paro and haa

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Jul 152017

Paro has doubled in size over the last 13 years, just like Thimphu. Since it is the home of the only international airport in the country, western amenities abound, and the shopping is delightful.

(By the way, Paro is one of the most challenging airports in the world, the pilot basically has to fly down a narrow valley, then hang a turn just before putting the plane down on a short, narrow runway. Check out this YouTube video for an idea of the experience. I remember looking out the window at the steep, terraced hillsides in 2004, and seeing people wave at the plane 🙂

I’m looking for thangkas and art. I am not disappointed. I find a local thangka painter, and spend a few hours in his studio, buying some beautiful work and admiring others in progress.

We not only get to tour Paro Dzong, but we drive up into the mountains to Ugyen Guru Lhakhang, a monastery that preserves a number of sacred magical items that are many hundreds of years old. The Rinpoche at the monastery brings some of them out for us, and we get to see a rock weep water, and other objects. There seem to be many stories about this place, although in honesty, there seem to be many stories about all of the dzongs and monasteries we have visited.

Now it’s my birthday, July 12th, and we set off for the Haa valley in the western part of the country. Again, this is new territory for me. The roads takes us over the highest pass I’ve traversed, and we descend into a lovely valley that seems pretty much untouched by western influence. Although there is electricity here and there, and we see transmission lines carrying hydro power westward into India.

On the 13th, we adventure to a cave/retreat spot where Machig Labdrön apparently lived. It’s over a ridge from a monastery, and the path is steep up and down to reach it. Spectacular views, basically perched on the side of a cliff. Unfortunately, it’s locked so we cannot enter.

However, our young guide, a monk perhaps 11 year old, tells us there is a shorter way back to the monastery. All we have to do is follow this path along the cliff. Oh, my god.

Alas, the trip is coming to a close. We return the next day to Paro, with just enough time for a last round of shopping. On July 15th, we climb into the plane for our return to Bangkok. 18 glorious days.

Now that I’m back in the lap of luxury, and I’m left with some longing to spend more time in Bhutan. There are opportunities to teach, and one monk told me his monastery would be happy to sponsor me for six months, if I would come live with them and speak English. I would learn a lot about Vajrayana practice, that’s for sure. Every school child is learning English, and most people have cell phones now (it’s oddly amusing to see an ancient Lama peering at his phone).

The country is doing well, striking a fine balance between preserving tradition and accepting modern convenience. The ecology is still pretty pristine, the constitutional monarchy is pulling the people slowly towards a fully democratic form of government. My heart stays open, remembering.


 Buddhism, Reflection, Travel  Comments Off on chöd
Jul 142017
A short section of the trail to Machik Labdrön’s cave

The very first teaching of Buddhism is that misery is caused by attachment. No wonder that so much of the dharma and practices look at attachment, and no attachment is stronger than the one to our body.

To really feel this, let me explain the somewhat-confusing picture you are seeing. This is a rock about a foot wide, several feet in front of me. The trees and houses to the left of the rock are about a half-kilometer away, 800 feet below. For scale, you can see the tip of my boot at the bottom of the photo. I am on a trail in the Haa Valley of Bhutan, on the side of a cliff. My right shoulder is against the cliff, my hand in a crevice. The trail goes over the rock, and continues past tiny herbs and a small bush in the upper right about six feet away.

If you can sink in to the sensation of standing against this sheer rock face on a trail about a foot wide, then you are probably experiencing attachment to your body. I was, quite frankly, terrified as I carefully placed my feet and hands, yet not paralyzed. I was able feel both the fear and my body, yet move calmly on the wet, muddy trail. This is Meditation Boot Camp, no hemming-and-hawing, no choice; one must bring body and mind smoothly together to traverse nearly a kilometer of cliff.

Hold that feeling. Death inches away, calm, trusting.

Chöd is a profound Tibetan Buddhist practice, where one offers up one’s own body (and all other demons and ‘neuroses’) joyously. A Google search will turn up plenty of information, starting with this Wikipedia article. A few days ago, I had the pleasure of sitting in a Chöd ceremony here in Bhutan. Watch the video and get a sense of the beautiful ritual that brings the experience to life.


The practice of Chöd was transmitted to an enlightened and revered 11th-century woman named Machik Labdrön, and so my story comes home. The trail I’m on leads from Juney Druk, a cave she stayed in, to Katsho Goemba, a nearby monastery. Having experienced Chöd practice before, imagining I know something about attachment to my body, I am shocked into new awareness on this trail Machik must have traversed many times.

