Bhutan is one of the most undisturbed places on Earth. Compared to the madness outside its borders, one wonders sometimes if it is still Earth. It’s like stepping back into the ninth century. To understand Bhutan, you must know Padmasambhava, affectionately known as Guru Rinpoche (Precious Master), who brought Buddhism here in the eighth century. He is the backbone of Bhutanese culture. Because I had the great fortune to spend nearly two years in this mystical land, I also met Padmasambhava. Once I said, “When Guru Rinpoche was alive…” And Khenpo Phuntsok Tashi, Director of the National Library, corrected me, “Guru Rinpoche is still alive.”
It’s hard for the Western mind to understand this. Guru Rinpoche was an historical figure who lived in the 8th century, but he is also considered to be the second Buddha by the practitioners of Vajrayana Buddhism. As such he can never die as most of us understand death. After spending time in Guru Rinpoche’s sacred garden, I was starting to understand. You felt his presence here. Or maybe it was something within me that I was just starting to discern.
Guru Rinpoche’s image is everywhere in Bhutan, and his name is on people’s lips constantly: om ah hung vajra guru padma siddhi hung. His mantra is repeated for blessings, prayers, supplications, anytime one might require empowerment, courage, or help reducing obstacles. To preserve the sacred teachings, Guru Rinpoche hid teachings as treasures in rocks, soil, lake, and trees throughout the Himalaya. You have to allow your imagination free reign to understand this; teachings can be transmitted in mysterious ways. He then prophesied treasure revealers, or tertons, who would find these treasures, at an auspicious moment in the future. An appropriately seasoned practitioner then would discover, for example, a text hidden under a rock, or, as Chogyam Trungpa did in the cave at Taktsang, just outside of Paro, he might discover a teaching in his mindstream. In this way, Guru Rinpoche ensured the continuation of the Buddhist teachings and protected them from being decimated by dark forces.
I first met him at Gangtey, where I was invited to attend the consecration of Gangtey Tulku’s monastery in 2008. The Gangtey Tulku is a current incarnation of one of Guru Rinpoche’s treasure revealers, so his monastery consecration was a big event in Bhutan. Soon after I arrived, still dizzy from a long and winding drive through the Himalayan foothills, my driver took me to the monastery to find out the program, as I didn’t have a formal invitation.
Immediately after entering the shrine hall, I saw Neyphug Tulku Rinpoche, one of the officiating lamas, sitting with two other high lamas, eating dinner. He was a handsome young man of 28. I had met Neyphug Tulku at the hotel where I worked in Paro. He came to speak about Buddhism to the guests each week, and we had an easy connection. He called me over to exchange greetings and introductions. I expected formality, and bowed to offer a traditional greeting, but he waved his hand dismissively and asked me to sit down. He was educated in India and his English was fluent. The three rinpoches continued to eat their ema daatsi, chili and cheese, the national dish, served with local red rice.
“You should come early tomorrow morning to the puja,” he said. There was my invitation. One thing I had learned through dharma practice is that if you relax into the flow of events, it will direct you where you need to go. That I found myself there at all was magical. I had only arrived in Bhutan a month earlier. I was teaching yoga at one of the luxury resorts, and the manager had requested for me to be in residence at their Gangtey property on exactly the day the consecration was to take place. It was totally by chance that I wore a colorful new kira dress to greet the king, who was in attendance. Against the lodge’s insistence that I needed a special permit to attend the ceremony, I arrived bright, early and hopeful at the monastery gates the following day. When the stern official inquired if I had a pass to enter, I told him sweetly that Neyphug Tulku had invited me to come. A gracious smile and a wave of the hand directed me to the inner court, where a brightly dressed dakini awaited to greet me with breakfast.
After a few minutes chatting with other guests over sweet rice and tea, I took a seat in one of the canopied tents in the courtyard. Next to me are two Russian men who I recognize from my lodge, and we exchange greetings. “Koozoozangpo la,” I said. “Koozoozangpo la,” they said, smiling.
The highlight of the ceremony is the unfurling of an enormous thanka of Guru Rinpoche that dominated the courtyard. In the image, Guru Rinpoche was surrounded by his own myriad emanations, lineage holders, buddhas and dakinis. The thangka was said to not only represent Guru Rinpoche, but to actually manifest him. So we were spending the afternoon under his gaze. The massive wall of colorful fabric was displayed only rarely, on special occasions.
A minister of parliament came to the podium and requested our attention for announcements. We were informed of the strict protocol for receiving the king. The King of Bhutan is dearly loved; he is also revered as a great bodhisattva. After the announcement in Dzongka, the minister switched to English. We were instructed to stand when the king appeared and not to take photos, or to approach him. “I know you are all happy to see his majesty, but please do not rush up and try to hug him,” the minister entreated.
He paused for emphasis. His English was impeccable and very proper. English proficiency was a requirement in order to graduate from high school in Bhutan. I sometimes had the feeling that educated Bhutanese spoke better English than I did. I looked at the Russians and we laughed. The Bhutanese, for such a simple and traditional culture had a highly developed sense of humor. The minister was also laughing.
Throughout the day we were treated to song and traditional dance, pageantry, biscuits, fruit and soft drinks. Beautiful women in gorgeous silk dress sang haunting folk songs, while spinning slowly in formation. Wild warrior men, bare chested and shoeless, jumped savagely in time to a strange drum beat. At a certain point I looked up and, just above the mountains in the distance, I spotted a circular rainbow in the sky.
Later at the evening puja inside the temple, which had now been consecrated by the king and a blessing from Gangtey Tulku, I sat near two of the youngest monks, both as feisty and playful as any six or seven year old. They ended up turning their backs to the shrine to face me and made a game of throwing their offering rice in my lap. I try not to encourage them but I could not keep a straight face.
At the end of the day, I made my way slowly back again to the lodge past the festive market stalls selling clothing, housewares and religious objects, set up by locals to profit from the temporary influx of potential consumers. I walked through the dark woods that skirted the wide, peaceful Gangtey valley. A nearly full moon peeked out from behind chilled mountains. I prepared myself mentally for the long and winding road home tomorrow, knowing that Guru Rinpoche would be coming with me.
Bhutan photo by Kim Roberts. Share this Post
Recommended reading: Bhutan Handbook by Gyurme Dorje.
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