Remembering Bhutan by Frances Kazan

When I remember my visit to Bhutan words like peaceful, pristine, and gentle come to mind. After ten days spent traveling through wild countryside, hiking in the mountains, and meditating in dzongs* I returned home forever changed. Now I take time to remind myself there of a place light years from Manhattan, where the care of the soul was paramount, and I try to recollect the sound of monks chanting in a rural temple deep in the mountains. I look inward and remember meditating in the shadow of the huge gold painted Buddhas in Punakha Dzong.

For those of you who may not know, Bhutan is a secluded kingdom in the Eastern Himalayas, roughly the size of Switzerland. The tiny landlocked country shares borders with India and China. Mile upon mile of forest covered the lower slopes of the mountains, foliage is lush, fed by streams tumbling down the mountains. Most of the Bhutanese work on the land in the valleys where the soil is rich. There is one city Thimpu, a few small towns, and one paved road. Traffic jams are non existent, and television was introduced about five years ago. I think you get the picture.

Since the Tantric form of Mahayan Buddhism is the official religion, the outward signs were everywhere. I saw lines of prayer flags ranged like sentinels on the windy hillsides, visited several sixteenth century Dzongs and admired the care with which they were preserved. I saw temples apparently in the middle of no-where, built for the use of rural communities. Prayer wheels, protected by along the road where travelers might pause for meditation. Monks were a common sight, distinctive in their maroon robes and shaved heads. Families take pride in sending their sons(and daughters) to a monastery; I was told there is no shame attached if they decide to leave and resume their lay life.

To protect the environment and preserve the integrity of their traditions the Bhutanese government restricts tourism, and does not allow individual travel. I went with a group of friends. Our guide was Bob Thurman, Chair of the Comparative Religion Department at Columbia University and one of the world’s leading experts on Buddhism. Bob lead a daily meditation, and guided us toward understanding the negation of the self, the first step on the long and difficult path to enlightenment.

Our first stop was a Buddhist festival in Kasiphey where Rinpoche Ganteng Tulka had recently dedicated a new temple. Kasiphey was a rural community two days drive from the airport in the Paro Valley. We headed east along the only paved road, past tiered paddy fields and sweeping pastures, keeping close to the river. As we climbed into the mountains the weather changed, and the vast forest was transformed into a vision from Grimm’s fairytales. Massive trees were cloaked in swirling mist, yak loomed out of the fog like the hound of the Baskervilles, and the silence was broken by sound of tumbling water. At the Dochu’La Pass (10,000 feet) we stopped, for lunch at a guest house beside a hill where the construction of fifty stone stupas was almost finished. Stupa’s house prayer wheels, to my western eyes they resembled large beehives, for the Bhutanese they have great religious significance.

Damp air clung to our clothes, fires were lit, hot tea was served. Tired after the flight from Delhi and a three hour drive from the airport, we were ready for our first meal. Here, and throughout our trip the food was good, menu never varied. Fiddle head ferns, mushrooms, asparagus and potatoes cooked every way imaginable along with pancakes, noodles and Bhutanese red rice. I stayed away from meat and chicken, preferring curried eggs as a source of protein. As politely as possible I also avoided the butter tea, traditionally served to welcome guests. Yak butter is an acquired taste, and is also used in temple lamps.

After lunch we went on, lurching round hair pin bends and shuddering over stretches of mud where the road was under repair, past mile upon mile of forest, where we had our first glimpse of the white faced monkeys. That night we stayed in a guest house beside a rushing river, even the deafening water couldn’t stop me falling asleep.

The next day was the same; we drove for hours though country that grew wilder and more remote. As the mists closed in the forest was transformed into an illustration from the tales of Grimm; through the dense cloud we heard the sound of rushing water. Streams tumbled down the mountains cascading into waterfalls and dropping hundreds of feet to the valley below. At lunchtime we stopped at a royal guest house where we were greeted by a pack of wild dogs. Since animals are not mistreated or killed for food the dogs were friendly, fearless in their pursuit of left over food. By the end of the afternoon we came within sight of Trongsa Dzong, once the most important monastery and administrative center in Bhutan. Founded as a temple in the sixteenth century the dzong straggles along a spur of land, above the Mangde River. From its upper rooms there are views in every direction. In the old days all travelers had to pass through the Dzong, giving control of all traffic to the monks.

Almost twenty four hours later, we left the bus at the foot of a muddy path and squelched our way up a mountain in four wheel drive. After recent rain the tracks were slippery, wheels gouged deep ruts. Twice we were stranded at the edge of precipice. Heights do not bother me but several in our group couldn’t bear to look out of the window. The mud became so deep we gave up driving and followed our guides across the fields towards Kasiphey, where the festival was already underway. We came across a half finished school and stopped to admire the wooden penis that promised success to the venture. Penis’s are a symbol of prosperity, they pop up everywhere (pardon the pun) painted on homes, trucks, and stores. Initially this struck me as chauvinistic until I learned women not men inherit the land, and some even marry two husbands.

