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.

bhutan presence

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Jun 292017
Punaka Dzong, and the Punaka Valley

Yesterday in Bhutan was quite a shock. After 13 years, I was expecting change, but was completely unprepared for what I’ve found. The heart is the same, the people are the same, the beauty and spiritual depth are all still here, but everything else is different.

By that, I mean that the modern world has arrived in some big ways. Cars. Electricity. Paved and widened roads. Cell phones. Glass windows. Road signs. Modern hotels. Spices and fruit and organic produce. Cows. Can you believe it, even the animals are more modern? There were few cattle in the country when I was last here, mostly yak, now I see cows everywhere, wandering the parks and hillsides of Punaka, the roads between Paro and Thimphu. The traffic on the roads was nearly all buses and construction trucks, now there are more than a dozen cars for each bus, and even some taxis. Where once many houses had no glass in the windows (only shutters against the fierce winters), most are now glassed in, and there is plenty of new construction.

Because there are more people. The towns all seem to have grown 40 or 50 percent, or even doubled, at least the larger towns of Paro and Thimphu. This does not seem to be due to immigration, although there must be some, it seems to be a side effect of better health care and a general improvement of living conditions. There are more kids and schools, and indeed people seem to be better-educated overall than when I was last here.

Last night, I realized I was apparently more resistant to change than they are. One of my fellow travelers told an illuminating story at breakfast that helped me see even deeper into my expectations: how dare they change from what I remembered? My ego wants to reconnect with something remembered and treasured, rather than simply receive what is. (Sounds painfully similar to what many Americans seem to want, in electing Donald Trump. Ech, that hurts. Sometimes I wish I was less good at noticing connections).

So I am pretty much slammed by how non-present I was arriving here, but fortunately, with awareness comes a rapid shift (along with much internal laughter!) and today unfolded into an incredible day. I am here, now, gratefully absorbing every moment.

For the truth is, this country and everything about it are even more beautiful than before. The summer green and the lush rice fields far exceed the springtime of my first visit, I see less abject poverty (though it still exists) and more restaurants and shops, new houses with clean white walls and extravagant traditional trim paint, good roads everywhere and humorous road signs warning about drinking and driving. Plus we’ve had nothing but great meals, with interesting seasoning and fresh vegetables. I have not tasted a single yak product yet, while my memory is that a day didn’t go by on my last visit without yak butter, cheese or milk in something.

In fact, everything tastes better when I’m fully present. That is the great gift of Bhutan to me so far, a deep Buddhist reflection of my better self.

Jun 242017

My Bhutan journey begins and ends in Bangkok. The last time I was here, I totally enjoyed the bustle, the street food, temples and water tours. This time, I feel like I’m plunged into a distopian Chicago on a sweltering day. The noise, humidity, crowds, overhead expressways, beggars missing limbs, food vendors with stacks of raw fish and chicken, and clots of roaring motorbikes feel oppressive. When I had to take a bath in lukewarm water, I hit my limit. It took less than eight hours.

Motorcycles, crowds and expressways in Bangkok

Seldom have I appreciated money and internet as much as Friday morning, when I nailed a round-trip flight to Chiang Mai and a beautiful small hotel for $150 and $50/night, respectively. I must also thank my body, which gave me very clear direction to get the fuck out of there. Decision creates opportunity and change, and I can only laugh at myself remembering how I used to over-think everything. Now I am seldom stuck in my head; years of meditation make it easy to notice when I am thinking, and life is far too short for thought, which I once believed was faster than intuition. My body made a decision in milliseconds, and I knew in my heart it was the right one. Within a few hours, I was landing in the Chiang Mai valley, surrounded by lush green mountains. The relaxed taxi driver was full of information and amusing political commentary, and although 5 million people live here, the pace is easy and everyone seems even more polite and friendly. I hardly thought that possible.

Thai people are very kind and sweet. This really encourages me to slow down and relax, to meet people’s eyes, and see who each individual is, to soften and open my face so they can see me too. This meeting, however momentary, is so essentially human – it’s immediate feedback and acknowledgement, I see you, namasté, we share a world together and this is good. In the place of such a meeting, I immediately feel how any judgment or opinion that comes up is just about me, not about the other person. So delicious. There is a lot of space here to just be ourselves, and I can see why several people I know have moved here permanently.

Walking through the streets for hours, I encounter many characteristic aspects of this place and time. The buildings are a radical blend of old and new, clean design and tropical decay, chaos and order. I wonder what this was built for, and what its purpose is now?


Spirit houses are everywhere, and one of the special pleasures of early morning is encountering one with fresh incense burning. The house next to my hotel has chickens, and a rooster is proudly displayed in their’s. I found this beautiful garden and spirit house on an elegant property with an open gate, surrounded by flowering trees. The contrast with the apartment building is striking.

Spirit house in Chiang Mai

And walking into the old center of the city, I encounter temple after temple after temple. The well-known ones are filled with Chinese tourists; others are being restored, largely quiet. I find one under reconstruction, completely open and empty, allowing me to enter alone barefoot, contemplate the murals on the walls, connect with the enormous central Buddha, do prostrations, and leave a donation. Just as it should be.

Central Buddha in a Wat (temple) under repair
Aug 092015

I am fascinated by our impact on each other, partially because it is the only form of permanence that we have, and partially because it is so close to the heart of incarnation and karma. So I was moved to tears when I read (yet another amazing) obituary in The Economist…for a cat. Go to this web page, and check it out. Tama, the vice-president of a Japanese railroad, died on June 22nd at the age of 16.

