Bacon on the Bookshelf

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The Last Himalayan Kingdom

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 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. 

With Linda at the Choki Traditional Art School in Thimphu

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. 

Photos not allowed after you pass through the door. That’s my guide Yeshey wearing a traditional men’s “gho”.

Temple pup joined us on our hike after we left

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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).

Photo by Richard Wardell, image from wall painting in Tiger’s Nest hotel

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. 

On the wheel of life – always grasping for more

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.

Linda’s husband Namgay, a well regarded Bhutanese artist, and his depiction of Chenrizig, the bodhisattva of compassion

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. 


Wherever you are, you are never far from a Dzong with its high walls and fierce weaponry reminding you that freedom is not free.

Dzong in Paro

Dzong in Punakha

Children learn traditional stories and cautionary tales at local festivals… 



All photos from Jakar Festival in November in Bumthang

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 Paro the dogs bark all night long, for there are many strays, and they have their own stories to tell.

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.

Old school stupa, in the middle of dirt road

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… 

At the Choki Traditional Art School in Thimphu

They are not trained in the style of the divine madman Drukpa Kunley, which still finds its way onto Bhutanese homes…

It was a surprise to me too.

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… 

“Title: Rainy days. Description: This piece is inspired by the Buddha Of Animal Realm who carries a book which is the antidote for ignorance. Rainy days always remind me of animals soaked in the grey weather of the rain, in a way like all beings soaked in the emotions of ignorance in the sea of suffering. We are all soaked in the emotion of ignorance which can never really dry out.“

 

“Title: No Entry. The victory banner represents the body of the Buddha, representing Buddha’s victory over pride, desire, emotion and the fear of death. As the monk holds a no entry sign to the victory banner, one tends to question why? Is it just impossible or is it that one cannot think of becoming victorious. Or why does it seem like someone doesn’t want you to be victorious? Or who can seek to be victorious?”

 

Pema Tschering (“Tintin in Bhutan”) and his family at the Ogyen Choling Manor

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.

Image from Lionsroar.com

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.

At grocery store in Thimphu – notice photos

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. 

Yeshey, me, and “Pinto”, hiking to the Taksang Monastery (“Tiger’s Nest”), one of the most sacred spots in Bhutan

That’s the Tiger’s Nest

 

I was reminded, in Bhutan, to follow those who know the way,

Yeshey and Pinto

Yeshey

to accept the lovingkindness of strangers, 

Schoolgirls offered me warm milk tea from their thermos on a cold day at the Jakar Festival in Bumthang

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


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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.

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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

 

29 Comments

  1. What joy to wake up to your post, Jennifer. I learned so much and am intrigued by these people. What you report here reminds me of the Benedictine way of living. It’s a peaceful, colorful, and reassuring approach to living one’s life. And, you are amazing!

    • What a joy to wake up to your comment, Rebecca! Thank you for being in touch and for all you’ve said. I’m still processing the whole experience and in particular am interested in the relationship between Buddhism and Christianity. Xoxo

    • I’m really impressed by your bravery and curiosity. What an interesting and exotic trip! I hope to hear about re-entry…

      • Margot! How lovely to hear from you! Re-entry so far is nothing short of brutal. I’m flat on my back. I’m hoping I might find the energy to order some groceries at some point in the foreseeable future. A kind friend left me enough to survive on the next few days. Thank you for being in touch and for your kind words. Xoxo

  2. Thank you for sharing all this beauty and peace!! Welcome home!!!

  3. Beautiful pictures and reflections. Where to next? Can’t wait to hear.

    • Thank you, dear Katie! I am plotting a return trip to Bhutan. I saw “hotel Bhutan” this time, as Yeshey and Pinto put it. They said they would show me “real Bhutan” if I go back. (That being said, the hotels were pretty terrific…) I hope to see you very soon!! xoxo

  4. WELCOME HOME!!! Can’t wait to hear more – and yes, you are amazing!!!

  5. What a beautiful and stunning journey. I’d imagine it could change a person profoundly. Kudos to you, and thank you for sharing it all. This is a post for repeat study and contemplation.

  6. A friendship, a stout curiosity, an enlightened readership. Thank you, Jennifer.
    The metaphor is ever present as you flew from the thin land of vivid culture bringing visuals and ideas of loving kindness back home to a land afflicted by its own demons. I look forward to your related library. Much to learn on the trail of compassion.

  7. Now Bhutan is a little sad without your beautiful face. We so enjoyed your visit and marveled at your quest for knowledge and your delight in all things Bhutanese. It seems like you made the absolute most of your time here and you took back so many important, useful things and ideas. And you made me see this place I love so much again with fresh eyes. Thank you. Until we meet again, sweet friend.

    • I’m in a heavy fog of jet lag and it doesn’t seem quite real to me right now – the whole experience. It seems like my visit must have happened in another universe, or at least in another world. Bhutan really does feel that far away. I haven’t yet gotten back into my skin here. Or perhaps my skin has changed. Thinking of you!! Xoxo

  8. Jennifer – what an amazing and enlightening trip – I marvel at how travel and making new friends along the way broadens our perspectives and opens our hearts. Your hike to the Tiger’s Nest looks incredible! Welcome home!

  9. Jennifer, what a beautiful and inspiring post! I know exactly what you mean about viewing sacred spaces that can’t be photographed. I was recently in front of Picasso’s “Guernica” (which cannot be photographed) and it made me stop, and look, and linger, and look again much more carefully than had I just looked quickly and taken an iPhone photo as a memory. So glad you had such a wonderful experience. I look forward to hearing more. xoxo

    • The contrast between their expectations versus the photos we are allowed to take in the great cathedrals of Europe was striking. It preserved – or perhaps heightened – the feeling of being in a sacred space. I think they are getting something right. It is so nice to hear from you, Carolyn!! I hope we can compare travel journeys soon! Xoxo

  10. I love the idea of practicing peace, not just hoping for it. And to meet with Queen! What an honor and a joy.

    • It is changing everything for me – this idea about peace. What a gift when you read the right thing at the right moment. I know you love. And – it WAS fun to meet the Queen! She was stunning, and so poised and lovely… I can see why the nation is enchanted. Can’t wait to catch up!! Xoxo

  11. It took me a few days to get to you Bacon, but finally did. I have great respect for Buddhism and its variety. We Christians can certainly learn from them–and many have, including Thomas Merton of course. I look forward to seeing what books you recommend.

  12. hello, hello, hello!! thankful you are home safe and thankful for your sharing some of your experience. remember to take time for yourself this week! we all look forward to hearing more soon (or later!) xo

    • Hello dearest Mary Jo! This week has been challenging. My body was reluctant to give up Bhutan time. All is getting sorted and of course there’s much to be grateful for including – and especially – your dear friendship. Xoxo

  13. In peace is a beautiful place to live. A peace that passes all understanding. Not all find it….those that do are happy, content , and unafraid.
    The journey to Buthan was on your path to finding peace .

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