Our 11-year-old guide, a monk from the monastery, apparently runs this trail frequently, nimble and carefree as a mountain goat. He laughs and smiles, points out sections that are especially dangerous and delicious little orange berries we can pluck as we go, and patiently sits and waits as we carefully make our way. I believe he is the most advanced Chöd practitioner I have ever met, knowing something in his young body that I can scarcely remember. What would it feel like to be as unattached as he? Was I really once like that? I have so much to unlearn, to unattach from.

trongsa and thimphu and chöd

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Jul 132017

Westward ho. It’s July 6th, and we leave Bumthang valley in the morning to climb the 11,000-foot pass back toward Trongsa. The pass is, of course, marked by a stupa and many prayer flags. It is still rainy, and the roads are still muddy and slippery. We take a break before our driver skillfully pilots us back to the Trongsa Dzong.

It’s not an ideal day for visiting Trongsa, as the clouds and rain and fog are persistent. Yet our troop happily explores, and I’ll again let the photos do the talking.

Another six hours of driving on muddy roads, and we pass back through Wangdue Phodrang, where we spend the night. The next day we drive about five more hours to reach Thimphu.

This is the largest city in Bhutan, the location of the only traffic signal, and the center of commerce. I’ve never stayed here before. Almost everyone wears western-style clothing, and there are enough vehicles that traffic is a problem.

We spend time hiking up in the hills south of town to a small monastery, then go shopping the next day. Wandering around the town is a pleasure, there is much going on. Of course, we have to walk past the traffic signal.

The next day, we are treated to a Chöd ceremony, led by a monk with a group of local women. I have been exposed to Chöd in my own studies, however I am totally surprised to find out that it is widely practiced in Bhutan by lay people, mostly women. Transmitted by Machig Labdrön in the 11th century, it has apparently become an important personal puja (prayer) ritual for many Bhutanese.

It’s a beautiful experience, conducted in a large room in what might be someone’s home or perhaps a less formal practice space, in an otherwise unassuming part of town. They have created a lovely altar, with many offerings of fruit and flowers. We’re enraptured to sit in their space and feel the ritual flow through us. I’ve written more about it separately.

That afternoon, we’re back on the bus for the 2-hour drive to Paro, where we arrived nearly two weeks ago. I and my backpack settle in to another nice hotel. I have to say, accommodations in Bhutan are far more comfortable on this trip than they were in 2004, when there were few hotels and resorts in the country. Now, we get treated to nice mattresses, central heat, linens, hot water and really good food everywhere we have gone.

kenchosum lhakhang

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Jul 102017

It’s now July 5th, I’ve been in the Bumthang district of Bhutan for several days, and get to spend most of the day at an impressively restored monastery, Kenchosum. Destroyed in a 2010 fire, the reconstruction is fresh and beautiful. Even better, we were allowed to take all the photos we wished inside.

First, a walk around the grounds. I especially loved the chain gutters, conducting rain from the roof corners down into drains in the ground.

Let me take you on a tour around the grand interior space, so you can see the incredible thangka images on all the walls.

What a privilege to see all of the fresh, beautiful teaching images and decorations.

We have traveled as far east as we are going, and tomorrow we will head back over the high pass toward Trongsa. So I’ll finally share a couple of photos from Yu Gharling, the resort where we’ve been staying for several days. It’s a pretty place, up on the hillside above the town of Chamkhar, complete with a pet cow that roams freely.

bumthang festival

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Jul 052017

On our fifth day of this trip, July 2nd, we drove up to the Nyimalung Monastery, for the Bumthang summer festival. We are treated to a day of dancing, shopping and the pleasure of meeting many people from the area.

I love the informal and the sacred, weaving together. The Bhutanese paint sacred symbols on their houses, walk around stupas and chortens (and just about anything) in a clockwise direction. One does not point with the finger, you learn to gesture with your hand, palm up. And here we have the Mahakala dancers walking among the crowd, blessing each of us, as families and children and dogs walk through the dance space. Everyone is dressed in their finest. Everyone is smiling, and my friend Tina engages one of the jesters to the amusement of all.

Here you see Mahakala dancers in action, with jesters poking their phallic dorje wands, the blessings of the dancers moving through the crowd tapping our crown chakras. The eligible unmarried women in the community dance together, giving all the unmarried men an opportunity to weigh their prospects.

July 3rd, we go back to Kurjey to witness the annual unveiling of the largest thangka in the world, of Guru Rinpoche.

There is some doubt that the ceremony will happen, as it was a very rainy night. But the weather breaks, and people start to arrive for this auspicious event.