My first glimpse of the monks of Kasiphey was dramatic, they were ranged in a line along the crest of a hill, maroon against the slate sky. At first we hesitated, uncertain of what to do, then we waved, the monks smiled, the boy monks giggled. Then masked dancers whirled up the path, beating hand held drums. We followed them down the hill, through a painted arch along a track lined with prayer flags that opened into a muddy pasture where a tiered temple dominated the landscape like a gaudy ship in a sea of grass. Hundreds of monks lined the balconies, and the stone terraces facing the main door. The cacophony of sound grew, horns blared, chanting from the temple grew louder.

We were ushered to the visitors tent overlooking the field in front of the temple where the festival was taking place. Three large monks, greeted Bob like a brother, together they chatted in Tibetan. Boy monks swooped in carrying trays of tea and bowls of grain; I can’t recall the taste only the hot liquid comforting on that damp afternoon. From the far end of the field the women and children gazed at us with interest; westerners never ventured this far into the interior. Bhutanese women are beautiful. All wore colorful silk jackets and scarves that complemented the dark cotton kira, a traditional wrapped dress fastened at the shoulder with intricate silver brooches or komas. Most have short hair, brushed into brow length bangs. Even in rural areas, mired in mud the women looked immaculate.

Four masked figures in spectacular yellow and green costumes careened into the field dipping and turning; they represented the four winds from the four corners of the earth. When the dance finished the trumpets and drums fell silent, a line of women moved on to the field standing shoulder to shoulder, heads bowed. Swaying back and forth they began to sing, their voices were so harmonious I wondered if they were related. The monks began to hum the melody, our guides followed, toes tapped, bodies swayed. Our guide explained these traditional songs were known throughout Bhutan and recounted the life of Lord Buddha. The women beckoned, we rose, and taking their hands formed a circle. We soon discovered how hard it is to hum and dance in hiking boots at an altitude of 8,000 feet, we soon tired but the Bhutanese women continued dancing. Their voices carried over the fields to our tents where we rested in preparation for the evening ceremony.

***image2***As dusk closed in and dinner was finished we trudged up the hill to the temple. Struggling to hide their curiosity a couple of boy monks ushered us into the inner sanctum on the second floor, where every wall every beam was covered in intricate paintings of the deities. The room was lit by a myriad butter lamps suspended from the ceiling on circles of metal, like chandeliers. A huge altar divided the room. Monks in feathered hats and rich robes sat to one side, women, children and villagers crammed into the space behind the altar. As guests of honor we were seated on a bench against the wall.

The monks sat cross legged and sang from scriptures at their feet, while tapping handheld drums. Boys brought tea, bowls of grain were passed between us; lulled by the rhythm of trumpets and chants I fell into a reverie. Although Manhattan seemed a million miles away I thought about my children, my home and friends, how to integrate this extraordinary moment once I returned to them. Temple walls seemed to vanish into the darkness beyond, it was a trick of the light from the butter lamps. At a sign from the Rinpoche, seated on a dais, a side door opened, and the crowd at the back of the room stirred as an evil spirit in a red mask whirled across the floor, followed by tantrists in yellow robes and tall decorated hats. I don’t know how long they danced, I lost all sense of time. The sound drums built to a crescendo, the devil fell and good triumphed over evil.

There were prayers, chanting, more horns and cacophony of trumpets. Finally the Rinpoche rose from his gold covered throne. Moving slowly the monks, children, and villagers, began to circumnavigate the altar, moving clockwise as tradition proscribed. We followed after, moving around and around, too many times to record. I was conscious of a gaggle of boy monks s at our side, giggling behind their hands and staring at these tall foreigners in their strange clothes. An older monk shushed them, they scuttled away and returned minutes later. Women smiled as we passed, babies laughed; I was swept with a sense of unity. We were one in our celebration.

The monks stayed in the inner temple chanting and praying twenty four hours a day for the duration of the festival. I fell asleep lulled by muffled chanting and dreamed vivid dreams I have since forgotten. We remained in Kasiphey for two more days, we hiked across the mist drenched mountains and meditated with the monks, we sang with the women until late in the evening, watched an archery competition, took a thousand photos and gave the children Polaroid photos of themselves.

We went on to meet a Rinpoche who had his own website; and a high lama cliff top monastery who carried cell phone. We met children fluent in English, and a twelve year old reincarnation who loved soccer. We saw wild rhododendron in blossom, and iris blooming beside a waterfall, and climbed a precipitous rock staircase to reach the Taksang Lhakang temple where we meditated for world peace. When I returned to a world shadowed by the war in Iraq and the threat of terrorism, I felt blessed to have stepped away if only for a short time. I had experienced the possibilities available to us if we chose another way to live; Bhutan is an example for us all .

by Frances Kazan
Frances Kazan is the author of Goodnight, Little Sisters, a novel, has an M.A. in Turkish studies, and is a regular contributor to Cornucopia. A member of the Society for Women Geographers, she is board president of The Kitchen, a performance center in Chelsea. Frances Kazan was married to renowned film director, Elia Kazan for two decades. She currently resides in New York.