, because of the careful coordination, financial cost, and chunk of time that was necessary to properly plan a trip to Bhutan, it took nearly a decade after my visit to Tibet until I was ready to head there. This long passage of time had allowed Bhutan to develop and open itself in new ways to the outside world. Bhutan also had a young king as the head of its constitutional monarchy and he had encouraged foreign investment, relaxed trade restrictions, and modernized Bhutan’s telecommunications infrastructure to allow for internet and WiFi services. The timing of my trip to Bhutan in 2016 took place then at a unique moment where technological innovation and foreign influence were impacting this remote spiritual haven to an unprecedented degree.

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Standing Buddha and Buddha Dordenma (Buddha Point) in distance – Thimpu, Bhutan (2016)

Buddhism was first introduced to Bhutan by Guru Rinpoche (also known as Padmasambhava) in the 8th Century A.D. Guru Rinpoche was likely born in north India and he traveled to Tibet where he shared and taught the tenets of Mahayana Buddhism before venturing further east and crossing over the mountains into the lush valleys of Bhutan. Bhutan was a cluster of various fiefdoms controlled by regional warlords for many centuries after Buddhism took root. It was not until the 17th Century when Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal led battle after battle that Bhutan became a unified nation with borders very much the same as it has today. Zhabdrung Namgyal is held in high esteem as the founder of the Kingdom of Bhutan and he zealously defended Bhutan from outside invading armies — his chief adversary being the 5th Dalai Lama who led Tibetan armies in several incursions into Bhutan in the attempt to seize the neighboring country.

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Paro Dzong constructed in 1644 A.D. & its watchtower (now the National Museum of Bhutan) – Paro, Bhutan (2016)

As part of his defense strategy, Zhabdrung Namgyal constructed important dzongs in strategic areas of Bhutan. These dzongs were fortress-temples with massive, thick walls that protected the administrative offices, monastic residences, and areas of worship inside. Each dzong was helmed by a governor and was like a small city-state that effectively secured key regions of the country. Perhaps the most important aspect of Zhabdrung’s rule was his creation of a government whose actions were not to be separate or disconnected from spirituality, but instead, emanated from the Buddhist teachings of mindfulness and compassion for all living beings.

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Novice monks walking through Paro Dzong

This government ethos that Zhabdrung promulgated was the reverse of the separation of church and state that exists in the United States and other Western countries. Every Bhutanese king since Zhabdrung Namgyal has maintained this creed which had a reinvention in the 1970s when the-then King of Bhutan coined the term, “Gross National Happiness” (GNH). The King explained that this concept was far more important to the Bhutanese than the country’s Gross Domestic Product. GNH encompassed a deeper meaning beyond that of a holistic guiding principle. It was a concrete, trackable economic indicator like inflation, spending, and other cost of living metrics. Additionally, the Bhutanese constitution expressly mandated that it was the government’s responsibility to promote and optimize GNH for its citizens. The Bhutanese government uses a formula to compute the annual GNH that is based on data collected from its citizens through surveys and other feedback. This data reflects criteria such as living standards, health/welfare, education, environmental quality, community vitality, and work-life balance. Ultimately, the higher the calculation of annual GNH will correlate to how well the government has performed in meeting its responsibility to provide the Bhutanese people with a beneficial economic system that is in sync with the natural environment and all sentient beings.