A very high Lama arrives with entourage, there are some soldiers with weapons, but everything feels serene. The festival continues with more dancing. Some are very modern, even militaristic, like nothing I’ve seen here before.

The next day (4th of July, who cares?) has us exploring a retreat site up on a cliff, where Guru Rinpoche (also known as Padmasambhava, who brought Buddhism to Bhutan 1300 years ago) sheltered. We also spend time in a nearby monastery, whose name I can’t remember, where we have an opportunity to meditate, view sacred relics close up, and rest.

I have a very special evening planned. Back around 2012, I got a very odd Facebook friend request from someone named Ngedup Om, in Bhutan. I accepted it, and it turned out she is a teacher in Mongar, about 8 hours drive to the east of Bumthang. We have been corresponding for five years, and when she finds out I will be that close (during the summer school break!), she and her husband and two children decide to go on a trip to Thimphu, and stop here on the way.

They come and pick me up and take me out to dinner in the nearby town of Chamkhar. There is a huge amount of food, including the national dish – ema datshi (stewed chilis and yak cheese, incredibly hot), rice, and some rabbit. Since they are both teachers, they and their children all speak very good English, although the kids are very shy. I am delighted and honored to finally meet them all.

east to bumthang

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Jul 012017

Having gotten over the shock somewhat — I’ve seen more cars in my first couple of hours in the country than I did over the 12 days of my first visit — I’m settling in for the journey east. We are headed for Punakha and Bumthang, two districts that I saw briefly on my first trip, but didn’t get to explore much. I’m bemused as I watch the paved roads and cars and power lines.

The same beautiful architecture, with electricity!
Enormous new Buddha statue outside Thimphu

Look carefully at the left photo, and you will see a power line in the lower left…and power poles running up the hillside in the upper left. None of this was here during my first visit. In fact, electricity was rare outside of the main towns. Now there is power running to most areas, towns and most houses have electricity. The country generates (and sells!) lots of hydroelectric power, so electricity is provided for free to all residents as long as people use it sparingly. I saw compact fluorescent bulbs everywhere, to minimize electricity use.

Our first stop was Chimi Lhakhang, a famous fertility temple. It was reassuringly the same as my last visit, even the bodhi tree in the courtyard, which shaded a cluster of monks engaged in discussion. The sacred phallus images on building walls were fresh and colorful, and of course a gift shop offered all kinds of phallic memorabilia.

And so much remains unchanged. People in the country still wear traditional clothing, woolen skirts called kiras, and men in robes called ghos. Hilltops and fence lines are decorated with prayer flags, and most people walk everywhere. I did see more signs in English, however.

On our second day, we visited Punaka Dzong, one of the lovely fortress-monasteries constructed a thousand years ago to repel Tibetan invaders. Dzong’s are the largest buildings in the country, and the seat of local government. They each have a rich history and many legendary stories.

Continuing south on our third day, we cross over into Wangdue, home of the Wangdue Phodrang Dzong. Only stopping for lunch, we head east towards Trongsa.

Since it’s late June, the rivers are all flowing well, and rains have made the fields lush and green, and the roads muddy.

We encounter lots of construction, a traffic jam and a rockfall on the road that all delay us a couple of hours. The drive east continues to the Chengdebi Chorten, a large sacred site that makes a good lunch stop.

After a lengthy drive down a valley, Trongsa Dzong emerges from the fog and clouds…on the other side of the valley. It takes about an hour to drive down the valley and back to reach the other side.

We’ve been on the road now for over ten hours, it’s getting dark, and we still have an 11,000-foot pass to climb and cross. There have been dozens of construction delays, a traffic jam, and a rockfall where we had to wait for 45 minutes.

After two more hours, we pull in to our luxurious hotel in Bumthang. Deep thanks to Ugyen Dorji. our skilled and tireless driver.

The next morning (it’s now day 4, July 1st), we start to explore. We will be here for several days. Here are some photos of our group. Most are now friends on Facebook, and I hope to travel with them again in the future.

And we visit the Kurjey Monastery, where we are treated to a charming women’s dance. Everyone is preparing for the annual festival, starting tomorrow.

We are fortunate we can attend. There are several days of events ahead of us at the monasteries in the area. Today we can rest, hike, and explore the town. I find a shop filled with the most incredible textiles from the eastern part of the country. The proprietor, Rinzin Wangmo, comes from a family of weavers to the east in Monggar, and they send their products to her shop, an eight-hour drive away. I make splurge, and bring home several beautiful wall hangings.