Moved to tears, wow. Yes, the Economist has great writers, yet this cat touches something deep in us. I’ve found blogs about personal journeys to meet Tama, countless photos, news articles and videos.


Everything in the obit might be written about one of us, and in fact when you boil our lives down to their essence, it’s a lot like this single page of prose. We move through life doing what we do – sleeping, wearing some funny stuff, and in this case rubbing up against the legs of people – yet know not anything of our impact. Tama became a symbol: generated livelihoods for people near and far, resurrected a train line, and created some level of delight and fulfillment for thousands (or millions, who knows?) of people traveling distances to see her. She broke gender and species barriers in Japanese management. Inspired an entire world of train decor. Now there appear to be non-human stationmasters all over Japan, including cats, dogs, and even a goat.

It is easy to dismiss this story as a reflection of Japanese culture, and yes, there is that quirkiness about the Japanese that perhaps all of us, not Japanese, find fascinating. But why would a simple obituary about a cat touch me so deeply?

Maybe it is my secret fantasy that one day after I’m gone, I will be seen and remembered in this way, having a rippling impact on the people around me that shifts the economy, cultural attitudes, train decor, and gets reported on the evening news. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to be the obituary on the back page of The Economist, like Nelson Mandela or Allen Ginsberg? Some form of permanence, having a lasting impact on the world? Perhaps I could have a planet or comet or nebula named after me forever, lasting longer than ancient Arabic star names. Humans or non-humans, in ten thousand years will still be referring to me by name, even if their pronunciation is wrong.

This is illusory of course, as all of these things, the train, The Economist, my house, my body and everyone who knows me will be dust. In ten thousand years, or perhaps a hundred or a dozen, the alphabet, and surely Childers, will be erased by an asteroid striking the earth, or techno-linguistic shifts beyond our wildest imagination, or a gamma-ray burst that sends the planet back to the cockroaches.

I wonder why ‘permanence’ and ‘legacy’ stir such feeling. When I sit still and reach into what I feel, it is vast and divine and good. My life falls into refreshing perspective when I remember my tiny, transient place in the universe. Sitting outside on the deck at midnight, watching for the occasional Perseid meteor and contemplating the stars and planets, I find that same vast, divine, good sense. It’s so much the opposite of what my ego wants. My tiny self wants to be remembered, and my greater self is enormously content to relax into vastness.

This is Refuge. Palden-la and my other teachers ask, “what is it that truly gives us refuge?” We seek refuge and comfort, deeper meaning in all the toys of our ego, the people and things we love, the causes we support, the legacy we create. Yet all are transient, and true refuge only exists in that which is transcendent. I realize now, when I gaze into the night sky or the eyes of a contented cat, I see the Buddha.

Jul 142015

Today has been one of those beautiful, synchronistic days where I seem to have gotten all the pieces in place to feel precious human existence. We turn so easily away from death, thinking and worrying about all the mundane details, our mortgage, what our relatives or neighbors think of us…the honest truth is that death and loss keep us more present, more in a state of gratitude and kindness.

In the Tibetan buddhist realm, each day of my practice begins with the ‘four thoughts that turn the mind towards bodhicitta’, and my day is sharper and more delightful and kind because of them. The first thought is that human existence is rare and wonderful, and the second thought is that it will end soon. Wups, you’d think that such a thought would be depressing, but actually it’s quite the opposite – if today is my last day, what will I do with my time? How will I treat others and myself, how will I feel about each moment of sunlight, each vision of moving clouds or trees or burst of color?

Struggling with my daily practice for months, I had a dream last night that brought them into a new focus for me. I can feel how my practice is a way of nurturing myself on a very deep level, and so this morning I easily found the hour to do ngöndro. The four thoughts were clear and penetrating, my heart felt open as I practiced, and the rest of the day flowed so naturally that I got much accomplished, supported co-workers, found stuff by accident that Jen and I need for Burning Man. At dinner this evening, I received a comment from a friend that gave me new insight into my heart and my love for both my partner and myself. My life is mostly free of tension and anxiety these days, as I view my experiences through the lens of precious human existence.

I am totally blown away to come home this evening and find out that one of my longest lifetime friends – not a close friend, but a presence for 40 years, since high school – just passed away last week. I had not talked to Randy Jonsson, pictured above, since before Nancy passed, even though he lived only a few miles away. I don’t know any details, I know he has left a grieving widow, and that they had a deep and caring relationship. I feel so sad that he is gone, and also sad that I have not been in touch.

Randy was an eternally cheerful and upbeat man, passionate about his partner, filmmaking, boats and scuba, wilderness, raw milk, and god knows what else. Now he is gone, and I can only remember him, his voice and his juicy zest for all that he loved, and allow his memory to remind me each morning of precious human existence. Perhaps that is the most important things we can learn, again and again, when we lose the people we love.

From Tara’s heart rainbow light shines forth throughout the six realms and the bardo,
Enveloping the deceased one, Randy Jonsson, wherever he is,
Purifying his karma, and infusing him with Tara’s radiant blessing.
His form becomes brilliant spheres of light and dissolve into Tara’s heart-mind,
A realm beyond the cycles of suffering, a realm of absolute purity and bliss.