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Off into the western horizon — Mt. Everest

As I finalized details for my trip to Bhutan, I had to also take into consideration the season and the availability of flights from those few Asian cities that the 2 Bhutanese airlines served.  I also had a good friend who was looking for a spiritual adventure of sorts, and so, once he learned about my trip, he was eager to join. I was able to have our seats booked on a Bhutan Airlines flight for late August 2016 that would fly from Bangkok, Thailand to Paro, Bhutan. Our flight from Bangkok left at 6:30 a.m. and was only about half-filled with people. The plane had a stop in Kolkata (Calcutta), India, and as we remained in our seats, a steady stream of Indians passed by us as they boarded and soon filled the plane to capacity. These were laborers who were flying to Bhutan to provide much needed manpower on the many construction projects taking place all over the country. Once the plane took off from Kolkata, I saw the Hooghly river and the green rice paddies below steadily recede as the Himalayas approached. I had my fingers crossed and hoped the cloud coverage would be minimal so perhaps Mt. Everest would be visible. Within about 10 minutes, off into the western horizon, the unmistakable outline of a massive snowcapped peak appeared. It was Everest. It pierced through the clouds like a welcoming beacon — one that I had not seen since my 2007 flight from Lhasa to Kathmandu. Excitement welled up inside me as the plane crossed over the Himalayas and Bhutan was at hand.

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The descent to Paro International Airport – Bhutan

As we began our descent, the mountains tightened around us and at times the plane’s wingtips seemed close enough to touch them (no wonder only Bhutanese airlines fly into the country). When we landed, I walked onto the tarmac and felt a warm glow caress my face. I looked around and was surrounded by the bluest of blue skies and greenest of green trees and hillsides. We had arrived in the town of Paro which is about 50km (31 miles) from Bhutan’s capital, Thimpu. After we cleared passport control, our guide and driver who were each wearing “ghos” (Bhutanese traditional male garb like a kimono) greeted us and placed white prayer scarves around our necks. It was as if we had arrived in the mythical land of Shangri-La.

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On the tarmac at Paro International Airport

We put our bags in the car and then drove towards our first stop to see the Paro Dzong and its watchtower which had been converted to the National Museum of Bhutan in 1960. The National Museum provided us with an overview of the history, culture, natural environment, and spirituality of Bhutan. Below Paro Dzong, we stopped off to enter a very old chorten called Dumtse Lhakhang that had been built in the early 15th Century by Thangtong Gyalpo who was known for constructing iron bridges that spanned key rivers in Bhutan. While Dumtse Lhakhang is unassuming from the outside (aside from its Tibetan design), it had incredible, complex murals of Buddhist legends inside its tight confines. We had to climb up small wooden ladders to get to the top floor of the chorten where legend had it that the spirit of a demoness was trapped. Unfortunately, no photos are allowed inside Dumtse Lhakhang, so its exquisite interior and any evidence of the demoness remain hidden to the rest of the world.

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Dumtse Lhakhang built in 1430s A.D. – Paro, Bhutan

We left Paro and drove towards to Thimpu where we were to spend our first few nights. There was a lot of excited chatter during the drive between our guide and us as he had many questions about our lives in the United States and we of course wanted to learn about his life in Bhutan. We discussed everything from Bhutanese dishes like emo datshi (chili peppers and melted cheese) and Red Panda beer (barley infused with juniper) to GNH and the Buddhist spiritualism that penetrated all facets of life in the country. Since we were staying in the country for 8 days, there would be many more conversations with our guide about these topics and much more. He was very knowledgeable and brought both a sense of humor and seriousness to the many Buddhist and historical sights we had lined up to visit.

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Directing “gridlock” in downtown Thimpu

After about 45 minutes of driving and passing troops of white langur monkeys along the way, I could see the hills of Thimpu drawing near. It had been a long day of travel given the early start that morning from Bangkok and I was looking forward to getting out of the car and decompressing. We exited from the main highway and pulled onto a road going to the city center where we came to a sudden stop at a traffic circle behind other cars. In the middle of the traffic circle, there was a uniformed Bhutanese man with an intense expression who was directing traffic with dramatic movements of his white-gloved hands. Our guide said that there were no traffic lights anywhere in Bhutan — including Thimpu, its most populous city with about 110,000 people. I watched the traffic guard methodically guiding, waving at, and stopping cars with a rhythmic choreography. It looked to me like he was breakdancing at times. I had to smile. GNH was starting to make sense.

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