I went to Bhutan to visit my friend, Linda Leaming (Married To Bhutan, A Field Guide to Happiness). I went by myself to know that I could. I went to learn more about Buddhism.
About halfway through the trip, I shared some impressions with a friend… “Life in these stunning mountains and valleys produces a rugged and meditative people and culture… I have a few crazy thoughts about moving here! I’m definitely not doing that but loving it so much.”
“No harm in imagining moving there,” he replied. “Why not? I don’t blame you. Just soak it all in and take a little home with you.”
Here’s some of what I’m bringing home (plus some book recommendations)….
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Note: there are some beautiful sights you can’t photograph when you travel in Bhutan – in particular, the inner, sacred spaces of temples. Where I have drawn images from Google, I will let you know.
In Bhutan you are always on a mountain or in a valley. Your eyes are invited beyond yourself.
You are never far from Guru Rinpoche, who flew from Tibet on the back of a tigress many centuries ago, bringing Buddhism to Bhutan. The spiritual founder of Bhutan, he is honored in temples and festivals (and pretty much everywhere, as far as I can tell).
Guru Rinpoche, according to lore, built temples to pin down a demoness afflicting the land. Here is the temple that holds down her left ankle.
Guru Rinpoche and the Buddha taught values of loving-kindness and compassion. They taught how to end human suffering through awakening and enlightenment. Before enlightenment, all of us are trapped on the wheel of life (we humans, and also animals, demi-gods, and gods). We are trapped by our cravings, our anger, and our ignorance.
The only way to break the wheel is to achieve enlightenment. Enlightenment involves self-control, a deep understanding of the interconnectedness and sacred nature of all beings, right speech, right action, and meditation. Those who break the wheel can go to a Pure Land (heaven), but those who are most revered are bodhissatvas who choose to stay in the earthly realm instead and help others to achieve enlightenment.
You are never far from prayer flags in Bhutan, the wind carrying their prayers not to Buddha exactly because Buddha was only a man… carrying them (I think) to a source of help around, between, within and above.
Children learn traditional stories and cautionary tales at local festivals…
Local deities must sometimes be appeased at these festivals and in daily life. The local deities were here before Guru Rinpoche brought Buddha’s teachings and they have never left. Why would they? It’s a beautiful country.
In Bhutan you share the roads with cows, mules, horses, and dogs.
There’s not one traffic light in the entire country, even in the capital Thimphu, and people, cows, cars, and dogs do just fine (for the most part). The roads are not ugly or aggressive rage-fests. Everyone seems to figure things out in a relatively calm manner.
Cows are shepherded to the valleys for the winter, sometimes using the main east to west road across the country…
while Yaks are shepherded from the highlands to the middle heights.
In the hot valley of Punakha the poinsettias grow as tall as trees, bougainvillea blooms in November, and the river flows gently over the stones.
In cooler climes, the roses and chrysanthemums love the autumn sun.
Wherever you are, stupas remind you to pause and pray.
Wherever you are, water wheels spin prayers to heaven.
Little boys are sent to monasteries, but not all of them stay.
Young people are trained in traditional arts that are prevalent in Bhutanese homes and buildings…
They are not trained in the style of the divine madman Drukpa Kunley, which still finds its way onto Bhutanese homes…
A new generation of artists experiments with traditional styles. I was lucky enough to to meet Pema Tschering, “Tintin in Bhutan,” at the Ogyen Choling Manor, at festival time…
In this Buddhist, rural country, there is a sense of calm uncommon in the urban settings I’m used to. Yet many young people in Bhutan are leaving for better economic opportunities in Australia. There is a dark underbelly of drugs and the drug trade in the capital city. The hungry ghosts of domestic violence and alcoholism feed on all they can find.
His Majesty the 5th King of Bhutan seeks to inspire and lead. He is widely revered, with photos of his family present everywhere. Politicians are criticized (Bhutan is a Parliamentary monarchy, like England), but the King is above reproach. I met his wife the Queen by chance when she and her retinue were visiting a temple in Bumthang. She introduced herself to each of the Western visitors there, about 15 of us, asking us where we were from and how we were enjoying our visit.
Following Yeshey, I learned many things about Bhutan. Laughing with Phunesho, I learned many things about Bhutan. Yeshey was my guide and Phuensho was our driver.
I was reminded, in Bhutan, to follow those who know the way,
to accept the lovingkindness of strangers,
and to believe that all things are possible, even (inside my heart) peace.
“If we want peace, we have to be peace. Peace is a practice and not a hope.” – Thich Nhat Hanh
Sincerest thanks to Linda Leaming and her husband Namgay for their warm hospitality and very kind care during my visit.
Linda introduced me to the team at the Choki Traditional Art School, where we spent the better part of a day seeing students at their work, having lunch with them, and learning about the education they offer, all of it to students without means to seek education elsewhere. This is education that leads directly to a job.
I enjoyed meeting Linda’s friend, Brent Olson, a long-time Bhutan enthusiast and frequent traveler to Bhutan (who helped me navigate the Bangkok airport on the way home.)
Before my trip, my friend Amy Norton connected me to her dear friend and colleague at GiAnt, Mike Oppendahl, who had moved with his family to Bhutan about nine months earlier. Mike and I corresponded as I planned my trip, and I was so happy and grateful to meet him and his wife Ashley, my new friends.
I am forever indebted to Yeshey and Phuensho, my guide and driver, who shared their country with me. Sincerest thanks to Tashi at Boonserm Travel for making all the arrangements.
I’ve run out of steam to describe the books I read on the trip. More on that next Sunday. I’ve just traveled approximately 36 hours, over 5 flights, to get home. Xoxo